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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Most Recent Publication(s)

Review of Eberhard Busch, Barth (Abingdon, 2008), Reviews in Religion and Theology 16.2 (2009): 250-1.

Review of John H. Armstrong (ed.), Understanding Four Views on Baptism, Counterpoints: Church Life (Zondervan, 2007), Reviews in Religion and Theology 16.2 (2009): 219-22.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Baptismal Renunciation of Satan: Alexander Schmemann

Alexander Schmemann, Of Water & The Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (SVS Press, 1974): 28-30.
When [the pre-baptismal] rite of renunciation came into existence, its meaning was self-evident to the catechumen as well as to the entire Christian community. They lived within a pagan world whose life was permeated with the pompa diaboli, i.e. the worship of idols, participation in the cult of the Emperor, adoration of matter, etc. He not only know what he was renouncing; he was also fully aware to what a “narrow way,” to what a difficult life—truly “non-conformist” and radically opposed to the “way of life” of the people around him—this renunciation obliged him.

It is when the world became “Christian” and identified itself with Christian faith and Christian cult that the meaning of this renunciation began to be progressively lost so as to be viewed today as an archaic and anachronistic rite, as a curiosity not to be taken seriously. Christians became so accustomed to Christianity as an integral part of the world, and to the Church as simply the religious expression of their worldly “values,” that the very idea of a tension or conflict between their Christian faith and the world faded from their life. And even today, after the miserable collapse of all these so-called “Christian” worlds, empires, nations, states, so many Christians are still convinced that there is nothing basically wrong with the world and that one can very happily accept its “way of life,” all its values and “priorities,” while fulfilling at the same time one’s “religious duties.” Moreover, the Church herself and Christianity itself are viewed mainly as aids for achieving a successful and peaceful worldly life, as spiritual therapy resolving all tensions, all conflicts, giving that “peace of mind” which assures success, stability, happiness. The very idea that a Christian has to renounce something and that this “something” is not a few obviously sinful and immoral acts, but above all a certain vision of life, a “set of priorities,” a fundamental attitude towards the world; the idea that Christian life is always a “narrow path” and a fight: all this has been virtually given up and is no longer at the heart of our Christian worldview.

The terrible truth is that the overwhelming majority of Christians simply do not see the presence and action of Satan in the world and, therefore, feel no need to renounce “his works and his service.” They do not discern the obvious idolatry that permeates the ideas and the values by which men live today and that shapes, determines and enslaves their lives much more than the overt idolatry of ancient paganism. They are blind to the fact that the “demonic” consists primarily in falsification and counterfeit, in deviating even positive values from their true meaning, in presenting black as white and vice verse, in a subtle and vicious lie and confusion. They do not understand that such seemingly positive and even Christian notions as “freedom” and “liberation,” “love,” “happiness,” “success,” “achievement,” “growth,” “self-fulfillment”—notions which truly shape modern man and modern society, their motivations and their ideologies—can in fact be deviated from their real significance and become vehicles of the “demonic.”

To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire “worldview” made up of pride and self-affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell. And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection, this challenge. “Breath and spit upon him!” A war is declared! A fight begins whose real issue is either eternal life or eternal damnation. For this is what Christianity is about! This is what our choice ultimately means!