The Strange New World within the Bible, II

June 30, 2006

The author of the sermon – his name is Karl Barth – proceeds to take three conventional answers to the question, “What is there within the Bible?” and dismantle them.

The first answer is “History,” that is to say, narrative.  Barth seems to stress, not the idea that the Bible is an accurate historical account, but history as a creative discipline: the business of storytelling, of bringing a sequence of events into a coherent whole.  Don’t ask me how Barth came to take such a postmodern perspective in 1916.  He describes a normal reader, who like an inquisitive child keeps asking “Why,”  and finds a text that, like an exasperated parent, keeps saying “Because I said so!”   In the translation I have, this non-answer is evoked with the words “There was a reason!”

…when we study history and amuse ourselves with stories, we are always wanting to know: How did it all happen?  How is it that one event follows another?  What are the natural causes of things?  Why did the people speak such words and live such lives?  It is just at the most decisive points of its history that the Bible gives no answer to our Why…

There was a reason (with an exclamation point)! is hardly an adequate answer for a history… The Bible itself, in any case, answers our eager Why neither like a sphinx, with There was a reason! nor, like a lawyer, with a thousand arguments, deductions and parallels, but says to us, The decisive cause is God

To be sure, when we hear the word “God,” it may at first seem the same as There was a reason! [or Because!]  In the leading articles of our dailies, and in the primary history readers of our Aargau schools one does not expect to have events explained by the fact that “God created,” or “God spoke!”  When God enters, history for the while ceases to be, and there is nothing more to ask; for something wholly different and new begins…

In other words, saying the Bible is history is no better than saying the Bible is a source of scientific knowledge.  Either there is a transcendent dimension to the Bible, or it is nonsense, but we cannot pretend that it exemplifies the disciplines of history and science and can be relied on along those lines.

The second answer is “Morality.”  Anyone who has spent any time in dialogue with atheists about why Xians consider the Bible to be Holy Scripture could dismantle this answer in their sleep.  Some of Barth’s bon mots on this topic follow.

The Bible is an embarrassment in the school and foreign to it.  How shall we find in the life and teaching of Jesus something to “do” in “practical life”?…

At certain points the Bible amazes us by its remarkable indifference to our conception of good and evil.

Time and again serious Christian people who seek “comfort” and “inspiration” in the midst of personal difficulties will quietly close their Bibles and reach for the clearer-toned lyre of a Christian Furchtegott Gellert or for the books of Hilty, if not toward psychoanalysis – where everything is so much more practicable, simple, and comprehensible.

Again, the failure of this conventional answer pushes us either toward a rejection of the Bible or a glimpse of the truly new world to which the Bible belongs.

In it the chief consideration is not the doings of man but the doings of God – not the various ways which we may take if we are men of good will, but the power out of which good will must first be created… The reality which lies behind Abraham and Moses, behind Christ and his apostles, is the world of the Father, in which morality is dispensed with because it is taken for granted…

We may have grasped this as the meaning of the Bible, as its answer to our great and small questions and still say: I do not need this… I cannot get anywhere with it!  It may be that we really cannot get anywhere with it on our present highways and byways – on our byways of church and school, for example, and , in many instances, on the byway of the personal life which we have been traveling with such perseverence.  There are blind alleys of a thousand types, out of which the way into the kingdom of heaven can at first lead only backwards.

That last bit reminds me of one of C.S. Lewis’ more vivid illustrations, that of doing a math problem and the necessity of backing up to get oneself out of a dead end.

The third answer is “Religion.”  He dismantles it as follows:

…let us start with the proposition that in the Bible we have a revelation of true religion, of religion defined as what we are to think concerning God, how we are to find him, and how we are to conduct ourselves in his presence… And such the Bible is. It is a treasury of truth concerning the right relation of men to the eternal and divine – but here too the same law holds: we have only to seek honestly and we shall make the plain discovery that there is something greater in the Bible than religion and “worship.” Here again we have only a kind of crust which must be broken through.

We have all been troubled with the thought that there are so many kinds of Christianity in the world – Catholic Christianity and Protestant, the Christianities of the various communions and of the “groups” (Richtungen) within them, the Christianity of the old-fashioned and the Christianity of the modern – and all, all of them appealing with the same earnestness and zeal to the Bible. Each insists, Ours is the religion revealed in the Bible, or at least its most legitimate successor. And how is one to answer?…

Then shall we take the position that fundamentally we are all right?…

Or may we all, jointly and severally, with our various views and various forms of worship, be – wrong? The fact is that we must seek our answer in this direction – “Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar.” All religions may be found in the Bible, if one will have it so; but when he looks closely, there are none at all. There is only – the “other,” new, greater world! When we come to the Bible with our questions – How shall I think of God and the universe? How arrive at the divine? How present myself? – it answers us, as it were, “…If you do not care to enter upon my questions, you may, to be sure, find in me all sorts of arguments and quasi-arguments for one or another standpoint, but you will not then find what is really here.” We shall find ourselves only in the midst of a vast human controversy and far, far away from reality, or from what might become reality in our lives.

It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men.

Where does that leave us?  On the one hand, the world open to us in the Bible is so new that it refuses to submit to our judgment.  There is no moral or religious position from which we can safely pass judgment on the Bible.  That will not make atheists very happy.  On the other hand, the Bible provides no standpoint from which to pass judgment on another person either.  I as Protestant am not in a position to judge the Catholic, nor for that matter the atheist.  The Bible is a sword in God’s hands, and it was forged (in part) to abolish religion, including my own.  Religion is a category we use to understand people who talk about having a relationship with God, but those folks who, happily for them, actually have a relationship with God can transcend the category.  They don’t have to be the enemies of rational society so often perceived among religious crowds.   They can be,  in Barth’s terms, bearers of the seeds from which this brave new world (the words used sincerely) can gradually grow.


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