Uncle Karl’s 125th birthday

Just because today is Uncle Karl’s birthday, I thought it might be worth recalling some passages from the Church Dogmatics on how he thought about such days. Basically, apart from the three occasions where he refers to a particular birthday to mark some other event (see CD IV.2, 667; IV.3.1, xiii; IV.4.viii), Barth refers to birthdays in two ways.

First, he was grateful for the way that birthdays birthed words of ‘understanding and confidence, comfort and encouragement, friendship and co-operation, from so many people … both near and in many distant places’ (CD III.4, xiii). And all of that without any mediation from an ISP!

Second – and there are no surprises here – Barth thought of birthdays christologically. Two passages will suffice here:

‘Jesus of Nazareth—among the many who in Jordan received the baptism of John for the future forgiveness of sins—was the One in whom God was well pleased as His beloved Son, the One upon whom John saw the Spirit descend from heaven, Himself the One who, proclaimed by John, was to come as the bringer of forgiveness. In this way, in the free penitence of Jesus of Nazareth which began in Jordan when He entered on His way as Judge and was completed on the cross of Golgotha when He was judged—there took place the positive act concealed in His passion as the negative form of the divine action of reconciliation. In this penitence of His He “fulfilled all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). It made His day—the day of the divine judgment—the great day of atonement, the day of the dawn of a new heaven and a new earth, the birthday of a new man’. (CD IV.1, 259)

‘The ἐξουσία with which men become the children of God does not fall on them from heaven, nor can it be mediated through other men, and they certainly cannot fashion it for themselves. It is given them by Him to whom John the Baptist could only bear witness, by Him who came into the world and to His own as the true light, by Him who was not received by His own. He gives it them as the freedom to believe on Him, on His name. Thus these men were born of God (Jn. 1:9–13). The completely unexpected christological turn of the conversation with Nicodemus points in this direction. In interpretation of ἄνωθεν (Jn. 3:3) this points first to birth ἐκ πνεύματος. But then quite suddenly (v. 13) the coming down of the Son of Man from heaven, and on earth His exaltation on the cross (compared to the lifting up of the brazen serpent), are described as the event, incomprehensible to Nicodemus, in virtue of which those who believe in Him will have eternal life in Him. Thus, as the first Adam became ψυχὴ ζῶρα, so the second and last Adam became πνεῦμα ζωοποιοῦν (1 Cor. 15:45). Through His resurrection Christians were begotten again to a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3). The decisive statement of Paul in the account of his conversion in Gal. 1 is that it pleased God to reveal His Son in him (ἐν ἐμοί, v. 16). Conversely, but to the same effect, if a man is in Christ he is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). Through Him God has poured out the Spirit on us as “the bath of regeneration and renewal” (Tit. 3:5f.). Nor is the meaning any different in other passages which speak of the new begetting and birth of man from God. It is true exegesis, not eisegesis, to say that the nativity of Christ is the nativity of the Christian man; Christmas Day is the birthday of every Christian’. (CD IV.4, 14–5)

Such an account of human being as defined by Jesus Christ led Barth to come down hard on kill joys. Anyone even semi-familiar with Barth’s writing could be left with no illusions that he would have loved a good birthday bash. Barth was no misanthrope, Cassandra or wet blanket. Indeed, we might best think of him as the twentieth century’s theologian of joy. He warned:

‘We can close ourselves to joy. We can harden ourselves against it. We can be caught in the rut of life in movement. We can try to be merely busy and therefore slothful in the expectation of fulfilments. We can regard life as such a solemn matter that there is no desire for celebration. We can look upon an icy seriousness as the highest duty and virtue. On the basis of experienced disappointments we can try to establish that our only right is to bitterness. Is it not obvious that we can never really have joy? Does not joy really consist only in the joy of anticipation? But the fact that we actually become joyless is only a symptom that in self-embitterment we do violence to life and to God as its Creator. And this is the very thing which must not happen at this point’. (CD III.4, 378)

Finally, whatever one makes of the value of birthday parties, Barth was sure to see even joy in its proper light, for joy too, – or, rather, the quest for joy – may quickly become an idol, even an end in itself fuelled by an entire industry of saturnalia. I recall his sober warning in CD III.2:

‘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 uninstructed, and in no serious sense different from what it was before’. (CD III.2, 115)

So, in the spirit of Hebrews 11, let’s raise a glass or two, and light a pipe or two, to Uncle Karl, give thanks for his life and faithfully-fulfilled vocation, and turn our gaze to worship the One to whom he so faithfully bore witness.

BTW: Deutschlandfunk commemorated Barth’s birthday with this short programme. Rick Floyd, too, has written a wee post about the birthday boy.

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