On Reading, Not Reading, and Disagreeing by Linn Marie Tonstad


Linn Marie TonstadThe theology blogosphere in all its glory has been alive in recent days with furor sparked by a blog post from Janice Rees at Women In Theology, where she discusses not reading Karl Barth, the heavyweight German 20th-century Protestant theologian, as an act of resistance against his dominance in the theological academy and his status as a litmus test for serious scholarship. Reminding myself repeatedly of the great xkcd comic, I’ve resisted my urge to comment on this and a number of other recent debates. (See here for a list of links if you wish to catch up on the discussion, however.) So this is not a post on whether to read Karl Barth.* Rather, the debate made me take a look at some of my own reading practices, and the visions of theological discussion that they encode. It also brought me back to the question of feminist disagreement, which continues to lurk in the back of my mind as I pursue disagreements with some prominent feminist theologians in my current book project.

I’ve written here before about reading authors that I disagree with, and indeed working on theologians I think are wrong about certain issues. On the simplest level, as a feminist and queer theologian, many of the theologians I work on would have questioned or outright resisted my participation in the discipline to begin with – although we cannot always know whether and how they would have done so today (since many of them are dead – yes, the dreaded dead white European males). But I often – not always – find projects that I sincerely disagree with utterly fascinating. From what perspective does the system being developed in such a project make sense? Where would one have to stand to see what that author sees? What do I come to understand about my current context, or the author’s context, from the perspective of the debates and decisions that the author finds pressing? One fairly trivial example: any interest I might once have had in historical Jesus debates was settled forever by reading Albert Schweitzer as an undergraduate. I simply do not find such debates compelling in themselves. (That does not mean I think they are valueless, of course!) But reading theologians who were engaged in such debates teaches me a great deal about how the commonsense assumptions many of us today operate with came to be. And seeing how such debates accompany disagreement over right social relations, over the nature of transmission of Christian traditions, and over what counts as scholarship in theology and religious studies is simply fascinating.

Not all my reading is motivated by such curiosity, however. There’s a great deal of reading I do that is motivated by the sense that something is wrong here, and I have to figure out what it is. Rather obviously, for instance, I think many Christian theologians have gotten issues of gender wrong. One way of accounting for such wrongness is to operate with a theory of projection: existing patriarchal social relations are projected into the heavenly realm and so come to operate as (seemingly) independent confirmation that such relations are right and good. (Mary Daly, in Beyond God the Father, operates with such an account, for example.) But theories of projection, powerful though they are in many ways, can’t always account well for either social change or the persistence of certain ways of being across significant social changes. Operating with the assumption that theological reflection encodes at least some independence – we may disagree about how much – from prevailing cultural norms, and with the sense that cultural norms and belief systems may not be nearly as total or all-encompassing as such projection theories assume, permits me to search for the quilting points in Christian thought-systems that encode and protect Christian misogyny. And identifying such quilting points helps in the project of finding levers that will dislodge them and remove them from their structuring positions.

In identifying the levers that I see, I come to disagree on some points with some other feminists. (I’m keeping this intentionally vague. I discuss some of the quilting points as I see them in a recent teleconference [link is to audio file] I had the fun of doing with WATER, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, the wonderful institute run by Mary Hunt and Diann Neu.) But such disagreement feels very different to me than the something is wrong here sense that motivates some of my reading. Given the ongoing marginalization of feminist concerns in much of the theological academy, and the concomitant lip service often rendered to ideals of choice and equality – as if feminist commitments could be limited to such ideals – it is important to remind ourselves of the ways in which our work is made possible by feminists, womanists, and others with whom we may not always agree. One of the ways in which the center maintains itself is by divide-and-conquer strategies. (In mainstream feminist circles, debates over sex positivity and derisory memories of lesbian feminists illustrate the efficaciousness of such strategies.) And it is in conversation with each other – as many whitefeminists have had and continue to have occasion to learn – that we may become attentive to the distortion present in many of our own deepest instincts.

So, whether Barth or not, I continue to read authors with whom I disagree. I’d love to hear what the rest of you do, and where you draw the line. At what point does an author become unengagable for you?

* I love the Commentary on Romans with a fiery burning passion. And a number of themes from Church Dogmatics have had a significant influence on my thought – which is probably inevitable for the kind of theologian that I am.

Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, provisionally titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology. 

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Categories: Academy, Christianity, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, Mary Daly, Resistance, Textual Interpretation, Theology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Hi Linn,

    Thanks for your post. I agree totally with your point about reading theologians you disagree with (and I too love the Commentary on the Romans!) … I wanted to raise a question/comment, however.. I didn’t read Janice’s post as having to actually be about disagreeing with Barth… I read it instead as a critique of what a friend of mine dubbed the “Barthian Scholarship Complex.” I think it is totally fair for people to have different strategies on how to engage with Barth in light of said complex–i.e I equally appreciate and respect Janice’s approach and Kait Dugan’s response on reading Barth–but I guess I am just seeing what you are arguing for here as raising a different concern than Janice was speaking to…

    To say it a little differently, I read Janice’s post as making a broader point about power-knowledge regimes in the theological academy, to put it in Foucauldian terms, and as a sort of provocation to posit not reading as an act of resistance, for her at least. I think this can have overlap with disagreement with the author, but it seems to be a bit different….

    That aside, thanks again for your post, and I hope my question/comment makes sense…!

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    • As I say at the beginning of the post, this is explicitly *not* a comment on whether or not to read Barth for the reasons that Janice lists (did you think my brief description of her reasons was unfair in some way?). The debate got me thinking about the reasons I make my own choices about reading – narcissistic perhaps, but neither intended nor framed as a response to her rationale. The link to the comic was intended as an indication that I think *some* positions in this debate are wrong, but was intended to leave unspecified *which* of the extant positions I’m referring to.

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    • I should say, though, that in general I tend to think that we each find our own resistance strategies, and that the rationale for such strategies is less important than the survival value they have for us, at least on the individual level. So I’m not that interested in evaluating the legitimacy of other people’s reasons for the survival strategies they choose. Does that clarify?

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      • Hi Linn, thanks! Sorry about my delayed response, my email inbox is a mess! I think I just wanted to comment/seek clarification cause 3 different people emailed/facebooked me the link to this post basically saying “see, this is why Janice should read Barth!”, so I wanted to simply raise a question/clarify about the reasons behind reading or not-reading, Barth or others…

        All to say, thanks for your clarification/comment, it was helpful! :)

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  2. “Where would one have to stand to see what that author sees? What do I come to understand about my current context, or the author’s context, from the perspective of the debates and decisions that the author finds pressing?”

    Your questions lend some light to an enigma I’ve struggled with. I was quoting sources on a feminist topic, and found a number of viewpoints I didn’t agree with. And yet I couldn’t deny that those perspectives were interesting and valid for the other person. I had committed myself to sharing a wide variety of insights, so in the end, I added some of those quotes, without challenging them and stepped back. Was that right or wrong, must everything I share promote my own viewpoint?

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    • Right! I would hope not – not because I don’t think strong viewpoints should be advocated, but because the latter option seems to indicate disengagement and a kind of self-certainty that I think can be very risky, ethically and otherwise.

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  3. I find most theology boring and unreadable, whether women or men write it. I think the decision about what to read and why is a very serious one for women. Just how much male thinking did we read growing up, before the advent of women’s studies, for example. I recall that I wrote a letter to the editor of a major newspaper stating that classes should have blunt truth in advertising titles: “Great White Male Philosophers of Western Culture” was an example I used. I didn’t think they were worthless, but that they should be labeled. It’s why I hate the term “human rights” or the word “people” because it hides the agents in power.

    This is what I always want — honest truth in academic advertising. Did Karl Barth say rotten things about women, you betcha! Might we pirate his stuff for feminist revolutionary tactics as Mary Daly did, yes, women are clever.

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  4. On a side note, when my letter to the editor was published, I got one hate message on my answering machine from a man who was mad as hell that I would dare to put white male on a course title, you see, I committed a thought crime in patriarchy, I named the agent, I exposed the lie of academic freedom, just as Mary Daly busted open the doors to women being philosophers or even women being able to take theology degrees in America to begin with.

    I’d say read everything, get the basic male dominant ideas down, so you can defeat them in battle, turn the tables on them (reversing the reversals), or just plain delight in naming names, reporting that MEN rape women, that MEN are the aggressors, the MEN watch porn (Paul Tillich anyone)— name the MEN who write Men’s Studies books (HISTORY), just tell that truth, and move on.org

    “People” don’t rape, murder, threaten with death and rape on the Internet, men do this to silence women. Just as male theologians really only wrote for other men, and expected their wives to bake the cookies at the academic club.

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  5. Just as Thomas Jefferson committed statutory rape…. but hey, when he said we hold these truths to be self-evident, he meant ONLY men. Since I’m not in academentia, and don’t have the patience with this—I live in the trenches of woman hating male careerdom, I’d say women need always to think clearly about the effect reading something male has on us. We need to be alert to their tricks and obfuscations– we need to have a hermaneutic of suspicion.

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  6. P.S. Once you read Mary Daly, you are spoiled forever, and you can’t tolerate idiots. So read those silly men BEFORE you read Mary Daly.

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  7. Wow! I’m really reeling about your post and Turtle Woman’s responses. What I realized in reading them is that when I read fiction, I almost always read women writers (and rarely feminist men). Maybe that’s because when the writing has to do more with imagination, I don’t want to inflict sexist/masculine perspectives on my mind. But in my scholarship, I sometimes need to understand clearly how certain patriarchal perspectives have come to be and how they continue to flourish despite what appears to me to be wrong-headedness. So then I will dig into patriarchal texts in order to critique them. So… if I want to critique patriarchy, I have to understand it and, therefore, will read sexist, even misogynist texts. But if I want to dream and envision a feminist future, I will read feminist women’s texts. I think both of these endeavors are important, but critiquing patriarchy only gets us so far. In order to create the future we want, we have to use our imaginations as feminist women. Thanks to both of you for helping me to see this divide in my own reading habits.

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