Karl Barth Reading Hunting Magic Eels

I know, I know, Karl Barth, the famous theologian, died in 1968, so he never had a chance to read Hunting Magic Eels. That's so sad for him. But Karl Barth haunted me in the writing of the book, and since its publication I've never stopped thinking about what Barth would have thought of the book.

For those of you who don't know anything about Karl Barth, along with his issues with Friedrich Schleiermacher, I'm going to have to explain why I've been worried about Barth. For those of you who do know Barth's criticisms of Schleiermacher and liberal theology, and who have read Hunting Magic Eels, I'm sure you can see the concern, how Barth might have given the book a big 'ol "Nein!" in his Amazon review.

Let me, though, catch everyone up.

Karl Barth was a famous critic of what is known as "liberal theology." Simply, in the wake of the Enlightenment liberal theology was an attempt to ground Christianity in human experience. The hope was that if we could find some positive correlate of faith within our experience that experience would be enough for modern persons to make faith attractive and sustainable. A good example here is Paul Tillich's notion of "ultimate concern," the thing you care most and "ultimately" about. God "just is" this ultimate concern. And since everyone has an ultimate concern everyone has faith, everyone believes in God. But note the critical alteration. "God" has become a word that is referring to myself. Crucially, my ultimate concern is mine, something I name and own for myself.

Friedrich Schleiermacher was one of the fathers of liberal theology, the attempt to cash out Christian faith in humanistic and experiential terms. Famously, Karl Barth said "Nein!" to this entire theological tradition and trajectory. Barth's concern, simply stated, is that when faith in unpacked in human terms we end up worshiping ourselves. And this is a huge problem when human experience becomes dark and twisted. For example, Barth castigated liberal theology for its inability to speak a prophetic word against Hitler. When the will of the Volk and Führer became the "ultimate concern" of Nazi Germany there was nothing left in the faith to resist. God was reduced to the will of the nation, sacralizing both war and the Holocaust.  

So, what does this have to do with Hunting Magic Eels?

If you've read the book you know it can be very Schleiermacherian. Hunting Magic Eels is a call to attend to religious and mystical experiences, very similar to Schleiermacher's work. So you can see why I worried about Barth in writing the book, knowing I was courting his "Nein!"

In fact, I almost included some comments about Barth in the Introduction to head off any Barthian objections from readers. (Yes, I'm a popular Christian author who considers Barthian objections.) Specifically, I almost included a criticism Dietrich Bonhoeffer made about Barth in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer makes the comment that, by excluding human experience, Barth's theology becomes positivistic, and forces you into a "lump it or leave it" position. Without referring to Bonhoeffer, that is a point I make in the Introduction to Hunting Magic Eels, how if the word "God" is devoid of any experiential content "God" becomes a meaningless, blank, empty cipher. And I'd argue to Barth that the same goes not just for the word "God" but with the whole of Christian dogmatics. Without a mystical, experiential core Christian dogmatics is just a bunch of empty symbols, meaningless words on a page, all sound and fury signifying nothing, to borrow from Shakespeare. The creeds and dogmas of the faith become a big fat horsepill you have to swallow because, well, you just must. You have no other choice. Lump it or leave it. That's what Bonhoeffer means by Barth's positivism. Faith is a pill you are forced to swallow. So open wide and take your medicine. 

That said, scholars of Barth have an answer here, as the "late Barth" is different from "early Barth." Over time Barth began to see some of the flaws and weaknesses in his early work, in its very astringent attitude toward anything "human." Late in life Barth even writes a book called The Humanity of God

Still, would Barth have voiced some objections to how Hunting Magic Eels leads with, emphasizes and privileges human experience? I'd say, "Probably."

But one of the sections of the book I'm most proud of is the final part on spiritual discernment. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that I wrote that part especially for Karl Barth.  

To give a fancy name for what I do in the final part of the book, I share a "cruciform hermeneutic" in discerning religious experience. And that's a unique feature of the book, a contrast to the many other titles out there working this same ground, the movement from deconstruction to reconstruction. My book doesn't end with some bland, progressive statement that Love Wins. To be sure, love does, indeed, win in my book, but this love looks nothing like what you find on progressive Christian Twitter where hating the right people has become the ultimate concern.

All that to say, I don't know how much Karl Barth would have liked Hunting Magic Eels, but I think he would have appreciated my attempt to push our notions of love and our mystical experiences toward the cross. For the cross is a sign of contraction that will be opposed, God's "Nein!" to human conceit and pride, especially when we think we're holy, righteous, and good. Love surely wins, but it wins by interrupting the tribalism at the heart of how we love the world. 

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