Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Small Thoughts on the Church.

Most of my free mental capacity lately that isn't used up by modern European church history is spent thinking about the Church. This is partly due to the fact that I've been personally preoccupied with the topic since college, but also because of this blogpost I wrote last week asking numerous questions about the nature and the purpose of the Church.

A friend of mine told me to pick up Barth's God Here and Now and said it would be a very helpful resource. I only started to delve into its pages, but the part concerning the Church's relationship with the world proved to be the most interesting. Barth writes,

"The essence of the Church is the event in which the community is a light shining also into the world (whether understood by the world or not) as a living community, living in the sense that it hears and responds to God's Word, stands and delivers as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, is on the move from baptism and goes toward the Lord's Supper. It is a question of the event in which this community, in the midst of the world, distinguishes itself from the world and thereby inevitably becomes offensive to the world in a particular way. It is a question of this community opening wide its doors and windows in order to truly share not in the fraud and especially not in the religious and moralistic illusions of its environment, but in its real concerns, needs, and tasks, that it may represent a calm center of lodging and reflection in contrast to the world's activity and idleness, and also in order to be, in this context, the source of prophetic unrest, admonition, and instigation, without which this transitory world can never endure. And before all else, this community must be open to the world in order to make visible, with its proclamation of the kingdom of God, the clear, but also severe limits of all human movement and effort, progress and regress, ascents and descents. The Church does not exist by pondering, studying, discussing, and preparing itself for this relationship to the world. The Church exists in actually accomplishing this relationship in each time with the appropriate sense of security, realism, and necessity. The consequence of this is that it may then make the appropriate human response also in this respect to the Word of God spoken to it. The word "Church" must point to this conduct of the Church in the world. Otherwise, the word is empty and points to some sort of darkness in which the real Church is not to be found."

- Karl Barth, God Here and Now, 81-82.

There is so much to embrace in Barth's understanding of the Church -- it is always an event and only exists in this "happening" of "gathering together" (77). Barth goes on to say that because the Church is the event of gathering, it is always a human reality in time. For this reason, the reality of the Church as a human reality means that its existence is only secured from one moment to the next "from above, only from God, not from below" (83). There is nothing the Church can do to secure its own existence apart from "the event of God's Word and Spirit" (83). The Church doesn't even exist when it pontificates about its relationship with the world like I'm probably doing right now.

I think all of this is incredibly beneficial to read, especially the understanding that the Church can do nothing to secure its own reality and only gathers as a response to what is first done in the event of revelation. Some might be very hesitant to embrace such a radical understanding of the nature of the Church because it really doesn't offer a place to stand. I mean, let's be honest, the Church really attempts to secure its own reality in a vast number of ways whether through its own subculture, the liturgy, or even seeking solidarity with the poor. There is a continual word of judgment in these pages that however we define Church, it must remain certain that there is nothing within the gathering that can initiate the coming of the One who exists entirely outside of us. Therefore, the Church can do nothing to be self-existent. Yet, the Church can still embrace "confidence in its continuance and stay" (83) since God promises to act through the revelatory event and also promises that He will create the very possibility for creatures to receive and understand this revelation (the nature of the revelatory event of God's command where creatures know how to act is parsed out more in CD II.2, paragraphs 36-39).

My main questions surface when Barth discusses the inevitable offensive nature of the Church. In the quote above, he writes that the Church "is a question of the event in which this community, in the midst of the world, distinguishes itself from the world and thereby inevitably becomes offensive to the world in a particular way." I have always wondered what it means to say that the Church is offensive to the world. When the world finds aspects of the Gospel (or the Gospel as defined by a particular group of persons) that are offensive to the world (and thereby rejected), the immediate response is one of comfort in knowing that the world finds this message offensive. If someone reacts negatively to Christians, it must be because the Gospel is promised to be offensive so the individual Christian or the Church is free from judgment. It almost seems to be a badge of honor when some Christians find that the world is offended by its message. But I often wonder if the world is offended by the Church's own idolatry. The Church is forever trying to distinguish itself from the world whether that be through what *it* does, or through what *it* does not do. And in this desire to distinguish itself from the world, it creates a religion of do's and don'ts that really has nothing to say to the world.

So I wonder if Barth's understanding of that which is offensive to the world might be offering a different notion of offense. But I can't seem to quite understand what Barth sees as the offense. Barth understands that the event of the gathering of the believers who have been awakened to their election in Jesus Christ are in the midst of the world. But they are distinguished from the world and thereby become offensive. So what distinguishes the Church from the world? I think the answer to that question profoundly shapes how one sees and understands the nature of the Church. I just haven't quite figured out the nature of that distinction yet.

1 comment:

R.O. Flyer said...

"The possibility of offense lies precisely in this, that it is the believer in whom the world sees a criminal." Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, 120.

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