I wandered into the library to kill 10 minutes. Of course, that's it's weird enough to kill 10 minutes that way, but I decided to look for theology there by NT Wright. And just in case that wasn't weird enough, when I stumbled upon Karl Barth's commentary on Romans I just had to snatch it up.
When getting to know someone completely new, I sometimes start in the middle. With Barth I started in Romans 9. You'd have to be stone-cold dead to fail to write something amazing about chapter 8, but chapter 9 is fraught with danger and I want to see what he does with it.
So far I'm only on verse 5, and the man has already proven himself unique. He seems bent to make sure he drives everyone nuts. :-)
I'm sure his spiritual wealth shames my own, but he seems like exactly the theologian I wished I was twenty years ago.
If I may summarize my first impressions of Mr. Barth's position, it goes like this. God is too massively real to be known. His immense perfection and absolute eternity crush our hopes of knowing Him. And yet we continue to imagine that we do know Him, when really we barely know a couple surface trivialities about Him. And every time we try to speak something in mere words to contain this hyper-infinite God we end up creating "Church."
Church is awful. Church is a lie that doesn't even know it's lying. Church markets itself as the very place God where has chosen to reveal Himself, when really, it is just the chief place that the spiritual sins of men naturally express themselves. Church always fails.
And Paul will never leave the church.
He won't reform it, nor abandon it for something better. To do either would be a waste of his time. God is just too much to be contained, so rejecting the Church for failing to contain Him is an even greater offense than the failure was. Neither the fiery reformer nor the anti-denominational, home church advocate is spiritual. Anyone can find fault with the faulty. The spiritual man pours his heart and soul into the Church as it is.
(Mr. Barth does not think much of me.)
And, yes, Barth derives all these thoughts from the first 5 verses of Romans 9. He looks at Paul's continued, present tense identification with Israel, and finds in that nation the simple pattern for all "Church" of all time. Israel had everything Church has now, and the Church has nothing Israel lacked. Therefore, the horrible failings of Israel as recorded in scripture are the same failings the Church is making even now. Paul doesn't reject his people, so how can any of us reject our Israel?
I find a lot of truth in what I've read, and a lot to question.
I have not forgotten that I am talking about fewer than 10 pages of this man's thought. I have no idea whether I'm reading something indicative of his thinking, or more of a one-off for him, but it sure seems like he's comfortable with what he's saying. I also don't know yet whether I like what he's saying, though I have to love his over-the-top passion and overuse of adjectives. He's quite serious about everything he says, and I adore sincerity in all its forms.
My biggest question is whether Barth is right that we cannot know God. I believe that we can, though the entire Eastern Orthodox Church joins with Barth in calling me deceived and a danger. It's a solid point of contention, and Barth contends for it strongly. If he's right, my whole theology and ecclesiology need to be torn back to their foundations.