Earlier today I was desultorying. There's much to be thought about just now, life taking new turnings, decisions that involve both risk and trust, and I was looking around for a conversation partner, someone to take me out of self-pre-occupation for a while. In the corner is a tall narrow bookcase which houses Barth's Church Dogmatics, and sundry other Barthian writing, along with a number of the key monographs on Barth's theology from McCormack to Hunsinger, and Busch to Webster. I took down the Romans commentary - that angry, passionate, turbo-charged bulldozer of a book that didn't only disturb the scholars in their playground, but proceeded to demolish their school.
Barth is one of a few theologians who provide (for me at any rate) a theological and spiritual antidote to the debilitating condition of desultorying. Loss of impetus, boredom with transcendence, spiritual attention deficit, emotional reductionism, theological complacency, - there are plenty of phrases and they describe some forms of desultorying. Nearer where I am just now is something different - experience overload, much happening at once and the need to have time, space and energy to work through what it means, how it feels, and how best live with and through life as it is. In her wonderful Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton wrote something I adopted as a spiritual principle. She spoke of the depletion that comes from 'unassimilated experience' - she meant those times when life is too stridently demanding, expectations of ourselves are unrealistic, too much happens before previous experience is reflected upon, learned from, made peace with.
One way of interrupting the flow of information, experience and circumstance is to change the subject away from yourself to that which is beyond, more than, extrinsic to, our own inner world with its worries, problem solving, calculation and self- centred attention. Open a volume of Barth, and I find myself interrupted! Romans 8 belongs in the Alpine range of Paul's theology, and Barth on Romans 8 in his commentary provides a stunning viewpoint to take in the vast vista and far away horizons of the love of God in Jesus Christ. Is it an exegesis of Romans 8? Absolutely not, more like a conductor inspiring an entire orchestra to improvise with passionate responsiveness to the composer's musical vision, and therefore to treat the script with such massive respect that it is not slavishly followed but teleologically fulfilled. The result is an artistic triumph, a virtuoso performance that is unique and arises out of the specific coincidence of musicians, conductor, musical score and historical moment.
Barth's Romans is like that. I spent a while reading him on Romans 8.28, that massive granite rock of a verse that you either stand on because it will never move, or that falls and flattens you if you try to duck beneath it! Here is what I read, the cure for today's desultoriness:
The Love of God stands where there is disclosed,...the pre-eminent affirmation - Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. Blessed discovery! God stands in light inaccessible. Blessed discovery! All flesh is grass and all the glory of men is as the flower of the field. When in Spirit and in Truth, one of these discoveries is made, the other is involved in it, for both are in fact operations of the One God, whose universal majesty is the 'Yes' in the 'No'. The Love of God dares to see everywhere on this side and on that side, not a 'Here' and a 'There', but wholly and altogether beyond all tension and duality, the revelation of the one Truth, proclaiming that the free and righteous, blessed and living God, knows us, prisoners and sinners and condemned and dead, to be His own. And so in our apprehension which is not-knowing, and in our not-knowing which is our apprehension, there is shown forth the final and primal unity of visibility and invisibility, of earth and heaven, of man and God...Thus God rewards those who love Him.
Flannery O'connor loved Barth because he 'threw the furniture around'. He did, and he does. But here is an even earthier description that comes from one of those comments at the door after preaching, made by a farmer in the North East, that he was "glad to get a good kick up the backside". Not sure that was the aim of the sermon, but for him it did seem to be the outcome. And his phrase aptly describes Barth's theological impact on a desultory spirit!
The photo is across the Mearns at early sunrise into a liquid sky.