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Karl Barth – The Great Positive Possibility

Continuing with his Romans 13; v8- 14 commentary. If subjection to the authorities in this world is the negative possibility that one conformed to God must endure with its ‘not-doing’ of rebellion, then what is the flip side? The great positive possibility, continues Barth, is love. Love conquers evil and in the words of Jesus “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” is the law by which Christian must live. This means that to every man we should owe love. It is not permitted to excuse ourselves for the absence of love by saying that since we live in the shadowy region of evil, we can only bear witness to the coming world by ‘not-doing’. Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.   Quoting Barth directly: “We are thinking of a general ethical way of behaving – not just a single act. By love we do the ‘new’ by which the ‘old’ is overthrown and we breach the wall of the incomprehensible ‘not-doing’. Love is the outpouring of the Spirit, that reality by which men know God and lay hold of Him as the Unknown Hidden God. Love is thus human religious impossibility apprehended as the possibility of God. Love is the fulfilling of the law. To love thy neighbour in practical terms means that Thou shalt not kill; Thou shall not steal; Thou shall not covet… That men should thus be confronted by other men is the riddle that is presented to us. If we in the unknowable neighbour, apprehend and love the unknown God then who then am ‘I’? Be thyself the neighbour and there is no need for any further question. Love is the good work by which evil is overcome. Love is that denial and demolition of the existing order that no revolt can bring about. If therefore, as a protest against the course of this world, I cease to love, I therefore simply do not love God. We spend our years as a tale that is told – this is the secret of time which is known as the ‘Moment’ of revelation, in that eternal ‘Moment’ which always is, and is not. Time is the irrevocable way of the past and the relentless approach of the future. Facing, as it does, both ways, each moment in time is a parable of the eternal ‘Moment’. Every moment in time thus bears within it the unborn secret of revelation, and every moment can be thus qualified – This do, knowing the time. And so, the known time – apprehended and comprehended in its transcendental significance – provides the occasion for the incomprehensible action of love. Wherever a moment in the past or in the future has been qualified by the Now of revelation that lies in the midst between the two, there is the opportunity for the occurrence of love – for its ‘living regiment’ (Kierkegaard). And faith which sees revelation is the fulfilling of the law. Love as the great possibility has become a command!”

April 1962 Edition
Great and timeless Mr. Barth!

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Karl Barth – The Great Negative Possibility

German stamp showing Karl Barth

In his Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth advises readers of Romans not to start with the 13th chapter. If one does not understand the book as a whole, you will not well understand what he has to say here.

Chapter 13 deals with Paul’s advice on how to deal with positions expressed by Church, State, the Law and Society as a whole.  Barth argues that one who has been transformed to God already has “the answer” and therefor could develop somewhat negative attitudes towards these bodies because they too profess to have “the answer”. Their rules and ordinances may impinge or conflict with one’s freedom to seek after God and his Order. If one already has “the answer” in God why bother with other “false God” answers? “In such cases should one rebel or not?” asks Barth.

Revolution against an authority is bad concludes Paul because after all it is God that has permitted these authoritative bodies to be established in the first place. So when you resist their edicts, rules and commands, you are resisting God’s work at least in an indirect way.

But this is justified you say when the ruler or government uses Evil to usurp what is good to impose their control over people. Is it not justified to harbor resentment against such an order? Of course it is tempting, but argues Paul and Barth, in adopting his plan, the revolutionary allows they themselves to be over come by evil. They set themselves up to be the “grand inquisitor”. They forget that they are not the One who judges all, but only God can do this.

We must overcome evil with good, not with more evil says Paul.  When we resist the temptation to be angry, to assault, to rebel against authority even when it is an unjust one, we are using good to overcome evil Barth emphasizes. ‎And that is the appropriate path we must take as Christians. Sort of humble passive submission. Else we ‎succumb to the great negative possibility.

This position of humble submission of Barth’s was to severley challenge him in the events leading up to the 2nd World War. The German Christian Movement had corrupted church government making it subservient to the state and had introduced Nazi ideology into German Protestant Churches that contradicted the Gospel. Barth rejected this influence and was the lead author of the Barmen Declaration that said allegiance to Jesus Christ gives the church the impetus to resist influence of other lords such as the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. He mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. Hence the limits of passive complicity in this world do have their limit. It is all about the supremacy of God.

Deutsche Bundespost stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration – scanned by NobbiP, Public Domain,

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The Stumbling Stone

Romans Chapter 9

30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written:

“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

This is the place in Romans I decided to consult Karl Barth on. What in the earth is the “stumbling stone” and why did God place it on the road to Zion?

Before he answers this question, here is what he had to say about the Church in the context of imparting faith.

“Religion is not the Kingdom of God. Religion is human work. Maybe the Church is ignorant that there exists no such law of rightneousness and that it is following after a phantom. In any case, it continually forgets it.”

And “In fact, a religion adequate to revelation and congruent to the righteousness of God, the law of rightneousness, is unobtainable by man except in the miracle of the absolute ‘Moment’. And faith is a miracle. Otherwise it is not a faith.”

Finally “Why should not the miracle of faith, about which the church speaks,be followed after? Why does the object of the Church’s pursuit remain always a phantom? Because their pursuit comes not from faith but from works. Men come to faith only from and through faith. Faith is to love and fear God above all things; to love and fear Him as He is, and not as we think Him to be.”

About the stumbling stone, in one context it is using the law as a way to righteousness that none of us succeed at because we break the rules. Paul and Barth go further: “The stone of stumbling, which at the same time is the precious corner stone laid in Zion, is – Jesus Christ. In Him God reveals Himself inexorably as the hidden God who can be apprehended only indirectly. In Him He conceals Himself utterly, in order that he may manifest Himself to faith only.”


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Reading Karl Barth

I am finally finding I’m able to read and understand theologian Karl Barth. While painfully slow, I am getting much food for spiritual thought by plowing through sections of his Epistle to the Romans.
I acquired this book some years ago at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality when I attended some evening lectures there before retirement.

I tried reading it several times and got lost in the first few pages. Recently I was reading Romans and decided to consult Barth to see what he had to say on a particular verse. And voila, it worked. I was astounded at what I read there.

First, a word about Romans. Written when he was in Corinth, to the Christians in Rome whom he had never met, it is Paul’s fullest, grandest and most comprehensive statement of the gospel. Many from St. Augustine to Luther came to their fullest faith through the impact of Romans. St. John Chrysostom had Romans read to him aloud once a week. The Church Reformers saw Romans as the key to understanding all scripture.

Karl Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who lived all his life in Switzerland from 1886 to 1978. Early on, as a pastor in a small town, he reportedly ran out of material to preach on and decided to study the Book of Romans and write a book about it. The book caused quite a stir across Europe and overseas. Single handedly, Barth managed to reorient theological discussions around Jesus. 

Barth says God choses to reveal himself through the life, death and resurection of Jesus Christ. It is not possible for we men to know God, the unkowable, through our reasoning, intuition, culture or human achievements. Thus Jesus Christ is God revealed. Barth’s theology is known as Revelation Theology because it is sourced directly from the word of God and not from other sources such as by observing nature or  our intellect.

Barth went on to write many other works including his unfinished Church Dogmatics – 9000 pages – one the longest works in all systematic theology! He lectured at Princeton University. Barth’s influence extended well beyond the academic world. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1962. The man in the street was discussing Barth!

I am attracted to him because of his clear focus on the Word of Go and the incredible things he says. His weakness may be verbosity and sometimes reading things into the Bible which are not really there. In future posts I will explore some of his ideas through what I found in the Epistle to the Romans:

  • God is supreme
  • Jesus Christ is God revealed
  • We have a free concience
  • When we realize who God is (the Krisis) we must live our life accordingly e.g. by edifying our neighbours, not judging them which is God’s business
  • Each person who hears the Call of God learns to know God on a personal basis and need not be encombered by religious rules which can be the enemy of faith
  • God’s grace works through us; it is God who chooses us, not we Him
  • Thinking is a biological process presupposed by creation and God and hence cannot really help us to know Him
  • It is only through Jesus Christ that we know anything about God

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    Of Human Bondage

    I really liked this 1915 novel. Somerset Maugham’s story of Philip Carey, a handicapped orphan, is indeed a masterpiece. It covers Carey’s life from the loss of his parents as a young boy until he settles down just before age thirty.

    Written with both dialogue and narrative, we are treated to Carey’s inner thinking as he struggles to find himself in life, love and career. The principle obstacle is Mildred, a thin, anemic skinned waitress who Philip falls madly in love with. She feels no love for him but comes in and out of his life seeking financial help because he is a “gentleman” and she knows she has power over him. He succumbs every time and devotes countless amounts of money and aid to assist her in her needs.

    He decides not to become a Vicar like his uncle, tries accounting and then sets out first for Heidelberg and then to Paris to become a painter. After failing at this he returns to London and goes to med school. However he runs out of money after supporting Mildred and losing his last resources in the stock market.  He wonders the streets of London close to starvation and feeling suicidal.‎ He finally lands work as a women’s clothing designer. 

    His uncle finally dies and leaves him enough money to complete his medical studies. He is finally over Mildred and meets the Athelny family who invite him to weekly dinner as one of the family.  He eventually marries their daughter Sally; a happy ending I found somewhat surprising given all the preceding melodrama.

    The story seems a bit prolonged and seems to waiver near the end. It was as if Maugham‎ wasn’t sure how to end it. Is Mildred going to come back one more time and Carey succumb to more self-induced misery or is he simply doomed to a life without finding a loving partner? Hence the somewhat surprising happy ending in my view.

    A tour de force about a young man with a club foot finding his way in early 20th century Britain. If you happen to know your way around London you will ‎really enjoy the areas and streets mentioned in this book. Of Human Bondage is both a positive and negative experience in Maugham’s experience. I give it a 9.5 out of 10. At 600 pages, it could be shorter. I also found it hard at times to keep track of all Philip’s male friends coming and going.

    Several movies have been made including the 1934 version starring Bette Davis as Mildred Rogers which you can find on YouTube. I am watching it right now and Bette Davis is alluring.

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    Inner Journey – Wrap Up!

    Well it’s time to wrap up this long series of blogs about our 2011 road trip to California from Ontario… We still had 10 days to go but won’t bore you with the details of the remaining stops:

    • Branson, MO – saw Patsy Cline Story and Eagles live review shows
    • Hodgenville, KY – visited birthplace of Abraham Lincoln
    • Paducah, KY – love this historic water front town on the Ohio River
    • Bardstown, KY – visited Thomas Merton’s gravesite at the Abbey of Gethsemani
    • Morgantown, WV – went to our namesake town – very steep hills
    • Gettysburg, PA – hiked the most famous of ACW battlefield sites on a sunny day

    The night we were camping in My Old Kentucky Home S.P. we were woken by a loud horn sound at 4:30 am. Not knowing what it meant, we looked out the window and saw people running toward the nearest brick building! We figured we should join them and we did on the double. Welcome to tornado alley. The next day we were camping in the Kentucky Horse S.P. when another tornado alarm went off at 8:30 am. We spent the next 90 min huddled in the brick washroom with others as we listened to the radio telling us exactly where the tornado was touching down. Drama for sure!

    We arrived safely home on May 1 after two months on the road: 22 States and over 13,000 km – our signature Roadtrek trip. We moved out of our family home in Ottawa just three weeks later and spent the next 3.5 months living in our trecker at the lovely Breezy Hill Camping Park while we waited for our new Arnprior home to be finished. Highly recommend the Class B motorhome lifestyle if you like to travel and have the time. Thanks for rambling with us!

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    Inner Journey – Arkansas


    We left our music friends in Adona and headed NW to meet some Camino friends in Bella Vista. There was lots to see and do in Arkansas. Dave is a long time member of the Ottawa Civil War Roundtable and likes to visit U.S. Civil War battle sites. As we made plans for the day we noticed that the Pea Ridge National Military Park was directly en-route. After an extremely hilly, steep and winding drive into the Ozark Mountains, we arrived at the site where the pivotal battle of Pea Ridge was fought in March 1862.
    Earl Van Dorn (left centre); Sam Curtis (right centre)
    The battle was won by Brig Gen (later Major General) Sam Curtis, Commander of the Union Army of the Southwest. It was lost by Major General Earl Van Dorn, Commander of the Confederate Army of the West. A good part of the action took place in and around the Elkhorn Tavern which is still there. We explored the well preserved site hiking from one end to the other. Dave bought a book and subsequently gave a presentation to our roundtable group back home. If you are curious and have a Powerpoint viewer app, click the link below to download a copy of this presentation.


    Confederate Sunset at Pea Ridge painting by Andy Thomas
    We continued on to Bentonville and toured the Walmart Welcome Centre. It was here in 1950 that Sam Walton opened Walton’s 5&10. His wife liked small town living and Sam wanted to take advantage of the different hunting seasons that living at the corner of four states had to offer. Well the rest is history and today Walmart – love it or hate it – is among the biggest retailers on the planet.
    Finally we made our way to Bella Vista – a lovely residential town just south of the Missouri border. We had met Rev. Richard on the very first day of our 2010 Camino de Santiago back packing pilgrimage in Spain. “Call me Dick”, he said. We kept running into each other and really enjoyed chatting with him. He confided in us that he was a minister in a protestant community church back in the U.S. on sabatical. He loved to hear people’s stories- why they were hiking the Camino, who they were, why, etc. Afterwards we lost touch since we had not exchanged contact info. However, one day back home I googled his name and found him through his church in NW Arkansas. We made contact and he and his wife Carol invited us to drop by while on our Inner Journey pilgrimage.
    Dick on right on the Camino in Spain
    We arrived at their beautiful lakefront property. They gave us a tour and we had some great conversation over dinner and breakfast. He gave us a copy of the humorous Camino presentation he made to his congregation in Bella Vista. We parted ways promising to keep in touch. Wow, what a great visit we had! Subsequently we did keep in touch, having visited each other many times and hoping to visit them again this Fall in FL where they now live. Thank you Dick and Carol for your hospitality and friendship for the past 11 years!
    Carol and Dick in Bella Vista, AK
    On our way out of town we stopped and toured the stunning Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel and then drove by their pretty Bella Vista Community Church. Then… it was on to the next adventure in our Trekker.

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    Inner Journey – Bluegrass

    We were no where near Kentucky or Virginia but we were about to discover some Bluegrass. We headed north out of Louisiana for Arkansas. We noticed how close we were to the Oklahoma border – so we diverted west again just a bit. The first day we drove on a winding road to a state park called Broken Bow. Wow – a huge park on a river and lake with superb facilities, store, restaurant etc. We hiked for an hour or so and enjoyed a nice étouffée dinner followed by a warm crackling campfire. It was to be a cool night and we were up by 7h30 raring to go a little farther into OK the next day.

    As we were about to leave we noticed an Ontario plate at the campsite across the road. We had a nice chat with a friendly couple, Charlie and Cathy from Perth, Ontario. They were on their way home hauling their 5th wheel travel trailer from Harlingen, TX which is near the Rio Grande border with MX. Many Canadians spend the winter there in the dozens of RV parks that abound. Well it turns out they like music – specifically Bluegrass and were on their way to an informal festival with friends in Arkansas at which they would be playing. They invited us to join them there the day after next.

    We googled things and realized that we were smack in the heart of ‘tornado alley’ in tornado season. Keeping a wary eye to the sky and listening to weather forecasts, we headed farther north in OK. It was a scenic drive through beautiful trees and we stopped for lunch at Windy Stop National Park. Continuing we stopped for the night at Talemena S. P. and found a nice grassy site. We went for a 90 min hike along the historic Ouachita military trail. The shrimp and dirty rice dinner tasted so good that night that we danced for joy.

    The next day we headed east for our rendezvous in Adona, AK not too far from Little Rock. We found the Cypress Creek Music Park and checked in for a very unique night. That evening the fiddles, guitars, mandolins, base and banjo came out and we enjoyed an impromptu concert. Charlie and Cathy were great hosts and made us feel welcome. They were also very visible Christians. We enjoyed their presence. We promised to meet up in Canada again someday – and we did by chance at the Bluegrass Music Festival in Renfrew, ON a couple of years later.

    So a chance encounter in tornado alley lead to some really good Bluegrass times. Check out Bill Monroe:

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    Inner Journey – Crawfish Pie

    Lake Bistineau, LA

    Heading east out of Texas we spent one lovely last night at Lake Tawakoni S. P. It was then on to our favorite State – Louisiana. We have been partial to LA ever since we visited New Orleans in 2005 just before Katrina. We love the food, the music, the gaiety and the people who are either really really happy or really really down and out. There is no middle ground in LA.

    It was an easy 3 hour drive to Shreveport, a city of 200,000. The third largest city of LA, it has a history of oil and gas development and production. Today it is the educational, cultural and commercial centre of the Ark – LA – TX tri-state area. It is on the navigable Red River where it meets the historic Texas Trail. The Mississippi River is still another 3 hours east at Vicksburg.

    We drove straight through town to camp at Lake Bistineau S. P. And what an experience it was. About 200 years ago a huge log jam on the Red River flooded the land here. Later a dam was built that created the 27 sq. mi. permanent reservoir. the S.P. is dotted with cypress and tupelo trees whose bases are under water. Annual flooding can be a problem for the alligators who thrive here! We had a good chat with the park attendant who was most friendly as southeners are. She told us all about the area. It was early in the season an we basically had the park to ourselves. Take a look.

    The next day we drove into Shreveport looking for some crawfish. Crawfish have a distinctive flavour – you either love them or you don’t. We looked around town a bit a found what we were looking for at the local casino.

    After a great feast we spent another night at Lake Bistineau before nipping off into the SE corner of Oklahoma. Fond memories of our visit to the Shreveport area persist.

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    Inner Journey – Who Shot J.R.?

    So there we were in West Texas. Every second vehicle was a white pickup truck – all oil well service vehicles. It felt good to be on the road fitting in between them. We left Monohome SP – the one with the sand dunes – and made our way to Odessa. We stopped for some tomales at a roadside Mexican stand and also picked up some dinner to go.

    Oil wells are everywhere here.

    We drove to Abilene. It is a very pretty little town with trees which we had not seen for a few days. Checked into Abilene S. P. and enjoyed the sights, our Mexican dinner and a very peaceful evening as you can see.

    After a great 9 hour sleep, we stopped at a Walmart in Abilene and then drove to Cedar Hill S.P. just south of Dallas. It is a huge park with a lake and beach. That evening there was a huge electrical storm. Sheet lighting lit up the sky for an hour. It was magical camping at its best.

    The next day we zoomed past Dallas and made our way to Southfork Ranch. If you are of our age you will surely remember the soap opera show called Dallas that was filmed there. It ran from 1978 to 1991 and featured the greedy scheming oil tycoon character of J. R. Ewing played by that fabulous actor Larry Hagman (I Dream of Jeannie). Who Shot J.R. was the cliffhanging last episode of the 1979-80 season. J. R. hears a noise outside his office, steps into the hallway and is shot twice. All during the summer of 1980 we asked our friends, neighbours and family – who do you think shot J.R? Everyone had their theory. That episode remains the second highest rated prime-time telecast ever!

    It was a fabulous tour and well worth the stop. It turns out that most of the episodes were actually filmed in a studio in Hollywood, CA and they only shot certain scenes at the ranch. That was OK with us as we wondered through the mansion – and what a mansion it was.

    Don’t mess with Texas!

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