Karl Barth & Kurt Vonnegut

In his book Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invents a religion – Bokononism. Bokonon, I take it, is a god of sorts that reveals the hidden meaning of life through (interestingly enough) lies. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either. So be it.” Bokonon (the god) reveals his “sweet lies of Bokononism” through his writings in the “calypsos,” which I take to be the sacred text of Bokononists. We don’t know all there is to know about Bokonon or Bokononism, only that it values two things: Mystery and the inter-relatedness of creation. Vonnegut tells us that the

“fifty-third Calypso invites us to sing:”

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen –
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice –
So many different people
In the same device.

Whatever one makes of a religion valuing mystery and the inter-relatedness of all things, it is not altogether clear how this particular Bokononist value makes Bokonon distinct from the worship of the God of Israel. After all, the God of Israel is revealed and known as Trinity – “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be world without end. Amen.” Moreover, this God revealed as Trinity makes known his deep desire to “fill all of creation as the waters cover the sea” so that the whole world reflects his glory and love (Is. 11). This same text (Is. 11) also poetically calls all of creation to live in harmony with one another – in a sense this is a call to respect the other in such a way as to love the diversity that God brings to the world.

Often referred to as the “greatest theologian of the 20th century,” Karl Barth’s theology had a high tolerance for mystery and a strong call for harmony of all creation. In George Hunsinger’s book “How to Read Karl Barth” he says this:

There comes a point, however, where human language can no longer be revised. There comes a point where the particularities of the biblical witness drive human language to its inherent limits and therefore to the edge of mystery. A high tolerance for mystery is a hallmark of Barth’s theology – a tolerance which at once separates him from standard modern theologies and unites him with the historic faith of the ecumenical church…. Barth was inclined to approach such [mysteries, as Trinity and Incarnation,] not by explaining them away, but simply by letting them stand. He was more concerned to avoid premature closure, when the biblical witness did not warrant closure, than to achieve orderly conceptual outcomes. In this sense, [Barth’s theology] entailed a deep respect for mystery. It was an expression of Barth’s conviction that we walk by faith and not by sight.

Barth felt that this high regard for mystery and “letting mystery stand” was important for many reasons – not least of which was to respect God’s freedom. God is not bound by our limited conceptions of him. Barth believed strongly that God was most fully revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, upon which we imitate him in discipleship. But this did not limit God’s activity or his “being in act.” God is free to be God and Barth wanted to do theology in such a way that his language about God honored that mystery. In his Church Dogmatics Barth said:

It is not, then, the rigid presence of a being whose nature we can, so to speak, formulate in this or that principle. God is free to be present with the creature by giving himself and revealing himself to it or by concealing himself and withdrawing from it. God is free to be and operate in the created world either as unconditioned or conditioned. God is free to perform his work either in the framework of what we call the laws of nature or outside it in the shape of miracle… God is free to conceal his divinity from the creature, even to become a creature himself, and free to assume again his Godhead… God is free to clothe himself with the life of the world in all its glory as with a garment; but free likewise himself to die the death which symbolizes the death of all things earthly… God is free to be wholly inward to the creature and at the same time as himself wholly outward… (Dogmatics II/1, 314-5)

Back to Kurt Vonnegut and his god Bokonon who loves mystery and inter-relatedness. In chapter 3 of Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut reveals a story from the “autobiographical section of The Books of Bokonon.” A parable on the folly of pretending to understand God or the world.

Bokonon himself writes:

I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be. And yet, when I showed her the blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, ‘I’m sorry, but I never could read one of those things.’ I said, ‘Give it to your husband or minister to pass on to God, and when God finds a minute, I’m sure he will be able to explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand.’ She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats…

I realize Bokonon is an invented religion. I also realize that there is a sense in which, even it were a real religion, it would not be true. But what Vonnegut writes here is inevitably truth. Any religion that seeks to identify and define God in such a way that makes him, not only comprehensible, but logically so that we “cannot understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be” then what we have done is created God in our own image. As in the story of Kurt Vonnegut’s fake god Bokonon, the Episcopalian lady believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than he liked people in motorboats. In other words, her god was just like her.

And that is the point. Our conceptions of God matter because they underwrite our lives. Barth felt that it was important to speak of God in such a way that intentionally failed to grasp his fullness. Barth knew this was important because he wrote in a world dominated by Hitler. Hitler, and the German Christians that supported him, had God pegged. They had him defined. They knew exactly who he was, what he looked like, who and what he loved, and who and what he hated. It turned out that their God (though they identified him as the Christian God) was a false god – an idol. Their attempt to define God made God in their own image.

It turns out that attempting to define God or limit his action is nothing less than idolatry.

As Stanley Hauerwas says, “Never think you need to protect God. Anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure you are worshipping an idol.”

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