Reading Karl Barth

George Hunsinger:

Often referred to as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth has achieved the dubious distinction of being habitually honored but not much read. Although many reasons might be found to explain this, surely one of them is that reading Karl Barth can be a discouraging experience. What reader of the Church Dogmatics has not gotten bogged down in one of those long, complicated, and seemingly interminable sentences? At such times Barth’s writing may seem reminiscent of a famous quip by Mark Twain. The German sentence, Twain declared, is like a dog that jumps into the Atlantic Ocean, swims all the way across to the other side, and climbs out at the end with a verb in his mouth! Yet long sentences are not the only problem. Not only can it be difficult to keep track of the antecedents to pronouns, but Barth apparently keeps repeating himself as he unfolds his thought. Furthermore, the content seems to present as many problems as the style. It can seem to be too familiar to be interesting, or paradoxically, too strange to be relevant. As though all this were not enough, his dialectic can be very bewildering, seeming to take away with one hand what he has just established with the other. Why then should anyone bother to make the effort?

Perhaps the best answer is that those readers who have managed to get past the initial difficulties find that they are in the midst of something truly magnificent. Barth’s theology in the Church Dogmatics could be compared to the cathedral at Chartres. Once one’s eyes get used to the light, one discovers that one is inside an awesome and many-splendored structure, soaring with vaulted arches, arrayed with intricate passageways, adorned with exquisite statuary, and crowned above all by rose windows dancing with fire. The problem, then, is for one’s eyes to get used to the light. But once they do, no other architecture, no other theology, is likely to be quite the same. Back in the light of day, some contemporary theologies will begin to look more like lecture halls than cathedrals, others will stand out as respectable but limited sanctuaries, still others perhaps as monuments to suburban kitsch. There will of course be other cathedrals to visit, but they will have been constructed long ago. One effect of getting to know the cathedral of Barth’s theology is that it can help one appreciate the older cathedrals and make one want to spend time in them, too. But none of this will happen if one leaves the cathedral before one’s eyes get used to the light.

How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology

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