Karl Barth among the (Lesser) Saints

The Episcopal Church (of the United States) has welcomed Karl Barth. Sort of. How will he return the favor?

Today is Barth's 47th death anniversary of Karl Barth, an event the Episcopal Church -- my denominational home -- now marks in its daily liturgical calendar.
In point of fact, he shares a death anniversary with Thomas Merton (see this post ), so celebrants of weekday services have to choose which of these towering 20th century Christian thinkers to commemorate. Without conducting a formal poll, I'm going to hazard the guess that most celebrants chose the American Trappist over the Swiss dogmatician. Merton certainly is fascinating and worthy of the honor; it's rather a pity one must choose. The Mission of St. Clare offers a superb website for those who wish to read the Daily Office according to The Book of Common Prayer. That website opts for Merton over Barth.

(The Episcopal Church's official daily liturgical resource book, which is published with proper readings, prayers and commentary, is titled Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Several years ago, the Standing Commission of Liturgy and Music offered a supplemental, expanded calendar in a trial volume titled Holy Women, Holy Men, for use on a trial basis: This is the text that includes the Barth commemoration. The current plan, as I understand it, is to replace this supplemental text with yet another one. For more about this, read this article.)

Whether or not Barth's inclusion among our calendar of worthies is permanent, I, at any rate, am grateful that the Episcopal Church has given this nod to the greatest Protestant theologian since Schleiermacher. I'd be even more heartened if more Episcopalians actually read him.

Not surprisingly, the Barth featured in the one-page observance is the anti-Nazi, anti-German Christian Barth -- ergo the collect for the day:

Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.

Actually, though, for such a concise statement, the prayer is not a bad summary of Barth's major concerns and commitments -- the enveloping mystery of divine transcendence, the ontic and epistemological priority of grace and a radically Christocentric focus. The accompanying brief commentary, overall, is not too bad; it is factual, balance, albeit (to my mind) a bit too safe. For example, the description soft-pedals Barth's radical and revolutionary critique of Protestant European high culture in the early 20th century -- the critique that sparked the dialectical theology movement.

Another thing I might have liked to see is a little more about Barth's challenging socio-political witness -- not only his resistance to Hitler and his German Christian collaborators (wailing on the Nazis is pretty safe), but also his early anticapitalist work and his refusal to theologically legitimate the West "democracies" during the Cold War. Granted, though, these topics require some nuance hard to capture in a one-page summary.

Though I respect what the church is trying to do pedagogically with these resources, I find myself somewhat at cross purposes with the project of hagiography. To me it seems to about painting some diverse but integrated portrait of the communion of saints, for our mutual edification and enlightenment. That's fine. Still -- and perhaps its a holdover from my iconoclastic Baptist background -- but I find myself more drawn to the "saints" as images of the incompleteness and radically eschatological orientation of the church. In other words, the saints are parables of grace. That which is quirky, even disjointed about these pioneers of the faith is what interests me most of all. In that regard, Barth fits right in. His biography virtual brims with awkward clashes -- with the German liberal Protestant intelligentsia (e.g., Harnack) and with fellow dialectical theologians (Gogarten, Bultmann, Brunner), with representatives of the Swiss government and many others.

One of the things that distinguishes "saints" is their proclivity for stepping on toes and pissing people off in the churches. Thus, they often serve the roles of gadflies and prophets, only to be beatified later -- often, much later. Their conflicts and failures are more interesting theologically than their avowed accomplishments. Try to imagine the stories of Augustine, Chrysostom and Athanasius without their obsessions and character flaws. You can't do it. Barth had the capacity to be incendiary and divisive. He and other saints might adopt well as their motto: "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division."

Of course, in fairness, many of Barth's contemporaries from Bonhoeffer to Busch have related that Barth was also an amazing teacher and mentor -- warm, gracious, funny, catholic in sympathy and demeanor. Fortunately, we don't have to weigh an person's merits vs. demerits and come up with a rating system on some arbitrary sanctity scale. As the Apostle reminds us, we cannot even judge ourselves. In the end, its really all grace -- even, especially amid the incongruities of our lives.

For my part, I think we might still be inclined to treat saints as models for emulation rather than fellow travelers alongside whom we walk. Maybe Barth can help us break the mold just a little bit.



Michael said…
Great post, thank you.

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