Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Frei on Barth and Barthians

Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992): 157.

“Readers of Barth’s Church Dogmatics usually come up with the same experience: Whether one agrees with Barth or not, and despite the endless repetition of themes and the stylistic heaviness, much increased by the translation, which loses the almost colloquial vigor of the German original, there is an increasingly compelling, engrossing quality to the material. And it is much more accessible than much Modern theology: Even the technical terms don’t lose sight of ordinary language, and Barth possesses astonishing descriptive powers. But then, as one tries to restate it afterwards the material dies on one’s hands. It can be done, but there is nothing as wooden to read as one’s own or others’ restatements of Barth’s terms, his technical themes and their development. It is as though he had preempted that particular language and its deployment. For that reason, reading ‘Barthians,’ unlike Barth himself, can often be painfully boring.”
I am happy to agree with Frei’s description of Barth, and with his implicit warning to would-be-Barthians concerning the extra effort that should be taken to avoid being boring, but I cannot say that I have myself found reading ‘Barthians’ boring. The only way that I know how to explain this is by saying that the Barthians I read all came along after Frei passed from the scene. Perhaps there were earlier Barthians who were boring in the way Frei suggests, whom history has – mercifully – allowed to pass from the scene such that I have not come across them. Perhaps, also, who Frei has in mind here are the North American neo-orthodox of the mid 20th-century.

In any case, may God save me from – among other things – being or becoming a painfully boring Barthian!

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

The only Barthians I have read who are not splendid bores are Bruce McCormack and John Webster. Because they fall prey to exactly what Frei is talking about here (repristination of Barth's thoughts, etc.) most of the others--especially the graduate students of Barthians--end up reading like echoes of echoes of what used to be critically rational theology. That said, right now I don't think there's anything like the Barthian stream to get m.div. and ph.d. students thinking in the right direction for modern Christian theology.

dguretzki said...

Great citation from Frei, Travis.

I suggest that the ones who repeat Barth most beautifully are usually more aesthetically, poetically and rhetorically inclined rather than those who are more philosophically inclined and try to unpack his logic. While both kinds of reiteration may be necessary and helpful, the former read Barth as a humanist,or at least one who attends to the "humanity of God". Good reiteration of Barth's CD requires us to see it more as literature rather than a long series of theological propositions. Understanding both the architechtonics and distinct genre of the CD (esp. as opposed to some books that exist out there entitled, Systematic Theology) is vitally important.

Of course, such poetic/literary reiteration is much easier dictated than done...

W. Travis McMaken said...

Anon - Let's not neglect to put George Hunsinger in the non-boring list. Let me know if you think I'm an echo of an echo. ;-)

David - Thanks for stopping by. I think you are right - the genre of CD is not something easily imitated, and that contributes as much to Barth's greatness as his also rather aesthetically breathtaking arguments. Let me know what you have successfully reiterated it - I haven't even tried!!!

Kellen said...

a. I don't think you're an echo of an echo.

b. George Hunsinger is not boring, but he's much closer to boring than I wish he was. . . .

Anonymous said...

Whoops - cat's out the bag.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Kellen - Its fun that you pop up from time to time. :-)

As for Hunsinger, I cannot endorse the limitations of your endorsement.

Tyler said...

I've found both Hunsinger and McCormack to be some of the most illuminating writers out there on Barth (Busch as well). Webster is awesome, especially when doing his own thing - doesn't sound like a Barthian at all in my opinion.

To sympathize with Frei just a bit, I think some "Barthians" can sound a little bit like theologians-in-a-can. They'll serve up gems like, "God is who He is in the act of His revelation." But when someone serves that stuff up in a journal article, I'm always left wondering whether they really mean that (ontology and everything included), and if so, if they understand what they mean (Barth doesn't suffer from lack of interpretation).

Anonymous said...

And perhaps a more fitting, precise term for describing the experience Frei here refers to would be dissatisfying. It is often rather dissatisfying to read Barthians in comparison to Barth in the way it is less satisfying to read Thomists than it is to read Thomas: disciples necessarily lack the intellectual capabilities of their masters. But then, improvement by and approximation of the Masters is what theological scholarship is all about, so who are we to bemoan our own incapacities?

On the other hand, what makes reading Barthians more dissatisfying than reading Thomists is that Barthians tend to be less comfortable, less conversant with and more dismissive of philosophical discourses of various kinds--and are therefore less rational than Barth himself was.

Bobby Grow said...

Hunsinger was my guess for Anon. too; seriously, that was my first impression when I read it. Then only a few boxes down, confirmed :-).

I think "Anons." points on Thomists and Barthians is very interesting --- and in my brief and under-exposed life experience --- I think he's right! This guy, Anon. is quite insightful.

Andrew Esqueda said...

I really enjoy reading McCormack, Webster, and Hunsinger (although I don't always agree with him), but I also really enjoy reading Jüngel. I have just started "God's Being is in Becoming" and it is extremely engaging. I know Webster thinks Jüngel is a great scholar and interpreter of Barth and Barth himself was quite pleased with Jüngel's work. To my knowledge, other than the scholars mentioned there are not many scholars who are currently and extensively writing on Barth. I know Adam Neder has just put out a new book, Kevin Hector is working on a book or two, Joseph Mangina has done some work on Barth, but other than that I am not sure of many new contemporary scholars writing much on Barth. Does anyone no of any good up and coming scholars who are focusing much of their work on Barth?

W. Travis McMaken said...

Bobby - I think the first 2 anonymous posts are actually Kellen, and I suspect the third is as well but I'm not sure. In any case, the third doesn't sound like Hunsinger to me, although he has surprised me in the past.

Andrew - Look through the T&T Clark theology catalog, and through the authors in the Ashgate Barth studies series, and you will find a number of young Barth scholars. Then, of course, there are a number of us bloggers... ;-)

Bobby Grow said...

Woops :-).

Anonymous said...

Then, of course, there are a number of us bloggers... ;-)

Oh, but Travis, surely self-publication is by definition not scholarly publication.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Anon - I said bloggers not blogs. Some of us do scholarly publication as well, and on the side - as it were. :-P

I, for instance, have two articles on Barth in print in respected academic journals. Cf. the CV page (linked in the blog header) for more details, if you're interested.

Anonymous said...

Bloggers/blogs, what's the difference? Andrew had inquired about "young Barth scholars." You replied that "there are us bloggers." My point was that it isn't blogging that goes toward making one a "Barth scholar" or a scholar of any sort, but publications in pier-reviewed journals of repute--which you are pursuing, admirably. Congratulations especially on the IJST piece on Torrance.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Its an important difference. A "blogger" is a person, while a "blog" is an form of publication. Any single person can have more than one form of publication.

I couldn't agree more that a blog does not a scholar make. The point I was trying to communicate is simply that many of the theo-bloggers you see around also have scholarly qualifications, and some of those work on Barth, and some of those are - I like to think - worth paying attention to.

I hope you enjoy the IJST piece. I've already spotted one particularly egregious typo - perhaps I can get it changed for the print version.

Anonymous said...

In the final paragraph? I thought I saw something there. . . .

Point taken. I stand by my conviction that blogging as a form of self-publication is energy better spent elsewhere and otherwise. You obviously disagree at an existential level with that conviction. ; )

Anonymous said...

The point I was trying to communicate is simply that many of the theo-bloggers you see around also have scholarly qualifications, and some of those work on Barth,...

Also, I'd have to demur here. Rather few of the theo-bloggers I've ever seen have substantial scholarly qualifications. And in point of fact, most of the individuals I know with scholarly qualifications do not have theo-blogs.

Evan said...

One thing I will say... and this is apart from questions of style or how boring Barth scholars are... my sense is that somewhat of a scholasticism has built up around Barth scholarship. In this, I think the secondary literature mimics conversations amongst thomists (or New Testament scholars, for that matter!).

And that's neither good nor bad- I'm not intending to use "scholastic" in the pejorative sense that it is sometimes employed. But my sense is that the debates and ongoing conversations of much Barth scholarship are exceedingly intricate compared to other areas of theological inquiry these days, and they tend to swarm around particular loci of critique that have been enshrined over time.

It may be that such a situation is an indicator of the significance of Barth, and of his ability to establish lasting modes of thought for future generations. I'd venture to guess that it also has a bit to do with the community of Barthians and their own systematizing priorities. It may also be that there's nothing special going on, and this is just what happens when a whole lot of people choose to write about the same thing.

In any case, that's been my main observation w.r.t. Barth scholarship and Barthians. I think the most obvious good that comes of this "scholasticism" is that we have some quite impressive thinking going on- it's really amazing to consider the sort of impact that Barth has had in just a little over 40 years since his death. A possible danger, however, might be that Barth becomes inaccessible (for scholarly treatment, at least) as a result of the thick hedge of midrash around him. I don't think that's an immediate danger- indeed, I think many Barth scholars have done a wonderful job of keeping Barth's thought conversational and fresh. But it's probably worth considering the potential danger nonetheless.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Anon - My you state your opinions forcefully for someone whose identity is veiled: it makes me wonder...especially in light of the names that have been dropped here and that wonderful little service known as Google Alerts.

Yes, the final paragraph. Its one of those errors that gets edited in rather than out.

As far as the judicious use of energy, I think its true that some bloggers put far too much time into things. But, blogs can serve functions other than as one's primary (even if only in terms of sheer quantity) intellectual outlet. For instance, I tend to think of mine as a digital commonplaces book, with the added benefit of communal interaction. In any case, blogging claims much less of my time these days than it did 2 or 3 years ago.

As far as bloggers with scholarly credentials, perhaps it is simply the case that most of the bloggers whose blogs I read do in fact have them.

Evan - Good insights. There is certainly a Barthian neo-scholasticism developing. This doesn't bother me in and of itself, but the dangers you highlight are worth keeping in mind.

Anonymous said...

What Evan said.

David W. Congdon said...

While I have mostly given up blogging, it's not for lack of appreciation of what it can offer when done right. So with that, let me just offer this very brief defense of the blog as a valid pursuit by scholarly theologians.

1. There are many, many important ideas that are worth putting into words and discussing with peers that are simply not substantial enough to warrant a journal article, book chapter, or monograph. For example, I might pick up the latest IJST issue and discover that, lo and behold, our friend Travis has a very interesting piece on TFT in its pages. Now, this piece may inspire someone like myself to think new ideas or refine older thoughts. Before the blog, such ideas could either go into a notebook, be discussed among friends (after which they disappear into the air), or be completely forgotten. Today, however, I can put them into a short blog post, where not only do I have a digital record of this idea, but it can also foster further ideas and conversations — some of which, I daresay, will indeed produce a scholarly article, book chapter, or even monograph. In short, the blog may indeed be a catalyst for scholarly, not a distraction from it.

2. In addition to everything just stated, it's worth adding that the current state of the academy does not do a very good job of fostering and promoting these ideas. As some of us know, most journals have editorial boards that toe a particular party line or restrict submissions to a very narrow focus. Many are downright dismissive toward creative and thoughtful theological thinking. There is also a distinct lack of decent journals to which one might want to submit work. All that's to say, for those of us who are not established enough to demand attention, a blog is a way of entering into the conversation without having to placate certain authority structures. This, of course, means that people can and do publish worthless material in the blogosphere. But at the same time, this freedom means that others can produce work that is far more stimulating and interesting than much of what passes for "established" academic theology. For my part, this is a risk worth accepting. It does not and never could mean that the blog should replace the standard academic channels by which we engage in scholarly discourse; it only means that such channels should not restrict us from writing and discussing ideas which do not fit within them.

Bobby Grow said...

I'm far less concerned with the "who" (although that does have relative weight) of blogging (like who are particular bloggers) vs. "what" they blog. If someone is presenting good cogent stimulative ideas, then who they are makes no difference (ultimately).

Blogs are informal places where, often, "formal," even important ideas can broached (like "thinking outloud") in a public way; a way that might just promote whole new avenues of thought, that erstwhile may never have been considered. (Beyond that, blogs provide connections for likeminded "people" who w/o this sphere would never connect --- like I never would've "met" Travis, or even David, w/o the blog . . . to me that makes blogs worth the time in themselves).

Kellen said...

I would like to clarify my enigmatic statement regarding George Hunsinger above. I should say in precisely what sense I meant he is “closer to boring than I wished” - - and just what I mean by “boring.” I don't think that George Hunsinger is a boring thinker or writer. I don’t think he falls prey to what Frei is talking about here. How to Read Barth, Disruptive Grace, etc. are not boring at all, but are rather creative and interesting on a number of levels - not to mention politically courageous. By saying Hunsinger is 'closer to boring than I wished' I had in mind recent skirmishes over the analogy of being. In general, I have found Barthian dismissals of analogy dissatisfying and, to that extent, "boring" (though I suppose this may not be the best word) - - especially as a kind of repristination of Barth's polemic. And nobody has put forth such a repeated, forcefully Barthian objection as George Hunsinger. But, again, to have written that Hunsinger is "closer to boring than I wished" reduces him and his work to a single Barthian position, which really isn't fair. I was trying to make a silly tongue-in-cheek comment that only makes sense to me, so I should not have written it without specifying what I had in mind, as it leaves the internet public with the impression that I think Hunsinger is boring in general or that I don't regard him as a serious theologian. That's not what I think.