A Couple of Thoughts on reading Tietz's Karl Barth biography21 Apr 2021
I’ve just finished reading Christiane Tietz’s biography of Karl Barth Karl Barth: Ein Leben im Widerspruch (English: Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict). I think the critical acclaim surrounding this book is justified - Tietz handles her material confidently, she deftly weaves source work into her narrative, and she strikes the right balance between affection for her subject and critical distance. I wanted to note a couple of things that struck me whilst reading this biography, in no particular order.
I always knew he was politically involved, but I hadn’t quite understood the sheer range of topics he commented on (e.g. DDR, Hungarian communism, nuclear weapons etc). I found this material fascinating. I wasn’t always convinced by Barth’s narratives of self-consistency (e.g. I think his critics maybe had a point when they pointed out that he was more possibly generous towards the post-WWII communist states than he was towards the totalitarianism of Nazism). But it was intriguing to see Barth the public intellectual, wading into the hot subjects of the day.
The material around the Notgemeinschaft between Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Nelly Barth and Karl Barth wasn’t all that new to me, but I still found those sections really physically difficult to read in their intensity. I particularly found Nelly’s lack of power in the constellation distressing. For me this is something I continue to wrestle with, particularly as how to appropriate Barth’s thought whilst also be honest about his shadow side (in the same way that I find it difficult to know what to do with e.g. Yoder or Vanier)
The place of Barth in German language theology
I thought that Tietz’s epilogue on the place of Barth in German speaking theology was fascinating. I loved her appeal for a return to Wort Gottes theology in the German speaking academia and I, like her, am far from convinced by liberalism’s project as cocontinuous with the wider projects of philosophy and culture.
This also resonated with Andrew Root’s reading of Charles Taylor’s work (Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age). Root makes the point that Secular 3 is fundamentally unimpressed with apologetic projects (either of the evangelical type - this truth is rational on scientific and philosophical grounds, so believe it - or liberalism’s culture type - this truth fits into to your wider cultural and philosophical commitments without being too discomforting, so believe it). Within an immanent frame, this kind of project makes no sense - truth claims are radically individualised and you can assent or dissent from them as your personal preference sees fit. In a Secular Age that functionally denies the possibility of transcendence and transcendent truth claims, these apologetic attempts are maybe interesting, but do not demand or drive a decision.
Instead, Root (drawing explicitly on apocalyptic readings of Paul, but with Barth as an invisible conversation partner throughout) argues for a crisis theology of life from death, a radical discontinuity with given possibilities. Such a crisis theology links into Taylor’s idea of ‘echoes of transcendence’, yet these echoes are radically cruciform and discontinuous, in that they enact a crisis that demands a shift of allegiance. If Root is right here (and as a Taylor fan, I suspect he is), then Barth has an important role to play going forward.