The 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.