I am a great admirer of the work of Karl Barth. I engaged with him extensively in my coursework, and one of my exam areas dealt with him (in connection with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer). I find him to be one of the most consistently creative and surprising theologians in the history of Christianity.
And yet I have often detected certain predictable negative effects that Barth has on his followers. Namely, a certain rhetorical pattern has repeated itself in conversations with Barthians too many times to be a coincidence:
- State something that sounds more or less like a familiar Christian doctrine, albeit in more poetic and emphatic form.
- Claim that Barth’s articulation of this Christian doctrine differs in a subtle and yet crucial way from the familiar account, such that no standard critiques apply to Barth’s version.
- If someone asks for clarification of the difference, do one or both of the following:
- Claim that explaining the difference would be such a Herculean task that it would be foolish even to begin to attempt such a thing in a conversational setting.
- Claim that the interlocutor’s presuppositions make it impossible for them to recognize and appreciate Barth’s nuanced wonderfulness.
In short, Barth seems to give some theologians the license to make Christian faith claims while absolving themselves of the duty to answer any critics — or indeed, any questions or requests for explanation.
UPDATE: A Barthian responds! Executive summary: “I know you are, but what am I?”