Monday, December 17, 2007

Brain Cramp

Last week I posted about flitting from subject to subject online, listing Karl Barth as one of the people I wanted to know more about.

In usual overachieving fashion I asked DH to reserve about 5 books on Barth, and by Barth, from the library for me to read through.

Wanting to warm up slowly, I read the skinniest one first; How I Changed My Mind, by Karl Barth; Introduction by John Godsey. It's a compilation of three essays Barth wrote over the course of thirty years--1928-1958. It was a good intro to Barth's personality and hinted at some of his views, but left many in sketch form.

I wanted to know more about what "specifically" he believed and taught. The Wiki article is brief and only outlines Barth's theology in the barest terms. Mainly, I was curious about what Barth had to say about the inerrancy of the Bible. I have slowly moved away from strict, literal inerrancy for various reasons, but wanted a more detailed analysis from a theologian to read through and measure my own thoughts by, sifting out problems I hadn't yet thought of. Barth, although not believing in strict inerrancy, firmly believed in Jesus, His Divinity, and position as the Revelation of God to humanity.

Intriguing combination...no?

I soon found out why the Wiki didn't have much about Barth, and also why I had never heard many people quote him in theological conversations, or been taught his premises:

Reading Karl Barth is extremely difficult.

After the first book, I plunged into On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, by Barth. It came with a 29 page intro by Garrett Green which laid out some of Barth's points, explained the reasons for this new translation from Barth's German to English, and defined some of the terms. It was obviously an academic work, but I completely understood it.

Then....I actually started Barth's On Religion. Can I just say that my brain is still reordering itself? It has been interesting going, but I have found myself having to read and re-read paragraphs, and sometimes single sentences, just to make sure that I understood what was written. It's not so much that the writing is incomprehensible, so much as it is incredibly dense with information and the assumed knowledge of the reader--knowledge I only partially have.

That Barth character. He's intense. A single page will refer to ten different philosophers and theologians over the course of 300 years, mentioning movements, particular theses, and anything else relevant to Barth's big picture.

I feel totally pegged by a quote from Barth which came from the first book:

"Certainly we are all sorry that we could not make understanding and choice easier for our contemporaries, and especially for our American contemporaries who are always anxious to get the most simple and rapid courses of instruction!" pg 42 [emphasis mine]

This from a man who wrote 13 volumes--over 10,000 pages--of his theological masterwork, Church Dogmatics.

Guilty as charged. C'mon Karl, give me a break. You might call it simple-mindedness; I call it efficiency of mind!

I am determined to continue to try and decipher Barth, because I sense something larger in his work that I feel will be useful to me. However, I am realizing that to understand Barth's work it will be necessary to take a comprehensive approach to understanding the context of his arguments. That means a lot of digging around for me.

Maybe it will be my new hobby for a couple of months.

I'll let you know if my brain overheats and melts into a steaming pile of goo.

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