(PS’ The Thread) Cambria Kaltwasser–Karl Barth on what Makes us Human

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection give us the portrait of one whose mission from God for the world was identical with his being. He was from the very beginning what he was for others. So our basic form of humanity, the form in which God created us, comprises the many ways, both great and miniscule, that my neighbor’s life impinges on mine, and mine on hers. Barth gathers these ways into four categories: looking one another in the eye, mutual speech and hearing, mutual assistance, and gladness.

With his notion of human gladness, Barth rules out the possibility that you and I might at bottom be indifferent toward one another, awaiting some external factor to decide whether we might matter to one another. Seeing ourselves in light of Jesus gives the lie to any notion of original neutrality between us. The fact that my true being and, therefore, my true freedom is bound up with the being and freedom of my neighbor means that her claim upon me can never be an alien or burdensome imposition on me, provided that I see myself as I truly am. God’s claim on us, then, envisions not self-sufficient creatures, independent of God or neighbor, but interdependent creatures, who rely on one another to be the creatures we are called to be.

Furthermore, Barth characterizes this glad fellowship with the neighbor as the command of God my Creator and, at the same time, my own command to myself (268-69). Put differently, precisely because God has created us for mutuality with our neighbors, God’s command that we live with and for one another aptly “interprets” our lives and is no alien law. In this, Barth re-approaches his idealist roots, showing how, once we understand ourselves as fundamentally in relationship with God and neighbor, then we can recognize a kind of God-ordained human self-determination at work in our choice for these relationships.

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