God and The Nothingness by John E McKenna

When I first read Karl Barth’s essay on ‘God and Nothingness’ (CD III. 3, pp. 289-368), I felt perhaps for the first time in my life that God truly loved me. I had been exposed very early in my teens to the writings of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and studied at Princeton University under Walter Kaufmann, a leading scholar in existential philosophy in the United States. The nothingness of the world and the nothingness of the poets of the Beat Generation and my own nothingness were very important in my experience. No one has ever easily expressed the torment that exists in one’s life when we would think to articulate the existence of ‘le néant’ or ‘das Nichtige’ in the world. It is these exquisite kinds of torment most never try to explain. Who can blame them?

When I first began to study at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1975, I would not read Barth. I had been a part of the Jesus Movement in Southern California in the early 70’s and I was full of the works of Francis Schafer, who had put below his line the likes of the great Swiss Theologian. I had read enough authors who wrote below the line in my time and did not want to read anymore of them. But there was a professor at Fuller, James Daane, who took an interest in me enough so that practically every day when he passed me on the campus he would whisper in my ear that Barth was a genius. He did it enough so that one day I decided to go into MacAllister Library and sit down and read and find out what Daane was talking about. With all my problems, my weaknesses, and my sinful tendencies, I limped into the library to read Barth for the first time. When I staggered out of the library a few hours later, I said to the first person I met that reading Barth was better for me than Amie Semple McPhearson laying hands on me and praying for my healing. That was around 1977.

I have been reading the great Swiss theologian ever since. Barth argued that the ‘Nothingness of God’ was real and ought not to be confused with the nothingness of the world. The question of the significance of the verb ‘to be’ is subjected to a manifold of reason. The ‘nothingness’ possesses existence before God just as the ‘somethingness’ of the creation does. It is not merely that which is not. It belongs to the perfection of God’s Being and Nature before the Creation. Before Him, individual distinctiveness belongs to the ‘nothingness’ of being in the world. It belongs on a basis that is not God or the ‘somethingness’ of the creation. It belongs on a basis that is unique to what it is. It belongs to the ontic connection between God in His freedom and the created freedom of all worldly reality. It possesses an ‘is-ness’ that is its own existence different from God’s and sui generis with reference to the created thing the world’s existence is.

Barth can claim here that the ‘nothingness’ of the creation exists as that which God does not will, but I believe him to mean this in the sense that the divine will of His free being and nature is such that God can and does will continually to create out of the ‘nothingness’ that which confirms His calling in the beginning the creation ‘very good’. He reigns over the ‘nothingness’ as well as over the ‘somethingness’ of the creation He has created as ‘good’. God is against the ‘nothingness’ of that which is not His will and as such can and does create out of it that which can and does affirm and confirm His will in a ‘good’ creation. Barth would say that God stands always over and against that which would oppose with the ‘nothingness’ His good will for His good creation. God controls and conquers the negative aspects of the ‘nothingness’ that can and are used to threaten the significance of the existence of the world and the human race. Victimized as they may be by the threat of the ‘nothingness’, God is free to oppose and conquer the threat with a reality we may apprehend nowhere else but in Jesus Christ. It is as the Redeemer and Creator of the world that Christ reconciles all things to God, including the ‘nothingness’ of His good creation.

In this essay, I would like to share with my reader the divine healing I believe is inherent in the transformation of our human condition from its torment under the threat of the nothingness into the belief that belongs to the life that has to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, as Barth has shown us. Barth’s discussion of das Nichtige would expose the way it is possible for us to misconceive the concept’s significance in the reality of the world in which we have our being. There is an ‘impossible possibility’ that we may grasp in it which is a delusion about its significance in the world. The discussion turns out to be an affirmation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. This affirmation has been confirmed, argues the great Swiss theologian, first of all with the Incarnation of the Word of God. He claims that the philosophical question about why there is something rather than nothing is resolved with the man Jesus Christ is. Both the negative and positive aspects of the Creation Out of Nothing may be thought to be ‘good’, even ‘very good’, in this One. He is in himself the proof that the Creation is ‘good’, but He is this in a complete transformation of humanity in the New Creation. His humanity is the beginning of the New Creation and as such He is known as the New Man. In Him, evil, sin, and death have been overcome. The nothingness of humanity is the precise place where there has been created by God Himself the time of the New Creation. The nothingness of the world is in fact the ground where space and time have been made for the New Man, the first born and the beginning of the New Creation. A new dimension has been added to the created reality of the world that contradicts the contradiction of evil against God’s affirmation that the world is His ‘very good’ creation.

In the beginning, the nothingness of the creation possessed a positive dimension of life natural to the order of the world, when mankind was made in the Image of God. But after its fall from God the nothingness of the creation became involved in the mystery of evil, sin, and the curse of death upon it. Barth has written:

Any roads leading away from it (the Glory of God’s Eternity) can lead only to utter nothingness, and therefore cannot be roads at all. Since movement away from it is movement into the utter nothingness, there can be no such movement. (CD II.1, p. 629)

In some sense, after the fall, every road leads elsewhere than the Glory of God and the Adam becomes other than the Image of God. Humanity on this road finds not the purpose for which it was made in the beginning, but a warping of the original intention and a shape that has twisted into a kind of non-being the substance of its nature and being. This is the abyss so famous throughout the literature that records the primal screams of a race lost from its foundations and set upon a self-destructive journey whose torment is, as I have said, a most exquisite kind of suffering. It is human pathos lose from the divine passion of the Creator and Redeemer of the world.

The evil and sin and suffering in this world is such that it is possible within it to choose to do nothing rather than to lay hold of the secret of God with us. We can do nothing. We can with all that we attempt do nothing. We can with all of our success do nothing. This is the negative aspect of das Nichtige suffocating our lives in God’s ‘good’ Creation. The nothingness haunts our lives with a freedom whose existence is lost from its definition in the divine freedom of the Creator and Redeemer of the world. Man is free absolutely. His freedom is his prison. He cannot escape from it. His very autonomy dwarfs his will with an impotence that leaves him speechless in the vast indifference of the world’s immensity. He lives there knowing its infinity stretches out towards the forever unknown without regard for his desires, decisions, and imagination. All his paths lead him here. All his pathos is comprehended with this immense negation of his precious freedom. His life stands condemned in the nothingness of the world, about it he can do nothing. I knew in my youth people who took seriously this condition of our existence in the world. For them, suicide was always a very rational means of ending the agony of the problem of das Nichtige.

There has been in the history of human thought ways developed to get round this condition. The centuries are strewn with veils of mysticism whose magical swirls have allured many to their nowhere. Just as popular have been the stoic ideals with which humanity has whipped itself into the shapes of a fervor capable of denying the nothingness of the creation. Mystics and patriots have slithered through and marched across those landscapes in time where the human race has moved from its beginning towards its judgment of God. But so have the believers in Christ.

Our lives, says Barth, can bear the fruits that indicate His Light does shine for as long as forever is from God’s eternity. This is the positive aspect of the Nothingness of the ‘good’ Creation the world is from the mouth of God. While remaining very sensitive to the possibility of choosing to make something out of the Nothingness that is impossible in God’s ‘good’ Creation, Barth claims that the Lord has provided that ‘something’ in Jesus Christ. Self-destruction is a mode by which we are able to do nothing in contrast to the bearing of that fruit in human life, which is truly the work of the Creator and Redeemer of the world. The nothingness of the creation, for those who suffer in the chasms of its abyss, caverns existence with the screams of the human race across centuries of torment and agony. It is that prison of human suffering which our actual prisons only poorly imitates. But for the one who believes in the One who is resurrected as the beginning of the New Creation it is the true beginning of time and eternity meeting in one place. Here is the place God has chosen to put His Name. Here is where He calls His people to come and do what is right in His Eyes. Here is created the space and time where humanity can actually give Him thanks for His ‘good’ Creation and His great confirmation of all created reality. Here in this space and this time humanity may live in God’s real presence for them. What the negative aspects of the nothingness deny is affirmed by the very creative and positive act of God’s power to make as the man Jesus Christ His Word heard in His Creation. It would belittle the transcendent freedom of the great I-AM that God is for us in the world not to understand the positive dimension there is in this Naming of God in Christ. In His New Creation, a new path has been created out of the nothingness of the ‘good’ creation, a path that does not lead humanity towards the place that threatens us but to the place where God call us to come and find there His holy love is for us. Against the fury of the tyranny of death stands the Lord calling us as a man to Himself. The Holy Love and Divine Passion of the one who is who He truly is with us will finally establish the ‘very good’ Creation with us. Barth heard this Word with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I produced an article on the concept of ‘vanity’ which is central to the Book of Ecclesiastes (STJ, Vol. 45, October 1996). In that essay, I tried to show that the Preacher of Israel could not properly be understood while interpreting his concept of ‘vanity’ as if he was propounding existentialism of modern thought. Popular renderings of the term in Ecclesiastes ought not to be defined by notions that have to do with Sartre or Camus or their disciples. Translations of the term with words like ‘purposeless’, ‘meaningless’, and ’empty’, etc. ought to be abandoned. Even though we are to understand ‘vanity’ in such a way that the independence of the nature of world-experience from God is to be fully appreciated, yet the Preacher of Israel calls for trust in God. The independence of the nature of world-experience is to be conceived as dependent upon Him. Even though the world lacks meaning and significance and purpose in and of itself, it is to be given meaning, significance, and purpose by God. Trust Him! God breaks the apparent chains of our autonomy in which we imprison ourselves Himself. Our trust in God does not prove to be an empty gesture. God will justify our hope in Him. He will provide for us a destiny with which He truly is for us. Just for this reason, the Preacher calls Israel’s youth to be the People of God. He exhorts them to trust the God who is to be trusted in this world. Out of the ‘vanity’ will come His provision.

The call can seem like the cry of the blood of Abel. But it is the blood of Christ that is calls at last. The contingency of the world and world experience is ultimately given meaning in the context of this blood. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:17 employs the term ‘vanity’ to contrast the resurrection of Jesus Christ with the negative aspects of the term possibly understood with the Preacher. The New Testament’s answer to the kind of trust to which the Preacher of Israel called the nation’s youth is hidden in the divine power of the freedom of God’s Word to create a New Man and make a New Beginning of a New Creation out of the Old One. The transformation envisioned is accomplished with a divine freedom that was impossible to anticipate. The power of the Word of God to create out of nothing and to affirm out of nothing, in real interaction with the world and its mankind, is to be understood here. The resurrection and ascension of the Lord from the dead establishes a new center around which God has freely chosen to make His Creation ‘good’. Here is the place where we are to go and do what is right in His Eyes—give thanks for the way He has chosen to give meaning to the freedom of our lives. Here we serve the Living God.

It is not popular among scholars in our time to read in this way the Old Testament in the light of the New. So far as I know, no Old Testament scholar has given any notice to my article’s argument. Judged from this kind of response by the academy to my claims, I cannot help but think that the great chasm between Biblical and Dogmatic Theologies persists to the detriment of both the Church and the Academy. But I would argue that, without this kind of resonance of the Old with the New, we do not hear with our biblical interpretation the Word of God as it is spoken to us in the Bible. Neither the original intention or the ultimate purposes of the biblical texts are grasped when the significance of the texts cannot bear to us the meaning that is bound up with the strength of this kind of resonance between the Old and the New inherent in the Biblical World. With this resonance, ‘vanity’ in Ecclesiastes does not signify meaninglessness or purposelessness in the life of the Preacher or Israel. It signifies that meaning must come from God. Thus, Israel is exhorted to trust the Lord God with its life in the world. When we read the argument without this dimension in it, the book can be thought to contradict the great orthodoxy of Israel’s Torah and Prophets. It has often been thought that, built up around the claims that the righteous always prosper and the wicked always perish, Ecclesiastes would negate the hope in God called for in Israel’s life and worship and trust in the Word of God. Interpreted in some flat and static manner, very foreign to the world of proverbial wisdom, the book has readily been understood as dealing with the ‘absurdity’ of the world defined for us by existential philosophies. But to make a Sartre or a Camus out of the Preacher in this manner is to mistake the nature of the biblical world. This is a world that is made to reflect in some real sense the actual nature and being of its Maker, its Creator and Redeemer. It is to this ancient trust that the ‘Gatherer’ calls His People. His gathering has been rewarded with the resurrected and ascended life in Jesus Christ. Because He lives, we may live and bear a meaning that only He, with His Resurrection and Ascension, can give human life. In Him, there is no ‘vanity’ in the negative sense of the term, but only ‘life’ out of the nothingness of the ‘good’ creation. This is the positive dimension given created reality forever by the life of God Himself. It is His Word that we are asked to hear and not the silence of the emptiness that appears to surround the created reality in which we know our freedom.

I thank God for Karl Barth’s work. I could not have written my argument without Barth’s essay on das Nichtige. For me, he is the theologian who attempted, in the light of the Word of God become flesh in the world, to overcome the fragmentation and alienation that would allow the ‘vanity’ of the world to be understood as a servant of the Creator and not merely the plaything of the adversary. The world’s ‘vanity’ is not some absurd, meaningless, or purposeless attribute of the existence of the ‘nothingness’ of human freedom in a world free of meaning and significance. It is the very potential which has been reached with the coming of the Messiah of the New Creation, the very purpose of God with the Old Creation. In this way, we are asked to center our thought and efforts on the reality and actuality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the space and time of the created reality of the world. It is this humanity of God’s Word that is the answer to the existentialists, the mystics, and the idealists who seek in our time to define humanity in some other sense than the sense God Himself in His own freedom has given us today. Many, I believe, would benefit by reading Barth along these lines.

Perhaps we may fruitfully quote here the Gospel of St. John:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:15)

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