Karl Barth, Theology, and Secularism. And the Numinous.

It seems as though I’m going through something of my own, personal Barth revival.

After years of focusing elsewhere, especially on Helmut Gollwitzer, I have – for one reason or another, at least for the time being – returned my attention to the fleshpots of Egy...I mean…to Karli. There’s that podcast series on his Göttingen dogmatics, for instance. And this post.

Anyway, I’ve been reading the first Barth in Conversation volume (I feel like I’ve heard that title, or something very like it, somewhere before…), and thought that I would share some of it with you, gentle and patient readers.

In this passage, a journalist named Seiler interviews Barth and asks, among other things, about the state of contemporary theology. And of course, when we say “contemporary” here we mean 1960. Seiler suggests that Christianity had once been a question of confession, but has now become silent – part of the sociocultural furniture without anything in particular to add to the conversation. As you can imagine, Barth has other thoughts. I’ll dip into his comments below (bold is mine), and I’ll be skipping around through pp. 64–66.

Christianity, the church—meaning infant baptism, confirmation, burial, perhaps also the Federal Day of Prayer in Switzerland—that is Christianity for a great number of people who pay their church taxes today. We should not harbor any illusions about it. Of course, this has nothing to do with Christianity. Of course, a Christianity that does not confess is not Christianity at all. But let us make no mistake: if it does wish to confess, then matters can easily become risky. Authentic Christianity is a dangerous thing, even in the pious city of Basel. And it is precisely here that one finds the specifically modern task of theology, as I have attempted to integrate it into my life’s work: to present anew in every dimension what Christianity actually is, with all its consequences and all of its dangers. And, at least from my experience, I can say that to the extent to which theology does that, it always finds a hearing and is respected. In contrast, theology as bridge-building, as mediation, evasion, cover-up—that fades away today more than ever before.

None of this is going to surprise someone who is decently familiar with Barth. A number of his standard tropes are here: a distinction between true an false Christianity and the danger of the former, the centrality of confession, and the idea that theology’s primary job is to be what it is rather than something else. For my part, I think Barth was right about this. Of course, I also think he was often wrong about some folks who he thought were engaged in “theology as bridge-building, as mediation, evasion, cover-up” but, in fact, were not. But that’s not the point right now.

So theology’s job is to deal with its own proper subject matter which, for Barth, is the Word of God as it meets people in its threefold form (proclamation, scripture, and revelation[Jesus]). Seiler goes on to ask what theology could still have to say to folks “today” (i.e., in 1960), and that’s when Barth uses the “s” word.

No, not “socialism.” The other one.

Theology can only do this [i.e., have something to say] if it does not secularize itself.

This jumped out at me because – and I don’t know if you realized this, gentle readers – but I’m something of a fan of secularism. In fact, I often recommend a book entitled Secular Christianity to folks who want to know more about Dialectical Theology. (Go read it. You’ll thank me.) But here we have Barth, the father of Dialectical Theology, saying that we should not “secularize” theology. What does he mean?!?!

Ok, here’s the deal: Barth isn’t using the term “secularize” in an especially precise way. He’s using it to say that theology needs to do its thing, and not try to do the things that other disciplines do. This is how he continues:

Theology, as teaching and as the “care of souls,” begins at the precise point where psychology and psychiatry end: at the question of the meaning of existence, the meaning of the whole. This is precisely the question—from which modern life systematically attempts to distract human attention—that theology must relentlessly pose and seek to answer today. Only then will it find an echo.

Love. It.

And furthermore, pursuing these sort of big-picture questions of meaning is – arguably – what dialectical theology, and especially its interest in the secular and the existential, is all about.

But that’s not all! If you jump a bit further forward, you get more great material from Barth on why theology needs to be secular…only without using that word. Now he picks up on the work of the Marburg theologian named Rudolf.

Not, not that one. Rudolf Otto, the guy who made “the numinous” into a big deal. Religious studies folks still talk about this, and you can tell a lot about which sort of religion scholar with which you have to do based on how they react if you sneak up behind them and whisper “numinous” into their ear.

(Fair warning: doing this to me may be hazardous for your health. I have a strong aversion to it both as a theologian and as a religious scholar, so, double-whammy.)

Anyway, back to Barth:

As far as the disappearance of the “numinous” from everyday life is concerned, this can only be welcomed by Christianity. The numinous is the space for false gods. Christianity, however—and this is its innermost nature—knows neither something supernatural nor natural as such, but only the connection of the two, the unity of both. It is not a matter of satisfying a “religious need”—that is, one need among many.

That bit about satisfying one need among many is straight out of the basic Dialectical Theology playbook. God is not objectifiable and, therefore, cannot be treated like a piece of the furniture of human life. God is not in any way built in.

Consequently, there is no such thing as the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, as though they are two distinct realms or categories of human experience. That’s just another way of building God in. All theological thinking must start from the encounter with God in Christ, where all of our preconceived notions about a distinction between the natural and the supernatural are exploded.

And guess what – a way of being in and experiencing the world into which God is not pre-loaded is, for my money, a pretty good definition of secularism! That’s why secularism and Dialectical Theology’s emphasis on God’s nonobjectifiability fit nicely together.

Barth says as much. He just uses different words.

I do believe that today a more honest relation exists between the “de-numinized” state and the “de-numinized” church than previously, and that on this basis an authentic encounter of church and world would certainly be conceivable.

“‘De-numinized’ state” and “‘de-numinized’ church” sound an awful lot like “secular society” and “secular Christianity” to me.

But why would this be the case? Why should this double de-numinzation (or double secuarization) be conducive to genuine encounter? Because neither would have unhelpful objectifications of God to get in their way. And I’ll leave you with how Barth puts it elsewhere on the same page:

There is the possibility, precisely in a de-deified world, that the message of God will become audible.


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Mike Poteet said…
Interesting. Does Barth leave room for the numinous *after* the initial encounter of God in Christ? "Now we know only in part" (1 Cor 13), and all... Precisely since God is not objectifiable, there must be room for the numinous and the mysterious even in God revealed most fully in Christ, right? (Or am I using the two words as synonyms when I should not be?)

While it is true we can turn to false gods in an effort to satisfy our longing for the "mysterium tremendum," I'm still inclined to think, favorable to Barth though I am on most things, that there is an instinctual sense of the numinous, and that is not necessarily an altogether bad or dangerous thing.

Thanks for a thought provoking post!
I haven't done a thorough study of the numinous is Barth's writing but - working with his usual patterns of thought - I doubt that he would say that the numinous comes in after encounter with Christ, although he often says things like that. The issue with the numinous is that it is part of "religion" and, for Barth, Christianity is properly a question of revelation not religion. For him, religion is something humans do and revelation is something God does. One does not have to be religious to be a Christian; it's entirely superfluous.

That said, he has ways of talking about spirituality and encounter with God after encounter with Christ.

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