Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Concluding Remarks and Index

I want to express my deepest thanks to all those who contributed in writing to this first (hopefully annual) Karl Barth Blog Conference. A special thanks as well to those who dropped by and posted comments, and a hearty thanks to the very many of you who stopped by to see what was going on. I must admit that this series was more successful than I anticipated.

Just so you all know, I do plan on trying to put another one of these Barth Blog conferences together for next year. The format will be slightly different, and I anticipate it being shorter. Please contact me if you would like to be involved, and stay tuned in the months ahead – a call for papers will be published.

Feel free to leave any final thoughts that you may have, constructive criticism, tips, ideas, etc, in the comments section of this post. I leave you now with some concluding remarks from Ben Myers.

“We open books from the past in order to come to ourselves.”[1]

In a sharply critical account of Karl Barth, the British theologian John Bowden once observed that the question of how texts are interpreted is “the most serious [question] that can be put to Barth, because interpretation of other writers … is the dominant feature of his theology.”[2] At least in this respect, Bowden was exactly right. Barth practised theology by interpreting texts.

Speaking of the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler has remarked: “Discussing Hegel and Lacan is like breathing for Slavoj.” Something similar could be said of Karl Barth: interpreting and re-interpreting texts was like breathing for him. No activity was more compelling and more demanding. For Barth, texts were not merely artefacts of the past – they were living voices that confronted him personally with urgent questions and demands. He had a remarkable ability to absorb entire texts and thinkers into the fabric of his own thought; his capacity to be astonished and affected by texts (including his own earlier writings) was limitless.

The texts Barth read supplied him with the intellectual architecture of his own theology; his horizons and possibilities were structured – and constantly extended – by the texts he read. Indeed, a doctoral student in search of a project could trace Barth’s entire development by telling the story of the texts which he was reading or re-reading at specific formative moments of his career.

In some cases, Barth’s struggle to understand a text or writer lasted a lifetime. Schleiermacher, for instance, hovers in the background throughout every stage of Barth’s development. Again and again, he returns to Schleiermacher’s texts; again and again, he remains perplexed by these texts, uncertain about how to respond. When, at the end of his life, he tried once more to write about Schleiermacher (after studying his texts for over half a century!), he could only conclude: “The door is in fact not latched. To the present day, I’m really not finished with him.”[3]

This sense of “not being finished” with the past lies right at the heart of Barth’s engagement with historical texts. Indeed, the real question isn’t whether we’re finished with the past, but whether the past is finished with us. In encountering the past, Barth sees that the present is at stake. Right here and now, the past makes a demand on us. It calls for a response – and thus we are not observers of history, but participants in a living historical tradition.

As we’ve explored Barth’s work on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century over the past several days, this theme has emerged again and again. Barth studies the 19th century in order to understand himself – the texts from the past are his resources for finding out how to act right here and now. As Barth liked to put it, the study of history is the study of history’s Sache or subject-matter. “Onlookers see nothing at all of history as such…. If their eyes are to be opened and they are to be entitled to join in the discussion, they must be involved in the Sache”[4].

To encounter the past is to become responsible for the past, and thus responsible to act in the present. When Barth reads Schleiermacher or Hegel or Kant or Feuerbach, he feels that a demand has been placed on him – he is compelled to respond, to decide, to act. In Barth’s view, it’s by taking responsibility for the past that we become responsible for the theological present – and that means, responsible to God.

- Ben Myers

[1] Barth, The Theology of Calvin, 8.
[2] John Bowden, Karl Barth (London: SCM, 1971), 63.
[3] Barth, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher” [1968], in The Theology of Schleiermacher, 274.
[4] Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 16.

Index of Posts

Introduction - WTM
Introduction (2) - WTM
Rousseau - Michael J. Pailthorpe
Lessing - Chris TerryNelson
Kant - Shane Wilkins
Herder - WTM
Hegel - David Congdon
Schleiermacher - WTM
Baur - Andrew Guffey
Feuerbach - Daryl Ellis
Strauss - Andrew Guffey
Ritschl - Jason Ingalls
Concluding Remarks and Index - Ben Myers


JohnLDrury said…
WTM - it really was a great blog conference and I enjoyed keeping up with it. Thanks!
JohnLDrury said…
It really was a great blog conference. Thanks, Travs, for seting it up.

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