Karl Barth and the Vocation of Wonder

Today, dear friends, marks the 47th anniversary of Karl Barth’s falling asleep in the Lord. He passed peacefully at the age of 82, leaving behind a superhuman body of work and just as enraptured by the majesty of God manifest in Mozart’s oeuvre as ever. I’m so pleased and joyfully surprised to report that Barth’s name carries some weight here at Bethlehem (not all the weight- this isn’t Princeton BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA) where he’s affectionately referred to by many as “Uncle Karl.” So to commemorate Uncle Karl’s promotion to glory, here’s the conclusion of his lecture on the theologian’s professional calling to wonder at God from his end of career volume Evangelical Theology; his capacity to wonder has no doubt increased exponentially:

Uncle Karl in da house!

Uncle Karl in da house!

In one way or another I am obliged to consider the question of the wonder of God. I may perhaps attempt to steal away from the confrontation and preoccupation with this wonder. But I can no longer be released from this confrontation. Theology undoubtedly gives the man who is concerned with it something like a character indelebilis, an indelible quality. Whoever has eyes to see will recognize even at a distance the man who has been afflicted and irreparably wounded by theology and the Word of God. He will be recognizable by a certain earnestness and humor, whether genuine or spurious, real or only pretended. But the process and the way in which it was possible for him to become such a man will always be hidden, even from the theologian himself. This process will remain a deeply wondrous enigma and mystery. I no doubt know and recognize myself quite passably in all my other opinions and inclinations, in all my other real or fancied or desired possibilities. By birth and nature we are indeed all rationalists, empiricists, or romanticists in some sort of mixture, and we have no occasion to be astonished at ourselves in this respect. All that is simply a fact. But I become, am, and remain something unknown, a different person, a stranger, when I am counted worthy to be permitted and required to wonder with respect to the wonder of God. And this is what happens when I become concerned with theology. How could my existence with this permission and demand to wonder ever become an everyday, familiar, and trite fact? How could this attribute of my existence ever become transparent to me?

To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace. This is so, precisely from the viewpoint of the radical and fundamental astonishment in which alone a man can become and be a theologian. While looking only at himself, a man can not recognize himself as a recipient of grace, and consequently he cannot take pleasure and pride in himself. As the recipient of grace, a man can only become active in gratitude. If anyone supposed he could understand himself as such a receiver of grace, he would do better to bid theology farewell and devote himself to some other sort of activity. There he might shut his eyes to the wonder of God (if he can) and would also not need to wonder at himself (if he is able). But perhaps he will find no other activity in which he might effectively and definitively elude theology, the wonder of God, and, consequently, his astonishment at this wonder and at himself.
(Evangelical Theology: An Introduction [Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1963], pp. 72-73)


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