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. Continue reading “On Reading, Not Reading, and Disagreeing by Linn Marie Tonstad”