Barth on God and the Whole Person

Since I finished the dissertation, I’ve been reading chunks of Karl Barth. In Volume I, Part 2 of his 13-part Church Dogmatics, he writes at length of the subjective side of revelation, what might be called the “appropriation” of the objective side of revelation, what Christ has accomplished for us (§16). How does it look, what happens when people get involved with what Christ has done for them? Barth’s answer is simple: the Holy Spirit. And because the Holy Spirit makes us share in what Christ has done, and not something else, this sharing has a definite form: Church, sacraments, Scripture, and preaching (I/2, 249) under the “mastery” of Christ (265ff.).

In light of my dissertation topic, however, I’m particularly interested in how Barth treats how individuals relate to God. One of the questions I tackled (briefly) was whether one or more “faculties” are central to this relation. Is there a decision of the will which is central? A passionate attachment? Does our intellect drive us inevitably to God? Do we have an appetite, a desire for God? Barth gives this answer:


But the possibility given us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the possibility of a direct confrontation of the whole man by God. Man is confronted in the totality of his own possibilities, and therefore in all possible conditions and attitudes. In revelation, the whole man is addressed and challenged, judged and pardoned by God. In view of this totality of revelation to us we must not refer the revealedness in us to some obscure or even luminous place apart from our own experience and activity. We must not refer it to a place where we can exempt ourselves from all responsibility. We must not refer it to a place which enables us to count on the fact that God or “it” believes in us, from which we are therefore onlookers both of ourselves and God. In the presence of God there is no such back room. There is only the one well-known place for our physico-psychical existence, although it does include within it many alternative possibilities. It is in this totality that our existence participates in the divine possibility, or else we have no part in it. The point is that the whole area of our possibilities is again enclosed by the divine possibility. That is what we have to reckon with if we would understand our participation in this possibility… Again, we can and must know that all our experience and activity is involved in this standing before God. But we can never say how far this or that impression is our calling, this or that discovery our awakening, this or that decision our conversion, this or that conviction our faith, this or that emotion our love, this or that expectation our hope, and this or that attitude our responsibility and justification before God. For as participators in God’s possibility, all that we see and find is simply ourselves, and all the very selfish, very human states and conditions and attitudes in which we actually find ourselves. We never can and never will comprehend how far the concretion of our situation and our attitude is the concretion of our participation in God’s possibility. (CD I/2, 267-68)

Barth is making a polemic here against various certainties we might have. We cannot claim that an experience, a feeling, a decision guarantees our right standing before God–though these things may be signs of it. Sure. But I’m more interested in the way that Barth says God’s revelation claims all of us, the whole person: all our thought, feeling, emotion, attitude, habit, memory and desires. This means, though I’m not sure if Barth says this himself, that our salvation reforms all the pieces of who we are. But I wonder if saying this means we cannot also say, as would a Kierkegaard or a Blondel, that the will or action plays a central role in our relationship to God in a way that, say, memory does not. Our relation to God certainly does not exclude these other areas, but might there not be a kind of tiered relation, where the will or desire plays a key role?


4 thoughts on “Barth on God and the Whole Person

  1. What Barth is saying here sounds a lot like Tillich’s “ultimate concern” — something that is so all-encompassing that it cannot be reduced to any one aspect of the human person (and, if I’m not mistaken, both Barth and Tillich would largely be targeting “Gefuehl” as in Schleiermacher).

    • I’d be pretty hesitant to equate Barth here with Tillich’s “ultimate concern.” Even the use of “concern” signals that the human person is, even if “concern” is diffuse in the whole of her activity, the center of agency. For Barth, God is first and foremost the agent in revelation. There are parallels, certainly: the proper, non-idolatrous ultimate concern for Tillich is the Ground of Being, which concerns our existence totally; for Barth, God is the Lord of our existence, our life and our death. But Barth’s God is so tightly specified by Christ that the parallels stop pretty quickly.

  2. That’s what Barth would have said (see the introduction to Dogmatics in Outline sometime if you haven’t, which is extremely harsh regarding Tillich, although apparently they were more friendly personally than theologically, for a while at least — although they had their political differences as well [Tillich being much more extremely on the left]), but it’s also why I’m surprised at how closely they align on this one thing.

    For example, sentences like “Man is confronted in the totality of his own possibilities, and therefore in all possible conditions and attitudes” and “It is in this totality that our existence participates in the divine possibility, or else we have no part in it” can stand in well as summary explanations of “ultimate concern.” Obviously, as you point out, Barth and Tillich end up going down very different paths, and Tillich certainly has his flaws (though Barth, I think, has flaws of his own).

    I think that Tillich has some great insights, such as that relationship with God does not involve just a “religious” or emotional part of human life that we can isolate and hold onto, but rather an all-encompassing relationship of love and responsibility (as you quote Barth also saying here, though in his own language). And, when he is more irenic, especially in his later work, Barth allows for fruitful dialogue with thinkers like Tillich. I tend to find that each of them is weak on specificity regarding one half of the divine-human relationship — Barth on the human half and Tillich on the divine half. But, together, they might have a lot more to offer.

    So I’m basically trying to convince you to give Tillich a second chance while I try to convince myself to give Barth a second chance. Neither got to be so influential by having nothing important and true to say. (Not to distract too much from Barth here, I hope.)

    • Yes, I think that is true. My questioning of Barth was intended to get at more specificity about the human side of the relation. I’m sure I’ll return to read Tillich at some point. Barth definitely deserves some more reading; it took me a while to warm up to him, even though I’ve read him before. There is something dissatisfying in him, but just what it is and whether it will be resolved the more I read, I’m not quite sure yet.

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