People often ask me why I am interested in spending some time studying Barth. This morning in a meeting I jotted out an answer to this question, as best as I am currently able to articulate. Here it is:
Barth is a helpful dialogue partner for thinking through how to do theology after the rise of modernity. Since Barth is very conversant with Scripture and historical theology, studying him forces you to interact with the broader Christian tradition. So he is a good person to focus on to learn theology in general. But Barth is also trying to understand the Christian tradition in light of the rise of modernity, and studying him is therefore also an entry point into the massive theological question of the modern era, namely, how to do Christian theology after modernity, after the breakdown of classical metaphysics and epistemology. If we don’t agree with every particular of Barth’s answer to this question, we can at least appreciate the depth and ingenuity of his attempt to grapple with it, which far exceeds that of many of our theologically “closer to home” conservative friends, whose writings could be read and understood without ever knowing that a man named Kant lived.
In my assessment, Barth is a basically orthodox theologian engaged in a thunderous revolt against the unorthodox tradition in which he was raised, trying to figure out how to maintain this revolt towards orthodoxy without discarding the categories of thought and legitimate insights of his unorthodox, liberal tradition. While I am perplexed and unsettled by some of Barth’s specific moves, I find the central thrust of his theology, which I interpret to be the attempt to start theology with God, rather than human thoughts, to have much that is beautiful and compelling. I think the central theological question driving all of Barth’s post-1915 theology is the problem of revelation, namely, how can God reveal himself to humans without ceasing to be God? Barth’s (Christological) answer to this question is worthy of careful reflection – though at the end of the day, I must part with him exactly here.
Studying someone from a different theological tradition is a lot like interacting with someone from a different culture. Its often difficult to understand what they are saying (not least because of language differences), and it can be an uncomfortable experience because it calls into question many of your assumptions and habits and general way of looking at the world. But in the end, it is always a broadening, widening experience. In my opinion, refusing to sympathetically hear thinkers of different traditions tends toward a kind of narrowness of thought, just as an unwillingness to interact with people from different cultures tends toward a certain cultural narrowness. On the other hand, spending a few years grappling with someone like Barth can be a lot like spending several living abroad. Eventually, you come home and reacclimate to your original setting to some extent, but you don’t ever look at the world in the same way again. You can’t.