I mentioned in my last post something about Barth’s sketch of modern man; I like this kind of stuff, the kind of stuff that provides historical perspective and description about the forces that have given birth to where we are presently. I think perspective is one of the most important components towards thinking rightly about God and self. We can’t, as Calvin has rightly emphasized, have a right perspective of ourselves and all of created reality without having perspective from God’s eyes in Christ. And it is an aspect of this kind of perspective that I think Karl Barth provides for us as he simply sketches some of the history that has led us to where we are in the Western world today. Here is Barth highlighting the situation of 18th century man, as a man who seemingly has the world at his fingertips, and yet as a man who really is only, in the end, grasping at the wind; here is Barth:
We have considered the political problem presented by the eighteenth century in particular detail because it is from the political angle that the eighteenth century can be seen most clearly as a whole. Let us now proceed to the attempt to comprehend it under two other aspects which present a less definite picture—the inner and outer forms imparted to life by man as he lived at that time.
By that external form which life has in any age I meant that particular element in its cultural aims and achievements which is evinced fairly consistently throughout its various expressions. Consequently it is possible to identify, with some precision, from the documents of any one of the expressions of this element, the tendency, nature and spirit of its other expressions, and so of the culture of the time as a whole. If there is such an external cast for the eighteenth century, and one that we can identify, it is perhaps most allowable to comprehend it in terms of a striving to reduce everything to an absolute form. Inanimate nature especially, in all its realms, but man’s somatic existence too, the sound that could be spontaneously called forth, with all the possibilities for coloration and different rhythmic patterns which it presented, human language in all its adaptability as a means of expression, social intercourse, individual development and the individual in relation to society—all this abundance of things provided is in the eyes of eighteenth-century man a mass of raw material, of which he believes himself to be the master. This material he confronts as he who has all the knowledge: knowledge of the form, the intrinsically right, fitting, worthy, beautiful form for which all the things provided are clearly intended to be the material, for which they are obviously crying out, and into which, as is plain, they must be brought with all the speed, artistry and energy man has at his command…. [Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 40-1]
I think the thing that stands out most to me from the quote is Barth’s point about man being master over creation. This is different from being a steward, or Thomas Torrance’s ‘Priest’ over creation. It is different because in this account, the one Barth is sketching of eighteenth century man, man believes himself to be autonomous, standing on his own two feet, without any help from a so called god.
We live in a world filled with people seeking to be the masters of their domain—whatever that domain might be—and it is in this pursuit that man becomes entangled with the concerns of this world (and not God’s) in such a way that he or she skips off of the true glory of God (death to self), and instead magnifies his own projected arrogance that he or she thinks defines their existential value in this world.
The bottom line is that we are either for Christ, or against him. If the latter, we will replace the living God and master with the mastering voice of our own head, and our own perceived image. Without God in Christ breaking into this vicious myopic circle, man would be hopeless, left in his sins. We are not the masters …