While wandering about on Facebook today I ran across a quote from Karl Barth that I have not heard before. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Barth he was born in Basel, Switzerland on May 10, 1886. He was a student in Berne, Tubingen, Marburg, and Berlin and studied with the great liberal theologians Hermann and Von Harnack. He pastored a small parish church in Safenwil, Switzerland and was later a professor in Gotingen, Munster, and Bonn. In my mind one of the most important biographical details of Barth’s life is his role as a foundational member of the German Confessing Church (Christians who actively opposed Hitler before and during WWII) and primary author of the Barmen Declaration. He was eventually fired from his position at the University of Bonn for refusing to begin his lectures with the requisite “Heil Hitler!” and for agreeing to take “the oath of allegiance to Hitler only with the qualification that all such allegiance is subordinate to the dictates of the gospel” (Grenz and Miller, Contemporary Theologies, 11). He died in 1968. He is without a doubt one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century and there are some theological discussions that simply cannot be explored without addressing his work. All of this as pre-amble to this quotation:
“In the last analysis what God required of man consists only in the demand that he should live as the one on whose behalf God required the very uttermost of Himself.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2, p.166.
What Barth means, of course, is that the way we act should be a response to the way that God has acted. Regardless of how poetic it might be this statement is powerful only in the hands of a person like Karl Barth. It is not theoretical theology but practical theology. It must be underpinned by action.
Barth’s own life demonstrated that he truly believed that God indeed “required the very uttermost of Himself” and consequently the very uttermost of Barth. Those of us who believe in the Cross of Christ must understand what this means. Our ethics must be driven not by logic or self-preservation or self-aggrandizement but by the actions of God. For a Christian all other ethical choices are absurd. We are and must be a people of the Cross. That is one of the most powerful and integral components of Barth’s theology. I noted above that Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. His intricate thought, creativity, and depth of analysis reserve him that honour without doubt.
It was his life, however, that made him not merely influential but great.
I was sick this past Monday, some weird and nasty crap in my throat. Since I was sick and not allowed near Liam I was effectively useless and sat around watching TV for the afternoon. Because my wife is such a wonderful woman she was kind enough to rent me the first season of Weeds. It’s friggin’ awesome. It’s a wonderful show that airs on Showtime (like so many wonderful programs…Dead Like Me [tragically cancelled] and Dexter for instance) about a 40ish year old suburban house-wife who’s husband died suddenly. In order to maintain her standard of living and to support her two sons (11 and 16 yrs old) she sells marijuana. How’s that for a concept? I’m guessing that a content warning is a little bit redundant at this point given the channel the show airs on and the concept but in case you care consider yourself content-warned.
I bring Weeds up first of all because it’s brilliant and hilarious, and secondly because it dovetails nicely with an essay I’ve been reading by Keven J. Vanhoozer. The essay is “Does the Trinity Belong in a Theology of Religions? – On Angling in the Rubicon and the ‘Identity’ of God” from his book First Theology. Vanhoozer’s essay is concerned with the totalizing tendencies of both exclusivist and pluralist versions of religious dialog. The exclusivist attempts to reduce all opinions to the Same through some kind of violence or coercion. Pluralism, interestingly enough, does the same, reducing all opinions to the Same through rhetoric particularly with the spectacularly arrogant assumption that we are all praying to the same God. Vanhoozer concludes with the suggestion that the trinitarian nature of God (God as we Christians see him that is) indicates a different way forward in which there are varying opinions and points of view and we discuss and persuade each other without violence, coercion or oversimplification. In other words, I don’t have to agree with you and you don’t have to agree with me but we can still talk about it. We aren’t the same and we shouldn’t be. We don’t have the same conception of God and that’s allowed. “We must remember that our theological formulations are always provisional; none of them catches the sacred fish” (Vanhoozer 68).
Back to Weeds. Maybe the best part of the show (after Mary Louise Parker that is) is the soundtrack. The creators of the program use a fantastic little ditty called “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds as the title track for the show. It’s all about the horror of cookie-cutter culture and modern North American culture’s all but unstopable attempts to reduce us all to the Same. Almost as beautiful as the song itself is the fact that in seasons 2 and 3 the producers got a different artist to perform Reynolds’ song for every single episode. And each performance is a unique re-interpretation of the original.
The moral of the story? You aren’t the same as me. I’m not the same as you. Nor should we be. What to do when we disagree? Talk.