Karl Barth, one of histories most prolific and insightful theologians, was interested–to put it mildly–in preserving the distinctiveness of God in Jesus Christ over and against other attempts to articulate a ‘transcendent being.’

In his section on anthropology, he offers this excursus against the existentialists who posit that man meets the transcendent other in the ‘frontier’ situations of human existence.  He writes:

It may well be described as one of the most striking and therefore necessary experiences of our own age that this view has not been clearly demonstrated.  Millions of our contemporaries have been constantly plunged from one frontier situation (in the most intense sense) to another.  But what has it all meant to them in practice?

Has any one encountered the wholly other, and been changed by this encounter, as a result of taking part in the fighting in Russia or Africa or Normandy, of suffering the Hitler torror, of enduring aerial bombardment, hunger and imprisonment, of losing loved ones, of being in extreme danger of death dozens of times, and of having some sense of personal implication in the ocmmon guilt?

Humanity is tough.  It seems to have been largely capable of dealing with the confrontation of transcendence supposedly implied in these negations of its existence.  Surely Jaspers himself noticed that it passed largely unscathed through the first world war, in retrospect of which he wrote his Philosophie. And if appearances do not deceive, we have also passed through the second unscathed.  If any one has been changed in these years, it is certainly not in virtue of the extraordinary situations into which they have led him.

According to the present trend, we may suppose that even on the morning after the Day of Judgment–if such a thing were possible–every cabaret, every night club, every newspaper firm eager for advertisements and subscribers, every nest of political fanatics, every pagan discussion group, indeed, every Christian tea-party and Church synod would resume business to the best of its ability, and with a new sense of opportunity, completely unmoved, quite un-instructed, and in no serious sense different from what it was before.

Fire, drought, earthquake, war, pestilence, the darkening of the sun and similar phenomena are not the things to plunge us into real anguish, and therefore to give us real peace.  The Lord was not in the storm, the earthquake or the fire (1 Kg 19).  He really was not.

Those are sobering words, and a strong reminder that people change only when confronted with the Word of God in His resurrection power.  The chaotic and stressful situations of life are at best opportunities for the Word to break through to us, but in the Divine economy they do not necessarily increase the likelihood of that happening.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Karl Barth on how people change….or rather, don’t change. http://bit.ly/989kZu

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


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