Scooping Out the Moon

It’s difficult to plod through Barth’s Church Dogmatics without being tempted to post something on one of the lines he takes or even simply the adventurous and often moving quality of his prose.  The section in CD handling “the knowability of the Word of God” is a fascinating one and, though I would parse the concept of the word of God differently than Barth does, it is one that I find instructive in several ways for contemporary evangelicals.

Barth repeatedly voices his skepticism about the event of the coming of the Word of God to human persons engendering a knowledge of the Word such that the knowability of the Word begins properly to belong to its human addressees.  He mentions the possibility that the event of the Word of God is helped along in its epistemic work by the human addressee’s “potentiality which is brought by man as such, which consists in a disposition native to him as man, in an organ, in a positive or even a negative property that can be reached and discovered by self-reflection.”  However, Barth is quick to add another possibility:

It might be also that this event did not so much presuppose the corresponding possibility on man’s part as bring it with it and confer it on man by being event, so that it is man’s possibility without ceasing (as such) to be wholly and utterly the possibility proper to the Word of God and to it alone.  We might also be dealing with a possibility of knowledge which can be made intelligible as a possibility of man, but in contrast to all others, only in terms of the object of knowledge or the reality of knowledge and not at all in terms of the subject of knowledge, i.e., man as such (CD, I/1, p. 194).

What follows is a lengthy vying for this second option.  Barth contends that locating the knowability of the Word of God in even “the religious man” or “the believing Christian man” renders such a person the Word’s “opposite subjective pole” and, in turn, the locus of experience of the Word and the criterion for speaking of the Word in the vein of a Cartesian epistemology which situates the ground of human knowledge in the human person (ibid., 213).  Certainly, the Word has “its special bearers, its experts, its representatives,” but making the move of “indirect Christian Cartesianism” removes all hope of epistemic assurance: “When we try to find the content of divine Spirit in the (pardoned) consciousness of man, are we not like the man who wanted to scoop out in a sieve the reflection of the beautiful silvery moon from a pond.”  How, Barth asks, can we be sure that in trying to scoop out of the religious person the content of God’s Word we have in hand a faithful reflection of that Word?  Can we be sure that this one’s experience is authentically experience of God’s Word (ibid., 216-17)?  In contrast to this approach, one who really suffers the divine address attests that “real acknowledgement of the Word of God does not rest at all on a possibility imparted to man and thus integral to him or immanent in him, but that it rests in God’s Word itself, which man and his possibilities can in no sense precede but only follow” (ibid., 218).

An adequate consideration and appropriation of Barth’s emphases would require, I think, a fair amount of conceptual analysis and formal adjustment (as I said, I disagree with some of Barth’s description of the word of God), but I wonder if we could glean, albeit somewhat hastily, some worthwhile insights and criticisms with respect to the tenor of contemporary evangelicalism.  What might this section imply about our tendency to latch onto celebrity preachers or teachers and uncritically absorb their every sermon, book, podcast, and so on?  How could it shape our prayers for the preacher’s Sunday morning sermon and the posture we adopt as we listen to that sermon?  Any thoughts?

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15 thoughts on “Scooping Out the Moon

  1. No inherent capacity for God? Maybe. Though I’m inclined to feel that there is at least the “potential” already there. And there are biblical problems with the speculation that we have no such innate potential.

    To speculate – remember even B. is just speculating – that we don’t have a native capacity for God, runs into some problems. First it 1) seems to be a bit insulting to man. And 2) it is inherently divisive; in that it formally, absolutely separates our human nature, from divine things (curious in a being that God himself made). Then too, this 3) might not be biblical either: since “the Gentile knows by nature what the law requires,” etc..

    To be sure though, 4) regarding the possible innate lack of capacity for God? The Bible warned hundreds of times that many would be “blind” and “deaf,” and would not hear things rightly. And that there would be many “false” priests, false prophets, bad churches, even false “scriptures” and bad Satan “angels,” to deliver false messages, false gospels.

    In fact 5) the Bible even suggested that God himself might harden our very nature, “harden” our hearts, or even send false or evil spirits. So that oddly, God himself might actively make the very deep nature, the potential of some, disinclined toward God?

    In any case though, maybe here’s the solution: 6) the blithe and too-easy assumption that this or that person – or even we ourself – has the “right” idea of God, is always the sin of Vanity and Pride.

    The Bible often warned that there would be many, many false things said and done in the name of Christ; and that we would not know who got the right idea, vs. who got the wrong one, until God himself separated the a) wheat from the tares, the b) live from the dead branches, the c) wheat from the chaff, the d) sheep from the goats; the right believers from the false ones. In the Last Judgement.

    If you want to end the presumptuousness of those who claim to speak for God, but seem to advance many silly or factually wrong ideas? Say this to them: according to the Bible, there are always many “false” things uttered even in the name of Christ; so that no one can be really sure that he or she has the right idea of God. Until God himself “judges” us in the End.

    This means that in the meantime, no one should ever proclaim too dogmatically, that they can know and are describing God, perfectly (or even particularly well). None of us should ever be too entirely, smugly sure about our ideas of God.

    To be sure, the “epistemological modesty” of critical theologians, recommends itself at least, as modesty and humility. Over the over-confident dogmatic assertions of their own godliness, by … those who don’t think too much about such important things.

    Still of course, none of us should be too self-congratulatory; all of us should “work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling”; knowing that in the end, any of us could be wrong in our idea of God and Christ.

    In fact, the only certain thing that really seems indicated here, the only thing that seems relatively certain, is the importance of uncertainty. We need a non-assertive, non-dogmatism. Which translates to the Biblical virtue of Humility; lack of excessive Pride.

    It would seem that no one really has “absolute assurance” of salvation – since no one can know whether he or she got God right; and is not following a “false Christ,” etc.. So let’s all be humble, hesitant, when we presume to speak of, for, God.

    Which would be a warning not just for all of us of course; but maybe, to be sure, particularly a warning to the loudest and most dogmatic – the most evangelical – among us? Those who speak the loudest, the most prominently, the most dogmatically, are not usually the most subtle or accurate thinkers, to be sure.

    When considering the very popular preachers, televangelists who are “first” in religion today and in popularity, it might be good to remember that in the end “the first will be last; and the last first.”

    But then remember to be humble ourselves. And not judge others TOO much.

    As far as innate capacity? Still an open question.

  2. Being too definite can be annoying. But for that matter: a too-coy and hestiating manner – especially one that seems to slightly favor the wrong answer – can be annoying too. So I try to strike a balance.

  3. Great post Steve, and regarding the question about the sermon consider Barth’s discussion in Göttingen Dogmatics, vol. 1:

    “How can we theologians come to speak God’s Word in ourwords? Or, some congregations might say, how can we come to hear God’s Word in the words of this or that pastor who has nothing to offer us, or in the words of all pastors, none of whom we trust? … We should have regard to the Word that is proclaimed and not to the ministers who proclaim it. These may well be wicked and sinners, but the Word of God is still true and good. If we expected to hear God’s Word more, we would hear it even in weak and perverted sermons. The statement that there was nothing in it for me should often read that I was not ready to let anything be said to me. What is needed here is repentance by both pastors and congregations” (33).

    • “The statement that there was nothing in it for me should often read that I was not ready to let anything be said to me.” That’s a sobering sentence!

  4. Steve:

    I’m a little troubled by the assumption that I hear in Barth, of the total Otherness of the revelation, spirit, of God. As 1) if the spirit, the Wisdom of God is something not native in us at all; but always an infusion, the gift of something entirely beyond, aside from – and even antagonistic to – our inborn human nature.

    But especially I’m bothered by another assertion 2) related to the above: that since the spirit of God is hopelessly above all human origin and comprehension, then whatever spirit we think is from God in us, never needs to defend itself, or listen to criticism, in rational human language, etc.. In Paul’s words, this is expressed in the assertion that Divine Wisdom might appear to be “foolishness” in the eyes of human beings; but that’s just because it is hopelessly above them.

    But I see lots of Biblical and practical problems with this extremely common description of the spirit, wisdom, of God; as being 1) wholly different from human nature – and 2) therefore, above, immune to, all mere human or rational critiques.

    Parts of the Bible suggest that to be sure: the spirit is (sometimes; especially in Paul) said to be contrary to our normal human sense; the greatest wisdom from God, seems “foolish” by human standards, etc..

    But isn’t this view dangerous? What if by mistake, instead of latching on to the CORRECT Divine sprit, we mistakenly, latched on to a false one? To a vain delusion, a false idea of God? And then … we totally stopped listening to the warnings and criticisms of others that we were being foolish. Because we thought we have the wisdom that appears foolish; but is actually beyond all criticism.

    Paul and his Wholly Other Divine, “foolish” wisdom, in fact is my least favorite Biblical author, probably. Alongside him, I’d like Barth to consider all those other quotes, in other parts of the Bible; where we all have something of God already in us; “for the Gentile knows by nature what [at least?] the law requires.” Or for that matter, Paul should consider Paul quoting Plato; as if even a pagan philosopher like Plato, might have had some bit of God, revelation, in himself. As a deep “potential”; or more than that actually: some substantial parts.

    So again, I’m suspicious of the frequent assertions in Barth and many very spiritual preachers, of these two implications: that 1) the thought of God is wholly (ontologically?) “Other” than human. (Complementing and qualifying my remarks on a Theological Anthropology?) And the corollary of that: 2) we who are so sure we have God in us already, can stop listening to all criticisms; even when the wisdom appears very, very foolish to others.

    I’m very suspicious, on several grounds. Alongside Biblical objections noted above: also consider, from a practical standpoint, this claim to have a wisdom, a moonbeam illumination, far far beyond all human criticism and comprehension: how do we know it isn’t just the quintessence of Vanity; the Emperor’s New Clothes?

    Here’s one criticism in fact of Paul’s divine foolishness. Some of us are probably smarter than others. But sometimes we are wrong, still. It’s nice to think we are always much more profound than others; and have a wisdom immune to, above all, mere human morals, and their small-minded criticism. But still, probably every Vain person thinks that. To imagine that we have a divine illumination above all criticism – with the implication that we never need to listen to the criticisms of others, therefore, and can seem as “foolish” as we want, being sure we are always wise – might be the very essence of delusion and vanity in fact.

    Consider all those potential problems, with thinking that we are divine, or have The Divine Wisdom, that even our most “foolish” ideas are above all criticism; that the most alien and unnatural ideas especially, are OK.

    As a young person I was basically a Paulist; convinced of my own righteousness and the superiority of even my most “foolish”religious and other ideas. But when some of these ideas worked out, but others did not, considering all this, I decided to listen more to the parts of the Bible that mentioned “humility”; wouldn’t it be more humble, I finally decided, to do the unthinkable … and listen to others? To let even my own most apparently “perfect” and divine and “holy” ideas, be questioned? To bother to, at times, deign to defend my most seemingly divine inspirations? As if they DID need defence, in mere human language? So as to help make sure my idea of the Divine was actually correct, and not just my own Vanity.

    To be sure, I’m not always this humble: somethings I just think I DO know some clever things that no one else understands; things that seem stupid to them, but that will be vindicated by History or something, as having been Divine after all. (Cf. however, D.D. Divine; John Water’s film?).

    But finally, I try to adopt both, opposite biblical strategies somewhat. Insofar as it is possible to accomodate opposite views. At times, in part, I 1) hold on to some of my humanly unpopular ideas, keeping in mind the Pauline Other hypothesis: that some of these ideas that might appear foolish, may be actually moonbeam Divine Wisdom. A wisdom which is all but wholly Other than, wholly above, all mere human and “worldly” logic; and therefore immune to human criticism. And to foolish morals.

    Other times though – in fact always, to some extent – I 2) remember the other parts of the Bible that suggest that many ideas that we think are holy, might be”false spirits”; the parts that say that there are false “spirits,” “illusions,” “delusions,” vanities, posing as even the Holy Spirit or Jesus.

    But finally here’s the last problem. Given now, that some of our “divine inspirations” (or in theology and preaching, characterizations of God) might be false, how do we tentatively separate the sheep from the goats, insofar as humanly or even divinely possible?

    Surprisingly, even the (same?) Paul that at times seemed to assert that we have a wholly Other wisdom, that should ignore all criticism, finally suggested himself, that we should “test everything” in religion, with fairly normal testing. To find out if what we thought was an idea above criticism, was really from God. Or not.

    So there are things in Barth, and in many very very spiritual preachers especially, that I don’t quite agree with: the occasional all-too-easy assertion or assumption that one’s spiritual ideas about or “from” God, are wholly different from mere human thoughts, and are above all criticism, is one of the huge problems I see in much of Theology; specially of the type that asserts the Spirit to be wholly other than, wholly above, human nature.

    In really simple language: is this or that idea of the Divine, really material just too fine, to Divine, for ordinary crass human eyes to comprehend?

    Or is the Emperor just naked; with no material clothes? Just spirits? That might be false spirits after all?

    To frame this ontologically: is the nature of God really wholly Other, to the nature of men? Or is there after all, some commonality? Metaphysically: a monism, and not a hopeless, hierarchial dualism? So that human wisdom might play a role in God’s wisdom and plans, after all? Even at times seeming to outweigh, very spiritual ideas?

    • Brett, I think we have come to the point where a little blog etiquette is in order:

      1. You get one shot, try to make it count. Multiple comments on the same post that have not received responses (like yours here) are neither appreciated nor helpful. If someone responds to your remarks, then you get the chance to clarify or expand.

      2. Keep it short. Lengthy first round comments like these will likely not elicit responses from me or the other contributors at TF; we simply don’t have the time to wade through them.

      Warm regards and happy blogging.

    • brettongarcia:

      I would like to respond to your entire post, but only have time for one quick thing. Your worry about the wisdom of God from the Spirit being immune to the critique of reason seems to stem from perhaps a misunderstanding of what it means to have ‘foolish’ wisdom in comparison to that of the ‘world’.

      Worldly wisdom is that which tells you to gather wealth. While Godly wisdom tells you the riches you gather are not of ultimate concern and will not last.

      The world tells us to fight back, while Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek; to be blessed in sorrows, while others curse them; to find strength in weakness, and so forth. This is the difference between worldly wisdom and the wisdom of God. It can be critiqued rationally. If, for example, you feel the Spirit is telling you to build concentration camps, you can critique that and say “That’s not what my bible and experience with God has led me to believe…”, can’t you? I think you can.

  5. Great post. There is certainly a strong tendency toward celebrity worship in contemporary evangelicalism. This is bunk. Should Christians even have a category for ‘trendy’ things?

    For Barth, preachers are really only preaching insofar as they are pointing, like John the Baptist, at Jesus and saying, “He must increase; I must decrease.” Many evangelical celebrity preachers claim to be working at that project, but the things that they do often speak otherwise. They are very talented, but have they traded in the mustard seed for their ability to create their own coconuts?

  6. An oblique criticism of Barth.

    He was obviously a drug (tobacco) addict.

    Every time he sucked on his pipe (like a child sucking its thumb) he was drawing toxic poisons into his lungs, and hence into his body altogether.

    By doing so he was slowly and systematically undermining his health and destroying his body. In effect committing suicide.

    Do you think that anyone to whom The Divine was or is an all-pervading Living Reality would be actively (and effectively) destroying his body?

  7. John:

    Maybe your temporary adoption of the word “oblique” gets at the major problem I see with Barth. He is obviously the master of the classic “poetic” style; which is to say, of a (to be sure, classic, even biblical) theological style, that never firmly says any one thing, but that is perpetually oblique, evasive, ambiguous, polysemic, and equivocal.

    Probably the positive virtue of this style, is that ultimate truth,”God,” is infinitely complex; and therefore we need to avoid typifying him in all-too-simple utterances. Still, on the other hand, regarding a style where “blessed are the poor” might mean that 1) being poor is good as such; or might mean the opposite? That 2) the poor are about to be blessed …by becoming rich?

    Or here. Is Barth 1) merely repeating a preachers’ cliche: bemoaning our lack of native/”subjective” ability to apprehend (or even create?) God; a gift which is “grant”ed only by the Grace of God? Or is he 2) about to hint later that however, even classic theology (and even God?) fails us? Since God never understood us, and never corrected our subjectivity?

    Utlimately, the classic poetic style – that simultanously entertains even exactly opposite conclusions – while useful in that it evades dogmatic oversimplifications, is still reprehensible, in that it ultimately says nothing at all. It cancels itself in 1) obscurity, and even 2) by self contradiction. And it therefore cannot be used as a positive guide through life.

    The very greatest virtue of the poetic style is, at best, the cancellation of all simplistic, univocal dogmatism about god. Or is its greatest virtue, its own self-cancelation/deconstruction? The disappearance of both theology and God too, by way of indecision, or obvious self-contradiction?

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  9. I hear this as a summons to modesty and humility on the preacher who offers a sermon knowing that it is God alone who is the both subject and object of the sermon. One who takes this seriously adopts a self-deflecting posture in preaching, the consequence of which is to point toward God’s gracious action.

  10. But what about the subjectivity of the human individual? Barth seems to have no place for God in a man as such. In man we have only some kind of meta-“potential” or receptivity for a God who is quite different from human nature; and who comes to us only late, probably after birth, as “event.”

    Barth seems to dislike man-vs-God, or body v. spirit (“Carteisan”?) dualism. But his own comments presuppose it. They recall the (semi-) biblical notion that humans are by nature depraved, and cannot save themselves by their own “works.” But are only saved when one day, a God who is rather wholly different in nature from man, extends or attaches himself, his spirit, into our lives, in a moment of Grace.

    Barth is therefore still Cartesian-dualistic himself. He is still himself implying among other things, that our nature as man, is quite different from (and all but dualistically opposed to) God; and has almost nothing of God in it. God comes later, being moreover 1) absolutely different in nature from man, dualistically. And 2) probably arriving only some time after our birth, in the salvific “event.”

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