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Religious righteousness

If for some reason you have never read through Karl Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man, you have one task before you. And don’t just read “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” as awesome as that essay is, and neglect all the others. They are all as deeply moving and relevant today as they ever were. Perhaps more so.

Religious righteousness! There seem[s] to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion—to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the gray sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe—in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion, and militarism—the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the “religious life” go on their uninterrupted way. . . . A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception! We should above all be honest and ask ourselves far more frankly what we really gain from religion. Cui bono? What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, . . . the efforts enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God? Are we even expecting something different from it? Are not we hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way  the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will? Are we not, with our religious righteousness, acting “as if”—in order not to have to deal with reality? Is not our religious righteousness a product of our pride and our despair, a tower of Babel, at which the devil laughs more loudly than at all the others?

~ Karl Barth, “The Righteousness of God,” in The Word of God and the Word of Man, 19-20.


  1. Chris Donato wrote:

    So, then, what’s next? Throwing away the “preaching, baptizing, confirming”? Surely not. Doesn’t Barth argue that it is only through God’s entering, transforming, and, ultimately, ending (those provisional elements of) worship that Christian worship today can truly offer a foretaste of the coming vision of God’s uncreated glory?

    In other words, far from dis-establishing “religion,” doesn’t this quote actually serve as a plank on the way to Barth’s re-establishing of “religion,” albeit in the way described in the previous paragraph?

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  2. mshedden wrote:

    One the other side of the coin couldn’t Barth just as much add in our religious “experience.” As I am reading Dogmatics I am attempting to figure out what else he leaves. Any thoughts Halden?

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Jason Knott wrote:

    Chris–one should read paragraph 17 of the CD for a full description of the “dialectic” which does not leave the judgment on religion any less sharp. Of course “Throwing away the ‘preaching, baptizing, confirming’” could just as easily be a way of hiding from God’s judgment and calling. You have to understand Barth first and foremost as a Reformed theologian, something so many seem to forget. He is, in part, extending the Reformation critique of works-righteousness. Which means, among other things, that we do not find our righteousness anywhere in ourselves, whether in our religion or our critique of it. His controversy with Brunner (“Nien!”) is also helpful, especially in his critique of “a certain kind of kierkegaardianism.”

    Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  4. Chris Donato wrote:

    Being Reformed, that’s exactly how I tend to read him. Thank you for this clarifying note, Jason.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

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