In one of his books, Pieter De Jong mentions that Karl Barth once said that the angels must laugh a lot. They laugh, said Barth, because he kept writing one volume after another about God, as though the Almighty could be captured in books.
They also laugh, he said, because other people would actually read and focus on what he was saying. Barth thought it was much more important for Christians to actually wrestle with the topics and questions that he was taking up, rather than to merely digest or repeat what he had to say about anything.
With no more than that, a new or continuing reader of Karl Barth can get a glimpse of two very important facets of the man and his work:
First, the part about the angels reveals how Barth, though a hard-working and serious theologian, never took himself or his own words too seriously. His writings certainly are dense and demanding. But the undertone is hardly ever dour and gloomy. It's usually something more like delightful.
Take, for example, the last sentence of the "Foreward to the Torchbook Edition" of his book Dogmatics in Outline: "He who, after learning a little about the meaning of 'dogmatics,' undertakes to delve more into detail, will, I promise, discover (regardless of the method he may employ) in this theological discipline and in theology in general a great amount of thrilling, and beautiful tasks which are fruitful for the Church and for the world." I love a teacher who thinks like that.
Second, the part about our wrestling with the questions points to Barth's conviction that in every successive period the church is obligated to question what has been said before and to identify and speak the truth in the language of that particular day.
The great historic Christian creeds, for example, show us how believers in earlier times worked through and answered the questions of their day. But even the best creeds and the greatest books do not relieve us from trying to do in our time what those good people did in theirs. Karl Barth believed that anytime the church speaks primarily in the language of decades or centuries gone by, you know that it has failed to take up its responsibility before God.
That's what he was all about, faithfully speaking the true Word of God in the language and to the situation(s) of his day.