Sunday, January 02, 2011

Preparing to Read Karl Barth

So it seems that I and a dozen or so other bloggers have answered J. R. Daniel Kirk's invitation to read through Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (CD). And you would think that, having written lengthy reviews on several "how to read Barth"-style books, and having read a bit of Barth over the years myself, that this would be an enthusiastic undertaking. Nevertheless, I'm terrified.

Blogging takes time. Thus the long falling off since Caleb was born. Two kids don't translate into T-I-M-E. Can I find time enough to write again and stay with it?

Interpreting Barth correctly is a kind of cottage industry among Barthians. Will I understand him? Will I miss some fundamental foundation and read a thousand pages in the wrong direction? And, in so doing, will I embarrass myself?

Barth himself was not kindly received by thinkers from the traditions of my youth, namely Southern fundamentalism and conservative Reformed. Based on their reading, Barth is the quickest way to undermine every sure plank of doctrine. His is the hand to topple unwary young minds into the slough of liberal despond.

And then there is the simple difference in time. The first volume of the CD was written in German in Switzerland in the 1930s. That means that Barth's interlocutors, his enemies, his politics and, indeed, his language require interpretation beyond bare cogitation.

In the face of these difficulties, the presence of a community of, at this writing, strangers comes as great comfort. I have no doubt that they will educate me more than I them. It feels right to be climbing in to the CD in the presence of a congregation (ekklaesia).

Finally, something Ezra Pound said in his book The ABCs of Reading stays with me. Pound said that a student should study masters. "It is my firm conviction," he said, "that a man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."

Barth himself is, undoubtedly, a master. And with him comes a community of masters; indexed citations cluster around Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Calvin, Schleiermacher, and, most prevalently, Luther. Who can hang back in such a company? And so, friends, let us begin!


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