Thursday, November 27, 2008

Barth on culture

Yet another post on religion and culture.

Sometimes I find a tension between interest in the stuff of culture and the radical critique that the Gospel offers to culture. Both trajectories make themselves known in theology and to this point I've sought to avoid an over-zealous commitment to one style of thought over the other. Culture is the ground upon which people build narratives and bind themselves to one another. Not only is it interesting in itself, there seems to be something vaguely yet compellingly significant about it on a more lasting level. At the same time, there is always the call of Christ in the wilderness, on the cross. There is always the witness of the Gospel which in grace interrupts culture. The same paradox is found outside of theology in the figure of Socrates, who is both the cornerstone of and stumbling block to a great many cultures.

So here's Barth on culture-- some reassurance for us, after his Romans commentary, from his largely reflective essay, "The Humanity of God" (WJK, 1960, p.54-55)

We can meet God only within the limits of humanity determined by Him. But in these limits we may meet Him. He does not reject the human! quite the contrary! We must hold fast to this.

The distinction of man, however, goes still further. It extends itself indeed even to the particular human activity based on his endowment, to what one is accustomed to call human culture in its higher and lower levels. Whether as creators or as beneficiaries of culture, we all participate in it as persons responsible for it. We can exercise no abstinence toward it, even if we want to. But we should not want to do that. Each of us has his place and his function in its history. Certainly we must here consider the fact that the use of the good gift of God and hence human activity with its great and small results is compromised in the extreme through man's perverted attitude toward God, toward his neighbor, and toward himself. Certainly culture testifies clearly in history and in the present to the fact that man is not good but rather a downright monster. But even if one were in this respect the most melancholy skeptic, one could not- in view of the humanity of God which is bestowed upon the man who is not good or who is even monstrous- say that culture speaks only of the evil in man. What is culture in itself except the attempt of man to be man and thus to hold the good gift of his humanity in honor and to put it to work? That in this attempt he ever and again runs aground and even accomplishes the opposite is a problem in itself, but one which in no way alters the fact that this attempt is inevitable. Above all, the fact remains that the man who, either as the creator or as the beneficiary, somehow participates in this attempt is the being who interests God. Finally, it also remains true that God, as Creator and Lord of man, is always free to produce even in human activity and its results, in spite of the problems involved, parables of His own eternal good will and actions. It is more than ever true, then, that with regard to these no proud abstention but only reverence, joy, and gratitude are appropriate.


  1. Hello again, Evan!

    Once again, thanks for this post, as it is directly related to a discussion taking place over at my blog surrounding Nate Kerr's new book. I'd like to say that you intentionally posted this because of that discussion, but that would presume a far too lofty place of importance of my blog in your (and anyone's) life. :-)



  2. Hello! I've been neglecting other blogs (at least the longer posts on them) as I've been so busy. But I have seen your review and I've been meaning to read it in full (and your "update on part 3" seems to be gathering quite a lot of attention!).

    But rest assured, I find myself nodding happily to practically everything that you say (I wince merely at the musical tastes on your blogger profile!)... so as far as blogging goes, consider your placement lofty!

  3. Ah, yes, the rap music. I admit it's a vice, but there's just something about Tupac's blatant nihilism.

    Advent Blessings,


  4. Oh, I can understand the draw of blatant nihilism in music... I just go for more folksy versions of it! My objection to your music is purely a matter of style rather than substance!