Brief Admonishment from the Old Man of Basel
In 1961 Karl Barth wrote a letter to one of his theological students, whom he had recently supported in a grant application for funding to study in Edinburgh, to chastise him about his general outlook on life and his attitude to theological study in particular. It’s a short letter in the collection Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), and is anonymised for the sake of the student in question. The most pertinent section of the letter - the bit I’d like all of my students to read (!) - is as follows:
‘Before one can say (or meaningfully ask) anything, one must first listen, and before one can write anything, one must first do proper reading. If you cannot or will not learn this, you had better keep your fingers out of not merely academic theology but theology in general.'
The discipines of listening and thinking, reading and seeking to understand, are significant not only for young academics but anyone holding a pastoral office in the Church. They are the basis of sensible, coherent, and intellignet output (speaking and writing). Of course, reading and thinking takes time; listening and questioning is a discipline. The busy life of ministry does not always allow for them. And yet, it seems right and proper that those whose duty and joy is the proclamation of the gospel should be those who have listened-in on the conversations of the theologians on the tradition; who have sought to understand the deeper meaning of the scriptures and the creeds in order to feed the sheep they are called to shepherd. To neglect to do so is to jeapordise the general theological task of ministry by removing it from its foundations in the gospel.