Monday, September 09, 2013

On still reading Barth: some sympathetic reflections

It is fashionable nowadays to stop reading Barth—often for good reason. Some people, like myself, simply came to see that Barth was wrong on certain topics (e.g., Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Augustine, existentialism, etc.). Interrogating his theology and subjecting him to critical correction is an essential aspect of responsible scholarship. A slavish repetition of Barth is not only academically irresponsible—in the literal sense of failing to answer the question posed to us by Barth’s work—but theologically reckless, even poisonous to a faith that quickly becomes stagnant fundamentalism if it does not remain self-critical (I might say, demythologizing) at its core.

But it is has become fashionable to stop reading Barth for other, far less compelling, reasons. In the first of two recent statements on the matter, we discover that “not reading Barth” is not really a rejection of Barth himself so much as a rejection of “the institution of Barthian scholarship,” “a means to resist the production and control of ‘serious scholarship’” in favor of contextual theology, a rejection of “the way in which ‘Barth’ is invoked as the magic word for ‘orthodoxy,’” a way of resisting “institutional powers,” since “Barthian scholarship seems a power unto itself.” These are all different ways of saying the same thing: “not reading Barth” = resisting the oppressive institutional powers of church and academy. We hear more of the same in the second, more personal, statement, in which “not reading Barth” = the rejection of “a pious pissing contest” and “a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.” Of course, by the end, we learn that the author has exchanged one culture for another, that of critical theory, which “is every bit as much an industry as the former with unspoken but obvious clubs and entrance requirements.”

Both of these posts thus mean to reject a certain kind of academic culture, a certain “inner circle” syndrome characteristic of—well, what exactly? C. S. Lewis diagnosed this, in one of his better essays, as the “Inner Ring.” But as he accurately points out: “I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive [at] . . ., you will find the Ring—what Tolstoi calls the second or unwritten systems.” Indeed, he goes on to say, “this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.”

Those of us who are deep within the belly of the academic beast can all sympathize—and must sympathize—with the concerns raised here. Anything less would be to condone the spiritually eviscerating pursuit of the Inner Ring; we may be complicit in its perpetuation, but it is part of the sanctification of the human mind that we learn to develop an ever deeper antipathy toward this perverse institution and its soul-enslaving power. But why settle for an indictment on academia? Why not simply attack, as Janice does, the institutional church itself and its so-called “orthodoxy”? Or why not cast our gaze more widely and place the indictment on multinational free-market capitalism? Surely the academy is merely a microcosm within larger, more perverse structures that elicit equally great anxiety and despair. All of these systems and structures, and still others, fully warrant our critique and condemnation.

However we analyze the systemic violence in which we are both the devourers and the devoured, one thing is crystal clear: the decision to not read Barth is utterly irrelevant and inconsequential, if not finally counterproductive. Not reading Barth is no more a response to the pathology of the Inner Ring than defriending an old school buddy on Facebook is a response to the crisis of one’s personal loneliness. Now perhaps it is highly relevant and of great consequence for particular persons who have been scarred in some way by something associated with Barth. I can fully appreciate Peter’s claim that saying No to Princeton Seminary was part of his personal healing. But let us be under no illusions that reading or not reading Barth is related in any necessary way to the dilemmas raised so poignantly by these writers. Peter even acknowledges as much by the end of his personal reflections, which probably should have been called: “On not going to Princeton Seminary.”

Is it in any way sufficient to dispense with Barth because certain self-described Barthians have set themselves up as guardians of the Inner Ring? Or because there has been a rather tiresome industry of Barth scholarship? Or because of a supposed “Princeton-Barth culture”? Or because Barth is apparently seen by some (by whom exactly?) as defining evangelical orthodoxy? Or because Barth is a European male who made a number of (hetero)sexist remarks? In each of these cases we have legitimate issues that we can and should interrogate, criticize, and in some cases, even condemn. And we can find substantial support within Barth’s writings—not just in the occasional comment, but at the very heart of his theological project—for pursuing this task of criticizing and condemning a decadent academic and ecclesial culture. And so we must ask: Is Barth himself really the issue? Is there anything about Barth’s actual theology that warrants his dismissal, or is it instead a problem with certain cultural institutions—institutions that are, or at least claim to be, shaped by Barth’s influence?

I will be the first to admit that there is, or at least was, an industry of Barth scholarship. Like many, I find much of it a waste of paper, since little of this work strikes me as either responsibly engaged with Barth’s actual work or constructively interesting. But there are industries of every kind of scholarship. It seems we are talking about Barth now because he is, or at least has the aura of being, in a symbolic position of power within the theological academy—although this aura seems to me largely a chimera, and it is almost certainly an error of bias. Different authors at different institutions could write the same basic story, replacing Barthian theology with, for example, narrative ethics (Notre Dame/Duke), postliberal hermeneutics (Yale), or critical theory (almost every divinity school in North America). Is the decision to reject Barth really any different from past decisions to reject Tillich, Bultmann, Niebuhr, and others?

To bring it around full circle, is the rejection Barth any different from Barth’s own rejection of Schleiermacher? In one sense, no. Like the rebels of today, Barth associated Schleiermacher with a whole industry of theology that had set itself up as the arbiter of serious scholarship and which had pernicious sociopolitical consequences. Barth viewed Schleiermacher symbolically as representative of systems, institutions, and traditions that had very little to do with his actual theology—hence the work being done today to reinterpret his thinking against Barth’s claims. It seems that the same will have to be done today for Barth himself. But there is at least one crucial difference: Barth never stopped reading Schleiermacher, never stopped struggling with his work and legacy. Even if we judge his conclusions about Schleiermacher erroneous, Barth nevertheless provides a model for responsibly engaging those with whom we disagree—including, and perhaps especially, Barth himself.

In conclusion, it is rather ironic that the words Barth once used of Kierkegaard could very well today be applied to Barth himself: “I consider him to be a teacher whose school every theologian must enter once. Woe to the ones who miss it—provided only they do not remain in or return to it.” If we have good reason to think Barth was wrong about Kierkegaard—and I believe we do—we have equally good reason to think people today are wrong about Barth. The aim of all responsible scholarly work is not to decide whether or not someone ought to be read, especially if the reasons for this decision have nothing to do with that person’s actual work and thought. Genuine intellectual inquiry is a conversation, a debate, a struggle in which, by empathically participating in the resources of the past and present, we win wisdom and insight for the future.

In conclusion, the words of Ernst Käsemann ring as true today as they did over 50 years ago: “How many of our students today grasp the truth . . . that those who do not themselves mature in the historian’s trade will shake nothing but unripe fruit from the tree of knowledge? The principal virtue of the historian . . . is the cultivation of the listening faculty, which is prepared to take seriously what is historically alien and does not think that violence is the basic form of engagement.” Those of us inclined to defend the reading of Barth must remember that we must cultivate this listening faculty with respect to our friends who have been wronged by Barthians and by institutions associated with Barth. But our friends must remember that the cultivation of this faculty—particularly with reference to hearing Barth himself—is the surest way to right the wrongs of the past and ensure that Barth’s theology does not scar the lives of others.