Recently I post, on social media, what I thought was a clever quip by Karl Barth.
“There is a story of the astronomer who, after Karl Barth’s sermon, said: ‘I’m an astronomer, you know, and as far as I am concerned, the whole of Christianity can be summed up by saying: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”’ Barth’s retort: ‘I am just a humble theologian, and as far as I am concerned the whole of astronomy can be summed up by saying “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.”
From Adam Johnson’s Atonement a Guide for the Perplexed, p 13. Johnson is citing John D. Godsey, “Reminiscences of Karl Barth”, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin (2002), 321.
I attempted to do more than paste the quote without context and so I preceded it with the comment: “Some might wonder why theology can’t be simple and straightforward.” I believe that this was Johnson’s context for including the quote.
A few readers assumed that I was genuinely asking why theology wasn’t more simple. Others took issue with my suggestion that theology was not simple. One person assured me that theology was simple and that we didn’t need books – merely the help of the Holy Spirit. Another suggested that theologians make things complicated – all we need is childlike faith. Truth be told there were only two or three people making these sorts of comments but I suspect they represent a larger group within the church. History and personal experience have revealed that their tribe is not small. It’s all really very simple – we would be better off with the “theologians.” In response to this I want to offer the following analogy.
Thinking theologically is like exploring the oceans.
Is theology simple? Theology is simple in the sense that the ocean has shallow shores that a child can wade out into. The ocean is “simple” in that sense. Walk out a little ways and you are in over your head. The fact that a child can wade in the shallows of the Pacific does not mean that we do not need massive ocean liners to cross, or specialized subs to explore its depths. A child can discover that the ocean is composed of water; salty water. There are waves, there are fish. The ocean is blue. It is deep. What more need we say? In a similar way, a child can conclude that God is there, and there is one God, and God is love, God is righteous, etc.. We can read these things straightforwardly from scripture. What more need we say?
There are simple aspects to thinking about God, but even the simplest of things lead quickly to the depths. The shallows of the ocean shore—physically and conceptually— drop off quickly in many places. It is not a long stretch from observing the waves (a simple thing) to asking “Why are there waves? What is a wave? Why is the ocean blue? What does it mean to see something as blue? Why is the ocean salty? How does the ocean affect life on the planet?” In a similar way one might ask – what does it mean to say that God is love? Dare I mention the Holocaust? What do we mean when we say God exists? What does it mean to exist? What does it mean to say that God underwent incarnation? How is God omnipresent without a body – what is there of God to be located anywhere? Does the incarnation affect omnipresence?
We might think the ocean is a straightforward thing; after all it is only water and fish. Boats float, maps direct us… if the weather is good we can make it across; why make it difficult?
We stand on the shoulders of maritime giants when it comes to our knowledge of the sea. So it is with theology. What seems “simple and obvious” today – was not always so simple and obvious. We know what we know about ocean navigation and shipbuilding because tens of thousands of men and women have taken their lives into their hands to navigate it, chart it, sound its depths, catch its fish and brave its waves. Thousands of seagoing vessels have been tested upon the sea and thousands lost. Long before this began, whole civilizations feared the sea. They were ignorant of how to navigate its deeps, and so sailors hugged the shores. Things were not always so obvious. It is a privilege to be able to pick up a book and browse the diagrams, charts, explanations, and images of the sea. What seems as simple as flipping through a book was gained at great effort and cost.
Likewise there are things that seem straightforward theologically – because – for nearly every Christian, someone taught them how to understand the Scriptures and how to think about God. For many this occured from the earliest days of their youth. A basic theology is as familiar to them as their own cultural worldview. They, and we, were taught how to put the sections of the Bible together into a coherent whole. Over the years we forget our teachers and wrongly assume that, “these things are just obvious.” This is not so. Thousands have gone before us, and by God’s help, have put pieces together for us. They have translated the scriptures diligently for us into our own language. With every word we read… merely reading before doing theology… we are being helped along by a translator who went before us. Some teacher taught our forebearers, and they taught our parents, and others in turn taught us.
Theological truth seems straightforward because we have reaped the accumulated efforts of generations of teachers – the same sorts of teachers who we take to be complicating things today.
The Holy Spirit is certainly our guide, our helper, beckoning us to the shore to launch our craft. Somehow the Spirit points some and not others to certain insights. The Spirit did not see fit, however, to allow the church to conclude everything in a single generation. Therefore I assume that likewise, on our little lonesome—with the help of the Spirit—we would not reach the theological understandings that we possess … were we to go it on our own, without those meddlesome theologians. Similarly, we could not scarcely reinvent all of the maritime discoveries in a single lifetime.
Even with all that we know about the ocean, there is much that we still do not know. There are depths of the ocean that can crush our subs. There are waves that can sink our ships. Anyone can easily get lost at sea. Yes, there are shallows. Yes, we can make our way along by hugging the shore, but the shallows connect to the deeps. In unguarded moments of confidence or neglect… a skiff can be swept out into the depths and lost.
Here, the analogy breaks down. The ocean is finite; God is not. We would do better to switch to talk of exploring space for an analogy that gives us the sense of exploring the infinite. Even with all that we know about the Lord God… theology is not simple. God is the God of infinities. We are dealing with the God who utters the universe into existence. In our theology we speak and think about a God who holds all of the subatomic particles of the billions of clusters of stars and galaxies together. We speak of a being who knows the location of every grain of sand, on every planet, in every solar system, in every galaxy littered across the mind bending expanses of the cosmos. And that God could move all of those grains as easily as you blink your eyes. This is the God with whom we have to do. We do well to remember the end of Job’s story.
Job 38:2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?