Theological Work and Wonder

A Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) with Nest

In Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth lectures on the existential aspects of theological work, which is firstly distinguished by the disposition of wonder. Barth writes:

The astonishment of the individual carries with it the fact that no one can become and remain a theologian unless he is compelled again and again to be astonished at himself. Last but not least, he must become for himself an enigma and a mystery. (Note bene: the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.) After all, who am I to be a theologian? It does not matter whether I am the best child of the best parents, perhaps having known, like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15), about the Holy Scriptures from the very time I began to think. It does not matter whether I have the cleverest mind or the most upright heart or the very best of intentions. Who am I to have put such trust in myself as to devote myself even remotely to the task of theology? Who am I to co-operate in this subject, at least potentially and perhaps quite actively, as a minor researcher, thinker, or teacher? Who am I to take up the quest for truth in the service and in the sense of the community, and to take pains to complete this quest? I have put such trust in myself as soon as I touch theology even with my little finger, not to speak of occupying myself with it more or less energetically or perhaps even professionally. And if I have done that, I have without fail become concerned with the new event and the miracle attested to by the Bible. This miracle involves far more than just the young man at Nain or the captain of Capernaum and their companions of whom the Gospels tell; far more than the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan; far more than the sun that stood still upon Joshua’s command at Gibeon. I have become involved in the reality of God that is only signaled by all those things. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals himself in his Son through the Holy Spirit, who desired to be the God of man so that man might live as his man. I have become involved in the wonder of this God, together with all its consequences for the world and for each and every man. And whatever, however, and whoever I may be in other respects, I have finally and profoundly become a man made to wonder at himself by this wonder of God. It is another question whether I know what self-wonderment means for me, whether I am ready and able to subordinate my bit of research, thought, and speech to the logic of this wonder (and not in reverse order!). But there can be no question about one fact: I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God. This confrontation occurs in even the most timid and untalented attempt to take seriously the subject which I have become involved or to work theologically at all, whether in the field of exegesis, Church history, dogmatics, or ethics.

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 61-62

What flows from wonder? Humility. Praise. Joy.

Notice Barth applies dispositions of astonishment and wonder to all who would try their hand and heart and head to the task of theology: “the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.” Whether a theologian is a doctor of the church or a person in the pew, “I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God.” One and all, together we ask, “Who am I?”

In Barth’s wider corpus, it would seem that to ask “Who am I?” is only possible in response to a prior question, “Who is God?”, a question that cannot be asked apart from revelation. Theology is response. Contemplation of the question, “Who is God?” broadens and expands the possibilities for our answer to the question, “Who am I?” Barth’s wonderment, captured above, is only possible if the answer to “Who is God?” has resulted in the conclusion that the truth about God is something magnificent, expansive, and unimaginably overwhelming, an understanding which is so very small in comparison to its totality that the little that we do grasp is like that of beholding a dewdrop in light of the ocean, or that of a sunbeam in its relationship to the sun.

Barth writes elsewhere that “the God who is the object of evangelical theology is just as lowly as he is exalted. He is exalted precisely in his lowliness.” It is this lowly God who appoints us, human beings, to serve God humbly, and as we serve to exalt that same God rightly, to honor his name as that name which is above all names.

This wonder becomes lost when we mistakenly lose sight of God as God is, and mistakenly exalt human beings (especially theologians!) to a position higher than is fitting for our station as creatures, rather than Creator. The question, “Who am I?”, rightly understood, aligns us with the prophet Isaiah who when found in the presence of God exclaimed, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

After this proclamation, the response of the heavenly host is one of lowliness, atonement, preparation and equipping, and, subequently, of calling:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah 6:6-7

The next statement from the throne is a summons: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!”

This call and response continues to issue forth to each one of us. “Who am I?” “Who is God?” It is this very God who has called this very I to do this very work, with wonder.