April 5, 2016

One Good Idea to Change the World

I recently came across an intriguing statement from the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth: “I don’t believe in the empty tomb,” Barth is rumored to have said; “I believe in the risen Lord.” According to those who know Barth’s work well, “he is known for down-playing the empty tomb, both in print and in verbal answers to questions” – this according to my new favorite Facebook page, Karl Barth for Dummies. This is the case, according to Barth, because the resurrection isn’t strictly an historical event; it’s a theological, indeed an eschatological (that is, end of time) truth.

I’ve never really understood Barth, although I’ve long been drawn to his manner of thinking. For him, if I can put it in a decent nutshell, God isn’t something we can imagine or readily engage; nor is God’s will something we can reasonably discern. God is Other. And we are, from time to time, utterly foolish when we try to draw the Other closer, to make it more like the ‘ground of our being.’

As I said, I don’t fully get it, but what I do understand is that there is a passion, a drive, and a conviction behind and within him. There’s something other-worldly which undoubtedly inspired Barth, and it seems he kept pursuing that truth throughout the whole of his life – as a teacher, as a pastor; above all, as a follower of Jesus. Even though Barth scholars will always have much more to say than what I just described, I find the most interesting thing about his thinking is where it comes from in his life. Whatever led this man to write, literally, volumes upon volumes of dense theology was the power of one lasting inspiration, the power of one idea.

And one great inspiration can, it seems, change the world.

This is something of an Easter-tide epiphany for me, too. And it’s something that I hope will continue to mold and shape my own discipleship and life, not to mention my own parish ministry. What I’ve recognized in hearing, again, the gospel accounts of that first Easter and these post-resurrection stories is that in every story there’s a whole lot of confusion and uncertainty, and most of the time it’s from characters who are trying to line up this new truth – or these new truth claims they’re hearing – with what they absolutely know about the shape and structure of the world. Dead is dead, they believe; nothing rises again.

But what God did, it now seems to me, was plant a new profound truth in the world. And when it grew up and reached certain people, it changed the way they saw everything. They couldn’t prove it. They couldn’t point to it as an historical, scientific ‘fact.’ They knew it as fundamentally true, and it has forever changed the world. And on Easter Day, tens of millions of people from all over this planet gathered to hear and receive, once again, this one profound idea.

I’m also a big fan of TED Talks and, more recently, NPR’s “The TED Radio Hour.” I didn’t realize until recently that TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and the organization was founded as recently as 1984, stating on its website that it exists for “spreading ideas.” That’s it: “Our agenda is to make great ideas accessible and spark conversation,” they write. The collaborative, creative, inspired streams that flowed together to create TED in the first place have grown into a living source of water for millions upon millions of people. All of whom gravitate toward this center which offers nothing more, nothing less than “great ideas” and “conversation.”

The church is also in this work, and the Body of Christ, in all its diversity, is doing a pretty remarkable job, at that. This seems to me a particularly helpful Easter-tide epiphany, and one, I hope, which will continue to refresh, challenge, and nourish me. You see, there’s always room in our common life for conversations about strategy and implementation, goals and objectives, but there’s never room to forget why we exist: because we, too, were once touched by a new profound truth planted in this world. We can’t explain it, nor can we ever manage it, but we can point to it and live in it, as if God’s Good News and the lifestyle practices of God’s Kingdom were the only things that matter, most of all.

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