Barth, Literature, Religion and Death

As of late, I’ve returned to the questions that have generally been preoccupying me: religion, colonialism/racism, and death. I’ve started reading Barth again, on the atonement. I’m also trying to explore these themes in literature (thus continuing some of the questions of “method” I blogged about most recently). I just finished Condé’s novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. I’m now reading Richard Wright (Native Son, and also Abdul JanMohamed’s work on Richard Wright, The Death-Bound-Subject).

Here is a kind of summary of Barth in light of these questions (it’s two paragraphs from a larger summary of section 59.1).

Christ’s obedience is an obedience to the cross, and if when we have to do with Jesus Christ we have to do with God (198), then the proper being of the one true God is Jesus Christ the Crucified (199). Not only is God’s freedom to love found in the place of “social death,” it culminates in the humiliation of an actual death on the cross. Christ crucified places the humiliation and lowliness and supremely the obedience of Christ as the dominating moment in our conception of God (199). From social death (the form of the slave) to actual death: this movement is not the negation of the divine nature but must be understood as God’s self-revelation. God chooses humiliation, lowliness, and obedience. In this way He illuminates the darkness, opening up that which is closed…In this way he accepts solidarity with the creature, with man, in order to reconcile man and the world with Himself (199). The cross is the sign of God’s judgment, of God’s giving us up (as Paul might say) to the death and destruction that follow our refusal of God’s love. God makes His own the being of man under the curse of this contradiction [against God], but in order to do away with it as He suffers it (185). For this Christological moment, this means that God’s freedom to love shows that God is not just the “Wholly Other” (186) but the God who can become worldly…accepting solidarity with the World (187) without loss of but in actual affirmation of the divine life. God is God even and especially as God gives Himself to this most dreadful of all foreign places (175), the place of death.

The forms of social death and actual death are not just abstract ideals but historical moments within the atonement: they are moments within the life of Israel. As Barth says, Christ does not suffer any death, but the death to which the history of Israel moves relentlessly forward (175). In Christ’s Jewish flesh, we see that to be flesh is to be in a state of perishing before this God whose love is also a scorching fire (174-175). The Son of God in His unity with the Israelite Jesus exists in direct and unlimited solidarity with the representatively and manifestly sinful humanity of Israel. Israel, then, has a specular existence, whereby their sinfulness is a mirror held up to the men of all peoples (172). If we read Israel thoroughly from within Christ’s life, then we should say that Israel’s specular existence–a kind of “symbolic death”–is the unfolding of the abundance of the divine love and life even within the sphere of death. Israel, therefore, is not the concentration of death-work but is, on the contrary, the site through which this death-work is revealed as it is being overcome through God’s loving and patient suffering with Israel. To view Israel as merely the mirror image of our sinfulness is to treat our sin and Israel as an idea. The place and status of Israel reminds us that we are dealing with a history and not an idea–God’s divine life is historical, concretely historical, it is bound up with the history of this one people: the universality of the Gospel and the atonement rests on the divine choice to be the God of this people, in this particularity and limitation…as a national numen like so many others…the God of this one small people (168).

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