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Returning to Solitude

Returning to Solitude

The final drive of our family vacation was from the Beaumont area to Austin. The kids had just finished lunch and said goodbye to their grandparents. Alaina was napping. And I was driving while listening to Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology on audiobook. The realization that vacation would soon be over had washed over the entire family. I would soon be returning to work ... and soon returning to social media.

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With all this in mind, I chuckled ironically at how fitting the words of Barth in the chapter "Solitude" struck me. In this third part of Evangelical Theology, Barth describes "threats" to the theology contained in the earlier chapters. And the first such threat is the apparent—whether legitimate or not—solitude experienced by such a theologian (note that by this Barth means one who has experienced the "event of faith"):

Whoever takes up the subject of theology discovers himself immediately, recurrently, and inevitably banished into a strange and notoriously oppressive solitude.
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Such isolation is hard to bear because fundamentally it seems not to correspond to the essence of theology. (110-111)

How often matters of theology or publican theologian figures become "self vs. the world." Or in the historical case of Athanasius—Contra Mundum. There is an isolating nature of practiced theology that does not seem to reflect the shared faith of the community—though Barth does note the "solitude of the community" which it "dare not try to break" in the face of the world (115). Yet still, Barth has more in mind the experience of the isolated individual:

Often enough the theologian will experience visible proofs or justifications for his feeling that he stands alone in this calling. He alone seems involved in what we described in the second series of these lectures as the wonderment, concern, and commitment that make a man a theologian. Even in the community and, worst of all, among all too many of his fellow theologians, the theologian seems to stand and persevere alone. Perhaps he is not so completely alone as he, at especially troubled moments, may assume! (115)

These words struck me as descriptive not only of what I witness in the theological community but also what I often feel in my heart—a crippling solitude that I alone understand the weight of a situation (something akin to a self-imposed schism):

Instead of finding support, he will often receive the painful impression that innumerable Christians and non-Christians apparently find it quite easy to withdraw more or less unscathed from the shock that makes one a theologian. (116)

At this point, it is good to recall that Barth is describing a solitude that is a threat to theology. How often do we (I!) desire—whether openly or secretly—to steer into this threat to the Christian community? This solitude stands before each theologian as a possibility but also the dangerous possibility to adopt superficially and on false presumptions. The urge to become the theologian Contra Mundum is to be resisted. It should never be avoided either:

It is likely that theology will scarcely ever become popular, as little with the pious as with the children of this world, precisely because of the ethical and practical disturbance that issues from it directly and indirectly. Whoever involves himself in theology, if he does this seriously, must be ready and able, in a given situation, to endure and bear loneliness just in respect to his practical ethics. (119-120)

All of these thoughts struck me as familiar, accusatory, and potential predictors of experience returning to the social sphere that I've pleasantly lived without. And so as I drove through Houston, I reflected on how to gird my heart for my return to solitude while working to negate this real threat to theology. I am without all the answers, but thanks to Barth I feel better prepared to reject any self-imposed schism no matter how real the solitude feels.

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