Thursday, April 07, 2016

Got General Revelation? Well, Isn't that Special!

Well, it's the Easter season, and we've been on hiatus here at DET. My blog-typing fingers have atrophied a little. May I be permitted, then, to do a little preachin' to the choir? The topic of today: What of our seemingly inexorable quest for general revelation?
Is God revealed here? Possibly, says Barth.
Boshevik (1920), by Boris Kustodiev (wikimedia commons) 


I recently wrote a review of a fine book that, in one chapter especially (but really throughout the text) interrogates and questions Barth's ostensible rejection of natural theology and general revelation. In my hands now is another book -- you'll hear about it here soon enough -- that offers a spirited attempt to retrieve and reconstruct a robust account of general revelation, amid a vast array of liminal religious, aesthetic and moral experiences. Crucially, these experiences are framed in terms of pneumatology rather than Christology and are deemed to be encounters with the divine in daily life, apart from the economy of saving grace. (But is there really such thing as real human life apart from saving grace? Perhaps I shall revisit this question in due course.)

To be honest, I'm starting to feel a little beleagured and bemused by all this natural theology talk. I mean, if God's presence is so self evident in all this, why do we have to defend and debate all this data at such length? Barth, of course, famous (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) wrote hundreds of pages on this topic -- a good deal of it in terms more strident than this little post. Moreover, the question of Barth's stance on natural theology has been the subject of many monographs, articles and blog posts, including more than a few "hoary summations." All this evidence demands a verdict, to be sure, but I can only attempt a summary judgment here: Little truths reflecting the Big Truth, sure ... but as for revelations that in are certifiably Christ-independent? Nein!

Barth found Mozart's flute concertos
to be divine. Or at least the next
best thing.
When it boils down to it, I think it's hard to beat Barth's summary of his own position in this winsome clip posted at the Center for Karl Barth Studies website. Not only is this a terrific, and very direct, statement of Barth's view, but it also has a side benefit for those of you working on your German (God bless you): Barth speaks slowly, and you can match up his words with the subtitles. Be warned (Achtung!): If you think you've pinned down the fluttering wings of divine revelation "hier und dort," then Barth has an admonition for you.

A caveat: Must Barth really play the Nazi card? We might merely be seeking shimmering glimmers of the divine in sunsets and serenades here. Why invoke völkisch romanticism? So over the top, Barth! Well, for my part, I tend to avoid playing the Hitler card. But it was, in Barth's case, truly a card dealt with the hand. Arguably, the deck as a whole was stacked (the Germans, recall, didn't have the expedient stopgap of a "brokered convention" to derail a potentially devastating demagogue).
As someone who worked under, railed against and received a pink slip from the regime, perhaps Barth knew something about this business that you and I don't. Not everything, but something.

Another thing: Apologies to the death-of-God theologians, past and present. It's Barth's own decision, perhaps following that of the psalmist, to label you folks "fools" (die Toren). Don't blame the messenger, please.

English subtitles are available in the clip, for anyone who doesn't speak German or who, perhaps, works at the World Council of Churches and might be afraid or embarrassed to pipe the audio through your desktop speakers.

(P.S.: For any of you wiseacres out there in webland who suspect this all is just a obsequious plug to get the KBC to tweet my post as one of their top five posts of the week, I won't dignify your accusation with comment. Perhaps some day I'll dedicate a post to the question: "How to Get a Thumbs Up from the Barth Center Twitter page, When Jedi Mind Tricks Don't Work.")

Love it or hate it, this is vintage Barth. Enjoy.



It is not lost on me how churlish, how insensitive, how exclusivist such comments might strike the student of Rahner or Tillich, of Ogden or Pannenberg, of Ruether or Tracy. What is clear to me is what is stake for Barth is not some general theory of religious epistemology, or some hermeneutical suspicion of religious or aesthetic experiences as such; rather, what drives him is the heart of the Gospel, as he understands it. Others thinkers might see Jesus prime exemplar of a universal ideal or, at best, the very pinnacle of a series of "small i" incarnations throughout human or even throughout cosmic history. For Barth, though, the heart of the kerygma hinges upon the irreplaceable identity of Jesus Christ as a person -- note carefully: not of the mere story of Jesus, or the person-forming reverberations of history throughout a diverse human community, nor the his life-event as historical moment (though these are pieces of the whole, to be sure), but in his personal identity.

But was Barth right? In my own sometimes halting, sometimes incredulous way, I will hazard the answer -- yes.

(The God not only of dead dogs, but also of he living )
Golden Retriever eating raw pig feel. By Denhulde (wikimedia commons).

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7 comments:

Douglas Campbell said...

Nicely done. If you have God in person, why go off looking for something else? Isn't there just something fundamentally wrong about that? If other people don't yet have God in person with full clarity, why worry about what they do have?; why not just tell them what it is that they really have?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thank you. Yes, to what you say, and the trick is share that word but to do so with openness and humility. That later dimension is something I don't really go into in the post. But still, for my part, as a Christian, I can't really see any way around the scandal of God's particular revelation in and as Jesus Christ.

Bobby Grow said...

Great post, Scott! And there's no doubt that Barth was right :-)! Preach it!

George Plasterer said...

I do like it. I am not sure Pannenberg would disagree with the statement as it is. He is as clear as Barth on saying that if we are to know God, it will be because God reveals who God is, and that God has done this in Jesus. The only place for natural theology in Pannenberg is to prepare some common ground between believer and world in a way that will, hopefully, open us to a word from God.
n any case, do you happen to have an approximate date for this?
I am reading CD again with a friend. We are now in IV.1. My first time with William R. Placher. Of course, I am seeing things this time I did not see before. Reading with new eyes, so to speak.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks, George and Bobby. George, it is from 1966 (when, incidentally, the death of God debate was at a high pitch). If you go to the vimeo version of the clip, you can find the full reference and transcription in a comment below -- see https://vimeo.com/90346819.

Wyatt said...

Great post Scott! Love the topic, I think about it often.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks, Wyatt. Indeed, the topic is unavoidable.