Monday, July 29, 2013

Only What is Said Kindly is True

Here are some evocative observations from Karl Barth in a letter to a man in Switzerland shortly before Barth’s death:

Basel, 26 November 1968

You very kindly sent me your writing along with an accompanying letter. I thank you for this but also have to admit quite openly that I took no pleasure in reading it.

As opposed to what you learned from the other side, I have to say that precisely “in essentials” I am not at one with you and that I do not expect this publication of yours to have any salutary effect.

Why not? Because I do not detect in your work the slightest trace of what is called in holy scripture the peace of God that passes all understanding.

You say many correct things. But what is correct is not always true. Only what is said kindly is true. You do not speak kindly in a single line.

You utter a powerful No on all sides. It is indeed necessary to say No too. But the right No can only be one which derives from and is upheld by an even more powerful Yes. I hear you say only No.

You accuse. That, too, has to be done. But, again, if this is Christian accusation, it has to be enclosed in the promise, in the glad tidings of God’s grace. In you it is naked accusation.

You demand that others repent. Sometimes one must dare to do this. But only he may do so who himself repents and lives in repentance. You preach down from your high horse, righteous among the unrighteous, pure among the impure.

Dear Mr. N. N., I am in my eighty-third year, I am ahead of you by many years along with their experience of life, and I can only say: It cannot be done as you are trying to do it in your book. A Christian should not speak as you do either to his fellow-Christians or to his fellow-men nor should the church speak to the world.

. . . I concede you mean well. But in my serious opinion you must mean well in a better way.

This has me wondering (and I do not have the philosophical or theological background to do more than wonder). I wonder: If God is love (1 John 4:8)  and love is kind (1 Corinthians 13:4), might we say with Barth that mere facts, however correct, do not fully participate in the Truth unless they are expressed with kindness and toward loving ends? And unless we are able to do so, can we claim to know what we are talking about? How might the answers to these questions inform our speech to and about one another and, for that matter, the rest of creation?

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)


Bob Kusiolek said...

Father Matt,
That was a very interesting post. I'll utter a "Yes" in approval of the thought that kindness counts.

On another occasion, Barth sent a letter to Dr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (co-editor of Christianity Today at the time) in which he addressed the unkind criticism he often received from those who think uttering that powerful "No" is the height of orthodoxy. Barth wrote: "These men have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all."

Indeed, the truth is great than us all!

As Wittgenstein said: "To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter."

Bob Kusiolek

Bob Kusiolek said...

Oops! My third paragraph should have read: "Indeed, the truth is greater than us all!" Truthfully! :-)


Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Bob, for the extra Barth quote. Good and wise words. And the Wittgenstsein quote is wonderful, too.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that Barth was plenty capable of the emphatic, "Nein!" as Emil Brunner experienced.

Interestingly, the collection of letter from which I copied the above also contains a letter from Barth to Brunner's widow soon after his death expressing sympathy and quite conciliatory. I don't know if he ever extended an olive leaf to Brunner while the latter was living.