Thursday 5 September 2013

On not reading Karl Barth anymore: a white male's perspective

by Peter Kline (in response to Janice Rees’ post On Not Reading Barth)

I’d like to tell my own story about being a white male who once read and studied Karl Barth but does so no longer.

I first started reading Barth as an undergrad while doing a theology degree at Wheaton College. At that institution at the time, reading Barth was a way to hold on to some form of “evangelical” thought and piety while also pushing and dissolving some of the more suffocating boundaries that evangelical churches and institutions create. My experience of reading Barth then was exciting and liberating. He allowed me to begin to let go of many of my religious and intellectual anxieties. He introduced me to the beauty and poetry of theology.

But already then, at Wheaton, the pressures that have caused me to stop reading Barth were mounting. These pressures are difficult to speak about because they involve the intersection of institutional and social forces with my own developmental needs, anxieties and quirks as a young, white, privileged, pious, adolescent male. Sorting out completely this complex web of forces and attractions would be impossible. Suffice it to say, I have no interest in disavowing responsibility for my own feelings and actions in order to point fingers. We are responsible for our own anxieties and despair, even if what has led us to them are massive forces beyond our conscious knowledge and control.

At Wheaton, or at least in the circles within the Wheaton theology department I found myself in, Barth represented sophistication, savviness, critical distance from sentimental, moist-eyed evangelicalism, and the possibility of an alert and intellectually serious, yet heart-felt, evangelical theology. An aura of promise surrounded Barth; with him one could be an unembarrassed evangelical. And in those days at Wheaton, there was a promised land: Princeton Theological Seminary. There one could enjoy the pure milk and honey of the world’s finest Barth scholars, even if one still had to do occasional battle with some Canaanites, i.e., liberals.

Looking back, I now recognize both painfully and humorously that my decision to go to Princeton Seminary directly from Wheaton was driven by a desire to secure for myself and perform a particular identity: the white, male, Barthian-evangelical theologian. The pressures at Wheaton to pursue that identity were complicated and deep-seated. There was the peer pressure, the upperclassmen in my dorm who were themselves desiring and pursuing that identity. They seemed to know it all and have it all: the Barth-knowledge, the approval of professors, the girlfriends-soon-to-be-wives, the Princeton acceptance letters. I wanted all of that. There was the internal, self-pressure, the anxious need to grasp at an identity using the closest available language and resources. This self-pressure was compounded and given shape by my personal, spiritual-religious history of being the smart, good, Christian boy. There was the approval and acclamation of (white male) professors at Wheaton that I eventually received, one of whom had received his doctorate from Princeton writing on Barth under a big-name Barth scholar. These professors, who I didn’t want to disappoint, ushered me off to Princeton with a glow of pride and enthusiasm. I was white, I was male, I was smart, I had a thesis on Barth written, I had my Princeton acceptance letter, I had my fiancée, I had it all. I had my identity. It was all working for me.

And it continued to. I won’t go into all the details of my time at Princeton Seminary and how my study of Barth developed and deepened. I’ll just say that I did what I set out to do: I made it into the inner-circle of Barth studies. I became a prized student of the Princeton Barth scholars and developed informed and detailed opinions about all of the Barth debates that were circling around campus. I worked in the Barth Center. I went to the Barth conferences. It was all working for me. I became close to one professor in particular who believed in my abilities as a theologian and a reader of Barth and who wanted to see me go on and get a PhD. In a conversation about my future, this professor suggested that I do a ThM year at the University of Edinburgh with plans to return to Princeton to do a PhD. Eager to please a professor who had trained me and who I thought knew what was best for me, and eager to secure my future as a white-Barth-boy, I decided to do the year in Edinburgh. So my wife and I moved.

The nine months I spent in Edinburgh were some of the bleakest of my life thus far. About two months in, I started having crippling panic attacks and sunk into depression. Part of it was the move and the culture shock, undoubtedly. But at the heart of it was confronting the deep alienation from myself that had quietly grown over the past six years while constructing my evangelical-Barthian-theologian identity. I had emptied myself out into a discourse that was quickly becoming meaningless to me because I was realizing that I had no idea who I was in that discourse, even though I had become fluent in it. In Edinburgh, the meaninglessness irrupted into my life and undid me.

I had worked tirelessly to secure a privileged identity and make it into the inner circle where I thought I would find myself, and right as I was about to take the long-desired step into the inner sanctum (getting into Princeton’s PhD program), I found myself alone, on the outside, cold, angry and dejected, a stranger to myself. In therapy that year, the physical move to Scotland became for me a parable of emotional and spiritual exile. I began to realize that when you aim for the inner circle and do everything to please its gatekeepers and succeed at it, sooner or later you find out that the center is a lonely and meaningless abyss. It’s a bit like the shock of discovering that the deepest level of hell in Dante’s Inferno is frozen over, but only worse, because you thought you were traveling to paradise. That winter in Edinburgh was cold, the coldest one the city had seen in decades.

There is no inside. The inside is a lie. Once you get into the inside, you realize that it is another outside. The deeper in you press, the farther out you get thrown. Even boys have to work to get into the boys club, and once we are there we feel anxious and alone and forgotten, at least some of us do. Don’t buy the cockiness and self-assured talk. We are lonely. And we do theology harboring a despair so deep we can’t even recognize it as despair. 

I about gave up on the whole academic thing in Edinburgh. But for some reason, a reason I still struggle to see sometimes, I didn’t. I applied to PhD programs and got admitted to Princeton and Vanderbilt. It was part of my healing to say No to Princeton. But what exactly was I saying No to? It wasn’t until the Fall semester of my first year at Vanderbilt that I finally made a break with Barth in terms of my writing and research. The previous summer I had been invited to contribute to an online blog conference on Barth that would take place in October. The conversation that unfolded in response to my essay was painful for me. People I thought were my friends at Princeton treated me with a callousness and condescension that I found disgusting. But I realized that this was nothing new really, that I had been around this toxicity for years but hadn’t had the distance to see it. This is what talking about Barth sounded and felt like, a pious pissing contest. These are the kinds of conversations Barth’s discourse generates, and I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of them, even if I was good at them. After that essay, I decided not to write on Barth anymore, beyond what was required of me as a grad student. What I decided to walk away from was a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.

So I don’t really read Barth anymore. I don’t reject everything or even a lot of what I learned while studying him for several years. All of it stays with me and informs me in various ways. But I consciously avoid the Barth industry. I am under no illusions that this is a subversive act on my part. I’m just practicing a bit of self-care. I’m also under no illusions that someone like me with my background can simply switch over from the Barth industry to the social-justice / critical-theory industry. I’ve learned at Vanderbilt that the latter is every bit as much an industry as the former with unspoken but obvious clubs and entrance requirements. Critical theory people can be every bit as self-protective.

I took a Queer Theory class here at Vanderbilt my second year here, and I loved it. But I was treated with suspicion by a fellow student. Aren’t you going to co-opt the discussion from the voices that should be having it and fold it into your white-boy systematic theology game? Are you just hunting for the latest trends and ideas? Are you queer enough to be talking about Queer Theory? I have deeply personal reasons for being interested in Queer Theory, reasons that no person should have to defend, so it was incredibly painful to be subjected to such suspicion. I don’t say this to paint myself as a victim. I am not a victim of anything. My story is not one of oppression or denied opportunities or a silenced voice. My story is one of the self-alienation that results from winning the game. But I have learned that there are lots of games in town, and the sooner I don’t care about winning any of them the better.


charles said...

Amazingly well said Peter! I am inspired by you as you captured the subtle trappings of academia. I am honored to have been your roommate and to call you a dear friend.
-Charles Taylor

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story. I have felt and experienced similar thoughts and feelings but in a different realm of academia. Your story has touched me, and for that, I am grateful.

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