Karl Barth helped to usher in the post-wars’ crisis and turning point for early 20th Century theology. He conjoined pastoral trial-by-fire trench warfare experiences with a renewed desire to do Biblical theology. This bears credibility. He further carried into academia democratic socialist impulses and party experiences. This adds credibility as one yearns for those who can bridge the theoretical and practical, a hopeful realism. He tapped into traceable currents of Pauline theology and parleyed this with identifiable Reformation sources to profess a neo-orthodoxy that remains convincing, by whatever label. For the Christian seeking resources for reform, this bristles with the complementary credibility of an “endurance” which is the “rhythm of faith” (thinking of Fr. John McNamee’s volume of poetry by this phrase).
The following six points summarize Barth’s legacy; what it is that remains convincing:
a) it is culled out of life experiences (praxis);As an addendum, there remains the practiced discipline of prayer which is a clue to Barth’s own resilience (along with an apparently devoted secretary/administrator without whom CD might well not have been possible!). Almost neglected by Barthian students and pastors, prayer was a basic component of Barth’s life and thought. He is aptly cited for the social justice arousal animation of the Magnificat-like prayer:
b) it is conversant with contemporary church and political crises (apologetics);
c) it accumulates into voluminous works such as Church Dogmatics (systematic or constructive theology);
d) it branches into contextual reflections in the form of sermons, letters, prayers and creedal-like declarations that are kairos-like (Barmen Declaration);
e) it is humble in that he was willing to confess how he admired (perhaps envied) the theologian/ethicist, also martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but hinted, alas, that he had let him down from the safer domain of Switzerland (see Fragments Grave and Gay letter to Bethge);
and not least,
e) Barth attests to how a dynamically balanced life and work in theology is also a ministry of word, sacrament, pastoral care and mission for the sake of God’s Reign, that – Pauline like – God will indeed be all for all, and cannot rest until it is so, such that, Moltmann-like, there is an “annihilation of hell” itself (I Cor. 15: 26, and Nicholas Ansell’s The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of J. Moltmann)!
“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against disorder of the world” [cited in K. Leech’s True Prayer, 1980: 68 (San Fran.: Harper & Row)].How true it is that prayer needs linking to social justice work, and vice-versa – something that Bonhoeffer and his biographer E. Bethge dialectically affirmed from Letters & Papers from Prison to the end. But there is more about prayer and its prime importance to the spiritual life and for those who are commissioned, ordained, or summoned to be leaders. There is the issue of one’s integrity for the immediate and the long haul of the practice of ministry. Is it - and are we - real and thus commendable? If not, how can such be renewed and rededicated? Here, there is a hopeful realism in Barth and thus his theology of prayer, hopeful for the possibilities it conveys and realistic for the limits of what we confess prayer not to accomplish when self-servingly or professionally or piously for mere self-interests or alas, even the corporate self-interests of one’s church or denomination.
Put otherwise, prayer assists to be present, without the calculations of by-products or pay-offs (cf. John Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, the last chapter’s “The Working Church: Notes for the Future,” especially pp. 122, 132).
Thomas Merton-like, Barth professes that prayer incites and aids us to be willing to begin again or anew. In Church Dogmatics III/3’s doctrine of creation, he professes prayer as that “primitive movement” that arises from out of being called, summoned, and therein free to answer to “the Father who has addressed (us) . . . or to put it another way, to go to meet the Father from whose goodness he proceeds, or to put it in yet another way, to give direct and natural expression to his great surprise that God is his Father and that he is the child of God” (265). One retrieves Abraham Heschel’s basic intuition of prayer as that humble answer or response to the inconceivable surprise of living.
As the surprise continues, Barth’s voice bears witness to our generation - thankfully.
- Barry K. Morris