Thursday, November 01, 2018

C. S. Lewis and Karl Barth: Perfect Together… In Another World

Karl Barth was 12 years older than C. S. Lewis. (And lived 5 years longer.) They never met. And St. Clive was fairly sure he didn’t like Barth’s ideas anyway--although he probably only heard about Barth from a few students at Oxford. In any event, as far as I can tell, they never read each others' work.

But what’s odd is that, writing about the same time, they both deeply influenced the Christian church in the twentieth century (and beyond). 

Most importantly, they agreed on a common theme: 
There is another world far better than the one we inhabit—accessible through the imagination (for Barth through the biblical narrative and theological voices, for Lewis through the Bible and Christian humanists). And that world should inform and transform our lives in this world.
Karl Barth on these worlds
My Wednesday night C. S. Lewis class took a hiatus for Halloween, and so I’m able to step  back and reflect on a paper I’ve delivering for the Karl Barth Society of North America at the American Academy of Religion meeting next month. In it I look at Barth’s view of the world in his epic Romans commentary and what that specific term reveals about his theology. (Answer: a lot.) In Romans, commenting on the phrase “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4), Barth writes
“In this name [Jesus Christ] two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown.” Karl Barth (my bold)
And in that unknown other name and other world, we find true life and salvation. But where do we know about this other unknown world? It is through the Scripture, the Word of God—where we meet (as he declared in a talk of the same name) “the strange, new world within the Bible,” where God in Christ is present.

Imagination, our portal to this other world
And as I mentioned last week in this blog, Lewis's imagination was critical for understanding Jesus. (I use the term “critical” advisedly and somewhat ironically—this isn’t critical rationality, but what is critical imagination.) Grasping Jesus’s redemption meant that he took in Jesus is the “true myth.” And that is an act of imagination. 

And so I wonder, How we nurture our lives imaginatively? Are we able to bring together these two, seemingly opposite, aspects of human life?

For Barth, it would be immerse ourselves in the biblical narrative, not just one or two “favorite verses,” but the sweep of God’s story in Scripture. In some ways, Barth’s 13 volume Church Dogmatics is his spiritual reading of Scripture and how we grow and become formed by God's Word and world. 

For Lewis, steeped in the humanities, there is the Bible, but there is certainly more. And that’s why—if I had to chose—I prefer him as a spiritual source. Lewis certainly grasped the depth of Scripture. He also took in this reality from humanist and thus imaginative sources like John Donne, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, George MacDonald (who, for what it’s worth) has never really spoken to me) and even The Aeneid by Virgil. He also, in fact, imaginatively created the world of Narnia, and of space travel.

Christian life necessarily involves imagination. In writing this post, I came across a fascinating 2016 blog post on how Barth and Lewis had substantial agreement on the nature of “myth” in Christianity. The term myth didn't mean untrue tails, but to meaningful narratives. Myth is at the intersection of their thought. My interest lies in a slightly different direction. It is in the fact that, however rational, these two leading twentieth century Christian thinkers (and thinkers they were) both knew that Christian life and faith depended on more than rational thought alone. God indeed is accessible in these myths, these narratives, through the imagination.
“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” C.S. Lewis 
Can God speak through myths? Do we need our imagination to be fully alive in faith? To both questions both Lewis and Barth said Yes. And to be sure, they answered the How and Where in slightly different ways. And that's why both are still valuable for us today.

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