How Karl Barth Almost Ruined a Perfectly Good Sunrise

I am in the Black Hills of South Dakota, alone and in the dark, waiting for the sunrise. In the twilight before the bright ball of the sun peeks over the horizon, scattered cloud formations already announce its arrival, and I realize how clouds ought to get more credit for their part in this morning spectacle. Deep, warm colors gradually cool and brighten as the sun climbs and appears over a distant hill. But even as the sun arrives, the show is not over, because its rays start finding objects in their path. Where I am standing, grasses and dead branches catch these sun rays first, followed by smaller but more colorful bystanders: white lily and thistle, black samson and prairie rose, white mountain harebell, a light purple beardtongue. These all light up and add the finishing touch. It is a beautiful scene to behold, a creation scene, and I am in it 100 percent.

Come on! Can’t I just enjoy this sunrise on its own terms for a few moments?

However, as all this is unfolding there is an intrusion. It is a thought, a claim that comes from the theologian Karl Barth, one he emphasizes a number of times in his Church Dogmatics: “Creation is the external basis of Covenant, and Covenant is the internal basis of Creation.” Now that seems pretty didactic, a heady theological statement easily put out of mind, like some of those things left at home when a person heads for the wilderness (a TV or a recliner – do leave home without them). But at that moment the message for me is: “You are enjoying this? Don’t forget that what you see here is only half the story and you don’t get to dwell on this creation part without also embracing that other part: covenant, redemption, gospel, community, witness, faith … ”

Come on! Can’t I just enjoy this sunrise on its own terms for a few moments? I think of ways to force the thought aside. I remember the Creation-Fall-Redemption schema that I learned early on. There at least you have the Fall as a buffer which lets creation stand on its own two feet. But this doesn’t work. The thought persists: “Creation is the external basis of Covenant, and Covenant is the internal basis of Creation.” I begin to regret reading Barth at all.

In desperation I imagine a sound track to accompany the sunrise that might drown out old Karl and his claim. I try the opening to Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” that grand heralding fanfare (written when Barth was only 10), which matches perfectly what I am seeing. In my head, I even turn up the volume as high as it will go, imagining giant speakers hidden among the rocks, blasting the powerful brass and tympani sounds that have become so famous, particularly in the grand opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It doesn’t work. Barth only repeats his words more insistently: “Creation is the external basis of Covenant, and Covenant is the internal basis of Creation.” How about the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” written by George Harrison just as Barth was reaching the end of his life? No, that won’t make the old master’s words go away either. It looks like we might have to reach a kind of stalemate, if not a checkmate.

But there is more. Because I am not here on vacation, on some personal excursion into the wild. No, I am a volunteer at the 2017 International Cadet Camporee, sponsored by the Calvinist Cadet Corps, and behind me, just beginning to awaken and catch the same sunlight I have been reveling in, there are more than a thousand cadets and counselors getting ready to start a new day. They are encamped in shelters they have designed themselves and constructed out of lumber and plastic and twine. They will cook their own meals and together set out on a schedule of formations, devotions, wilderness activities and worship sessions that define this intense week. They are supported by another 300 volunteers who cover all the necessities for the camporee, but at the heart of it is a small group, a cadre, of middle- school-age boys under the care and direction of an adult who is with them every hour of the seven days they are here and whose pledge is “helping boys to grow more Christlike in all areas of life.” Now if that isn’t a clear example of the patient, dedicated, hopeful, faithful, love-filled and, yes, messy and demanding work of Christian covenant, redemption, service etc., then I don’t know what is.

So in the end Barth has his way. “Creation is the external basis of Covenant, and Covenant is the internal basis of Creation.” Where I am standing there is no escaping this intimate connection, a dance in which the two move in step, supporting, highlighting, energizing each other. This gorgeous sunrise is directing me beyond itself to something else. There is one other piece of music that begins, at first quietly and then more and more insistently. It is a verse from the familiar hymn “Beautiful Savior”:

Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands,
Robed in flowers of blooming spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus shines purer;
He makes our sorrowing spirits sing.

Marc Lucas is a retired high school and middle school orchestra teacher and is an avid reader of Karl Barth.

Image: Jasper Boer,  Unsplash