Curing the Religious Disease, Part 3: God is found "In Between"

One of my favorite theology blogs is Faith and Theology by Ben Myers. Faith and Theology is a Barthian blog. I haven't read much Barth so I was intrigued recently when Dr. Myers posted a review of a book by John Franke--Barth for Armchair Theologians--that introduces Barth to interested laypersons. People like me. So, I read Barth for Armchair Theologians and found some things in Barth's thinking that converge on what I had been finding in Tillich, all of which speaks to the "religious disease."

What struck me was Barth's notion of dialectical theology. From what I understand, Barth's dialectical method characterized his early work, particularly his commentary on Romans. However, although Barth's later work is very different in style from his early work, many scholars believe Barth never gave up the dialectical method.

(Side note:
In his commentary on Romans Barth floats some ideas about religion that appeared to have influenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was Barth's student. Specifically, in his work on Romans Barth makes some comments about religion that seem to parallel Bonhoeffer's thoughts about "religionless Christianity," a topic we've been chatting about on this blog. For example, from Franke's book:

"One of the chief places where Barth identified contemporary idolatry was in the practice of 'religion.' It is particularly in religion that we see most pointedly the tendency to confuse the distinction between God and human beings. Human beings desire power and security along with an assurance that their activities and pursuits are right and above reproach. In order to secure a sense of divine blessing, human beings create gods in their own image from the resources of their own imaginations and create religion to serve the gods they have made. Religion is then pressed into the service of its creators in order to provide justification, sanction, and self-legitimation for their decisions and actions. Even a cursory reading of human religious history, Christian and otherwise, provides numerous examples of such attempts at justification and self-legitimation along with the establishment of power and oppression that often attends it. When human beings talk about God in such a way as to make their beliefs and aspirations the locus of ultimate truth or to claim divine sanction for institutions that are all too human and flawed, they become guilty of idolatry and ungodliness.

Barth maintained that the Bible legitimizes only one truth, one story, and one kingdom, the kingdom of God. In the process it delegitimizes every human institution, including the Christian church, precisely because they are not, at the end of the day, the embodiment of the kingdom of God."
(pp. 45-46)

Interestingly, this quote strikes me as being very similar to the Tillich passage from our last post.

Now, back to Barth's dialectical method...)

Barth's dialectical method is a procedure that allows for forward movement in theology while recognizing that theology is, at root, an impossible task. Specifically, theology is impossible in that humans, as finite creatures, cannot make their language about God represent or correspond to God in any way we could call "accurate." And yet, Christians do believe God has acted in Christ and these actions demand some kind of description. In short, this is the dilemma of theology: We are compelled to speak about something we cannot accurately describe.

Given this predicament Barth suggests (I'm using "Barth" as shorthand for "Franke's description of Barth") two kinds of mistakes are often made. On the one hand, we have the Fundamentalist Mistake. The Fundamentalist Mistake is made by those who feel that their statements about God correspond directly to the reality of God. This stance is self-evidently problematic in that one's understanding of God is taken to BE God. Which is, essentially, a form of idolatry.

In contrast to the Fundamentalist Mistake we see the Mystical Mistake. (BTW, these terms are my own. Barth called the Fundamentalist Mistake and the Mystical Mistake the "dogmatic" and "self-critical" approaches respectively.) In the Mystical Mistake one concludes that no positive statements about God can ever be made. Again, this stance is self-evidently problematic. If NOTHING can ever be properly said about God then God becomes an empty concept, devoid of any meaning.

How, then, are we to proceed to speak about God? On the one hand, we know that some things should be properly said about God (e.g., "God is love."). Yet on the other hand all statements about God are provisional human creations. How can we go forward?

Barth suggests that we follow what he calls the dialectical method. Specifically, in the dialectical method we balance between the Fundamentalist and Mystic by both affirming and denying the descriptions we make of God. What is critical in this method is that it remains dynamic. If we settle too much with affirmation we fall into the abyss of the Fundamentalist. By contrast, if we settle too much with negation, where nothing can be said of God, we fall into the opposing chasm of vacuous Mysticism. In short, faith must be constant chatter equally balancing the affirmation and the negation. Faith is dialectical and dialogical. One might also say that faith is Socratic.

Franke gives us two quotes from Barth to illustrate these points:

"This way from outset undertakes seriously and positively to develop the idea of God on the one hand and the criticism of man and all things human on the other..."

"...that all such information, whether it be positive or negative, is not really information, but always either dogma or self-criticism. On this narrow ridge of rock one can only walk."

I kind of think it's like riding a bike. On has to keep forward momentum (that is, in this metaphor, to keep the rounds of assertion/negation flowing) or one falls over.

Going back to the issue that prompted this series--the "religious disease"--it will be recalled that religion gets out of control when it becomes overly dogmatic. And I think the notion of a dialectical, Socratic faith goes a fair way to cooling the religious fever. Interestingly, it does so in much the same way Tillich's Protestant Principle does. This is interesting in that Tillich and Barth were very different kinds of theologians. But on this issue their ideas seem to converge.

To conclude, in the last post I focused on listening. But Barth's ideas remind us that we also need to keep talking. The conversation about God, to be a conversation about God, needs forward momentum. With rounds of creation and destruction. Affirmation and critique. Death and Resurrection. God, miraculously and graciously Barth would claim, shows up in the seams of these conversations. God is always "in between" you and I. I don't speak for God and neither do you. But we both are critical to the process of giving God a voice.

Maybe that is the genius of it all. God can only show up in conversation. Which takes two of us. I can't possess God as an individual. God isn't "in" me. God is "between." Specifically, between you and I. I can't possess God because when I speak of God I'm always in danger of saying some crazy stuff. So I need a listening partner to deny, negate, and play Socrates with me. And you need the same.

To illustrate this, some of my friends wonder why I'm so interested in talking with atheists. My answer, I hope, is now obvious: I think I'll find God "in between" me and my atheist interlocutors. A church that fails to seriously listen to atheists will never fully see the idolatry that is religion. Atheists speak a truth about religion that most Christians of my acquaintance cannot (or will not) articulate. And if this is so, how can Christianity ever be honest with itself? Conversation with atheists and critics of religion isn't a luxury or a pastime, it's a necessary and vital aspect of faith.

Going back to the bike metaphor, I bet many of the readers of this blog can't figure me out. I know a lot of people at ACU feel this way. It probably seems like I'm performing a very fine balancing act, walking a very thin line. In some posts I look religious. In others I look downright atheistic. Sometimes I'm for the church. At other times I'm calling for its removal. So, what's going on?

Well, I think it's the "in between" of Barth's dialectic. That is to say, as a Christian of course my blog looks this way. It's a forward, dynamic conversation that will not settle down into affirmation or negation. Which is to say I think this is how faith is supposed to look.

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5 thoughts on “Curing the Religious Disease, Part 3: God is found "In Between"”

  1. I get you. More than you know. But you blog my struggles with eloquence, wit, wide reading, and the advantage of acadamia. In the pulpit, people don't get a non religious pastor/teacher, though I am convinced they really need one. We live in a world convinced God is not good, fearing our God is like Allah, and finding religion has failed to speak to this fear.


  2. I see that I've neglected Barth for far too long.

    I'm off to "Amazon" to correct that...

    Thanks, Richard!


  3. Along with Tracy I too need to get this book along with others. You should put a list of recommended reading for your readers here so we can read these fascinating authors; as well as help us understand more about the posts you write. :)

    This particular post is very important, and I do hope that the church will listen to what is being said here. I personally believe that every person shares God in this world, even if they don't believe in Him. I'm not sure if I agree with the statement that God isn't "in" me, God is "between." I really don't understand that. I do understand that I as a person do posses God-but not completely. That is, I only posses a certain amount of God, e.g., I may be a very patient person but not very kind. That is why I need to converse and be around other people because they may not be very patient but be very kind, and by being around them and conversing with them, I learn to be more kind as the other person learns to be more patient, therefore the more we are loving other people by listening to them and helping them out we become more and more like God, and once we have that completion then our "spiritual gifts" will no longer be needed. But I agree that we need a partner(s), to listen to us and help us see beyond ourselves. So maybe I need some balance on what I just wrote... I think this is why I enjoy this blog.

  4. Hi Don,
    Thanks. And I agree that people need to hear the message you are bringing. Blessings to you in that endeavor.

    We keep sending each other to Amazon:-) That is what I like about this blog. The quest never ends. Always something new to learn!

    I might try the booklist idea. The trouble is, as a psychologist my taste in theology books is probably uneven and very quirky:-)

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