Saturday, 6 October 2007

Karl Barth: the word in this world

Karl Barth, The Word in This World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, ed. Kurt I. Johanson, trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007), 66 pp. With an introduction by William H. Willimon.

In this splendid little booklet, two remarkable sermons by Karl Barth appear in English for the first time. The juxtaposition of these two sermons provides a striking picture of some of the ways in which Barth’s preaching changed over the years.

On the one hand, both of these sermons were preached amidst situations of global catastrophe and crisis. The first was preached in April 1912, just days after the sinking of the Titanic; and the second was preached in November 1934, two days after the Confessing Church had taken a public stand against Hitler (and two days later, Barth would be dismissed from his university post). Both sermons thus take the form of emergency proclamation, of urgent announcement amidst crisis.

On the other hand, the two sermons are remarkably different. In the first, Barth takes the sinking of the Titanic itself as his text – he insists that this event is the organ of divine revelation through which “God addresses us with … power and urgency” (p. 32). The sermon is thus entirely immersed within its specific situation; there is (in good liberal fashion) a presumed identity between divine revelation and the movement of history. This was precisely the position that Barth would later denounce and repudiate so fiercely in his commentary on Romans.

Needless to say, by the time of the 1934 sermon Barth’s mode of preaching is very different. Here the contemporary situation is even more urgent and more dangerous than in April 1912 – here, the German nation as a whole is steaming towards hidden disaster. But Barth only alludes to these specificities in passing – his entire sermon, from the first word to the last, is absorbed by the world of the Bible and by the sovereign command of God. Hitler, for example, is never named, but only alluded to as a mere “nothing.”

The two sermons thus offer a striking contrast. Indeed, the later Barth looked back on his Titanic sermon with considerable horror – in his Homiletics (WJKP, 1991), he called it “the monster of a full-scale Titanic sermon”! Following Barth’s lead, William Willimon also suggests in his introduction that this is a very “bad” sermon (p. 18), since its text is the newspaper rather than the Bible.

Nevertheless, I myself would like to say something in defence of this early (liberal) Barth – for all its theological failings, I think his Titanic sermon is an extraordinarily gripping and powerful piece of preaching. Even if the whole sermon is structured by the sinking of the ship itself (rather than by any specific biblical text), Barth’s perception of this event has already been filtered through a biblical imagination – so that the true starting point of this sermon is not merely a historical event, but a biblical “reading” of this event.

Barth’s main argument is that the sinking of the Titanic is the judgment of God: it is God’s judgment on the “crime of capitalism,” in which “a few individuals compet[e] with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits” (p. 40). Barth thus sees the sinking of the Titanic not merely as an isolated occurrence, but as an event wholly conditioned by a larger web of social and economic relations – the same web of relations which also structures the lives of the working-class parishioners here in the little village of Safenwil. For that reason, the judgment of God on the Titanic is connected – urgently and immediately – to the lives of these parishioners. The theological horizon which shapes Barth’s interpretation of the Titanic, in other words, is the same horizon against which his parishioners must understand their own material struggles.

So while I’ll admit that this very socialist and very “liberal” sermon on the Titanic is a far cry from Barth’s later preaching, I think this sermon also expresses something important about authentic Christian proclamation. In the sermon, God is addressing these particular people. And so the preacher must interpret not only the biblical text but also the world itself through the lens of the gospel.

On one occasion, the Word of God might be proclaimed by making Hitler disappear anonymously into the world of the Bible as a powerless “nothing”; on another occasion, the Word of God might be proclaimed by speaking directly against the “crime of capitalism,” and by summoning the people of God to re-imagine their own material world as the place of God’s reign. Two very different sermons, but – if we listen carefully – are we not hearing the same Word?

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