Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt

barthBarth devoted one of his lectures that formed the basis of his little work Evangelical Theology to the subject of doubt as an obstacle to theology. Having given some thought to the subject doubt recently, I pulled it off the shelf and I found it worth briefly outlining.

Two Types

Barth begins by noting two types of doubt that might arise for the theologian. First, there is the very “natural” doubt that comes with the territory, which is “susceptible to treatment” (pg. 121). When you’re doing theology, you’re asking questions about the nature of the faith. You’re taking things apart in order to put them back together again in a rational, coherent fashion. It is inevitable that in the process of taking things apart, you struggle or question as to whether the original shape made any sense. This is the doubt that comes with working everything through as thoroughly as possible because we do not possess God’s own knowledge of himself. Even though we work from revelation, we must eat “by the sweat of our brow”. The danger here is being a “sluggard” that fails to put things back together.

There is a second form of doubt, however. Barth says this one is far more dangerous, which is troublesome because his long-winded explanation of it makes it hard to pin down exactly. It seems to be an uneasiness that there is even any point to the enterprise of theology at all. It is the introduction of a note of embarrassment at the outset that renders the whole conversation suspect. It is the swaying between Yes and No as to whether there is anything to even discuss, or whether we’re not simply engaging in an exercise of trying to describe our own “pious emotions” (pg. 124). It’s not the honest doubting that comes naturally with the asking of questions, but the doubting that asks, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) It doubts the connection between God’s works and words to the task of theology itself. It is the kind of doubt that isn’t dealt with in answers, but must be “healed.”

Three Sources

Barth then “briefly” notes three reasons this latter form of doubt might arise. (As if Barth could ever “briefly” do anything.) First, it might rise in the face of “the powers and principalities” of the world. In looking about at the worlds of economics, politics, art, the newspapers–the world of “real life”–the theologian might be tempted to doubt the relevance or reality of the message he preaches. What can the Gospel really say to that world conflict? Who has time for theology in the face of the truly pressing issues of the day? Could it ever really have said anything in the first place?

The Church itself is another source of doubt in theology. Theologians and preachers have to look at the church, its history, with all of the disunity, ugliness, and petty weakness on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly they may come away jaded at times. In the face of ecclesiastical horrors, wars, heresy trials, and nonsensical squabbles, it might seem perverse to labor at theology.

Saving the deepest root for last, Barth points out that it might not be that “the world impresses him so much or that the Church impresses him so little” (pg. 128), but that his own innate flaws as an individual might be the chink in the armor of his faith.  Complicating things, yet again, Barth subdivides this into two possible iterations.

The first is that of a theologian whose public theology does not match his private practice. He has a very solid public theology that is ordered under the word of God, but his practical life  is ordered by any passing whim or principle. In this sense, he has put himself in the place of a wounded conscience.  Of course, this source of doubt is not unique to theologians, but is the common provenance of all Christians.

The inverse possibility is that he has so engulfed himself in theology, he’s failed to have a normal life. His interests do not extend into the normal range of human affairs, to the point where theology or church-life all but consumes him. At that point, he is but a step away from burnout or boredom, which can lead to doubt.

Three Aphorisms on Doubt

At the end of these meditations Barth gives three “aphorisms” on doubt for theologians worth quoting in full:

  1. No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have any doubt that for some reason or other and in some way or other he is also a doubter. To be exact, he is a doubter of the second unnatural species, and he should not doubt that his doubt is by no means conquered. He might just as well–although this would certainly not be “well”–doubt that he is likewise a poor sinner who at the very best has been saved like a brand from the burning.
  2. He should not also deny that his doubt, in this second form, is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihilthe power of destruction–where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely  ashamed of it.
  3. But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it. But the theologian should not despair, because this age has a boundary beyond which again and again he may obtain a glimpse when he begs God, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Even within this boundary, without being able simply to do away with doubt, he can still offer resistance, at least like the Huguenot woman who scratched Resistes! on the windowpane. Endure and bear it!

-Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132

As I mentioned, I’ve been giving some thought to the problem of doubt. There is a natural place for the first kind of doubt in the Christian life, as Barth notes. It’s fine to pick things apart and re-examine what you’ve learned–in a sense, doubting in order to believe. At the same time, I’ve also found that our culture, and recently certain wings of Evangelicalism, have taken to valorizing nearly all doubt to an unhealthy degree. Doubt is never to be talked about as something to be resisted, endured, struggled through, but is rather celebrated and romanticized as a sort of rite of passage into relevance and authenticity. It is either subtly or openly commended as a pathway to a “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant” form of faith, brave enough to doubt even God himself.

The problem is, I don’t see scripture anywhere commending doubt in God. It allows for it. It acknowledges it. It forgives it. Much as Barth teaches us, there is room for it–there is a justification for the doubter. And yet, the state of doubt is not the end for which we strive. It is not a good place to be or even to praise. This is why I found Barth’s aphorisms to be filled with much biblical good sense. For those struggling or looking to counsel those who struggle, we find here a pastoral, humble note that acknowledges our frailty and sin, yet still exhorts us onward in hope and faith for that coming day when doubt will be overwhelmed by the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt

  1. I think what is happening in the ex-evangelical community is a conflation between doubt and discovering a deeper, more infinite God than the caricature that our fundy Sunday school teachers indoctrinated us all with. Doubt is seen as the antithesis of the smug patronizing certitude that we never really had a comeback for. But this gives certitude too much credit for accurately exhaustively representing God. Mystery is the opposite of certitude, not doubt, and certitude is not faith but idolatry.

    • Yeah, I’m still processing what we mean by adequate, certain, certitude, mystery, etc. But, I think you’re right as to the overall trend. It’s classic pendulum-swing momentum hooked into a broader societal movement.

      • I see my role as providing a less drastic alternative to the fundamentalist bogeyman we’ve all got in our heads. I really am starting to wonder how many kids who grew up evangelical in the 80′s and 90′s will be atheists by 2015.

      • I think much of this is about being a reactionary with integrity. I will probably never transcend lashing out against my roots but hopefully I can do so with integrity.

  2. Pingback: Barth and Doubt
  3. Interesting post. I understand where Barth is coming from but I do not know if it applies to the doubt that is experienced in high crisis times. I was a chaplain at a major hospital in Texas for 2 years. I was very frustrated and dismayed about how any doubt and wrestling with God was often side tracked because it was thought that we Chrisitans should never doubt. Or maybe that doubt was the opposite of faith. Both I do not see as being exactly true. Some families would tell me they did not want anything “negative” said in the hospital bed room becauase it might hurt the chances of their loved one pulling through. Barth seems more interested in intellectual doubt than the wrestling with God in the hospital room. But anyways I am interested in shame, anxiety, and doubt in the chrisitan life. I think Chrisitanity has a lot to say about them that is counter cultural and not always what one might expect (exactly).

  4. Pingback: tgif | Many Things
  5. In that theology is an activity of the intellect it qualifies for what Paul called knowledge that puffs up. Our head loves to take command of our life when life issues from the heart and human spirit. When head takes command like that, it often shuts down the wisdom of our heart and our spirit’s ability to tune in to God’s Spirit.

    The outcome of head shutting down heart and spirit is doubt, anxiety, depression, emptiness and loss of meaning.

    So I say on the contrary, doubt in a product of theology. Too much theology creates doubt and destroys faith if our head takes hold, gets into the driver’s seat and shuts down faith fo the heart.

  6. Pingback: Perfection And Incarnation (Or, Some Thoughts on Zack Hunt’s Imperfect Bible) | Reformedish
  7. Pingback: Doubting 101

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s