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2.28 Karl Barth
Karl Barth (Basel, Switzerland, 1886-1968) was a Protestant theologian. One of his famous ideas was that of God understood as “totally other”. In this expression “other” means different, separate, distant, unattainable. For this reason it is also possible to say “other than me”; God is different from me, from us: that is, God is different from us, separate from us, distant. On the basis of this conception, he states that we human beings, despite all the efforts we can make, will never be able to think of God, because he belongs to a totally different dimension, foreign to the one to which we belong. All our thoughts, as ours, are and will always be exclusively human thoughts, and therefore they will never be able to reach the divine.
Given this starting point, Barth goes on to state that our human thinking can only make us know our limits, our misery, our unsurpassable state of sin. According to him, however, this path of thought, which we could consider depressing, is not to be avoided, but rather is fruitful. Man plays his part by moving forward along this line, becoming ever more aware of his own misery and, just when, because of this, he reaches the limit of despair, then it happens that God takes the initiative to break his separation, his being totally other, to meet us. In the experience of this meeting, however, God always remains above our capacity for understanding; this is why Barth means the act of faith made by man as a leap into the dark, into the unknown.
This way of thinking of Barth poses to us today the problem of how to understand this diversity, this difference of God compared to us. In practice, Barth seems to assume that there are two extremely different and non-communicating worlds (except by God’s initiative); this way of thinking cannot but appear to us metaphysical, in the likeness of how Plato spoke of the existence of the world of ideas. But Barth is not so naive as to fall into a metaphysical way of thinking. Then we can try to understand Barth on an existential, experiential way; that is, Barth wants to tell us not how the world is made, separated into two planes, but rather to describe to us what the experience of faith is; according to him the experience of faith consists in becoming aware of our own misery and then experience of seeing us rescued by God who takes the initiative. However, this way of framing Barth’s thought can give the impression of betraying him, because it frames everything in a perception of the experience on the part of man, while he instead maintains that man by himself is not able to come to think God. But we could tell Barth that, although he speaks of the unattainability of God, actually he describes the action of God; he may then say he arrived by faith, by revelation, and not by reflection.
The substance of this problem can be considered in the interweaving of perspectives, of points of view: each perspective is able to frame all the others, but in turn can be framed by the others. Since there are no privileged perspectives, the best thing is to make them talk on equal terms. Then, as Christians we can live our faith in a dialogue, within ourselves, between human perspectives and perspectives that appeal to experiences that come from outside the human, even if we do not know exactly what this “from of outside” is. Appealing to sources of thought different from the reason makes possible perspectives that, even if not proven, are able to describe and even guide our experience. In other words, a Christian could also say this: I do not know if there is another world, but equally I decide to refer to it, because this provides me with other mental tools to understand and live my faith, tools that prove to be able to make themselves being appreciated with seriousness and to talk openly with reason. This awareness can help us to understand that we can also accept talking about miracles, hell and heaven, angels and devils, even if we do not want to refer to them metaphysically. In other words: the reference to the supernatural can be appreciated as a language, which succeeds in expressing aspects of our experience of faith that rational or simply humanistic languages fail to grasp. A bit like when we use dialectal expressions, because we perceive that certain things are impossible to express in all their richness through the tools that the official language makes available to us. We will then be careful to ensure that our use of these tools becomes a reason for enriching rather than impoverishing ideas.