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:
- Careful engagement with the texts or ideas in question; and
- A mutual willingness to learn from another and to have one’s horizon of understanding expanded through the dialogical encounter.
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 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.)
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)
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)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.
“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)
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.