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September 2019 Feature Article

The “Conversion” of Karl Barth

The great Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth famously underwent a “conversion” in his theological outlook. He started his career as a theological “liberal”. This was no surprise given that his teachers were the eminent liberal thinkers of the day.

For those unfamiliar with the term, to be a theological “liberal” was to participate in a series of attempts (from the 18th century onwards) to fundamentally revamp the Christian faith to render it more consistent with the tenets of modernity. Modernity had exalted human reason as the final arbiter of truth. Reason, it was argued, was unable to accept many of the cherished traditional teachings of Christianity, like the full divinity and humanity of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. Liberals were those who were willing to “reconceptualise” these teachings (a euphemism for effectively abandoning them) so that Christianity would become less jarring to modern sensibilities.

One outcome of the liberal approach was the loss of transcendence from Christianity. If only things easily comprehensible by human reason were acceptable, it follows that all that was mysterious, paradoxical and outside the realm of ordinary human experience must be jettisoned. The result was Christian theology shifting its focus from the study of the transcendent God and his ways to the study of human beings and human society. This new ethos is beautifully expressed by these well-known opening lines of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

 This loss of transcendence led, in turn, to many liberal theologians interpreting the “Kingdom of God” in this-worldly terms. The Kingdom is not something which descends from a mysterious heaven to transform our world. It is rather our present society progressing incrementally as time went on. Since the key liberal theologians of the early 20th century were mostly German, and were infused with a substantial dose of nationalism, they embraced the idea that German society in their era was the most advanced expression of God’s Kingdom in the world. Germans consequently had the duty to spread German culture and values to other places which were at an inferior stage of development.

This was why, on 1 Aug 1914, ninety-three prominent German scientists, scholars and artists signed a manifesto declaring their full support for the German military campaign at the start of World War I. It ends with this proclamation of German greatness: “Have faith in us! Believe that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.”

Barth tells us that the appearance of this manifesto was a key factor in his theological “conversion”:

One day in early August 1914 (August 1) stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, 19th-century theology no longer held any future.

Barth had realised a key implication of the loss of transcendence in liberal theology: Once you lose the “heavenly” or “other-worldly” element in Christianity, it soon finds it has nothing else to hold on to except the things we are familiar with in this world. Christianity consequently becomes identified with a particular human culture or set of values. One’s specific cultural norms are exalted to become the eternal truths of the Christian faith. Syncretism, in other words, happens. Christianity becomes utterly domesticated as it loses the transcendent ability to critique the prevailing culture.

Relevance for Us Today

What is the relevance of this recounting of Barth’s “conversion” experience? Christians in Singapore are certainly not immune to an overly close identification of Christianity with our ethnic cultures and national values, and this account could serve as a salutary warning for us. But I wish to focus on a different application. I wish to suggest that something similar to what happened in Barth’s context is happening in present-day America, and there is therefore a decision which we (like Barth) have to make.

The background to my observation is the overwhelming influence evangelical Christianity in America has on the Christian scene in Singapore (and many other parts of the world). The authors of the books we read, the songs we sing, the videos we watch, the podcasts we hear—come predominantly from the American evangelical community. As a result, our Christianity mirrors theirs to a great extent, in terms of the way we organise the life of our churches, the issues we are concerned about and the campaigns or projects we run.

Evangelical Christians in America are also one of the most solid blocs of support for US President Donald Trump. According to a well-known exit poll, around 80% of the white evangelical vote went to him during the 2016 presidential elections. Throughout the tumultuous course of his presidency so far, with one controversy and scandal after another, evangelical support for Trump has proved to be unwavering.

At a “Values Voter Summit” in Oct 2017, Trump was feted like a rock star by evangelicals and given one standing ovation after another. Key evangelical leaders continue to heap praises on Trump with language which borders on the embarrassing. This man, despite the numerous things he has said and done which (on most accounts) go against the clear teachings of Christianity, can do no wrong in the eyes of these staunch supporters,

Commentators give one key explanation for this unlikely alliance: Trump has been diligently advancing the desired agenda of evangelicals in America, and they reciprocate with their adoration and votes. Part of this agenda is based on what most conservative Christians of all times and places would agree are Biblical imperatives, like an opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

But other aspects of this agenda seem strange to Christians who are not Americans, like an anti-(non-white) immigration drive, a desire to dismantle universal health care, support for the freedom to own guns, a desire for the reduction or even abolition of taxes, a push for the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of modern-day Israel and a deep skepticism and apathy concerning the environmental crisis caused by global warming. These are norms of a particular American sub-culture, raised to the status of non-negotiable Christian tenets.

Undergirding all these is the belief strongly held by many American evangelicals that the authority and resources of the state should be used to further these “Christian” principles in order to preserve America’s status as a “Christian” nation with an exceptional calling. Such a belief arose from the unique set of circumstances surrounding the founding of America as a nation and her subsequent history. It is so strong that, by comparison, the character and behaviour of the leader in question and the harm he causes to other members of the American and world community seem almost irrelevant. Advancing our “Christian” agenda “trumps” all else.

What it all amounts to is this: A majority of evangelicals in American have embraced a version of Christianity which is closely identified with a unique American sub-culture. The outcome is similar to that we have seen for early 20th century Germany. Christianity loses its transcendence and is reduced to a servant of one’s culture. Syncretism happens.

Qualifications are, of course, in order. Just as not every Christian in Germany supported Kaiser Wilhelm II when he invaded Belgium, there are significant pockets of evangelicals in America today who hold on to a more transcendent form of Christianity and who oppose this unholy matrimony to Trump. But the fact that these brave souls constitute a small minority gives us pause for thought.

Should Christians in Singapore continue to absorb thoughtlessly the brand of evangelical Christianity exported from America? Should we not hear more from our brothers and sisters from other parts of the world? Should we not go back to the past and search for the rich insights offered by other Christian voices in our two millennia-long heritage?

The uncritical support shown by the ninety-three prominent German intellectuals for the Kaiser opened Barth’s eyes to the dead-end of liberal Christianity. Should not the uncritical support shown by the majority of American evangelicals for Donald Trump open our eyes to the dangers of blindly following what might also be a syncretized version of Christianity?

Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.