Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Karl Barth on the Beginning of Our Lives

I was reading along in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, as I am sometimes want to do, and this passage jumped out at me. In general, I’m not very good at dealing with the specter of death – it makes me quite uneasy. But I have found Barth’s treatment of humanity’s time-bound existence – out of which this passage comes – to be pastorally helpful, and I recommend it to anyone who is trying to sort through these things.

Church Dogmatics 3.2, 574-5.
We may have various reasons for refusing to enter into this strange discussion about the date of the inception of human life. In any case, however, none of the various attempted solutions, each of which outdoes the other in abstruseness, leads us even the slightest step forward from where we stand, i.e., face to face with the fact that, if we exclude the pantheistic solution, we are bound to reckon with a beginning of human life, and therefore with a time when we were not, which was not yet ours. Before the being of the individual as of the race there was somewhere a non-being. And this non-being from which the individual and the race come is the non-being to which we also move. In the language of traditional theology (which we now find obscure and unacceptable), there was a time when my soul did not exist. In the terms of a more biblical view of man, there was a time when I myself as the soul of my body, I myself as the unity and totality of my psycho-somatic existence, did not yet exist, but I began to be. That this is the case is the occasion of a serious theological concern to which it is possible to give a serious theological answer. For it means-and none of the theories attempted can help us to escape this conclusion-that even from my origin I am threatened by annihilation, being marked as a being which can only advance towards nonexistence. Before a certain point I had no past; the time before this point was not my time; I had there no dimension to live in. And even if I associate myself with the whole human race, and regard my soul as an individual member of that kingdom of spirits or as included in the soul of Adam, before the time of Adam there was for him, and before the creation of that world of spirits there was for its individual members and therefore for me, no time, no dimension to live in. This is the shadow which has lain over my being in time ever since it began; the deficiency which now lies heavily upon me as I pursue life's journey; the shadow and the deficiency with which I now move towards my future. One day, it will no longer be my future. When I have had my last present, I shall have no more future, but shall only be past and have been. The latter point is not so easily forgotten as the former. But even if I can forget the former, I still live under the shadow and deficiency. I can be only as one who once was not, with all the threat which this entails. I can be only as one who is definitely confronted from behind by his own non-being. Whatever this shadow and deficiency may lack in urgency because it is not before us, it gains in actuality over that which still belongs to the future. For the decision that we were once not yet has already been taken, whereas the decision that one day we shall be no more, for all the certainty with which it awaits us, has still to fall. We still have a present with a little future. We still live. The door to our future non-being is still unopened. But the door through which we came to being from non-being is wide open. It has already been decided that at that time, beyond that door, we had no time. And we must live as those who come from this decision; as those who are always suspended with all that they were and are and will be. It is as well, therefore, to address ourselves to the further question of our Whence? so easily forgotten and apparently irrelevant, yet all the more urgent in fact.

2 comments:

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks Travis. This is a timely reflection for Ash Wednesday on God's reminder: "From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return." I imagine that Barth has something to say about the gracious act of our creation out of our former non-being mirroring the gracious act of our resurrection out of our future non-being, or something to that effect.

The Student said...

It is difficult for me to fear death, except of course for the event itself. If Jesus Christ has defeated death on the cross, then we have very little to fear. I really appreciate Barth's words on the resurrection from Dogmatics in Outline.

"The man who does not take it seriously that we are looking to that end, the man who does not realize what dying means, who is not terrified at it, who has perhaps not enough joy in life and so does not know the fear of the end, who has not yet understood that this life is a gift of God, who has not trace of envy at the longevity of the patriarchs...the man who, in other words, does not grasp the beauty of this life cannot grasp the significance of 'resurrection.' For this word is the answer to death's terror." [p.153]

I had the privilege of reading those words at my mom's memorial service about a month ago. As much of a tragedy and crime as death is and seems to be, for those whom God has placed in Christ there is no ultimate fear.

[I know that Barth legitimizes fear in this quote that I use to downplay it, but if Barth can be self-contradictory at times so can I ;)]