Book of the Week: Barth in Conversation, Volume 1 (1959-1962)
Book 33: Barth in Conversation, Volume 1
This is the first in a series of books translated by a group of Barth scholars who meet at the Barth Center in Princeton regularly to collaborate on translating Barth’s Gesamtausgabe into English. This volume covers a particularly interesting part of Barth’s career, the years leading to his retirement from the University of Basel in 1962.
This volume includes a number of transcripts of public conversations and question and answer sessions with Barth. The audiences are widespread and include pastors, publishers, prison chaplains, and university students, to name a few. Significantly, it also includes a number of events that Barth participated in during his only trip to America in 1962. Thematically several themes recur, giving a fairly accurate picture of how Barth’s work was received at the end of his career: Barth’s relationship with communism, universalism, the authority of scripture, the moral life.
One of my favorite sets of conversations is a series of Barth invitations that Barth accepted during these years that brought him into conversations with pastors and members of Pietist (ch. 3), Moravian (ch. 12), and Methodist (ch. 16) churches. In these conversations, we see Christians press Barth to articulate his understanding of Christian conversion, the concept of a decision of faith, an order of salvation, sanctification and Christian perfection, and the like. Here, we see the extent to which Barth’s theology maintains priority of God’s grace and conceives of human agency as participation.
Another series of conversations that is noteworthy is a couple of events that Barth attends that relates to his lifelong commitment to prison ministry. In a first conversation, Barth meets with a gathering of prison chaplains (ch. 7) where Barth emphasizes the restorative purposes of criminal justice and the need to maintain the humanity of prisoners in the midst of punishment. In this context, the chaplain’s responsibility is to acknowledge the solidarity that she shares with the prisoners as sinners in need of grace, to insure the care that the prisoners deserve as humans, and to advocate for that care if it is lacking. In a second conversation, with prisoners at Basel Prison (ch. 19), Barth answers theological and ethical questions that are asked by 10 different prisoners. The theme of prisons recurs a third time throughout the documents related to Barth’s visit to America. While in America, he visited the famous San Quentin Prison in California. Throughout his tour, he continually referenced that trip, discussing the deplorable conditions that prisoners live in and the need for American Christians to seriously consider the question of prison reform.