Wednesday 16 June 2010

Karl Barth on writing theology

Time for another post on writing. You often hear the mantra that theology needs to be simple and accessible, addressed to some anonymous general audience. Here's what Karl Barth has to say about this view, in his preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 4-5 in the English edition; translation modified):
Those who urge us to shake off theology itself and to think – and more particularly to speak and write – only what is immediately intelligible to the general public seem to me to be suffering from a kind of hysteria and to be entirely without discernment [halte ich für eine durchaus hysterische und unbesonnene Ansicht]. Is it not preferable that those who venture to speak in public, or to write for the public, should first themselves seek a better understanding of their topic? ... I do not want readers of this book to be under any illusions. They must expect nothing but theology. If, in spite of this warning, it should stray into the hands of non-theologians – some of whom I know will understand it better than many theologians – I will count it a great joy. For I am altogether persuaded that its content concerns everyone, since the question it raises is everyone's question. I could not make the book any easier than the subject itself allows.... If I am not mistaken ..., we theologians serve the "laity" best when we refuse to have them especially in mind, and when we simply follow our own course, as every honest labourer must do.
Drawing by nakedpastor.


Terry Wright said...

I'm probably misreading Barth here (it wouldn't be the first time I've misread Barth, but I'm sure it's his fault), but it seems to me that his criticism is directed against those who think that it's the local church congregation that sets the theological agenda. Barth's phrase 'shake off theology itself' leads me to this conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is fine for Barth, but for most of us, sounds like an excuse for obtuse writing.

Paul Tyson said...

CS Lewis said somewhere that if you couldn’t explain yourself in simple language that any ‘common man’ could understand, then you don’t really know what you are talking about. Perhaps what Barth means here is that nobody really knows what they are talking about when they do theology (even so, theology must be done).

dylan said...

I have no theological training and I found The Epistle shook up my world whilst the Dogmatics in Outline put me to sleep. So I think Barth was right here.

Anonymous said...

This issue addressed by Barth reminds me of a section from Mr. Thomas Stearns in Little Gidding,

"And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)"

More pertinent to writing in general but still relevant to theology, I think.


Zachery said...

This quote doesn't actually address the problem of his theology's obtuseness; it merely makes him sound as if theology was only (and I stress only) a personal endeavor. If anyone else understands it, great; if not, it's not my fault.

That's just sloppy.

David Hayward, aka 'nakedpastor' said...

Ben: Thanks for using my rendition of Barth, based on one of the last photographs of him in his study. I have always loved that quote. And I wholeheartedly agree. His love for the Word and theology itself was exercised almost like an art form. And his art influenced so many, and continues to do so. Although his theology is very dense, I think it is quite minimal in its foundation. However, I find his talks with clergy and other religious students and leaders to be more "down to earth" and human.

Anonymous said...

Don't miss Barth's clear point: Theologian are charged and enabled by God to speak about the divine subject matter as much as the matter itself allows. If we are simply encouraging people to speak to the man on the street or meet his needs without listening first and foremost to what God has said in his revelation, then we are simply having a converation with ourselves and will never concern ourselves truly with what God is saying in his Word and thus never truly meet the needs of the world today.

Greg Clarke said...

I wish Barth would stop cleaning his ear with his pipe.

John Hartley said...

Dear Ben,

As a mathematician I totally agree with Barth! These days they say that if you want to write a popular book about mathematics, remember that every equation you put into it halves your readership and sales figures. And so there are countless TV programmes purporting to be about the beauty of mathematics which never get as far as being able to demonstrate that beauty for lack of having the courage to take the reader through the spadework necessary to appreciating it.

It's a bit like trying to build a house while only being allowed to place bricks next to each other, and never on top of other bricks.

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Anonymous said...

That's all well and good as long as professional theologians are willing to concede the "right" to complain about the larger landscape of lay theology.

Anonymous said...

To call Barth 'sloppy' is surely itself rather a lazy and uninformed thing to do!
Personally speaking, I often have to dig very deep indeed to unpack Barth for my own understanding and yet I have yet to ever regret making the effort to do so.
If I am hearing him correctly, his words are more apposite now than even when he first said them. Are we not in danger of giving into the cultural desire to dumb everything down and to only seek a popularist agenda?
I would far rather make the effort, read carefully, prayerfully, thoughtfully and with endeavour in order to understand as profoundly as I can in order to THEN communicate it as simply as I can to others.
Karl Barth has rocked my world theologically and here like in so many other instances his words have resonance and depth...

Martyn J Smith said...

Please indulge me this second post but another thought comes to mind...

I am just setting out on a theology PhD and one of the hardest things that I have had to grapple with is my own use of words.
How is one best to communicate? How am I to remain 'objective' and represent this in my words? How and at what level am I to frame my ideas? Is it possible to be engaging and draw people into one's ideas at this level?

To be honest, I am REALLY struggling with these issues and yet, little by little, I hope that I am making some progress.

One place I studied at years ago said that, "We need to understand profoundly in order to communicate simply..." I still work on that basis...

Adrian said...

This reminds me of a note written by Nietzsche in his Nachlass material:

"To suppose that clarity proves anything about truth is pure childishness."

Anonymous said...

Do this then allow for my rather sesquipedalian tendencies to be properly theological despite whatever discomfiture may be then entailed on the part of my reader? It must, I contend, indeed do so.

Anonymous said...

Barth made many other statements which would seem to stand almost wholly opposed to the sentiments in the quote above, at the very least they would nuance this understanding.

Taken in isolation such a view certainly appears to be elitism dressed up as integrity, self-indulgence dressed up as nobility. At best it is contingent on faithful pastors seeking to discern and translate such theology into each given ministry context to create efficacy. Someone must think of the laity! But, as I don't think it really represents all of Barth, I'm not really that worried!

Mike E

Unknown said...

I'm generally foolish enough to think that theology done without an eye on (i.e., in service of) the church is useless. But this doesn't mean I think theology must always and everywhere be intelligible to the "average" layperson, as Barth mentions above.

Hopefully, it's the helpful stuff that will trickle down, having undergone the refining process among theologians. To be sure, there's danger lurking just around both corners.

RB said...

Why is Barth smoking his pipe through his ear?

Mavis said...

A very refreshing quote that demonstrates welcome respect for the 'laity'. As a non-theologian, I want to be intellectually challenged in worship. Which can only happen when those called to thetheological task take it seriously and do it well.

Unknown said...

It is a tension with which I personally struggle. I am first and foremost a practitioner in the local church and mission. I am then a practitioner who wants to live wisely and well and who appreciates the importance of theological reflection.

But it seems to me that too much theologizing is done for fellow academics and to satisfy that audience which is quite far removed from the local church and its mission. So then I, as a middle man must seek to interpret and contextualize those writings for the laity.

I wonder if the doctrine of Scripture's perspicuity could be borrowed and we could talk about the perspicuity of theology. For otherwise, it seems as if some academic theologians become the new gnostics possessing the secret knowledge reserved for only those brilliant enough to enter that rarified atmosphere of discussion.

So, I think Barth is only partially correct, for theologizing is not only in the service of one's own personal freedom, but must be in the service of church and mission.

By the way, great art...

Martyn J Smith said...

Yes, I loved the art as well - it's now the screen-saver on my phone, work pc and home lap-top. Does this make me a Barth-Geek?

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