Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The towering intellect of Barth

Last night I read a fascinating paper, Where is Karl Barth in Modern European History?, by Rudy Koshar [a Professor of History at the University of Wsconsin-Madison], and published in the journal Modern Intellectual History. There is no doubt Barth is the towering figure of 20th century theology. Indeed, Koshar notes the secondary literature about Barth amounts to around fourteen thousand titles [I presume this is books, journal articles, and book chapters] in twenty-five different languages!
Koshar makes a compelling case that although Barth's influence in European history, beyond the confines of theology, and into history, politics, and culture has been mistakenly overlooked.
Kosher suggests that in academic history this oversight results from a "secular confessionalism" which refuses to acknowledge its own basis in faith but dismisses all religious claims as irrational.

Kosher sings the praises of the Church Dogmatics for Barth's intellectual engagement with history, philosophy, music, and literature. This is driven by theology, but even secularists must respond to this analysis. It is noted that scholars have "celebrated Walter Benjamin's characterisation of civilization as "a document of barbarism"" but are unaware that Barth propounded such a view much earlier.

The German Academy for Language and Literature awards it annual Sigmund Freud prize for academic prose. Barth received the prize in 1968. [Werner Heisenberg received it two years later!].

To me, Barth represents a great model of real scholarship. The Church Dogmatics display a scope, balance, creativity, depth, originality, and thoroughness that is enviable and challenging.

I think Barth also has much to offer the philosophy of science, issues of which are touched on in my paper on emergence in science and theology.

But why was Barth so profound and influential? There is no doubt that he was a unique and very gifted individual. But, is it not more that he was obsessed with such a great subject: The Creator of the Universe who revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Indeed, I give Barth the last word:
"The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, `Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!' And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh."

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