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.


Stewart said...

Oh my...all that in your first week! Some of these things take a life time don't they!

Colin Toffelmire said...

I know how you feel Jon, it's quite overwhelming to begin with. Nice to see that a great mind like Barth felt this way too hey?

And I'm also glad that you enjoyed The Road so much, it's brilliant isn't it?

Oh, and my blog moved over to Wordpress, address is on my old site. Have fun with German (something I should be doing right now too, boooo).

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I don't know Barth at all, of course, but from these excerpts I'm getting the impression that he'd offer the kind of moral challenges that most intimidate and delight me.

word verification:

Trev said...

I see you read "The Road". Film adaptation is made and on the way starring Viggo Mortensen.

Matt: I think we should start a new trend: using word verifications in sentences like a spelling bee...

For example:


I ate a side dish of condersh with my oatmeal.


Jon Coutts said...


The act of trying to speak to an expectant audience with the "h" kicked out of you.


"the kind of moral challenges that most intimidate and delight me"

Yeah. I'm not sure he ends up offering the moral challenges so much as the mental ones. But yeah I feel the same way.

Colin and Trevor:
This film could be really good or really bad. I don't think there is any in between. I actually thing old Viggo could pull it off. But who plays the kid?

And I predict that if there is a single frame of the film dedicated to showing the nuclear meltdown or whatever it is, the film will suck.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I've seen the trailer and the movie is going to both suck and blow. my full thoughts here:

Trev said...

The Kid's going to be played by a newcomer.

Philbert said...

I've got to say I'm finding the blog on Barth infinitely more interesting that your blogs on good ol GK. No offense. Less the writer and more the subject matter.

Jon Coutts said...

I'll check that out Colin. Interesting, Phil, since GK is generally thought to be more "palatable". Awesome.

Philbert said..., I just finished reading "The Road". Talk about gripping, I couldn't put it down. Any other good books he's written?