A good book gathers annotations—marginal notes, exclamations marks, and question marks, often paired together. When the margins are full, these engagements overflow into the pages of journals and reviews. Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology is a good book. Marginalia has just published a wonderful review essay by Brad East, which captures well the confounding and compelling spirit of Sonderegger’s work.
Brad ends his review with a comment on style: “Her distinction is not that she does systematic theology… but how she does it. Her style is a throwback: unashamedly spiritual, punch-drunk with praise and prayer, compelled by living encounter with divine reality.” Which describes wonderfully the experience of reading her work.
Style, after all, has been of interest to Sonderegger for years. In the early 90s, she published a piece, “On Style in Karl Barth”, which made me never want to write on Barth again. In the opening paragraphs, she provides a chilling description of the lifelessness of Barth scholarship when compared with its source. “The lengthy treatments of Barth’s ‘method’, so popular among Anglo-Americans, seem to march on, correctly but rather mercilessly, revealing so little of the joyful delight and freedom of movement Barth shows at every turn” (p. 65).
Those who wish to avoid method might attempt to write on Barth’s doctrine, but will hardly fare any better, since Barth forces a choice upon the interpreter: “are they ‘within the system’, or are they without, looking in? … Allegiance often results in a wooden repetition of Barth’s own phrases, only in a very loud voice” (p. 66). If one wishes to reckon with Barth at all, one must face this problem at some point, either creating a false system to critique from a distance, or entering into his world and bumbling like a fool. “It is”, Sonderegger laments, “a particularly friendless hour when this problem finally arrives at your door. Nothing, really, is so wooden to read as one’s own prose about Barth” (p. 66).
And so it is no wonder that when she comes to turn her hand to a systematic theology, Sonderegger mostly puts Barth to the side and speaks with her own voice. Perhaps being a true disciple of Barth means simply doing the work of theology, as Sonderegger says, "without a loss of nerve."