As I’ve spent the past year reading Barth in my spare time, I’ve slowly started to figure out what he is doing with certain repetitive gestures. Throughout his Dogmatics, Barth will say things like “the Christian theological tradition has always been in agreement that…” (IV/1, p. 179) and “the mystery which is alone relevant in Church dogmatics [is]…” (177). He will frequently make a brief aside that such-and-such belief is part of the Christian confession, or such-and-such is an attribute of the Christian God.
It’s tempting to read Barth–and I think many people do read Barth–as stabilizing a kind of strong form of Christian theology–theology is done in and for the church. Theology is the church’s reflection on its own grammar, its own language of belief, its own confessions. The faith is handed down to us and our task, as theologians, is to seek to understand it (faith seeking understanding….). Barth, on this way of thinking, is ultimately concerned about restoring a properly Christian mode of theological reflection: theology can speak confidently to the world when it is situated back within the life of the Church. Theology exists in obedience to the faith that has been, is, and will be proclaimed in the church.
For Barth, as I understand him, the continual asides referring back to “the Church’s beliefs” function not to signify the proper context of theological reflection–the Church–but the proper object, Jesus. Barth is keenly aware that theologians are tempted to reflect on an abstract God that reflects their own exaggerated sense of themselves: theology is a picture I draw of myself extended to perfection. To prevent theology from becoming self-aggrandizing anthropology–reflections on idealized versions of ourselves disguised as reflections on God–Barth reminds himself, and his readers, of the object of his reflections. The quick phrase, the Christian conception of God, or, the God of the New Testament, or, the God of Revelation, signifies, as it were, a prayer uttered in weakness: I believe, help my unbelief. It recognizes our tendency to stray from the God who is Jesus Christ and to prefer to reflect upon another God, an abstract God of our own creation, a God who is more reputable, more respectable, more holy, proper and masterful than the God displayed in the form of a slave, the God who came in weakness, suffering, and the likeness of sinful flesh.
The God of Revelation is not the God who gives us proper forms or patterns of speech so that we can accurately articulate (or maintain a dignified silence regarding) the divine nature. To remind us that the divine nature must be understood in Christians terms is not only a reminder that we cannot know what divinity is except as Christ reveals it to us; it is also a reminder that we will find this revelation offensive and shocking, and further, that we are called to be obedient to the God who reveals himself in this offensive way. God is revealed in the flesh of one content to be seen as and killed for being a transgressor–no, not just content, but determined to walk the path of the transgressor to its bitter end (from baptismal repentance to death on a cross). This revelation transgresses our own boundaries; it marks God’s incursion into our own lives in a way that disrupts our ability to create and abide within what we take to be proper markers of creaturely life. God comes to us in the form of one who is the antithesis of all our aspirations: weak, not strong; vulnerable, not impervious; servant, not master; sinful, not righteous; ugly, not beautiful; law breaker, not law abider or enforcer; slave, not free; limited, not boundless; poor, not rich; Jew, not Gentile; a bastard, not one of proper pedigree; a blasphemer, not a pious believer; a heretic, not a member of the orthodox religious community.
For the glorious Creator of the heavens and the earth “it is just as natural to be lowly as it to be high…to be little as it is to be great, to be abroad as to be at home” (192). God is just as content to be found in great places as lowly places, and therefore neither place in itself assures us that God will be found. To be repeatedly told that such and such is part of the Church’s confession is to be reminded that theology is not a reflection on our ideas of the divine life but a reflection on the God who comes to us as a slave and calls us to subject ourselves to his life. In theology, then, we continually ask that God will transgress the boundaries we set for God, for ourselves, and the world. The constant refrain throughout Barth’s writing–“as the Church confesses”–is a reminder that God has and has promised to continue to be a transgressor for, and towards, us. It is a reminder, therefore, that we are not left to set our hope on our own purified thoughts or constructed/inherited tradition; the one we do not want–the true God we cannot control and who violates our ideals of divinity–comes to us anyways, claiming us, and calling us into his service. To think as Christian theologians, as members of the Church, is to return continually to this prayerful request: lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine–Jesus, weak servant of God and humankind–is the kingdom, power, and glory, for ever and ever.