Barth on Evolution

Barth on Evolution June 24, 2014

Karl Barth wrote the above in a letter to his niece, which you can read on the Faith and Theology blog.

The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation. Thus one’s attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely from faith in God’s revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.

– Karl Barth

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  • Brian P.

    I don’t know the deeper context of the quote, but all Barth here seems to be doing is contrasting a couple models of knowledge acquisition. Is knowledge pushed / revealed, or is it pulled / researched? The difference is possibly mere matter of perspective and attribution of primary agency. One could as easily say that spiritual knowledge is pulled or that scientific knowledge is revealed. Barth is merely playing with the problem of free will. That is, unless… The Genesis distinction is being uniquely called out as the mythological. In this case, Barth is suggesting that the revelation of God is in the myth. Thus rendering it impossible to assess whether the God in the story is a God in the story or a God of the story. That the story and that even a character in the story is able to influence us, move us, even cause us to humbly yield in worship only adds to the complexity of the problem of free will.

  • Anonymous Coward

    I don’t get it. It it might help if I knew what Barth is referring to in the first sentence with the phrase “the becoming of all things.” Can you elucidate?

    • The coming into being of all things – the fact that all things came into being, and not the processes that characterized their existence once they did so.

  • kaffikjelen

    Karl Barth was just too afraid to say that the story of Genesis 1-3 is largely false. His quote seems to me to be merely a bunch of mumbo jumbo, not some profound statement about the compatibility between the creation story and evolution.

  • paroikos

    Barth equates “the theory of evolution” with “observation and research,” and, therefore, with experimental/operations science. In other words, he trusts that “science” has explained how dead, primal matter induced itself to generate information, life, biodiversity and consciousness… which it has not. His faith in the creative genius of the inert “has shut [himself] off completely from faith in God’s revelation.”

    • You just completely missed the point of the quote, didn’t you?

      • He also misses the point of science and mistakes abiogenesis for evolution, and in the process contributes to the denigration of Christian faith that Barth was concerned to avoid.

        • paroikos

          Since you’ve _not_ missed “the point of science” (that abiogenesis and evolution can’t be conflated), you’re left with a ‘spontaneous evolution’ that cunningly embellished what it couldn’t begin.

          • Not at all. What Barth embraced, like most Christians, is a belief that study of the natural world cannot by definition be a threat to faith in the Creator of that natural world. The fact that some people try to undermine Christianity by claiming that you have to choose between the two is understandable when those making the claim are self-proclaimed opponents of Christianity, but baffling when those making the claim say they are themselves Christians.

          • paroikos

            “Not at all,” refers to what exactly? The OED defines _abiogenesis_: “2. The original evolution of life or living organisms from inorganic or inanimate substances; archebiosis.” Yet you claim this definition “contributes to the denigration of Christian faith that Barth was concerned to avoid.” Barth’s concern was to marry the worst of two worlds— Scientistic Evolutionism and Poetized Christianity. Nevertheless, your “study of the natural world” will have to include that magical instant when inert matter came to life, and began auto-transforming itself towards human consciousness.

          • Your value judgments on science and poetry aren’t an argument that something is wrong with either, or the bringing of the two together.

          • The thing is that Christianity also has that magical moment, the only difference is that the bible gives a reason for it (God did it). Science, being a study of nature, can’t prove God because God isn’t part of nature. God created nature, and as such can’t be proven by the study of nature. For example, let’s imagine that we are tiny organisms living on a cake that someone baked. The cake is our entire world, and as we study said cake we come up with theories as to how the cake formed. We may discover Yeast and learn that it expands under conditions of extreme heat (or at least I think that’s how yeast works, I’m not entirely sure not being a baker). Scientists may theorize that the world (read: cake) was in an extremely hot state a long time ago, causing it to expand. We may find remnants of egg that didn’t mix properly and make predictions based on that. In the end, what you will have is a general idea of how the cake was formed but the elements we can’t study (the baker mixing the ingredients and putting the cake in the oven) would never be known unless the baker specifically revealed himself to us.

            The study of evolution and abiogenesis shows HOW the world exists through it’s natural processes, but it will never tell us the why it exists or how it began since we can’t study God unless God reveals himself to us.

            So it’s natural that most scientific study just excludes the existence of God. If we didn’t, then a lot of scientific achievement would have never been made because every time we hit the wall we would just use God to fill in the gaps and move on.

      • Andrew Dowling

        He’s also clearly not very familiar with Barth. Barth was ALL about Christianity as divine revelation . . IMO to a fault.

        • paroikos

          Barth’s “fault” was in the appendage hanging from his trust in theistic evolutionism—a metaphysical, ’christian’ rabbit’s foot.

      • paroikos

        And the context of that quote is what? That “the biblical creation story” is a “an organ” and “evolution is “a vacuum cleaner”? 🙂

  • Milarepa

    Think on to think Not and become simple in your mind’s measurement… Mind and appearance have degenerated the vision of reality and got tangled up by mental cognition… As you think you are… Formations and Mental / cognition have trapped energy in division as such and the necessity of the Ego entity has steered knowledge, space and time…In other words, through knowledge you have manipulated energy and brought limits to reality and the misfortune of birth, life and death to your own being… Get this deep into your minds: There is no space, and there is no time and there isn’t any evolution either….Mind is dead and you are swimming in your past illusions… Saving your energy is saving God…There is no birth and there is no death, beyond this knowledge and appearance that you have for your little self, you are – ETERNAL…

    • OK, I will give you one last warning. If you want to contribute to conversations here, then do so. If you want to give little sermons that make no sense and ignore the topics of posts as well as other commenters, then you will need to find somewhere else to do that.

      • Milarepa

        That is wasting energy contributing to the dead of the past… For the God beyond God, there must be a new approach…. What is the use in digging up past memories, imaginary stories and fairy tells? So, there is nothing new in the human consciousness except the dead knowledge of the past. Like milking a dead caw in your imagination. No use for arguments. I am over and out.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, I think Barth is doing something that I find problematic among liberal theologians, which is trying to make text say something other than the authors intention to maintain their relevancy. It to me is a case of hammering square pegs. The creation accounts in the Bible are the attempts of Yahwehist to take what were accepted stories of creation and modify them for their own theology. The authors had no concept of evolution or scientific thinking so it must have seemed plausible that God could speak the world into existence from his thoughts, just as contemporary Egyptian theologians believed Ptah had done. We now have a more factual account of how the world came into being, and I think rather than put artificial meanings on genesis, we should try to see if the Christian message is relevant in light of the new account of creation science has discovered.

    Now, on the other hand, their are some things in the Genesis account that do stand the test of time, because the authors were describing a real thing, the world, and so their mythology has some real connection to the world. I think Genesis establishes who/what God is. God created the heavens and the earth, so ultimately it establishes that God is that which created the universe. Theologically that means, for them, that none is higher since in their thinking, fathers were higher than sons, so that which made all other things is higher than what it creates. That God speaks things into existence is not a bad metaphor for what does happen, which is that things that exist materially, existed previously in potential established by the laws of the universe which ultimately were always present but only manifest in their occurrence. The rules that allow natural selection have always existed but only with organic life has it been manifest. It isn’t a bad metaphor to say that the laws of the universe make up Gods mind and just as speech makes our thoughts manifest in the outside world, evolution makes manifest in reality that which was possible in physics.

    What do you think?

    • I’m sometimes in two minds about this. But there are so many instances of the same religious group preserving more than one creation account with contradictory details, that I do think that the specific details were often secondary to certain theological points, and that would concur with Barth’s stance.

      • Michael Wilson

        I suspect that the writers of J and P were both aware that other stories were told not only among other nations but probably within different towns, and maybe even between separate story tellers in the same community. Some may have thought that story a was the only real story and everyone else mistaken. some may have realized that these origin stories were to a certain degree speculation, though the ancients seem to have placed a lot of trust in ancient accounts and in the notion that one may be inspired to find truth in their imagination by the gods. To a large extent though, I think the writers of J and P probably didn’t think the origin stories were especially important in detail beyond the identity of the God doing the creating. Speculation on the origins of things is the pursuit of philosophers, but of first importance to priest is who owes their god what and how to pay it. If some Israelites thought that YHWH made the world from the carcass of Leviathan, that may not have been very important to them, though it seems that both J and P would like you to forget that their are any beings in existence comparable in power to YHWH that might also demand payment.