Essay / Theology

Jesus Loves Karl Barth

A witty colleague writes:

I know “Jesus loves me, This I know,” is the most important thing Karl Barth ever wrote, but when I googled it, I came up with more questions than answers.

Was he asked to give the “answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?” or “his most profound theological concept” or to reduce the Church Dogmatics to a post card?

When he was asked, did he “not skip a beat” or “bury his head in his hands, then lift his head” or “slowly take out his pipe and fill it”?

Did he “look into the gaze of the news reporters and cameras”; “close his tired eyes”; or were people able to see “a twinkle in his eyes”?

Did he just say it or did he “sing it as he had learned it at his mother knees”?

Was his answer “a single sentence” or “a few sentences”?

Is Stanley Hauerwas right when he reports that Barth seems to have said it at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond when he was in America. “And I know that the Americans kept wanting Barth to say something profound. It was driving him crazy, so he said something like, “Jesus loves me.” What Barth was doing was resisting any notion that the Gospel could be summarized, and I would always resist that notion, too.”



I reply:

Dear Confused,

Velcome to ze most fascinating realm of theology, the realm of urban legends. Perhaps since they are theological, we should call them “urban legends in the City of God,” or “evangelegends.”

What you report is the most famous Barth statement ever made, except that he may never have made it. None of the Barth scholars I know can footnote this thing with precision. Supposedly it was during his American tour in the 60s, but I have listened to all the tapes of at least his Chicago lectures, and this does not occur during the taped Q & A.

It’s the kind of story that accumulates around famous thinkers. There’s also a story about Paul Tillich watching somebody in the audience eat an apple to make a point about faith, but that one has even more variants and is even less likely to be true.

But the Barth-Jesus-Loves-Me story sounds true, and it’s the kind of thing he would have done.  Barth certainly did do things like get 9,000 pages into his Church Dogmatics and suddenly devote a couple dozen pages to a close theological reading of John 3:16. Or pay tribute to the profundity of childrens songs and their influence on an adult theologian’s point of view.

I would have enjoyed seeing him do all the reported things at once: close his eyes, let them twinkle, fill his pipe, and answer without hesitating. I would also like to know how he learned an English song at his mother’s knees in Basel, Switzerland.


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