Recently, in a class titled “Theology and Trauma Theory,” we read the text that catapulted Karl Barth to theological fame: Epistle to the Romans, written shortly after World War I. In the light of current events, what resonated with some of us was Barth’s critique of religion. Religion is not the solemn music that accompanies all the noblest human experiences, argued Barth. Rather, we can see “sin celebrating its triumph in religion.”
Stung by his teachers’ facile identifications of Western civilization with the “kingdom of God,” Barth raged against religion. “Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell, make up the reality of religion.” As I was reading these words last fall, I thought of the terrorist attackers and their religious inspiration in Islamic fundamentalism. What Barth had in mind, however, were not primarily other religions but his own, Christianity.