Does it Sink or Float? - Barth's "Titanic" Sermon

From first to last, Karl Barth was a preacher, as many commentators have pointed out. For nearly six decades -- from his days as student pastor in Geneva to his years in retirement from his university position -- Barth delivered myriads of sermons in churches, public meeting places and even prisons, and he always saw a key part of his vocation to be the renewal of evangelical homiletics in the churches. So why don't we have more of Barth's sermons available for the English reading public, asks Kurt Johanson? It's a good question.
I recently received a copy of the book he edited several years ago: The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth (trans. Christopher Asprey, Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 2007).* This got me thinking about the ad hoc and sporadic character of the way Barth's occasional writings have been published in English.

Fortunately, since this helpful booklet came out, the older sermon collections Call for God and Deliverance to the Captives have been reprinted, and we also now have the fascinating collection of homilies from the Safenwil period, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Yet I count twelve volumes of sermons published by TVZ in the Karl Barth-Gesamtausgabe (the German critical edition, still unfolding), ranging from 1913 to 1967, so I suppose translators have a little catching up to do.

As we become more familiar with this material, I suspect longstanding stereotypes of Barth and his life-work will continue to totter. For example, take Barth's sermon that followed the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912 (This is the first of the two pieces in the Johanson booklet, and it is also available  online from The Princeton Seminary Bulletin.) This comes, of course, from Barth's early "liberal" period, and is a pretty quirky piece. I'm not sure whether modern pulpit stalwarts like Phillips Brooks or Harry Emerson Fosdick would have discerned the lineaments of their trade in this somewhat disjointed and puzzling homily.

Despite criticisms of this sermon by Willimon, who wrote an introduction to the booklet, and even Barth himself (in his somewhat red-faced reminiscence in his Homiletics), I actually rather like this piece, and probably for all the wrong reasons. What allures me is how it shows Barth to be at some level a regular modern guy (or what passed for one 100 years ago), worldly, perhaps a little bemused but also invigorated by a rapidly changing society and, overall, optimistic -- seeking pointers to the eternal kingdom amid the halting steps of God's fallible creatures. Maybe we're supposed to have rejected all that stuff post Römerbrief, but I don't. And I'm not even sure Barth would have wanted us to do so either. (If you think otherwise, take another look at God Here and Now and The Humanity of God and report back to me.)

I confess I've lost my copy of the Busch biography, and I haven't had time recently to grab the copy at the public library that I (alone, probably) check out from time to time. So I don't recall what, if anything, Barth says about his prep process on this one. Still, I could imagine Barth rushing to finish this sermon in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, having stayed up all night reading all the newspaper clippings and, perhaps, mulling over the week's stunning events in a fog of cigarette smoke with his buddy Eduard. What ensues from the pulpit is, perhaps, the fruit of that frantic conversation.

Let the neo-orthodox sniff, as they may; I know this sermon won't pass muster with them.
To be sure, here you have the young preacher with his Bible open (of course!) but if you expect answers to magically jump out of its pages, you will be disappointed. Truth is, the homilist doesn't know what God might be up to, if anything, in this disaster any more than anyone sitting in the pews.

And yes, I'll admit, though I'm probably not supposed to enjoy this aspect of Barth which, some claim, he sort of outgrew later, I enjoy how the Barth of the teens doesn't pass a ripe opportunity to take potshots at the evils of capitalism. (Like Barth, as I see it, I'm something of a crypto-Marxist. If you think I'm off base here, you might want to read Hunsinger's Karl Barth and Radical Politics, or Timothy Gorringe's book, or some of Travis McMaken's posts on Barth's protege, Gollwitzer, and then report back to me.)

To be sure, preachers, like everyone else, are often at a loss for words after a tragedy, but I find several aspects of this piece striking. To wit:

  • Barth engages current events with eyes wide open. The text goes on for several pages in vivid, almost journalistic detail about the ship and its extravagant amenities, its myriad passengers, the lighting pace of the beeline journey across the chilly north Atlantic, the hidden berg snapping the steel panels underneath, the band playing on bravely as water gushes into the hull, acts of selfless heroism amid the pitifully inadequate rescue operation and even the gunshots from the captain taking his own life. All that is missing to fill out the picture is Leo DiCaprio leaning out over the bow with Kate Winslet. But didn't his parishioners know most of these details already? Those of us who sometimes hypostasize Barth as some sort of Swiss Aquinas can occlude the fact that he was a practical and worldly man concerned with quotidian details. John Updike understood this about Barth, and he dug it. This sermon helps me picture the Swiss pastor who wrote newspaper op-eds, pored over labor laws and sought to organize textile workers.

  • Barth's socialist commitments are clearly evident. Barth is not one to wring his hands here and go cosmic -- Oh why, God, why? -- when there is plenty of blame to assign to human agents here. This tragedy was utterly preventable, he insists. Fundamentally, more than the captain's ineptitude or any other factor, Barth blames the avarice of the shipping company for the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage. "Indeed, this catastrophe is a crude but all-the-more clear example to us of the essential characteristics and the effects of capitalism, which consists in a few individuals competing with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits" (p. 40). He notes ruefully that the captain and crew and two-thirds of the passengers perished horribly while the shipping company president was among the 700 rescued "unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say" (ibid.). And yet...

  • He affirms human progress and technology as fundamentally noble, godly even. Barth might have drawn the same conclusion in the wake of the disaster that others have drawn, as I will attest from having myself endured numerous sermon anecdotes to this effect: The supposedly unsinkable ocean liner might be seen as an emblem of human hubris run extravagantly amok. Pride goeth before a fall. Curiously, though, Barth here will have none of that. Rather, he affirms that the need to explore and expand the realm of technological mastery is central to God's created gifts to humankind. Pushing boundaries is integral to what makes us human.

    He writes: "It is entirely God's will that the world's technology and machinery attain to higher degrees of perfection. For technology is nothing other than mastery over nature, it is labour, and the divine spirit in humanity ought to expand in this labour to prosper" (p. 36). Recall that we're talking about Karl Barth here, not Teilhard de Chardin. And yet, living by this Promethean spirit is dangerous, to say the least.

* * *

So where was God in all this? This piece is, perhaps, a little thin on theological or even biblical insights, as the critics note. Barth offers a few vague platitudes about the fragility of human life and the inscrutability of providence. On the other hand, maybe Barth was right to focus more on concrete matters -- the practical and socio-economic dimensions of the Titantic disaster. Perhaps preachers and other Christian "thinkers" tempted to tweet some choice nugget of theodicy or perhaps a Bible "woe" passage when a tornado levels a Midwestern school or a hurricane batters a Caribbean island might yet learn a useful lesson from the early Barth's homilectical stammering.


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* Johanson sent me a review copy of this book. I am not required to write a positive review of the book. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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