Tuesday 4 July 2006

Karl Barth's wicked sense of humour

Karl Barth had a very lively sense of humour. And at times his humour was decidedly wicked (in the best sense of the word), not least of all when he made fun of other theologians with whom he disagreed. He was, for instance, always making fun of his old friend Rudolf Bultmann. One of the most entertaining features of CD volume IV is Barth’s constant lampooning of Bultmann—while Bultmann himself is almost never named, he is the object of numerous wicked jokes about mythology, hermeneutics, self-understanding, demythologising, and so on.

Barth’s published letters also contain many funny characterisations of other theologians. For instance, after reading Pannenberg’s new book Jesus—God and Man, Barth wrote to Helmut Gollwitzer that “even the ravens I see on the top of a high tree from my seat here, though they do not do ‘biblical work,’ ... do not regard this work on christology as a good book.”

But funnier (and more wicked) still is his characterisation of Dorothee Soelle. In another letter to Gollwitzer, Barth describes Dorothee Soelle as a woman “of great brilliance and even greater lack of understanding!” And in a letter to Karl Rahner, Barth says that Soelle is “a lady of whom the only thing one can really say is that that woman should keep silence in the church.” Ouch!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Ben. We need reminding that theology is a joyful, not lugubrious science.

Lesslie Newbigin once told me of the "tantrums" Barth would sometimes throw in a committee on which they jointly served in preparation for the WCC Assembly in Evanston - but above all he remembered Barth's rich sense of humour.

Barth once said of the fundamentalists: "What a pity that none of these apologists think it worth mentioning that man is apparently the only being who laughs."

And one of Barth's grandchildren wondered whether "the many creases in my face had developed because I spent so much of my life laughing.

But my favourite story is this one. Just four days before he died, Barth told some friends that he had finally found out why there was no end to his volumes of dogmatics: "My doctors discovered that my colon was much too long."
Crap indeed!

Rightly Barth has been called "the happiest theologian of our age."

Anonymous said...

I love this comment from the preface to CD III/4:

'That the Neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands and elsewhere are not among my well-wishers is something that I have been forced to recognise at all stages of my path so far. Let us not blame them for this, nor for accusing me of being a "monist," which they have recently proceeded to do. But it is going too far that in their attacks, obviously to offend me the more, they so far forget themselves as to use unrepeatable terms in disparagement of W. A. Mozart. In so doing they have, of course, shown themselves to be men of stupid, cold and stony hearts to whom we need not listen.'

Personally, I think Mozart's extremely over-rated, so I wonder what Barth would've said about me!!

::aaron g:: said...

As you posted earlier, NT Wright shares a great Barth joke about it not mattering if the snake spoke, what mattered is what he said!

David W. Congdon said...

It is well worth the time and effort to find the BBC interview with Karl Barth, which showcases his humor. He gives the famous remark that if he had to pick a different profession, he would be a "traffic policeman." And then he goes on to talk about how being a theologian is a lot like controlling traffic, because both are positions of great power and responsibility that shape the lives of people!

Anonymous said...

I heard a story that upon being introduced to Karl Barth, a young impressionable man asked him "Do you know the great theologian of the same name". "Know him", replied Barth, "I shave him every morning".

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