Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Importance of Radical Theological Witness.

"Look, ladies and gentlemen, I have been allowed to have a long life and ... have been allowed to grow. What I say now - the substance is still the same thing - but my form of thinking has changed and changed again. ... At this very moment, I am always changing forms of thinking concerning the same things, the same reality. And then look, that was 40 years ago. Think, 40 years ago! Nobody of you was born at that time when I wrote these pages. Well, and then I was under the influence from Plato, from Kant, from Dostoyevsky, from Kierkegaard, and so on. And then I was in a big fight against my liberal fathers and then in order to strike them I said such things as those mentioned ... in order to be strong. Well, later on I saw this phrase can no longer be used. I meant it, and I meant it well, but I had to go on and say no more such all too audacious things as I said then. All of you will make the same experience. I hope that you will also be allowed to begin with a strong impact and then day by day and year for year you will have to learn. ... Look, it would be dull if I have written a book 40 years ago and now there it is stated and no change. A man hopes to be a man who is a living being who goes on and who goes on his way. He remains always the same, but also the spiritual and intellectual scene in which he lives changes. ... And the old books with which you will find contradictions: don't be disturbed by it, but try to go onwards and forward with me."

- Karl Barth, Warfield Lectures, discussion with students session, May 2nd, 1962. This is a response to a student in the audience who asked Barth to recollect something Barth wrote in his earlier years. The student wanted to know if he had the correct interpretation of Barth's earlier thought because his teacher said it did not sound like Barth's work.

Disclaimer: This is the best transcript of the audio that I can manage. The eclipses in the quote note the parts that were nearly impossible to understand given the quality of the recording and Barth's rather strong accent. You can obtain a copy of the recording to listen for yourself by going here.
I listened to this recording right before Christmas and have given a great deal of thought to Barth's sentiment in hoping theologians will have the space and privilege to make a radical statement in the beginning of their work. The more and more I become involved in the theological world through conferences, conversations (journals, social media, blogs, etc.) and various schools I've attended, I question whether or not it is possible for theologians to exist in this present time inside that sort of space to speak radically.

Most of the theological conversations I witness personally through the areas mentioned above are typically male-dominated. Men have a way of tearing other men down quite violently with their rhetoric. This doesn't mean that I don't think debate and even passionate, intense debate is unwarranted. Indeed, I think such things are quite necessary. But I sometimes wonder if the way in which men engage other men in these conversations only serves as a debilitating discouragement to those young male theologians who might be trying to say something radical for the sake of prophetic witness against what they see as simply wrong. Men, generally speaking, are not the greatest at drawing other men out to learn from them. They typically don't seek to learn from other men (and other women) unless the person is a scholar in their field. It is almost as if the person with whom they are engaging has nothing to offer them by default and the person must prove to them that they are worthy of being heard and respected.

Maybe more importantly, this sort of interaction has a devastating influence upon women as well. Any women who are also trying to be theologians witness this sort of verbal man-eating and they think they want nothing to do with this world. What good can come of this sort of interaction? Women already struggle enough with trying to make their own space within the theological world. The conversations that happen among men only serve as greater discouragement to women that they will never measure up. And so women choose not to engage the conversation. They become silent, and retreat into their own corners of the world. And we miss their voices in the beginning of their work as well that might serve as a radical influence in the world of theology.

This interaction is not even limited to graduate students. I've witnessed creative, bold, and brilliant older theologians with radically new theological interpretations enter into theological spaces and discourses only to find their ideas met with violent opposition. I'm talking about the kind of opposition that isn't simply about engaging ideas, but truly seeking to tear human beings down, to shame them and silence them. If you listen to these sorts of interactions long enough, you will notice that those interacting with such theologians don't usually directly engage the argument on the table. There is most often the response, "well, what does your argument mean for this discipline?", "what does your argument mean for this area?", "what are the implications of your argument for this doctrine?", "how can that be correct if it leads to this?" I think such questions are obviously important, but not when they fail to engage the actual argument presented that could really influence the theological world for better or worse. I confess that I have pushed up against radical theologies myself many times in the past. I have done this because I think that radical theologies can fail to embrace respect for elders. But I also continue to remember how important revolutionary thinking is for the very task of theology.

In light of everything I just said, I wonder, as a mere M.Div student, how these radical young theologians and scholars survive such intense criticism. You can have all the confidence in your work in the world. But there is a need inside of all of us to be affirmed that we aren't completely out of our minds with our ideas. I'm learning pretty quickly that being a prophet can get you killed. If the ideas aren't important enough to kill your physical body, they'll try to kill your joy, self-confidence, passion, wonder, and concern.

This sort of tragic interaction doesn't just serve as an injustice against the young radical theologian (or the seasoned scholar). It robs the entire theological community of the prophetic witness that happens when young men and women have enough courage to push the boundaries and say what they think needs to be said. Even if disagreement remains at the end of the day, I wish we would all realize how much we need this radical witness. We need it because we might actually learn something.


mw said...

Thanks for this, Kait. One of the things I hear echoing in the background of your observations is the delinking of ideas and persons -- the pretension that we can address ideas without addressing people, or that an idea has some form of impersonal integrity by which we might treat it with little to no regard for those who hold it. Rather, ideas only exist in minds (which, to me, is synonymous with hearts). The personality of ideas and of claims and of insights is what makes them both fecund and threatening. Yet if we are to change or reposition ideas, this requires transformation of persons, the renewing of minds -- and ideas, concepts, insights only matter insofar as they form and shape particular persons in particular communities. Prophetic witness brings a vantage point by which persons might be repositioned through challenge and reform and renewal, through the resituating of their deepest concerns and attachments.

Biblical prophecy arises from within a given community and seeks the enhanced life and blessing of that community -- and the prophet identifies closely with those whom he addresses. His passion is rooted in his own self-understanding, knowing that his faithfulness and his clarity of vision is of value only insofar as he can communicate it unto his community's flourishing. This requires a deep and abiding wisdom that persists in both love and confidence no matter the opposition. Yet it is never a communication free from personal connection, avid attentiveness, and devoted care. The prophet only knows to love God so riskingly and openly because of his own formation in the community to which he prophesies. His witness, then, cannot be so radical as to destroy that community or any members of it without also destroying himself. Rather, what is revolutionary unto communal flourishing is what most exhibits respect for our theological elders -- revolution is never an end in itself.

The value of theological reflection never lies in its radicalness, offensiveness (as you suggest elsewhere), or any other form of violence. Theological reflection and its boundary-pushing is to enhance our communities's accommodation of the abundant life which we are given in Christ. We do theology so that we and our communities might live from the abundance of life, which--among other things--includes holding up and hearing one another as those in whom the giver of life resides.

All that to say, thanks for continuing to think aloud with us.

Kait Dugan said...

Mel, Thanks for your comment. It is really excellent. I think you hit the nail on the head with what I was implicitly trying to say - your conversation and debate partners are human beings with feelings, emotions, and a soul. They are not simply impersonal bodies that can be used to absorb violent rhetoric. I think this is often difficult for men to remember, at least from what I have witnessed in my short time in the theological world.

Also, thanks for your thoughts on radicalness. I appreciated everything you said and think those are helpful correctives to possible misunderstandings of my post. I don't want to give the impression that radical necessarily equates with valuable thinking. There is a lot of bad thought out there that is radical for the sake of being radical. But I tried to say, probably not explicitly enough, that those who take a radical prophetic stance often times do so -- and risk so much -- because they think they are witnessing against something that is *wrong* and they can't not with good conscience do anything else. That requires courage. And we can't assess whether or not those types of radical witness are actually happening instead of simple irresponsible radicalness for the sake of being radical if we don't take the time to actually listen and engage. Because chances are that if you manage to get as far as graduate school, write some stuff, and can withstand all the opposition that comes along the way, you probably have *something* that you are saying that should at least be engaged. But that might be wishful thinking. :)

Todd V said...

I'm glad to have read this today. Mel, very insightful comments about the spirit of prophecy. @ToddVasquez

hargaden said...

To what extent was Barth able to make an impression having worked in the pastorate for almost a decade before plunging in with Romans. His impact was in part built by the integrity of his 'mundane' pastoral work and his involvement in grassroots local socialism, right?

Academia simply doesn't provide us with the space to forge such characters.

I know that's little comfort to American women, considering the tough time female pastors often have in the States, (nevermind what would happen if one espoused socialism!). But perhaps the ecclesial setting of Barth's early theology might give us an alternative?

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