Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 1

This morning’s papers were so rich that I decided I would do a quick summary before the afternoon sessions and hope to do part 2 of the day later on tonight. Our second day of the Karl Barth conference opened with a pair of papers that I will simply be unable to do justice to here, but hopefully you will get the gist. (I hope you will forgive me if these summaries aren’t as well written as they should be. I’m going for keeping up to date rather than perfect synopses!)

Dr. Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary) treated us all to a homiletically and theologically rich presentation entitled, “The Theological Existence of the Pastor.” Sonderegger focused on the chapter in Barth’s Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “Temptation.” She noted, of course, that the word “temptation” in English does not quite convey the richness of the German word Anfechtung of which Barth spoke. In her lecture, Sonderegger sought to address how it is that pastors (and along with them, theological teachers) ought to view the failures which they will inevitably face in their ministry, despite the fact that such ministries are perennially concerned with the attention to the Word and God as their subject matter. In this regard, Sonderegger was careful to note that Barth does not so much exclude the role of Satan the tempter in an account of temptation as much as he makes Satan subject to the one work of God; Satan here is an unwitting agent in God’s hand.

But more importantly, Sonderegger points out how Barth locates the matter of temptation or trial–and most specifically, the trial faced by the pastor in those times when God is silent–directly in the context of the Goodness of God. God, according to Barth, is not only good by nature, but also in act, such that God is not only the ground of goodness (his being and nature) but also the God who in all his ways acts in goodness toward his creatures. Consequently, even in the experience of silence, the pastor must first remember that silence ought not be be equated to absence–a mode of speaking that is sometimes used in the mystical traditions and a notion which Barth would explicitly reject. For God to be silent is never to be taken as evidence that God is absent.

Sonderegger went on briefly to tie Barth’s description of temptation/Anfechtung together with his doctrine of “Nothingness” (das Nichtige), noting that for Barth, negation is not to be equated with evil. For example, a creature is not God, but this by no means implies that the creature is evil; rather, Negation in creation is the shadow of God’s good creation. Consequently, when dealing with failure, and indeed silence, in the service of God, the pastor/teacher/Christian must recognize that whether God speaks or is silent is no denial of God’s providential goodness toward us. On the contrary, the pastor must realize that both in God’s speaking and in his silence toward us, he is ever the good Judge who judges in freedom. Sometimes this means that silence is not to be regarded as a negation of our work and sometimes that silence is precisely a judgment of us as weak, sinning covenant partners, but always, whether in God’s speaking or in his silence, we must truly believe that in that speech or silence, God is truly good toward us.

The second paper, also profound beyond my ability to summarize here, came from Dr. Adam Neder (Whitworth University). Neder’s paper, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Some Barthian Thoughts about Teaching Theology,” sought to bring some of  Barth’s thoughts in ET to bear on the matter of theological pedagogy. As Neder introduced the paper, he noted that ET can be read as good news to the theological teacher, mainly, that theological work can be one of the most important tasks a human can be asked to do and when done properly is “pleasing to God and helpful to people.” But ET is also a warning that when done badly, theological teaching  can be “the most terrible thing on earth.”  ET, as Neder put it, can be read as if were an “MRI of a sick theologian which reveals that such a malady as vain theological teaching is not only serious and contagious, but deadly.”

Neder’s outline was almost deceptively simple, yet profoundly moving. According to Barth, he argued, three things can be said about theological teaching:
1) Successful theological teaching depends on the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is so obvious that it almost needs no defence, yet as Neder pointed out, it sets before the theological teacher a serious conundrum: Whatever one does in the theological classroom will be meaningless if the Holy Spirit does not do his work, and yet, as the free Holy Spirit of God, there is nothing one can to do guarantee the Spirit’s work. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the theological teacher, as Barth says, “to sigh, cry, and pray that the Holy Spirit will show up.” This means there are no failsafe pedagogies upon which one can rely, and consequently, what works today may not work tomorrow. Whatever else we do, then, we must figure out how it is that we will ensure that at the very least, we do not fail to invoke the Spirit, in hope, into our classroom.

2) When the Spirit acts, our classes will NOT be a safe space filled with bored spectators. Neder began by pointing out how common it has become to assume that a classroom must be a place of safety for a student–a place where he or she can ask questions and not fear reprisal or ridicule. While that is a good philosophy as far as it goes, such a philosophy may lead a teacher to assume that when a student has enjoyed or felt safe in a class that it has therefore been successful. As Neder humorously put it, “If students are enjoying your classes, it may mean nothing more than that they are enjoying your classes!” However, as he points out, such a safe environment of enjoyment may not be the best place of learning. 

Here Neder pointed out how Barth insisted that theological teachers must be ever aware that the teaching of the Gospel demands a confrontation and a decision, a space in which a personal response to GOD is required (not just a response or reiteration of the class material). In this regard, Neder points out that Barth distinguishes between teaching a student about God and seeking to bring students before what God has said to them. It is only as we lead student to realize that they are recipients and addresses of God’s Gospel that we will be truly doing our duty as theological teachers. And in such instances, the classroom may be the least safe place, but it will certainly not be boring.

3) Good teaching is an act of service and love. As Barth put it, “Without love, theological work would be nothing more than miserable polemics.” Here Neder addressed the temptation to vanity that theologians face, and as he put it, theologians must learn ever anew that you cannot simultaneously win the praise of God and the praise of people–with the latter category uncomfortably indicated in in pursuit of top classroom evaluations, tenure, peer-reviewed articles, etc. The vain theological teacher is an ironic affront to the Gospel we seek to proclaim. Just as it is difficult to hear the billionaire quote from the Sermon on the Mount, so, too, it is difficult for students to hear the Gospel when their teacher is self-evidently concerned more about their own promotion and comfort than that their students should be confronted and comforted by the Gospel. True theological teaching, therefore, requires self-emptying love and service, but that runs contrary to every natural impulse we have toward self-promotion and self-preservation in our careers.

Hauerwas to College Students and Their Parents…

I’m not a big Stanley Hauerwas fan, but no one should ever say that what he has to say is boring. And the same goes for this fantastic “open letter” that Hauerwas has written to college students heading off to college. It is called, “Go With God: An open letter to young Christians on their way to college.”

Though Hauerwas addresses students here,  I’m convinced that parents of college students (and parents of potential college students) need to read this letter almost as much as college students themselves. That way they can keep encouraging their kids as they press forward (or sometimes feel like quitting) in their education.

Although the article is packed with good advice, one paragraph catches Hauerwas’s heart:

Your calling is to be a Christian student. The Christian part and the student part are inseparable. It will be hard and frustrating because you won’t see how the two go together. Nobody does, at least not in the sense of having worked it all out. But you need to remember what Christ said: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” However uncertain we are about how, we know that being a Christian goes with being a student (and a teacher).

Now just go read it…it’s worth it.

Education Lost: An Interview

Birks Building, McGill University

For those who want a stimulating discussion on the concept of the “university” (especially for those who suspect that “it” is quickly disappearing!), I’d recommend reading this interview with Douglas Farrow of McGill University.


I loved this line:

If you give up believing in truth, you give up believing in the university. Then what? Well, then you try to play power games and take as much advantage as you can of whatever resources the university has. If it’s appointments, if it’s money, if it’s equipment, if it’s influence over students – you just always edge to get the best advantage you can and it becomes a kind of jungle.

Humanities Graduate School: “Just don’t go”

A sobering article from The Chronicle of Higher Education advises readers who are contemplating going to graduate school in the humanities: “Just don’t go.”

Unless, the author says, you are independently wealthy, have sure job afterwards (and that is a sure job, not just a good shot at a job), have a spouse who already has a steady source of income,  or you are earning a credential for a position you already hold.

Though the advice given here may be a hard pill to swallow for students looking to go on for a PhD of some sort (including in theology, biblical studies, or religious studies), it is worth hearing. The competition for jobs is fierce. For example, I was on a search committee a couple years ago for a College post, and we had over 30 applicants, the majority of whom not only had PhD’s, but also had some teaching experience. And this for a job in the middle of Saskatchewan–not exactly a place where people are pining to move!

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t consider a humanities or theological studies PhD, but if you are going for one, you may need to consider, up front, that you may need to think very creatively and laterally about where and how you plan to use that degree once you are done. Only a small minority get into university, college or seminary positions. If that is your primary objective–well, don’t count on it.

I don’t want to discourage anyone here, and I think the Church actually needs a lot more people with humanities and theological studies PhD’s willing to serve in ministries and vocations outside of the academy. But I would be irresponsible if I didn’t tell prospective grad students to consider the realities to which this author points.

“The Audacity of the State” by Douglas Farrow

A new article by Douglas Farrow from Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, argues that modern comprehensive liberalism, 

has as one of its fundamental premises that Western society has done away with Christian theology (I do not say, all theology) as a matter of public and political relevance. And so it has. But that has opened the field to would-be saviors and utopians of every stripe. It has made possible the return of the savior state—the audacious state that aims at building a kingdom of God right here on earth.

The danger, Farrow argues, is not the re-emergence of Christendom, but the loss of a proper understanding of Christendom which itself historically required a separation of church and state, because to “combine these offices (with their respective ‘swords’) belonged to Christ alone, and any other claimant to both was ipso facto a kind of Antichrist.” So it is not Christendom per se which is the problem, but both a Christendom and, as Farrow calls it, a “sacralized savior state” which loses their “eschatological reserve.” The grand irony (if I may use such a term of understatement) is that,

In Britain, and increasingly in North America, even churches and charitable organizations are not exempted from laws that demand conformity to state-endorsed ideologies loaded with religious implications. Penalties for violation include heavy fines or even imprisonment. Thus have we come round to accepting Erastus’s invitation to the state to punish the sins of Christians, supplanting the church’s sacramental discipline. We have come round, that is, to the de-sacralization of the church and the re-sacralization of the state, which is once again taking a tyrannical turn.

Farrow goes on explore how the emergence of the “savior state” (which he defines as any state which “presents itself as the people’s guardian, as the guarantor of the citizen’s well-being) leads to increasing state control of education and of the family (or more specifically, of children).

So how should Christians respond? Not with revengefulness, or even despair. Rather, Farrow concludes: “Christians deny that the state is savior because they believe that God is savior. Their hope is not, like Mill’s, in the state; nor, like libertarians’, in themselves. Their hope, like Hannah’s, is in God.”

A Problem solving Seminary?

Philosopher of religion and chair of the department of religion at Columbia University, Mark C. Taylor, has written a provocative op-ed artice entitled, “End the University as we Know it.” (Thanks to my colleague Rhoda Cairns for pointing this out.)

Some highlights:

  • “As [academic] departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less.”
  • “The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.”
  •  “Young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.”

Taylor goes on to speak about six steps that will be needed “to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative” (which I won’t recount here) by making higher education centred on a “problem solving approach.” For example, he suggests, “A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture.” I like this idea. 

Some years ago I attended a lecture by process theologian John Cobb, Jr. who suggested a similar approach to education centered around problem solving. It might be interesting whether our modern day seminaries could begin to structure, at least partially, in this way. Indeed, I have begun to realize how important our “Ministry Related Research Project” (affectionately known as the “MRRP” (pronounced, “Merp”)) here at Briercrest Seminary really is because it is already somewhat directed toward a problem solving approach.  But what might be very interesting is to think about a cohort of graduating students would all work together on a single MRRP focused on a practical ministry problem, but bringing in the expertise of each of the disciplines (leadership, pastoral ministry, theology, biblical studies, counselling, etc.) to bear on the topic. 

For example, imagine what would happen if, for example, we addressed the problem of “biblical literacy” as an interdisciplinary problem to solve. It would be fascinating to get a group of final year seminary students from all the programs sitting together in a room and brainstorming on how to address this problem from the perspective of their discipline. The final outcome would be fascinating, especially when trying to integrate the insights into a coherent document! But I think it could be fruitful and an exciting learning venture.

What do you think?