Wednesday 12 July 2006

Barth and Bultmann: an imagined conversation

[In an idle moment, I invented this fictional conversation between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They are in a German pub, along with Barth’s personal assistant, Lollo von Kirschbaum.]

They were sitting together, a woman and two men, at the big oak table by the fire. It was late, and the pub was quiet now except for the murmur of voices and the crackling of the fire. The woman was laughing, as the first man said, “No, Lollo, it’s true—Rudolf insists that he cannot understand me, and yet I have heard from the most reliable sources that he never reads any of my books.”

The second man snorted, and said: “So, you have spies among my students, Karl! It’s just as I expected. Anyway, I don’t mind telling you that it’s true: I have given up trying to read your endless Dogmatics.”

“Ha!” cried the first man. “You see, Lollo—just as I told you!”

The woman laughed again, and sipped her wine. “So, Herr Bultmann,” she said, “you cannot understand Karl’s books, and yet you do not read them. There’s a nice paradox for the ‘dialectical’ theologians.”

Bultmann chuckled and struck a match. He chewed on his pipe for a moment, and then said, “Well, Karl, if only you would take the time to explain your concepts to me, then I would have some basis for understanding you. As it stands, though, I can hardly comprehend a word you say—all this talk of reconciliation and resurrection and the history of Jesus! What does any of that mean? How can a person in today’s world make any sense of it?”

“So you think my books are meaningless?” Barth replied, leaning across the table to refill Bultmann’s glass. “Or should I say: mythological?”

“Well, naturally it remains to be seen whether you speak in the language of myth. And I don’t need to insist right now that you do speak like that. But the important point is that you speak without reflection. You use words and concepts without first clarifying what they mean. And that is why—” he paused as a log snapped and turned in the fireplace “—and that is why I simply cannot understand you.”

Barth sipped his wine, his eyebrows arched playfully above the black-rimmed glasses. “All this talk about ‘concepts’ and ‘understanding,’ Rudolf! So serious, you German theologians! You want me to explain everything before I begin to speak—but I, on the other hand, feel perfectly content just to speak.”

Bultmann furrowed his brow and breathed a long stream of smoke. “Ah, yes, you are happy simply to speak! And so you think you can merely adopt the language and concepts of the New Testament, as though nothing could be plainer. But you forget all about the gulf that separates our world today from the world of the New Testament. The people who read your Dogmatics are no longer living in the first century, Karl. So how are they to understand you when you use concepts that no longer have any clear meaning? How are they to understand you unless you first interpret these concepts? To be more precise, how can the message of the New Testament be communicated without first being translated?” He tapped his pipe sharply against the ashtray to underline each syllable of the final word.

“Oho! So it’s interpretation that we need, is it?” Barth leaned toward his friend and reached for his own pipe. “The way I see it, this is nothing but natural theology all over again—” (Lollo was filling their glasses) “—yes, just like Emil and his comical ‘point of contact,’ just like Gogarten and his all-too-serious ‘orders of creation.’”

Bultmann grunted in protest. “Frankly, I don’t see what natural theology has to do with any of this.”

But Barth waved his pipe excitedly and continued. “You think there’s a gulf between modern people and the message of the Bible. You think that, in spite of God’s revelation, this gulf remains. It’s not only God who crosses this gulf—but we must also do our part to cross it. We must also ‘interpret’ revelation. We must also make revelation understandable. In a word, we ourselves must make revelation possible through all our hand-wringing hermeneutical endeavours. You see, my friend: natural theology!” He thumped the table and took a triumphant mouthful of wine. Lollo was leaning towards him in silent approval.

“You can characterise hermeneutics as natural theology,” Bultmann retorted, “only because you remain unaware of your own hermeneutical presuppositions. Everyone interprets, Karl—even you! But whether you do so reflectively and with discipline is another question entirely.”

Barth shook his head. “Another question? Well, there are good questions and bad questions. Some questions I try to answer; but others—reflectively and with discipline!—I avoid at all cost. And I myself think that the hermeneutical question happens to be a very bad one. So I choose— he pointed his finger at the ceiling “—to ignore it.”

Bultmann threw up his hands in exasperation. “What are you proposing, then? A dogmatic repristination of a mythical worldview? A repetition of the words and phrases of the Bible?”

“No, no, no,” Barth said so loudly that his glasses slipped from the bridge of his nose. “Dear Rudolf, you make so much of the gulf between modern people and an ancient revelation. But don’t you see? In principle, the gulf would be the same even if revelation had taken place only yesterday. There would still be a gulf between the ‘there and then’ and the ‘here and now.’ The fact that revelation just happens to have occurred nineteen hundred years ago is, for me, of no special importance.” He leaned close towards Bultmann, peering up at him over the black rims of his glasses. “Here’s what I think, Rudolf: I think there’s no gap whatsoever between the ‘there and then’ and the ‘here and now.’ It belongs to the very nature of revelation to include within itself our own ‘here and now.’ Jesus Christ has already risen! He already lives and acts! There’s no gulf for us to cross in order to reach him—he reaches us already through his own living actuality! His history already includes our own little histories. His story is already—not accidentally, but essentially!—our story.”

Bultmann was smoothing his broad moustache with his thumb and forefinger. He raised a sceptical eyebrow, and remarked, “All these words, Karl: history, story, revelation, resurrection. What is one to make of such words when you so steadfastly refuse to interpret them?”

But Barth ignored the question and pressed on. “In other words, all that needs to be said is that revelation is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus Christ is not only God for humanity—he’s also the human being for God. He’s not only the Word from God to us—he’s also our human response to this Word. You see, there can never be a gap between revelation and humanity—for Jesus Christ is himself the reconciliation between God and humanity. And so he is the end of every so-called ‘gulf’—yes, the end of Lessing’s ugly ditch!”

Bultmann frowned deeply at his pipe, which had gone out again. “Do you know what I think you’re really trying to do?” he said after a long silence. “I think you’re trying to bypass all the advancements of historical criticism. I think you’re trying to carry on as though the nineteenth century had never happened. But beware!” he said darkly. “Beware that in throwing off the legacy of the nineteenth century you do not find yourself in the world of the sixteenth century, in the world of—” and he shuddered visibly as he said the word “—orthodoxy.”

But Barth was only laughing. He glanced across the table and said, “Well you know, Lollo, if I did have to choose between the historicism of the nineteenth century and the orthodoxy of the sixteenth...”

Lollo smiled—not at him, but at Bultmann—and said, “What do you think, Herr Bultmann? Another bottle of wine?”

They signalled for the waitress, who approached them yawning and dishevelled with a chewed pencil stub behind her ear. When they asked for another bottle, she mumbled assent and scribbled something in her notebook. With the empty bottle in her hand she made her way back to the bar, scratching her head with the pencil before returning it to its perch above her ear. It was late, and the pub was nearly empty. All she could hear was the laughter and excited chatter of the three old friends beside the fire.


Sean said...

That's why I side with Barth! This is excellent stuff, keep up the good work Ben!

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly conceived and executed, Ben, and a great dialogue for teaching. Particularly effective is Barth's explanation of how Bultmann too is doing natural theology, and his solution to the problem of Lessing's ditch - that Christ himself straddles and fills it. Bravo!

At the end of the conversation, I suppose, there is only one thing for it: Pipes at twenty paces!

Chris Tilling said...

That was so much fun!

David W. Congdon said...

Superb! One of my undergraduate professors had us write fictional dialogues between the scholars we were reading, and it never ceased to be both a great educational tool and a lot of fun.

Of course, I side with Barth in this discussion, but I do think Bultmann has a position that should be taken seriously. There is, I might say, more to be said for Bultmann than what is presented here. Barth clearly works from within a particular cultural framework, one that is shaped by modernity and indebted to people like Hegel and Schleiermacher. Bultmann's insistence that translation is essential cannot be entirely overlooked or ignored. Bultmann's question, "What does it mean to speak of God?" is just as important as Barth's, "What must be said of God based on self-revelation?"

Bultmann is also necessary for the insistence that Christianity is existential and subjective as much as it is external and objective. Bultmann reminds us that faith is a radical reorientation of one's life, the opening of oneself toward God. Do we need to see a dichotomy between Bultmann's anthropological center and Barth's christological center? No, I think we have grounds for allowing both sides to be heard properly. Christ is indeed the center of all our thought and speech about God, but Christ comes to us in the word. Jesus Christ interrupts us existentially in the proclamation of the kerygma. The risen Christ is God's self-revelation at the same time that he is the addressing interruption which moves us extra nos so that God comes nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

In short, Barth and Bultmann both have important things to say, though Barth happens to say a lot more and be almost always right. But I do think we should keep both sides in perspective, and that's why I read and admire Eberhard Jüngel, who does precisely that.

In case people are interested, Daniel Migliore (theology professor at Princeton Seminary) wrote one of the best introductions to theology, Faith Seeking Understanding, and in the appendix section he wrote three fictional dialogues on natural theology, the resurrection, and political theology with interlocuters like Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, Moltmann, etc.

Jim said...

Well done! But of course to make it more realistic Barth needs to have groped Charlotte under the table or cast her a knowing, "come hither" glance.

As far as the dialogue is concerned, quite on the money. And naturally, Bultmann is right and Karl, well, he just needs to go back to the summer cabin and "write" some more with Charlotte.

Anonymous said...

Great story, Ben!

Anonymous said...

Great story, Ben, except that Barth should have been drinking beer, not sipping wine. I doubt Karl ever "sipped" wine in his life!

guanilo said...

Briliant. Nice representations. I think Barth rather got the best of the conversation.

Ben Myers said...

Yeah, I guess I did give Barth the better part (even though my own sympathies are basically with Bultmann on this one).

Still, one of my aims was to depict a conversation in which neither person understands the other at all -- Barth fails utterly to comprehend the importance of Bultmann's point, and Bultmann has no idea what Barth is talking about. (On the other hand, it occurs to me now that the one person in the room who understands everything is Lollo.)

Michael Pahl said...

Wow, I wish I had "idle moments" like that! Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Only found your blog a couple of weeks ago and now its a must-visit. My first comment in recognition of a great dialogue - straight out of the Romans II preface it would appear. Did Barth ever move on from that position?

Michael F. Bird said...

Made me LOL! Very amusing old friend.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Very well done. The one comment I have is that Barth generally let Lollo take the lead in conversations - you have her a bit to quiet. :-)

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