Karl Barth Meets the Emerging Church
Note: Below is my fictional account of a meeting between some emerging church pastors and the late Karl Barth. I am not sure why I had to note that it is fictional…but you can never be too safe. All references to actual people are simply supposed to be funny, unless they are supposed to be serious :). Also, I wrote this as a paper for a John Franke class so that is why there is so much brown-nosing to him going on in here.
The setting is a dark historical bar in Germany. This small German town is the site of the first ever International Emergent Gathering. Its evening time and we find ourselves here after a day of compelling sessions where scholar John Franke has just given what will soon become known as “The International Emerging Church Lectures.”
Of course, a group of those attending the emergent gathering have opted for the obligatory cigar and beer outing to the local german pub since the gathering coincides with Octoberfest. As they are joking about how amazing it is that the small church from Feasterville, PA called The Well would be able to have the global impact its had, in walks Karl Barth. Nobody recognizes him at first. But after a few moments someone says, “Doesn’t that dude remind you of Karl Barth?”
Overhearing them talking, Barth turns towards them and introduces himself. Of course, the biggest surprise is that he is supposed to be dead, but no one really asks any questions because they are so in awe of his brilliance. (After all, John Franke just got done proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Barth was, in fact, the greatest theologian of the 20th century to which all the conservative evangelicals in the room finally agreed).
After Karl Barth learns that they are a bunch of “emerging church pastors” he not surprisingly asks, “What is the emerging church?” No one really has any answer but they invite him to sit down and let them buy him a beer.
The conversation that ensues quickly becomes the most blogged about conversation ever. And, it also becomes the most tweeted event of the 21st century. Emerging Church blogger extraordinaire Andrew Jones (aka Tall Skinny Kiwi) blogs that night and he writes a post called: “Eight things Karl Barth said to the emerging church pastors sitting around having good beer in a German pub during the first ever International Emergent Gathering.”
Here is a summary Karl’s thoughts for this group (yes, I just said Karl. He and I are on a first name basis now. We shared a beer after all…there weren’t enough mugs and we had to literally share):
- Keep embracing mystery.
- Keep starting over, again and again and again.
- In all your reconstruction, keep Christ at the center.
- As I go from general to particular in dogmatics, do so in leadership? Sounds like a good idea…
- Why are you smoking cigars, pipes are much better.
- As you reconsider it, please, please don’t stop preaching.
- Guys, I love your black framed glasses
Explanations of these conversation points:
Barth: “Keep embracing mystery.”
One of the things that the emerging church is known for is the love and acceptance of mystery. The modern era of theology is known for the ability to have everything fit into specific boxes and compartments so you could wrap your theology in a nice box with a bow on top to present to someone else. The postmodern philosophy and understanding of knowledge has had a great influence on how the emerging church has embraced mystery and the ability to know truth as concretely as the modern world would like to say one can.
Gibbs and Bolger write, “New forms of churches have restored an atmosphere of mystery and awe…” (22). I believe that Barth would have been happy to embrace this understanding of mystery. John Franke writes, “Barth increasingly believed that to speak of God was to speak of something different, strange and startling. God does not come to us in ways that simply affirm what we already believe and practice as a matter of course, but God comes to us and speaks to us on God’s terms, invading and disrupting what we have known and take for granted by calling into being a new reality that we could not have foreseen or imagined” (31).
In the churches I grew up in the attitude toward scripture was, “It’s clear that it says…” but I believe that emerging churches and Barth himself would feel completely uncomfortable with such a statement that is so simple. Barth understands that as humans we cannot comprehend a wholly other and God.
As Franke quotes from Barth’s work The Word of God, he writes, “As ministers [or theologians] we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.”
Barth: “Keep Starting over again and again and again.”
In the introduction to Brian Mclaren’s book The Church on the Other Side he writes, “If you have a new world you need a new church. We have a new world.” This single quote has gone a long way for the emerging church to continually ask fresh questions about ecclesiology and theology. No longer are the answers that we have been handed down good enough. There is freedom to question and everything is on the table. Nothing is sacred. This can be seen most clearly in the way some Emergent Leaders publicly question dearly held doctrines.
It is clear that many emerging church pastors are willing to take seriously Barth’s idea that we should be constantly starting all over again when it comes to doing dogmatics. Barth writes in CD I.II, “Everything in dogmatics is subject to questioning – except only that the dogmatician does not have to answer his own questions but those arising out of God’s revelation” (820). He writes of the need to continually listen freshly to God’s Word, “But this being the case, its only resource is to seize the weapon of continually listening. But it must listen in such a way that its whole life is put into question. It must listen in a readiness that its whole life should be assailed, convulsed, revolutionized and reshaped” (804).
While I am sure that Barth would not want to part with the necessity and importance of the Trinity for Theology, from these statements it is clear that he would be willing to sit down with Doug and listen freshly to the Word of God in regard to the matter, even if in the end he concluded the opposite.
Barth: “In all your reconstruction, keep Christ at the center.”
It is no secret that emerging churches are excellent at deconstruction. This of course can be attributed to postmodern philosophy and usually the aim of deconstruction is the “modern” culture and modern ways of doing theology and being the church.
In the book, Emerging Churches, Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs point out that, “For some [emergents] this epistemological journey has led to a comprehensive deconstructionism.” Of course the danger with deconstruction is that we never reconstruct anything and that our deconstruction needs to be kingdom centered. Gibbs and Bolger write, “any non-kingdom reconstruction, after the tearing down process, will prove dehumanizing and fruitless” (46).
It is obvious that Barth did a lot of “deconstruction” in his life as he dealt with processing what it meant to be a Christian in his German culture and liberal theology. John Franke writes in his book Barth for Armchair Theologians, “for Barth, the fatal flaw in the liberal approach to theology was its limited ability to speak about God in ways that challenged the assumptions and presuppositions of a particular culture” (30). So, Barth obviously spent much time deconstructing these two things. As he did that, the thing that he kept going back to was the centrality of the scriptures and because of that the centrality of Christ as he did theology.
Ray S. Anderson writes in his book An Emerging Theology for Emerging Churches that some “emerging churches find more certainty in going back to the naïve realism of the New Testament when they claim that it is more about Christ than Christology” (45). He goes on the write that we don’t need a “Jesus only experiential theology, but rather…that the emerging church is about the contemporary presence of the historical Christ” (45).
I believe Barth would have been right on board with this critique as he understood Jesus Christ as central to his theology. Barth writes, “What ever the glory and authority of the Church may be, the glory and authority of Jesus Christ are always His own” (Volume 1.2 p.576). He also writes, “We can know that in the life of the Church, and in deed in its life with the Bible, it is a matter of this decision and act of God or rather of the actualization of the act of God which took place once and for all in Jesus Christ” (531).
From these quotes and countless others we see that in the midst of rethinking theology and dogmatics in his day (especially in opposition with liberalism) Barth kept the centrality of Jesus Christ at the forefront.
Barth: “As I go from general to particular in dogmatics, do so in leadership? That’s an interesting idea…”
In the midst of the conversation between Barth and these emerging pastors, one of them named Rod Thiestand (names have been changed to maintain anonymity) asks a particularly insightful question about Barth’s motif of “particularism” in theology and how that might relate to leadership.
Todd, oh wait, I mean Rod’s thoughts go like this: As Barth talks about the need to avoid the procrustean bed of theology by going from general to particular in theology, perhaps it is best to lead in this way as well. We start from the general in theology so as to not put God in a box that it does not call to be put in. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at leadership in this way as well. Often when leaders in churches are fashioning their church’s mission and vision they start with the particular (end point) and then find the general ways that they can get the people in their community to “buy-into” this vision and get them to mold and bend so that they will help make it come about. Perhaps a better way to approach leadership is from a general to particular approach. This would mean starting with the general gifting of the people in the community and from there fashioning and forming a particular mission statement that fits the ethos of the community rather than making people’s gifts fit into the “procrustean” mission and vision that the leader conjured up in their office or on a retreat somewhere. Alan Roxburgh has championed this form of leadership as he often talks about how the Spirit of God is at work amongst the people of God. His point is that leaders need to be listening to the gifting and passions of the congregations instead of just forcing the vision of one person on them.
I get the feeling Barth’s Particularism motif would fit well with this form of leadership.
Barth: “Why are you smoking cigars? Pipes are much better?”
Its been well known that emergent gatherings are usually accompanied by cigar smoke and good beer. Of course, it is also well documented that Karl Barth was a fan of the pipe (As seen in the image) and there was some friendly banter back and forth about how pipes are much cleaner, smell better and are higher class than cigars.
Of course, Barth likely would have been proud that the emergent pastors sitting around his table were excited about the opportunity to drink some good German beer. He would also be relieved to know that they refrained from the “cheap beer” in the states and were generally known as beer snobs.
Barth: “I hear you are reconsidering and rethinking preaching. To that I say ‘Okay, but please don’t stop preaching’.”
Many emerging-type pastors and thinkers are having some fresh discussions and asking fresh questions about preaching. Doug Pagitt’s book Preaching Re-imagined is perhaps the most well known publication about this topic. In his book The Great Giveaway, David Fitch addresses the topic of “The Myth of Expository Preaching: Why We Must Do More than Wear Scrolls on Our Foreheads.”
In this chapter, Fitch deconstructs some Evangelical views of preaching that I believe Barth would be right in line with. For example Fitch writes, “For serious folk, expository preaching means securing the Word. Often then, expository preaching cannot help but become the means to control the power associated with the authority of the Scripture for evangelical preachers and pastor-leaders” (Fitch, 128).
He also writes, “These unspoken assumptions [with expository preaching] allow the everyday parishioner to assume that through the expository method, Scripture remains in control of the preaching” (Fitch, 131). Basically, the effort is to get at the “real meaning” of the text that is true for all times and places.
I believe that Barth would have some of the same questions that Fitch is writing about in this chapter. In fact, he writes in paragraph 22 of the Church Dogmatics, “All the poverty and helplessness and confusion and impotence of Church proclamation to ourselves and others, as we think we see it in our own age and in every age; the whole sea of impure doctrine in which the Word of God seems formally to be drowned in the Church’s proclamation ; everything which might cause us to doubt the truth of the identification as we see the actual state and course of things in the Church : all these things are a reminder that this victory is not achieved self-evidently ; that it can be only a divine victory, a miracle.” (Barth, 751)
It seems clear that Barth would be very, very uncomfortable with any kind of statement that would make someone think that they could “control” the text and grasp it in a way that could be used for all times and places. As we see in this section he makes it very clear that we cannot understand the scriptures unless it is a miracle that allows us to do so.
Also, William Willimon points out that there is no pre-fabbed preaching template that Barth would have for preaching. Willimon writes, “The form of the sermon ought to be cognizant of and faithful to the form of the biblical text. There is not some previous, predetermined rhetorical pattern or form that fits all biblical texts…there is no prefabricated template for biblical preaching.”
In the midst of Barth’s encouragement for us to rethink that act of preaching in the local church, I wonder if Barth would be a little uneasy with the emerging tendency to want to throw out preaching all together. While this is not a held view by the authors in the movement, some of the ground level pastors and practitioners have espoused this as a possibility, I have heard this expressed personally in my interactions at some conferences.
If this topic were to come up at the table with Barth, I think he would choke on his beer. His statement in the Church Dogmatics says it loud and clear that he believes preaching is vastly important. He writes, “This is the critical point in the doctrine of the word of God. It is the starting point and ending point: The Word of God and the Preaching of the church.” (743)
There is no mistake that Barth put this section on preaching in the paragraph he titled “The Mission of the Church.” I think if he were to hear any talk about preaching no longer being necessary he would fight that hard and make sure that preaching stayed as a main focus of the Church.
Barth: “Guys! I love your blacked framed glasses!”
It seems that Barth, a big fan of the black plastic framed glasses, would find the fact that emergent types sitting around his table were bringing back his “retro” specs.