Friday, October 30, 2009

Karl Barth and True Practical Theology

I used to sit in a Karl Barth reading group in seminary and not infrequently be heard to ask (with some frustration): "But when is Barth going to get around to talking about our part in all of this?" Our professor was pretty patient with us. Emerging us in the text semester after semester he trusted it to reveal to us its true shape. And, well, I'm still reading.

Indeed, as it turns out, one of the things Karl Barth gets knocked around a bit for is what seems to be a lack of practical application to his theology. Not a lot of how-tos. Some would say no "ethics" to speak of, just a whole lot of what God does. My current professor disagrees--not only with this assessment of Barth's focus but with the common either/or between what God does and what we do--and I'm starting to see why, for two reasons.

The first reason is a pretty philosophical one which I won't go into in detail right now. But it is becoming clear to me that Barth's whole theological project can be described from one aspect as one massive challenge to modern notions of freedom and agency, being and knowing. I may have to come back to that another time, but one way to put it would be to say that whereas we've been spoon fed since the Enlightenment on the notion of freedom as freedom from; Barth is defining it in Christian theology as freedom within, and freedom for.

Never mind that the notion of freedom from is illusory. That's an argument for someone else. Barth's point is that if we want to think Christianly, we should get over this idea that there is a huge either/or between God's action and ours. Proper Christian action is precisely that action which is done by God in humans. So when we think Barth is talking just about what God does, well, he is, but as he rolls on with it page after page we ought to see that the whole time he has been talking about what the Church should be doing as well.

The second reason I'm looking to the Church Dogmatics more and more for its practical theology is simply because of the life experience and motivations that seem to have stood behind its writing. In Eberhard Busch's biography of Barth, His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, it becomes pretty clear that a driving impetus for Barth's theological career was his early experience as a pastor working with the people in everyday life, work, politics, family, and so on. He said himself that it was those years that changed his mind and altered the course of his future thought (61).

As a pastor Barth led a congregation through the first World War as well as through the civil tensions of socialism and capitalism among the workers and manufacturers sitting in the pews each week. Though he undoubtedly felt the pressure to pacify and moderate, to find the "radical middle" one might say, Barth would more often than not choose a side, and yet from within that side also prove to be a bit of a thorn for the other side.

For instance, in the worker's struggle against the manufacturers, Barth supported socialism because he thought it right at that time and place, but he did so without letting anyone around him actually believe in it as a system. At one point, in around 1913, Barth looked at Kutter on one side of the aisle and Ragaz on the other and “was prompted to look for a way to overcome their differences. ‘Isn’t it better to strive for the point where Kutter’s ‘no’ and Ragaz’s ‘yes’, . . . come together?” (86). This wasn't about finding a middle road, but holding together two ends of a magnet like live wire.

This just sounds like one of those defining moments to me. Maybe I recognize the impulse in my own restlessness regarding the (often largely self-imposed) pressures of pastoring. Whatever the case, Busch says Barth “now found extremely questionable the ‘religious workshop in which one is forged as a pastor’. Indeed he even occasionally complained, ‘If only one could be something other than a pastor.’ He was especially annoyed at the ‘universal spoonful of tolerance which especially in our local church is proclaimed to be the supreme good’” (86).

One can see all throughout Barth's life traces of this deep-seated desire to avoid spooning up sentimental truisms to keep the "peace". This is a conviction he articulates pretty clearly during the time of his first commentary on the book of Romans, when he realized that too often:

Everything had always already been settled without God. God was always thought to be good enough to put the crowning touch to what men began of their own accord. The fear of the Lord did not stand objectively at the beginning of our wisdom; we always attempted as it were to snatch at his assent in passing. Thus the greater the zeal for God, the greater would be the reluctance to submit to God’s real demands . . . .

From God’s standpoint that is more of a hindrance than a help, since it continues to delude people about the need for the coming of his kingdom. Our ‘movements’ then stand directly in the way of God’s movement; our ‘causes’ hinder his cause, the richness of our ‘life’ hinders the tranquil growth of the divine life in the world . . . The collapse of our cause must demonstrate for once that God’s cause is exclusively his own. That is where we stand today” (99-100).

Anyone recognize the current church crisis in those words? If not, read them again! But I digress. Listen, further, to what Barth said in reflection on the angst he felt at being a preacher:

“These two factors, life and the Bible, have risen before me . . . if these are the source and destination of Christian preaching, who should, who can, be a pastor and preach? . . . Why, I had to ask myself, did those question marks and the exclamation marks, which are the very existence of the pastor, play really no role at all in the theology I knew . . . ?” (90).

Barth had wrestled deeply with practical theology and found both Church theology and Christian practice wanting; basically unrelated. But he also felt that they could not be properly related unless the action of God took precedence over the actions of people. There had to be this asymmetry or else one was not speaking or following God anymore. Thus the tone of his Dogmatics. But let's not forget for a second that they are the Church Dogmatics. Its theology for people who wish to follow the living and active God in the world.

The joke sometimes goes that "practical theology" is an oxymoron, but Barth would say the exact opposite. Impractical abstractions are for others. Christian theology is about God reconciling the world to Himself in Jesus Christ; who is God made present to humankind and humankind properly made present to God. Like Barth said while writing his Romans commentary:

Knowledge of God is not an escape into the safe heights of pure ideas, but an entry into the need of the present world, sharing in its suffering, its activity and its hope. The revelation which has taken place in Christ is not the communication of a formula about the world, the possession of which enables one to be at rest, but the power of God which sets us in motion, the creation of a new cosmos. A divine shoot breaks through its ungodly casing . . . There is work and struggle at every point and for every hour” (100).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Becoming Acquainted with Barth II: Thurneysen

I think you can tell a lot about a person by what he values in a friend, and you probably never know a man until you've seen him with his best friend either. I found something about Karl Barth's description of his close friend Eduard Thurneysen fairly moving:

"All my personal impressions of him can be summed up in the word openness . . . Thurneysen has the rare gift of being able to learn from others and, moreover, to learn from a person just what is worth learning from him. He then brings it alive in his own way. However, he is hardly ready to settle for well-defined positions or trends. If you are looking for his views it is no use expecting them always to be once and for all in one particular place. For all his decisiveness, he is a volatile man, and is always apt to spring surprises over points of detail . . .

[H]e gets on with people in an astonishing way. He can put himself in their place, walk with them and help them by understanding them (though from a more lofty vantage point and in a transfiguring light). He shares their sorrow or their joy. The very evident criticism which he brings to bear on them is almost always a radical, immanent criticism which is constructive by being comforting, helpful and friendly . . .

His study and indeed his view of the church and the world is like Noah's ark: all kinds of animals can enter and leave again, saved for the time being, under the sign of the rainbow which binds heaven and earth together" (From E. Busch, p. 74).

Thursday, October 22, 2009


A couple years ago I commemorated my 32nd birthday by producing a list of the 32 most influential films of my life. The next year I added a 33rd and then also produced a list of my top 33 works of fiction. Figured I'd make this an annual tradition. Its good to look back on things, and I don't mind having an excuse to do some lists for my sidebar. This year my 34th has come and gone but don't think I forgot! Here are this year's additions:

Great Fiction: I wrote about this book not too long ago, and won't say much more about it here except that it managed to be gripping and frightening both without really pressing the drama or the thrills too hard. Somehow by this subtlety, however, McCarthy managed to make a page-turner out of what could have been so cliche. Remarkably, this he did while simultaneously making me often scared to turn the page! But the thing that impressed upon me most from this story came simply from the two main characters--by the end something about their journey had made me want to walk my own more resolutely.

Great Films: Truth is, this could have been on the list of "Films I Take With Me" long ago, but I never quite knew what to do with it. I do hesitate to recommend it, simply because I have a pretty wide readership and I don't want anyone walking into this film unaware: The language is about as brutal as you can imagine, and then some. I have hung out in a lot of locker rooms and don't really bat an eye at "swearing" all that much, but there are some scenes in here that I still found hard to take. But that's kind of the point, I'm afraid.

Magnolia depicts reality. It just does. And also something like hope or redemption. I have rarely been moved so deeply and felt so richly about life, death, and everything. I should say more about it than just talk about the language, but if you want to understand this film's influential quality in my life a bit more, a friend of mine talked about it here recently, and I can't put it much better.

In the next while (like before I turn 35) I hope to post my new list for this year. I've been toying with doing this one for a long time but haven't figured out how I'm going to do it exactly. I want to do the soundtrack to my life. But that's a bit of an undertaking. So it'll be a top 34 albums or artists or something like that. We'll see. I'm sure you are holding your breath.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meston Walk

I previously described one of my walks to school in a couple of poems. I take that route from the top of Sunnybank hill where my boys go to school. But the more direct route is right behind our house, and avoids the hill altogether. It is Meston walk, and I want you to walk it with me today.

And once on the top floor of the library, this is what you see out the window beside the Karl Barth section. In the foreground is the Meston Building (the Chemistry department) and behind that is King's college (the crown tower is the most visible projection). Behind that is Pittodrie Stadium (at center) and behind that the North Sea (yes you can actually see it there).
I'm supposed to get an office in King's College sometime soon, but until then, this is where I'm camping out. I hear the law library has better facilities, however, so I may venture over there and try to blend in. Anyway, just thought I'd share Meston walk with you.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Canada Live!

Without internet or TV at home for going on five weeks now (customer service hasn't made it across the ocean yet), and without the time at school to do a lot of surfing (I shouldn't even be doing this right now), I'm increasingly thankful for a great little invention called the "podcast". I don't know if you have to have an ipod to get this stuff or not, but on itunes you can subscribe to tons of free "podcasts" which is basically like creating your own little radio station. And this is where I go to stay grounded in some of the things that are most important to me:

American football and Canadian music.

By listening to ESPN's PTI, Football Today, and Soccernet podcasts I keep appraised of my sporting interests while walking around campus. Sure I end up ignoring most passers-by, but guess what? They all have headphones in anyway. If you are a sports fan I highly recommend PTI, on TV or in podcast form. What an entertaining show. With the hosts' rapport I daresay it would even be entertaining to a non-sports fan, not to mention a decent lesson in how to fight and stay friends!

But the thing I really wanted to mention in my fleeting moments before hitting the books this morning is the "Canada Live" podcast by CBC Radio. With my subscription to this podcast I now have on my ipod what amounts to five (and counting) free, good quality sounding, fantastic and recent Canadian live albums! The concerts are abridged, and are interspersed with comments from a host and the odd interview, but these are short and sweet and actually quite good. I love it.

So if you are a beginner to the amazing Canadian music scene I don't think you have any excuse for buying what your local radio station is selling you, when you can easily discover what's out there with such tools as this (and CBC radio 3). Sure, there is still stuff on there not to like, but that's the great thing about it: You give a listen, and if it doesn't grab you, you sift it out and download what you want.

Anyway, pictured here is the Great Lake Swimmers (led by front-man and beautiful song-writer Tony Decker). You can hear a recent concert of theirs if you like. As the host said, lately they have been taking Canada, "not by force, but by the fragility of their sound." Great description! They really are worth giving a listen.

The other four concerts I've downloaded in the last few months include Joel Plaskett (I call him a Canadian treasure), Bruce Cockburn (where've I been all you're life?), Hey Rosetta! (not bad, some of you might like them more than I do), and Chad VanGaalen (recent Polaris Prize short-lister). Any of these would be a great place to start, not only if you want to get to know what's up in Canadian music, but if you want a few hours of solid musical enjoyment.

As I walk by Scotland yards, loving it but missing home too, I sure appreciate that at least a few pieces of Americana and Canadiana are only a fingertip away.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Becoming Acquainted with Karl Barth

I'm knee deep in Karl Barth already. My mind is being challenged, and is cautiously noting potential challenges to to be made as well. For now, however, I'm trying to get the lay of the theological landscape, to get to know the man I'll be studying, and to get at least a working knowledge of the German language. Eberhard Busch's biography of Karl Barth has been a vital help with the first two, but I am not sure anything but hard work can help me with the latter.

Here are a few anecdotes and quotes from the earlier part of Barth's life which caused me to simultaneously chuckle and blush:

On Childhood: "I was the oldest child . . . in my family and did not always use my position in the right way: the consequence was that my brothers, in particular, bore a grudge against me all through their lives for having been so bossy then and having made everything the grist for my mill" (p. 11, emphasis mine. My own brothers have always been more gracious to me than begrudging, but that last line really hits the nail on the head when I think of childhood sometimes!)

On Parenting: "Children come under the healthy sway of the commandment 'Honour your father and your mother', but in their turn they also educate us. We are humbled by the perception of our own errors in them, by the observation that a propensity to sin is even in children's hearts and that our strength often threatens to fail in the battle against it. These are other ways in which children are a blessing to us" (12).

On Sunday School: "I had a well-meaning but rather silly Sunday School mistress who thought it proper to give us children a precise description of hell and the eternal torments waiting there for the wicked. Of course this interested us and excited us quite a lot. But none of us there at the time learnt the fear of the Lord and the beginning of wisdom in this way.' At least that was Karl's father's view at the time, since he immediately withdrew Karl from Sunday School and from then on held a children's service for the family every Sunday in his study" (13).

On His Early Theological 'Rebellion': "One of the best remedies against liberal theology and other kinds of bad theology is to take them in bucketsful. On the other hand, all attempts to withhold them by strategem or force only causes people to fall for them even more strongly, with a kind of persecution complex" (44).

On Pastoring: "'My visiting and my instruction are a laughable piece of bungling; I feel like someone trying to blow a trumpet; my cheeks are all puffed out, and yet curiously no sound emerges" (89).

On Frustrating Ministerial Meetings: "Official pastors' meetings . . . always filled 'me with the greatest unrest and anguish . . . When I want to shout something out in the room, I have neither the voice nor the words, and I hang there wriggling like a roofer on his rope.' On one occasion, however, he did in fact 'shout out in the room': . . . He put out a formal motion to the synod that it should abandon its traditional opening service, in order to demonstrate publicly . . . 'that everything . . . is taken a hundred times more seriously than God'" (87).

On Preaching: "I preached today with the clear impression that this cannot get through . . . because it is still far from getting through to me myself. . . . Our sayings . . . all remind me of bridges which are still only half built, staring promisingly, sadly, threateningly, or however one will, into the air. . . . [Thus, in a 1916 sermon on Ezekiel 13] he spoke in prophetic tones of 'the great unrest which is inevitable when God speaks to us', saying that the 'pastor who satisfies the people' is a false prophet" (89, 102, 89-90, emphasis mine!).

On Feeling In Over One's Head: "The young professor often sighed over the 'mountains of material which I haven't mastered!' Or he lamented how 'I have to find my way through the fog like a poor mule, still hampered above all by a lack of academic agility, an inadequate knowledge of Latin and the most appalling memory! . . . The inside of my head is like a cage full of hyaenas before being fed. . . I feel like one of those men at the fair who hit a knob on a box with a hammer in order to send a ring or some such thing high in the air, but it keeps coming down again" (127-128).

Yeah, I know how you feel Barth; I know how you feel.