Sunday, July 17, 2005

Belgique? Fantastique!

Cologne (again)
Saith Rick, "The Bruxelloise are cultured and genteel - even a bit snobby," a notion reinforced by almost all trains from Cologne to Brussels requiring a 22 euro reservation because they were "private." This limited my options a bit, and to kill time in Cologne I did the only sensible thing - visit the tomb of Albert Magnus. It's located in Cologne's Romanesque church which is understandably overshadowed by the Gothic/neo-Gothic Cathedral mentioned below. If not Albert, you've probably have heard of one of Albert's better students. Even genius needs to be taught.


Brussels' layout is inspired by Versailles, which makes it, especially the central square, quite beautiful. I had a rushed visit at its first class museum where I saw among other things David's famous secular martyrdom. In the square next to city hall is the restaurant where Marx worked on the communist manifesto - ironically now the most expensive one in town. If anyone ever tells you the very Marxist idea that ideas don't make history, please think about this restaurant. Also, you gotta love a town with a mascot.

The family friends I stayed with in Brussels were the furthest thing from the apparent snooty stereotype. I was enriched with the "as good as the French, as much as the Germans" Belgian cuisine, and enjoyed a stay in a home which was literally in the center of modern Europe (E.U. headquarters was visible out the window). At their counsel I abandoned the plan to do Bruges and Ghent the next day, and settled for one (a very good idea).

Word on le rue is that Ghent is quite the partytown, confirmed by the fact that the place was trashed from the last night's festivities when I arrived, and cleaned up and partying in the streets again as I left. The elaborately costumed Medieval folks all over (including in the trams) gave the place a Disneyworld/Renaissance-fair vibe, which I tried to appreciate. The dreadlocks-to- head ratio was the hightest I've yet seen in Europe. But above all, what a Church. Because the fine arts museum of Ghent is being renovated, famous works by Rubens, Bosch et. al. were just hanging in a Church... which was after all their originally intended destination.

Then, in the same Church I saw the Ghent altarpiece which, to put it mildly, transfigured my weekend. It has survived Protestant Iconoclasm, the French Revolution, a Napoleanic seizure, several sellings and rebuys, a Nazi seizure (including an attempt to destroy it at War's end to keep in from falling into the hands of "world Jewry"), as well as a famous theft complete with ransom note and yet unsolved mystery... so I figured I should visit it before the next catastrophe.

"Please millinerd," I can hear you saying, "Tell me more!"

Okay, if you insist.

The God of the Ghent Altarpiece
Although as mentioned below Barth used the Isenheim altarpiece as an expression of his theology, the Ghent altarpiece would have been a much better pick. It too has John the Baptist's pointing hand that so inspired Barth, but this altarpiece also brilliantly illuminates Barth's Christocentrism. Let me explain...

Art historians have for centuries debated whether the central figure in red is meant to be God the Father or Christ the Son. Take a look - Sure he looks like Christ, but the inscription mentions the Almighty Father and the hand-wounds are conspicuously absent. Some then have conjectured that the Van Eyck brothers (along with their theological advisor) actually intended this dual identity... for did not Christ say "anyone who has seen me has seen the Father"? In other words, the Ghent altarpiece communicates that there is no God other than the God revealed to us in human history through one particular human - Jesus Christ.

This is the central claim of the Christian faith that Barth did not invent but simply reminded we perpetually wayward Protestants of. The scandal of this claim is being renewed daily for me in always friendly and sometimes feisty conversation with the many Muslims, Hindus, and the (not disimilar to the latter) thoroughbred pluralist Americans that I'm in class with at the Goethe Institute.

The absolutely massive Ghent altarpiece (explore it a bit) is one of the best expressions of this insight that I know of. The Father (in the form of Christ) in the above portion is in exquisite harmony with the Lamb of God revealed in the lower panels, slain for the salvation of the world. In other words, God (upper center panel) has no tricks up his sleeve that would ever contradict the mercy which was literally poured out (lower center panel) through his incarnate body.

Asked once by a Seminarian whether Barth's recovery of the insight (that there is no God other than the one revealed in Christ), theologian T.F. Torrance once replied like this: [and I paraphrase...]
"When as a pastor you are able to look a dying man or woman in the eye, terrified of what is next, and assure them that there is no other God, or "God behind God," other than the merciful Saviour revealed in Jesus Christ... then I assure you you will realize Barth's insight is indeed worthwhile."
This, my friends, is the Christian faith. As the weird cop in the The Club commercial used to say on T.V., "Accept no imitations."

I assure you they abound.

But to end on a positive note, if this actually is the real God we're talking about, despite the "limitations" that might cause discomfort with such a Christocentric theology - one needs at least admit it's not that bad of a set up. A God who dies to express there's nothing he wouldn't give for us? It certainly could be a lot worse.

update: I have since expanded upon this in an article available here.