Posts Tagged ‘Barth’

Barth in Indiana

Uncle Karl does not have a passport so he has to stay in Indiana. As much as it pains me to hit the “pause” button on a project underway, I won’t be toting volumes of the Church Dogmatics with me to Mexico; I’ll resume the reading in July when I return.

"It pleases me to summer in Indiana," said noted theologian, Karl Barth, "but Dr. Johns is unkind not to take me to the beach for at least one day of play."

As I announced last week here at Theography, I have committed to reading Barth’s entire magnum opus and began doing so on his birthday, May 10. I’m nearly 250 pages into I/1 (I’m trying to only include Barth quotations in my blogs from pages I have actually read during this year-long plus marathon).

Since it is my practice to only read material in Spanish while in Mexico (Honduras, etc.), Karl has to stay home–my copy of the CD is an English translation.  Maybe it’s crazy, but as much as is possible, the only exception I make to this rule is reading email (and blog comments, of course). However, this ought not stop the rest of you from reading Barth throughout the month of June. We’ll compare notes when I return.

Citing concerns over the new Immigration Laws in Arizona, Swiss theologian Karl Barth cancels lectures in Phoenix and Tucson. "I don't look 'Arizonan,'” he told reporters, “I will limit my summer travels to Richmond, Indiana and surrounding communities."


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We should not write theology in pen.

Theologians are not the only ones who fall into the trap of writing/thinking/speaking with permanent ink, but it is a besetting sin of many of us. Handling such topics as “the Divine,” “eternity,” or even more pompously stated, “the counsels of God,” we can fool ourselves into thinking we are working with realities fixed and certain. Words spoken in ink sound confident and assured but they are not honest and can actually diminish the liveliness of faith when over time we believe in them more than in the Spirit that moves as it will. Barth provides both comfort and challenge on precisely this point: “The one who is awakened and gathered into being in the Church has every cause for the full assurance of faith, but none at all for certainty or over-confidence.” (CD I/1, 49)  Full assurance, yes. Certainty, no.

When Moses asked to see God he didn’t quite get what he had hoped for…he saw God pass before him. And really, that’s as good as it gets. There is no holding on to a moving and living God, no pinning God down, no snapping photos and capturing the essence of the Holy One. Nevertheless, when such a phenomenon is expressed it is often done so with much more  triumphalism and self-assuredness than the reality permits.

We need to write theology in pencil and keep a thick eraser handy. This work is provisional, tentative, and always unfinished. There is no word or concept or beautifully crafted theological exposition that will sustain us through this life and the next. The Word can do this, however. The living, pulsing, and vibrant Presence of God is what animates words, inspires creation, offers hope, and births a people. Staying close to this Reality that–as Moses discovered–doesn’t stand still, will require revision, restatement, remaking, and renewal. It is smuggy, messy, and incomplete–it’s fulfillment may be written boldly in pen, but that day is not yet.

Returning to Uncle Karl: Barth was asked once about why he did not finish his magisterial work, Church Dogmatics. “There is a certain merit to an unfinished dogmatics…it points to the eschatological character of theology! (Barth, How I Changed My Mind, 86)

Rigidity and fixity in theology (and other matters) may address our ill-at-ease-ness with ambiguity and our discomfort with chaos, but whatever is its subject it can never be the Reality that is God.

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Joerg Rieger is fast becoming my favorite contemporary theological travel companion. In his book, Remember the Poor: the Challenge to Theology in the 21st Century (1999), he altered my thinking in important ways and helped give some shape to  my recent life-altering encounters in Latin America. I’ve just finished reading his, God & the Excluded: Visions & Blindspots in Contemporary Theology (2001).  And, I have on my desk two more of his to read: Christ  & Empire: from Paul to Post-colonial Times (2007) and No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (2009).

In God & the Excluded, he challenges various theological “turns to the self” and “turns to the text/community” which enable the perpetuation of privilege and the continued marginalization of the excluded. Thus, his challenge is both to liberalism and to postliberalism. At every point he raises the question of who benefits from the perpetuation of privilege in market capitalism and who benefits from unchallenged assumptions. Reiger takes seriously Frederick Herzog dictum that “the church cannot be built from within.” Even in the waning of western Christendom, the Christian church is a sometimes-(un)willing sometimes (un)conscious co-conspirator  in an oppressive social order.  Thus, the church itself stands always in need of self-critique in relation to the Other and the marginalized other.

And the critique is crucial at all levels of theology. Reiger cites approvingly Uncle Karl who stated that there must always be “a theological warning against theology, a warning against the idea that its propositions or principles are certain in themselves…” (CD I/1, 165) Theology, thus, “no longer offers a critique from a secure position but needs to include itself into the critique” (194)–including, the theologians offering the critique!!

Additionally, there is a never-ending need to consider how doctrines function (and I will add, not only in the sense articulated by Lindbeck in, Nature of Doctrine–a book with which I am generally in sympathy): “which doctrines actually end up supporting the structures of exclusion and which provide resistance and alternatives? … Which doctrines speak most clearly against the gods of the global economy?” (184-185)

“Meeting God at the margins can change one’s life” (190) which is, of course, one of the reasons so much effort is expended ignoring or romanticizing the other into non-existence. However, if theology can…and if the church can get over itself, then perhaps there can be more room to see the other, without whom we cannot see the Other.

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CD Reading

Today is Karl Barth’s birthday and in honor of Uncle Karl I’ve decided to read the whole thing…every last page of the Church Dogmatics. I’ve read sections, large chunks, but have never sat down to devour all 13 tomes (there are 14 books, but the last one is an index–I’m skipping that one).

When I was a doctoral student at Duquesne University it was a rite of passage to ignore the “do not touch” sign on Barth’s desk (housed in the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) and touch it anyway…hoping to absorb some residual energy. For years I’ve flirted with the idea of reading this theological monstrosity–it’s time.

I have no idea how long this will take. However, I’m taking as my motto some words Barth wrote TWICE in his preface (I/1, xv, xvi). Pondering the task ahead (as I am too), he stated: “I hold myself forbidden to be discouraged.”

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