Chaos, Schmaos

Back a few posts, the Owl noted that some readers find his writing too hard to understand. That is at least partly my fault. A good writer tries to keep it simple and direct. It’s also because of the subject matter: theology just isn’t always simple and direct. Please forgive if his entry only makes matters worse.

I had sent my friend Ken a passage from Barth’s Church Dogmatics (III.3,477ff.). He pleaded: Is there a way to make it a little clearer for someone like me? I sent him the following:

Here Barth sets forth the Doctrine of Creation. It starts with the teaching that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the firstborn of all creation. Such is the primordial decision that the Father makes in his own inner being, before there is any heaven, earth, or humanity. Through Christ all those things are made, in accordance with God’s next decision: to have fellowship with a creature distinct from Himself, Man. (In that sentence, Man is an abstraction. It does not yet refer to specific men or women.

It is God’s will that his Son, the Christ, be the man for all men. As such He is the prototype from which we can learn what authentic Man is. We creaturely men and women are not godly peers of Jesus. We are not related to the Father as He is, but in our true life to be for each other. So far, all these decisions God has made before the act of creation, the creation of heaven and earth, before there was any Adam and therefore before any sin. So far everything is still tohu wa bohu, chaos schmaos.

This might sound absurd because we it uses the words “first” and “next” as though describing a sequence, a passage of time. But this is different: time out of time, or time before time, or time which has nothing to do with time. When it comes to the Creation, God’s first act is the separation of cosmos from utter chaos. God never willed that chaos into existence; it is nothingness. Then start the days of creation, when God calls out Light! and there was light, and God separates light from darkness. Once it is created, the cosmos includes the heavens and the earth and the waters over the firmament and under the earth. (Genesis, chapter 1). All those are creaturely things. Thus darkness we know as part of the cosmos is not to be confused with the primeval chaos.

The created cosmos contains all the things man thinks of as good, bad and indifferent; it has its shadow side, hazards, temptations, sins, confusions, disasters, triumphs, civilizations, small-s-spirit and so forth. None of that is to be confused with a chaos that God never willed, never called into being, and properly speaking, therefore, has no being. Still, it is there as nothingness. God stands between us and that nothingness. In the incarnation God demonstrates his solidarity with mankind—not just his mercy toward our idiocies and screw-ups, what we blithely think of as sin needing forgiveness, but more fundamentally, God’s solidarity with his creatures over against radical non-being. Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates his power over that. That, not the trivialities of sins and punishments, is the death Jesus overcomes in Resurrection.

This all sounded outlandish to me when I first read it, but in context of everything else Barth says, it makes perfect sense. Half the reason it sounds so outlandish is that Barth actually means what he says. All the way, he tests what he says against the scriptures—emphatically not giving credit to philosophical, aesthetic, abstract notions we are more used to hearing. According to Barth, those things just get in the way of doing theology—i.e., God’s logic. Now can all go Ya, Ya, Ya when we hear the Reformation slogan, sola scriptura, but Barth means it.

Going on. 

Outside of theology, there are all those disciplines by which we homunculi try to understand ourselves, and all kinds of programmes we institute to make the world work to our satisfaction. Fine: if only they actually solved the problems we hoped they would, or gave us the understanding we’re looking for. But they don’t even do that much. Even less do they address any primeval threat.

In a paragraph I failed to note when I first ran across it, Barth pictures St. George slaying the dragon beneath his horse, paying no attention to a monster that leers at him from above and behind, ready to crush him like a bug.

Those disciplines and programmes, those meliorations and improvements of ours are things we use to distract ourselves from the nothingness that lies so far beyond darkness that it has no being. By addressing proximate threats and darknesses, we fail to give God—we cannot anyhow give God—the full glory and thus the full obedience we owe. Even so, God’s will from all eternity is to keep covenant with man—once again, all mankind. “Through Him all things were made.” 

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