Conversational Theology: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Barth
by George Hunsinger
During the last decade of his life (1959-1968), right up to the time of his death at age 82, Karl Barth took part in an astonishing number of recorded conversations and interviews. Collected transcripts now filling two large volumes in the Gesamtasugabe combine to form a total of more than 1000 pages. The second of the two collections, Gespräche 1964-1968, ed. Eberhard Busch (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1997), will be discussed in this essay.
Although the conversations add little to our knowledge of Barth's theology in its basic contours, they are fascinating for at least two reasons. First, they allow us to see Barth in action. We see him, for example, as a careful listener who first makes sure that he understands the question before launching into an answer. We also see him as a stickler for precision who thoughtfully explains why he doesn't like certain words like realistisch, or protestantisch, or Toleranz. We see him joking with an apparent twinkle in his eye, or retorting with critical relish. Perhaps most unexpectedly, we see him as someone who has committed vast amounts to memory. Not only are apt lines of poetry or literature spontaneously quoted — Goethe, Schiller, Fontane — but also (to students from Tübingen) a hefty block of material straight from the Greek New Testament, not to mention a regular sprinkling of verses from hymns and songs. Details like these convey a vivid sense of Barth's humanity.
The conversations are also invaluable, because they allow Barth to present his ideas in accessible form. Labyrinthine sentences, dialectical to and fro, extensive thematic development — all hallmarks of the Church Dogmatics — are necessarily at a minimum. Barth simply explains his views in ordinary language. The result is reminiscent of Luther's "table-talk." What we get is something readers of Barth's weighty tomes might otherwise think scarcely imaginable — conversational theology.
An attempt will be made to survey these conversations in a way that is reasonably comprehensive. Three headings will be used to collect ideas scattered throughout the interviews:
ecumenical theology, doctrinal theology, and political theology. Although Barth addressed a wide variety of audiences — students, professors, clergy, lay people, the general radio-listening or television-watching public — little attempt will be made to keep track of them. For the sake of simplicity, we will focus on Barth's expressed views.
When these conversations took place, excitement was in the air about the Second Vatican Council, which was nearing or had reached its conclusion. Perhaps as much as 20% of this volume concerns how Barth sees breaking developments within Roman Catholicism. At the same time other ecumenical dialogue partners also come into view, most notably conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants, and Jews.
Barth had always understood himself as an ecumenical theologian. "I might claim in all modesty that my Church Dogmatics is neither a Lutheran nor a Reformed dogmatics. Although I shouldn't speak with my mouth too full, I actually wrote it as an ecumenical dogmatics" (p. 14). He believed that internal unity had to occur within the major church bodies before a larger unity would be possible. "First unity has to come about for Protestants among themselves. Then in the Catholic church the conservatives and the progressives will have to unite. And only then will we be able to get any further" (p. 185). Besetting temptations of ecumenical dialogue — evasion, equivocation, compromise and the like — would bring no real progress. Confessional differences had to be faced openly and honestly. "It is . . . essential to acknowledge the differences. Only when the differences are seen and overcome will a true spiritual unity become possible" (p. 199). Above all, ecumenical progress would depend on a fresh recovery of the Word. "What we really need to have is preaching — I'm talking about the Word — yes, the Word of God, not on a paar with some sort of dogma, but the Word of God's free grace, for you and for me, for us all and for the whole world. That's what the ecumenical movement should be doing" (p. 217). To overcome historic divisions in the church, Barth placed his hopes primarily on the freedom of God's Word in proclamation.
Indeed, what Barth found most interesting about Vatican II was not its turn to the world, but its turn to the Word. "For me the most interesting thing about the Council wasn't that it opened itself up more fully to the world and to the other churches than until now. No, the really interesting thing was undoubtedly that the Council turned the church toward the Word, toward the Word of the Gospel" (p. 216). Full of untold promise, the renewed Catholic emphasis on the Word posed a healthy challenge to the Protestant churches. "I often actually sense in Catholicism," Barth said pointedly, "a stronger Christian life than in the Protestant churches" (p. 199: cf. p. 353).
It occurs to me as something worth pondering that it could suddenly take place that the first will be last and the last first, that suddenly from Rome the doctrine of justification by faith alone will be proclaimed more purely than in most Protestant churches. (p. 100)
One might well ask from time to time whether today the Catholics are not more in tune with the Reformation than we are. . . . In any case it gives us something to think about that today one can already converse with many Catholics with far greater understanding than with certain Protestants. (p. 415)
In particular Barth enumerated five points that gave promise of an "astonishing renewal" in Roman Catholicism after Vatican II.
1. The Bible has taken center stage and is recognized as the witness to revelation.
2. Bound up with that is a concentration on Jesus Christ.
3. The church is now understood essentially as the people of God.
4. The genuine function of worship — with preaching and the eucharist as its two poles — has again been placed on the lampstand.
5. A necessary and proper opening of the church to the other confessions, to the religions and to the world has taken place at the Council. (p. 324)
Barth's new irenicism went so far that he even regularly retracted his earlier famous or infamous remark about the analogia entis as the invention of the Antichrist (pp. 17, 88-91, 142-44, 484-86). "It is now no longer necessary to discuss this theory," he noted. "We are in unity about what can be meant by it" (p. 337).
Barth was not unaware, of course, that historic stumbling blocks still remained. The question of papal infallibility continued to be what it had always been, a "great offence" (p. 105). The enormous role played by Mariology, in which Mary's significance almost reached that of Jesus, was also a "great specific difficulty" (p. 193; cf p. 102). While the Pope and Mary clearly posed the greatest problems, others could not be ignored. Among them, Barth specifically mentioned the idea of the Roman Catholic Church as the Incarnation's prolongation, the church's overly juridical character, and above all its displacement of proclamation by the sacraments (p. 192). "In Catholicism everything revolves a little too much around the sacrament" (p. 192). Despite these predictable worries, however, Barth's attitude toward the Catholic renewal remained upbeat and hopeful overall.
Conservative Protestantism, though much less prominent, also received occasional notice from Barth, particularly with reference to the "No Other Gospel" movement of the day. Against this tendency, Barth was critical, urging that it was not enough merely to say the right thing — "the crucified and risen Savior! the entire Scriptures! the whole confession!" (p. 212). On the contrary, one had to say the right thing in the right way. Doctrine and ethics must not be separated, he insisted, especially when it came to grave social evils.
It is not enough only to say, "Jesus is risen," but then to remain silent about the Vietnam War. . . . Don't misunderstand me. I haven't side-stepped your direct question about whether Jesus is bodily risen. I said Yes to that. But now everything depends on how that Yes gets said.(p. 408).
Ethics without doctrine, for Barth, was nothing, but doctrine without ethics was worse than nothing, serving to undercut the very truth it upheld.
At the same time, the Catholic renewal had made it all the more imperative for Protestants to return to their own sources. "We have to discover Luther and Calvin anew," said Barth, "without becoming their prisoners" (p. 199). Taken together, Luther and Calvin represented mutually complementary emphases of abiding theological significance.
Luther and Calvin are constantly concerned about two great themes at heart. Luther teaches the freedom of the Christian as someone who believes in God's Word. Calvin teaches the majesty of God, who gives the gift of faith and obedience. These are the two poles, so to speak, of the Reformation. Luther is more oriented toward humanity, and Calvin more toward God. (p. 193)
Scripture and confession would remain little more than formal principles unless Protestants could learn once again what Luther and Calvin both knew: that the gospel is not something the church can ever control or possess, but that it confronts the church — both preacher and congregation alike — as something ever new (p. 213).
Conservative evangelical theology and modern liberal theology were, Barth proposed, really siblings under the skin. Each in its own way represented a regression to the errors of the 19th century. Having both of them in view, he remarked: "I find it lamentable that in the church's theology and preaching, a relapse to the 19th century is everywhere evident" (p. 212). In particular, he noted that the theological left was really less progressive than it supposed.
It isn't just a matter of the Bultmann school. I view the whole Bultmann school as a reversion to questions from the 19th century long since left behind. Schleiermacher and Feuerbach are also again in the air. At the time of the "Strauss affair" in Germany, people also spoke in this way. And now these good people suppose — I mean those on the "left" — that they are producing something highly modern, but in essence it's nothing new. Only they don't know it. They haven't adequately studied the history of theology. Otherwise they wouldn't act as though a new era had dawned with their existentialism. It's the same old stuff in a new form. (p. 212)
Neither the left nor the right could adequately proclaim the gospel, because neither knew how to uphold contemporary relevance and doctrinal substance at the same time. Just as the left wanted relevance without substance, so the right wanted substance without relevance — the impasse of the 19th century. "These two extremes," said Barth, ". . . are for me a thing of the past. On both sides one must go forward instead of always moving backwards" (p. 213; cf. p. 423).
Several interesting passages offer insight into Barth's attitude toward Judaism and Jews. As we now realize from Eberhard Busch's massive research, during the Hitler period Barth was far more actively engaged on behalf of the Jews than was previously known. When asked about Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy, in which Pope Pius XII is censured for failing to help the Jews, Barth replied that he had been so taken by seeing the play that he then arranged to meet the author personally. He hoped a similar play would be written about the failures of the Swiss. "Because in this area we didn't do any better than the Vatican, and we bear our share of responsibility. Hence, no arrogance on our side!" (p. 201). The so-called Jewish question, he suggested, was much more nearly a question about Christians. "Today it is above all important that we grasp this: that we all stem from the Jews. Christ was a Jew and so were all the people who wrote the New Testament" (p. 207). A church that turns against the Jews can only make itself impossible, for by that very token it has turned against God.
The experience of the Jewish people with God, Barth believed, was of great importance for the entire world. "In the Jews we have before us right down to the present day a living Bible, so to speak, in a certain form; but in any case there they are. They can't be wiped out, just as the Bible can't be wiped out" (p. 208). Barth opposed efforts to missionize the Jews, because it was a mistake to suppose that Jews needed to be "converted." Just as Jesus stemmed from the Jewish people, so the Jewish people were, whether they acknowledged it yet or not, "the people of Jesus" (p. 208). Barth therefore did not, as has today become increasingly fashionable, attempt to place Judaism and Christianity on common ground by muffling christology while amplifying eschatology. He would not emphasize common hope at the expense of christological disagreement. "The Christian is not someone who looks only into the future for a Messiah who has yet to come. On the contrary, the Christian also looks back first to the Messiah who has already come. Then — only on that basis, but then really — the Christian looks forward into the future for the coming Messiah" (p. 308). Because of God's promises and covenant with his chosen people Israel, the church can never replace Israel but is rather grafted into it to form a covenanted solidarity. "We are all so to speak only an expanded people of Israel" (p. 422). God's constant faithfulness to Israel, whatever its obedience or disobedience to God, can only bring hope to us all. "God keeps his promises, God helps this people. This is something wonderful, this is a consolation" (p. 422).
Although many theological questions were posed by Barth's interlocutors, certain themes remained relatively untouched. Christ's resurrection emerged as a major topic, for example, yet little was asked of Barth about Christ's saving death. Again, although justification by faith emerged in general terms, Barth's remarkable doctrine of simul iustus et peccator — which he applied not only to justification, but also to sanctification — was not probed. Nor did anyone ask him about important matters from his unfinished dogmatics. One would especially have liked to hear him talk about the Lord's Supper, for example, or about how he would have approached the entire undeveloped doctrine of redemption. Nevertheless, despite missed opportunities, the material that surfaced is as engaging as it is copious.
Barth's view of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture often came up, but always in ways that were more nearly practical than doctrinal. Barth expressed his growing concern about the neglect of Scripture in the life of the community and the individual believer. "We need to take time again for Scripture. . . . Gather around the table to study Scripture together!" (p. 171). The hopes of ecumenical reunion rested on a deeper encounter with Scripture by Protestants and Catholics alike. "And both of us together need to learn to think more nearly on the basis of Scripture. Yes, that can bind us together, and that alone" (p. 194). Bible reading should follow the ancient pattern of lectio divina. "Every believer needs to get used to reading continuous passages. . . . For me as a theology professor, it is a daily duty. . . . One needs to accustom oneself to reading the Bible" (p. 243). The frantic pace of modern life, he observed, mitigates against meditation on the Word.
Today theologians are always travelling. Instead of their staying at home, I fear that a great majority of them are out there sitting in cars, in waiting rooms, in trains or in airports. When do they ever find time to read the Bible? . . . What we really need today is almost a new pietism." (p. 390)
Barth's appreciation for the vitality of Scripture, he added, had grown from his experience in the pastorate:
Here's how it was for me. Not until I was working as a pastor did I finally discover that the Bible is a good book. Yes, I had become a pastor without knowing that it's a really good, a really interesting, a really worthwhile book, a book above all books. And then I learned it. And for me a completely new existence began. (p. 432)
Following the lead of Luther and Calvin, Barth emphasized that the central content of the Bible was not a system of doctrines, but Jesus Christ himself (p. 424). He pressed this insight in new directions, however, when he turned to hermeneutics. What he once stated in another connection applied equally well to biblical interpretation: "And in particular one ought not to resort too quickly to unity, synthesis and homogenizing" (p. 195). Premature closure had to be resisted, he argued, because the content of the Bible could not be understood apart from its narrative unity. Just as Barth had proposed that God's being is in his act, and that Christ's person is in his work, so he also urged that the name of Jesus is inseparable from the narrative in which it is embedded. This inextricability of name and narrative demanded a particular sort of historical understanding. The narrative of Jesus Christ provided the key as much to the unity of scripture as also to the larger history of the world.
"I actually think on the basis of this history. And I see in this history the key to all histories. For the history of Jesus Christ, whose content is the covenant between God and humankind, is the beginning as well as the end and goal of all things" (p. 165).
By understanding biblical narrative theologically — and thus as a "witness" rather than as a "report" — Barth broke with modernist preoccupations — in particular, with historicist and rationalist frameworks of interpretation. Establishing factuality behind the text was just as uninteresting to him, theologically, as striving for some kind of totalizing systematic coherence. His believed that a new conception was needed of what counts as scriptural "unity," one that allows various diverse themes to remain in tension. Biblical doctrines are held together, as he saw it, not by a static logic, but dynamically and dialectically through patterns of thinking grounded in the biblical narratives. These narratives, which bear witness to the mysteries of divine revelation, typically generate antithetical statements when they are conceptually redescribed, but these antitheses are not best regarded as "contradictions."
I would not say, contradiction! I would rather say, speaking by way of juxtaposition, do you follow me? It involves now this and then that. . . . This kind of thinking needs to be a narrative or historical thinking (ein geschichtliches Denken). One may not think [in terms of a static logic]. (p. 272)
Antithetical modes of thought were built into central church doctrines, Barth noted, for example, of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, and of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, to name only a few. Significantly, a conceptual resolution of such antitheses, however tempting, always resulted in simplicity at the expense of adequacy, and in extreme cases landed in heresy. An interpretive strategy of juxtaposition, on the other hand, such as Barth proposed, would not privilege one existing strand in scripture while drastically marginalizing another. It would allow the various tensions to stand. It would in that way attempt to do better justice to the whole range of scripture as it attested the whole counsel of God. Barth's proposal, evidenced perhaps more nearly in his exegetical deliberations than in his theoretical remarks, amounted to a new hermeneutical strategy, at least in explicitness and scope. He opted neither for synthesizing the various diverse strands, nor for discarding one of them, but for juxtaposition.
This brand of narrative thinking, Barth believed, was the fitting hermeneutical response to divine revelation. For revelation was always the unity of word and deed — of actions in the form of speech, and of speech in the form of actions. Barth explained:
The Word of God is the Word that is spoken by him in and with his action. Act and Word belong together. God's revelation never consists in mute deeds. It is rather an act that as such speaks a Word to human beings. Any theology that would separate God's mighty deeds from his spoken Word finally proves itself to be destructive of the Christian idea of revelation. (p. 176)
As enacted speech or eloquent action, divine revelation has been shaped by the Holy Spirit into apostolic narratives that are stablilzed in scriptural testimony. Christ's resurrection is the cardinal example.
What we see at stake in the resurrection is what we see in general with everything in the Bible. It is a matter of reality, of history, which then as such is Word. One may not abstract and say, it is only Word. On the contrary, something takes place, and what takes place is something that speaks. And that speaking itself is precisely the speaking of an event. (p. 38)
The Holy Spirit by whom God's deeds had been biblically inscribed was the same Spirit by whom their meaning is imparted to faith. Revelation, Barth emphasized, was "for all, but not all can grasp it. The Word of God can only be understood through the power of the Spirit" (p. 176). The living God continued to speak through Jesus Christ, God's decisive Word, as attested in scripture. "Yes, of course he speaks today. The God who has spoken his decisive Word in Jesus Christ — he is no dead God, as today the fools say, but he is the living God, who also speaks today" (p. 253).
The idea of freedom was a theme that especially distinguished Barth's account of both divine and human existence. At the highest level, God's sovereign freedom was secured by the doctrine of pre-temporal election. Election was the pivot of freedom, so to speak, connecting God with creation, eternity with time, and in particular the Holy Trinity with the covenant of grace. God's covenantal actions in history were grounded in his prior act of self-determination from all eternity.
God's action in time and history is a matter of miracle and mystery, because everything he does and says here is free from all fortuitousness. God always acts in freedom — in his eternal freedom. Everything that takes place here has taken place already in him. With everything there is this divine ‘pre-'. (pp. 78-79)
The Holy Trinity, Barth explained, was no mere function of election. Although for Barth election was indeed the self-determination of God, the Trinity was prior to election and presupposed by it. Otherwise God would not be God (and in particular God would not be the Trinity), except in relation to the world. Although God does not will to be who he is without the world, God does not need the world to be God. An interviewer wondered whether Barth would still endorse what he had written back in 1932 in the first volume of his dogmatics:
God would not be any the less God if he had created no world and no human being. The existence of the world and our existence are in no sense necessary to God's essential being, not even as the object of his love. . . . God is not at all lonely even without the world and us. His love has its object in himself.
To which Barth replied: "Splendid, isn't it!" (p. 286). The event of pre-temporal election was an event within the being of the Holy Trinity: "an eternal testament, carried out between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And that is an event, it is an enactment" (p. 78). Barth noted that he had been criticized for defining predestination not simply as an eternal divine action, but as "an action even within the very being of God." Such criticism, he thought, missed the significance of the doctrine of Trinity. "But to me the doctrine of the Trinity is wonderful" (p. 78). To dispel all confusion, Barth distinguished among the doctrines of reconciliation, election, and the Trinity by ranking them. Election, he stated, was always election to reconciliation — that is, to justification, sanctification, and vocation. Therefore, everything in the doctrine of reconciliation was but an explication of the doctrine of election. In turn, the doctrine of election was grounded in something beyond itself. "And behind the doctrine of election stands the doctrine of the Trinity. That is the order. The doctrine of the Trinity, election, and then sanctification, etc." (p. 293).
Within the Augustinian and Reformed traditions, Barth's doctrine of election was strongly revisionist. Predestination, Barth proposed, was not God's dreadful decree that determined the eternal destiny of the human race by a separation of the "sheep" from the "goats." On the contrary, grounded in the Holy Trinity, election was God's eternal self-determination not to be God without us, but rather to be God for us in Jesus Christ. There is no depth in God in which he is not fully determined by this gracious decision. In pretemporal election God has determined himself to be God for us. The electing God is the God who speaks both a Yes and No — Yes to creation; No to sin, evil and death. In Christ, whose death and resurrection embodied them both for our sakes, the No is overridden by the Yes. This profound revision (perhaps Barth's greatest contribution to the history of doctrine) could not but have ramifications throughout the whole of his theology. God's free self-determination meant that divine freedom was not arbitrary but wholly an expression of divine love (pp. 289, 267), that the gospel was not a message of rules and regulations but of freedom (p. 259), and that election itself purposed to liberate humankind from its bondage to sin and death for eternal life in communion with God.
The freedom of God was to be answered by responsible human freedom.
Everywhere I see the danger of unfreedom. I saw it in America, and then in parting I said to them I hoped a theology of freedom would also arise in America. That's what I said to the Americans. I would say the same thing to the Swiss if I had the chance, and also to the Germans if they would still listen to me: The sovereign God's freedom and the responsible human being's freedom! (p. 259)
The authority of God was none other than the authority of freedom, not of compulsion or coercion. "The freedom of God is the authority that calls us to freedom" (p. 399).
Human freedom before God was above all to be realized in prayer. Without prayer the theological task would be impossible. "Without entering into prayer one cannot think even the tiniest theological thought sensibly — not the tiniest!" (p. 83). In the Christian's daily life, regular times of prayer were just as necessary as spontaneous prayers of the moment (p. 244). At the heart of prayer was thanksgiving: "I believe that what is really missing for us is that we aren't sufficiently thankful for what God gives us. . . . And I believe that the great sin is ingratitude" (p. 244). Because prayer was no substitute for action, the watchword was: "Pray and work!" "Ora et labora!"
Ora! — because by ourselves we can neither obtain faith nor love nor understanding nor correct discernment. They become possible for us only as we request them from free grace and so from God, who gives them. Labora! — because these things are not served to us on a platter, but are constantly to be gained afresh though sheer work. (p. 441)
One final theme may be noted. Throughout the interviews Barth's understanding of Christ's resurrection was a recurring topic of interest. An especially interesting exchange took place in an extensive conversation with theology students from Tübingen (pp. 33-52). Curiously, however, one theme never surfaced, even though for Barth it was perhaps the matter of greatest "objective" significance. Unencumbered by modernist arguments about "historicity" (whether pro or con), Barth proposed that, ontically, the significant matter was not so much that the resurrection event was "historical" as that Christ had been elevated from time into an eternal mode of existence without losing his essential temporality. Consequently, the risen Christ, in his saving significance, was able to be the Contemporary of each and every human being, in all times and places. In and through the living Christ, crucified and risen, God related to the entire human race. God's affirmation and judgment of the human race in the life-history of Jesus Christ was the beginning and end of all things.
When the question of "historicity" took center stage, however, as it did with the Tübingen students, then, in effect, Barth would advance the proposition that Christ's resurrection was indeed a historical event, and yet it was unlike any historical event that we know. Over against theologians like Bultmann and Ebeling, Barth affirmed that, yes, Christ's resurrection was really a bodily event. It was really "spatio-temporal:" "somatic, visible, audible, tangible" (p. 34). "It was a matter of the same human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who had previously been among them, and who was now seen in his glory" (p. 35). Over against theologians like Pannenberg, on the other hand, Barth contended that, no, modern critical methods of investigation are not germane to this event in its essential uniqueness (p. 45). Poetic or even mythic elements are ineffaceable from the biblical depiction, precisely because this event is, by definition, a mysterious conjunction of historicity and transcendence (pp. 46-47).
Barth rejected the search for the historical Jesus, because he did not believe him to have been lost. "As if there were any other life of Jesus than that of him who was raised at Easter!" (p. 36). The Easter Jesus, as attested by the apostles, was the only Jesus there has ever been.
The living Jesus Christ! He himself, not an idea of him, but rather he himself, whom they had known, but who was now revealed to them as the Lord of life and death [cf. Rom. 14:9], and who as such now became the content of their message. . . . (p. 37)
Therefore, when taken from a "post-critical" point of view, or what is much the same thing, when taken with a sense of humor (p. 41), the New Testament metaphor of the "forty days" cannot possibly be improved upon. It is perfectly adequate to convey the "astonishing reality" of Easter in all its "absolute uniqueness" (p. 43).
The Gospel of the "forty days" — related first simply in the sense of the New Testament — is indeed identical with the Gospel itself. It sums up each and every thing that the New Testament has to say. . . . But this is not [merely], so to speak, a piece of the Gospel, a moment, but rather this is the Gospel: "I live, and you shall live also" (John 14:19) . . . — that's the Gospel. (p. 33)
Because of his outspoken political views and activities, Barth had always been a "public intellectual" embroiled in controversy. This description more or less persisted until the end of his life. When friends gathered for the celebration of his 80th birthday, he reminded them of his origins.
The reader of the Church Dogmatics certainly needs to know that I come from religious socialism. And I originally pursued something other than "church dogmatics" — namely, lectures on bringing factories to justice and on trade union problems — and I also became a member of the Swiss Socialist Party. And when I took part in these activities, it somehow hung together with a particular discovery — namely, that the children of this world are often wiser than the children of light. (p. 401)
Elsewhere he reminisced further about his early pastorate: "The socialists were among the most avid listeners to my sermons, not because I preached socialism, but because they knew I was the same man who was also attempting to help them" (p. 506). By the late 1960s, however, times had changed:
Today there are really no longer any genuine alternatives. No great fundamental ideas seem to clash. I often feel at a loss about which party to vote for, if at all. (p. 551)
Barth's chastened attitude toward socialism emerged clearly in his long conversation with the Marxist, Milan Machovec (pp. 311—19).
Nevertheless, Barth regarded certain political issues as urgent, especially concerning militarism and world peace. Although the church would be foolish to take a stand on every single issue of the day, he believed, some matters called for political decision in the witness of faith. The question of nuclear weapons weighed heavily on his conscience: "A practical pacifism with the slogan "War — never again!" is something that today really ought to force itself on the church. Especially in view of the development of nuclear weapons and the threat that all life might be destroyed" (p. 179). In 1966 he listed four issues that posed a political challenge to the church: rapprochement with the communist nations of the Eastern bloc, protest against the Vietnam War, nuclear disarmament, and resistance to anti-Semitism (p. 219). It was not a good sign, he felt, that on these urgent matters the church could not bring itself to clear convictions (p. 220).
In conclusion, it may be noted that throughout these conversations Barth often displayed a sense of sober realism combined with robust hope. For example, he acknowledged that, humanly speaking, the prospects for the Christian church did not seem particularly bright. Minority status would seem to be its permanent worldly lot (pp. 307). Fundamentally, the number of dedicated Christians had never been more than a few (p. 317). Nevertheless, the church lives not by worldly prosperity but by its living Lord, who has triumphed over sin and death, and he is present in the community as the Lord of the entire world (p. 299).
It is not we who must care for the dear God, but he who cares for us. In every respect we must take that into account, and live without anxiety on that basis. He cares for us, and he cares for our church and our communities. He sees to it that his truth does not fall to the ground, but rather that it remains on the lampstand. (p. 426)
The last conversation to be transcribed took place on the telephone between Barth and his life-long friend Eduard Thurneysen on the evening before Barth died. Thurneysen jotted down what he remembered Barth had said to him:
Yes, the world is dark! Only let us not lose heart! Never! . . . Let us not lose hope for all human beings, for the whole world of the nations! God will not allow us to fall, not one single one of us, nor all of us together! Es wird regiert! (p. 562)
These were, in effect, Barth's last words on earth, summing up the work and convictions of a lifetime: "Es wird regiert!" "There is nothing outside the governance of God!"
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.