What I Learned at Barth Camp 2015

Last week I attended the annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary -- which some of us on social media affectionately call "Barth Camp." (Actually, I should clarify I attended Barth Camp part one, as this conference was followed immediately by a conference geared for pastors.) The theme of the conference was Barth's interpretation of Gospel texts and the rota of speakers included experts in systematic theology, ethics and biblical studies. It was was a wonderful event with superb and serious papers and much food for rumination in the weeks and months to come.
New Jersey is bigger than it looks on a map.

Happily, if you weren't able to go, the plenary papers can now be viewed online through the seminary's online streaming channel. I won't try to summarize these talks here, though I have pages of hurriedly scribbled notes. What I offer you instead, gentle readers, is just a few personal impressions from the experience:

On this trip I rode buses from Western Massachusetts to New York City and from New York to Princeton. In this process I learned that New Jersey is much, much larger when one is riding a bus than it seems on a map. I learned that the New Jersey Transit system website is written in some language, apparently, that non-locals are unable to decipher.

I learned, moreover, that folks in New Jersey like to eat their hoagies (that's mid Atlantic for "grinders," if you speak New Englandese, or subs if you're from anywhere else) with mozzarella sticks and french fries inside the sandwich! DET contributor Henry Coates, my intrepid pedagogue in all things New-Jerseyan, led another companion and me to Hoagie Haven -- and possibly also to a slightly shortened life-span.

I learned from Beverly Gaventa (Baylor; formerly PTS) and Richard Bauckham (Cambridge) that there are, indeed, biblical scholars who aren't afraid to talk shop at a theology conference. From both of them I got the message that reading Barth better will entail reading the Bible better -- and probably a whole lot more than many of us would care to admit. I learned from Bauckham, further, that Barth pretty had much of his Christological game on already by the time he wrote his commentary on the Prologue to John's Gospel, based on lectures he gave in 1925-26. I also learned from Gaventa that we should take the Evangelist Luke as a serious theologian and that, in the book of Acts, Jesus might just be more present than many scholars have tended to assume since the time of Hans Conzelmann. In what seemed to be a major concession to the Lutherans she proposed the stunning thesis that Jesus can be both in heaven and on earth at the same time. I also learned that she, as we say in Massachusetts, is wicked funny.

From Karlfried Froehlich (PTS) I learned that the Issenheim altarpiece, a print of which hung above Barth's work desk, is way more fascinating and theologically complex than I possibly could have realized. As Froehlich peeled back the foldable leaves of this masterpiece panel by panel (metaphorically speaking; it was actually a slideshow) and attempted a careful exegesis of its rich images and symbols, he illustrated a profound truth: In art, as in theology, we navigate sea after sea of interpretation; the process of questioning the meaning of what we see -- or think we see -- never ends. (That might not have been exactly the point at which he was driving, but it was part of my takeaway from the presentation.)

I learned from Willie Jennings (Duke) that, as a would-be disciple of Jesus I just am that rich young man who backed away from the Savior's radical agenda. Even if I'm not in the one percent, I'm still not off the hook because, even in my unconscious aspirations, I've internalized the idolatrous ideal figure of the successful bourgeois white man that our society worships.

Sociologist Max Weber taught us that
Presbyterians work so hard not to save
themselves but, ironically, because they cannot
From Daniel Migliore (PTS) I learned how the gracious host welcomes traveling theologians to his house and podium. (Unfortunately, I had to skip out of town before I could hear his own lecture.)

I learned from Eric Gregory (Princeton University) that, while Augustine and Barth might not exactly be kissing cousins, they do at least belong at the same family reunion of historic Christian ethicists. He confirmed my suspicion that Christian thought still has a tough row to hoe in the realm of contemporary academic ethics -- in other words, don't expect Peter Singer to give a ringing endorsement of Barth's interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable anytime soon. Gregory also told me that he likes to co-teach courses with Jeffrey Stout. Wouldn't you like to sit in on some of those class sessions?

I learned from Bruce McCormack (PTS) that being a theologian may entail taking personal risks, showing courage and opening up something of one's own vulnerabilities to public scrutiny. Where else in the humanities are you going to learn a lesson like that? In papers that covered similar terrain, McCormack and Paul Dafydd Jones (University of Virginia) explored the depths of Barth's Christology and soteriology and drew out stunning conclusions for our understandings of the problem of evil, human destiny and the nature of God -- the God who, according to Barthian logic, personally endures and suffers the very contradiction posited by God's election of finite and sin-prone human creatures.

From the Rev. Fleming Rutledge I learned to further disabuse myself of the stereotype that Episcopal priests don't know how to preach and don't value the homiletical arts. As she pointed reminded us, white ministers, in particular, cannot flinch in the wake of events like the shooting in Charleston from naming racism as a demonic evil and shining the light of the Gospel into that darkness. To my delight I learned she's also a fan of the work of William Stringfellow.

I learned that Presbyterians work hard, a lesson we might have gotten from Max Weber a century ago. This fact was confirmed for me by observing the diligent efforts of the seminary faculty and staff and the able efforts of Kait Dugan and the rest of the Barth Center staff to keep the conference on track.

I learned that Jürgen Moltmann (Tübingen) is not only a world-class theologian and passionate advocate of social justice cause, but he is also a wonderful human being with a deep pastoral concern for individual human beings. Moltmann's comments about his personal relationship with and prayers and advocacy for Georgia death-row inmate and theologian Kelly Gissendaner brought tears to my eyes and the entire room to its feet. (The Moltmanniac has blogged the video and transcript of these remarks here.)

Last of all, from bivoc pastors, seminary profs, students, inquisitive laypeople and fellow theo-bloggers what it means to pursue the theological life simply because one loves it. Because one just has to do so. One friend flew from Michigan; another from Sioux Falls; another, a highly motivated undergrad, drove from Chicago. All were welcome, and as far as I can tell, a good time was had by all.

Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece (ca 1516), an image of which hung
above Barth's desk, is a
Church Dogmatics unto itself.



Michael said…
Thanks, Scott; I would have loved to have been there. One of my friends got there though, and I hope to see her back next week. She travelled a long way to get there and was rewarded by meeting Moltmann, her reason for going.

I will watch some of the presentations...


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