Karl Barth: Reformed Catholic?
How might we situate the life and work of Karl Barth vis-a-vis the historic schisms in Western Christianity between Protestants and Roman Catholics?
Moreover, in our own day, is the Protestant cause, or even Western Christianity as a whole, in danger of tanking, amid the rampant secularism and consumer capitalism of a decadent late modern society (cue disaster movie soundtrack)? And if so, is there a persistent tendency to construe Barth as some sort of "savior" figure (lowercase s, one hopes) for Protestantism or even, in some perverse way, for Roman Catholic Christianity?
Without attempting to answer any of these questions here, I offer the following remarks without comment and without prejudice. My source is Karl Barth, Final Testimonies, ed. Eberhard Busch, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).
During the last months of his life in 1968, Barth prepared a short radio piece about a Swiss broadcast he listened to each Sunday morning while convalescing from severe illness. The program featured one sermon from an Evangelical Reformed preacher and one from a Roman Catholic homilist, interspersed with music of varying quality. What he heard, it seems, pleasantly surprised him and helped to allay his anxieties about the ostensibly sorry state of preaching in both communions. He writes:
Serious work has stood behind all these sermons, although naturally with varying degrees of success. Among the Reformed some have been marked by prophetic power while among the Roman Catholic a series of fast sermons was characterized by mystical depth in the good sense (p. 43).
Apart from the occasional mediocre or off-putting offering that prompted him to switch his set off, Barth finds most of the sermons, from both communions on the whole thoughtful, edifying and engaged with scripture. His general impression was that preaching in the late 1960s was by and large improving -- perhaps especially in the wake of Vatican II and an energized ecumenical movement. He also concludes, from the sermons he audited, that the impact of "demythogizing and existentializing" New Testament scholarship was on the wane in the churches, which he counted a gain. (Again, I'm just the messenger here, folks.)
Most importantly, Barth writes:
What I have heard has been ecumenical preaching even when the term has not been used. I mean that there has not been any confessional debate, obviously not because of some tacit or express radio agreement, but because neither side has seemed to feel any need for it (p. 44).
Historically divisive issues like Mariology, Petrine primacy and the efficacy of works, he finds, are fading more into the background in the Roman Catholic sermons, while the Reformed have backed off from the trenchant "Here I Stand" broadsides ("Hiersteheichlichpredigten", I believe, would be the technical term) of earlier times. The sermons, from both sides, exude less of the spirit of dissent and more focused attention on proclamation of the Gospel.
I wonder what Barth would say today about these matters? What do y'all think, gentle readers? Is Barth prophetic here or more naive and overly irenic? Might we glean any hope from this piece?
In other words, why can't we all just get along -- IRD* funding notwithstanding?
*The Institute for Religion and Democracy. Good heavens, people, just type it into your web browser. Why should I have to explain everything?