Monday, September 2, 2013

On Reading Barth: Another Form of Feminist Resistance (A Response to Janice Rees)

Perhaps this post is really not a response to Janice Rees’ most recent post at WIT, but rather a post that is a long-time coming. I can’t decide [1]. But nonetheless, it was her powerful post that inspired me to break my silence as a woman in theology studying Barth. 
I, too, read Brandy Daniels’ post at WIT regarding the good old Boys Club with much relief, admiration, and thankfulness. Brandy, per usual, has the courageous ability to consistently offer a prophetic voice on many topics that few of us are willing to openly discuss. And if there is anyone who can relate to Brandy’s experience of said club, it is me. I often find myself one of the only women in various theological circles. As much as I’ve gotten used to this scene, it still can be rather taxing in various ways, to say the least. Similarly, I read Janice’s post with a lot of agreement and kept nodding my head with great relief, admiration, and thankfulness as well that someone, hell anyone, had finally written these things publicly. I support and understand her resistance to the academic guild of Barth studies. But I also felt, however unintentionally on the part of Janice, like I have so many countless times in the past, alienated from my women colleagues. Ironically, I often feel the most judgment and objection to studying Barth from other women. And this has repeatedly left me feeling like I don’t truly measure up as a feminist because I’m not refusing to engage or study Barth who lingers as the theological coach for so many white male academics. This can leave me wondering if there’s any place for me in the women’s club, either. 

There is no denying much of what Rees writes. I’ll engage her points accordingly. First, yes, Barth does seem to serve as a boundary line for what counts as “serious scholarship.” This frustrating ideological defense mechanism usually allows many the excuse to not engage with other critical voices and witnesses that might vulnerably and necessarily deconstruct one’s basic theological presuppositions through a hermeneutic of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. Second, depending on where you stand within that “confessional identity” that Janice mentions, Barth is often touted as the line (or transgression of said line) of orthodoxy. For those who think Barth was not, in fact, the living embodiment of heresy (they really do exist!), the old Swiss gets brought up time and again about how not to do “liberal theology” (cue scary music). In a few sentences peppered with phrases like “turn to the subject,” “subjectivism,” and “reason,” these confessionals will tell you why they genuinely believe Barth is the savior of all theological discourse both then and now and until the second Parousia. It almost becomes a paint by number dialogue in which you know in advance, without even engaging folks like this, exactly what they will say and how they will say it in order to reject those they think warrant the Barth trump card against dangerous liberalism. And then finally, and most interesting to me, Rees explains her resistance to reading Barth by bravely asserting that Barth scholarship is an academic power in itself that must be resisted. American Barth scholarship is the personification of the white male heterosexual who feels sorry for himself that he gets persecuted for not engaging with more critical theologies. 

So you might be asking what could I possibly have to say that would push back on any of this given my agreement with much of it. Well, I often wonder if our legitimate critiques of Barth and Barth scholarship leaves any room for women like myself who are genuinely interested in studying Karl Barth. [2] I can still remember a female friend asking me a couple of years ago how in the world I could be interested in Barth since I was a woman and a feminist. Didn’t I know that the field was dominated by men? And wasn’t I turned off by Barth’s theology that was so masculine partially through the unfailing use of masculine pronouns referencing God? As a proper feminist, this should bother me to the point where I stop reading Barth and start publicly voicing my reasons for such rejection. From that moment on, I realized that studying Barth was going to be a bit of a lonely road. [3] Not only was it a boys club, but now some women were suspicious and somewhat disappointed when they found out that I’m interested in Barth (or apocalyptic theology for that matter!). Now I don’t measure up to what it takes to be in the girls club. And you can’t even begin to imagine the insecurity and isolation that occurs when you feel excluded from the “new feminist orthodoxy” as a woman and Barthian theologian. I often wonder if others, especially these female critics, think I am trying to fit into the boys club instead of assuming that I am seriously and authentically interested in this particular theology precisely because I am, in fact, a feminist theologian.

I wish there was space within the theological academy for women to critically engage and appropriate Barth in ways that brought him into desperately needed conversation with other critical theologies. And I’m not talking about the token engagement that can pass in certain projects. I’m interested in profound and rigorous bilateral dialogue between Barth and other critical theologians in order to create something new. [4] The most ironic part of all of this is when I realize just how “radical” Barth is on certain issues and the lines of continuity that can be drawn between him and other theologians who most within confessional boundaries might typically render “not serious” or “unorthodox.” [5] To my surprise, when I read Barth, I see him as an incredible support and ally for many basic theological concerns within theologies of race, gender, and sexuality. [6] And to my even greater surprise, there are very few individuals actually doing this work to highlight such critical and profound lines of continuity. [7] These voices rarely exist partly because of the points Janice mentions and also due to the fact that few people, especially women or people of color, are encouraged to enter into these spaces to say NO to such powers by creatively appropriating Barth in new and exciting ways. It is almost as if the push to not engage Barth is, ironically, a further solidification of his power within the academy. I am tempted to think that true and effective resistance to the problems of Barth scholarship can come about through using other theologians to deconstruct him and utilize his theology to support critical concerns and efforts. And I’d like to have other women and people of color in these spaces with me witnessing to the Gospel more faithfully through such critical engagement.

With everything said, I want to make one thing abundantly clear. At the end of the day, the issue isn’t truly about getting more people to read and study Karl Barth nor should it be. Women should be encouraged and free to engage anyone they want within theology and other academic disciplines including the male-dominated field of Barth studies. And women should feel free to follow Janice in not reading Barth if they don’t want to as a one form of powerful resistance. Afterall, isn’t that freedom for women to be exactly who they are and study whatever they want the true ethos of feminism? Unless women feel genuinely free of shame for doing so (or not doing so!), I fear that we are doing a disservice to the cause of gender equality. I hope to see more women free to go wherever they want and perhaps some of them will continue to infiltrate those spaces dominated by men including Barth studies.

[1] This is an important disclaimer since some of this post extends beyond Janice’s own reasons for not studying Barth because it offers a response to those who object to women studying in male-dominated fields. 
[2] I am extremely indebted to Barth for many of my theological presuppositions and my general methodological orientation. However, my interests and theological concerns extend far beyond Karl Barth to include namely apocalyptic theology, feminist and womanist theologies among liberation theologies, gender theory, and various other figures including Bonhoeffer, Käsemann, Kiekegaard, Delores Williams, Judith Butler, Moltmann, and many more that would be too long to list here. If I continue to use and appropriate Barth, I will not necessarily be interested in doing so in order to “get Barth right” for the sake of Barth scholarship, but rather to offer a greater faithful witness to the Gospel.
[3] I find the same is true for other topics in which I am interested, namely apocalyptic theology. I’ve received criticism for being interested in this discourse not only for the phallic and violent rhetoric, but also because the field is quite dominated by white heterosexual men.
[4] The (almost tragic) irony in all of this is that what I’m advocating here is exactly what Barth would have wanted: “Theological work is distinguished from other kinds of work by the fact that anyone who desires to do this work cannot proceed by building with complete confidence on the foundation of questions that are already settled, results that are already achieved, or conclusions that are already arrived at. [One] cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday for [one]self, and [one] cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. [One’s] only possible procedure every day, in fact every hour, is to begin anew at the beginning” (Barth, Evangelical Theology, 165).
[5] I use the word radical here, but I should admit that given the overuse of this word, I’m not entirely sure what it means any longer. 
[6] Just the other day, I stumbled across a fascinating essay by Jaime Ronaldo Balboa entitled “Church Dogmatics, Natural Theology, and the Slippery Slope of Geschlecht: A Constructivist-Gay Liberationist Reading of Barth” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 66/4, 771-789). Balboa’s essay serves as an exceptional example concerning how Barth’s own theology can be read against other parts of Barth’s theology namely his problematic conceptions of heteronormativity.  
[7] I would like to note that some of my colleagues are doing profound and interesting work in Barth studies that have direct implications for discourses regarding liberation from various forms of oppression including race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. even if their projects are not an overt engagement with these concerns.