Wednesday 28 May 2008

Karl Barth on sickness, health, and doctors

My poor father (who also happens to be F&T’s most devoted reader) has lately had more than his fair share of doctors, hospitals and waiting rooms. In his ethical section on “Freedom for Life” (CD III/4, §55), Karl Barth discusses God’s own opposition to sickness – so that doctors and patients are together following God’s will as they resist the demonic power of sickness:

“Sickness, like death itself, is unnatural and disorderly. It is an element in the rebellion of chaos against God’s creation. It is an act and declaration of the devil and demons. To be sure, it is no less bound to God and dependent on Him than the creature which He created. Indeed, it is impotent in a double way. For like sin and death, it is neither good nor is it willed and created by God at all, but is real, effective, powerful and menacing only in its nullity, as part of that which God has negated, as part of His kingdom on the left hand.…

“The realm of death which afflicts man in the form of sickness … is opposed to His good will as Creator and has existence and power only under His mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what humans ought to will in face of this whole realm on the left hand, and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.… Those who take up this struggle obediently are already healthy in the fact that they do so, and theirs is no empty desire when they will to maintain or regain their health” (pp. 366-69).

Furthermore: “When one person is ill, the whole of society is really ill in all its members. In the battle against sickness the final human word cannot be isolation but only fellowship” (p. 363).


psychodougie said...

To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God.

thanks for the corrective.

i think we can sometimes think capitulating to illness is acceding to God's will, forgetting that death is God's enemy.


Anonymous said...

I am vexed. Barth's theology of sickness and death is of good Pauline pedigree, no doubt. However I think we need to confront the fact that in the contemporary western world it is not so much death as the denial of death that has become theologically problematical, a denial that, ironically, suggests such a preoccupation with death that it amounts to the worship of death, in the sense that death, rather than God, is the ultimate reality with which we reckon, such that health itself has become a kind of Pauline principality or power, even an idol.

The case can certainly be made that, in Genesis 2-3, humans were made mortal, that physical death as such is not unnatural, or a penalty for transgression. Most notably James Barr observed that "There was, in ancient Israel, such a thing as a good death. It simply is not true, certainly not for the Old Testament taken universally, to say that death is always opposed to God, or was a curse, or that death was universally understood as a consequence of sin." On this reading it is not death but the fear of death that is the condition of fallen humanity, and not the disintegration of the human body (which in fact begins at birth) but our frenetic attempt to avoid and delay it at all costs that speaks of the sin of pride.

And remember that even Paul, for whom death is "the last enemy" (I Corinthians 15:26), could say that "living is Christ and dying is gain" (Philippians 1:21) and boast of his physical infirmities. And according to the late Arthur C. McGill, a thelogian who was not only brilliant but also very wise, "Augustine even claimed that death, in the medical sense, is actually the end of real death, the end of the dying process in our lives, the end of our experience of dying." In fact McGill's Death and Life: An American Theology (1987) is a must-read on the subject. In it McGill warns against the gospel of those he calls "the bronze people", to which, he adds, much of the church itself is captive.

That's just me, Ben, wrestling with what I take to be a theological tension when it comes to health and death. But I think I speak for all of us when I say that our prayers are with your dad and the family.

Ben Myers said...

That's a good point, Kim. And of course I've only presented one side of Barth's discussion here: the other side of the dialectic in this section is that the limits placed on human life (mortality, etc) are good limits imposed by God.

Thus after speaking of sickness as a demonic threat which must always be resisted, Barth goes on to say that real freedom to live comes only when a person realises "that he is in God's hand, that he is surrounded by Him on all sides", i.e., when we accept the limitations of our own lives. And so Barth also says that sickness "ushers in this genuinely liberating insight". In a "concealed" form, sickness is also "the witness to God's creative goodness, the forerunner and messenger of the eternal life which God has allotted and promised to the person who is graciously preserved by Him within the confines of his time" (III/4, p. 373).

Or to sum up Barth's approach: sickness is an attack on life, and as such it is nothing but a hideous "No" which can only be opposed and resisted; but at the same time, it conceals a deep secret "Yes" — the gracious "Yes" of the God who creates us and upholds us within the limits that are good for us.

So I think you're right to point out that "health" has become an idol in the affluent West — we worship our own health precisely because we don't want to acknowledge that our lives depend on God, that we have limits, that we're not the masters of our own destinies.

Anonymous said...

All very interesting, as, despite my faith in God, I've always been afraid of death.

Ben, my prayers are with your father and family, too.

Anonymous said...

"If you would gain your life in this world, you would lose it."

That's the trouble...we don't want to die.

S. Coulter said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking comments! Here are some of my own thoughts; I'd be interested in a response:

It seems Paul came to accept his own death as good, right, and proper, situated in God's plan for Paul's life as a small piece of God's plan for the unfolding of His Kingdom. Yet Jesus also healed the sick and raised the dead as a sign of the immanence of the Kingdom of God.

Some application: On the one hand, we are on God's side in condemning and resisting sickness, decay, and death. On the other hand, we are on God's side in accepting an end to (this) life from His hand, knowing perhaps that physical, literal death is a necessary precondition for the resurrection of the (superior) body.

So with fear and trembling and proper humility, we should fight to live, but not condemn others who wish to accept death (rather than say one more round of chemo); also we should accept death, but not condemn others who fervently desire to go on living. James' admonishment against boasting about the future in 4:13-16 seems appropriate here: "You ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live...'"

-Peace in Christ

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