"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."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.
- 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.
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.