The Answers of the Ineffable Part 3 – Barth and the Unknown God

Please read Part 2 before getting angry at me!

Barth and the Unknown God

In that sense, I finally understand what Karl Barth meant to say by framing his theology as that of the “Unknown God”. It probably helps to listen to Dylan and read Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans at the same time, but I digress.

Barth reacts to his historical contemporaries, the liberal Christians of European universities. They removed Jesus Christ from a place of primacy, Christianity from a genuine expression of actual spiritual force, and God from a state of actual existence. Did God actually exist for them? Who knew? As long as Christianity allowed humans to become better at being human beings, then they would allow it to continue. The Word, so to speak, became a dead word.

Barth would have none of that. In a scathing critique and Biblical commentary, he would reject the prevailing thoughts of his time period. He declared God as transcendent, ruler over all things and ultimate power in the universe to which none could compare. He emphasized our puny state of affairs as dirt by comparison. He made god back into God, making us reliant on Him instead of the other way around.

In fact, Barth takes this line of thought one step further then mere power and otherworldliness. To Barth, God is unknowable, undescribable, and ultimately Unknown by the whims of human knowledge. He cannot be found by mere human beings in His full splendor and glory. We cannot comprehend Him, just as we cannot comprehend the concept of Trinity (that’s about the best comparison I can give you). The seekers do not seek God; God finds them, and choose to reveal himself to them.

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And maybe this? Who knows?

Even then, we only know that of God which God chooses to reveal through God’s self in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ comes to us as a mystery of the highest caliber, God becoming man and yet not man, and yet that revelation of God’s Word stands as our Rock and Hope. Humanity remains in a state of total ignorance, and even under grace we only accept; we do not understand the compassion and mercy of a God whose otherwordly holiness places us under total wrath and judgment simultaneously. All of this simply makes no sense at all, and yet that does not mean it isn’t the truth. Barth says as much:

We know that God is He whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge. The Epistle to the Romans is a revelation of the unknown God; God chooses to come to man, not man to God. Even after the revelation man cannot know God, for he is ever the unknown God. In manifesting himself to man he is farther away than before.

Jesus also falls under that same category:

The revelation in Jesus, just because it is the revelation of the righteousness of God is at the same time the strongest conceivable veiling and unknowableness of God. In Jesus, God really becomes a mystery, makes himself known as the unknown, speaks as the eternally Silent One.

That essential paradox in Barth’s theology continues in emphasis over and over again, just in different modes. Barth cannot place God in human categories, and cannot let theology slip into human declarations of what God can and cannot do. Anything other than submission to God constitutes worship of the idols of our mind, the No-God who continually crops up in whatever vehicle we may imagine. The true God crushes the No-God, and yet we often choose to worship the No-God -ourselves. By defining God, we inevitably place ourselves under judgment. By refusing to see our own ignorance, we will always lose. Paul’s lines in Romans 1 fit perfectly in this line of thought:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Precisely by refusing to place our own expectations or assume our own understanding as the true one, Barth tells us that we finally worship the true God. God remains above time, space, and earth; what seem like contradictions only arise from our fallen position. Christianity proclaims Jesus Christ, crucified and arisen, and while we do not quite understand it, we accept it. The revelation of God, of divine knowledge specifically for our benefit, derives from Jesus Christ, and what else can we say?

Do I agree with Barth wholly and utterly? No, I do not. HOWEVER, I now understand Barth and what he meant to say, even if he totally did not write it very well (translating it from German to English surely removes much of the power of the original while creating a much more confusing book in the process). Barth uses fallible language to examine the infallible, and the dialectical turns of phrase confusedly give you the sense of the truth, even if you cannot quite explain it in words. You might say this is exactly why I am ambiguous on what I cannot know for sure, purely from my rational mind: I cannot place myself in a higher position than God, and what use would it do me to proclaim an ultimate conclusion? What specific words would somehow do better to convey truth than God’s own revelation, verbal or non-verbal? Wittgenstein hits the nail on the head here.

Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense (Culture and Value, p. 85e)

Onward to Part 4!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.