God Here and Now (Routledge Classics) | Karl Barth

Summary of: God Here and Now (Routledge Classics)
By: Karl Barth


Embark on a journey to explore the depths of Karl Barth’s ‘God Here and Now (Routledge Classics)’, where the author delves into the complexities of theology and the role of revelation in our understanding of God. Barth dissects Immanuel Kant’s influence on modern theologians, challenging traditional Christian beliefs and suggesting that God is der ganz Andere – ‘the wholly other.’ Within this book summary, you will discover Barth’s perspective on Kant’s theories and his belief in the limitations of human understanding, while simultaneously illuminating the possibilities that faith and revelation can provide.

Unraveling Theology’s Essence

Theology is the act of speaking about God, derived from the Greek words “theos” (God) and “legein” (to speak). Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian, questioned our ability to talk about God due to the immense difference between divinity and humanity – describing God as “the wholly other”. He dismissed traditional theological approaches that relied on scriptural orthodoxy or an innate human understanding of the divine. Instead, Barth emphasized that humans should focus on how flawed individuals can discuss a perfect, unknowable God.

In order to grasp the concept of theology, it’s important to dissect its meaning. Stemming from Greek origins, theology breaks down into “theos,” or God, and “-logy,” a body of knowledge. But going a step further, the root of “-logy” comes from “legein,” which translates to “to speak.” Thus, theology is not just knowledge of God, but rather the dialogue and discourse that revolves around divinity.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth built his understanding of theology rooted in this conversation surrounding God. However, he questioned humanity’s ability to genuinely talk about the divine. To Barth, a significant chasm exists between humanity and God, with the latter referred to as “der ganz Andere” or “the wholly other.” He argued that God is beyond our reach or comprehension – unlike any substance in our world or any metaphysical entity.

This raises questions about how theology functions. Barth observed how theologians tend to avoid addressing the notion of communicating about an unknowable God and resort to two common arguments. Some rely on orthodoxy, pointing towards scripture as the direct source of God’s knowledge, while others propose an inherent human capacity for understanding God – akin to a spiritual sixth sense.

Barth rejected both of these viewpoints. He believed that the Enlightenment eroded the foundation of scriptural orthodoxy. Although scripture remains central to Christianity, he contended it should not be seen as an unmediated gateway to God. As for the spiritual sixth sense, Barth saw this as a flawed outlook suggesting that humans reach out to God, which he considered the opposite of how it should be understood.

Instead of blindly following conventional theological paths, Barth urged for a deeper examination of the challenges the Enlightenment posed to traditional Christianity and the ways humans can engage in conversation about an enigmatic, perfect God despite our flaws. This inquiry into the essence of theology sparks a curiosity that intertwines God’s enigmatic presence with human discourse seeking to understand the divine.

Barth, Kant, and Theology

Thought evolves within specific times and places, and Karl Barth’s theological ideas were heavily influenced by the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s theory of knowledge proclaimed that reality could only be understood through our senses and reason, shaping the way we access and perceive knowledge. However, Kant believed that metaphysical entities, like God, were unknowable and that empirical experience could not provide rational basis for their existence. Instead, he argued that the idea of a merciful God aligns with moral laws discovered by reason. This connection between reason and religion bridged theological debates influenced by Kant’s philosophy, ultimately shaping Barth’s theological perspective.

In order to understand the works of Karl Barth, a theologian born in 1886 in Switzerland, we must trace the historical context back to Immanuel Kant’s influential presence in nineteenth-century Protestant debates. Kant, a philosopher synonymous with the Enlightenment, intensely shaped the development of Protestant theology through his ideas about knowledge and the knowability of metaphysical entities such as God.

At the heart of Kant’s philosophy lies the question, “What is knowledge?” He proposed that we can only experience the world through our senses, filtering incoming empirical data with concepts accessible to every human mind, such as space and time. Consequently, knowledge arises from understanding the relationship between empirical experiences and the cognitive tools we use, like our senses and reason.

However, Kant also differentiated entities that cannot be experienced or understood within our sensorial and conceptual framework, like metaphysical entities – God being the prime example. The divine presence transcends space and time, rendering it untouchable, invisible, and intangible to human perception. Thus, Kant concluded that definitive claims about God’s existence cannot have a rational basis. Instead, we can only believe in God, rather than know about His existence.

To clarify, Kant wasn’t asserting that any unprovable belief is equally valid. He acknowledged that the idea of a merciful God with commandments aligning to moral laws we can rationally discern has a rational basis. A belief in God, unlike a belief in, for example, Bigfoot, carries weight as the moral principles it upholds coincide with the ethical imperatives identified through reason.

Kant’s arguments showcase the intersection of reason and religion when it comes to morality. For instance, reason dictates that an action is morally permissible only if we can accept everyone acting in the same manner. Such a principle is reflected in Biblical teachings, such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which emphasizes treating others as we wish to be treated.

These philosophical insights from Immanuel Kant significantly influenced the theological debates that surrounded Karl Barth in his early life. Born in a philosophical and religious family, young Barth was exposed to Calvinist theories and philosophical discussions. He lived in a world where Kant’s ideas were a formative force on religious thought and Barth too was shaped by Kant’s thesis on knowledge and the implications it had for theological arguments.

By understanding the historical roots and foundation of the intellectual landscape, we can better comprehend the theology of Karl Barth and the profound impact that Immanuel Kant had on shaping modern theological perspectives.

Beyond Kant’s God

Barth’s journey through modern theology begins with Kant, who argued that God cannot be known or quantified like other things due to God’s active role as the creator of all that exists. The resulting post-Kantian theologians fell into two main camps. The first camp believed that reverence for God required silence about divine matters, whereas the second camp, spearheaded by Friedrich Schleiermacher, focused on cultivating a “God-consciousness” by being open to God’s presence. Although influenced by Schleiermacher, Barth ultimately disagreed with his arguments, instead emphasizing the importance of revelation in his theology.

According to Barth, modern theology started with German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who presented a convincing argument that God exists beyond the ordinary realms of knowledge. Kant established that God is an active creator, not an object to be perceived or quantified by human reasoning or senses. This led to the view that God is “wholly other” and cannot be confined to a box for further analysis.

In the wake of Kant’s ideas, theologians divided into two major camps. One group insisted that if we cannot discuss God, the best course of action is to remain silent and reflect on the divine without interpretation or debate. The other group, led by Friedrich Schleiermacher, believed Kant’s philosophical system was accurate but incomplete without considering the religious feeling. This camp argued that knowing God is not essential; instead, experiencing God through a cultivated “God-consciousness” or intuitive sense of divine presence is what matters.

Although Barth was initially drawn to Schleiermacher’s ideas, he ultimately rejected these arguments by presenting an analogy. Picture describing a beautiful sunset to someone: focusing on the intricate details of one’s visual perception misses the point. The heart of the matter is the reality of the sunset itself, not the experience of that reality. Barth believed that Schleiermacher, in concentrating on human experiences of God, had overlooked what really mattered: the “real” God.

In Barth’s view, Schleiermacher had placed human experience before understanding God, a mistake he saw as typical among liberal theologians. He distanced himself from this position, yet couldn’t reconcile with the idea of remaining silent about the divine or accepting Kant’s notion that humans could directly access the ultimate truth of Christian doctrine through reasoning.

Instead, Barth’s theology pivoted on the essential role of revelation. By embracing the concept of divine revelation, he sought to offer a deeper understanding of God that transcended both the silence advocated by some post-Kantians and Schleiermacher’s focus on human experience. Barth’s approach aimed to bring theology closer to a more profound and meaningful relationship with God, moving beyond the traditional frameworks dictated by Kant and others who came after him.

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