Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Knowability of God: Looking for Assurance and Hope in Times Such as These


Humor me for just a moment as I let my nerd out only to work my way back to why any and all of this matters for such a time as this. In other words, bear with me as I move from the dense to the deeply practical and even pastoral. 

One of the central doctrines of Karl Barth’s theology is the knowability of God. In many ways, this is the foundation and bedrock of all Barth writes about in his vast volumes of dialectic theology- God can be and is made known to us in God’s self-revelation as Jesus Christ. This is Barth’s great prolegomena and theological preface. Barth doesn’t waste time defending, advocating, or crafting clever apologetics about the existence or viability of God. God was. God is. God will always be. 

Barth is a Christian and writes as a Christian to the Church: “God is God and that in His revelation is also God among us and for us” (Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 68).

This enables Barth to move on to expositions on the knowability of God as that which frames and sustains our uniquely Christian movement in and through the world and towards the ultimate goal of reconciliation, i.e. the last published volume of his Church Dogmatics. For Barth, this is critical. The knowability of God is always moving us, and the whole of creation, forward and towards a greater and redeemed end in and through the vocation of Jesus Christ.

Yet, in terms akin to Barth, this is no theological abstraction. The knowability of God is manifested not only in the flesh and blood, work and proclamation of Jesus Christ, but also in the life and work of the Church as the collection of his disciples then and now, near and far.

In other words, the watching world will know we are Christians not by what we say alone, but even more so by what we do in the very places God has placed us. 

Again, Barth writes:
“Only as we stand in the truth, only as we are summoned, authorised and directed by it, can we refer and appeal powerfully and effectively to the truth, and in a way that will genuinely enlighten both ourselves and others. If not, we may carry out a theological movement which is correct in itself. But seen from the outside, it will have the appearance perhaps of a theological trick leading out of nothing into nothing” (Church Dogmatics II.1 p.69-70).

While it would appear ironic for Barth, an ecclesial architect of castles made from paragraphs,* to suggest right theology is not the chief end of humanity, that is precisely what he does. Yes, theology matters, but only in so much as it has the wings of an uncaged bird who moves freely within the world. 

So now- why does any of this matter? 

In these days of "alternative facts" and labels of “fake news,” when those in power function within their own variations of reality rooted in self-promotion, and when much of what we have trusted in political and religious systems and institutions is looked at with warranted suspicion, we wonder what we can know and trust anymore. 

We may even question the knowability of God and proclamations about God among us, with us, and for us. After all, if this were true, what are we to make of the bombings in Manchester and Kabul, bus raids in Egypt that take the lives of children on pilgrimage, detained immigrants and refugees who flee violence looking for safety in another land, elementary kids who cannot focus in the classroom because they did not eat breakfast that day….or yesterday…or the day before. If the knowability of God among us is to be our starting place for assurance in this life, does not the rest of our Christian hope collapse when we read of violence in South Sudan and yet another black youth killed by those sworn to protect, the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria to American armament manufacturing and sales to customers around the globe?

The answer, for some, is yes. Our present realities of injustice and despair can arrest any hope in the existence of a God who is near and able to impact for sustainable good. In many ways, this is the very lament of those who walked that Emmaus road after the crucifixion. 

As I make my morning commute and listen to public radio, I often doubt the knowability of God as one story bleeds into the next. But then I pause and remember the knowability of God is not an abstract pipe dream and theological treatise of intellectual assent. No. If we resign ourselves to mere words and books, debates and recluse religious convictions of idealogical privilege, God cannot and will not be knowable to the watching and wondering and longing world.  The knowability of God comes to us in real place and people who stand at these very places of despair and dare extend solidarity alongside those who suffer and wonder if God is there at all. In this light, I find deep assurance in the knowability of God through my sisters and brothers near and far who have devoted their entire lives to such critical works of advocacy, solidarity, justice, and social change rooted in their commitment to gospel.  

Said differently, we must not waste time on questioning the knowability of God and start living as the very embodiments of God alongside those who suffer and long for things to be made right and whole and safe again. We dare follow Jesus into the cruciform places, taking sides with those most marginalized and wounded by the various manifestations of evil. We are not to resign ourselves to middle-of-the-road jargon and instead look for the knowability of God, as Jesus taught us, among the “least of these.” 

Anything less is a mere religious trick from nothing to nothing. 

"God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this sidalone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it
(Church Dogmatics II. 1, p. 386). 

*I believe Barth would have loved Hamilton. 

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