Surfing Theology with Karl Barth


METAPHYSICAL WARNING: This post is an eisegetical exercise in the noetic effects of a sensus divinitatis obtained in the pursuit of hermeneutical pleroma, as mediated by a epistemological kairos from the Kirchliche Dogmatik. Extreme theological geekiness is liable to occur.

When I have some down time at work, when I can just kick back and relax, when all my time is not hemmed in by emergencies, and I can unwind by reading for work and pleasure, I like pick up a volume of Kart Barth’s Church Dogmatics, open it at random, and get lost in it for an hour or two.

The very emphasis, the fact that no other question is seen in relation to the one but a real question in relationship to the other, the naivete with which their own Christlikenss is affirmed as compared with the hesitance of the final affirmation of Jesus Christ; all this meant that directly as well as indirectly everything was lost and the confession of the name of Jesus Christ was already abandoned (Church Dogmatics I.2 p. 351).

Yes Virginia, I read that stuff for fun.

I know this makes me a theological geek, and I plead guilty as charged. I realize that most people would rather attend a marathon meeting of insurance adjusters talking about actuary tables, but for me it is pure delight. As a matter of fact, I did just now choose the page and sentence at random, but I took break before finishing the paragraph, because I had to see where he was going with it.

“Why would you do that?” you may ask, assuming you didn’t stop reading this in the middle of that long quote.

DBP_1986_1282_Karl_BarthHe was the first major theologian of any stature that I read. Well, that’s not exactly true. The first book of serious theology I read was Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, which I read on my lunch hour when I was working as a systems analyst for a bank. But soon after that I stumbled onto Church Dogmatics, II.2, part one, 506 pages on the doctrine of election. Moltmann was my gateway drug. Barth was The Real Thing.

And yes, you read that right. I did not start reading Barth in seminary. I would sneak away from my day job to read it. When I finally got to seminary a few years later, it was pretty much an excuse for me to read theology full time.

I like his theology, which ambles down the path of Christian Orthodoxy without defining it so narrowly that it is a solo journey. Early in his career he saw all his liberal German professors defending their countries involvement in World War I and realized that their theology had little do with why they supported the war, and from that saw the poverty of a system where what was studied had little or nothing to do with how they formed their ideas and opinions about world events. “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible,” he advised his students, a word the Church would do well to heed today.

This is what led him to oppose Hitler in the early days of his regime. While other German pastors were acquiescing to the rising tide of National Socialism, Barth was active in opposing Hitler and all he stood for. In 1934 he gathered with a group of pastors and theologians (the dividing line between the two was not as clear back then as it is today) and while they napped after a long lunch, he wrote The Barmen Declaration, a statement opposing Hitler and National Socialism. “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders [Führer in German] vested with ruling powers.” Here Barth is making it clear that Hitler is not the leader of the church, and they have no business bowing down to him or accepting that he had any power of them. Soon after this Barth left Germany for his Swiss homeland, where he lived and taught the rest of his life.

“The gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths,” he wrote in his first major work of theology, the groundbreaking 579-page commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. For the rest of his career he went about following those question marks.

The first day of the Karl Barth Seminar I took at Duke University, the professor told us, “If you don’t understand what Barth is saying, just keep reading. It will come back around again. And again. And again.” Having read four of the twelve massive volumes of Barth’s massive magnum opus Church Dogmatics I know exactly what he meant.

Barth takes a theme, and goes with it. When you think he has exhausted it, he takes it up again, and this time goes in a slightly different direction. When is it done with that, he does it all over again.

Eighteen small print pages of the various ways to look at supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. Twenty-five pages on time, from God’s perspective. Forty-eight pages on Judas. The first of his four volumes on reconciliation runs 779 pages. The second volume is even longer.

Someone once saw some works of Karl Barth on Albert Camus’s bookshelf, and asked if he was interested in Barth’s theology. “No,” Camus said, “I read it for style.” Ok, I cannot verify that story. It was told to me by one of my seminary classmates who was trying to read Barth at the time. It’s probably not true, but it very well could be. Camus would see Barth as a Christian Sisyphus rolling his theological rock up a hill only to have constantly roll back down on him. I’m sure that was how my classmate felt upon having to read Barth.

I think the opposite is true.

Barth was an anti-Sisyphus. Yes, he rolled his theological rocks up a hill, like Sisyphus, again and again, but his was not an exercise in frustration; it was an act of pure joy. Unlike Sisyphus, who never got the top before the rock rolled back down again, Barth would hit the summit, and so enjoyed the process, that he kicked it back down, so he could roll it up again. And again. And again.

For those students like my classmate who read Barth because they had to, reading him was a Sisyphean task. “I’ve already read this! Why is he going over it again?” It seems like the flow will never end.

But for those like myself who read Barth because they wanted to, reading him is like watching a surfer. You see him catch a wave and ride it in to the shore, then he paddles out so he can do it again. And again. And again. Except when you read Barth, on are on the surfboard with the surfer.

You are reading an extended treatise by someone who loves what is doing so much, that he rides the waves over and over and over again. You can feel and share the sheer joy of someone who is doing something he truly loves.

In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, the father of a young chess prodigy is confronting one of his son’s teachers, who has just told the father the boy is missing too many classes for tournaments, and that maybe he needs a more “normal” childhood.

“He’s better at this than I’ve ever been at anything in my life. He’s better at this than you’ll ever be, at anything.” It’s a rare privilege to be around people who excel, and it probably the biggest reason I like to read Barth. There are other great theologians, but I have only met or read a couple who are as good and who do it with the same gusto as Barth.

I know that Barth is not for everyone. I know that most people would rather run barefoot across a hardwood floor full of Legos than read even a couple of pages in the Church Dogmatics. But most people can identify with watching someone who is really good at something, whether it is LeBron James playing basketball, Eric Clapton playing guitar, or Meryl Streep acting.

Karl Barth is like a beacon for me. He reminds me of the joy of doing something well, and that is why I love reading him.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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