A Unique Time of God (Karl Barth) -- Review

A UNIQUE TIME OF GOD: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons. By Karl Barth. Translated and Edited by William Klempa. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

                A century ago the United States entered what was known as the Great War. By the time the United States entered the war, after the sinking of the Lusitania, it had been raging across Europe for three years, and it would continue for another year after the Americans entered the fray. It was a horrific and devastating war, but it was not without its religious cheerleaders. Among those who opposed the war, from the very beginning, was a young Swiss pastor, serving a predominantly German Reformed congregation in a Swiss village. This war contributed greatly to the theological rebirth of that pastor, who would go on to be one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century.

                Karl Barth was only twenty-eight when he preached the thirteen sermons published in English for the first time. The first of the sermons was preached as Austria served up an ultimatum to Serbia, after the assassination of the Austrian crown prince by a Serbian nationalist in the streets of Sarajevo.  That was July 26, 1914. A week later war had begun between those two states and other European nations were about to jump in. Barth offered sermons to a congregation that did not know if Switzerland would get drawn into the impending war. By August 2nd, the Swiss militia had gone to the borders, just in case the war spilled over its borders. So, he offered comfort to concerned family members, even as he counseled against getting up in the spirit of war.  The first of the sermons was preached in July, and the final “war sermon” was delivered on Reformation Sunday.  In these sermons, he warned the people that this would be no ordinary war. It would not end quickly and probably not well.

This collection of sermons was edited and translated by William Klempa, a Canadian Presbyterian minister and theologian. He provides us with a thorough introduction to Barth’s roots and theology that are evidenced in these sermons. We get a sense of Barth’s pastoral vision and is theological perspectives, which underwent significant redevelopment because of the war. He may not have been a consistent pacifist, but he is adamant that war is sinful and unnecessary. And yet, it serves a divine purpose, for it reveals the true state of the nations. Thus, the title of the book: A Unique Time of God. In one sermon, he declares that war reveals what is hidden in both individuals and nations. It reveals what we hide from ourselves during “normal times.” War reveals what we hid under a cloak of civilization, culture, as well as “under the cloak of piety and Christianity.” Yes, war forces humans to be honest: “how much stupefying, passionate hatred we now suddenly see blazing up between the nations, and one wonders what kind of effort responsible state leaders are making to restrain the thousands who are burning to revert to the ferocious, primitive state of humankind, and to settle old scores, after decades of resentment toward long-hated foes” (p. 60).

Barth demonstrates in these sermons an amazing ability to get to the heart of the issues at hand. He notes that neither side in this war can claim that their side is just and the other unjust. Both sides are equally guilty of a lust for power and control that has unleashed a devastating war on the continent. This is, in his mind, a sign of judgment on European Christianity. These are, after all, nations that claim to be Christian (the Ottoman Empire had not yet been drawn into the war). While the national leaders thought this would be quick and easy, Barth seemed to understand that this would be a long and bloody struggle, since no one seemed ready to stand down. In one sermon, he does commend the Pope for denouncing the war, but he also notes that no one was listening. So, the nations stand under judgment, their evil being exposed. Even as he expresses his belief that judgment was at hand during this “unique time of God,” he also held out hope and grace, but first would come judgment.

 William Klempa’s introduction to the book is enlightening, providing a context for the sermons and a detailed analysis of Barth’s own pastoral and theological development. We’re introduced to his Swiss origins and his desire to extend his education by studying in Germany with the leading theologians of his day, eventually studying with Adolph von Harnack (Berlin) and Wilhelm Herrmann (Marburg), two of the leading liberal theologians of his day. The decision of his teachers to sign off on the German war effort contrasted sharply with his commitment to peace. Their nationalism caused him to reevaluate his theological moorings and drove him back to the Bible.  Of course, Barth wasn’t the only young theologian who was affected by the war. Klempa makes note of the impact of the war on Paul Tillich. While Barth served as a pastor in Switzerland, attempting to make sense theologically of his times, Tillich served as an army chaplain. Whereas Barth saw the carnage from afar, Tillich saw the horrors of the war close up. The war made its mark on them, even as they would make a mark on twentieth century theology.

We learn as well about the influence of his father, a Swiss Reformed pastor, who was theologically conservative, but had socialist leanings that were passed on to the son. We learn how Barth was influenced by liberal theologians, but also by the pietist Christoph Blumhardt, whom he encountered during an educational stop at Tübingen. Klempa helps us understand Barth’s theological journey, but also his political leanings. Like Tillich he was a religious socialist, even gaining the title the “Red Parson.” We learn that while at Safenwil, Barth was involved in union organizing (he helped organize three unions). Indeed, Klempa shares with the reader Barth’s deep interest in politics, which led him to be a rather astute political analyst. We see this in the sermons as he critiques the political maneuverings that led to the war.  

What we encounter in this collection of sermons is an expression of what Barth called "irregular dogmatics” or unsystematic theology. To say that they are irregular does not mean they are unimportant, but rather that they represent a theological response to specific contexts. They are practical expressions of theology rather than academic expressions (as one finds in the Church Dogmatics). In these sermons, we find, as Klempa notes, themes such as the "new world of the Bible," the supremacy of the Word of God, and the view that God is wholly other, by which Barth didn't mean that God was remote from us, but that God's ways are not our ways. We see a development of a view of divine judgment as well as the expression of God's love in Jesus. These are themes that will emerge throughout his theological work. Even as these sermons express themes that will mark his theology, the sermons also exhibit his political astuteness. As early as his August 23rd sermon, Barth had discerned that this war was caused by power struggles and deep seated racial and ethnic tensions, which divided Germany from France, as well as England and Russia.

Again, it’s important to note that the Karl Barth we meet in these sermons was decidedly anti-war, who had pacifist leanings. What we find in these sermons (and developed by Klempa) are Barth's pacifist leanings. As Klempa points out "Barth was passionately devoted to the cause of peace" (p. 39).  

I found the sermons theologically rich and provocative. In many ways, what Barth preached in 1914, at the beginning of the war, has resonance today. You can read them and find words that speak to our current situation, where a spirit of war has thrown off the veneer of culture and piety that we claimed for ourselves. In one sermon Barth pointed to Germany’s claim to be the righteous party in the war, and he makes a statement that sounds so much like what we heard after 9-11 from American leaders (and continues to this day):  "They hate us because they envy us, and they envy us because we are strong. But God wills that we be strong, and for this reason God is on our side" (p. 146.)

While I read these sermons with wonder, especially since Barth was so young when he preached them, it is intriguing to note, as Klempa points out, that Barth was not satisfied with the sermons in this collection. He didn't believe they were sufficiently submitted to the Word of God. Whether that is true, this is an amazing collection of sermons that bring theological rigor, a close reading of scripture (despite Barth’s dissatisfaction with the sermons), and a prophetic vision. There is much in these sermons that speak to our own day, especially our tendency to let nationalism and patriotism define our confessions of faith. These are not light sermons. They might not go over well in a typical mainline Protestant service, for as Klempa points out Barth generally went forty to forty-five minutes. In addition, there are few illustrations or stories here as well, though he does speak directly to the situation at hand. Nonetheless, these sermons are accessible. Indeed, these make for a good introduction to Barth’s theology.  

Whether or not we consider ourselves Barthians, this is a book to be read and its message pondered. It is a good reminder that theology is contextual. Barth may have been pushed back to the Bible, but not in a fundamentalist way. He didn't avoid political implications. But, he did wish for the church to own its calling as followers of Jesus, something he discerned was not fully present in European Christianity of his day. Thus, the message has resonance. 


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