Last week my family got to spend a few days in Yosemite, artfully dodging the summer crowds and hiking as hard as a clan of young not-especially-hikers can. It was great. Along with the Bible and the writings of John Muir, I took along a little Karl Barth: not one of his big half-dome tomes, just the 1962 lectures Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. I suppose I’ve developed a tradition of reading a few pages of Barth in Yosemite over the years.
I can’t recall the details, but I know Karl Barth was a mountain hiker. He always lived in the vicinity of the Swiss Alps, pastored there early in his career, and later vacationed there. If I remember right, his son Matthias died in a climbing accident at age 20.
Whatever its biographical basis in his sense of place, Barth certainly made copious use of the imagery and vocabulary of mountainous terrain throughout his writing. The early Letter to the Romans is full of crags, ravines, crushing weights, vertiginous drops, and distant peaks barely glimpsed, impossible to scale. The later Dogmatics, written in a less expressionist idiom than Romans and less likely to provoke giddiness, nevertheless stretches out to vistas even more stunning. In fact, part of the sometimes-lamented sprawl of the Dogmatics (“more Mahleresque than Mozartean,” quipped one of my teachers) can be accounted for by this comparison with mountain landscapes. The Barth of the Dogmatics can’t get anything done in less than 8 pages, and generally strides out at somewhere around 30 pages. He is less likely to use the imagery directly (“Here we reach the summit of our knowledge” or “we confront a sheer cliff that calls us to a halt”) because he has internalized the metaphor. He is taking the reader along on a patient, spirited hike. Reading the descriptions of doctrine in these big books is a journey, because these are big doctrines
Somewhere in the sixth point of the third chapter of Evangelical Theology, Barth describes what a theologian can expect to find in Holy Scripture. He has just insisted that “the peg on which all theology hangs is acquaintance with the God of the Gospel,” and asserted that God has one simple thing to teach us in his word. But now he cautions that in Scripture we find “an extremely polyphonic, not a monotonous, testimony to the work and word of God.”