Adapting to the Transcendent


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Despite the clear historical references here, there is a timelessness to Barth’s observation as well.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)



8 thoughts on “Adapting to the Transcendent

  1. That is a very thought-provoking excerpt, once again. While reading it and nodding my head in agreement I also couldn’t help but think of the (many?) times where a person is brought to the end of himself or herself by personal or large-scale tragedies and is then humbled and receptive to the revelation of Jesus Christ. Having said that, there is a definite, convicting, and compelling ring of truth to Barth’s (and your) warning.

    This excerpt raised interesting thoughts for me about hell as well. Is it possible that hell is just the last of God’s acts of “giving us over” (Rom 1) to the things we have chosen in his place?

  2. re: “Woe to theologians, theology students and pastors when the truly transcendent God deserving of our worship becomes “normal”!”

    I have heard sermon that rightly speak of a certain numbness that set in when we are over exposed to the troubles and temptations of the world. A spiritual complacency and comfortableness with unholiness if you will. I wonder, however, if the greater risk is not what you have suggested here. Have we become so used to “church” and “Christian” catch phrases that is has simply become “normal”?

    Perhaps Jon, there is something to what you say, all though in my thinking it is incomplete. That said, perhaps “hell” has become so “normal” and the “church” so “normal” that the salvation message appears like a life preserver tossed to someone relaxing in a bath tub–unwelcome and no apparent value.

  3. Kathy

    “we are so easily able to domesticate the transcendent God”….this makes me think of a description someone made of a fellow-church goer (who was not born again, and saw no reason to become so): “he had just enough religion to inoculate him against getting the whole thing”. The temptation is to subscribe to the bits of God we are comfortable with (the ones that seem “normal”) and ignore what is uncomfortable. Woe, indeed …

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    What really struck me, I think, was Barth’s very brief allusion to 1 Kings 19 where Elijah experienced the earthquake, wind, fire and such, but the reader is told that God was not in these things. I can only imagine what kind of response we might get if we said that there is no guarantee that God was in the tsunami, or the hurricanes, for example, unlike the standard response these days to insist breathlessly that he was. Perhaps tsunamis and earthquakes and such are too easily commandeered on behalf of God, when in fact these are all signs–shudder!–of the absence of God in a world which has so easily set him aside.

    In other words, instead of trying to engage in theodicy (i.e., a justification of God in the midst of great evil), perhaps we should be trying to engage in identifying that place where he wishes to be identified–in Jesus Christ–rather than in all the “bad things” we so desperately want to defend God for allowing…

    What if when someone asks, “Where was God in the tsunami?” we simply said, “We don’t know whether God was in the tsunami. But we do know where he can be found… Find him in the man Jesus Christ…”

    Just thinking out loud here…

  5. Kathy

    Yes, yes, David! Keep thinking out loud! “Find Him in Jesus”…that’s exactly what we need to remember. THX! (If God would have been in the storm when the disciples were in the middle of the lake, would Jesus have rebuked the storm? I don’t think so.)

  6. David, perhaps we need to be a little careful what we mean when we say “God in the _________”. Are we speaking of God’s providence or a localized theophany. What is meant by, “was God in the Tsunami”?

    We also need to be careful when saying, “find him in the man Jesus Christ”. It sounds like God merely inhabited the man Jesus Christ rather than Jesus Christ as “very God and very man”. I know the “man Jesus” is a good old Barthian line and in context makes sense. Out of context, it could be mis-understood.

    Perhaps the real issue in 1 Kings 19 is that God is not the God of some created element such as the wind (i.e. the wind god), rather is the “I AM”, the creator of the elements.

    Of course we also have the curious Trinitarian question of who spoke to Elijah, Father, Son or Holy Spirit? 😉 Ya had to know that one was coming 🙂

  7. Kathy, nice observation on Jesus’ rebuke of the storm (Luke 8:24). The very fact that he “rebukes” indicates that it was something that needed to come under his Lordship. (see the comments also below about God and the elements).

    Bill, on the “man Jesus”: Notice I didn’t say “the man Jesus” (which could sound adoptionist), but “the man Jesus Christ,” which is Pauline long before it is Barthian! (Rom 5:17; 1 Tim 2:5). I’m not sure, though, what you mean by “out of context.” Anything out of context could be misunderstood.

    I think you make a good point (especially given the context of Elijah’s battles with the Baals) that God was showing that he was not just a god like unto the Baals. God’s refusal to “identify” himself with the elements is, though, I think supportive of what I’m saying as well.

    When talking about whether “God was in the _____”, I guess I’m addressing the common question: Where was God when X happened? Well, perhaps the problem is precisely that there is a desire to localize God’s presence, or to appeal to a general theory of providence. But in either case, the answer must start with where God himself has (and I say this quite literally) localized himself–in the man Jesus Christ. Abstract answers to questions about “where was God…” without at the very least starting with the true “where” of God in Jesus Christ are, in the end, only speculative.

    Who spoke to Elijah? God in Christ by the Holy Spirit!

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