Apologia for Affection
I am confident that this post title will get me in trouble but not for the reasons many imagine. The word "affection" is typically on reserve these days for relationships of a particular interest and intent — e.g. My "affection" is supposed to be for my wife alone. But today, I am speaking about my affection for the theology of Karl Barth. I have written in the past about my affinity for confessions (including a wholeforeword) and church history. I have also written previously on "Why I Love Karl Barth." But this will be a little different because it will focus less on the man and his theology.
I want you to close your eyes and picture your favorite movie/Broadway show/painting or perhaps recall your favorite piece of music. Presuming you have such a favorite, I reckon that the ability to recall it to mind is quite simple. This should mostly be due to repetition. It is the frequent visiting and re-visiting of favorite things that makes them more grand and vivid in our memory. Whether this is a book, album, or movie, these return visits cement time and again the value of the object in our memory and heart. The familiarity with intricate details that flutter our hearts sometimes even covering up obvious deficiencies.
So why then has someone once spoken rather foolishly that familiarity breeds contempt? From my perspective, this common phrase speaks less to the person or object in question and more to our infatuation with our own opinions. With each return trip, our judgment of a deficiency grows in our mind and our judgment reigns supreme. I'm not persuaded that repetition and familiarity should breed contempt even when disagreements exist, but I understand why. We find ourselves reflecting most often upon that which we agree. Our time spent in disagreement is typically for tearing down than constructive dialogue. Most of us are refreshed by affirmation/harmony, not dissonance — conforming our thinking and surroundings to prop up our beliefs. Our "favorites" most often become those who we must work the least to appreciate. On occasion, however, we all discover an outlier. Which brings me to Karl Barth.
I started reading the man six or so years ago. I was intrigued by the confusion apparent in presentations about him. I decided to start my reading with his Epistle to the Romans. I remain convinced that I was unready for a book of that density. Yet, I was intrigued. Like hearing a particular melody on the classical radio station, I was inclined to continue my listening. I've lost count of how many books I've read by or about Karl Barth. It goes without saying that despite my disagreements, I have not come close to reading any other theologian more closely than Barth — his theology is ever deserving. I have even spent many nights over the course of almost two years reading Markus Barth's delightful commentary on Ephesians. My son bears Markus' name and I've worked hard to incorporate his great insights on baptism into the realm of covenant infant baptism (which Markus emphatically denied). Over time, Karl Barth's theology has become like a familiar movie or soundtrack. The notes and peaks of his greater theological concerto are familiar. With each passing book, I find myself more and more familiar with the crescendos of his Christology and re-orientation of double predestination. I am at home when I read him despite disagreements. To use way of an analogy, I am less concerned about the accuracy of the movie, the correctness of the characters, or socio-political agreement than I am about the familiarity and comfort that it brings. Reading Barth is like watching that sports player, whom you occasionally dislike but can't help but appreciate. Reading Barth is like watching that non-historically accurate movie that is riveting. It is rather irrelevant when and where I disagree with Barth. My affinity is in my comfort with the crevices of his theology — not my opinion upon his correctness.
He is a friend with whom I may laugh and cry. I can lament, scream, and disagree knowing that the man revered the Scripture and is a worthy partner of dialogue. I am not exaggerating when I say that late night conversations with Karl Barth have saved my soul from despair. Not his correctness. But his dedication to Christ and the Scriptures. Not our agreement, but our shared dedication to our savior. My affection for Barth grows with my agreement and disagreement with him. He is a friend of whom I share the utmost respect and affection.