Christian Nihilism
Against the Stream.
by Karl Barth.
Philosophical Library. 252 pp. $3.75.


When the near collapse of European society in the 1914 war turned men’s thoughts—for the first time, really, in two hundred years—once more to the alternative of theology, Karl Barth’s Commentary to the Epistle to the Romans (1919) formed one of the most important attempts at an answer. His “theology of crisis” reflected the spirit of that age more truly than any philosophy, sociology, or anthropology still stuck in the optimistic modes of thought of the 19th century.

And in 1933, when Nazism had become a pervasive spiritual and political temptation, with English, French, and American as well as German admirers; when the Vatican concluded a Concordat with Hitler, and even Churchill had some tolerant words to say for him—in that time of crisis it was Karl Barth who steeled the spirit of the Protestant church of Germany against the temptation of National Socialism.

Is not the Christian community in an equal state of emergency today, with its challenge this time being Communism? Needn’t Karl Barth simply reach into his pocket to find the same remedy as before? His own answer is a decided no: “I cannot admit that this is a repetition of the situation and of the tasks during the years 1933-1945.” In contrast to the stand he advocated against Nazism, he advises the Christian community today to remain aloof in the conflict between East and West; he warns it not to “move with the stream and side with America and the Vatican” merely because its ideologues have identified Communism with a totalitarian regime, and claim in their textbooks that “totalitarianism” is a dreadful thing. If a new spiritual crisis were to develop similar to that in the days of Hitler, Barth isn’t sure at all of the direction it would come from—the capitalist West or the Communist East.

Barth’s answer certainly moves “against the stream” of Western political and theological opinion, and has been vigorously challenged, and in answer he has tried to clarify his position in a number of essays, lectures, and broadcast talks. These, Ronald Greger Smith has gathered together in a single volume that even contains Barth’s impromptu replies to a series of questions put to him by members of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Budapest in April 1948. It is to be regretted, however, that the editor failed to include the memorable controversy between Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr in 1948, at the Ecumenical Conference in Amsterdam, in the course of which sharp differences between the Continental and the American idea of Christian “social action” were brought into the open. The volume would then have done greater justice to the question of the Protestant church between East and West; as it is, most of the essays are concerned with the problem of that church’s relations with the Communist East.

In any case, the book remains one of the most important theologico-political tracts in all Christian history.



To answer his critics, Karl Barth was obliged to come down to earth and translate abstract theological statements into concrete temporalities. But since he was careful not to divorce his political statements from his general theological interpretation of history, his answers reveal with especial clarity the deep ambiguity that seems to me to characterize the attitude of Christian theology toward the world of here and now.

Jacob Burckhardt once remarked that all relation to external reality breaks down if you take certain passages of the New Testament in dead earnest; in these, a spirit is reflected that considers the world to be a strange and alien place. Church and theology have done their best, however, to mitigate and obscure this original Christian experience of total alienation from the world; in nineteen centuries they have transformed an originally “nihilistic” impulse into positive “social” or “political” action. Barth’s “theology of crisis” is an attempt to reverse this trend and call back to mind the first Christian indifference to the world.

But is it possible to revive, in an industrial society, an experience that shook people who lived under the ancient Roman Empire? Barth’s indifference to the world in our day and age seems rather forced and deliberately naive—and divided by an abyss from the original Christian attitude he is seeking to recapture.



Barth’s primary concern seems to be to separate the destiny of the Christian community from the fate of Western civilization. He considers that “the friendly arrangement of Providence for the hibernation of the Christian message, the bourgeois Christian era, has come to an end.” Organized Christianity, as it has hitherto been known, is finished and done with: what needs building now is new catacombs. He tries to liberate Christian judgment and Christian conscience from their historical association with the West. Whoever links the destiny of the Christian message with the cause of Western civilization, he believes, degenerates into a mere ideologue of the powers and principalities of the West. “The cause of the West may be our cause because we happen to live in the West, happen to inherit Western traditions, but it is not therefore necessarily God’s cause—just as the cause of the East is certainly not God’s cause either.”

It has generally been overlooked that in resisting the “temptation” of National Socialism, Barth conducted his struggle entirely within the frame of the Protestant church, in contrast to those for whom support of the Confessional church signified their political opposition to the Nazi tyranny. Only when the Credo of the church was at stake did Barth take his stand against Nazism.

The Christian opposition to a tyrannical government is entirely different from the resistance of a political body. Barth’s theology of history is built on the same apolitical premise that underlies Augustine’s De Civitate Dei. The African Church Father tried to cut the ties uniting the Christian community with the Roman Empire before it was too late, and he succeeded in the nick of time, just at the moment when the Northern barbarians stood at the gates of Rome. The Roman citizens must have been outraged by Augustine’s “neutralism,” his stark indifference to all those Roman “values” which he had praised so much in his youth. They could not have missed the note of recrimination in the pages of his great judgment on Rome and must sometimes have thought that they heard the accents of the old Semitic Carthaginian enemy in Augustine’s Christian voice. It is only our syncretistic taste, our indifference to spiritual issues, that lets us lump together Cicero, the apologist of the Roman Empire, and Augustine, the “nihilistic” critic of Roman virtue, as representatives of classical Antiquity.

We should not, however, forget one difference: the Roman citizens who may have been outraged by Augustine’s apolitical (and there fore nihilistic) theology of history were pagans, while the pillars of our society who oppose Karl Barth’s apolitical (and therefore nihilistic) theology of history profess the same Christian faith he does. In the controversy between Karl Barth and theologians like Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr, the interpretation of Christianity itself is at stake. Whereas most Christian theologians today view Christianity as a part of human culture, Karl Barth insists that Christianity is “without father, without mother, without descent” (Heb. 7:3) in the world of history. What can “Christian” history, “Christian” culture, “Christian” civilization mean to a man who interprets the history of the Christian centuries as a filling in “between times” so that “the time between the Resurrection of Christ and his Second Coming should not simply be empty”? In other words, all history post Christum is a kind of interlude, a more or less boring intermission between the First and the Second Coming. But is it possible, two thousand years after Paul, to practice Christian indifference to the world and its history with the same good conscience and naivety as did the primitive Christians who lived in daily expectation of the Second Coming?

For Paul, the “days of the Messiah” had already begun with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He considers the old eon gone: time is short, “it remaineth that those who have wives be as though they had none, and they that weep as though they wept not, and they that rejoice as though they rejoiced not, and they that buy as though they possessed not.” You can speak and write this way if you are convinced that “the fashion of this world passeth away.” But Karl Barth knows, as Paul did not, that the fashion of this world proves very stubborn. Between Paul, the Apostle to the Romans, and Karl Barth, the commentator on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, almost two millenia have passed. If one were to have a wife “as though” one had none, weep “as though” one wept not, rejoice “as though” one rejoiced not, buy “as though” one possessed not, use this world “as though” it were not—if one were really to act this way, one could fairly be taxed with displaying an outrageously cynical or at least an ambiguous attitude toward the world.

Karl Barth’s theology of crisis unwittingly reveals the crisis of Christian theology in a world that does not pass away. Since Paul it has accepted all authorities of the state as ordained by God and it cannot seriously take exception to the Communist rule without betraying the major principle of indifference (and obedience) to the temporal powers. Such an attitude, born in the hot chiliastic climate of the early Christian community, can hardly be perpetuated. In the course of the last millenium the Christian church itself has become a part of the powers and principalities that rule the world here and now. Such an ambiguous state of affairs becomes intolerable in a time of crisis. Karl Barth is one of the few who has seen the writing on the wall. He wants to force the Christian community “out of this world,” to break the ties with a culture that has spuriously assumed Christian attributes for itself. Therefore, he believes, the capitalist West may present today to the Christian community a greater temptation than the non-Christian East.

Barth’s theological-political tract emphasizing the apolitical premise of all Christian theology might in the end share the tragi-comical fate of Augustine’s work on the heavenly and earthly city, De Civitate Dei, which became a “classic” in a Christian civilization whose basic premises it vigorously denies. Augustine contested the legitimacy of the Roman Empire. But the authors of the Middle Ages who quote Augustine on every page defended precisely the “Holy Roman Empire,” an amalgam of Church and State, of the earthly and the heavenly city, which would have horrified Augustine. Is it too bold to imagine that Barth’s theologico-political tracts might have a similar destiny, finding their place on the shelf of “Great Books” of a Western civilization built precisely on foundations that Barth has constantly rejected?



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