Barth and The Tower of Babel

Among last Sunday’s lectionary readings (and sermons) was the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis 11. This reminded me of a section in Paul Brazier’s facsinating study on Barth and Dostoevsky wherein he writes:

“Barth weaves the biblical story of the Babel tower into ‘Die Gerechtigkeit Gottes’. Barth opened the address with Matthew 3:3 – John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. He immediately cites the importance of conscience as the perfect interpreter of life, ‘what it tells us is no question, no riddle … but a fact – the deepest, innermost, surest fact of life, that God is righteous’. Furthermore, Barth compares conscience with reason, reason is inadequate – ‘It sees what is human but not what is divine.’ We will not learn of God by basing our theology on the human but we must let conscience speak of the righteousness of God in such a way that this righteousness becomes a certainty. Conscience ‘may be reduced almost to silence or crushed into oblivion, it may be led astray to the point of folly and wrongdoing, but it remains forever the place between heaven and earth in which God’s righteousness is manifest.’ But conscience disturbs, it is a pressing accusation, often bitter, sometimes as a crushing curse, then as holy joy, but above all it convinces us that all our living and learning have a goal, it points to a will that is always true to itself, a pure will – the righteousness of God. By comparison Barth cites the human will as capricious, fickle, corrupt. Human will causes us to forget the constancy and purity of God’s righteous will: ‘For we suffer from unrighteousness.’ At times we dread this, we revolt against it, we try to justify our unrighteousness: ‘grounded upon caprice, vagary and self-seeking – a will without faithfulness, logic or correlation, disunited and distraught within itself.’ Barth outlines the state of Europe, possessed by fiendishness, competition in business, passion and wrongdoing, also world war, further, class warfare, moral depravity and economic tyranny. As the argument develops, Barth paints a portrait of the result of this corrupt and fallen will:

The unjust will which imbues and rules our life makes of it, with or without our sanction, a weltering inferno. How heavily it lies upon us! How unendurably! We live in a shadow. We may temporarily deceive ourselves about it. We may temporarily come to an understanding with it … For the righteous will is by nature the unendurable, the impossible. We live by knowing that there is really something else in the world.

But so often unrighteousness triumphs: we make peace with conscience and convince ourselves that such wrong is really right. ‘But now in the midst of this sense of need and apprehension, as resistless and unbroken as the theme of a Bach fugue, comes the assurance of conscience.’ We perceive the righteous will of God above our warped and weakened will. Our greatest pain comes in perceiving this will, this pure righteousness of God. Barth traces this cry through the Hebrew prophets and into John the Baptist as figures ‘never to be erased from humanity.’

But now ‘comes a remarkable turn in our relation with the righteousness of God. The trumpet of conscience sounds … we feel the touch of holiness upon us.’ It is here that what was implicitly analogous to Crime and Punishment becomes explicit. Here Barth invokes The Tower of Babel, woven in with eritis sicut dues … As conscience touches us we fail to respond to the righteousness of God, instead we build a Tower of Babel:

Let us build us a city and a tower … whose top may reach into heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth! We come to our own rescue and build The Tower of Babel. In what haste we are to soothe within us the stormy desire for the righteousness of God.

We do not let conscience speak to the end, we stifle, we cover, we placate by inventing our own righteousness – worse, our own religion. ‘We stand here before the really tragic, the most fundamental error of humanity. We long for the righteousness of God, and yet we do not let it enter our lives and our world.’ Again,

… we go off and build this pitiable tower at the Babel of our human righteousness, human consequence, human significance. Our answer to the call of conscience … (is) a single gigantic ‘as if’ (als ob) – as if our tower were important, as if something were happening, as if we were doing something in obedience to conscience.

Therefore God’s righteousness eludes us. This is the pattern for the entire address – we discern intimations of the righteousness of God in our conscience but we silence, abort, such intimations through busily building a Tower of Babel from our own righteousness by proudly inventing religions, cultures, human achievement. We are bedevilled by a longing for a new world but fail to achieve anything through our own efforts. Barth saw this particularly in the arrogance of the Western European nations that were locked into the annihilation of the First World War:

The righteousness of God has slowly changed from being the surest of facts into being the highest among various high ideals, and is now at all events our very own affair. This is evident in our ability now to hang it gaily out of the window and now to roll it up again, somewhat like a flag: eritis sicut deus! You may act ‘as if you were God, you may with ease take his righteousness under your own management. This is certainly pride. One might equally well, however, call it despair.

Later, Thurneysen was to write similar words in his theological study – Dostojewski (1921) – about how Raskolnikov was taken in by his idea, further, that he was bewitched, enchanted (bezaubert ), he was a man characterized by hurricanes of passion, capable of a titanic storming of heaven leading inevitably to a demonic plunge into hell:

… (such a) man becomes godlike and devilish … With the parable, however, there is also given the titanic temptation of the eritis sicut deus, the temptation to make out of the parable and allusion more than parable and allusion, the seduction to be superman, to be the man-god (zum Übermenschen, zum Mensch-Gott).

It is because of our despairing pride ‘that we build a Tower of Babel.’”

– Paul H. Brazier, Barth and Dostoevsky: A Study of the Influence of the Russian Writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky on the Development of the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, 1915–1922 (Paternoster Theological Monographs; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 49–51.

3 comments

  1. One but cannot think about the situation in Europe today, how far they are from the doctrine of God, the message and preaching of the “kerygma” of the Gospel. But now they also have the threat of Islam also. And America is turning to the social gospel, or no gospel at all save the Tower of Babel! The West and free world need to hear the book of Jeremiah. Indeed God is God, and we have forgotten!

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  2. It sounds at times as if conscience is Christ himself as when he says ‘it remains forever the place between heaven and earth in which God’s righteousness is manifest’ and then it sounds purely ostensive (“it points to a will that is always true to itself, a pure will – the righteousness of God”) as if ‘conscience’ is a point of connection (Anknupfungspunkt?) without content (but pointing to a content beyond itself) while operating nevertheless with a force which drive us to build our totalising Babels (‘we discern intimations of the righteousness of God in our conscience but we silence, abort, such intimations through busily building a Tower of Babel’). What is the Trinitarian reason that ‘we long for the righteousness of God’? Are our desires immune from the fallenness of the community of desire in some way?

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  3. dbhamill :It sounds at times as if conscience is Christ himself as when he says ‘it remains forever the place between heaven and earth in which God’s righteousness is manifest’ and then it sounds purely ostensive (“it points to a will that is always true to itself, a pure will – the righteousness of God”) as if ‘conscience’ is a point of connection (Anknupfungspunkt?) without content (but pointing to a content beyond itself) while operating nevertheless with a force which drive us to build our totalising Babels (‘we discern intimations of the righteousness of God in our conscience but we silence, abort, such intimations through busily building a Tower of Babel’). What is the Trinitarian reason that ‘we long for the righteousness of God’? Are our desires immune from the fallenness of the community of desire in some way?

    DB, I am enjoying an old “mentor” who always speaks to the conscience – Austin Farrer!

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