Friday, January 24, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §17.2 "Religion as Unbelief" pp. 297-325

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §17 states: "The revelation of God in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the judging but also reconciling presence of God in the world of human religion, that is, in the realm of man’s attempts to justify and to sanctify himself before a capricious and arbitrary picture of God. The Church is the locus of true religion, so far as through grace it lives by grace."

In subsection §17.2 ("Religion as Unbelief"), Barth takes on the negative side of religion: that religion is unbelief. He begins with a statement that the Church is the locus of "true religion" (298). And the Church tolerates religion in ways which are consistent with the forbearance of Christ because God is reconciling both man and his religion (as he is all things) in the world (299). And of course, religion needs this toleration, as does all humanity, because revelation shows itself ultimately to be unbelief:
But the religion and religions must be treated with a tolerance which is informed by the forbearance of Christ, which derives therefore from the knowledge that by grace God has reconciled to Himself godless man and his religion. It will see man carried, like an obstinate child in the arms of its mother, by what God has determined and done for his salvation in spite of his own opposition. In detail, it will neither praise nor reproach him. It will understand his situation—understand it even in the dark and terrifying perplexity of it—not because it can see any meaning in the situation as such, but because it acquires a meaning from outside, from Jesus Christ. But confronted by this object it will not display the weak or superior or weary smile of a quite inappropriate indulgence. It will see that man is caught in a way of acting that cannot be recognised as right and holy, unless it is first and at the same time recognised as thoroughly wrong and unholy. Self-evidently, this kind of tolerance, and therefore a theological consideration of religion, is possible only for those who are ready to abase themselves and their religion together with man, with every individual man, knowing that they first, and their religion, have need of tolerance, a strong forbearing tolerance. We begin by stating that religion is unbelief. It is a concern, indeed, we must say that it is the one great concern, of godless man (299-300). 
In the light of what we have already said, this proposition is not in any sense a negative value-judgment. It is not a judgment of religious science or philosophy based upon some prior negative judgment concerned with the nature of religion. It does not affect only other men with their religion. Above all it affects ourselves also as adherents of the Christian religion. It formulates the judgment of divine revelation upon all religion (300).
Barth states that to realize religion is really unbelief, we have to consider it from the standpoint of the revelation attested in Scripture. And there are two elements which make it unmistakably clear:

1) First, revelation exposes humanity's arbitrary concepts of god as false (as well as their idol-making schemes) and makes true God known.
Revelation is God’s self-offering and self-manifestation. Revelation encounters man on the presupposition and in confirmation of the fact that man’s attempts to know God from his own standpoint are wholly and entirely futile; not because of any necessity in principle, but because of a practical necessity of fact. In revelation God tells man that He is God, and that as such He is his Lord. In telling him this, revelation tells him something utterly new, something which apart from revelation he does not know and cannot tell either himself or others. It is true that he could do this, for revelation simply states the truth. If it is true that God is God and that as such He is the Lord of man, then it is also true that man is so placed towards Him, that he could know Him. But this is the very truth which is not available to man, before it is told him in revelation (301).
Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. It contradicts it, just as religion previously contradicted revelation. It displaces it, just as religion previously displaced revelation; just as faith cannot link up with a mistaken faith, but must contradict and displace it as unbelief, as an act of contradiction (303).
Just as revelation had always contradicted heathen religion in the sphere of Israel and on the soil of Palestine, so now, when Jesus Christ has died for all, it contradicts it “publicly,” in its own heathen area, in an apostolic letter which remarkably enough is addressed to the Christians in Rome. There is no such thing now as an undisputed heathendom, a heathendom which is relatively possible, which can be excused. Now that revelation has come and its light has fallen on heathendom, heathen religion is shown to be the very opposite of revelation: a false religion of unbelief (307).
2) Second, revelation exposes religion's (and humanity's) tendency to self-help and self-righteousness by works, and reveals hows reconciliation is effected by grace:
As the self-offering and self-manifestation of God, revelation is the act by which in grace He reconciles man to Himself by grace. As a radical teaching about God, it is also the radical assistance of God which comes to us as those who are unrighteous and unholy, and as such damned and lost. In this respect, too, the affirmation which revelation makes and presupposes of man is that he is unable to help himself either in whole or even in part (307).
What is certain is that in respect of the practical content of religion it is still a matter of an attitude and activity which does not correspond to God’s revelation, but contradicts it. At this point, too, weakness and defiance, helplessness and arrogance, folly and imagination are so close to one another that we can scarcely distinguish the one from the other. Where we want what is wanted in religion, i.e., justification and sanctification as our own work, we do not find ourselves—and it does not matter whether the thought and representation of God has a primary or only a secondary importance—on the direct way to God, who can then bring us to our goal at some higher stage on the way. On the contrary, we lock the door against God, we alienate ourselves from Him, we come into direct opposition to Him. God in His revelation will not allow man to try to come to terms with life, to justify and sanctify himself. God in His revelation, God in Jesus Christ, is the One who takes on Himself the sin of the world, who wills that all our care should be cast upon Him, because He careth for us (309).
A mistake which is not justified by its respectable antiquity, and which Luther himself bad a share in confirming, is that of regarding the Old Testament as a document, and, where possible, as the classical document, of a religion of works, and therefore, because all religion as such is a religion of works, of religion in general. The Israel which understands the “Do this and thou shalt live” (Lk. 10:28) to mean that man has to justify and sanctify himself in his own works by fulfilling the Law, is not the true Israel (310).
As regards the New Testament, do we not have to point out that, like the Old Testament, it is a Law, that is, an order and command and direction for the new life of the people and children of God? But it is not for that reason—not even partially—an authorisation and challenge to self-justification and self-sanctification. It is not a book of religion. From first to last it is the proclamation of the justifying and sanctifying grace of God (312).
Barth now makes an important point:
We cannot make this point without insisting expressly that it is only by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that we can characterise religion as idolatry and self-righteousness, and in this way show it to be unbelief. Religion can, of course, be called in question from within, and we have to be aware of this and to distinguish it from the abolishing of religion by revelation (314).
At its base, without revelation, religion is in crisis. It has a self-contradictory nature (314-315) which will ultimately lead to its breakdown. This breakdown can take two different forms.

The conservative form of the crisis (and critique) is mysticism:
Mysticism means the basic liberation of man from that satisfaction of the religious need which hitherto he has sought “outside.” Yet in its relationship to this “outside” it is the conservative form of that critical turn. For mysticism does not attack religion openly and directly. It does not negate it. It is not interested in iconoclasm or the refutation of dogmas or other open acts of liberation. It subjects itself to the prevailing doctrine and observance, and even respects it. It leaves religion in peace (319).
The more radical form of the crisis (and critique) is atheism:
From the same standpoint of its relationship to existing religion, atheism might be called an artless and childish form of that critical turn. Atheism means a blabbing out of the secret that so far as this turn involves anything at all it involves only a negation. Of course, even in its most radical forms, it is ultimately aiming at something positive. And in this respect its aim is the same as that of mysticism. Its positive goal is religious reality in that formless and unrealised vacuum, where knowledge and object are or again become one and the same thing—the Chinese Tao, the Indian Tat tvam asi, Hegel’s in-and-for-itself of the absolute Spirit (320).
These critiques are important, but they doing nothing ultimately to obviate religion of its power. Religion is like the hydra.Of course these critiques (and crises) are problematic, but only revelation can bring religion into true crisis. We'll hear more about this in our next reading.