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.


Jim said...

Nicely said

Luther's Stein said...

I'm not sure I agree, David. I'm a reader of Barth, and I have found studying him immensely rewarding; but it seems to me that if Barth is indeed being used as a "boundary marker" within the academy of religion, then the refusal to read Barth might in fact be the best course of action. In the immediate that might make it inconsequential [insofar as it doesn't substantially alter the politics] or counterproductive [insofar as it inspires the Barthian Orthodox to dig in their heels], but I can't see how it's irrelevant.

The academy is a very liberal place and so we prefer our protests to be positive and constructive - but it seems to me that there are many conversations that are not worth having [or perhaps even evil]. I disagree with her - I think Barth is a figure worthy of discussion - but if Barth has become a political talisman, it's hard to imagine what other recourse one might have. Perhaps the best question is simply to ask whether her material claims about the culture of Barth studies have any merit. Honestly, I've been a bit surprised at the amount of energy Janice's post has created - it must indicate that it's touched a nerve.

David W. Congdon said...

"Perhaps the best question is simply to ask whether her material claims about the culture of Barth studies have any merit."

I intentionally avoided going that route for two reasons: (a) it is inherently subjective and prone to devolve into mindless name-calling and unsubstantiated judgments, and (b) it does not strike me that it is the actual issue at stake in either Janice's or Peter's post. I also think that her claims about the culture of Barth studies have almost no merit whatsoever, for reasons that I could discuss—and originally intended to in an earlier draft of this piece.

But let's, for the sake of argument, assume that she is right and Barth is indeed used as a "boundary marker" within the academy (though this very idea is so wildly out of step with reality that I almost laugh writing it). I do not see how it follows that "not reading/studying Barth" is somehow a necessary response. Why would this be the only recourse? Doesn't that assume that the "Barth" being used in this manner exhausts the possibilities within Barth's actual texts? Wouldn't this be to conflate Barthianism with the complexity latent within Barth's theology, and so to foreclose on the potential for revolutionary rereadings of Barth's texts that liberate him from the oppressive way his name is often used? It seems to me that if people are actually using Barth in this way, then it behooves us to reclaim him all the more.

I might make an analogy here to the word "evangelical." This word has been abused and turned into the most oppressive of symbols in North American politics. And yet I refuse to abandon the word, not because I think anything hangs on my identity as an "evangelical," but because I know there are emancipatory resources within the evangelical tradition that I aim to reclaim. I refuse to let the Falwells and Robertsons and Pipers of the world determine the meaning of this tradition today. Much the same goes for Barth studies.

Luther's Stein said...

I don't know why my old blogger id is appearing and not my name, but whatever.

Re: your a) and b), fair enough. I had the opposite sensibility - it seemed to me that the only common sensibility which ran between these posts was a concern about the culture of Barth studies in the states has acquired. Of course, you are certainly correct that the evaluation of the culture of Barth studies is deeply subjective matter - even the naming of contexts that "matter" and in which Barthians enjoy privilege is a deeply subjective idea. Most of the contexts that really matter to me still view Barth as in some sense dangerous to Christian orthodoxy or, at least, one who cannot be fully trusted.

You might also be right that the refusal to read Barth would too quickly conflate Barth with his interpreters and perhaps prematurely abandon the possibility of subversive readings. But then, if the perceived violence of Barthian studies is not really an issue of a violence inherent to the material content of Barth's theology as such, but only to the culture that surrounds it, then perhaps a subversive interpretation would be less productive, inasmuch as engaging in the (re)interpretation of Barth would de facto endorse those powers that regard the study of Barth as necessary for "serious scholarship". In that event, the refusal to read Barth is actually more subversive, since it denies the right to those in power to set the terms for meaningful theological debate. Perhaps Janice and Peter's dissatisfaction with Barth goes deeper than simply its culture, but if that's the case then it wasn't obvious in the posts themselves.

In any case, I think the traction Janice's post has received has shown its been an effective strategy for leveling her critique which, it seems to me, is all she really wanted. Admittedly, this would make the concern more subjective and less suitable for public discussion, but perhaps then all that is required of those of us who are still reading Barth is simply to acknowledge the concern and attempt, in good faith, to be sensitive to it.

David W. Congdon said...


veeritions said...

I must confess that I don’t find your piece very “sympathetic” in the end. I’ll mention a few of my concerns (and apologize for the length at the outset):

1) You introduce the distinction between serious / non-serious theology right in the first two paragraphs (a distinction Janice’s post is trying to unsettle). Serious = ceasing reading (which isn’t actually a cessation of reading but seems rather about becoming a critical reader….) because Barth is a bad interpreter of certain topics (notably of “the tradition,” white male contemporaries, or European philosophical traditions). Non-serious = these two other posts (and perhaps the “contextual theology” and “critical theory” associated with them). Thus, with absolute seriousness, you declare, “The aim of all responsible scholarly work is…” The (singular) aim, of all, responsible…

2) The “boys club” does not equal “the inner circle.” To put it bluntly: translating out the gendered dynamics is the reassertion of patriarchal normativity. It allows one to treat the critique as engaging a normal human situation (wanting to belong) instead of addressing the ways in which what is normal as well as what counts as belonging are constituted within and by sexist and racist (intellectual) cultural norms.

3) It seems problematic to say that a “serious” thinker is one with the “ability to take seriously what is historically alien and does not think that violence is the basic form of engagement.” Again, to put it bluntly (a privilege I have as a white man…): white men telling non-white-men to be patient with difference is troublesome. It is also very reminiscent of a deep, long pattern of white men telling non-white-male critics to basically settle down and be rational (like them) instead of reactive (violent).

4) A little ironically, you call attention to the need to listen carefully to historical differences while simultaneously reducing the historical differences between Janice’s and Peter’s reflections to a previous (and perhaps perennial) intellectual kind of failure. {There is also a broader pattern whereby non-white-male intellectual productions are reduced to exemplifying an established white-male position, and we need to be cautious of that here).

5) I know that is easy to miss things but it seems odd that Kait’s response has been ignored here. I mean to say, without attributing the fault to you, that as Brandy and others have pointed out, there seem to be certain troubling dynamics at play in whose pieces receive attention and the kind of attention they receive. Here’s Kait’s piece:

I’m not sure how the conversation should proceed here, and that, I think, is ultimately, why I am so thankful for Janice’s piece. She has pinpointed and put pressure on a particular location (Barth scholarship) that draws out all sorts of assumed protocols and norms in “serious” theological intellectual work. Suffice it to say, I don’t think your piece engages this problem but rather seems to draw from and restate these same protocols while trying to acknowledge some criticism (hence, I’ve tried to note where these patterns appear in your own response).

We need to do more than that (and, I should add, I say that as someone who is still reading Barth).


David W. Congdon said...


Fair points. I've received a fair amount of criticism for my reading of Janice's piece, and I accept the critique. The fact is I read Peter's first and then read Janice's, and tried to discern the common thread in their frustrations -- and I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that there was a common thread. I had no intention of removing the gender politics angle that is absolutely central to this whole conversation.

Briefly, in response:

1. There is by necessity a distinction between serious and non-serious scholarship, if we understand "serious" to mean "carefully and critically engaging" the resources of one's discipline. I assume that Janice doesn't mean to unsettle the assumption that misreadings are something to be rejected. Surely I shouldn't publish a piece with factual inaccuracies.

2. I agree with the sexist/racist norms issue, but my point was only that singling out Barth/Barth culture is a bit odd, since we face these issues -- which are certainly sexist and racist -- in all disciplines and areas of life. Again, that's a point that Peter himself brings up at the end of his post, and I was responding primarily to him.

3. The violence in question here is doing violence (the German word is actually the word for rape) to a text or person in the name of advancing one's own agenda. I'm subtly trying to affirm the concerns that Janice and Peter raise, while also reminding them that we end up doing the same violence to Barth if we collapse his work into the abuse of so-called Barthians.

4. This seems wholly unfounded.

5. I loved Kait's post and told her so. But I don't feel the need to mention every post on the topic. Is there some unstated rule about that? I don't need to respond to Kait because I agree with her.

At the end of the day, I agree with all of Janice's concerns about white male hegemony in the theological academy. This is a problem, and it needs to be combated. I fail to see how refusing to study Barth is somehow an answer to the problem.