Why we have gods

Fra Angelico - The Mocking of Christ

The false gods are not capable of becoming something less than their exalted and powerful selves – of becoming unworthy of the honor that is their due. They cannot become lowly, for who would cast his lots with a lowly god? Who would worship a lowly god? Therefore, these gods must not and cannot enter “into the far country” – our world of sin and shame and death. The false gods must remain apart and must never become “neighbor to man” (CD IV.1, p. 159). These gods are worshiped and adored precisely because they are not mundane and weak and pathetic as us. Moreover, these gods must not humble themselves to something lower than themselves, an obvious betrayal of their strength and glory. They are what we most desire of ourselves – self-sufficient and healthy and in control, subject to no one.

Man must become divine (through spiritual exercises that sublimate finitude), but the divine must never become man. The “divinity” that is proper to their majesty is incapable of becoming meek and burdened with the load of another. Natural man does not want to carry such burdens, much less would the gods they honor. “In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it” (Ibid.). Barth identifies these gods as a “reflection” of the worshipper, because the gods are a projection of their own desires. They worship themselves through their religious practices. By contrast, the God who made covenant with man is one who condescended to be a neighbor to man, to come alongside him in his hostility to Himself. This is the God who defines his own majesty as one of humility. God does not change from one into the other – for from eternity God is the humble One who became flesh: “for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high” (192).

This humility contrasts with the elemental sin of human pride. The false gods of our own construction have all of the features that we most admire within ourselves, if only we were not limited and bound to forces out of our control. This sin of pride is overcome in the humility of the Son, wherein the Lord becomes servant to man. Man’s pride rejects this God, so man rejected the Son and put him on the Cross. This is God’s judgment on man, a judgment borne in his flesh and destroyed in the same flesh. His death was the death of this sin — the sin of all.

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Image: “The Mocking of Christ” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

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4 comments

  1. I’ve been reading through CD I.II and right now find myself in the midst of Barth’s discussion on ‘the great and lesser commandments – loving God and loving others’. Based on what you’ve written here, there seems to be some of this reappearing in his later work in the dogmatics – e.g.: the cautioning Christians away from the twofold tendency to misappropriate the love of neighbour as a command to love self, and to see the neighbour as god. It made me wonder about how a portion of Christianity idolises itself. I’m pondering a slogan for Barth so far the two leading ideas are: a) ‘Yes, but…’ b) ‘losing my ambiguity, being found by the Great Distinction’.

    • Yes, these are different ways that Barth is identifying the motivations associated with natural theology, which is (as you are noticing) a rather comprehensive and wide-ranging project.

  2. “Man must become divine (through spiritual exercises that sublimate finitude)…”

    Isn’t this very close to the idea of theosis as it exists in Eastern Christianity? Yes, the Orthodox affirm the doctrine of the incarnation, but then they go on to form the spiritual life around the idea that the human must become like the divine through imitation, almost as if God had never condescended to humanity in Jesus Christ. It’s as if they suggest that the incarnation was necessary primarily so that Jesus Christ could become the ladder by which human beings could climb to the divine, rather than the incarnate redeemer who makes the salvation he wrought for us available to us by condescending to be with and in us (in this sense, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus were a deepening and expanding of the incarnation, a making available and present the incarnate redeemer to all his sheep, his elect).

    • Yes, yes, very good. I have avoided this directly on the blog, but you are expressing my thoughts exactly. And this is why Barth (and the Reformed tradition in general) is uniformly critical of mysticism. I am actually not quite as critical, because there are good mystics that follow faithfully in Paul’s way of the cross. But I have serious reservations about a mysticism that (1) escapes the bodily/finite and (2) rejects our extrinsic righteousness in Christ, and these seem to go together very frequently.

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