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).