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Dogmatics Against the Church
The Unpossessed and Dispossessing Word of Revelation
About the author: Maxine King is an enthusiastic lay person and cantor in the Episcopal Church. She is currently a student of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.
What ought I to say, then, about the Christian proclamation as being something here and now? … I could not by any means show you the “here-and-now” character of the Christian proclamation by reporting anything about the contemporary state and life of the Christian Church, its greater or less influence, the correct or less correct positions which it holds.
— Karl Barth, “The Christian Proclamation Here and Now”1
It might seem strange to find a theological ally for elucidating the admittedly clickbaity title of this piece in someone most well-known for writing thousands of pages of theology enthusiastically titled as a Church Dogmatics. And one would surely be disappointed if they looked to Karl Barth for simplistic anti-ecclesial screeds. But for us starting out on this new blog venture, wanting to think with and beyond Barth for discerning God’s activity “here and now” in the world, I thought it might be useful to sketch out this one element of Barth’s theology that I find most exciting and generative for doing theology today amid the contradictions and conflicts which beset our churches and our world. And as Barth himself writes in the quote above from the lecture which has given us this blog’s name, in determining the here-and-now character of Christian witness today, we cannot begin with any discussion of the internal life of the Christian Church. What is it about Barth’s theological outlook that leads to such a conviction?
Barth’s refusal to give proclamatory significance to any inner quality of the Christian Church is surely due to his profound and constant emphasis on the always-external quality of the Word of revelation. From his occasional writings and speeches to his mature and lengthy dogmatic treatises, I am always struck by just how consistent Barth is across his writings in securing the radical otherness of revelation. This otherness retains its alterity both in general to humanity and the world but also in particular to the Church that receives and hears this Word. Revelation, for Barth, retains in every moment its status as “not the Church’s own word, but the outside word which is spoken to it, so that it cannot seize or possess or control that revelation.”2
The Church that has been dispossessed of its possessive drives in the doctrine of revelation must, then, have a different sort of orientation to the world than the church which strives after seizing revelation for itself. It cannot, then, simply point to its own possessions, its internal movements, its sacraments, its correct or less correct positions as having the here-and-now significance of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church in its proclamation and mission to the world must instead always point away from itself with John the Baptist’s phrase on its lips: “He must increase, I must decrease.” This Church, trained on this dependence for a revelatory word spoken to it from outside itself, must have a corresponding openness to the world and to its questions and criticisms that God might freely use to speak to the Church. And in a world shaped by an ongoing history of Christianity’s colonial ventures in possession, mastery, and domination, the Church’s revelatory dispossession is made only more consequential.
This outlook, then, gives theological rationale for an odd formal correlation between the external word spoken to the Church in Scripture and the protests of and demands placed on it by the world. I think of Jim Forman interrupting Riverside Church’s service to deliver the National Black Economic Development Conference’s “Black Manifesto” from the pulpit or ACT-UP’s Stop the Church disruption of Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and how Christians in these pews would have understandably squirmed at the discomfort of this abnormal intrusion. Yet in Barth’s system, this state of things would not be considered exceptional, as even the most familiar words of Scripture should also be received as bearing the strange new world of the Bible, spoken to the Church from outside itself, killing and making alive. It is in these moments of confrontation from without when the dispossessed Church can understand its dispossession as life-giving.
Now, a careful and faithful reading of Barth alone is certainly no guarantee of producing the kind of non-possessive theological orientation I have sketched here. There is no internal mechanism to the Barthian system (or any other!) that might keep it from becoming yet another theological possession to be treasured in itself and to be guarded from any and all external threats—such is our sinfulness! Yet I think that for those of us Christians who seek a Christian identity “born of the colonialist wound speaking to itself in its global reality, pressing deeply inside the miracle of its existence, battered, bruised, marginalized, yet believing, loving, Christian,”3 we could do much worse than the theology of Karl Barth as one of many interlocutors in such a project of thinking and living—and I will look forward to what this blog might inaugurate as one such avenue for us to discern God’s activity in creating such a community.
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Karl Barth, “Christian Proclamation Here and Now,” in God Here and Now, trans. Paul M. van Buren (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 9.
Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God Vol. I/2, ed. G. W. Bromley and T. F. Torrance, trans. George Thomas Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 545.
Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 291.