However, in Church Dogmatics IV/1 (1953; ET 1956), Barth issues a retraction of sorts—or perhaps an intensification of his critique. First of all, Barth not only affirms that Jesus Christ stands in relation to the Christian community and to the world more generally, but in relation to the individual Christian, too: ‘from all eternity God has thought of me, elected me, acted for me in Him [Jesus], called me to Himself in Him as His Word.’ (CD IV/1, p. 753) Barth is not saying that the ‘I’ is the only person that matters, but that God in Christ truly relates to the ‘I’ in all his or her particularity: Jesus is my Mediator, my Saviour, my Lord. Thus Jesus is pro me—‘for me’. But this is no abstract pro me but the pro me that has to be seen in relation to the pro nobis (‘for us’) and the propter nos homines (‘for us humans’). As far as I understand Barth here, Jesus is pro me as the particular person, Terry, who is constituted by his relations within the Christian community (pro nobis) and humanity more generally (propter nos homines). So Christ not only died for humanity but—in a very real sense—just for Terry. (And for you in all your glorious particularity, I hasten to add.)
So how does this apparently quite extreme Christian(ised) individualism affect the Church’s hymnody? Barth notes that his earlier critique of ‘I-hymns’ (in CD I/2) can only be a relative criticism; there are too many ‘I-Psalms’ in Scripture to suggest otherwise. Moreover, the pro me needs to be genuine lest Christian belief degenerate into an abstract theory rather than a powerful witness to God’s action in Christ. But Barth goes further than this; he goes to great lengths to emphasise that Christ stands in relation to each individual Christian as though he or she were the sole representative of Christian faith in the world. In fact, my ‘as though’ might be misleading:
Each individual as such . . . stands in the place of many, of all, uniting and representing in himself as this man the whole race, and in himself as this Christian the community. In his existence as an individual he is not a particle or a sample or a specimen. He is the one who is and has and does and signifies the whole and everything. He is the one who is responsible for all and everything. . . . In all the work of God, in what God does and says as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, he is not merely envisaged in general, or together with others. . . . What God does is all of it done just for him, just for thee and me. What God wills is all expected just of him, just of thee and me. (CD IV/1, p. 756)
This is not the easiest passage to understand, at least not for me. The thrust of the passage seems to be that, for Barth, Christ’s relation to each individual Christian demonstrates that God is not only pro me, but that God, by virtue of being pro me, is also pro nobis and propter nos homines as well. And this seems to be Barth’s unpacking of the word Credo, ‘I believe’, which is in the first person singular to express the genuine unity of those who confess it as members of the Church. All this seems to point to a radical understanding of humanity that moves beyond mere individualism and simple communitarianism towards something more (shall we say) mystical. And this is what I think is the genius of Barth’s critique here in CD IV/1: the Church’s so-called ‘I-hymns’ don’t go far enough! In Barth’s own words, ‘Is there any I-hymn which can express this strongly enough? Is not the confession of faith itself necessarily the strongest I-hymn of all?’ (CD IV/1, p. 756) If my reading of Barth here is correct, then I suggest that few current ‘I-hymns’ can express this radical conception of humanity because the Western Church is either mired in a thoroughgoing individualism that posits the Church merely as individuals with a common interest, or is earnestly seeking some kind of socialist utopia that may or may not have Christian elements. But neither angle takes humanity seriously enough.
Given all this, Barth maintains that while I-hymns have a place in the Church’s hymnody, they can only have that place inasmuch as they testify to Christ. The pro me cannot be abstracted and systematised; nor can the relationship between God and the individual be ‘the basis and measure of all things.’ (CD IV/1, p. 757) Here, Barth seems to be saying that in the process of singing genuinely Christ-oriented ‘I-hymns’, Christ himself moves intentionally from being the object of the pro me to being the subject of the pro me. Barth concludes:
It will be acknowledged that Christian faith is an “existential” happening, that it is from first to last I-faith, which can and should be sung in I-hymns. But there will take place the necessary “de-mythologisation” of the “I” which Paul carried through in Gal. 220: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (CD IV/1, p. 757)
* * * * *
The danger I see in many of the songs we sing in our local churches is that either they focus on our relationship with God (rather than on God and what God has done), or they are an opportunity to emote—or, to put it more pejoratively, an opportunity to burble like a baby. But do we not see both of these things in the psalms? I confess I’d like Barth to have explained his comment about ‘I-Psalms’ a little more.