Knowing God?

The question of whether, and how, we can know God has been very much alive for the past couple hundred years. It’s been a problem philosophically, as the gulf between a supposedly transcendent God and the world in which we find ourselves has proven too much, say the philosophers, for the God on the other side to do us much good.

God got sent to the in-law suite in the attic whilst we went about our daily business of cooking and cleaning and loving and warring.

With Freud and Feuerbach, the problem came closer to home. Maybe the problem isn’t that God is too much “out there” to do us any good. Perhaps the problem is that God is far too much “inside.” Perhaps God is a projection of our needs, of our desires.

We are living, now, in a somewhat peculiar moment. The information age has made the musings of the phiolosphers more readily available; the education age has made advanced study of theology and philosophy more extensively enjoyed (or, at least, performed!); and people with philosophical and theological training are bringing their message to the masses both in books and in freely available popular media (return here to point 1: information age).

Where this is all going is here: over the past two weeks I have read Peter Rollins’ Insurrection, heard him with Barry Taylor on the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast, engaged with Rollins’ “love is God” philosophy with friends on Twitter–only to turn to the first 30 pages of Karl Barth, Year 2, and find his insistence that there is a God who is objectively known and knowable, because this God is, in fact, known in the church.

Barth Experiences God by Listening to Homebrewed Christianity on His iPod

Here, Barth does not argue against the position that God as such is truly known, if mediated, God makes Himself known and people hear with faithful obedience. Instead, he begins with the assumption that because there is a God made known through Jesus Christ in the church, that God is, in fact, knowable.

Barth’s argument is circular: God is knowable because we know God. He does not attempt to enter the circle by way of argumentation, but begins within the Christian story where God is made known in Christ and in scripture, and uses this story to tell us what it is to know God.

But I agree with Barth in the necessity of this circularity: you do not arrive at the God of the Christian story by starting with an idea of God in general and working your way in. You either believe in this God or you don’t; you either believe in this particular God, or you believe in another. The unmoved mover is not the God of Israel.

I found Barth more satisfying than those who suggest that God is of ourselves rather than made known according to God’s own decision.

In short, the notion that God is of ourselves, or found in our actions, or project of our desires, is not the God of the Christian story. If God was not in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, then the story is simply false. To confess resurrection is to look to a moment in time when God broke into history and vindicated the crucified Christ–truly overcoming death and taking Jesus out of the world.

The God found in my acts of love does not have this power, the power of the gospel, which is real power for salvation.

Barth manages to hold onto both the uniqueness/otherness and true knowability of God. God chooses to reveal Godself as an object that we can know. This knowledge is always mediated: ultimately through the Word of God in the flesh.

Knowledge is true because God chooses to make Godself object. It is unique because we are dependent on this self-disclosure and cannot know the true God without such disclosure. It is true knowledge when we not only believe that this God has spoken, but obey the summons that the voice brings.

The self-involving God is an object of our knowing through a self-involvement of us as knowers. Thus, while the truth of the notion that God is known when we love in obedience to God is maintained, so is the otherness of God who is not identical with that love of neighbor itself.


Jerry has his Barth Together thoughts here.

And Brain Maiers is back in the game!
Anyone else?

11 thoughts on “Knowing God?”

  1. It’s funny, I was actually just thinking about Barth’s concept of the knowability/unknowability of God. I’m currently reading selections from “Church Dogmatics,” and I came across this one quote: “God Himself is the irresolvable and at the same time that which fills and embraces everything else.”

    I know that part of Barth’s rejection of liberal theology (in the classic sense of the term, not the way it’s used nowadays to mean “not a conservative evangelical”) was the idea that God can be known through human reason alone. Which makes sense because if I don’t read my Bible or pray, God become a complex math problem. But when I meditate on the Scriptures and hear the Word proclaimed at church, I’m like, “Oh, I see now.” Does that make sense?

  2. “the notion that God is of ourselves, or found in our actions, or project of our desires, is not the God of the Christian story” – Exactly so, and this much was clear to me in this week’s reading. I did stumble some over the “circular” nature of the argument at times, and wondered if this is why Barth leaves himself open to accusatons of fideism. (And I have also wondered whether fideism — something along the lines of Puddlgelum in C.S. Lewis’ “The Silver Chair,” perhaps? — might not be a perfectly valid Christian option; but I guess that’s an inquiry for another time.)

    I most appreciated Barth’s insistence that the knowledge of God we call “faith” (the only true knowledge, since he leaves no room for natural theology – he says he follows Calvin in this, p. 28 – is that right?) always begins at God’s initiation and is both mediated (even in Jesus, the “sign of all signs,” p. 20) and nonetheless true.

    I would want to ask Barth to say more (and maybe he will) about the place of doubt, if any, in the Christian knowledge of God. How is it that doubt is an “impossible possibility” (p. 7)? Barth distinguishes faith from unbelief (p. 17) – how does he deal with the anguished father’s plea in Mark, “I believe; help thou my unbelief?”

  3. Glad you’re still hammering at this.

    I don’t think there is that much of a gulf between Barth & Rollins on this subject. Barth talks about God being hidden in revelation. Barth very much rejected “natural theology” or any means of knowing God outside revelation, and even the God Barth talks about knowing through revelation remains very much a transcendent other, resistant to our attempts to objectify & quantify.

    Rollins borrows from Caputo the idea of God as “event” or as the permanent subject – never an object of our attention, but always the one acting and relating, and is therefore only knowable in the midst of the event. Any memory of the event is a replacement for the actual event, an idol. God is never an object we can contemplate, only a disruptive force that we encounter and then respond to.

    So I think you have Rollins/Caputo (and me) wrong when you say that we reduce God to being “of ourselves”. Saying that Love is God and when we Love we are experiencing God is not to imply that we manufacture God in our minds or that God is limited to the horizon of our emotions/behaviors, but that our knowledge of God is limited to acting in Love. That the only way we can “know” God is the way that we know light – we don’t see light we see because of light. We don’t love God, we love because of God.

  4. I like how the section starts with “[God] remains a mystery to us because He Himself has made Himself so clear and certain to us.”

    A friend of mine who studied under James Torrance shared with me that Barth’s “circular arguments” are different in that there is a huge monument in the middle of each one pointing toward heaven. Yes, it’s circular. But you either see the monument and stare upwards in awe or you will be left to watch your feet moving round and round without progress.

  5. Aric is correct in making a connection between Barth and the philosophers of the event (caputo\rollins\etc). The difference is for Barth all events are ‘Word’ events and necessarily tied to the 2nd person of the Trinity in both form (event) and content (it is the Word). Ok that may mean nothing to non-philosophical nerds BUT I did appreciate the post and wanted to HOLLA at Kirk.

    Now when will Kirk get on the podcast? Next week?

    1. Yeah, Barth definitely wants to tie knowledge of God, of necessity to scripture, which differs from Rollins/Caputo etc… AND in my opinion differs from the view of scripture which is constantly talking about revelation in life through various means (theophanies, oracles, the Holy Spirit, love etc…)

  6. Barth’s theology her isn’t the classically circular argument because he isn’t being simply theoretical. On could ask, how do you know any other person? Some people would respond with abstractions about the nature of consciousness, the nature of knowledge, what does it mean to be a “person,” what does it mean to be “other,” etc. Barth starts elsewhere, with an apparently non-academic starting point and method, by saying, “Well, in fact I do know this person, arguing that I don’t is out of bounds or simply rejected, now let’s ask how that knowledge takes place.” In fact, he’s pretty explicit about rejecting the question of whether we do know God. One could call that rejection into question, but to do so makes other assumptions that Barth profoundly criticizes elsewhere.

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