In my reading this morning, I came across this passage (written sometime in 1947 or 1948) in Barth which reveals, more than is often the case, a glimpse into the historical mood of his day.
Millions of our contemporaries have been constantly plunged from one frontier situation (in the most intense sense) to another. But what has it all meant to them in practice? Has any one encountered the wholly other, and been changed by this encounter, as a result of taking part in the fighting in Russia or Africa or Normandy, of suffering the Hitler terror, of enduring aerial bombardment, hunger and imprisonment, of losing loved ones, of being in extreme danger of death dozens of times, and of having some sense of personal implication in the common guilt? Humanity is tough. It seems to have been largely capable of dealing with the confrontation of transcendence supposedly implied in these negations of its existence. Surely Jaspers himself noticed that it passed largely unscathed through the first world war, in retrospect of which he wrote his Philosophie. And if appearances do not deceive, we have also passed through the second unscathed. If any one has been changed in these years, it is certainly not in virtue of the extraordinary situations into which they have led him. According to the present trend, we may suppose that even on the morning after the Day of Judgment—if such a thing were possible—every cabaret, every night club, every newspaper firm eager for advertisements and subscribers, every nest of political fanatics, every pagan discussion group, indeed, every Christian tea-party and Church synod would resume business to the best of its ability, and with a new sense of opportunity, completely unmoved, quite uninstructed, and in no serious sense different from what it was before. Fire, drought, earthquake, war, pestilence, the darkening of the sun and similar phenomena are not the things to plunge us into real anguish, and therefore to give us real peace. The Lord was not in the storm, the earthquake or the fire (1 Kg. 19:11f.). He really was not.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 114-5.
(Thank goodness for the copy and paste function in my copy of the Church Dogmatics on CD-Rom!)
Despite the clear historical references here, there is a timelessness to Barth’s observation as well. While it might be scary to think about what could happen if the economy to our neighbors to the south collapses and causes a world-wide economic depression, it is likely that we will somehow adapt.
We may suppose that God uses “crisis points” in our history as primarily a way of getting our attention. This was certainly in the forefront of many minds during 9/11 and the Tsunami. While many people in fact are drawn to God during such times, Barth points out in this passage that because humans have an amazing ability to adapt to historical crisis, it also means that such flash points rarely have a sustaining effect on the attention and true worship we give to the truly transcendent God who has come close to us in Jesus Christ. This may explain more fully why Barth was hesitant to mention these incidents in his dogmatic work. But the more important point, I think, is the even scarier thought that not only can we domesticate these cataclysmic historical events, we are so easily able to domesticate the transcendent God (with due acknowledgement to William Placher’s excellent book of a similar title). Woe to theologians, theology students and pastors when the truly transcendent God deserving of our worship becomes “normal”!
Psalm 106:2 Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD, or declare all his praise? (NRSV)