If you want to be a contemporary theologian…

In the spirit of my assessment of good theology and bad theology, I offer up a simple rule for anyone who wishes to be applauded as a radical contemporary theologian:

  • Anything modern must be rejected because it can be destructive, while anything Christian must be preserved because it can be construed as good.

Some may call this a double standard — if pressed, you should call it a paradox. It is precisely in the manifest unfairness of this standard that it reveals itself to be the fairest standard of all!

45 thoughts on “If you want to be a contemporary theologian…

  1. Jeremy Stout, who is not a Christian, makes a very good critique of this in Democracy and Tradition where he says that doesn’t it break Christian Theology to believe grace is abundant and everywhere, apart from in modernity?

  2. I really think that for Christianity, modernity was the second great unassimilable event, the first being Islam. Christianity proved remarkably able to regulate internal dissent through its system of heresies, and it had a perfectly serviceable absolute Other in the Jew.

    When Islam and modernity both broke out, Christianity tried and failed to assimilate them into the existing system it had set up to deal with its outside and quasi-inside — so that Islam is just a repeat of some previous heresy, or Islam is just Judaism all over again, both accusations that you get against modernity. And of course you also now get the notion that modernity is somehow Islamic…

    One could argue that the latest response to modernity is to put it into the slot previously reserved for the Jew, now that the Holocaust has rendered open anti-Judaism unacceptable in most Christian circles (and one could think here of the phenomenon of Christian Zionism as well). You can see this even in “nice” theologians like Tillich, who will avoid the old stereotypes about Judaism, but then apply them all to Islam. The choice then becomes whether to accept an alliance of convenience with modernity against Islam or stridently oppose both — the alliance with Islam never even entering into the realm of the thinkable.

  3. Also the Holocaust is a often thought of as the Jews being killed by modernity, particularly in say the works of Adorno – I wonder if this could be developed.

  4. Yeah, those are great. I’ve got no problem with particularity as long as it takes itself rigorously in the sense that Yoder does there. Some theologians will tell you that the difference is between particularity and “Modern” universality. When in fact the real difference is particularity as “undercover empire” and particuality as pure particularity. I tried to make this case, for what it’s worth, in my essay in _The New Yoder_. (And some more in my book, when it comes out.)

  5. Which is also to say that, there, Yoder’s being pretty Spinozian: God (theological description) OR Nature (sociological, etc., description).

  6. Since when did being a Barthian (or any kind of Whatnot-ian) entail defending everything the man ever wrote, read, or ate? Certainly those types are out there, but it doesn’t seem to me that “being a Barthian” commits one to a doctrine of Barth’s infallibility.

  7. It is pretty normal for people to deal with things that seem like a problem… have you heard of Heidegger? Plato? Kant? So… what do you as a Barthian have to say about Jews and Muslims?

  8. I don’t quite understand your comment Anthony. And yes, I have heard of Heidegger, Plato, and Kant. What I did not understand, hence my original comment, is the presupposition that being a Barthian or Platonist means that one must toe the whole line (or that others would presume that you must necessarily toe the whole line, which is even weirder).

    Why can’t the Barthian simply say, “Barth said some super-messed up things about Jews and Muslims,” just like Kant did about the Jews, just like Heidegger….and so on? It seems pretty easy enough.

  9. I’ve read multiple articles about Kant/Hegel/Heidegger’s racist/sexist/Nazi etc. passages, with analyses of how these failings relate to their larger work etc. These are always non-trivial, even if the author’s final verdict is that the momentary lapse is not of greater significance for the rest of their work.

    I’ve only heard about Barth saying insane things like this in isolation. I actually can’t think of any theologian who I know has gotten the “Heidegger and Nazism” treatment, except for Augustine, Luther and other historical figures.

  10. It seems pretty easy enough.

    I think the concerning thing is not simply that he said some really awful things about Muslims and Jews. Rather, what was is it in his theology that enabled him to say such awful things about them? Barthians ought to be aware of those theological aberrations so they too could avoid such prejudices. I mean certainly his theological position informed these prejudices, right?

  11. Ken,

    My point is it isn’t abnormal for people to be disturbed by the comments of thinkers. That disturbance will often come up when they meet someone who is in some sense an X-ian. And sometimes the person who was disturbed will then ask that person to explain that weird, disturbing comment. It can even go further and the person who was disturbed may even think that the disturbing comment is not just an accident in isolation but says something about the system of thinking in general that they may then insist the X-ian account for lest they fall into the same problem. Are you familiar with this scenario? Cause it’s happened with Kant, Plato, and Heidegger. I guess what bothers me about Christian theologians, especially Barthians, is that they never feel like they should have this conversation. Something about it doesn’t really bother them when others point out that maybe Barth’s theory of religion is, you know, racist or something. Perhaps because they know the hope of heaven is theirs or that since they’re Christians and thus Good or justified or “following the crucified and giving up their bodies and spirits to the broken poor” or whatever they want to say they’re already right. I hope it is for a less annoying reason though.

  12. When I said, “seems simple enough,” I didn’t mean to suggest that the conversation about objectionable elements, their origin in a thinker, or their relationship to other ideas should stop, simply that the point of the conversation changes dramatically: from interrogating the Barthian, Heideggerian, etc, and holding them responsible for what Barth, Heidegger said, to asking what this person (hopefully an expert of sorts) thinks about how this otherwise notable thinker went so wrong, a question which to me would stem from sheer curiosity or shock.

    I wouldn’t expect Dreyfus to defend Heidegger’s Rectorat Rede, but I would be interested to know what he thought about it, just as I wouldn’t automatically assume Rawls or Nussabaum should defend Kant and his colonist, anti-semitic remarks, but I might want to hear them talk about it. And I think this is how we actually tend to approach the epigones of thinkers with objectionable elements (which includes any historical figure).

    If Barthians want to defend the objectionable parts of Barth (which there clearly and certainly are), then the problem is no longer their being Barthian, but their being something potentially far more sinister (the harsher reading) or far more unaware and lazier (the nicer reading of the situation).

  13. I don’t really see this as a matter of defending Barth’s comparison of Islam to National Socialism, which is totally indefensible. The critical question is how was he able to say this (something reprehensible) while simultaneously affirming other theological ideas that Barthians want to affirm. Instead, one might want to explore how Barth betrayed his own program, and thus a Barthian might want to argue that Barth failed to live up to his own theological commitments that would, in theory, disallow such statements. That seems to me to be the only intellectually honest way to handle such matters, rather than turning a blind eye. I find it disconcerting that Barthians have not or do not see this as being a real fucking problem.

  14. Ken,

    I think what troubles me about what you’re saying here is the idea that “we’re not like that anymore”. That somehow Kant’s racist comments was an accident exterior to his philosophy. Even the way you separate it at the end, where the fault seems to lie with the person asking the question. So the Barthian is taken to be the one who is subjected to interrogation and the questioner decides whether to be nice or harsh. I also like the questioner can never ask the question out of anything but curiosity or shock. Is the idea that these comments are somehow produced from the system of thinking itself off limits? That wouldn’t mean that everything Barth (or whomever) said was worthless, but that there might be something useful about finding that aspect of their thought that determines or produces that way of thinking. It seems to me that this would actually be beneficial to those people who spend their life trying to think like this person, if they want to avoid falling into the same trap. So why don’t we see Barthians tackling this? You’re of course right that it doesn’t mean they consciously accept these views, but why are they consciously ignoring it?

  15. Since we’re complaining in the open – this is all sort of like how really popular theo-bloggers, like Ben Myers, are able to continue constantly holding up utterly despicable characters like Chesterton as heroes and productive of a “new paradoxical politics”. Whenever someone tries to challenge them on this they just ignored. The fantasy must continue to function and any explanation remains beneath the follower of Christ.

  16. I’d say Myer’s recent Scott Stevens post on why the 1960s caused child rape an interesting variation on this theme. Hi Ben if you are lurking – these were fucking horrid.

  17. Yeah, Jesus Christ that might have been the most awful post I’ve read in along time. The real problem driving Catholic sex abuse was the sexual mores of the 1960’s, not the Catholic church. Also, I often wonder if what allows people to ignore difficult questions is the assumption that the person asking is not in good faith. This can then allow them to justify a non-response because, by definition, the person asking would never be satisfied. So, since those of us who write at AUFS are not ‘orthodox’, we don’t deserve a thoughtful response since we cannot be ‘converted’.

  18. What’s ironic is it is precisely the attitude of these people that made me give up on practicing Christianity! I wanted to have good faith, but I noticed whenever I asked questions like this people ignored them or tried to explain them away.

  19. If I end up in Hell… it’ll be their fault. Which I am sure will bother them when they’re bored as fuck sitting around a throne worshiping God 24/7. Cause… that shit is gonna get boring, like, yesterday.

  20. Ha ha. Is there anybody who grew up in an evangelical church who did not shake in the pews as a child when the preacher started talking about singing Holy, Holy, Holy forevermore in heaven.

  21. @APSmith: re: Chesterton:

    Why “utterly despicable”? I mean, I’m not a member of the GKC Society or anything, but that seems awfully strong for what I know of him. (Not trying to hijack the comment thread.)

  22. I think the “politics of paradox” is nothing more than the holy water the aristocrat uses to cool the burnings of his heart in the face of class struggle. I could say more but… I basically think Chesterton and the fanboyism around him is another example of the kind of thing being discussed regarding Barth.

  23. In the words of a questioner, heard by a colleague at a talk, “Well, you might be right that Chesterton got it wrong on the Jews, but you know where he is right, about the Muslims”.

  24. Couldn’t pick up the cues as to whether the conversation had peacefully petered out or was still open. You wrote:

    That wouldn’t mean that everything Barth (or whomever) said was worthless, but that there might be something useful about finding that aspect of their thought that determines or produces that way of thinking. It seems to me that this would actually be beneficial to those people who spend their life trying to think like this person, if they want to avoid falling into the same trap. So why don’t we see Barthians tackling this? You’re of course right that it doesn’t mean they consciously accept these views, but why are they consciously ignoring it?

    This. I think this is entirely right and I never disagreed with this aspect of the above comments. But I think these questions move in a different register than the earlier “Let’s see those dumb Barthians explain *this* messed comment!” This is more of a “C’mon, look at these messed claims Barth is making, and can you please make sure you’re not doing the same!” This way of putting the matter doesn’t assume that Barthians simply nod their head in unison to whatever the man said or that they are automatically charged with the task of saving Barth from himself. You’re right that I shouldn’t assume that all Barthians are already “past” his own problems, but I also don’t think we should assume that Barthians would disagree that there are some highly questionable parts of his theology and that detecting the extent of their effects and their potential sources is worthwhile work.

    As for why the number of Barthians working on these issues is small to none means telling a long story regarding Barth’s reception in the UK and North America. Part of the problem is, I think, that Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt’s work on Barth (arguing for an irreducible socialism and radical politics at the heart of Barth’s theology, as well as his taking Barth to task regarding the Judenfrage) was deemed misguided long before the Anglo world was ever aware of his work (with a few notable execeptions, and these remain exceptions) or at least Marquardt’s arguments could be assimilated into the other pictures of Barth floating around. In any case, we’ve gone from Barth the red pastor, unafraid even to praise Stalin, unwilling to condemn communism so that he could avoid looking looking too pro-West or pro-US at the start of the Cold War, to now reading Barth in order to get our doctrines all in a row. Clearly something is happening here, and I’m also interested in know what is going on.

  25. Ken,

    Even though Scott apparently is satisfied, which really rather proves my point, I still am not. You’re still not responding here. If you think that I’m playing some kind of gotcha game that I’m not, you’re free to think that, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still trying to move this from a position where you (and Barthians in general) are challenged to a position where those challenging are making some kind of protocol error. So you say, “You’re right that I shouldn’t assume that all Barthians are already “past” his own problems, but I also don’t think we should assume that Barthians would disagree that there are some highly questionable parts of his theology and that detecting the extent of their effects and their potential sources is worthwhile work.” Sure… but I also have seen absolutely no reason to actually think that Barthians would disagree with his remarks about Islam (they might about Judaism since it’s rather unpopular amongst intellectuals to be antisemitic with regards to Jews, but not so unpopular to be antisemitic with regards to Arabic Muslims). You even refer to the few who have tried to read a radical Barth as exceptions. So why isn’t that the focus then?

    As a side note… why in the hell did you you attend the recent CoTP conference?

  26. I think Barthians should be challenged on these issues. I just don’t think we should assume we know in advance what they’re going to say, that they’re going to defend Barth to the teeth, or that what they say will be a complete mess of obsfucation (which is the sense I got from some of the original comments). This is what I mean by questioning the interrogator as well. It seems to me that anyone working on any historical figure (Plato, Aristotle, Luther, Spinoza, Kant, Heidegger, etc) will have their own questions to sort through, but I wouldn’t automatically assume that Reginald Allen would defend (or would need to defend) everything Plato said, or that Oswald Bayer would defend everything Luther wrote.

    Maybe talking about the particulars will help. For me the Barth and religion question is really a moot point. I simply take “religion” to mean human achievement or self-assertion before God, and simply read Barth as making an essentially Lutheran point about justification. Add the fact that Barth says we cannot escape being religious and bascially recommends for us to be religious boldly, then I don’t think this issue is very interesting or conceptually exciting.

    Now for Barth and Islam. I doubt Barth ever even met a Muslim, and what he knew about Isalm was probably mediated to him from German-Prussian history of religion scholarship, so no real surprise there. I also have never read anything on this, so you’re right to point out a lacuna. Barth and the Jews is trickier (for some of the exceptions I mentioned see the works of Eugene Rogers, Katherine Sonderegger, or Marquardt). I think an article by Richard Rubenstein, “The Philosopher and the Jews: The Case of Martin Heidegger,” adopts the kind of reading and interrogating that I think is productive in this case. Rubenstein pulls no punches. He has an interesting quotation in which Barth admits that earlier in his life he had a totally irrational aversion to Jews that he had to get over, and Rubenstein alludes to several rather damning quotations from Barth on the Jews. Still Rubenstein admires that Barth’s form of Christianity (albeit questionable) allowed a kind of resistance to the NSDAP that Heidegger’s philosophy couldn’t provide. I think Rubenstein is right in his approach to Barth: Barth is neither unduly praised nor condemned tout court, but instead there is the kind of negotation that will need to happen with any historical figure, especially ones so decisive as Barth.

    While the Barth-and-Islam and Barth-and-the-Jews issue are different, one might see in both instances a case of “Christological fascism” (and this might go some way to addressing the Barth and Islam question). As I mentioned in the previous post, Anglo-American Barth scholarship has simply not had some of the debates that have already happened in the German-speaking scholarship. Besides Marquardt, there is also the Munich school of Barth interpretation, which essentially argues that Barth’s early theology was anti-historical and anti-democratic and thus helped lead the way to the break down of the Weimar Republic and the rise of NSDAP, and that Barth’s Christology effects a kind of theoretical and practical Gleichschaltung (the linguistic reference to the NSDAP is intentional). (If you want some interesting and productive criticisms of Barth, the Munich school is the way to go!) There have also been responses to this line in the German-language scholarship that centers around the place of covenant and co-humanity in Barth’s theology (in the works of Wolf Kroetke, Stefan Holtmann, etc). This post is too long to get into the details here, but think it is important to note that there are details to get into and people are working through them, even if the ones having these discussions are not the five Barthians you know or might read on the blogosphere.

    hope this makes some things clearer.

  27. Ken,

    Snark is fine, but I’m still not satisfied! I doubt you’ll be willing or able to give me the satisfaction I’m looking for, though, since you’re still deferring or even playing on the notion that there is some (false in my view) equivalence between the one asking and the one being asked. Obviously I’m not expecting a Barthian or whomever to constantly defend their heroes, but you keep focusing on that. Perhaps I’m being unclear, but the response I am looking for is something that has to go beyond your comments to the effect of: “what Barth says about religion really isn’t interesting”. For me it is very interesting precisely because it sets up a hierarchy of institutional religions that are more open to true revelation than others and it does so without ground. We come to believe it only by way of the grandeur or glory of that religion. For me this is a real problem and while you say some people, people I don’t know because I’m too busy on the blogosphere or something, these people are working on these problems, I don’t see it at the heart of Christian theological inquiry like it should be. Instead I see bullshit like Holsclaw’s JCRT article claiming that the eucharist offers some kind of resistance to capitalist economics or that this secular philosophy or that Islamic theology is an immanentist or univocal parody of Christianity. This is really troubling to me. I suspect it is less so for you.

  28. I was actually curious about the CoTP thing since that’s exactly the kind of theology that says, “Anything modern must be rejected because it can be destructive, while anything Christian must be preserved because it can be construed as good.”

  29. Yeah, I probably wouldn’t be satisfied either. I’ll comment again after teaching some poor German teenagers a bit of business English when they would rather be (and should be) outside enjoying their summer.

  30. APS — all that is troubling to me too (the JCRT ex, et al). You’re wrong to think I am (or Ken is) “satisfied” with his answer, in a way that you so virtuously are not, because I (and I think Ken) agree with you that the question itself — i.e., the conceptual roots of Barth’s relations to the Muslim and the Jew — has not been resolved. Ken’s just pointing out areas where that discussion is actually being had.

    The only “Barth” I’m interested in is the one that would lead to problematizing his remarks about Islam, or that would be concerned about the question of supercessionism (or, to bring it back to the core religion/revelation question — how revelation exceeds institutional Christianity). I attribute the fact that all of my colleagues are reading and looking for a different “Barth” to the issues of reception and educational context Ken is pointing to. To put it simply, most contemporary theology is about reclaiming and defending The Tradition, usually in the face of various “modern” (or secular) threats — and of course Barth, as a dogmatician, is able to be swept up in and made to fit within that game.

    But, if there are some of us out there who agree (with you) that that approach is a dead-end, isn’t the only way to move towards a real answer — again, to the question of the conceptual roots of Barth’s (occasional) disparaging remarks — to actually spend time thinking through what concepts determine the form of Barth’s thought? what makes it hang together in the way it does? You apparently already have an answer here, but to me it seems like the type that basically subsumes Barth within the contemporary theology narrative mentioned above, rather than seeing in Barth any internal point of resistance. I’m glad for you (and AUFS) to press this specific question, because to be honest, although my reading of Barth had already led me to considering the revelation/religion question paramount, I had no idea about Barth’s remarks about Islam until you pointed them out.

    I don’t have any interest in problematizing your question, therefore; but it seems like you’re chiding people who agree that the question needs to be asked, and are actually off doing work on Barth that tries to get at the root problems, because they don’t have a ready-made answer that fits your image of Barth. It feels kind of like someone who’s been tucked away writing an Obamaian approach to grassroots organizing, whose been thrown in the spotlight and required to answer for “why” Obama just deployed those drones. Surely something needs to be said, but if you’re a reporter only interested in ready made sound-bites, you surely won’t be satisfied as the author tries to step back and connect the dots.

    To *begin* to move towards an answer — the reading of Barth I give in my thesis ends up claiming that, at the end of the day, even though Barth understands the anti-human/anti-creaturely principalities/powers of this world to attack and distort primarily the social field, Barth is working with a metaphysic of the God-creature relation that makes the roots of the powers’ dominion intrapersonal idolatry. This means that what overcomes the powers’ dominion (reception/response to revelation) is then cast as a form of ‘knowledge’ of God that is, in some sense, internal to the church — i.e., it constitutes the church/world divide. I try to problematize this approach in Barth, and perhaps it moves in some way towards explaining how Barth understood the revelation/religion. But I don’t think a full picture of “why” Barth thought what he though about Islam or Judaism can be gotten without attending also to the questions of historical context Ken is raising.

  31. You’re right that I don’t have too much of an issue with institutional religions claiming that what they hold to be revelation is truer than others or that their religion is more open to revelation, etc. I might have an issue with how these claims are made and how they play out, but it seems to me that such a claim is part and parcel of what religion and revelation mean, at least if we’re not going to be left with some form of a “religion of reason” (and I say this as someone who thinks Kant was a brilliant philosopher).

    Despite the glut of works on Barth and religion I still don’t think we have it figured out yet, and I think we haven’t played enough attention to the differences between Barth’s account of religion in Romans II and CD 1/I. I’m okay with the term “hierarchy” (wouldn’t be my way of putting it), but it’s meant to be a self-deconstructing hierarchy. The self-deconstructing is, of course, premised on the idea that the work and person of Jesus Christ is revelatory and constitutive of the identity of God and the identity of creation, so the deconstruction can’t go all the way down. But the idea is that religion is self-achievement, we are inescapably religious, that religions can inspire noble and demonic acts, and that Christians are the ones who know that God justifies and loves them despite their religion and not because of it, for in the end God justifies and elects all of humanity despite and contrary to their religion. So we are combining a hyper-Lutheran account of justification, with a universalist Reformed account of election, and with Barth reading Paul’s Israel as the church and the Gentiles as the heathens (at least in Romans II, and I think this substitution is disastrous fwiw). So the difference between Christianity and other religions appears so that we can erase it in the face of God’s universal action, and to hang on to this difference too tightly is to deny revelation. (Shameless plug: you can read all about it in my forthcoming introduction to Romans II!)

    As for the Hosclaw article, I haven’t read it. At a formal level I’m fine with traditions and discourses criticizing other traditions and discourses, but I don’t see the kind of criticism you reference as very productive or needed given the political situations in the US, the UK, and the Continent (in fact I think criticisms like these are dangerous or at least a red herring, but once again I haven’t read the article and I don’t know the author).

    Finally, as for the CoTP conference, I was initially invited to be on a panel about Erich Przywara (another research interest of mine), and as there are about five people in the world with whom I can talk about Przywara I jumped at the opportunity. It was also a good chance to meet in person some people I had been in touch with, an editor of mine, and some friends. I certainly didn’t and don’t agree with much of what was said and presented, but I enjoyed hanging out with the people and having different discussions than what I’m used to (which was talking with Torrance Barthians and now with post-Barthian Schleiermacherians). I think that any Barthian worthy of the title has to admit the essentially liberal, modern, revisionist and Protestant nature of Barth’s theology and Barthian theology, so I have very different ideas about modernity than the one you posted.

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