“If anyone should not find himself astonished and filled with wonder when he becomes involved in one way or another with theology, he would be well advised to consider once more, from a certain remoteness and without prejudice, what is involved in this undertaking. The same holds true for anyone who should have accomplished the feat of no longer being astonished, instead of becoming continually more astonished all the time that he concerns himself with the subject.”
-Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology
Before I started seminary, Princeton sent the incoming class an email first to congratulate us in being admitted and also to give us a list of around ten books that were recommended for us before we arrived. Because I had very little experience with theological studies and all that, I jumped into these books. I read A Knock at Midnight by the great Martin Luther King, Jr. I studied the practices at Finkenwalde as described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together. I learned how to Pray Without Ceasing with the help of Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger. And I learned what Evangelical Theology was with the help of Karl Barth.
I must admit that I didn’t really like Barth at first. His writing style and the things that he said were foreign to me. His “evangelical theology” seemed nothing like the one I had been exposed to in undergrad at Lee University. When I read this book, I wasn’t too impressed.
It was the last book on the list that I read. And maybe it was because I was so tired from reading all the other books (I really don’t remember how many there were), but I didn’t read it all the way through. I stopped in the middle of it.
I remember thinking, “And I’m supposed to like this guy?”
Then I get into a class on the doctrine of election. I’m not a theologian; my mind doesn’t operate that way. When we read Aquinas, Calvin, and Arminius, I just couldn’t handle it. But we got to Barth, and it started to make more sense. I could understand why this guy was (and is) a big deal. The way that he explains election was so helpful, and I jived with it.
I decided to pick up my Evangelical Theology book again to give it another shot. And that’s when this passage almost halfway through the book captivated me.
Wonder occurs when someone encounters a spiritual or natural phenomenon that she has never met before…this amazement obliges a person to wonder and motivates her to learn. The theologian, he continues, is one that “is compelled again and again to be astonished.”
The theological task is not to explain away the wonder, but it is to be compelled by wonder to learn about God.
I write this now almost a week after graduating from seminary with a degree that says that I understand the Divine (or even better that I have “mastered” the Divine). But Barth argues that the more that I study theology, the more wonder I should have.
Theology is an interesting subject for us to “study.” Theology isn’t like other subjects where we can study and study with the ultimate intention of understanding it all. Instead, theology (because of its nature of studying the living God) is so dynamic and fluid and rapid and confusing. We are, after all, studying the God who is “Wholly Other.” But the great mystery is this: in God’s distinctiveness from humanity, he chose to reveal himself in the person of Christ. God elected himself in Christ to be for humanity as a God-human.
What fills us with wonder when we study theology is that God chose to do this.
Barth finishes his section on “Wonder” by saying, “To become and be a theologian is not a natural process but an incomparably concrete fact of grace.”
We cannot think our way into understanding God and all of God’s mysteries. And as cliche as it sounds, we cannot put God in a box. Wonder allows us to continually approach God with our questions and concerns.
We can wonder about this world. We can wonder about the world to come. We can wonder about God.
That’s what makes theology great. But we will never fully understand God. Bethel has a great song out about this, and I’ll just close with its lyrics:
May we never lose our wonder
May we never lose our wonder
Wide eyed and mystified
May we be just like a child
Staring at the beauty of our King
Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Translated by Grover Foley. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963.