Karl Barth: Well there, young man, I know you have some questions for me. Fire away! We've got all of God's limitless-but-not-timeless eternity to chat.
SJ: Thanks so much, Professor! I'd like to start with this one: You know, as a theologian I've struggled a lot with the problem of faith and doubt.
So my question is this: Can the dogmatic theologian do her work properly without the existential element of faith?
KB: Good question. You'll recall I discussed this question in Church Dogmatics I/1 (pp. 17-24).
SJ: Funny thing, none of the hoary summations of your theology I've skimmed mention that. Fancy that.
KB: Well, back in the '30s, this worry you mention was finding expression in a renewed call for a certain "existential" disposition as the ground for theology. This went hand-in-hand with the rediscovery and recovery of the writings of Kierkegaard in the early 20th century.
SJ: (Nodding). Ah, yes.
KB: Well, I called foul on this. I think there is a persistent danger here. Of course, in the history of Protestant thought this concern with the faithfulness of the theologian found extreme expression among the pietists. But it certainly wasn't limited to conservative Protestants, and the same basic concern reemerges -- in more rareified form -- in Schleiermacher.
SJ: Excuse me, Professor, would you please speak up a little. I think maybe you're starting to use your "fine print" voice.
KB: Certainly. Is this better? Well, to counteract this dangerous subjectivist trend I proposed returning to a more classic mode of understanding the faith and theology relationship. I contended that the first-generation Reformers had more safeguards to protect the sui generis character of the Word. If it is true that only God can reveal Godself, the locus of revelation must clearly lie outside the believer. If theology is, in analogy with other endeavors at human knowing, concerned with a definite object then of course we'd say that the theologian has an existential relationship with the subject matter. But that's not the same thing as saying that an attitude of existential receptivity is constitutive for the theological endeavor. After all, the object of dogmatics is the ground of faith itself -- God's self disclosure in Jesus Christ.
SJ: Thank you, Professor. That's very helpful. If I've understood you correctly: The content of theology is freely given -- from God's side. Theological investigation cannot be subsumed into the existential attitude or faith stance of the theologian, though one expects the theologian inevitably will not relate to the subject matter as a neutral observer. The effort to ground the theological vocation itself in the faith of the theologian is dangerously subjective. Have I understood you correctly?
KB: Indeed you have, Scott.... (Rubbing his chin). On the other hand, we might say, the faith of the theologian is in fact pretty important to the dogmatic task.
Ed. Note: Some of you, gentle readers, may suspect these purported statements from Barth sound suspiciously contemporary, and you might suspect redactions may have occurred in the source material. Others of you may be thinking, to put the matter colloquially, "This crap is entirely made up." In response, I invoke the classic distinction, which the great New Testament Scholar Joachim Jeremias articulated in his study of the historical Jesus, between the Ipsissima Verba ("the very words") and the Ipsissima Vox ("the very voice") of an historical subject.