Reflections on Teaching Karl Barth to Undergraduates
But first, allow me to set the scene. Lindenwood is a liberal arts school with historic ties to the Presbyterian church but now without a confessional status. I teach in the religion department, which means that all of our instruction is undertaken from a non-confessional standpoint. This means, as I tell my students at the beginning of every new class, that we study religious material without assuming that any one particular viewpoint is correct. Consequently, what the students go away thinking is not my concern; what concerns me is only whether they learn and can handle the material. That said, demographics dictate that the majority of our students have some kind of religious background, and our campus is about evenly split between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Added to the mix is a sprinkling of other religions (I include atheists here), especially amongst the considerable international student contingent. Indeed, I know of at least one Muslim student who was in this Barth class. All this makes for a rather interesting learning environment (IMHO).
The students in my class were primarily non-religion majors, and the students seemed to be about evenly split between generally interested parties and those who were there for various other reasons. My primary text was Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.
So, on to the reflections!
- To begin, I’d like to make a few comments about the primary text that I assigned: Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. I recommended this text as a good place to start with Barth in my oldie-but-goodie post entitled, “So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?” While otherwise genuflecting to my own list, Darren Sumner published a rival guide about 9 months or so ago. In his guide, he even had the unmitigated gall to disparage this text as a starting point. Almost immediately, I vowed that this insanity would not remain unopposed. So, here we are.
Darren explains ET “generally strikes me as more rhetorical, spoken reflections and as less doctrinal in nature.” He is right in this characterization, but wrong in valuation of these two things. In other words, the most interesting thing about Barth is not his dogmatic genius. There are lots of places where one can find dogmatic genius (Origen, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Turretin - to name just a few). What is unique about Barth is what Darren calls his “rhetorical” contribution, or what I might call his existential contribution. That is, what Barth offers in ET (and in his theology as a whole) is an attractive way of conceiving of the theologian’s being-in-the-world. And without this way of being-in-the-world, one does not get Barth’s dogmatic genius. What Darren advocates is for the tail to wag the dog when introducing Barth. When introducing students to Barth, my conviction is that the emphasis must be placed on the altogether strange way (compared to the other ways on offer) that he approaches the task. This is what his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction communicates well, and that is why it is an excellent starting place for studying Barth.
- They can do it! Undergraduates who are not otherwise trained in theological or religious studies are perfectly capable of understanding Barth. This does not mean it is easy for them, but they can do it. It was very gratifying to see as the class went of how the students began to anticipate how he would approach different topics, and how he would answer certain questions. In fact, it might be easier to teach Barth to folks without any background just because they don’t come to it with the baggage of other theological orientations. They don’t need so much unlearning before they can understand what Barth is up to. This is, I think, compelling reason to try and catch people with Barth early on in their theological / religious studies formation rather than spending too much time trying to ensure that they have all the pieces in place to appreciate him more deeply. Instead, throw them into the Barthian pool and let them work out from there.
- Teaching Barth in an intensive short-term has its benefits. The downside is that students don’t have as much time to digest the material, sure. But the immersive experience might just be better for language acquisition. It is sort of like taking those suicide language classes over the summer in grad school. They may not be the best way to learn a language, and they certainly need following up on, but they also have a way of getting you into the language and giving you some functionality. So I threw my students into the deep end on this, and by the second half of the course—after 6 or 7 days, mind—they had started to pick up the language. They would answer questions in class, or go through their presentations, and I would hear Barth speaking. And this ties in with my previous point about getting to people without much background: if they don’t yet have firmly established theological linguistic habits, it is much easier for them to find their way into Barth’s. And I believe that doing the course as a 12-day intensive helped in this regard.
- Finally, I thought it would be worth pointing out some of the things they were most interested in over the course of the class.
First, they really took to the doctrine of election / predestination. We began to bump into this question from various angles already in the first couple of days, but I purposefully put off discussing it until the end of the second weak. By then they were primed and ready, and I gave them a lecture on the history of the doctrine from Augustine to Barth. We had some of our best discussion in the discussion hour after that lecture. It was fun to see them grapple with the new and unusual possibilities for thinking that Barth’s doctrine of election opened up for them.
Second, Barth’s doctrine of scripture was a topic of much discussion. Again, demographics dictated that I had a few folk in class with typical 20th century North American popular Christianity views on the topic. So it was fun to show them how seriously Barth takes scripture (and Jesus, for that matter) while also showing them that he does so in an entirely different way than they are used to.
Third, there was quite a bit of interest in Barth’s biography—not only his personal biography, or an account of his developing views, but his spiritual biography. It was interesting to discuss why that played such a small role in his thought, and the different ways that it did express itself (i.e., politics). This is just another way that Barth defies North American popular Christianity’s expectations.
Fourth and finally, and this was a surprise for me, they really took to Barth’s actualism / dialecticism. It was a challenge for them—they aren’t used to saying Yes and No at the same time—but they also seemed to gravitate to the nuance and dynamism that this gives to Barth’s thinking. They seemed to like Barth’s emphasis on things actually happening and continuing to happen, and the unstable or at least never finished character that this can give to theology.
So, those are my reflections. I’d love to hear from others who have taught Barth in similar contexts…
 Just to be clear, my comments in #2 is thinking about a tendency out there to keep Barth from students until they are seniors or in grad school because of his difficulty level and / or because it is thought that one needs an extensive grasp of the background to understand him. I don't think there is anything wrong with providing servings of this background along the way as one teaches Barth to those earlier in their theological / religious education.