Karl Barth, pop theology, and a two-tiered society

In the past, I have lamented what I call the “crisis of ignorance” in Protestantism today. I have commented on the anti-intellectualism which continues to pervade American evangelicalism, and is reflective of the broader society—and even pervades seminaries like Princeton. I have warned of the dangers of experientialism, among others. All of this still deeply concerns me.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend from church who is in a class with me on Barth's famous commentary on Romans taught by Bruce McCormack. Prof. McCormack mentioned that Barth’s Romerbrief is far and away the most influential work of theology in the 20th century. My friend asked me, If that is the case, then why is Barth utterly foreign to the average person in the pews?” Consider what follows an exercise in thinking out loud in reflection upon this question.

I began to think: Is Barth only influential among academic, among the elite who discourse about German idealism, modern expressivism, dialectical theology, and toss around terms like ontology, hermeneutics, epistemology, and opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa? Is Barth only “relevant” to those who interact in this ethereal realm of the mind? Is there any real traction between Barth's dogmatics and the person in the pew? Even if academic theologians insist there are serious points of contact, is that opinion shared by the people who actually sit in those pews? Is Barth just too difficult to read?

This has given me pause to think about the relation between academic and pop theology, if such a term can be used. It seems quite likely, and my childhood experience in the church confirms this, that if people were polled about which theologian is most influential for them, the winner would probably be C. S. Lewis. What is all the more interesting is that Lewis himself refuses to accept the notion that he is a theologian, precisely because he makes a distinction between the work that he does and the work that professional/academic theologians are doing. Lewis, we might say, is a pop-theologian—though clearly leaps and bounds above what passes for pop-theology today (Exhibit A: Rick Warren). Nevertheless, Lewis is not a dogmatic thinker; he is not thinking systematically about the doctrines of the faith. Lewis, rather, expounds upon themes and issues that concern the everyday Christian. He is moralist, a kind of pop-Christian philosopher. None of this is “bad,” except when Lewis (or someone like him; insert whatever pop name you wish) becomes the norm for how the average Christian thinks about the faith.

Barth and Lewis are representative of a much larger issue: the division between the popular and the academic, between the general and the elite. Our society is moving from a three-tiered culture—low, middle, high—to a two-tiered culture—low and high. And the division between the two is far wider today than the divisions between the three-tiered model. Why is Barth foreign to the person in the pew? Because theology itself is foreign. And why is theology foreign? Because contemporary Protestant Christianity (particularly in the United States) is defined by the Great Awakenings, by pietism, by the emphasis on subjective experience.

But this cannot explain everything. Why is Lewis popular? He is an intellectual of the highest degree. But he also writes for a mass audience. He gave radio talks on “mere Christianity,” he wrote children's stories, and he wrote about issues common to the average person, like suffering and morality. So is that what theologians need to do? Write about common human experience? However, Lewis did not just write for a mass audience. He also wrote for those interested in serious literature. These works are not popular at all, and most lovers of Lewis' work would probably never know they even existed. In a way, then, Lewis moves in both spheres: the academic and the popular. He cannot be confined to just one side of this dilemma.

There is perhaps something to be learned from Lewis on this point: he engaged the mind both in the realm of academic literature and in the realm of popular reflection. He did not leave the mind to the academics and the subjective experience to the popular culture. He brought serious intellectual reflection to both areas of existence. We must be clear: theologians are a necessary part of the church. They must not be constrained to engage in a task which is not their own. Not all theologians are called to be translators—that is, others may and will be called to engage in the task of “translating” the work of a theologian into the popular idiom of the day. To force all theologians to fulfill this task threatens the ability of such theologians to think freely. We must preserve a space for free dogmatic reflection in the church. That said, theologians ought also to consider the broader cultural divide in which high and low are becoming independent spheres of existence without any necessary relation to the other. As servants of the church, we ought to be concerned about this. That does not mean theologians should engage in a task not their own; but it does mean possibly thinking outside of the strict confines of the academy.

As I said already, this is simply an exercise in thinking aloud. I do pretend to have fully considered the issues at stake. But I do believe this is a topic that needs to be addressed by the church publicly.

Questions to consider:
  • Which thinker(s) are most important to the people in your church? Who do people read for theological stimulation?
  • Is there a “crisis of ignorance”? If so, how do you think we ought to address this problem?
  • Why is Barth foreign to the average Christian?
  • What makes pop-writers "popular"?
  • What are the ramifications of a two-tiered society? How should the church respond?


where i come from may help to understand what i say here. i'm a philosopher (officially), nearly through with my PhD. i'm also an anglican friar, of the sort who rigidly refused to be called a "protestant". and, i'm on the, broadly speaking, "left wing" of the church about contemporary political and social issues, but am theologically fairly conservative.

as i see it, the problem lies deeply at the heart of protestantism itself. the reason, i submit, that Barth is so foreign to the vaunted "man in the pew" is that Barth is not recognizable to him. what one gets from Barth's religion is extremely abstract, and takes massive work to see its connections to the faith and practice and struggles of "ordinary people". now don't get me wrong: this massive work is, in my opinion, well worth it!

the question is not really why Lewis is more popular than Barth; it's why Merton is more popular than Barth. one looks at Merton and says "that can be me"; one looks at Lewis and says "that can be me": one can take them not merely as teachers, but as models.

now i'm an arrogant writer. i look at Barth and think, "that can be me". but must people do not!

why is this at the root of protestantism? because the fundamental shift from religion as something one does to religion as something one believes pushes religion into the sphere of the intellect. i must, indeed, worship God with my mind, but what (academic) protestantism tends to do is to is to utterly devalue the rest.

consider, for example, the Church Dogmatics. thousands and thousands of pages, and the material on Baptism, Eucharist, and the Lord's prayer was essentially never written. and what was written, the fragment on Baptism, is unrecognizable as the actual practice of the actual church.

combine this with the maddening tendency of twentieth century academic theologians to coyly and slyly refuse to tell you just what they believe! this is what drove Kaufmann against them. can it really be hard to say whether you believe miracles occur, and why? whether you like what Lewis says on the topic, you know what he thinks!

i studied Tillich carefully on this very question once, and through the entire Systematic Theology, i could not tell. it was as if every time he got close, he backed off and said "nyaa, nyaa, not gonna tell ya!"

and then Pannenberg gets press, essentially, because he actually believes in the Resurrection.

there is a gulf here, a wide gaping chasm, between what academic Protestant theologians write, and what actual Protestants believe and do, which seems only to get wider and wider.

and this is at the root of Protestantism. the view that a theologian is part of the church, with a defined role within the church, who is responsible to that church is foreign to nearly all these guys—even to Barth. consider that Dogmatics as part of the "listening church" for him is only about listening to the Bible, not about listening to the teaching church!

we have Luther or Calvin, once again, thundering forth the one and only way it is, and everyone must agree or leave. (never forget that Calvin ran Geneva's theology far more imperiously than the Vatican ever has run anything.) only now, the people in the churches are no longer paying attention, because the theologians are no longer actually among the pastors of the church.
The Miner said…
Thomas Bushnell,

I think you've hit the nail on the head. There isn't so much a crisis of ignorance so much as there is a crisis of relevence. Barth's best work in my opinion is the stuff he wrote on homiletics - or even the piece on Romans, but remember he was writing then as a pastor with pastoral concerns. The dogmatics, though brilliant, have almost completely lost any sense of the immediate concerns of the people of God.

I disagree that "theologians" need to be able to be preserved from getting in the muck with everyone else. That seems to be importing humanist ideals about academia into the church. Far from it, we should be expecting every person in the pew and every pastor to be thinking and acting from theological convictions - and we must take them seriously when they do and not denigrate them as ignorant or "low".

the secret that Lewis, Merton, NT Wright and some others who cross that popular divide to me seems to be that they see themselves as embedded in the church, not apart from or above it.
In churches I used to attend, the people who were influential would have been John MacArthur, John Piper, etc. In the church I attend now, the most influential voice is Marcus Borg.

Barth is ignored everywhere in the popular church circles, sadly.

D.W., I don't have your email and would like to discuss something off topic with you--I don't like to hi-jack blog threads for other purposes. So, could you contact me at mlw-w@insightbb.com ?Thanks.
mr. Miner, bingo! there is an oft-noted shift, from the church fathers, who were mostly bishop-theologians, to the middle ages, featuring religious-theologians, to the modern age, featuring professor-theologians.

notice that the bishop theologians and the religious-theologians were principally writing with a pastoral bent: the bishops to their secular flocks, the religious to their fellow monks and later friars.

the second shift, as i see it, went like this: as the friars in the universities started addressing each other more and more as academics and not as fellow brothers (Scotus' audience is not other franciscans, it's other academics; Bernard's audience, however, was other cistercians): at this point the shift began to happen.

a brief retrenchment happened as the reformers attempted to be pastors and theologians at once, but they were largely miserable failures as pastors (imnsho) and their successors essentially gave up pastoring.

one of the nice hallmarks of anglican theology is that it has, mostly, avoided academic-ism as the model for a theologian. the caroline divines, Hooker, the anglo-catholics, the Wesleys, and more recentely, +Rowan Williams, Wright, and such, all are deeply emdedded in pastoral reality and earnestly attempting to do theology as a part of the job of pastoring.
Luther was known as a fairly good pastor and so was Zwingli. The Anabaptist leaders were all pastors first--although often martyred.

I don't think the tradition of the pastor-theologian is dead, but it would need quite a revival for Barth to get a hearing. Interestingly, the Barth Society and the Bonhoeffer Society get more working pastors as members than to other theological societies.
i think that Luther counts as a good pastor only if you are not a peasant who thought he might actually stand up for you.

(the parallels to +Rowan Williams are disturbing, who supported gay people only until we started taking him seriously on the point: now he seems to happily throw us to the wolves to preserve his own sense of power and importance. rather just like Luther and the peasants, alas.)
kim fabricius said…
The Barth that Thomas and the Miner present us with is an imposter whom I simply do not recognise. Abstract? Coy in telling us what he believes? Not relevant? Without pastoral interface? Likening Barth to a symphony, I'd say you guys have tin ears! But you probably represent the great majority - nay, you are undoubtedly among the most intelligent, as well as sympathetic, readers of Barth. So for me the question is not why is Barth as you read him - he is not - but why is Barth perceived to be as you read him.

But then I would say this! Romans was the tipping point of my becoming a Christian - and then offering for the ministry (I wrote a marginal note in my copy, p. 448, dated October 10th, 1977 - Barth on Romans 12:6-7). The interviewing panel at Mansfield College, Oxford were not a little amused, not to say astonished!
Adam said…

Thanks for a provocative post. Like you, I haven't fully considered all of the issues. But here is my two cents worth:

The problem you're pointing to is real and quite pressing; but I doubt it's a new problem. One could make a good case that there has always been an intellectual-theological divide between the regnant litterati and the so-called laity. For example, you probably remember that when Athanasius' book, "The Life of Anthony" dropped, the "Who's Who" of Christianity flocked to Egypt in order to learn about desert monasticism. As time wore on, the monastic lifestyle gained in popularity. In those days (and even now) monks were far more familiar with Scripture, theological treatises, etc. than most common Christians. I'm not suggesting that St. Benedict was an elitist; my point is that from very early on there has been a very small fraction of Christians who seem to possess more "knowledge" than the typical Christian.

This, of course, doesn't justify the dearth of laypersons who have been exposed to the rich world of theology. Like I said, I think it is a problem.

While this isn't an answer per se, I thought it might be interesting to point out that blogs probably aren't helping out much. As I'm sure you know, the global community is currently experiencing a digital divide. On the one hand, most folks don't have access to computers, let alone the Internet. On the other hand, folks like you and I are spending more and more time on the Internet. As such, the transfer of "knowledge" takes place through mediums that are increasingly inaccessible to the majority of the world. Though I couldn't prove it, I bet that the intellectual polarization we lament is partly perpetuated by our lifestyles.
Anonymous said…
kim fabricius is right, i think, about Barth, and i tried to be more careful in my comments and regret that i was not.

there is, i submit, a maddening tendency on the part of twentieth century academic theologians not to tell us what they really believe, but Barth is indeed a very welcome difference from that usual trend.

my central point, which does apply to Barth as much as the rest, is that he is not so well read by the "man in the pew" because he didn't bother writing for the "man in the pew". whether this is good or not, i think it is unquestionably the case.
The Miner said…

Doubtless you are right that the characterization of Barth, which Thomas and I have given is inaccurate, altough, I was not primarily attempting to give my opinion of Barth, but making a general statement about the academization of theology in opposition to David's view about a crisis of ignorance in the church. Certain of these accusations are less applicable to Barth in particular (he was not coy about giving his personal beliefs for example) and can be seen as more or less accurate depending upon which era of Barth's life you're referring to (he had more pastoral connections early in his career than he did later, which is why I said that the commentary on Romans was more powerful than his dogmatics)... however, what I think IS true and applicable to Barth is that his writing is not considered accessible or interesting by most people in the pew. Partly it is because he wrote in German and he wrote decades ago, but partly it is because he is just complicated and confusing.

Now, David, along with most people, I think, observes the apparent divide between the literati theologians and the majority of the population and because he identifies with the theologians and rightfully thinks what they are saying is important, he laments that more people do not care or even know about what people like Barth wrote and said. Thus he uses terms like "high" and "low" and I don't fault him for it, this is the usual way of looking at the issue.

What I would say however is that we make a mistake when we think this way because it misdiagnoses the problem. No one should have to understand german or latin or greek, be well versed in the history of philosophy, have a working knowledge of the documentary hypothesis and a quiver full of exegetical techniques in order to do theology. In scripture it is precisely the religious elite that Jesus repeatedly condemns and accuses of missing the point. It is the poor, the outcast, the women, the demon-possessed and the foreigners that over and over "get" what Jesus is about. Rather than continuing to think that the intellectuals are the ones who are going to make the most relevant contributions to the church more of our intellectuals ought to be listening to our "everymen".

This is not anti-intellectualism, that David laments, it is a plea for relevance. Rather than looking to our theologians as leaders and people who determine the direction of the church, our theologians ought to be followers, listening to Christ's church and using their reflections for the greater glory of God's mission. If we do this, then we won't have any trouble with people reading and engaging in theological thought. People read Lewis and Borg and McLaren because these guys don't expect people to come "up" to their level, they meet people where they are.
kim fabricius said…
The Miner mentions Jesus' condemnation of the religious cognoscendi, and Borg and McLaren meeting people where they are. Yes ... On the other hand, there is Paul.

Interestingly, at the end of his Romans, commenting on 16:1-16, Barth observes that "The possibility that Tryphaena and Tryphosa and the other 'laymen' - not to speak of the 'theologians' in this long list! - would not have been able to understand the Epistle, does not seem to have been considered. In other words, there was once . . . a body of men and women to whom the Epistle to the Romans could be sent in the confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions; that somehow or other it would be understood and valued."

And Richard B. Hays, in The Conversion of the Imaginaton: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scriptures (2005), observes how Paul bombarded his churches, even his predominently Gentile churches that had little, if any, knowledge of Torah, not only with Israels' scriptures but with startlingly new and imaginative readings of these scriptures. Hays writes: "Everything about Paul's use of OT texts suggests that his 'implied reader' not only knows Scripture but also appreciates allusive subtlety. Whether the reader accepts the compliment or not, the apostle still delights in intertextual play." Talk about high expectations of a reading community: cognitive dissonance be damned!

Of course I am not answering the important questions raised in this discussion, rather complicating - but perhaps also reconfiguring - it.

One could raise similar questions about the fiction - or poetry! - reading community, especially within our churches. How do you get folk from the Left Behind series or The Da Vinci Code onto The Kite Runner, Purple Hibiscus, let alone Gilead. Well, I'm gonna try in my church's Exploration Group when it meets again in the spring - and hope Julie, David, Pat, et. al. accept the compliment!
kim fabricius said…
By the way - preaching! Is that not a fundamental way for bridging (to use C.P. Snow's division differently) the "two cultures"?

And, on preaching, a final comment on Barth. Interestingly, it was precisely when he was in pastoral charge in Safewil that Barth was most homiletically demanding, if not downright befuddling. Check out his sermons collected in Come, Holy Spirit. On the other hand, in his prison preaching towards the end of his life - see Deliverance to the Captives - Barth's sermons were simplicity itself. And read some of Barth's letters to non-academics. The great man was clearly bi-lingual.
WTM said…
I simply cannot allow for egregious misrepresentations of Calvin to stand unchallenged. Bushnell wrote: “never forget that Calvin ran Geneva's theology far more imperiously than the Vatican ever has run anything”.

Bushnell, all I can say is that if you would spend some time studying the historical records of Calvin’s time in Geneva, a study that I have devoted significant time to, you would discover that your comment could not be further from the truth. Consider these facts: (1) Calvin never held any position other than pastor, (2) Calvin was not a citizen of Geneva until the late 1550’s when the city made him a birthday gift of citizenship – of course, this means that Calvin never even voted until the last 5 or so years of his life, (3) Calvin never wore a sword, a common practice for those of rank in those days, (4) Calvin never had a bodyguard, and indeed was also frequently put in situations of impending physical harm – picture him running into an armed mob that had gathered in rebellion to the magistracy, (5) Calvin was often thwarted or enjoyed incomplete success with the magistrates until the last 9 years of his life or so, (6) Calvin never was able to get the magistracy to serve the Lord’s Supper every week, (7) Calvin petitioned the magistrates to execute Servetus by the sword rather than by the stake, but the magistrates did not comply. This list could go on and on.

Suffice it to say that Calvin’s only power in Geneva resided with his stunning intellect, his passion for the Gospel, and the inherent power of his presentation of the Gospel – in short, his was a power of persuasion. The term “imperious” has no place in a description of Calvin.