In his lectures on the first article of the Apostle’s Creed in Dogmatics in Outline, Karl Barth does not venture any traditional philosophical proofs for the existence of God. For Barth, professing belief in God the Creator is no more self-evident and no less mysterious than saying “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord.” Indeed, because God elected prior to creation itself not to be God apart from the God-with-us in Jesus Christ, the second article of the creed is implicit in the first. We cannot believe in God the Creator— the true God who creates ex nihilo— apart from God’s act of revealing himself. Therefore, Barth insists, we cannot look to the natural world and prove through rational deduction the existence of God.
It’s surprising then to find discussion of such proof for the existence of God when you turn to Barth’s lectures on the second article of the creed.
Quoting the question from Frederick the Great, “Dr, can you name me a single proof of the existence of God?”
And Barth replies, “Your Majesty, the Jews!” God is not Anselm’s “That which nothing greater can be thought.”
God is whoever called Israel having first called Abram. It reveals our functional atheism that we so assume God is conceptually reducible to a First Cause rather than as the One who proves his existence by calling.
How can you not believe in God? You want tangible, visible proof? The Jews are right there. Doubting Thomas was already himself the proof he protested that he required. For Barth, the ongoing, against-all-odds existence of the Jews is proof of God’s covenant with Abram. And in his lectures on the creed, taught in the still smoldering ruins of the second world war, Barth somberly notes that this is what made the Jews the inevitable enemy of demonic forces of Nazism. Because the Jews are proof of God and God’s revelation disclosed to us through the Law and Jesus Christ, of course they became the enemy of those whose regime was arrayed against the true and living God.
“The person who is ashamed of Israel,” Barth lectures, “is ashamed of Christ and therefore ashamed of his own existence.”
This is but another way to consider Christ’s declaration in John’s Gospel, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” To say Christ is the way is to confess that salvation comes to all through the Jews. They are the way the otherwise unknowable God has chosen to work in the world.
It’s on this last point that Barth makes the surprising assertion that anti-semitism is a graver failure of faith than atheism, for it is the specific rejection of the particular way God has made himself known in the world.
“The attack on Judah,” Barth says, “means the attack on the rock and the work and revelation of God, beside which work and which revelation there is no other.”
Atheism is merely a vague rejection of a vague god who is not true and living God. Anti-semitism is the rejection of Jesus because Jesus was of necessity a Jew because the Jews the particular way God has made himself known.
The true God is known not through speculation but through the way God has moved in history, calling and redeeming. Barth’s argument surely was timely in Germany in 1946, and the logic of his argument extends in a timely way to our own present situation. Just as Barth could insist that anti-semitism represented a more serious failure of belief than atheism itself, biblical revelation would also allow us to assert that racism likewise is a graver theological error than atheism.
As the theologian Robert Jenson wrote of the creed, “God is whoever raised Jesus Christ from the dead having first raised Israel from slavery in Egypt.”
In other words, Barth was right to insist that we know the true God not by gazing at the stars in sky and speculating about a prime mover but by God’s self-revelation. However, Barth was wrong to single out the calling of Israel as the proof of this God’s existence. God has made himself known also— and perhaps most decisively, given its important in the biblical narrative— in the act of rescuing Israel from slavery.
Barth’s logic holds. Atheism is just a generic rejection of an abstract (false) god. But to see African Americans, the descendants of those formerly enslaved, as less is a specific rejection of the particular way the God who is otherwise absolutely Other had made himself known, as the One who moved in history “to throw the slave master’s horses and riders in to the sea.”