Karl Barth and Theological Joy

Karl Barth and Theological Joy

Karl Barth and Theological JoyFr Oliver Keenan OP speaks of his role in creating the English edition of the works of one of the most influential modern theologians

On the night of his death, a little over fifty-years ago, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth was writing the lecture that was to be his last. His final, unfinished, sentence hangs in the air: ‘God is not the God of the dead, but of the living…’. It was a deceptively simple end to a theological career that Pope Pius XII reportedly called the greatest since St Thomas Aquinas.

50 Years On

It seems fitting that the academic year that marks both the 50th anniversary of Barth’s death and the centenary of the publication of his first book should yield signs of new ventures in Barth studies. In late 2018, the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (of which I am a Translation Fellow) was awarded an exciting $300k grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, securing the translation into English of three volumes of Barth’s ‘Lectures and Shorter Works’ from the years 1905–1921. Such awards are rare in theology, and indicative of the importance of Barth’s work. That an English Dominican should have a role in its realisation is an equally delightful surprise!

A team of around twenty theologians from across the world is working on the translation, with professional experience that ranges from recent doctoral graduates to experienced and distinguished scholars (some of whom studied with Barth himself). Most of the Fellows are in full-time academic or ecclesiastical employment, and so fit the translation work around their professional commitments.

Refining the Approach

Over several years, the group has honed its own unique approach, bringing a high-level of collaborative scrutiny to bear on translations, so as to maximise efficiency while ensuring that only translations of the highest quality are published. The brunt of the translation work is, naturally, done alone, but twice a year the Fellows meet in Princeton to review their work and discuss the ­project’s evolution. During the seminar, each translator is assigned an hour in which to present their prepared translations to the group, inviting scrutiny and raising questions (sometimes conceptual, oftentimes historical or linguistic). After this detailed examination, the translator refines his or her work, which is then submitted to editorial review in both languages, before being submitted to the publishers. The process can, of course, be a little ascetic… our meetings are intense, and sometimes challenging, but they are also a source of much valued dialogue, professional collegiality and theologically-inspired friendship.

A Curate’s Egg 

The material in the volumes is rather mixed. I have translated material that ranges from the extremely interesting (the young Barth on Christ’s descent into hell, and an essay on the stigmata of St Francis) to the curate’s egg (Barth’s cringeworthy forays into student politics) and even rather surreal (a classic Barthian rant about Genevan Casino culture). Nonetheless, the material is conceptually rich and theologically stimulating, and has the merit of presenting Barth’s theological development in its intriguing historical context. Aside from being a rich source of theological stimulation, the process of translation is also personally formative: I am often struck by the kindness and selfless generosity of my colleagues in their commitment to stewarding these intellectual resources to a wider audience.

Barth and Catholicism 

For all the group’s diversity, there is one way in which I stand out. I am the only Catholic. Barth was, after all, noted in his own day as the foremost theological critic of Catholicism. Nonetheless, sympathetic Catholic engagement with Barth is nothing new (and Barth himself welcomed it). Barth’s influence over Catholic theology has been well-documented (even if the value of that impact is disputed), and he enjoyed friendships with many Catholic theologians throughout his scholarly life—not least with Fr Erich Przywara SJ, with Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote one of the most discussed volumes on Barth’s thought, and with the Belgian Dominican Fr (later Cardinal) Jérôme Hamer. Barth’s significance to the history of theological ideas simply cannot be avoided. Barth was what Foucault termed a ‘founder of discursivity’: for all his claims to the contrary (and his lifelong disavowal of ‘Barthianism’), Barth’s work configured a new theological discourse; consequently, any contemporary theology that ignores its penetrating critiques risks immediate obsolescence.

Dominicans, however, might find an affinity with Barth that is deeper than the differences. Barth regarded the first-commandment prohibition against idolatry as the axiom of the theological task. Theology is concerned, for Barth, to systematically refuse to proclaim anything less than the triune God who has definitively given himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Barth spent his entire theological career reflecting again and again on the impossible possibility of the preacher’s vocation, the miracle in which our human words are raised to speak of the living God. So, theology was, for Barth, inevitably characterised by joy… and we of the Translators’ Seminar — and of the Order! — are glad to share it.

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