Seminary anti-intellectualism

Princeton Seminary organizes large classes so that once a week the students split up into small discussion groups called precepts. Yesterday I had my weekly precept for systematic theology. I almost come to expect someone making a lame remark about how they dislike Barth or find theology arcane and irrelevant, and yesterday I heard the following, almost on cue: “I love Calvin. I hate Barth, but that’s another story.”

This was nothing new to me. When Amy and I first arrived in Princeton, we sought some help from a neighbor of ours in moving our stuff out of the truck and into the apartment. He was a senior preparing to enter the pastorate, like most students. When he noticed that one box was labelled, “Church Dogmatics,” he asked me, “Is that Barth?” I responded, “Absolutely.” He then said, half-jokingly, “I don’t think we can be friends.”

I’ve overheard people say things like, “Barth is just too hard to read. He’s worse than Kant.” And a couple weeks ago I had to respond to someone who told me to my face that systematic theology is basically irrelevant and pointless for the church today.

Why is all this happening? I blame two culprits: first, liberal protestantism with its Schleiermachian emphasis on human experience (or, as Tillich would put it, the existential situation), which has ironically given birth to both contemporary evangelicalism and the idea that theology is one of individual experience of God; second, Spinoza and the rise of secular biblical scholarship, which effectively split the church from the academy so that theology is viewed primarily as an academic discipline that has no material relation to the church itself.

How can we appropriately respond to both problems? How can theology be, as Barth would affirm, for the church without succumbing to the hegemony of individual experience? How can the church itself overcome this emphasis on experiencing God?


Anonymous said…
I'd just like to state for the record that, as someone who has read a fair bit of Barth and who spent the summer of 2005 reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Kant is definately harder to read than Barth! However, from what I hear, their German is of similar opacity.
Anonymous said…
david, i too have sarcasticly said that sytematic theology is irrelevant to the church today...but my response was not so much in the fault of systematic theology itself, but more the ways that systematic theology is handled by those who use it and abuse it for the same of other things than in the life of the church.

so, i would puch back that in some ways today, systematic theology IS irrlevant. but again, its not the fault of systematics...its the fault of the systematicians (is that a word, i'm just a poor untheological pastor) :)
Halden said…
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Halden said…
Um, yeah Barth is harder than Kant. I think not.

And frankly, I'm fine with theology being "irrelevant". Today relevance has come to mean nothing more than that the church must accomodate its message to the prevailing whims and felt needs of the dominant culture. If that's what relevance means, then I am fine for theology to remain completely and totally irrelevant. It is enough that theology be faithful.
Shane said…
Ok, here's the thing with Kant. It's a beast--don't get me wrong. But so is Barth. The key is to have somebody walk around in the text a little while with you. You have to learn how these guys talk. To a Barthian, Barth is easy and Kant is hard. Vice versa to a Kantian, I would guess.

Personally, I'm a medievalist. Although I find medieval philosophy quite a bit easier to read than most contemporary philosophy, I find among non-medievalist colleagues this is not the majority opinion.

Just goes to show you . . . the prose is always denser on the other side of the fence.

I'm not sure that what you are describing is "anti-intellectualism." Rather, you are describing a trend away from a towering orthodox figure like Barth(who is NOT easy to read, as even those of us who love him agree) toward experiential-based theologies.

That's not a recent American trend, but one that's long standing. Bonhoeffer complained about it during his year at Union Theological Seminary in New York--he was impressed with the ethical emphases in his classes, but thought there was very little serious theology.

Barth has always had a hard time getting a good hearing in the U.S.--attacked by fundamentalists and many evangelicals as a wolf in sheep's clothing and by liberals as a "fundamentalist with a genius IQ." I think Barth probably gets a better hearing at PTS than many other places.

The problem needs to be addressed, certainly. But it isn't precisely anti-intellectualism.
byron smith said…
Being an amateur in both, yet with a background in both philosophy and theology:
Kant > Barth (in difficulty of prose)

But I realise that wasn't the issue that David raised.
dw said…
Not being a theologian myself, I hesitate to weigh in here. However, like you, I am in favor of casting down anti-intellecualism in the church, esp. in those institutions that seek to cultivate new leaders and faithful members of the church. I hear much more resistance to intellectual rigor--the deep analysis, and construction of knowledge (as opposed to training or memorization)--than I'd like. That said, an opposition to Barth or to systematic theology and a recognition of the power of lived faith does not always or necessarily entail a rejection of rigorous, thoughtful theology. I am not a fan of systematic theology, esp. as practiced by evangelicals over the yrs, but that does not mean I don't take theological inquiry seriously. Aren't there other sorts and forms of serious, faithful theologizing these days that don't just fall into a mere experiential trap--Lindbeck's post-liberal, cultural-linguistic approach comes to mind. Isn't it Barth who gives rise to narrative theology, which, in many ways, seems to have superceded sytematic theology for some (or become a new form of it?) and formed a basis for other theological movements?

Ah, I really should stick to poems
Prof. Wright, I appreciate your comments on this topic. It's good to hear from those who are not as enmeshed in the world of theology and seminary life. And you're quite right that being opposed to systematic theology (as it is often done in the academy) does not necessarily mean thoughful theology is discarded as well. I should have said more and been more clear.

The problem is not Barth per se, but many of these students have an aversion to (most) academic theology itself -- Barth just happens to be the most widely read (second only to Calvin). The average student, I find, discards anything that seems abstract or complex; they enjoy reading pastoral writings and/or contemporary contextual theology (liberation, feminist, womanist, etc.). Neither are wrong or unimportant, but they are severely limited when one chooses to neglect the church fathers, Scholastic theologians, post-Reformation theologians, and modern writers like Schleiermacher, Barth, Tillich, and Balthasar.

I should probably beware of making too many sweeping statements. For sure, there is a large contingent of students who find systematic theology to be an invigorating and worthwhile enterprise that serves the church in a much needed way. Nevertheless, I sense a division on the campus between the camp that views theology as an unnecessary addition to a pastoral curriculum that would be sufficient without it and the other camp that would rather have classes only in the theology department and drop the practical theology department altogether. (I tend to be in the latter, only because I fail to see how practical theology -- excepting homiletics, of course -- as it is currently practiced at PTS is either beneficial for future pastors or academically respectable beyond being "psychology lite.")

Perhaps I will comment on this more in another post. Suffice it for me to say: Theology should in no way concern itself with relevancy. Theology does not bother with being relevant; theology is concerned with being right, with speaking the truth. Theology is the science of investigating God's Word. It is the pastor's job to translate this scientific investigation into the language of the people. More on this on another occasion.
Anonymous said…
I agree with most of what has been said before about the culture of seminaries in the United States surrounding Systematic Theology. Although Presbyterian, I attend a Methodist Seminary and the majority of the students speak at talk in the same way about Barth and the other major figures used in introduction to Theology. Even in an upper division course on Sex, Sin, and Salvation: Theological Anthropology, the majority of the students seemed to enroll for the first word. When the paper topics were on Barth and Gender, Pannenberg's Anthropology, and even Cone's account of Race, everyone was disappointed. This is a seminary course, not a dating session!

Anyway, I also wonder how much of the problem lies in those who are teaching the course. Many times academics drift away from the church, are incapable of relating Barth to preaching/pastoral care/church organization etc. And God knows those teaching those course rarely are interested in doing much theology. Sociology, linguistics, counseling, pyschology rule the day. My feeling is that somehow the faculty to be reinvigorated across disciplines so that they don't reinforce the preconceived disconnect. All that to say, good post and for those of us who envision a future ministry in the seminary or university setting let us embrace the extra work of teaching toward the church.
Oh, I definitely found a schism in seminary between those who wanted all the "practical" courses only and the students interested in academic theology and biblical studies. And that was in the '80s, so this is not a new problem.

I have bragged about my pastor as a pastor-theologian, but she became such in the pastorate. In seminary, she took a tract for church social work that reduced the amount of serious biblical study, church history, and theology to a minimum.

It's a real problem.
For a good example of taking Barth and applying him into the world of the church, I would highly recommend William Willimon's new book: Conversations with Barth on Preaching".

Thanks for writing this post, David. I've come away from labeling this current attitude as "anti-intellectual" for reasons similar to what Michael has given. Calling it such actually undermines your position, making theology the merely an "intellectual" discipline in the Christian faith (a spiritual gift?). Theology must be anti-intellectual to the extent that it serves the Church and not my intellect or the intelligensia of the public domain.
Or perhaps instead of pitting them against one another, I should say theology can only indirectly serve my intellect and that which belongs to the public sphere by first going through the church.
Thanks, Chris. I realize that "anti-intellectualism" may be a necessary thing to the extent that intellectualism is understood as an individualist, rational pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This would be self-aggrandizing venture which is antithetical to the life of the church. By anti-intellectual, I mean the kind of anti-intellectualism which Mark Noll and others find prevalent in evangelical culture — in relation to, say, science, political discourse, and (in my experience) academic theology as the study of God and humanity.

In that sense, anti-intellectualism undermines the church's witness. How many conservative Christians know about the Military Commissions Act? How many Christians know the difference between social Darwinism and the scientific theory of evolution? How many Christians know why we confess a triune God? These are not irrelevant questions. I picked a question each from politics, science, and theology, respectively, and each question is highly relevant to current public debates. The lack of education in our churches today derives from the wrongheaded view that these are questions for specialists or academics and not for the average person. We must fight against this prevailing notion in the church today.
John P. said…
I think this is a good and necessary conversation...thanks for starting the discussion.

I have posted a response of sorts and would love your thoughts.
John P., where is your response? I don't see a blog attached to your profile.