Monday 1 April 2013

Notes on a manuscript discovery: Karl Barth's rough outlines for Church Dogmatics, Volume V

If you move in Barthian circles, you've probably heard by now about the rumored discovery a few weeks ago at the Barth-Archiv in Basel. While examining some of Barth's handwritten lecture notes from the 1960s, a Hungarian doctoral researcher claimed to have discovered a series of handwritten outlines for the fifth volume of Barth's Church Dogmatics – the unwritten final volume on eschatology (die Lehre von der Erlösung) that had formed part of Barth's original plan, though he died before completing even the fourth volume. Towards the end of his life Barth was often asked about the last volume of his Dogmatics, but he refused to speculate about it. It has always been believed that he never committed any thoughts to paper about this projected volume. But the Hungarian researcher identified a sequence of notes that look like a series of alternative plans for Volume V. The notes are interspersed haphazardly through an exercise book containing jottings for two public lectures that Barth delivered in 1968, the last year of his life.

When I heard about this manuscript discovery a couple of weeks ago, I was sceptical. Since then, I've exchanged a long string emails with the director of the Barth-Archiv, who has been busily studying the sequence of notes, trying to decipher Barth's (notoriously illegible) handwriting and to piece together the various fragments of notes. In the latest communication from him (which I received about an hour ago), he confirmed that he believes these are indeed a series of short sketches for a final volume of Church Dogmatics. It is hoped that a simple transcription of Barth's notes will be published later this year in the Basel journal, Theologische Zeitschrift, so that scholars can have access to the material as soon as possible.

In the mean time, I have been given permission to say a few things here about these handwritten notes. Please understand that what I will supply here are only provisional summaries; I have received these details by email from the director of the Barth-Archiv as he has been working through the material. I haven't seen this material at first hand, and I've been asked to emphasise the difficulty and ambiguity of some of Barth's notes, not only on account of Barth's handwriting and the damage to some parts of the manuscript (see below), but also because of the way these notes are freely interspersed throughout the exercise book, more or less seamlessly interwoven with other notes that Barth was preparing for the two public lectures. (Luckily we have the full text of these two lectures, which has made it possible to distinguish the notes associated with the lectures from this other layer of material.)

Keeping all that in mind, here are some of the general details as I have received them. Barth appears to have sketched out several different possible approaches to the doctrine of redemption, as follows:
(1) In one approach, he proposes revisiting each previous doctrine from the Dogmatics in reverse order, showing how the conceptual architecture of each doctrine is broken open – and ultimately reorganised – when it is reinterpreted as part of a theology of the Holy Spirit. After working back through reconciliation (volume IV), creation (volume III), election (volume II), and revelation (volume I), the Dogmatics would end where it began: in the doctrine of the Trinity – not, this time, as a doctrine of revelation, but as a doctrine of final redemption.

(2) In another approach, Barth loosely structures the doctrine around the Old Testament canon, with doctrinal sections corresponding to Law, Prophets, and Writings. Most of his notes concentrate on the second category; what he seems to have in mind is a schema in which the whole Bible (and the whole of dogmatics) is permeated by a prophetic dimension. In what looks like a programmatic statement, he writes: "Dogmatics in whole, and not just in part, is prophecy. The Spirit of which it partakes is always and everywhere a Spirit of prophecy."

(3) In another approach, Barth sketches out three eschatological temptations, modelled on the three temptations of Jesus in Luke's Gospel: his headings are "Turning Stones to Bread"; "Power and Glory"; and "The Pinnacle of the Temple". He notes how in each instance Jesus resists and disarms the temptation of eschatological triumph. This is followed by notes on what might be called an eschatology of the cross (my phrase, not Barth's).

(4) In yet another approach, Barth has some brief (still undeciphered) notes under six paired categories: God and the angels; the angels and man; man and the demons; the demons and nothingness; nothingness and creation; creation and God. On the page he has drawn a circle, tracing a line of thought that begins and ends at the same place (i.e., God). Barth notes that the doctrine of redemption has to be understood as a doctrine of God the Redeemer, not of redemption viewed in abstract terms. Beneath this, he has added a curious gnomic comment: "Apokatastasis: untie the knot!"

(5) In one part of the book, Barth seems to have been making notes on several of Mozart's operas. It appears that he was trying (seriously? or in jest?) to derive a principle of doctrinal categorisation from the operas. These notes have covered two sides of a page in the exercise book; however, the page is badly water damaged, and only the first two lines, together with a few words and phrases here and there, remain visible.

(6) Elsewhere, Barth  considers organising his doctrine around four main sections, each corresponding to one of the letters of the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God. There are some comments here that seem to relate to Kabbalah. There is a passage that looks like an experiment in automatic writing. Barth's notes here seem confused, and he does not develop this plan in any clear direction. But what he seems to have in mind is eschatology as an utterance of God's name in which ("nevertheless – or precisely thereby!") God remains hidden, veiled in the very act of God's final unveiling. There is a cryptic comment in this connection too: "Rapprochement with v. Balthasar. Mysticism!"

It must be emphasised again that these approaches to the doctrine of redemption are not always clearly delineated. The notes for one approach sometimes blend imperceptibly into the next. Barth drops a line of thought and then picks it up again later in the exercise book. Most importantly, it is not clear whether these notes were envisaged as distinct possibilities, or – as I have begun to hypothesise – the various dimensions of a wider picture.

But what is that wider picture? Under what imaginable circumstances could these wildly different theological arrangements all fit together? And what does it mean for our reading of the Church Dogmatics – that majestic bastion of theological rationality – if its author was, in his last days, looking for a way to transform the whole elaborate edifice into a gesture of mysticism?

Update: I hope you enjoyed the rest of your April Fools' Day too!

1 Comment:

myleswerntz said...

(Points to calendar).

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