Monday, May 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Karl Barth!

Given that my blogspot invokes the name of Karl Barth, on this day of his birth (May 12), a little bit about him.

Barth is hardly my hero. As a professor in seminary said of him, "I think Karl Barth and I would have little to say to each other." Barth is one of the fathers of neo-orthodox theology, an approach to religion I see as tending toward grim, deterministic, patriarchal and with more than a little tendency toward fundamentalism.

Yet, Barth's ethics are superb. The author of the approach of reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, Barth's insistence that one's faith be known through one's ethics were apparent in his interactions with Hitler's Third Reich. Barth was one of the architects of the Barmen Declaration rejecting the Nazi Christian Church Hitler's regime had spawned.

Barth is, however, a prime example of conservative defined as the liberal who got mugged and consequently becomes the born-again law and order reactionary. Barth's earlier optimism reflected in his liberal theology of the early 20th CE reflects the general western Progressive era thinking- "Every day, every way, things are getting better," building toward a crescendo of ultimate societal perfection.

Of course, the reality of the time was the Great War (WWI), a corrupt roaring 20s of self-focus and societal devastation not much unlike our own time, a resulting depression followed by yet another Great War, WWII. In many ways, Barth's turn from the optimism of the Social Gospel/Progressive Era liberal Protestantism to neo-orthodoxy is understandable. Where Barth's disciples have gone wrong is to consider his theology outside that context without which it makes no sense and, when taken dogmatically as it often is, becomes repressive if not oppressive.

So, a little about Barth from (a new one on me discovered today!)

Karl Barth (pronounced "Bart") was a 20th century Swiss theologian in the Reformed tradition. A vigorous opponent of theological liberalism and modernism, he is sometimes called "the Father of Neo-Orthodoxy".

Early life and education

Karl Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland and spent his early years growing up in Bern where his father taught at the university. Barth began his studies in Bern in 1904 where he was introduced to Kant, whose Critique of Practical Reason he called 'the first book that really moved me as a student'. Barth went on to study at Berlin, a center of Protestant liberalism, later studying at Tübingen and finally in Marburg in 1908. While at Marburg, Wilhelm Herrmann had a great influence on Barth.

After Marburg, Barth spent ten years (1911 - 1921) as a pastor. This had a profound impact on his theology as "Barth's liberal assurances were initially undermined by his exposure to the Swiss social democratic movement... The outbreak of the Great War further disillusioned him... most of his former teachers signed a declaration of support for the Kaiser [in support of Hitler]." Barth described his experience:

"An entire world of theological exegesis, ethics, dogmatics, and preaching, which up to that point I had accepted as basically credible, was thereby shaken to the foundations, and with it everything which flowed at that time from the pens of the German theologians."

Barth returned to Scripture, especially studying the Romans in 1916 which resulted in his commentary, first published in 1919. His commentary resulted in a new-found prominence in Germany. As a result, Barth was offered a position as Honorary Professor of Reformed Theology in Göttingen. Teaching at Göttingen from 1921 - 1925, he later held posts at Münster (1925–1930) and Bonn (1930–1935).

Other key points involve Barth's first (and later abandoned) volume of the Christian Dogmatics (1927), his study of Anselm (1930), the first volume of the Church Dogmatics (1932), his debate with Emil Brunner over natural theology, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, and his travel to Rome in 1966 to talk with those involved in the Second Vatican Council among many other things. Barth retired at the end of the winter semester of 1961-62, and his health began to decline in 1964. Barth passed away on December 10th, 1968.

Theological perspectives

It has been said that "a 'Barthian theology' is just as impossible as an 'Einsteinian science', but just as there is a pre-Einsteinian science and a post-Einsteinian science, so there is a pre-Barthian and post-Barthian theology, for the contribution of Karl Barth to theology is, like that of Albert Einstein to nature science, so deep-going and fundamental that it marks one of the great eras of advance in the whole history of the subject"

From Church Dogmatics I:

"Real proclamation, then, means the Word of God preached and the Word of God preached means... man's talk about God on the basis of God's own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation, which cannot, then, be put on a human basis, but which simply takes place, and has to be acknowledged, as a fact" (CD I/1, 90).

Barth's point is that preaching may become the Word of God not because of something we do, but according to God's direction. Thus, God's Word is free and not something controlled or possessed by the church.

He states in The Epistle to the Romans:

"The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel--that is, Christian Apologetics--is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. ... It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. ... God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him. "

It's clear to see Barth's need to defend the honor of G_d, a very Protestant, Augustinian (and patriarchal) enterprise in this writing. Barth speaks of a god I do not understand and probably could not worship and a humanity I do not recognize. He also speaks of a world in need of being overcome by "the Gospel," a world that I do not see around me in the world in which I live. I readily believe the imperatives of the Gospel - love of neighbor as self, preferential option for the poor and valuing of the good creation - are the ways human beings should live in this world we have inherited, ways which bring about health and wholeness (salus, the root of salvation) and right relation which Jesus called the reign of G_d. But I have never seen this world as particularly evil, a veil of tears, a mere preliminary to be endured before a main course served up in the afterlife. On those fundamental issues, I simply do not share the same theological universe as religious conservatives. Nonetheless, Barth has made a valuable contribution to Christian theology if understood in context.

From today's Writer's Almanac, this quote: "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God." Indeed.

Happy Birthday, Karl Barth. This blogspot and its creator are in your debt.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.