Barth

Reading about Karl Barth is something of an inspiration for me. But it’s difficult to describe in print in a modern setting without sounding a little bit silly. Barth’s enthusiasm, even zeal, for theology is a little disconcerting, almost off-putting. He’s totally overboard. You want to walk alongside him and put your arm around him in an elderly brother sort of way, and say “Karl. I appreciate your passion for talking about God. I really do. I’m with you on this one. But Karl, can you calm down a bit? Surely, at least, you could say that the actual practice of Christianity is more important than *talking* about it.” But Karl won’t calm down.

And I’m not talking about the Church Dogmatics. Six million words, I believe somebody said he wrote, over a period of 30-40 years. But that’s a product of reflected study, not the outpouring of a moment’s unbridled zeal. I’m thinking of when he first graduated from college and was assigned a pastorate, at age 23. Suddenly struck with the fact that he has nothing of value to say to the real people in his real church, he begins to study his Bible. And study he does, as God begins to crack through those pages and reveal to Barth the true value of the gospel. And it’s nothing like his liberal professors taught him at school. It’s not a dry religious document, carefully codified as an exponent of first century religious thought. It’s living and active, piercing to the joints and the marrow, dividing asunder the soul and spirit of even early 20th Century German culture. It is a word for *now*. For months on end, Barth lives in the space between his study and the pulpit. He does nothing but preach and study, losing sleep, forgetting meals. In 1919, Barth fires a “shot heard round the world” of his own, with *der Rommerbrief* on the letter to the Romans.

In a few years, Barth has unofficially established himself in Europe as sort-of the voice of Reformation Theology, and a school in Germany asks him to be the official professor of Calvinism, since he is essentially the only person in the area who actually believes it. Barth accepts, apparently releived at the opportunity to focus on one thing, instead of having to both pastor and follow his compulsion to study. Only, once at the university. He has to teach a class on Calvin, and discovers he barely knows Calvin at all. He writes each lecture out beforehand, based on the cutting edge of his research, refusing to say anything until he knows it thoroughly. Occasionally, class is called short as Barth announces abruptly that this is as far as he’s gotten today. His lectures are edited and combined into a book called *Christian Dogmatics,* which is a sort of theological best-seller. Until something clicks and he realizes he’s been going down the wrong track. Barth then refuses to release a reprint until he’s totally redeveloped his theology. Again!

In a lot of ways, Barth reminds me of William Wordsworth, and how he changed the face of poetry in the 19th century. You could even draw comparisons between Barth’s relationship with Eduard Thurneysen and Wordsworth’s relationship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They worked very closely together, forming a sort of society of two, from which their ideas sprang, and publishing many of their works as a joint effort. The same sort of comparison could be made between *Der Römerbrief* and *[Lyrical Ballads](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyrical_Ballads)*. If you push it, you could make similitudes between Barth’s love of Mozart and Wordsworth’s praise of daffodils.

But the key link between the two may turn out to be that they are both providing me with a bit of a model. When I read Wordsworth, I remembered that I too had had experiences when a sense of other-worldliness would strike me suddenly and I would nearly have to hold on to fenceposts to keep my feet on the ground. Only, for Wordsworth, that *Sehnsucht* seems to have been a romantic sense of nature, while for me, it was very clearly an awareness of the Spirit of God, what C.S. Lewis might have called being “surprised by Joy.” When I read about Barth, it is his passion for theology that catches me. But it isn’t just any theology, but a theology of the Word, an obsession with the gospel.

And that’s the gospel that’s been growing on me, like a little tickle in the back of my throat. The need to teach this gospel, in all its depth, has been growing on me till I’m almost overwhelmed. I’m almost embarrassed when I think about my inquiries into [running a school](http://www.neumatikos.org/?p=866), not because I think that I couldn’t do such a thing, but because all thoughts of administration are becoming subsumed into a need to catechize the gospel. I could teach, but only one subject. All subjects must be brought to bear on that one liberating story. Is any pearl of greater price? Is any seed more worth scattering?

My need to preach far exceeds my capacity for knowledge, and this gives me a great deal of sympathy for Karl Barth. (Losing sleep to give himself too much of an education? !) He provides a model for how a life might go about giving itself wholly to the glory of God to its fullest capacity. I hardly agree with Barth at every point – and I haven’t even read much of him yet. But he inspires… he inspires.

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