It may seem strange that a chapter in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics that began with such a harsh criticism of human religion, ends with a discussion of true religion. Remember Barth’s sweeping statement? “Religion is unbelief.” Religion reveals the sin and pride of humanity, grasping after divine power and trying to justify itself. Even Christianity did not escape Barth’s blowtorch. In many ways, it is just another religion in the world of human religion.
How, then, could Barth contemplate arguing that Christianity is, nevertheless, the true religion?
Of course, the fact that Barth would consider any religion true also offends our post-modern sensibilities. Either all religions are equally true, we might rather he say, or all religions are false. But, then, we have to remember that Barth was modern and not post-modern. He was, if he was nothing else, a seeker after truth, committed to exposing all falsehood.
So why does he discuss “true” religion at all?
The simple answer is that this was where Barth was headed all along. His critique of human religion was nothing other than he attempt to show that what makes the “true religion” true does not lie within the noun “religion”. It lies in the adjective “true” which depends for its truth upon Jesus Christ, who is the truth of God. Jesus Christ is God’s Word, his revelation. He is God’s Word made flesh. Jesus Christ reveals the true God and the true human being. As the true God, we see in Jesus Christ God’s freedom and grace. As the true human being, we see in Jesus Christ service and love.
Therefore, the truth of Christianity does not lie in its impressive institutions or buildings, in its theology or ethics, or even in any benefit it provides to humanity. The truth of Christianity is Jesus Christ who makes himself heard within its sphere of service. The presence of Jesus Christ himself, not just the Christianity talking about him, but his active work in Christianity through his Spirit, makes Christianity not just a religion, but the Church, his own body, and it makes its members not just Christians, but the children of God.
This is consistent with Barth’s theological approach. The whole first volume of his Church Dogmatics has been dedicated to sweeping away the influence of liberal theology, which starts its investigation from human concerns and needs and experiences. Instead, Barth argues, Christian theology begins with Jesus Christ, God’s Word, the true God and the true human being.
This is why Barth’s analogy of the sun and earth is so important. The earth represents Christianity. It has no light of its own. It is dark. The sun is Jesus Christ. It is pure light. But the sun shines and its light reaches the earth, and the earth is bathed in reflected light. By that light human beings see the world around them. In the same way, the light of Christianity is Jesus Christ. If there is any light in any of Christianity’s teaching or ministry, it is only reflected light. And if it should close the windows and draw the curtains and seek its own light, all would be dark. This is what liberal theology has done. It has closed the curtains on its only light, and all that is left is stumbling around in darkness.
Barth’s theological method is an attempt to open the curtains and to let the Sun of Righteousness shine again upon his body, the Church. Then and only then will there be true religion.