[Pictured: my daughter (age 2) next to my copy of the Church Dogmatics]
Like most bookish types, my bedside table is often a repository for books. That pile fluctuates quite a bit in size, anywhere from 1 book to staggering piles of 30 or more books that threaten the stability of my marriage – come on, they’re not on the floor, give me a little credit! At the moment it is a much more modest pile of two books. There is the omnipresent copy of the Bible, and, at the moment, an old copy of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Vol. I, Pt. I, with a bookmark shoved in roughly 200 pages into the dense tome. I’m not reading the Dogmatics for any of my current projects, and the active work books usually congregate in another place. A week or so ago, I was looking for something to read before bed, and was perusing my library and found myself staring at Barth’s 14 volume epic, which is often considered a masterpiece of 20th-century theology, and one of the most important theological texts ever written. I’ve read Barth before, somewhat extensively for a non-Barth specialist and a non-Barthian theologian, although never straight through the CD, so this wasn’t exactly my first Rodeo. I’ve picked up this volume most nights for the past week, reading some 15-30 pages a night before I go to bed, and I’ve been enjoying this opportunity to dive back into the text.
There are two things that are somewhat notable about this choice of reading material.
Firstly, that I have become the obsessive theology nerd over the past several years who actually voluntarily reads the Church Dogmatics as an edifying “fun” book. This may be a hopelessly clinical case, and is clearly a sign that I need to be put out of my misery.
Secondly, it represents an intellectual posture that I think is worth considering.
My relationship to Barth is complicated. He was one of the first theologians I read upon beginning my seminary adventure seven years ago. I had begun as a student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and I enrolled in a course with the promising title of “Introduction to Theology.” The course was really a survey of 20th-century Protestant theology, beginning with the work of Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich, before moving into John Cobb, James Cone, and Sallie McFague. I was not a complete novice to theology – I had read Tillich somewhat extensively on my own over the years, as well as several other figures – but I must admit diving into Barth straight away was a challenge.
To give the broad strokes overview, Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss reformed pastor and theologian, who was educated in the tradition of 19th-century Protestant liberalism. Barth experienced a sort of theological crisis in the dawning of the first World War when the mentors who trained him signed letters of support for the Kaiser’s war effort. Barth was convinced that if their ethical and political convictions were so wrong-headed, there must be something dreadfully misguided in their theology. Beginning with his incendiary commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, (Der Römerbrief, 1916 First Edition, 1922 Second Edition), Barth became the de facto leader of a group of German theologians known as dialectical theologians. These theologians recovered many of the themes of Reformation-era theology that had been toned down or lost over the course of 19th-century liberal thought that dominated the German University system, such as the reality and radical transcendence of God, judgment and wrath, original sin, and revelation. As a “movement,” dialectical theology was not long for this world – they were far more united on what they were against than what they were for and were therefore subject to infighting and purges. Barth would go on to be the principal author of the Barman declaration of the Confessing Church in Germany, which was an act of resistance against the co-option of Christianity by the Nazis. Most notably, Barth would write over the course of multiple decades the Church Dogmatics, a nearly 10,000 page long theological treatise that he did not live long enough to complete. In terms of impact and influence, it is difficult to underestimate the importance of Barth, especially in the English-speaking world. He is frequently held up as the single most important theologian of the 20th century.
When I first encountered Barth, I kind of hated him. Keep in mind, I was a Unitarian Universalist, an already committed Tillichian, whose attitude towards theology was anti-credal, anti-confessionalism, and trans-religious in character. Suddenly I was reading this long-winded thinker who was radically exclusivist and Christocentric. Barth denied that we could know anything about God, apart from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. He famously was hostile towards the influence of philosophy in theology. Clearly, this was someone who I stood opposed to in my theological and religious orientation.
I did something next that surprised many of my colleagues. The next semester, I went across town to Luther seminary and enrolled in a seminar that was exclusively focused on Barth, taught by the fantastic feminist Barth scholar Amy Marga. Nobody got why I, a Unitarian Universalist, was taking this course. Now, I don’t deny that there were pragmatic motives – I figured if I wanted to teach theology someday, I would have to know Barth even if I didn’t like him —but the dominant motivation was this: I figured if he pissed me off this badly, I could probably learn something from him.
One of my teachers in my master’s degree, the Rev. Dr. Paul Capetz, used to encourage his students to always attempt to understand a thinker on their own terms and with a kind of depth. It didn’t matter to him whether you agreed with someone, it mattered whether you understood them. He felt that if the afterlife was real, and I was suddenly given a chance to speak with Barth (or any figure for that matter), that I should be able to articulate Barth’s position and theology in such a way that he would say, “Yes, you understood me.” To reject a position, or a school of thought, or a theologian or philosopher, without such understanding is premature and done in bad faith. Those of us who are specialists in the humanities are trained to do this kind of work, a work which requires a kind of intellectual empathy. You need to be able to understand why a person, for rational reasons, or historical/cultural reasons, or reasons of biography, think the way they do on a given subject.
This kind of empathy is something that I often find lacking, even in people who should know better. We often struggle to understand how someone could possibly hold a position contrary to what we hold. Clearly that is the position that any person would hold if they thought clearly about the world! Those who don’t are stupid, brainwashed, immoral, or evil. How often do you take the time to actually understand those to whom you are opposed? To understand them in ways that they would actually recognize, in the words they would use? It is far harder to dehumanize a person when you have taken the time to actually get to know the way they think.
I am by no means great at this. I went back and read some of my first published work recently, and found myself embarrassed by my strident rejection of conservative and evangelical theology – as if they were not worth my time or even worth considering, as if there were no conservative theologians who were thoughtful and creative thinkers. But it is a practice that I am trying to cultivate. A practice that I learned in the classroom and that tries to sneak into my life. If you learn to inhabit other people’s worldviews on the printed page, it is slightly easier to step inside your neighbor and understand what factors may have caused them to vote differently from you. For those of us who are Christian, it is a reminder that we are called not to bear false witness against our neighbor.
In the case of Barth, I discovered a friend. After spending a semester going through large sections of the CD, I saw an extraordinarily sophisticated theologian with whom I shared many common concerns. In particular, our common concern about the problem of idolatry, was such a motivating force for both of our work. I love the fiery style of his rhetoric, especially in early essays, such as those collected in The Word of God and Theology, and that classic theological bombshell the Römerbrief. I found that in future courses, and eventually as a teaching fellow, that I really enjoyed teaching Barth and defending him to students who tended not to be sympathetic to his project (which tend to be most people at progressive seminaries). Professor Capetz, who first taught Barth to me, would joke that I should form a theology movement called “Unitarians for Barth.”
Don’t get me wrong – I continue to think that there are problems with Barth’s position. I am not a “Barthian” theologian. But he’s become a fruitful conversation partner. He’s one of those voices in the back of my head that makes me continue to question and re-evaluate my own positions and my theology. He continues to teach me any time I encounter him and his work. I am thankful for the gift of his theology, and what it continues to mean for me as an intellectual and as a person of faith.
As always, thank you dear readers.
Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. Sixth Edition. Trans. Edwin C. Hoskyns. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.
Barth, Karl. The Word of God and Theology. Trans. Amy Marga. New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: A Selection. Ed. Helmut Gollwitzer. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1961.
Webster, John. Barth. Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series. London: Continuum, 2000.