Barth on Mysticism and Atheism

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I wanted to take a break midway through Crockett’s Interstices of the Sublime to write a short post on Barth. Let me take a quick second to address one issue. I realize these summaries on Interstices are dense, believe me I’m having trouble condense it as much as I can. Feel free to post objections, questions, and general comments based on the work. I understand its difficult, hell this is my third time to work through it. However, I hope that these summaries are giving you a general flavor of the power and creativity of this text. Anyway, today I played catch up on Church Dogmatics because I got behind this weekend. Fortunately, I’m back on pace because I had the day off work and school because of this ridiculous snowstorm that hit DC on Friday.

Today I wanted to offer some brief commentary on Barth’s musings on atheism and mysticism in his section entitled The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion. In this section Barth argues that all religions (including Christianity) stand under the judgment of God’s self-revelation. He goes on to profile two responses to religion: mysticism and atheism. Mysticism is an attempt to discard all of the external aspects of religion while withdrawing within to find the deep spiritual truths embedded in religion. Much to Barth’s chagrin, mysticism “leaves religion in peace” (CD I/2, 319). While mysticism is not interested in denouncing religion, atheism “loves iconoclasm” (CD I/2, 321). Atheism screams out its protest in public. It attacks religion as viciously and emphatically as possible. However, atheism doesn’t understand what mysticism already realizes, namely that “absolute denial can have no meaning except against the background of a relative affirmation” (CD I/2, 321). Atheism remains blind to another grave danger. It fails to recognize that religious dogmatism comes in all shapes and forms.

I’ll let Barth have the final word, “And what if the atheist sees his other danger as well: that when his negation of the God of religion and of His own law is complete, new religions may lift up their heads out of the nature and culture and history which are not negated, and out and out of man’s own animal and national existence?” (CD I/2, 322).

In Lacanian terms true atheism is the belief that there is no big Other. Atheism always flirts with danger when it fails to realize how easy it is to create other gods, something Barth realized as well.

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