February 19, 2008
On Reading Karl Barth
For the past sixteen months or so, I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I set for myself the minimal goal of five pages a day, which I enjoy with my morning cup of coffee. I seldom exceed the “morning five,” though I’m often tempted. In fact, I tell myself that I’m not really committed to achieving my long-term desire of reading the entire CD—I’m just reading five pages a day to see where it takes me. Funny how these mental tricks work sometimes.
Well, I think I’m hooked. Barth has grown on me, and it no longer feels right to start a day without him. I decided to begin with volume IV, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, and I don’t think that’s been a bad choice at all. When I finish IV in the late spring or early summer, I’m not sure whether I’ll dive into volume I or somewhere else. I’m open to suggestions.
There are a number of things that fascinate me about Barth, most of them theological to be sure. But since I’m an editor, there are other things too. For instance, Barth does his theology with an infectious passion, but at the same time he travels at a relaxed pace. He is in no hurry to reach a destination, otherwise known as a conclusion. He will hold up an aspect of theology to the light and turn it slowly around, viewing it from this angle and that. And just when you think he’s done with it, he’ll tell you that he’s only begun, and of course we must now consider a number of subsidiary points before we can possibly move on to a conclusion on this major point. And oh, by the way, this “major point”? It’s really just one aspect of several, which are of course discussed in two or three other volumes of CD. But no matter, we have time, and it would be slovenly to hurry on and not do a proper job with the topic at hand.
Obviously, if you want instant theological gratification, Barth is not your theologian! You can’t say, “For Barth’s understanding of the atonement, go to IV.1, pages whatever.” It doesn’t work that way at all. But if you can be patient, maybe at five pages a day, you’ll fall into his rhythm and be quite content to be taken where he leads you.
And all the while old Barth is working on you. He’s got you on the theological couch. And you begin to realize that much of the theology you’ve read in the past has been pretty thin gruel. No, Barth has not been overrated. He is a great master. And I’ve concluded that life is too short not to read him—slowly and thoroughly. Not that I aspire to become a “Barthian” (something he abhorred), but to understand and wrestle with his theology and perhaps, through the process, work out some kinks in my own theology.
Sure, there are times when Barth does seem long-winded. I’ve found that to be true in IV.3.1, where I am now. (Just this morning I bumped into a mega-sentence of 345 words [I counted them], though it was strung together with a dexterous use of semicolons.) But just when he has nearly exasperated me, all of the sudden he turns a corner and opens up a new vista that I’ve not appreciated before. And so I forgive the master and rebuke myself for my impatience.
I’ve amused myself with the image of a bold and pragmatic editor deciding he’d finally be the one to take this doughty Swiss theologian to the publisher’s woodshed and knock some sense into him. Get him to cut to the chase. Not only do I think Barth would have emerged from the woodshed first—with no welts or bruises!—but it wouldn’t have worked in any case. There are some thinkers—and don’t get any ideas, there are not that many—who need the room to expand, to work out their thoughts with the rhythm of their daily breath. (And by historical standards, Barth is not that longwinded!)
Besides, Barth had as good a joke about himself as anyone. John Godsey (“Reminiscences of Karl Barth,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 23.3 (2002) pp. 313-24) relates the following:
"The angels laugh at old Karl,” he wrote. “They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume, and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!”—and they laugh about the persons who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh." (Godsey, p. 322)
And here’s Godsey again:
I asked Barth if he would write any more volumes of the Church Dogmatics, and he said, "Probably not. After all, I have already written enough for people to read. When people ask me about a 13th volume, I am inclined to ask if they have finished the first twelve!" He compared his unfinished work to the Strasbourg Cathedral, which has only one tower although the plan called for two. "There is a certain merit,’ he said, ‘to an unfinished dogmatics; it points to the eschatological character of theology." (Godsey, p. 323)
Now I dare you to try that line on your editor!