No theologian has exercised a greater influence on me than Karl Barth. I first encountered his work while I was a student at Haverford College. In those years, I was smitten with Carl Jung and Paul Tillich, who fed my growing interest in matters spiritual. But Barth did not traffic in the soft currency of “meaning.” His was the gold bullion of truth. I had to decide: Is Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God? There is no question of greater importance—and no question more scrupulously evaded by those seeking to discuss Christianity in “academic” terms. I owe my undergraduate teacher and mentor Ronald Thiemann a great spiritual debt: I came to read Barth because Thiemann assigned him.
So, it was with the pleasure of revisiting a favorite haunt that I read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict. Tietz gives full treatment to Barth’s irregular domestic life, drawing on personal letters released by the Barth family in recent years (about which more below). But the biography does not dwell on titillating revelations. Tietz is a theologian by training, having studied under Eberhard Jüngel, who attended Barth’s seminars in the late 1950s. She is a reliable guide to her academic grandfather and the biography functions as a sound, accessible introduction to Barth’s thought.