Losing My Religion (Karl Barth style)

Religion. We can hate it (or love it), but we cannot escape it.  It would seem that religion is part of the human condition, for better or worse.

A number of weeks ago (actually, around the same time that Jefferson Bethke’s poem on the subject of “religion” went viral), I read Karl Barth’s famous section on the subject, titled “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion” (chapter 17 in his Church Dogmatics). Barth’s thoughts on religion are complicated and difficult to digest (I’m still working on it!). However, I have a few observations/quotes I’d like to share.

1) When Barth speaks out against religion, he probably doesn’t mean what you think he means. Barth was a friend of the church, who sought to support the proclamation ministry of the church via his Church Dogmatics (CD). He had zero interest in condemning the institutional church (although he would critique it wherever its “talk about God” needed refining). Barth’s anti-religious remarks should be heard in that light. He does not argue for being “spiritual but not religious,” or make a case for Christianity as a “relationship rather than a religion.” Not even close.

2) The “revelation of God” is Jesus, the Word made flesh. We tend to think of revelation as primarily a book, the Bible. Barth views the Bible as a witness to the real revelation, the true Word – Jesus (John 1:14). This Word reveals to us that no religion “contains” that revelation but is rather grounded in unbelief. A typical Barthian quote to that effect:

If a man tries to grasp at truth of himself, he tries to grasp at it a priori. But in that case he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he talks. If he did, he would accept a gift; but in religion he takes something for himself. If he did, he would let God Himself intercede for God: But in religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief.” (I.2, pp 302-303; emphasis mine)

3) In that vein, God’s revelation tells us the truth about what human religion amounts to: unbelief. The New Testament “is not a book of religion. From first to last it is the proclamation of the justifying and sanctifying grace of God. It is therefore a revelation of the unbelief which is in all religion.” (I.2, pp 312) Barth continues:

“Sin is always unbelief. And unbelief is always man’s faith in himself. And this faith invariably consists in the fact that man makes the mystery of his responsibility his own mystery, instead of accepting it as the mystery of God. It is this faith which is religion. It is contradicted by the revelation in the New Testament, which is identical with Jesus Christ as the one who acts for us and on us. This stamps religion as unbelief.” (I.2, p 314)

4) Christian religion does not get a pass. It would be easy to read Barth and see how his critique of religion was against all “other” religions, giving Christianity a pass as the true religion.  But when Barth turns to discussing true religion he first points out that “we can speak of ‘true’ religion only in the sense in which we speak of a ‘justified sinner.'” (I.2, p. 325) Perhaps we could put it this way: Christian religion is forgiven unbelief. With that in mind, we should have an attitude of humility when it comes to religion:  “It is our business as Christians to apply this judgment [that religion is unbelief] first and most acutely to ourselves: and to others, the non-Christians, only in so far as we recognize ourselves in them.” (I.2 p 327)

That’s all for now. I’ve actually just finished CD I.2 and hope to do a couple more posts on other subjects that came up. Stay tuned….

2 thoughts on “Losing My Religion (Karl Barth style)”

  1. Barth's rejection of Grace Religions who teach a similar message of mercy and love are also to be rejected because they do not possess the object of Christ Jesus. That was a marvelous idea that I'm still sorting out. I might need to write a blog on section 17. Paul Tillich in his 19th & 20th Century Protestant Theology talked about how influential Barth's rejection of 'religion' was, but as you said, he's not saying what most people say. .

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