Karl Barth on doing theology in the university

Karl Barth - SketchI’ve been re-reading some early lectures by Karl Barth from the period 1916–1923, published as The Word of God and the Word of Man. It really is an inspiring collection, the reading of which is of great encouragement to pastors and theological educators alike, recalling that our unique task is none other than to bear witness to the Word of God unveiled for us in Jesus Christ. When the demands of church and academy pull and prod us in all directions – directions determined, Barth insists, by the very question of being human – Barth graciously recalls our calling as witnesses to the given answer – the one Word of God. This witness alone is the love that we owe to God and to God’s people. And this is no less true for those called to serve in the academy, to which Barth offers the following reminder:

Theology is an omen, a sign that all is not well, even in the universitas literarum. There is an academic need which in the last analysis, as might be inferred, is the same as the general human need we have already described. Genuine science is confessedly uncertain of itself – uncertain not simply of this point or that, but of its fundamental and ultimate presupposition. Every science knows well that there is a minus sign in front of its parenthesis; and the hushed voice with which that sign is ordinarily spoken of betrays the secret that it is the nail from which the whole science hangs; it is the question mark that must be added to the otherwise structurally perfect logic. If this question mark is really the ultimate fact of each of the sciences, it is evident that the so-called academic cosmos is an eddy of scattered leaves whirling over a bottomless pit. And a question mark is actually the ultimate fact of each of the sciences.

So the university has a bad conscience, or an anxious one, and tolerates theology within its walls; and though it may be somewhat vexed at the want of reserve shown by the theologians when they deliberately ask about a matter that cannot with propriety be mentioned, yet, if I am not mistaken, it is secretly glad that some one is willing to be so unscientific as to talk aloud and distinctly about the undemonstrable central Fact upon which all other facts depend – and so to suggest that the whole academic system may have a meaning. Whatever the individual opinion of this or that non-theological doctrinaire may be, there is a general expectation that the religious teacher will give an answer to what for the others takes the shape of a question mark in the background of their secret thought. He is believed to be doing his duty (let him beware of doing it too well!) when he represents as a possibility what the others have known only as an impossibility or a concept of limitation. He is expected not to whisper and mumble about God, but to speak of him: not merely to hint of him, but to know him and witness to him; not to leave him somewhere in the background, but to disregard the universal method of science and place him in the foreground. (pp. 192–3)

Barth then proceeds to recall theology’s ‘position’ within the university’s program, and to draw out some implications for, so-called, ‘religious studies’ departments:

It is obvious that theology does not owe its position at the university to any arbitrary cause. It is there in response to a need and is therefore justified in being there. The other faculties may be there for a similar reason, but theology is forever different from them, in that its need is apparently never to be met. This marks its similarity to the church. It is the paradoxical but undeniable truth that as a science like other sciences theology has no right to its place; for it becomes then a wholly unnecessary duplication of disciplines belonging to the other faculties. Only when a theological faculty undertakes to say, or at least points out the need for saying, what the others rebus sic stantibus [things thus standing] dare not say, or dare not say out loud, only when it keeps reminding them that a chaos, though wonderful, is not therefore a cosmos, only when it is a question mark and an exclamation point on the farthest rim of scientific possibility – or rather, in contradistinction to the philosophical faculty, beyond the farthest rim – only then is there a reason for it.

A faculty in the science of religion has no reason for existence whatsoever; for though it is true that knowledge of religious phenomena is indispensable to the historian, the psychologist, and the philosopher, it is also true that these scholars are all capable of acquiring and applying this knowledge themselves, without theological assistance. Or is the so-called ‘religious insight’ the property only of that rare historian or psychologist who is also a theologian? Is the secular scientist incapable of studying the documents of religion with the same love and the same wisdom? Palpably not.

If then we say that theology is the science of religion, we deprive it of its right to a place at the university. Religion may be taught as well as anything else – but then it must be called into question as well as anything else. To be sure, it is both necessary and possible to know something about religion, but when I study it as something that may be learned, I confess thereby to having the same need above and beyond it as I have above and beyond any science – above and beyond the study of beetles, for instance. New and remarkable and highly intriguing questions about it may keep me busy, but they are questions like all other questions, questions which point on to an ultimate and unanswered question. They are not the question which is also the ultimate answer. They are not the question by virtue of which theology, once the mother of the whole university, still stands unique and first among the faculties, though with her head perhaps a little bowed. (pp. 193–5)

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