Karl Barth on Christianity, Religion, and Western Culture

I was going to present this quote entirely without comment (shocking, I know…), but then I realized that a little context must be provided or else certain bits of this quote will hit the ear a bit strangely. So, know this: the title of the talk that this quote comes from is “Christianity or Religion?” and it was presented to a group of incoming international students at the University of Basle in 1963. This context is particularly poignant in my own context since it shows Barth seizing an opportunity in the midst of a kind of bureaucratic necessity to say something interesting. Something very interesting, indeed.

Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 29–30. Bold is mine.
You are visitors to this old Europe of ours, and our good city and university of Basle and the sample fair offers you a vivid picture of its traditions and civilization. Adopt as much of our science and technology, our art and politics, as you can and may. You will also come across signs of what is called Christianity. May they be real signs of real Christianity. And may you not confuse them with the signs of our religion. For, apart from wanting to be Christians and to call ourselves Christians, we are all also religious, and at times even terribly religious. There are also religions disguised in the form of science, art and politics, technology, sport or fashion, concealed behind a very demonstrative secularity, which represents superstructures or leaps that are the more vigorous for that very reason, leaps into some sort of beyond, worship of the most diverse gods and idols. Mammon, money, is the most powerful of these concealed but very real deities. Let no one pretend to you that here you are in an area of Christian tradition and civilization, that you are in the ‘Christian West’. ‘Christian’, properly understood, means being governed by the message of Jesus Christ, the liberating discovery of God’s gracious move towards humanity. But such discovery is an event, not a condition or institution, and thus is not an attribute with which human creations can be endowed or by which they can be distinguished. Nor are we governed by that event, but at best are only distantly touched by it. The truth of the matter is that we still have really and properly to learn what is involved in this essential Christianity and thus with the happy reversal in which God moves ahead and man follows, God as the father and man his child, in other words the whole meaning of Jesus Christ. There is a religions, but not a Christian West; there is only Western humanity confronted by Jesus Christ.
Those who have ears to hear…



Wow! Lots to mull over here. One thing striking (to me) is this notion of these myriads spheres of society that Barth calls out as "religious." Maybe that idea doesn't seem so new anymore. But at the center of each of these these seemingly "secular" religions is (at least) one "god" or "idol" as the object of worship hidden within the visible structure. And mammon for Barth is the preeminent example. Given that the Greek root of idol (eidolon) basically means "image", a kind of visual reification of some sort of transcendent power, this notion of a hidden idol is intriguing. What would be hidden is not the idol itself -- we literally have physical representations of mammon in our wallets. There's no lack of visualization of mammon in our culture. But what precisely is hidden is the idolatrous power within it. We have symbols of money -- cash, checks, credit cards -- which we casually take to be the thing itself, but of course that's not how it works. What money "really" is is a set of power relations, the sinuous ramifications of which the most discerning of economists can barely begin to unravel. But since God's economy works differently from ours -- for example, the power of wealth is manipulative, whereas divine power is liberating -- God's revelation in Christ becomes the basis for a kind of ideology critique of the power of mammon. Will have to think about this some more.
Evan said…
Alas, "[Always Inadequately] Following the Event [that only distantly touches us] but not Religious" doesn't have the same bumper sticker ring to it.
Thanks for the comments, gentlemen, and sorry for the tardy reply.

Scott, I'll watch for a blog post from you on these things.

Evan, so true...

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