Monday, October 20, 2008

Faith and Theology: How to read Karl Barth: George Hunsinger's foreword to the German Edition

Faith and Theology: How to read Karl Barth: George Hunsinger's foreword to the German Edition

---Faith And Theology, once agan, has an excellent post on Karl Barth. I have to admit I have a somewhat slight bias toward Barth as I did my Senior Seminar research paper in Modern Theology on Barth And Theories Of Language's Use In Theology in 2003 with Dr. Steve Harmon. I wish I had had How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, but one of the sources I did use is this book: Re-Figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth.

This section of Faith And Theology is the section that most grabs my attention:

I had already developed the idea of “motifs” as a way of introducing students to Barth. When I sat down to write my dissertation, I had expected to discuss them only briefly in the preface. As it turned out, however, the preface took over the work!

Since then I have continued to read Barth and teach his theology on a regular basis. I have found that explaining these “motifs” still helps students to gain a better grasp of his theology and to read him without becoming discouraged by the difficulties. It is almost always better to read Barth than to read about him. But reading him, as everyone knows, is not easy, and it helps to have some guidance. Since he is one of the greatest – and most inspiring – theologians in the history of the church, the richness of his work repays every effort to understand him. I keep reading him, because I keep learning from him. I find that the more I know, the more he has to teach me. I also find that when I feel depressed, he cheers me up!

At least three new insights have emerged for me in reading Barth, and my students have also found them to be helpful.

The first is rather simple but well worth knowing. Every “paragraph” in the Church Dogmatics is written around a single main point. Even when the Absatz may run on for more than one page, as sometimes happens, the rule holds. What this means is that it becomes possible for the reader to reconstruct Barth’s overall outline. Reconstructing the outline is not only a very good discipline, but also a way of not getting lost. By looking for the outline, one keeps one’s head above water. Every page of Barth’s dogmatics is literally teeming with ideas. It is all too easy to get diverted by an arresting point or by mistaking the part for the whole. I find that by digging for the main point of each Absatz and writing it down, I can help my students follow Barth’s argument much more readily than would otherwise be the case. Then, of course, it also helps to look for the sub-points within the Absatz, of which there are usually quite a few. All this may seem rather pedestrian, and indeed it is. Nevertheless, I have found it to be a most valuable procedure in reading the Church Dogmatics.

Another deceptively simple point for the beginning reader is to keep an eye out for the antecedent to Barth’s pronouns. Almost everyone has had the experience of reading Barth, feeling that one is following the train of thought, and then suddenly getting to the bottom of the page and finding that one is hopelessly lost. At this point it is easy to give up with the sense that Barth is just too hard to understand. Very often, however, all that has happened is that the reader has lost track of the antecedent to Barth’s many pronouns. (I can’t imagine what it would have been like to try to follow this material, which began as classroom lectures, by ear.) In any case the pronouns are like the bread crumbs in “Hansel and Grettel”. One only needs to trace them back in order to get out of the forest. For an especially vexing passage, I sometimes underline the antecedent twice, once I have retrieved it, while then underlining the subsequent pronouns once. The passage is then much easier to follow if I need to revisit it for purposes of further study or instruction.

Finally, there is the matter of actualism. Even as I was writing this book, I felt that I didn’t have it fully worked out. Now after all these years I think I have a better grasp of its peculiar complexities. Much of what is distinctive in Barth, as well as much of what is difficult, hangs upon it.

Since not everything can be unpacked here, a few remarks will have to suffice. Barth’s proposal that God’s being is in act is an idea that expresses the heart of his actualism. Barth regards salvation in Christ as a perfect work (opus perfectum) that is also a perpetual operation (operatione perpetuus). The perpetual operation adds nothing new in content to the perfect work, which by definition needs no completion. Yet it belongs to the perfect work’s perfection that it is not merely encapsulated in the past. On the contrary, it operates perpetually to make itself present for what it is, again and again. Barth would sometimes articulate this idea in terms of Heb. 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever.” The event of Jesus Christ, he would say, is not only “a past fact of history,” but also “an event that is happening in the present here and now,” as well as an event that “in its historical completeness” and “full contemporaneity” is also “truly future.”

... (Read more in the hyperlink provided above).

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