A Favorite Barth Quote

There's a quote from Barth's dogmatics, part of which I might someday stick on a mug or something, but which I find particularly appropriate to my own practice. I don't like the standard English rendering, and the cheap slogan versions do no justice to the fact that this is a section on the divine perfection of joy as an attribute—not, y'know, about simply being happy.
The fact may certainly be emphasized, at this point, that theology as a whole—in its parts and in their correlation, in its content and method, distinct from all other sciences if their tasks are only seen and attacked correctly—is a uniquely beautiful science; one might even say the most beautiful among all the sciences.

It always implies barbarism if someone can find science boring. What extreme barbarism would it take for theology to possibly be boring? There is no reason to be a theologian at all, if one does not yearn joyfully to be one.

Especially in this science, it is impossible to tolerate dour faces, peevish thoughts, and tedious rhetoric. God protect us from what the Catholic Church listed as one of the seven monastic sins, tædium, in the great, spiritual truths with which theology has to do!

But we must indeed know that only God can protect us from it.

–Karl Barth, KD II.1, § 31.3, S. 740
Now, don't mistake this statement. Barth isn't telling you that if you find someone's exposition of theology boring you're a barbarian. Barth isn't demanding that you enjoy your molecular biology textbook, for that matter. This isn't about finding discussion of science boring; it's about (not) being a boring scientist.

(The standard English uses "Philistinism" where Barth says "Barbarei"; I can see why the British translators might have gone for that, but this is far stronger a claim, and not in any way related to residents of Philistia.)

Why should we not do boring theology? Why should we not be peevish, dour, and tedious? What makes that possibility of all sciences particularly inappropriate for this one? Why are we committing "hyper-barbarism" if we subject theology to our own moody and unpleasant dispositions? Why can only God keep us from such sinful tædium?

Simple: God is not boring. God is not grim-faced, irritable, and long-winded. To contemplate the object of theology, to speak about this object to others, and to be so opposite in attitude to God who is in Godself joy? Only the fallen creature can do such a thing! Only the creature that would rather its own self-incurvature, its own joy in self, can morosely contemplate God who is an wholly other joy for us. God is a way out of this, indeed our only way out.

All sciences, Barth posits, have a beauty and a joy in the contemplation of their objects. The pursuit of knowledge is a pleasurable one, or we would not do it. And yeah, there's a touch of "queen of the sciences" here, but theology should be more beautiful, more joyous, more profoundly interesting than even the most interested and joyous contemplation of the beauty of the creature in its detail and complexity. This isn't anything against the other sciences; they should also be done well and joyously, and if you don't find them joyous pursuits you should do something else that you do enjoy. God doesn't call us to boredom; God calls us to interested and engaged struggle. But if we are so to submit to one another in joy and just engagement as creatures, how should we do less in engagement with God?

This is not a command to be obeyed in order to be saved; like all other true commands, it describes a life to be striven for because we are in fact saved, and the tide has in fact been turned for us. The gospel makes this possible, and it is the only thing that does. This is why we preach the gospel—and if you can do that with "dour faces, peevish thoughts, and tedious rhetoric," chances are very good you need to go back and hear some more gospel yourself.


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