Reading Karl Barth provides a cluster of major themes and signposts by which to orient one’s reading of Barth’s theology. It assists readers in (a) recognizing and understanding what Barth is doing theologically and why and how he is doing it; and (b) assessing the extent to which Barth’s theology is or is not a fruitful resource for their own context, as individuals and communities of faith. The distinctive value of the book’s approach lies in its demonstration of the ways in which Barth’s theology—in both his own time and in ours—”cuts both ways,” to the theological left and right. This involves identifying various theological logics that constitute the diverse and conflictual landscape of shared Christian identity and faith—both in Barth’s time and in our own—enabling readers to recognize not only where and why Barth is located in that landscape, but also where and why they themselves are located, together with their respective faith communities.
[The following excerpt is pulled from the introduction of Reading Karl Barth.]
This introduction to the theology of Karl Barth is intended as a guide for theologically invested readers interested in serious engagement with Barth’s work, for either personal or vocational reasons. Its general goal is to introduce readers to key theological assumptions, decisions, themes, and commitments that drive Barth’s theology. It is a guidebook offering resources for understanding Barth’s theological vision and work as well as for assessing the pertinence of his theology to the reader’s own context. It suggests a cluster of interpretive keys and signposts that will assist readers in recognizing the primary thematic and methodological movements in his work—in seeing what Barth is doing, having a sense of why he is doing it (in and for his own time and place), and assessing what it might mean for us, as readers of Barth early in the twenty-first century. An early hint at a key theme: for Barth, Christian faith and its theology are always directed—directed by the free, living Word of God by which it is encountered, if and when it hears that Word—to address the concrete challenges and possibilities of the “here and now,” of concrete contemporary contexts in all their distinctive particularity, complexity, and urgency.
I attempt to be faithful to Barth’s intentions, as I understand them, as he diagnoses what he believed to be the dangers, challenges, opportunities, and requirements of his own historical and theological context for faithful Christian witness to the gospel—again, as he understood it—and attempts to respond appropriately. The book also asks what those intentions, diagnoses, and the resulting concrete theological decisions and interventions might mean for us if we take Barth on as a theological conversation partner and resource, whether we read him generously, critically, or what is generally to be preferred, some relatively robust combination of both.
Ultimately, then, the primary audience for the book is the theologically interested pastor, layperson, and church congregation caught up in the daily struggles of life and of faith. It is for those attempting to discern the meaning of the gospel in and for the neighborhood, city, society, and world, and for their own lives as Christians living out their faith in those concrete contexts, in the struggles—sometimes mundane, sometimes historic—of discerning faithful and responsible (albeit always broken and sinful) Christian witness. Barth understood this witness to be focused on, bound to, and determined by (a) the unequivocal and uncompromisable goodness of the news about Jesus, and (b) the life of enacted belief which that news calls forth in creative Christian freedom and responsibility, communal and individual, to and for the broken world. Hint number two: for Barth, theology—even doctrinal/dogmatic theology—is never solely about nor completed with the sorting out of what the church believes, confesses, and proclaims in creeds and doctrinal standards and books of theology. It always also necessarily involves asking and answering the question: What then shall we do? How should we then live, here and now?
The primary interest of the book, then, as introduction and companion to Barth’s work, is in his theology’s pertinence to the lives and faith of Christians and churches struggling to be living communities of witness in word and deed, in and for the neighborhood, society, and world. This means doing two things. First, it means assisting the reader in discovering and appreciating those dimensions in Barth’s work that might yet function as life-affirming resources in resistance to destructive theological, ecclesial, and socio-political principalities and powers facing churches and societies today. Second, it means assisting the reader in recognizing and critically assessing all the ways in which Barth’s theology is seen as both theologically and ethically problematic by both more conservative and more progressive theologians and persons of faith. This is particularly important in relation to all the destructive theological, ecclesial, and socio-political realities we are so painfully aware of in our own time that Barth—as a child of his times, despite his efforts to diagnose and critique those times in light of what he saw as the prophetic word of the gospel—did not see or feel the need to address, critique, and resist.
As important as it is to understand what Barth was doing and why in his own context, it is equally important to understand what so many contemporary readers of Barth find highly problematic in his theology, and why. Ultimately, of course, readers of this book and of Barth’s own work have to come to their own assessment of how and to what extent Barth is friend or foe for churches and Christians today—and for everyone else!—and what he offers for their understanding of the life and work of faith in and for the world.
All cards on the table, then. The reader will find a generous reading of Barth in these pages. I am making a pitch, here. I want to propose that Barth’s theology can function as a resource for Christians and churches today, particularly in all our conflictual diversity and polarization, and particularly in relation to the task of hearing and discerning anew (or, for many, what may feel like the first time) both the unequivocal goodness and universal embrace of the gospel news about Jesus, and the radically embodied life of concrete historical—social, political, economic—action and commitment that news calls the church into as a witnessing community in and for the world. (An-other confession, then: I am more interested, both personally and with the writing of this book, in the ways in which Barth can be read as a theological resource for hearing the goodness of the news about Jesus—the news that God is unequivocally and irrevocably for all, but through the eye of a very specific and historically concrete needle: the last, first!—than in faithfulness to the letter of Barth’s theology for its own sake.) At the same time, I hope to be clear about the ways in which this is a very hard sell for many, both on the theological left and the theological right of Barth. Barth—as with any theologian, historical or contemporary—can only function as a resource for churches and Christians today when generous readings proceed by way of critical engagement.
Chris Boesel is associate professor of Christian Theology at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. He is the author of In Kierkegaard’s Garden: Why Derrida Doesn’t Read Kierkegaard When He Reads Kierkegaard (2021) and Risking Proclamation, Respecting Difference: Christian Faith, Imperialistic Discourse, and Abraham (2008).