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Barth’s hopeless hope

September 7th, 2005 by isaac · No Comments

Reading Karl Barth takes me into another world. His constant repetition peppered with subtle innovation totally subsumes the careful reader. He constructs a “city of words” (to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell) where you can lose yourself in avenues that wander in a world made new through the power of God’s reconciling Word. In one of my voyages in Barth’s strange new world (of the Bible), I stumbled upon this passage that somehow transfigures our meaninglessness into a sort of hope, a strange hope.

We never see ourselves as those we are before God; and of and by ourselves we never are those that God Himself has chose us to be…. What we see in our own life are all kinds of attempts and fragments, all kinds of unfulfilled and therefore very doubtful beginnings, all kinds of half-lights which may equally well be those of sunset or sunrise, which vouch less for our sanctification than for the fact that we have never come from the judgment of God according to the divine purpose, which testify just as much, and even more, against the factuality of our sanctification by God’s command…. It is also the case that we cannot and must not investigate the fact of our sanctificaiton by which our time is determined as if it were a fact which has first to be proved, which needs our acceptance and acknowledgment to be a fact and to be significant as such.” (Church Dogmatics II/2: 775)

I know the trouble Barth talks about. It is the trouble of struggling to know that my self, my whole being, is held in Christ’s love; that I, despite all my self-corruption, am present in those transfigured wounds of Christ, drawn into the ever newness of the divine life of the triune God. And Barth speaks a hope that escapes the fragility of our subjectivity: the reality of God’s reconciling hope does not depend on “our acceptance and acknowledgment.” Why? Because “we will never see ourselves as those we are before God.” If we can never assume the total vision of God’s reality… If our humanness never transcends to God’s point of view, how do we hope? If all our attempts at holiness are unfulfilled fragments and doubtful beginnings that just as easily reveal our sunset, the way our lives fade into darkness, into the negation of life, then can we find hope?

We are left looking for hints of redemption that must remain dynamic in order to escape our investigation into their reality—our tendency to interprete our fragile human activity as the reality of God’s work. Barth rants against those who take confidence in their own faithful witness as a source for hope that God is active in God’s sactifying work:

Those who trust in these things, in their conversion and new birth as such, in their walk before God as an element of biography, ascribing credibility and the force of witness to a supposed ‘pneumatic actuality’ in the sphere of experience, and thus trying to live in faith in themselves, building their house upon the sand, are only involved in a feat of juggling in which they may achieve a sensational but very dangerous interchange of supreme rapture and the most profound disillusionment, but will know nothing of the death of the old man and the life of the new, and therefore of man’s direction, preparation and exercise for eternal life.” (ibid.)

As soon as we start investigating what seems to be our holiness in order to find proof for the hope of God’s redemptive activity, we turn a possible hint of redemption into static fact that we can parade before others and ourselves. I think Jacques Derrida shares the same concern. At a conference in 1997 he said, “Once you know what the hint of redemption is, you lose the hope. The hope for redemption must go through renunciation.” Instead of a static hint of redemption on which we can confidently cling, Derrida hopes for “a way of inventing gestures which are not subject to totality or to a loss of totality, to the nostalgia and work of mourning for totality” (God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, p. 182). It’s the loss of the self, the renunciation of self, the de-centering of the self from the whole investigation that gestures toward a hope that escapes our desire for totality, for the confident gaze of God’s vision.

And maybe Barth sees a time and space in which we can dynamically invent gestures toward the hope of redemption without securing a stasis. At the beginning of the above quote he writes, “of and by ourselves we never are those that God Himself has chose us to be.” Maybe it’s the body of Christ, that hub of activity whose nature is dynamically constituted by grace—a gift without contrast (that’s Milbank’s phrase), a gift that we never fully possess but continually recieve anew (“made new every morning”). Maybe it’s those two or more who gather in the naming of Christ, those gathered citizens of the City of God traveling with one another into the companionship that reveals the God who is the self-gift of Love. It’s the companionship itself that reveals Love, that takes our lives and inscribes them into Love, because that is the dynamic that constructs the evanescent site of self-recunciating love, of a Love that requires a “long obedience in the same direction” (Dorothy Day)—and that direction is the companion whose very image is the gesture that is not subject to totality or the loss of totality becuase it is the constant invention of God who gives Godself in a faithfulness that consistenly surprises; God’s gracious gift of himself in Christ is faithful in ways that deny our ability to predict—it’s a faithfulness that is not constricted by our conceptions of what fidelity looks like.

Tags: reading corner · theology