Sin, it’s often said, is the only empirically verifiable claim Christians profess. We can’t prove that God took flesh in Mary’s womb, and neither can we prove God created that flesh purely by speaking into being so. We have no objective data that God raised Jesus from the dead, which isn’t as big a deal as it sounds when you stop to consider that before we can prove Easter we first have to prove God’s own existence and the Almighty is famously elusive.
But we can prove the fallen state of our world— one need look no further than the way we’ve managed to make a pandemic a partisan issue. Sin is real. Sin is an actual, objective, demonstrable fact of life.
Or is it?
A number of motifs (theological dispositions) run throughout Karl Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics. They function like a nervous system, giving his project life and movement. Knowing these motifs can clarify your understanding of Barth.
One such motif is Barth’s Objectivism. The question behind Objectivism is:
“Who sets the terms for what is real?”
Who’s to say the “real world” is really the “real world?”
For Barth, Jesus Christ is the definitive, final, binding act of God’s revelation; that is, in Christ, we see all of God there is to see. There’s no other mystery behind the curtain.
God was fully in Christ, reconciling the world to himself says scripture. If Christians believe that God was fully present in Christ, says Barth, then, because of Christ’s atoning victory, humanity is fully present in God too.
Right now. Yesterday. Today.
And we’ll be there tomorrow too.
Christ changes our relationship in and with God— objectively.
It happened on 33AD.
Our in-Godness, therefore, is our true reality— whether we believe in God or not.
This leads Barth to a different use of the word “faith.”
For Barth, faith doesn’t incorporate us into God, as we so often think. Faith is the acknowledgment that we have been incorporated into God already.
Faith isn’t a sort of mechanism that gains us access to God. Faith is more like Neo going down the rabbit hole and discovering his real world a complete fiction that hides the truth of the Matrix. Faith is our being awakened, having our eyes opened, to what was there all along.
We tend to think of it the other way around. We believe more in the falleness of the world, in the Power of Death and the reality of Sin than we believe in the reality of our in-Godness. COVID-19 is the cold, hard reality of our world, we think, and, “fact” is, we’re hunkered down in our homes trying to numb the anxiety of the news with Netflix reruns. But for Barth, what we take as the givenness of our broken “real world” is instead a kind no-reality. To Barth, even believing in the falleness of the world constitutes a kind of unbelief because as soon as you start believing in the reign of Death as an unavoidable, inevitable given in our world, you stop trying to offer the world the more “realistic” Christ, the one who has borne our diseases, swallowed up all our sins, and defeated the very Power of Death.
We’re all of us in God because God was in Christ.
By the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection. In Christ, ALL died, and by that death to Sin and Death all are made alive in Christ.
At this moment, here and now, no matter where it appears you’re shut-in and shut-away from the world, Christ is your true refuge, your shelter from the storm of pestilence and disease.
This, says Barth, is the hidden truth of our world. Our true humanity lies not in us but in him: “never at all apart from him, never at all independently of him, never at all in and for itself.”
Before you dismiss Barth as hopelessly naive, just remember. It was Barth’s “objectivism,” his confidence in his in-Christness, no matter his place in the world or the brokenness of that world, that emboldened him to stare down not a novel virus but Nazism.
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