This week let’s look at something Karl Barth wrote. If you would like some information about Karl Barth, this Wikipedia article is one source, and the Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology has three short articles, and finally here is a 1962 Time magazine article.
While there is a lot about Karl Barth on line, his books themselves are not accessible on line. At the end of this post, I will give you the passages from Barth’s work, Church Dogmatics, are the basis of this post . Theologians in Barth’s time wrote in a particular style. People write differently now and Barth can take some effort to read. Please, don’t let that discourage you. Barth is worth the effort.
It is fair to say that Karl Barth wrote a lot (Church Dogmatics is 13 volumes and it is not the only thing he wrote!). What I have written today is by no means an authoritative review of Karl Barth’s understanding of the relationship between God, humankind and animals. We’re just going to look at a small piece of Barth’s work.
For Barth, the creation is in relationship with God because God is its creator. The creation and its creatures exist because God wants them to exist. God is the basis, the source of being for creatures, just as God is the source of our being as humans. But that does not mean that there is no difference between animals and humans. That God becomes a human creature rather than another creature is significant for Barth. This is where our distinctiveness lies, not in a biological difference. Through the human Jesus, God comes not only to all humans and also to all creation.
Because we don’t understand what the relationship between God and animals is like, does not mean it does not exist. The relationship between animals and God appears to be different than our relationship with God, but that does not mean that a relationship does not exist. God has revealed Godself to us and God has concealed God’s relationship with animals from us. According to Barth, this is not to be a source of pride- God became human therefore we are special; but rather it is a source of humility for us- we don’t know everything.
I think Barth argues for a humility about what we know and what we don’t know and what we cannot know. I don’t think anyone ever accused Barth of not knowing what he believed. He tried hard to be clear about what he believed. At the same time, he was careful to be clear about what he didn’t know. A good practice for us all.
The last half of the last paragraph that I quote below may be my favorite. Barth uses an image of a circle of animals surrounding a circle of humans. We don’t know if the outer circle of animals exists for our sake. Perhaps we exist for the animals sake. Or perhaps we each exist uniquely for God. What matters most, according to Barth, is that Jesus is the focus for both circles.
Barth, it seems to me, is suggesting that to understand who we are as humans, we must look to God, particularly Jesus. That is where we discover our humanity. This orientation doesn’t require us to dismiss the rest of creation as having less value. God’s love and care for creation and animals does not threaten or devalue our humanity.
The following quote from Barth’s Church Dogmatics is from Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, The Making of Modern Theology, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Texts, ed: Clifford Green (Fortress Press:Minneapolis)1991, pages 231-233.
Humanity is with God because we are with Jesus. And everything that is to be said in explanation and expansion of the fact that we are with God will result from the fact that we are with Jesus. But first we must emphasize that the particularity of humanity as compared with other creatures is contained in this ontological determination of our being. In a general sense it can and must be said of all other creatures as such that they have their being in the fact that they are with God. God is the Creator of heaven and earth as well as humanity. And whatever is, is at its very roots because God is, and by the fact that he is; that he is the Creator of all creatures, great and small, visible and invisible; that he has willed and posited their being and nature and does not cease but continues to do so. All creatures are as God is with them and they are therefore with God. But not every creature is with God as humanity is with God. This does not mean, of course, that we must rush to the perverse conclusion that the particular thing which is so basically true of humanity is not also true of other creatures in their way, namely, that they are originally and decisively with Jesus, and in this way with God their Creator, and thus participant in being…
We can and must, therefore, say of every creature that it has the same concrete divine Counterpart as humanity; and to that extent the same ontological basis. In respect of all other creatures, we can and must look confidently to the same ontological basis. But in the case of non-human creatures we do not know what it means that they have this basis. We state their (for us) impenetrable secret when, looking in the same direction as we may and must look in regard to ourselves, we say of them too that they are with God. We know only that they are this. We do not know how. For when we say of them, too, that they are with Jesus and therefore with God, the decisive and distinguishing thing is that the God who is also their God did not become like them…
This happens only in the human sphere, and it is only as it happens in this sphere that it is valid and effectual for all other spheres and for the whole of creation. As in the form of a human creature the Creator becomes the true and absolute Counterpart of all other human creatures, he is also the true and absolute Counterpart of all creatures whatsoever. As humanity is with Jesus and therefore with God, the same is true of all other creatures. We do not know how, but we know that it is the case…
God did not need to become an animal, a plant, or a stone because when he became human everything necessary was done for animals, plants and stones to be with him as their Creator. How and to what extent? We can give no answer by studying animals, plants and stones, And it is the fact that we cannot do so, that this is concealed from us, which from our standpoint distinguishes them from ourselves. No matter how they are with Jesus and therefore with God, the fact remains that they are, quite irrespective of us or anything without…
What constitutes the hidden being of all creatures is revealed as human being because Jesus is human. And it is the fact that human being is revealed as being with God which constitutes its particularity. If we affirm and stress this fact, it is not in arrogance toward other creatures, but as an act of humility in face of the secret of God in other spheres and its revelation in our human sphere. It should not be forgotten that in this way the particularity of other creatures is also emphasized. The glory of other creatures lies in the concealment of their being with God, no less than ours in its disclosure. For all we know, their glory may well be the greater. We do not really know that the outer circle of all other creatures exists for the sake of the inner circle of humanity. The very opposite may well be the case. Or perhaps both circles, the outer and the inner, have their own autonomy and dignity, their distinctive form of being with God. What does this difference amount to as against the fact that the human being Jesus as a creaturely being is the focal point of both circles? (CD:III/2, 132-129) (italics are Barth’s)