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A Theology of Neediness and Evangelism

Dorman, David A.

doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0000000000000623
Feature: practice/education

ABSTRACT: Twentieth century theologian Karl Barth viewed human beings as more needy than any other part of creation. Human neediness leads one into relationship with God or into independence, away from God. Barth understood evangelism as speaking out of one's own deeply felt neediness to another also in need, attesting to what one has come to know of God in his/her own life. His perspective is helpful to nurses wanting to bear witness of God's work in their lives.

David A. Dorman, MDiv, PhD, teaches at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California, in the School of Theology and serves as an administrator in the School of Nursing. His research interest is in the theology of Karl Barth and its relevance to contemporary Christian living.

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Accepted by peer-review 03/13/2018.



How can nurses think about evangelism in their work? Theologian Karl Barth offers an excellent perspective for any Christian, but one especially helpful for nurses caring for those in need.

Barth (1886-1968), generally recognized as possibly the most influential theologian of the 20th century, began his work as a young pastor in the small town of Safenwil in Switzerland. The extremely conscientious support he gave his struggling flock during the years of World War I stamped his work with a deep pastoral motivation that lasted throughout his life. He always said that his early responsibilities for those entrusted to his care were what taught him the challenge of developing a theology that addressed the urgent realities of community life (Dorman, 2018). This is one reason why his theology remains vitally interesting and stimulating to many parts of the church today: it is alive, relevant, and speaks to the human condition.

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For Barth, human need is among the most basic of concerns. To put it a different way, Barth is deeply affected by how radically needy human beings are, in every respect. Throughout his writings, he develops an understanding of human nature that is both intuitive and unprecedented (Dorman, 2018).

For instance, his reading of the biblical days of creation in Genesis leads him to describe humanity as “the neediest of all creatures” (Barth, 1958, p. 143). By the sixth day, all of creation's components and dynamics are in place and fully functioning together—without the presence of the human couple. The introduction of humans into the completed picture, even as they are called to be the chief stewards of creation, discloses the fact that they need the creation operating in its wholeness, in order to live and to become what they are called to be. This deep neediness is neither superficial nor negotiable; it discloses human nature as creature-before-the-Creator, that is, human beings as God intended, in perfect love. As human beings, we are created and remain radically needy; as humans we need God, we need each other, and we need the gift of creation.

Barth thus understands sheer neediness to mark the human being more deeply than any other part of creation. But by the same token he construes that neediness as an unimaginably rich benefit, a “blessed neediness,” because it is the only way we humans can be open to and learn of the blessings that await us—the richness that creation offers, and more poignantly that of human care and interaction, and most particularly, the blessings of the love of God that undergird all else. Barth is willing to say what no theologian has yet suggested, that it is neediness that is the most defining element of human beings—that “there is nothing more constitutive for humanity than the need of God” (Barth, 1960, p. 412).

Our neediness, not surprisingly, is not really a welcome concept. Although we are generally ready to recognize and address our needs as they arise, we would like to think—as our culture preaches in so many ways—that we can and ought to be basically independent and self-reliant. We ought to be able to create, in a sense, our own lives and identity, with choices of lifestyle, the company we keep, short-term and long-term plans, body type, diet and exercise, and so forth. But Barth would say that the instinct for self-reliance is the harbinger of the problem that most deeply cripples human welfare. God created human beings to find fruition in vulnerability and neediness, and the plan of creation is tragically and decisively warped by the refusal of humanity to acknowledge that openness to need, or to serve God as God. In that light, Barth depicts sin as a refusal to accept the fact that we are as vulnerable as we are, so that we deny the very neediness that is our only hope for joy or for a meaningful life. We play out that denial every day, in decisions large and small. Our headstrong denial, however, does not so easily eliminate what we were created to be—beings who uniquely depend on a living relationship with God in order to be human. Tragically, as we turn away from the one source of all our good, the neediness doesn't go away. Instead, it is twisted by starvation to a painfully “wretched neediness” (Busch, 1976, p. 61), and human life becomes a black hole of grasping misery, fear, poverty, and hunger. We fall into a self-contradiction of our very being, and the tragedy remains unresolved and unresolvable.

Barth uses this model of the creation and fall of humanity to inform a surprising array of central theological matters. If sin is the descent into wretched need, Barth describes Christian salvation as God's way of responding. Jesus comes to us as the incarnate God, who has no conceivable need of his own, nevertheless taking on the depths of human need, both blessed and wretched, in order to resolve the human impasse. In death and resurrection, Jesus wins for us a new way forward. Knowing Jesus as our Savior moves us away from our self-centered misery, as we find more and more liberty—not in independence or self-reliance or freedom from need, but rather in the joy of our capacity to know and love God, and of God's astonishing and faithful provision. We learn what it is to be loved, and to love, and to live for the purposes of God's kingdom. Such is the promise of salvation: to begin to know human life as it was intended, in joyful, free service, as those who freely receive, and who freely give.

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How, then, does Barth understand evangelism? His primary category is that of witness, and he is careful to define it in biblical terms. Jesus' command in Acts 1:8, “You shall be my witnesses,” tells us that the only message we are asked to share with another human being is what we know to be true of God in our own lives. In evangelism, we speak from our own experience, not assuming that we know what another person needs. We do not “save” others but are witnesses of God's work within us; we point others toward Jesus Christ and his saving work by attesting to our own experience. So (as Barth asks the question), who do I construe my friend to be, the one who is not yet a Christian? How do I conceive of her, and so be ready with something to say? My friend is not “a sinner” who needs to feel my condemnation—because a judgmental legalism does not “witness” to the grace I have found in Jesus Christ. So also, I must not cast my friend as “foolish,” someone who has yet to make the reasonable connections that lead to an acknowledgment of Jesus—for again, the accusation of stupidity is hardly a witness to the one who loved enough to die for the world. Rather (writes Barth), I must understand my friend as “supremely needy” in many ways and on many levels, as I am, yet in some ways I can never be privy to, but whose primary need, whose deepest destitution and dereliction, is that she has not yet understood that Jesus Christ is also for her (Barth, 1962, pp. 804-806). At that point I can be a true witness, speaking out of my deeply felt neediness to another also in need, attesting to what I have come to know of God in my life, and thereby pointing the way to openness to God and restoration in Christ.

Barth would leave us with the reminder that, in our readiness to witness and to serve others, we never reach a point where we are not also dependent on their humanity to sustain our own. Every human knows need, and every human is in the position at some time to relieve in some way. The Christian who is in the middle of this interaction, whether on the side of receiving help or of giving it, is in the supreme position to understand that what is happening is a glimpse of God's goodness. The Christian who is receiving needed care, or providing it, may know the direct efficacy of the love of God in Jesus Christ, who died and rose to restore us to the readiness, for care that is the lifeblood of humanity. Barth wrote (1962),

To be human, and therefore to act accordingly, whether in knowing the need of assistance or in being ready to render it, is supremely natural and not unnatural. It is the most obvious thing to do, whereas the opposite is by far the most artificial. (p. 264)

The reality of God's love is available in that moment for all who have ears, whether we are the patient or the healthcare professional. That, too, is witness.

Barth K. (1958). Church Dogmatics III/1 (J. W. Edwards, Trans.). Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark.
Barth K. (1960). Church Dogmatics III/2 (H. Knight, Trans.). Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark.
Barth K. (1962). Church Dogmatics IV/3, part 2 (G.W. Bromiley, Trans.). Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark.
Busch E. (1976). Karl Barth (J. Bowden, Trans.). Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Dorman D. A. (2018). Neediness: The Anthropology of Karl Barth. Scottish Journal of Theology, 71(2), 195–211. doi:10.1017/S0036930618000078

evangelism; Karl Barth; nursing

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