Monday 25 May 2009

The great theologian: a parable (based on a true story)

(I was surprised when some readers took exception to my recent post about Sunday school teachers. So I thought I’d try to illustrate the same point in a different way: and so this little parable.)

Beneath the blue skies of Switzerland, in the cheerful bustling town of Basel, there once lived a great theologian. Each week he taught a seminar at the university, ruminating and chewing his pipe happily, while students crowded the floor, pressed hard against those ancient walls, laughing at his jokes and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity. He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places who asked him questions shyly in halting German. On weekends he tossed bread to the ducks at the river or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo. On Sunday mornings he went to prison and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel; he spoke like a young man (though he was old, with a heart full of old men’s stories) and after the service he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates, assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God.

But more than anything, the theologian loved to return each day to his study and to sit writing at his desk, a dark little question-mark hunched in his crumpled suit amidst curling pipe smoke and walls of books that peered down at his labours with all the curious attentiveness of indulgent friends or obstinate relatives. In this manner, day in day out, he filled reams of paper with that cramped inky hand. Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes as big and hard and sturdy as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat thus writing and smoking, the fame of those books spread far and wide. Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places—South Africa, Scotland, America—people mentioned his books at dinner parties, taught them in seminaries, wrote books and then entire libraries about them. The Holy Father sought an audience with him. Martin Luther King asked him questions and leaned close to listen. The Japanese formed a school around his name. The Catholics held a council and invited him. The Americans splashed his frowning face across the cover of Time magazine. His birthdays were greeted with a clamour of praise and jubilation, while printing presses in many languages ground out books and journals and essays to honour or refute him. His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes to be the dawning of a new era, while some antagonists and former students devoted every waking hour to trying to prove him wrong on even a single point. Entire scholarly careers were thus busily occupied in this fashion.

The theologian was bemused by these attentions, but he enjoyed all this in his own self-deprecating way. And though he travelled and shook hands and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees, always he returned before long to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—empty slates shimmering with promise, like that formless materia prima in the beginning beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night, while the snow slept on the ground and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas, the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke and found himself standing at the gates of heaven. An angel took him by the elbow and led him in, explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting. Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime. The theologian looked around. He tried to take it all in. Then somewhere in the crowd a voice announced his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer. Women and men pressed in close, clasping his hands and shoulders and pounding his back warmly. Children laughed and clapped their hands. Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes, the beaming faces. He tried to smile and nod politely, as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary or an honorary doctorate. He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd, out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way, and the theologian, still trying to regain his composure, confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised, and assured him that indeed everyone in the city knew his name. They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed with a theatrical flourish. “Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!” The theologian nodded modestly, and the angel continued: “Aren’t you the one who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings? Didn’t you eat and drink with them? Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad? Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths, and strike a match for them? Didn’t you go to see them when even their own families had forgotten them? Why my dear fellow, there is not a person in this city who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street. He looked at the angel. “The prison? Well yes, I suppose... But I thought perhaps… my theology. My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said, and touched his arm reassuringly. “There’s no need to worry about all that! That’s all forgiven now.”


“But of course! All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!” The angel took his hand fondly. “No need to dwell on all that now—everything is forgiven here. Come now, my dear, there are still so many people waiting to meet you. And the prisoners you visited—they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you. Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky, the angel and the theologian made their way together down the city street.


byron smith said...

"The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, 'Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!' - and they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write asbout. Truly, the angels laugh."
- Karl Barth, quoted in G. Casalis, Portrait of Karl Barth (New York: Doubleday, 1963), 3.

Anonymous said...

This notwithstanding we shouldn't forget that for Barth Dogmatics is not active but reactive. The goal is not to seek out God, pointing to this or that thing in the world and say "this has something of God" or "that has something of God". The task is to proclaim what God has spoken in God's Word, Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is not an enquiry, it is a proclamation, at it's most speculative it is a science, a speaking out from that witnessed.
This is why it is CHURCH dogmatics, Christ calls the Church to proclaim the gospel, which God has given, and so theology is an activity of the Church.
In the parable the angels are right to imply that we do it badly, but a Church theologian less filled with the Spirit than Barth might say "You charge me with the task of proclaiming your Word in my sin soaked little words and then you mock me for failing?"

This may seem a small point, but a key difference between Barth and much liberal theology is that in liberal theology the sense is often that God really doesn't actively will to be known, the attempt to know God is an attempt to read the tea leaves of creation and experience and perhaps deduce something of a God who would just as happily be left alone! This is not the God of Barth, nor, if I may say, the God of Christianity. Barth's God is a God who commissions us as the Church and theology, as an activity of the Church, is a faithful response to this call.
Sorry for being cranky! But so many of my students think the Fathers were "trying to put God in a box" when they were simply proclaiming the Church's experience of Easter. Barth's wonderful self deprecation shouldn't blind us to how he understood the task of dogmatics as Church Dogmatics, a response in words to the Word.

We've been called to do Theology by God, we strive to do it faithfully, we will fail, but the last thing we need is smug little no genital angels taking the piss out of us for our efforts! :)

kim fabricius said...

Lovely! In fact, just about perfect. Except for one thing: old Karl would never have suggested, "But I had just assumed… my theology. My books…" On the contrary, about them he would have apologised - "It was that overlong colon of mine!" Then the angel and Barth would have laughed and laughed ...

Anonymous said...

Then how come all we talk about is his books?

roger flyer said...

You are a beautiful story teller. How about a couple children's books?

Or even this story retold for ages 6-8?

Sandra said...

This is so beautiful. This makes me want to go out an do visit a prison or just 'live' a little... like riding a horse, falling over, laughing more, rather than sit most of the day trying to read KB's CD's. This post for me is also a gentle reminder to live out Barth's theology a little more and of course to return to my study and regain my concentration.

I agree with Roger Flyer. Ben, you are an incredible story teller. This might be a fresh new way for a whole set of books on the life of Barth. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes this is a lovely story - so nice to know that it is our kind deeds that will count; visiting jails and the like. It would be horrible to think that other areas of our life were to be remembered so vividly (especially in the minds of those who make idols of us) Say for instance our faithfulness (?) to our wives……

Laura G said...

Any thoughts on the Barmen declaration or Barth's (lack of) response to evils of communism in the USSR or eastern Europe? Somehow I find that rather applicable to this post, though entering into the realm of political theology.

Mark Stevens said...

A lovely story Ben, one I think Barth himself would have smiled at.

A friend of mine recently returned from a working holiday to Switzerland. Among his many adventures he and his wife stayed at a farm owned by Barth's grandson. He recounted stories about the warmth of his grandfather and told my friend how after school he would visit his grandparents and be greeted by his grandmother who would offer him a biscuit and then he would run upstairs into the arms of his joyful grandfather. In all of the stories he told there was not a single mention of his grandfather's Dogmatics!

Anonymous said...

Simply marvellous, Ben, marvellous.

dan said...

You know, I always have mixed feelings when I read this sort of story.

On the one hand, Ben, you make a great point regarding structuring the priorities in our lives.

On the other hand, I am suspicious of the affirmation of sentimental stories which make use of people whom I know (in this case people in prison, in other cases sex workers, homeless youth, and so on) by people who actually don't know any of these people (prisoners, sex workers, etc.). So, hooray, we can all applaud this story, but who amongst these Barthians is actually following in Barth's footsteps and looking forward to the same reception in heaven?

Bobby Grow said...

Good one, Ben!

Mark Stevens said...

Dan, I believe Prof Hunsinger served as a missionary in India for many years before taking his post at Princeton. That is a pretty good example wouldn't you say?

Anonymous said...

too bad if all the prisoners thought he was a patronising jerk..

Tim said...

The dude wonders why human works are somehow more worthy than human words. Seems like both are acts of men to me.

Rob said...

Great post Ben. I think, though, that many of us are wondering how you view the issue of Barth's marital fidelity. I can't remember you posting anything on it; is that accidental, or because you think it would be inappropriate, or for another reason?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben.


Jim said...

just a few minor changes and it would be perfect- change angel to demon, heaven to hell, and the apology for his books to an apology for his prison work, and voila!


byron smith said...

Rob, Ben has discussed it here. Unfortunately, the link is broken.

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

I have always suspected that Matthew himself thought that chapter 25 of his account was not the whole gospel. For otherwise, why go on about the doings and the other sayings of Jesus and the importance of faith in the way he does?

I find Matthew a hard gospel to summarise in a few pithy words, but here's a quote from K Stendahl (in Peake's commentary, #673h): "Mt does not think in ideas or doctrines. To him the question is: Who will inherit the Kingdom? The answer is clear: the church, i.e. those who recognise Jesus as the Messiah."I do take your point that those of us who claim to have faith should ask ourselves whether our works demonstrate real faith. But I don't take the point if the parable means that we are saved by visiting prisoners, preaching to them and showing concern for their welfare.

Parables are dangerous things.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

kim fabricius said...

Following John Hartley's comments, two points:

(1) For an alternative reading of Matthew 25:31-46 - which is a crucially important pivot for Matthew: Jesus' public ministry ends on it, the plot and passion narrative begins - here is Ulrich Luz in The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (Cambridge: CUP, 1995): "It is basic to Matthew's idea of judgement that the community [i.e. the church] is apparently not given precedence a priori on Judgement Day.... All that ultimately matters is their [i.e Christians'] works. Before the Judge, all lances are of equal length. The sole advantage granted to the readers of Matthew's Gospel is that the evangelist tells them exactly that" (p.61).

(2) Nor do I think that Paul would disagree. Most recently, Michael J. Gorman, in Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids / Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), avers: "justification by faith apart from works means justification by grace-enabled participatory response rather than by privilege (passive) or initiative (active). It does not mean justification by faith narrowly conceived as assent. or even trust.... Once again, there can be no separation of faith from love, of faith from action" (p. 81).

Gorman also cites "N.T. Wright, commenting on Rom 2:6-11 (Resurrection, p.245): '[T]here is no need to "protect" Paul from speaking of the "good works" which people perform during their lifetime, in accordance with which the final judgment will be given'" (p. 84, n. 124).

Add to Paul's phrase the "obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5, 16:26), "obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Rom 6:16), James' insistence on the barrenness, the deadness of faith without works (James 2:14ff.), and I think it's pretty clear that the NT is of one mind on faith and action. Such that, strictly speaking, asking "whether our works demonstate real faith" - as if one could say, "Right, I've got the faith, now let's authenticate it by putting it to work" (as if faith were private and works public - Wittgenstein turns in his grave!), misses the point of the inextricable unity of faith and action/love.

roger flyer said...

after Kim:

I like Scott Pecks' turn at it:
Love is always an action, an extension of one's soul to help (oneself or) another. We must fight through laziness (entropy) or fear to love.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all the comments. I probably shouldn't try to defend the post — but as a general response to some comments and emails, I'm sure it's pretty obvious to readers of this blog that I think theology is important! And that I don't think a person will be saved either by visiting prisoners or by writing books!

I just wanted to write a colourful "parable" — an attempt to say one surprising thing about God. I wasn't trying to call anyone to throw away their academic vocation or to become a missionary to India — nor was I drafting a balanced report about God, sin, salvation and the afterlife!

I called it a "parable" because it's really more like an extended joke than a doctrinal statement.

I hope that helps...

Christopher said...

I liked it. It's not anti-intellectual, but it puts intellectual pursuits in their proper orbit. The parable made me think of this letter from John Newton:

Dear friend,
I truly pity those who rise early and study late—with no higher prize and prospect in view, than the obtaining of academic honors! Such pursuits will before long appear (as they really are) as vain as the foolish games of children! May the Lord impress them with the noble ambition of living to and for Him. If these scholars, who are laboring for pebbles under the semblance of goodly pearls, had a discovery of the Pearl of great price—how quickly and gladly would they lay down their admired attainments, and become fools—that they might be truly wise! Their academic studies, if taken in the aggregate, are little better than splendid trifles!
Friend, what a snare have you escaped! You would have been nothing but a scholar—had not God visited your heart and enlightened you by His grace! Now I trust you account your former academic gains, but loss—compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus. What you have attained in the way of learning, will be useful to you—if sanctified, and chiefly so by the knowledge which you have of its insufficiency to any valuable purpose in the great concerns of life—knowing God and walking with Him!

bruce hamill said...

I like the letter and the parable, but I do think we need to acknowledge that for all that academia can be rivalrous and ambitious, it can also be a labour of love for the neighbours we have been given... and thus is hardly 'trifling'. but that is a boringly obvious point compared to the parable

Tim Horman said...

I do believe I detect some O'Brian influence here Ben, my dear.

Ben Myers said...

Tim, your insight is impeccable. And speaking of O'Brian, I just thought of a better way to end the story:

And they all sat down together to a prodigious hearty feast, fourteen courses in all, including all of Barth's favourites: Lobscouse, Skillygalee, Burgoo, Ship's Biscuit, Drowned Baby, Sea-Pie, Figgy-Dowdy. They cheered and clapped when the cook brought out the Soused Hog's Face on a great platter. And then, after copious wine and conversation, Barth played a merry tune on the fiddle while the rest of the party eased dreamily into double-helpings of Jam Roly-Poly.

Ben Myers said...

Sorry, for anyone who feels perplexed by that last exchange, we're talking about the great sea-faring novels of Patrick O'Brian.

roger flyer said...

Damn! Now Barth could play the fiddle, too!? I'm experiencing a bad case of Salieri's envy.

Unknown said...

Love the parable, and in relation to teaching children about God and faith I think you make your point well, especially when it comes to children's talks in worship services.

I've always thought that the children's talk is the toughest task in worship services. Much more difficult than preaching. Maybe it is just me, but I find that the average sermon can use a whole lot of words to say very little of substance. A good children's talk on the other hand has to use as little words as possible to say something very clearly - and you can't fudge it!

Sometimes I wonder if children's talks or Sunday School teaching should be a requirement of theological education. Not only because you have to use less (difficult) words, but also because children usually ask the toughest questions.

Brett Berger said...


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