Choice Quotations: Karl Barth to a Theological Student
(Letter #11 in Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968).
When I then at your request recommended you for a Reformed Churches grant I simply assumed that you intended to improve your English in Edinburgh and especially to gain some acquaintance with the Anglo-Saxon theology represented there. If I had suspected you could now ask me, What shall I really do in the land of John Knox? I would certainly not have given my name in support of your application. Is it clear to you that you will bring censure on me – not to speak of others – if you do not do there what you proposed, and do it properly? If you do not do this, but proceed to spin a heap of straw into gold, to use your own expression, then it would be better for you to give up the grant so that it may be passed on to someone more modest.
The same applies to your dissertation plan, regarding which, strictly formally, I would draw your attention to the fact that with us (and other Swiss faculties to the best of my knowledge) you cannot become a doctor without passing the “state examination.” So then, even if you think you have the most brilliant academic future, I advise you to face first and to prepare very seriously for the eschaton of the state examination.
This counsel coincides, however, with the only responsible thing I can say to you regarding your plans for theological reformation. I have read your letter twice and have to confess that my head spun worse the second time than the first. Your enterprise…has neither head nor tail and where one looks for the middle there is darkness. Before one can say (or meaningfully ask) anything, one must first listen, and before one can write anything, one must first do proper reading. If you cannot or will not learn this, you had better keep your fingers out of not merely academic theology but theology in general. Why should you not be able or willing to learn it? But to do so you must now make this, in the form of practical exercises, your own most urgent task, taking precedence over everything else, and I particularly mean over all high-flying plans for the reformation of dogmatics.
Dear [student], your present mode of theological, Christian, and human existence worries me as it comes out in your letter – so much so that I can only beg you to take a big sponge, wipe out everything, and begin again at the beginning which, as we know, consists in the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.
With warm greetings and good wishes, Yours, Karl Barth.