Thursday, December 02, 2010

On the speciousness of the charge of “decadent Barthianism,” or, the problem with fundamentalism

Let’s be honest and admit: there are indeed “Barthian scholastics” or “Barthian fundamentalists” who seem to think that the Swiss theologian could do no wrong and that any real criticism of him is based on a misunderstanding or is the result of a faulty presupposition. I have met such people in the past and I know they exist. In fact, if I am honest with myself, I was probably such a person at one time—though I am certainly not guilty of that today, as all of my friends can well attest (for ample evidence, see the comments here). But the truth is that such Barthian fundamentalism is actually rather rare—or at least all ostensible instances of it cannot simply be lumped together into some abstract category of “decadent Barthianism.” The truth of the matter is much more complicated.

The problem here is not that so-called Barthians are blind to Barth’s errors. The problem is rather with the way that these critics of Barth are approaching the conversation. There are two presuppositions for all meaningful dialogue:
  1. Careful engagement with the texts or ideas in question; and
  2. A mutual willingness to learn from another and to have one’s horizon of understanding expanded through the dialogical encounter.
The first point refers to the necessary scientific understanding that seeks to learn the facts of the matter: e.g., what is being argued here, what are the terms being used, and what is the logic being employed? The second point refers to the participatory understanding that requires one to approach the subject-matter with an existential openness to the new and unknown. As Rudolf Bultmann rightly puts it, “To understand history [or anything, for that matter] is possible only for one who does not stand over against it as a neutral, nonparticipating spectator but also stands within it and shares responsibility for it” (New Testament & Mythology, 150). These two points—which we might distinguish in terms of knowledge and truth, or science and existence—are directed against two errors: the first is the error of anti-intellectualism (the notion that one can make a judgment without attending to the materials at hand), while the second is the error of fundamentalism (the notion that one’s judgments are not open to criticism and reassessment, i.e., the confusion between history and eschatology, as if one’s position is already the final telos of all possible positions).

In a fascinating 1961 letter to Geoffrey Bromiley, Karl Barth identified both of these points as the reason why he would not respond to the questions put to him by American evangelicals. It is instructive, I think, to quote him at length:
Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the C.D. where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc.—where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions. ...

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgement they have already passed on me . . . These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a ‘better mind and attitude’ as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all. (Letters 1961-1968, 7-8)
The problem with every fundamentalism is the adoption of the role of “prosecuting attorney,” the identification as “heresy” that which violates one’s securely-held orthodoxy. And this is the crucial point: by and large those who criticize Barth scholars for a “decadent Barthianism” are simply unaware of their own basic fundamentalism. One can find such fundamentalism in both conservative evangelicals and in dialectical materialists. The securely-held orthodoxy can be almost anything, from the decretum absolutum of Reformed orthodoxy to the “ontology of peace” of Radical Orthodoxy, from the absolute rejection of German idealism to the idolization of German idealism, from the doctrine of inerrancy to the rejection of all divine transcendence as the theological instantiation of a Big Other. Heresy takes any number of forms and, in a post-dogmatic or post-conciliar age, is always in the eye of the beholder. (Parenthetically, when your position is one that rejects all divine transcendence, along with the concepts of sin and grace, as a religious imposition that merely subordinates human persons to a “master signifier,” then it is not Barth with which you have a problem but rather the entire Christian faith.)

It is certainly the case that in many situations the problem is simply a failure of scientific understanding, i.e., a lack of careful engagement with Barth’s massive oeuvre. There is the additional—not to be underestimated!—problem of the fact that Barth contradicts himself numerous times over the course of his career and changes his mind on dozens of issues. The result is that, like the Bible, one can justify almost any interpretation of Barth’s text so long as one remains on a surface-level interaction. But for the most part the source of the problem is a fundamentalist approach towards others, one that divides the world into black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. Either you affirm the notion of inerrancy or you don’t; either you accept the concept of divine transcendence or you don’t. There are no grades or variations, no nuances on either side; there is only the stark Either-Or which determines whether a person is a “heretic” or not.

If theology is going to be more than an academic brawl, and thus a conversation that is actually worth listening to, then we need to set aside our fundamentalisms. I don’t excuse myself from this imperative. I’ve been quite guilty of overly zealous heresy-hunting myself, as this blog’s history can attest on numerous occasions. And while there is a place for such criticisms, that place has to be within the scope of a more generous openness to others. A hermeneutic of suspicion has to be located within a larger and more dominant hermeneutic of charity; that is, the No has to be in service to the Yes, as Barth would have it. I am as willing and ready to critique Barth as anyone else, but this critique is first located within a prior desire to give him the best hearing possible, to treat him as I would be treated. It is only after listening to him as a friend and neighbor that I can then properly point out his flaws.

C. S. Lewis captures this hermeneutic of charity quite well in his An Experiment in Criticism, where he writes:
“No poem will give up its secret to a reader who enters it regarding the poet as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken in. We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything.” (94)

“We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can't be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.” (116)
Fundamentalism refuses to be “taken in”; it refuses to “lay itself open,” to demonstrate any “preliminary act of good will.” Fundamentalism lacks the willingness to establish a “common plane” for mutual, participatory understanding.

To conclude, the charge of a “decadent Barthianism” is specious insofar as it is born of this nonparticipatory fundamentalism that can only converse with like-minded fundamentalists, and which approaches all others with a silencing hermeneutic of suspicion. The irony is that, on this score, the materialists and atheists stand as one with the conservative evangelicals that they so virulently oppose.


Mark Bowald said...

Well put David. And timely, not only with respect to your material point about Barth, but also in that theological blogging has become (predictably?, Jacques Ellul anyone?) dominated by the shrillness of fundamentalisms of many stripes.

Adam Kotsko said...

So I guess your response is, "I know you are, but what am I?"

thedescribe said...

That was pretty sad Adam seeing as you were also proving the point earlier in the KBBC thread where you told David that you "didn't know how to respond" to him. Almost as though some mutual horizon was important and that it might actually be frustrating the conversation. After all aren't you both "human beings who speak English, and . . . can have a conversation"?
I really appreciate your line of thinking in this larger conversation but something seems to be getting short-circuited in your approach when you tell someone that they are not being clear or describing something well enough as though you maintain the final arbitration on the matter.
- David CLD

Anonymous said...

You've done it now David, here comes the inquisition....

Adam Kotsko said...

I'll admit that I consider myself the sole arbiter of what is clear or unclear to me. I'm not sure who else I should rely on to determine that.

scott said...


Can you please point out precisely where the KBBC conversation went off the rails, in your view?

It seems clear you think Adam was guilty of your #1 -- "Careful engagement with the texts or ideas in question" -- but that's debatable, because it's a matter of evaluation or judgment. And you don't seem right to me.

Secondly, in my estimation you were the one breaking your criteria #2 -- "mutual willingness to learn from another and to have one’s horizon of understanding expanded through the dialogical encounter."

I mean no ill-will, but as an outside observer, this post seems severely disingenuous to me for at least two reasons:
(1) You are conflating a perceived failure by Adam (and maybe Dan) to meet your 1st scientific criteria (careful engagement) with what was actually a genuine set of questions seeking you to explain or defend or clarify your view.

And (2), you repeatedly invoked a kind of "silencing" hermeneutic by saying things like: I could explain why X is right but it would be pointless because we disagree about Y; or, "It's not something one can prove or disprove; it's an axiomatic decision of sorts, albeit one rooted in the scriptural witness."

I'm not presuming we can ever get outside thinking from within certain commitments, or that we can't have partial clarity about what is axiomatic for us and rightfully refuse to give up the ground by making everything "negotiable." Of course Adam and Dan are working with basic presuppositions you disagree with (transcendence = big Other), and that you find irreconcilable with Christianity itself (they would admit the point, in terms of "traditional" Christianity; but an indicator of heresy is always worth throwing in.) Besides all that, though, you were the one stating your axioms or non-negotiables in such a way that, when asked for clarification by others who did not follow your logic or share your view, did not think it worthwhile to carry conversation forward.

I'm sincerely confused by your reading of this situation.

Anonymous said...

David, this is a pretty good sermon in the making here. Now you need to do the homiletical turn where you include yourself in with the sinners, or you risk having the congregation think you don't smell your own stink. Just a thought.

David W. Congdon said...


You misread my post. I'm not criticizing Adam for not meeting the first criterion; in fact, I take him at his word that he has done the careful reading of Barth, even if I'm personally rather skeptical that that is in fact the case. Also, the fact that the whole post is about fundamentalism should give you a tip-off that I'm only concerned with the second criterion, which I specifically state is directed against fundamentalism (whereas the first is directed against anti-intellectualism). Furthermore, the part about heresy is not directed at him. Rather, I'm saying that within the fundamentalist mindset, whoever disagrees is the heretic, which means that I am the "heretic" in Adam's system of thinking.

Also, this post is not a commentary on the KBBC conversation. It is a response to Adam's post on AUFS. Both that post and this response could have been written without the KBBC conversation - though it happened to be provoked by it.

Regarding the KBBC conversation, I did clarify my view and will continue to do so, so long as someone formulates a sincere question. On numerous occasions I have expounded on what I mean by transcendence, but Adam's fundamentalist perspective refuses to accept any variation in that concept. It is wholly and entirely relegated to the realm of the "master signifier." In the world of AUFS, there are gradations of materialism (democratic, dialectic, etc.), but there is no gradation and diversity whatsoever regarding transcendence.

My post is therefore a way of saying that Adam's calls for conversation and critical dialogue are, based on the available evidence, bullshit. Either he is being deliberately disingenuous or he's a fool, and I don't take him for a fool. Eric's comment on the KBBC post really says everything I would want to say here.

Finally, as for silencing the conversation, it's worth point out that I did no such thing. I stayed in the conversation and answered the questions. It was Adam who went on to write a post about not enjoying a conversation and then proceeded to tell everything that.

But in any case I would insist that a person who refuses to recognize any possible rehabilitation of divine transcendence and who rejects sin and grace as religious ideology is likely not a person with whom one can engage in a meaningful theological conversation. I say "likely" because I do want to hold out the hope that he and I can have a meaningful conversation. But it has to begin with him saying, "My definition of transcendence is X. I recognize that you define transcendence as Y. Let's discuss this." Something along those lines is necessary for a dialogue to take place.

As Barth wrote in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2: "There are obviously 'Fundamentalists' with whom one can discuss. Only butchers and cannibals are beyond the pale." I'm hoping Adam is not a cannibal.

David W. Congdon said...

Anonymous: Read the post again. You'll see I already did that.

(For the record, that's the last anonymous comment that will be accepted on this post.)

scott said...


Thanks for the response. It clarifies a bit, but I'm still puzzled on your reading of the KBBC conversation, without your role in which we wouldn't have gotten Adam's decadent Barthianism and thus this post.

It seems pretty clear that the rub is that what you take to be self-evident -- the possibility of non-ideological and/or non-metaphysical versions of trascendence, because you've got one -- they can't see as a possibility. But our reading of that convo parts ways here, because to me you seem to be sayiing: if Adam (or whomever) can't admit X (non-metaphys. transcendence) as a logical possibility, they are the ones "silencing" the conversation. But clearly they are asking for demonstration of a point they don't yet see or hold as such as possibility.

So do you think their unwillingness to concede your point without being convinced you've provided them any reason to is what cuts off conversation?

scott said...

(I'm genuinely interested in understanding how you're interpreting this, by the way -- I'm not just being defensive on AUFS's part. My own views on the original KBBC issue actually line up with yours quite closely, and I as well have my suspicions about some rhetorical tendenices at AUFS I questioned in the comments to Adam's "decadent" post. I'm not trying to pin all the tension on you. But I was also put off by what seemed to me rhetorical violence on your part in the original KBBC post. Thus my questions.)

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for the comment and clarification. Essentially, yes, what I'm saying is that the AUFS crowd cannot admit the possibility of any other position apart from their own on the question of transcendence. Transcendence = bad, as I put in the KBBC comments. But we can't go anywhere constructively with that starting-point. Now, I'm perfectly willing and able to offer any number of alternative conceptions of transcendence. I articulated at least two in the KBBC comments. Both were either ignored or lumped in the same category as the others.

But this isn't new territory. I and many of my friends have had such encounters at AUFS for years now. None of this was new or unexpected for me. I think it's just helpful to make the problem explicit.

thedescribe said...


I think at least part of the point DWC was trying to make was in fact the possibility of allowing the arbitration of another in dialogue for the hope of development/growth/progess/whatever. To respond as though that arbitration may be correct and allow it in fact to be at work in you on some existential level. This is not some 'suspension of belief' just the allowance of influence which you can later reject in whole if desirable.
If you do not respect your dialogue partner or the topic s/he brings to the table that is fine but if you suspect some mutual growth can occur then it appears your posture is limiting.
I offer this mostly as a characterization of how I have approached AUFS in the last year or so. Many of the claims and positions at AUFS lacked a sense of clarity to me and yet I broadly respected and valued the approach and content and so have allowed myself a greater space for what once seemed like a insulating if not misleading approach. You can chalk this up to the falsity or disingenuous nature of 'persuasion' but I am more interested in growth and hope and healing and I do find those things operative on your site and so I am most definitely open to being persuaded and consider what it would mean to inhabit a differing position arbitration. Or, what the hell, at least I want to learn.
Of course you are your final arbitrator and so it is completely legitimate to go on about how you don't understand what someone means by a particular position but then to turn around and claim (or support claims) that the dialogue partner is not actually interested in dialogue is just poor work.
Just say you don't understand and move on.
- David CLD

keo said...

Good stuff, David. The hermeneutic of charity reminds me of Iris Murdoch's "unselfing," the experience of and willingness to be changed by something outside oneself. Without a willingness to have our vision changed, we're unlikely to ever see anything new.