Following Barth’s Thought: 4 Handles

My last post on reading Barth received so much traffic that I thought I would post another section from the little “primer” I put together for students in senior seminar. These four are meant to give readers of Barth useful  “handles” on his thought, like tips for catching the musical tendencies of a great composer:

1.  Music – The flow of Barth’s theology is often likened to music, “the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations. No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say” (J. Webster, Barth, 13).

George Hunsinger expands on the point: “What first appears like repetition turns out on closer inspection to function rather like repetition in sonata form. It is [Barth’s] method of alluding to themes previously developed while constantly enriching the score with new ideas. . . . The more one reads Barth, the more one senses that his use of repetition is never pointless. Rather, it serves as a principle of organization and development within an ever forward spiraling theological whole” (G. Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 28).

The first section of CD IV.1 (pp. 1-19) is a great example. Barth begins by describing the center of the Christian gospel as “God with us” (pp. 1-4), then builds, expands, develops this throughout the next 19 pages. It culminates on p. 14 with Barth’s assertion that “God with us” concretely means “Jesus Christ.”

2.  Orbit – It has been my sense that, similar to the musical metaphor, following Barth’s thought is often like tracking something that orbits around a center. Whatever the “center” might be for Barth at the moment of reading, his thought will orbit that center. The result, for the reader, is that the center can be viewed from a great many different angles or perspectives, but they must always be attentive and aware of the center around which the orbit is set.

3.  DialecticBarth’s reasoning generally proceeds “dialectically.” In dialectical reasoning, a conclusion emerges from the tension between two (seemingly) opposing positions. For Barth, dialectical reasoning is necessary in theology because of the paradoxical nature of divine truth: Jesus is man and God; God is transcendent and immanent; knowledge of God is impossible yet possible (Kierkegaard had a significant influence on Barth in this regard). Barth’s dialectical method can be frustrating for readers because he seems to take away with one hand what he had just established with the other. It should be kept in mind, however, that Barth understood the use of theological language as always teetering on the brink of its own impossibility.

4. Crystal — Barth’s approach to theology (dialectic, musical structure, etc.) is tied to his understanding of the subject material itself. From Barth’s perspective, the entirety of Christian belief is interconnected and interrelated. So, it is helpful to think of Barth’s approach to theology in terms of a many-faceted crystal. “[Barth] would [at any one point in his theology] take the great crystal in his hands and say, ‘Now we are going to look at the basic structure of the crystal through this facet, this particular doctrine, of the Christian faith. Notice how it connects not only with those facets with adjoin it, but also with those more remote and those on the opposite side. Above all, notice that the light which infuses the whole is the very light which refracts through this facet as well.’ Having conducted this examination, Barth then turns the great crystal in his hands and directs our attention in a similar way to yet another facet of the whole. . . . The task of theology, in this view, is to describe as carefully as possible, from many different angles, the network of interconnections which constitute the great crystal in its totality” (Hunsinger, 29).

7 thoughts on “Following Barth’s Thought: 4 Handles

  1. These are helpful Kent. I’ve been trying to think through these images of theological method in term of T.F. Torrance. He follows Barth in so many ways, yet his style of presentation is very different.

  2. It seems from this and many other posts, that you like Art, including Literature. And it seems that the kind of Theology you may like, in effect “reads” theology – even reads God himself – as Art. As a multi-facted, often “ambiguous,” multi-vocalic poem or novel. With many “themes” converging, and diverging.

    If so? To me, this seems like a very useful approach. You seem to be talking in effect about the “art” of theology; even the fine art of understanding God.

    For myself, to be sure, this is not my own approach at the present time. Barth’s endless, artful equivocation between different voices, contrasting ideas – even between the views of believers, vs. unbelievers?; or German rational religion, vs. belief – eventually cloys. For me, perpectual, suggestive coyness, endless flirtation with two or more theses, finally becomes …cloying. I believe our own era might finally require … some far clearer, unequivocal statements. At least to clearly counter Fundamentalism, or Right Wing religion, for example, with a clearly opposing voice.

    No doubt though, this “artistic” approach – “reading” God as an endlessly complicated and multifaceted text or poem or painting – could easily sustain an entire, successful career, it seems to me. If anyone is interested.

    Ironically, many traditionally have seen church”dogmas” or canon law in particular, to be an area of creative interpretation. Which seems true in fact to say recent (1917; c. 1983) Catholic canon law. Indeed, the original language of canon law, seems rather artistic /poetic /polysemic. In an effort to accomodate many otherwise conflicting theologies; views of God. In fact, artistic/poetic polysemy or equivocation, is found not just in canon law – but also I’d suggest, the Bible itself. (See Richard Bauckham and others on the Bible as “literature”?).

    To be sure, there is an irony, and a danger, in making church dogma and so forth – dogma being normally synonymous with fixity, dogmatism – an area for creative interpretation. But indeed, many phrases in both the Bible, and also Church canon law, are written with often artful polysemy. Freely encouraging a artistic, multifaced, even equivocal reading. In attempts to incorporate two or more points of view, or two or more theologies, whenever possible.

    An “artistic” approach to dogma and even the Bible itself, seems viable therefore. And might complement various Post Modern theologies, centered around art or theatre/”performance.” (Like Van H’s?).

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