Barth in Conversation

Volume 2, 1963

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Editor(s): 
Eberhard Busch
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , December
     2018.
     350 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780664264017.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The second volume of Barth in Conversation sets out to further elucidate the man who was once called the only “Church Father” of the 20th century. Much like in the first volume, editor Eberhard Busch pulls together several conversations Karl Barth had in 1963 to demonstrate some of the more practical, ethical, and pastoral concerns of his theology. This volume takes a distinctive turn from the themes and interests of the previous volume. From the collected works of Barth (his Gesamtausgabe) comes Busch’s compilation of Barth’s conversations, interviews, and lectures that draw special attention to his political engagement, ecumenicism, and perception of his own legacy. Much like the previous volume, however, Barth’s sharp wit and humor shine brightly as ever, even in his old age.

In the wake of World War II, the fear of communism guided many churches in the West to a fear of the East. Political opinions became polarized, such that to oppose nuclear armament in the name of neutrality was to be a communist sympathizer. Such fear led to a rejection of Barth’s proposed successor, Helmut Gollwitzer. Gollwitzer was to succeed Barth’s position at the University of Basel until a newspaper campaign characterized him as a communist sympathizer for his opposition to Swiss neutrality and nuclear armament. Barth brings up this example in several interviews to demonstrate a broader problem with Christian political engagement.

While these are certainly political issues on the surface, Barth in several instances quickly turns this toward the ecclesial and social relations between the East and West. The politicization of these issues, in Barth’s opinion, led to the cessation of free discourse about nuclear weapons, Swiss neutrality, and East-West relations (4-5).

In juxtaposition to this state of affairs in Switzerland, Barth offers several places where this political gridlock does not occur so frequently. The American Protestants, though bearing their own issues in Barth’s mind, are more open to free discussion of the issues from the biblical perspective. Roman Catholicism, as well, offers a more open approach to discussions with the East. Such openness to discussion represents true Christian unity to Barth’s mind. He often encourages his interviewer or those sitting in his lectures to take these examples to mind as a pathway forward for the Church in Switzerland to heal.

This true unity of the Church is perhaps the greatest crimson thread of the collection, tying together not only the whole of the volume, but also tying this to the initial volume of the series and to Barth’s dogmatic work. Throughout the conversational entries of the volume, the classic Barth is well represented. Christology, the Gospel, and the task of theology continue to be his mantra while he eschews all a priori impositions upon the message of the Church. However, these significant themes of Barth’s dogmatic work are here brought into the daily life of the Swiss churchman and his fellow Christians as we get to hear Barth engage with the political and societal a priori of his time. Where these social impositions would encourage division, Barth encourages a uniquely Christian unity, specifically between the East and West, at a time when such a position would not be popular. True Christian unity was clearly on Barth’s mind in 1963.

What the editor has produced is a peek into the ethical thought of one of Church history’s deepest thinkers. The conversations offered both ring true with Barth’s thought as it is given in his dogmatic works and enlightens the reader to a whole new realm of his ponderings. The perspective given here is important to anyone who wishes to comprehend Barth’s complex and expansive thought.

The translation work is encouraging. For a long time scholars have debated the merits of the original translations from the German to English. While some have argued for a completely new translation of Barth’s works, such as Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark, 1969), others have defended the initial translations as more faithful to Barth’s thought as a whole. This translation of Barth’s conversations, as noted in the “Translators’ Foreword,” is respectful of both the preceding tradition of Barth translation and the conversational nature of these texts, while looking to develop the translation accuracy of a thinker who is difficult to understand even in his own language. The leadership of the translation team by native German speakers and the wide knowledge base of Barth scholarship have ensured that both sides of the translation debate have been answered.

What is offered to the reader in this book is a glimpse at Barth’s engagement with everyday issues. He is more approachable here than in his multi-volume Church Dogmatics. These conversations with Barth are useful to a select audience of Barth readers. As with the first volume, this is not a very good introduction to Barth’s thought, and some amount of his theology must be understood beforehand to appreciate most of these conversations for their place in the collection. Newer readers of Barth will likely miss the goal of this book as a result.

However, this collection is not new to German-reading Barth scholars, who have had the Gesamtausgabe and the original Gespräche, 1963 easily accessible since 2005.  Between these two groups are those who study Barth with great appreciation, though they may prefer his English translations or do not have the German language skills to read him in his original language. This is a surprisingly large group within the English-speaking world of theologians. To these, Barth in Conversation is an excellent expansion on Barth’s already established thought, peering into some nuances that do not always get the attention they deserve in the Dogmatics. Here, more vividly than elsewhere, do we have the ecumenical Barth, the Barth who lived with the particular troubles of 1963 Switzerland, and the Barth who cracked jokes with his interviewers and students alike. This collection shows a very human Barth, with whom we may share in the struggles of Christian unity and polarized politics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Drew Thomas Everhart is a PhD candidate at the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology, University of St. Andrews.

 

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eberhard Busch is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Göttingen.

Keywords: 

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