May 04, 2014
A slow theological slog
Swiss theologian Karl Barth, 1886-1968.
Finishing a large, difficult book is a kind of marathon, although generally it is one mercifully broken up over an extended period of time rather than a few hours. Last night I finally finished reading the signature work of Karl Barth, one of the 20th century's premier theologians.
The book in question was The Epistle to the Romans, first published around 1918. It was 537 dense pages of text, many of which went right over my head. I borrowed it from a friend and sometime reader of this blog back around Thanksgiving. It went into my morning pile of books that I try to turn a couple of pages of over coffee most mornings.
Barth is probably best known for his work in organizing Christian opposition to the Nazi movement in Europe,and especially its efforts to Nazify Christianity, by establishing the Confessing Church. Some if its members, such as Martin Niemoller, wound up in concentration camps. Others, like Dietrich Bonheoffer, were executed by the regime.
If I had to sum up Barth's theology, I couldn't, but maybe one could start like this: the main thing you need to know about God is that you ain't. Barth rejected liberal and rationalist theology and instead emphasized that God is absolutely unknowable by humans--except as He (Barth was pre-feminist but would probably be cool with it today) freely chose to reveal himself in the Gospel proclamation.
I think I like Barth because I do believe in the absolute distinction between God and humanity. I even believe in that on the days I doubt God. Nothing seems loopier or more self-evidently false than the assertion that humans are somehow divine. The Quakers may be right that there is "that of God" in every person. But if so, I'd say that "that" is what Bob Dylan called a "broken mirror of innocence," i.e. something that might reflect light but not originate it.
Somedays I'm orthodox in spite of myself.
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