World War I had not only ruined a great deal of European real estate, but it had also left the man-centered theologies and philosophies of the Western world in a shambles. It was time to clear away the rubble and rebuild. A man-centered disaster called for a man-centered reconstruction. And so, in the wake of the Great War:
The trend in Protestant thought which attracted the most attention was what was variously known in one or another of its aspects as the theology of crisis, dialectical theology, and neo-orthodoxy. In large part it was at the outset a product of a state of mind induced by World War I and its aftermath. Especially in Germany and the land immediately around it, men were impressed with the tragedy of life. They saw themselves caught in gigantic forces which were sweeping them to destruction and with which individuals and even nations were unable to cope. They felt themselves powerless in the colossal agony of the years. Sin and evil became real. Did life have meaning? If so, what was it? Where was it to be found? Yet helpless though the individual was to alter the vast and demonic currents about him, he must make decisions. He must say “yes” or “no.” He could not be content with abstract, disinterested speculation which had no immediate effect upon him. He could not merely be a spectator. He must make choices between alternatives, between “either” and “or.” Those choices might mean for him the difference between life and death.
[Kenneth Scottt Latourette, A History of Christianity Volume II: A.D. 1500-A.D. 1975, (San Francisco, CA, USA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1975), 1381-1382.]
Questions about the meaning and purpose of life itself were not ones that the vast majority of theologians were asking in 19th century. Both liberals and conservatives generally assumed that the teachings of the philosophical school known as Scottish Common Sense Realism were true: that God created the human mind in such a way that reality, morality, and meaning were self-evident to all people. There was no need to look for them.
Occasionally, lone voices like that of SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) called this thesis into question, but until the 20th century Kierkegaard was little known outside of his native Denmark, and his notion that authentic existence required a “leap of faith” into the darkness of the unprovable was a hard sell even in his own country.
Common Sense Realists, in the meantime, were driven by their reaction against the radical skepticism of philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776), which they rightly saw as leading to the conclusion that all existence is ultimately absurd-an outcome equally unpalatable to conservatives and liberals. Even though this brand of realism was already in decline among philosophers as the 20th century approached, it remained the majority report of theologians until modern man lost reality, morality, and meaning in the smoke, chaos, and body count of the Great War.
As the ink was drying on the Treaty of Versailles, many philosophers came to the conclusion that it was time to throw in the towel and admit that any objective meaning in life either does not exist or is unobtainable, but they could still not surrender the quest for meaning altogether. But where to find it? The answer had been brewing in the writings of Kierkegaard (who wrote from the perspective of a professing Christian) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, who wrote from a radically secular perspective) for some time. Now it began to percolate throughout Europe: man must create his own meaning. People must validate their existence through their choices, and in this way they will determine their own value and identity. Your essence-who you are as a person-can be changed by you. At birth you enter a world of meaninglessness, and the only immutable thing in it is your existence. By making choices, you create your own essence, and once you do that, you become significant. You have meaning. This new philosophy came to be called existentialism.
Theologians were not far behind the philosophers this time. Nestled away in the little town of Safenwil, in the Swiss canton of Aargau as the Great War was winding down, an obscure country pastor was hard at work. He was reading Paul’s epistle to the Romans through the eyes of existentialist philosophy, and he was becoming excited at the implications. It was time, he felt, to merge the “insights” of existentialism with the teachings of Paul. So a few months before the eleventh hour of the “eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 (Armistice Day), in August 1918, Karl Barth (1886-1968) published his RÃ¶merbrief-his commentary on Romans, which would eventually go through six editions. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Adams would later remark that it fell “like a bombshell on the theologians’ playground” (cited by F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, [Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963], 60).
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