Friday, December 17, 2010

The Top 50 Albums of 2010

In many ways, 2010 was a disappointing year. Apart from a few magnificent films (e.g., Inception, The Social Network, Toy Story 3), it was one of the more lackluster years at the box office in recent memory. There were very few exciting new books, and even the best (such as Franzen’s Freedom) received fairly mixed reviews. And, of course, 2010 was a complete and utter disaster politically. All of this places the year’s music in high relief. And what a year it was! From Beach House’s Teen Dream to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010 was a watershed in the history of music. It was also one month short of including new releases by Iron & Wine and The Decemberists. And it sounds like the new Radiohead album is also complete and only waiting for the right distribution. But that’s OK; the year was amazing enough as it stands. Usually I only put together a top 25 list, but there were too many excellent albums deserving of recognition, so I’ve doubled it this year. Feel free to add your own lists in the comments.

The Suburbs
1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Arcade Fire is that rare band capable of filling Madison Square Garden without sacrificing one ounce of their musical and lyrical integrity. They make stadium-filling indie rock music without capitulating to the market’s demand for a radio-ready single, always focused from start to finish on making the complete album a coherent, beautiful, and profound work of art. While their legacy will probably always be defined by the perfection of Funeral, on The Suburbs, their third LP, Arcade Fire have managed to further mature as musicians. The album replaces the childlike idealism of Funeral and the dark apocalypticism of Neon Bible with a gritty, concrete, localized realism. It eloquently captures our post-industrial, consumeristic ennui, along with the internal tension between wanting to escape the vacuity of modern suburban existence, feeling resigned to the present state of the world, and yet still recognizing and embracing the small joys the appear in each new moment. All of this was perhaps captured best by two music videos: Spike Jonze’s video for “The Suburbs” and the technologically-brilliant creation by Chris Milk for the song, “We Used to Wait.” In a year that will go down as one of the greatest years in music history, The Suburbs stands out as a magnificent monument of our times.

High Violet2. The National, High Violet

The National rose to prominence with 2005’s Alligator and further perfected their blend of rugged, rural Midwest and intellectual, urban Northeast rock music on 2007’s critically-acclaimed Boxer. But on this year’s High Violet, the group reaches a level of maturity and depth that rivals groups like Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio. Standing at the center of the album, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the undisputed standout track. The pounding drums juxtaposed with gentle piano and strings—all enveloped by Matt Berninger’s rich baritone—represents what The National are capable of in their best moments. Other excellent tracks include “Terrible Love,” “Afraid of Everyone,” and “Conversation 16.”


It would be satisfying to dismiss Kanye’s new album based on his egomaniacal antics and easy to regard it as overrated based on near-universal critical adulation (a 10.0, seriously?). But one listen is enough to make anyone a believer: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a pop masterpiece. The seemingly impossible claim that it is our generation’s Thriller is really not far off the mark. MBDTF is proof that, for all Kanye’s personal issues, he is a musical genius, the likes of which are rare indeed. The clear centerpiece is “Runaway,” which would be enough on its own to secure this album’s place on almost any top 10 list. The fact that the rest of the album is of the same absurdly high quality is something of a miracle. If all of this weren’t enough, the 35-minute short film Runaway that Kanye directed is a remarkable work in itself, well worth watching in its entirety, but specifically for the stunning ballet scene that accompanies the title track.

Treats4. Sleigh Bells, Treats

Pure sonic bliss. Aural crack. Without question, the party album of the year, maybe of the decade. This is the kind of album that I would expect to hear in dorm rooms across America. Of all the albums that came out this year, Treats gave me the most pleasure. It truly lived up to its name. Trying to pick the best tracks is very difficult, but in an album of gems, my favorites are “Rill Rill,” “Kids,” and “Crown on the Ground.” Perhaps the best thing I can say about Treats is that whenever I listen to it on my iPod, I couldn’t care one bit what others think when they see me banging my head.

The Age of Adz5. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz

No album was more a surprise than The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds”). In interviews and other statements over the past couple years, Sufjan Stevens gave the impression of giving up music altogether. His fans began to despair, wondering if he would ever release another album. And then, his mammoth EP, All Delighted People, dropped out of the blue. It wasn’t his best work, but it was vintage Sufjan. It showed an artist in a period of transition. But a transition to what? A few weeks later came the news: The Age of Adz, a primarily electronic album reminiscent of his very early work in Enjoy Your Rabbit and A Sun Came (see especially “Joy! Joy! Joy!”). When the album finally arrived, it was a shock to the system, but in every good way. The songs are just as grand and orchestral as his previous work—and the apocalyptic themes harken back to Seven Swans, as does his persona as preacher (compare “I am the Lord” in “Seven Swans” with “You know you really gotta get right with the Lord” in “Get Real Get Right”)—but it isn’t just a throwback. Sufjan has clearly matured as a musician and songwriter. Taking inspiration from the schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, the album is an intensely personal work, most noticeably in the self-references in “Vesuvius” (“Sufjan, follow the path … Sufjan, follow your heart”). Unquestionably, the make-it-or-break-it aspect of the album comes in its 25-minute closing song, “Impossible Soul,” performed in its entirety during the tour. In the opinion of this reviewer, it stands as one of Sufjan’s greatest achievements, a breathtaking tour de force that marks this as one of the year’s best albums. For a free remix by InfinitiRock of the song “All for Myself,” click here.

Cosmogramma6. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus (AKA FlyLo AKA Steven Ellison) makes music that is completely unclassifiable, bending and mixing genres so effortlessly and brilliantly that any notion of genre ceases to be meaningful. His second album, 2008’s Los Angeles, put him on the map. But Cosmogramma is in a league of its own. There isn’t any single track that stands out, because it’s meant to be heard as a composite whole, a singular work of art that punishes any attempt to confine it within predefined musical boxes.


Go7. Jónsi, Go

Sigur Rós have made some of the most enduring and beautiful music over the past decade. Their signature sound is unlike anything else. The question then, when lead singer Jónsi set off to make a solo record, was whether this would just be a Sigur Rós B-sides or whether the album would stand on its own. The result, Go, certainly operates within the general landscape of Sigur Rós’s music, but it stands apart as a remarkable achievement, exceeding virtually every expectation (and those expectations were already high!). The album has all the exuberant energy of Sigur Rós, but Jónsi has made the ethereal otherworldliness of his band’s previous work sound more intimate and subtle, more concrete and whimsical. While I eagerly await the next Sigur Rós album, I am now equally excited to hear Jónsi’s follow-up.

Body Talk [Explicit] [+Digital Booklet]8. Robyn, Body Talk

2010 has been dubbed the Year of Robyn, and for good reason. June saw the release of Body Talk Pt. 1, which introduced us to sizzling electro-pop songs like “Fembots,” “None of Dem,” and especially “Dancing on My Own.” In September, the Swedish singer dropped Body Talk Pt. 2, including the non-acoustic version of “Hang With Me” and “U Should Know Better” (with Snoop Dogg). Finally, in November, Robyn released the full LP of Body Talk, combining tracks from the first two EPs with new songs. The result is the dance album of the year.

Marnie Stern9. Marnie Stern, Marnie Stern

Without question, the most underrated and overlooked album of the year. Marnie Stern consistently makes great rock music, and her trademark finger-tapping style gives her a sound all her own. But it is only with this, her third release, that Marnie has learned to refine her songwriting to appeal to those outside of a select group of indie enthusiasts. The result is an infectious album, brimming with power-rock singles like the opening stunner, “For Ash,” which I have as one of the top 5 songs of the year. Like all of the best albums of 2010, though, this too is a complete album experience. And there’s never a dull moment. Once “For Ash” seizes you by the collar, you’re in the album’s grip until the end, and it’s a great ride.

Teen Dream [CD + DVD]10. Beach House, Teen Dream

When Beach House’s Teen Dream dropped in late January, it set the stage for one of the best years in music. At the time, I was convinced we had already heard the best the year had to offer. And while I was wrong in that judgment, I was not wrong in realizing that this album would be among the best of the year when all was said and done. Teen Dream is dream pop perfection. Every song is a carefully crafted gem. While it doesn’t have the lyrical depth of The Suburbs or the creativity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the daring of The Age of Adz, it is a stunning achievement from beginning to end. Beach House’s haunting, atmospheric, shoegaze-inspired sound has never sounded better. Their 2008 album, Devotion, was great; this is a masterpiece.

11. Four Tet, There Is Love In You
12. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
13. Twin Shadow, Forget
14. Caribou, Swim
15. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
16. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
17. Das Racist, Sit Down, Man
18. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record
19. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
20. Vampire Weekend, Contra
21. Avey Tare, Down There
22. The Walkmen, Lisbon
23. Scissor Sisters, Night Work
24. Liars, Sisterworld
26. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
27. School of Seven Bells, Disconnect from Desire
28. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
29. Delorean, Subiza
30. How to Dress Well, Love Remains
31. Wolf Parade, Expo 86
32. Antony and the Johnsons, Swanlights
33. Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love
34. Ceo, White Magic
36. Girl Talk, All Day
38. Teengirl Fantasy, 7AM
39. Menomena, Mines
40. Owen Pallett, Heartland
41. New Pornographers, Together
42. Tame Impala, Innerspeaker
43. Best Coast, Crazy For You
44. These New Puritans, Hidden
45. Wavves, King of the Beach
46. Wild Nothing, Gemini
47. Mystery Jets, Serotonin
48. Rock Plaza Central, At the Moment of Our Most Needing
49. Fang Island, Fang Island
50. Matthew Dear, Black City

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The TSA as a Tower of Babel

“Modern man is in danger of forgetting two things: first, that his plans and undertakings should be guided not by his own desires for happiness and security, usefulness and profit, but rather by obedient response to the challenge of goodness, truth and love, by obedience to the commandment of God which man forgets in his selfishness and presumption; and secondly, that it is an illusion to suppose that real security can be gained by men organizing their own personal and community life. There are encounters and destinies which man cannot master. He cannot secure endurance for his works. His life is fleeting and its end is death. History goes on and pulls down all the towers of Babel again and again. There is no real, definitive security, and it is precisely this illusion to which men are prone to succumb in their yearning for security.”

—Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 39-40.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Review: Van Driel, Incarnation Anyway

I have a new book review up at the Center for Barth Studies on Edwin Chr. van Driel’s Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology. Here’s the opening paragraph of the review:
The debate between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism is often treated as a matter of only historical interest. The perceived esotericism of the words and their connection to speculative flights of scholastic fancy have led many to believe that these positions are irrelevant to contemporary constructive theology. It is therefore much to Edwin van Driel’s credit that he demonstrates the significance of this debate for theological work today. The question raised by these two positions is whether “the incarnation is contingent upon sin” (4). Does the divine will to become incarnate logically precede or follow the will to allow sin? The majority report throughout Christian history has been the infralapsarian thesis that incarnation follows sin. That is, God would not have become incarnate had humanity not fallen into sin. Van Driel presents a case for the minority view that God would have become incarnate regardless.
Read the full review.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The varieties of divine transcendence

There has been some concern recently that defenders of divine transcendence are attempting merely to perpetuate a dead concept, one that has long-since been obliterated by modernity (for various reasons). I have a vested interest in this debate, insofar as I agree with those who wish to dispense with metaphysics, mythology, and other forms of theological discourse that only reinforce the ideological confinement of religious God-talk. For the sake of discussion, I will accept that the burden of proof rests with those like myself who wish to continue to speak of a transcendent God after the death of God (understood in both its christological and modern-historical senses). What follows then is a very brief list of the varieties of divine transcendence, beginning with the two versions to be rejected. It also goes without saying that these are not all mutually exclusive. Finally, I do not claim that this list is exhaustive, and I am happy to add further items based on suggestions in the comments.
  1. Metaphysical (or analogical) transcendence. This is the form of transcendence as posited by the via triplex and other forms of classical analogical modes of God-talk. Here transcendence is defined either as the projection or the negation of some mode of finite immanence. Both of these modes are grounded in the more basic form of metaphysical transcendence, which is causal: God is here the Prime Mover or First Cause.
  2. Mythological transcendence. I take this point from Bultmann, who famously defines myth as representing the transcendent as “spatially distant,” as in the three-tiered cosmos. Myth is understood thus as a crude, primitive version of metaphysics.
  3. Reformational transcendence, or transcendence as deus absconditus. The transcendence of the “hidden God” is a prominent theme in Luther’s theology, and it appears in Calvin and others as well. Here there is a sharp distinction between the hidden and revealed God that corresponds to the distinction between law/wrath and gospel/grace. Transcendence in this sense is posited on the basis of our human sinfulness, rather than our finitude. God is transcendent in the sense that God is removed from us as our judge.
  4. Mystical transcendence. The description “mystical” is hotly contested and I use it tentatively, but in essence I refer to the notion that God is transcendent as “wholly other” in a timeless and ahistorical sense. It often takes a Platonic or Neoplatonic form, as in Meister Eckhart, and in this sense overlaps with metaphysical transcendence. But the crucial difference is that this form of transcendence is not simply an idea to be posited and analyzed through the faculty of reason; it is instead a transcendence to be practiced and experienced through forms of spiritual ascesis. Mystical transcendence is primarily a mode of orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy.
  5. Dialectical-eschatological transcendence. What I call dialectical-eschatological transcendence is the form of divine transcendence represented by Bultmann and the early Barth, where God is understood as “wholly other” but in a concrete and historical sense. Transcendence is here not a “realm” to be reached by reason or experience; it instead refers to the fact that God cannot be objectified or mastered. God is not an object available for our investigation, neither a “thing-in-itself” nor a thing as it appears to us, to use Kantian distinctions. Instead, God is a particular event or encounter within history and only perceptible to faith. Bultmann writes: “The idea that divine action is unworldly or transcendent is preserved only if such action is represented not as something taking place between occurrences in the world but as something that takes place in them .... God’s act is hidden from all eyes other than the eyes of faith. The only thing that can be generally seen and established is the ‘natural’ occurrence. In it God’s hidden act takes place.” This notion of transcendence is thus set wholly against all forms of supernaturalism, which attempt to identify places within history where God is directly accessible, i.e., where a miracle occurs. Dialectical-eschatological transcendence reserves no space for the supernatural. It therefore also excludes all natural theology, since there is no way from “here” to “there,” because there is no “there” as an identifiable place or object. The “there” (or the divine) occurs within the “here” (or the worldly). Eschatological refers to what is qualitatively different from the world as available to scientific and historical research. Some opponents might also refer to this as fideistic transcendence, since there is no proof for such divine action; certainty only comes within faith, not outside of it.
  6. Dialectical-analogical transcendence. What I am labeling dialectical-analogical transcendence is that form of divine transcendence often associated with the middle-to-later Barth—though whether rightly or wrongly is still a matter of much debate. It refers to the relation between the immanent and economic Trinity as a dialectical and analogical relation. Three features of this model make it differ from the metaphysical model noted above: (a) the basis for the analogy is strictly located in Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation; (b) there is nothing about God’s immanent transcendence that is not revealed in God’s economic immanence; and (c) the entire relation between transcendence and immanence is known only to faith. This version of transcendence is grounded in what Barth calls the analogia fidei, as opposed to the analogia entis that grounds the metaphysical version. What makes this model differ from the dialectical-eschatological model is that what occurs in time and space is identified as a communication or manifestation of what is already actually the case in eternity.
  7. Analogical-ontological transcendence. This is the version represented by Radical Orthodoxy and its fellow-travelers, the most brilliant version of which is found in David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. The emphasis here is on the ontological plenitude of God’s transcendent being, which is analogically mediated to the world. The analogia entis is, on this account, the sine qua non of Christian theology. For the most part, this is a subset of the metaphysical transcendence mentioned above.
  8. Apocalyptic transcendence. This model, which I derive from Nate Kerr’s writings (particularly his 2009 essay in Political Theology), understands transcendence non-analogically. It opposes both the “univocal production of pure immanence” and the “analogical mediation of transcendence in immanence.” For this reason, apocalyptic transcendence is a thoroughly non-ontological conceptuality, leaving the sphere of ontology to materialist ontologies of immanence. As Kerr defines it, transcendence is here understood in terms of (a) the “priority of grace”—God is “beyond” as the free initiating action of God’s subversive reign within the world—and (b) the doxological response of the human person to this initiating action. Transcendence thus takes place as a form of theopolitical agency, simultaneously divine and human, initiating and following. The main point is that God’s transcendence refers to a particular mode of action within the world that suspends immanence and funds a new form of human action in response. It is therefore, in my view, a political and doxological variation on the dialectical-eschatological model.
  9. Postmetaphysical transcendence. A number of theologians could claim the label of postmetaphysical, but in this instance I define it according to Eberhard Jüngel’s theology, particularly as represented by Gott als Geheimnis der Welt. This work does not use the term “transcendence” very often in a positive way; this is because the book is directed against any notion of God as an ens necessarium or supreme being. Moreover, his analogy of advent is directed against thinking of God as “wholly other” or “beyond.” He repeatedly uses the line from Luther that quae supra nos, nihil ad nos: “things that are above us are of no concern to us.” And yet one can discern in the midst of all this a creative renewal of the language of transcendence in his radical identification of God with the dead Jesus, such that God is defined as the concrete unity of life and death on behalf of life. This (Hegel-inspired) unity of life and death in God that Jüngel posits allows for transcendence to be understood as the soteriological otherness of God in the word-event (Wortgeschehen or Sprachereignis). God is transcendent in the sense of being the word of address that comes from outside of us (extra nos) and so separates us from ourselves. God is the qualitative distance between the old self and the new self, between sin and grace. God’s transcendence is thus an existential distancing of the ego through the event of the word, in which God is present as absent, transcendent as immanent. As Jüngel puts it, “God is my neighbor. He comes nearer to me than I am to myself. Faith opens itself up to this nearness of God. ... In the word, God is present as the absent one. Faith allows God as the absent one to be present. ... Without a fundamental extra nos faith knows of no deus pro nobis and certainly no deus in nobis. God is only near to us in that he distances us from ourselves” (God as the Mystery, 182).
  10. I-Thou transcendence. By this I mean all of those conceptions of transcendence that locate the “beyond” in the neighbor or the Levinasian “Other.” The absolute alterity of the Other is the encounter with the absolute horizon of our future. The Other is the limit of our existence, and so the experience of transcendence. This of course need not be theological, insofar as such I-Thou transcendence can be thoroughly atheistic.
  11. Religionless transcendence. Bonhoeffer’s prison writings are replete with powerful insights into a post-metaphysical, post-religious way of speaking about God. I am calling his model religionless transcendence simply because he refers to the need for a “religionless Christianity.” But a more descriptive term would be socioethical transcendence. Of course, the seeds for this are sown already in his earliest works. In Sanctorum Communio, he speaks of the “transcendence of the You” as an “ethical transcendence,” and in Act and Being he refers to the “illusory transcendence” of the analogia entis formulated by Przywara. Then in his 1933 lectures on christology, he says that the question of transcendence is the “question of the neighbor.” All of this leads to his famous “Outline for a Book” written in prison in 1944. The description of the second chapter reads:
    Jesus’s “being-for-others” [Für-andere-dasein] is the experience of transcendence! Only through this liberation from self, through this “being-for-others” unto death, do omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence come into being. Faith is participating in this being of Jesus. (Becoming human [Menschwerdung], cross, resurrection.) Our relationship to God is no “religious” relationship to some highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable—that is no genuine transcendence. Instead, our relationship to God is a new life in “being there for others” [Dasein-für-andere], through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendent is not the infinite, unattainable tasks, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form! Not as in oriental religions in animal forms as the monstrous, the chaotic, the remote, the terrifying, but also not in the conceptual forms of the absolute, the metaphysical, the infinite, and so on, either, nor again the Greek god—human form of the “God-human form of the human being in itself.” But rather “the human being for others”! therefore the Crucified One. The human being living out of the transcendent. (DBWE 8:501)
    Here I think we find a version of transcendence that shares aspects with the dialectical-eschatological, postmetaphysical, and I-Thou models of transcendence. But that it remains a conception of divine transcendence is indisputable, however much it departs from the tradition.
  12. Eschatological transcendence. Under this heading I include all those theologians who understand God’s transcendence as his eschatological futurity. God is transcendent as the coming horizon of the future that transforms our present. There are a number of variations of this view. Robert Jenson and the early Moltmann embrace this form of transcendence. But it is the early Pannenberg, with his affirmation of the retroactive ontological significance of God’s eschatological future in Jesus Christ, that is the most extreme form of this model.
  13. Maqom transcendence. The most recent works by Jürgen Moltmann speak of God as the Maqom (מָקוֹם)—which means, in its fullest theological sense, “sacred dwelling place,” though Moltmann generally refers to it as the “broad room” or “living space.” The word has its traditional home in Jewish theology of the temple, and it is associated in the Hebrew scriptures with everything from the Israelite tabernacle to sites of theophanies to the promised land itself. God as Maqom is the “broad room” who invites us into covenantal fellowship, who proclaims the mystery of divine grace: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God” (Exod. 29:45). Jürgen Moltmann adds to this the notion that God not only dwells with creation but creation dwells in God. He thus speaks about an asymmetrical mutual indwelling of Creator and creature: “God’s indwelling in the world is divine in kind; the world’s indwelling in God is worldly in kind” (God in Creation, 150). This version of transcendence is thus dependent on a certain kind of panentheism.
  14. Transcendence as wonder. In her excellent new blog post on “Thinking Otherwise,” Mary-Jane Rubenstein summarizes a key point from her book on Strange Wonder as a way of overcoming the impasse between the religious and the secular. The religious perspective (she uses RO as the key example) advocates for transcendence as the way to justify and ground a theocratic imperialism; divine transcendence legitimates a tyrannical theology and politics. The secularist perspective cuts itself off from the surprising encounter with anything new; it makes everything that is all there is. The “third way” is to see “the extraordinary in and through the ordinary.” Following Heidegger, Rubenstein calls this “wonder” (thaumazein), which is a way of seeing the world that marvels “at the strangeness of the everyday.” There is a remarkable similarity between this account of transcendence and Bultmann’s dialectical-eschatological account described above, which is to be expected considering Bultmann and Heidegger were friends and colleagues who learned much from each other. Interestingly, Bultmann has an essay on “The Question of Wonder [Wunder]” (Glauben und Verstehen 1:214-28; Faith and Understanding, 247-61) where he articulates a non-miraculous conception of divine action which makes it “really possible for the Christian continually to see new wonders.” For Bultmann, anything in the world at any moment can become the shocking occasion for encountering “the extraordinary,” which he understands as God’s action in the world. 
  15. Noncompetitive transcendence. Many of the above models could rightly claim the label of “noncompetitive,” but I include it here to acknowledge the distinctive contribution of Kathryn Tanner to the conversation about divine transcendence. Tanner’s work intends to show the radical political potential in classical Christian concepts, and transcendence lies at the heart of her project. Her position is opposed to competitive or contrastive notions of the divine-world relation: “Divinity characterized in terms of a direct contrast with certain sorts of being or with the world of non-divine being as a whole is brought down to the level of the world and the beings within it in virtue of that very opposition: God becomes one being among others within a single order. Such talk suggests that God exists alongside the non-divine, that God is limited by what is opposed to it, that God is as finite as the non-divine beings with which it is directly contrasted” (God and Creation, 45-6). Against the competitive model (which I would identify with the metaphysical and ontological models), she argues that “an extreme of divine involvement requires, one could say, an extreme of divine transcendence” (ibid., 46). Divine action and creaturely action do not function in a zero-sum game. God’s increase does not require our decrease, nor does our increase require God’s decrease. It is precisely God’s absolute otherness from the world that allows God to be absolutely with the world. This way of understanding the transcendence of God allows Tanner to argue in Christ the Key that grace is not some “extrinsic addendum,” but is rather more “natural” to us than so-called “nature”; the gratuity of grace is not a function of some presupposed contrast between creatures and God, between nature and grace. It is this absolute transcendence of God that funds Tanners account of radical politics, particularly her understanding of a noncompetitive economy.
I welcome your thoughts and your input regarding other versions not included in this list. I know there are many that I have overlooked. Please feel free to add them in the comments.

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.