Through a two week intensive, I was introduced to the the person and theology of Karl Barth (1886-1968). Swiss-born, he witnessed both the Great War and the Nazi regime, and served as a border guard (Swiss side) during the Second World War. He influenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer and wrote the Barman Declaration. He had a rift with Emil Brunner over Natural Theology which nearly ended their friendship. He wrote volume after volume of a Church Dogmatics–what is perhaps (and should be) the most influential non-systematic theology for today. After hearing a few of his prefaces, I quickly became a fan of the man’s wit, wisdom and genuine heart for God and the people of God in Christ.
In the world according to Barth, God is sovereign. That is the beginning and the telos of the story. Jesus of Nazareth is the Word, the revelation of Godself; the highest authority of God’s revealed self to which Scripture and tradition point, much like John the Baptist in Grunewald’s The Crucifixion. At the start of the day, and at its close, God is sovereign. It’s difficult to find a similar word these days that really communicates sovereign. Particularly since, for the Christian, how we understand the term comes from stories in Scripture as well as the life and person of Jesus. At times it almost starts to sound tautological. We know how God is sovereign only from God’s own revelation. We know what sovereignty is politically and in certain legal terms, but those are shadowy descriptions when it comes to describing how the Creator of heaven and earth is sovereign over created space.
When dealing with a sovereign God of the universe, our human role tends to appear fairly smallish. Yet we have some big questions about meaning, purpose, the problem of evil, human nature and such. This is where we get into trouble when trying to explain why things go awry. If God’s so big and great, what’s he doing, anyway?
Taking a closer look at what Barth writes about God’s Providence led me to the phrase faith-filled ‘I don’t know.’ It will probably sound like a cop-out at first when faced with destructive wildfires, tsunamis and tornadoes. A perfectly human question is, Why would God allow such a thing? I don’t know. God is God, and has a very different perspective.
To say that God is sovereign is not to liken him to a landowner that decides to tear down in order to rebuild: God already did that, as we read in the flood story. In fact, there is a very specific promise that won’t happen again. Additionally, there are subsequent promises of restoration, reconciliation and renewal–this is the stuff of faith.
Faith is not the absence of doubt–never confuse certainty for faith. Rather, it is a posture, an attitude. When God is sovereign, I am not. I remember what God has done both for the community, and in my life. Reflecting on something terrible that has happened, it’s good to ask, was it 100% disaster? Were there new ways that broke open as a result of the fire? Were there settled habits that shifted because of the tidal waves? What does the still, small voice reveal after the tumult?
When God is sovereign we are released from trying to figure out what we could possibly have done to avoid tragedy. There is no need to assign blame. There is no app that will alert us to future occurrences. God has not left creation alone to blunder along until the plug is finally pulled. Instead, we are released to encourage one another, love one another, care for one another–which describes another Barth saying, “Be who you are in Christ!” Fully loved.