Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is Theology Just Inflated Self-Expression?

reflecting on John Updike's review of biographies treating Paul Tillich and Karl Barth.  The review was printed in 1976, and re-printed in a collection of Updike's essays, Hugging the Shore (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.)

I asked a philosophy professor, my friend Susan, what is the basis for any statement by any theologian?   She and I have been reviewing theology from ancient times to modern in the context of the four-year "Education for Ministry" curriculum (EfM) prepared by the University of the South at Sewanee.  Episcopal churches across the country sponsor classes.

She had no ready answer, and agreed with me that each theologian seems to develop assertions based on Scripture (and other theologians) read by the light of personal experiences and temperament. 

Before reading one more chapter in our EfM text concerning theologians Barth and Tillich, I turned to John Updike, recalling that he'd been influenced by both.  As book reviewer, and even as novelist, Updike always seems open-minded.   He judges his subjects lightly by their own intentions as expressed in the subject's own words. He draws our attention to patterns and doesn't have to add much commentary.

After reading a couple biographies, Updike highlights what Barth and Tillich had in common (826).  In broad outline, they shared a lot:  sons of pastors both born in 1886, students in Germany, socialists, lovers of arts, exiles from Nazism.  Both respected "play" as an important aspect of living. Tillich emerged from World War I a "virtual atheist" while Barth, army chaplain,  compared himself to a trumpeter who makes no sound.  Neither was a faithful husband. Hannah Tillich considered mixing his manuscripts with all his porn and letters to mistresses, and wrote of his tantrums whenever she caught him;  Mrs. Barth evidently accepted her husband's  female "personal assistant" and traveling companion into their household throughout their marriage.

While Barth's "last word" was "not a word such as grace but a name: Jesus Christ," Tillich's mission was to be a bridge (his word) between culture and Christianity.  Updike observes, "But a bridge has no content, just traffic" (833).  He quotes Tillich's reflection on being " a dreamer" from adolescence on, with the danger of mistaking "imagination for reality" (832).  It's in this context that Updike opines that, for Tillich at least, theology is just "inflated introspection."  Updike is pretty harsh about Tillich's theology, calling it vague, and giving samples to show that Tillich's "theological affirmations take place at the weakest possible level of the verb to be," as in The Courage to Be.

Updike clearly favors the book about Barth, and also Barth himself, who appears to be a happy warrior.  In old age, both theologians doubted their own value (835)  "Am I a phony?   I fear so," wrote Tillich; while Barth wrote "All the success that life has brought me is no use at all."  Updike agrees, writing --
Theology is not a provable accumulation, like science, nor is it a successsion of enduring monuments, like art.  It must always unravel and be reknit.
Updike neatly summarizes the life's work of both men:
Both confronted the apparent withdrawal of God from the world around them -- Barth by claiming that He was Wholly Other and thus immune to detection, Tillich by suggesting that He was present, weakly, in everything (836).
So far I've been getting my theology from texts about theology, not straight from theologians.  I might think differently if I were to get a stronger personal feeling for these people, as I do from knowing Augustine's life story and Aquinas's lovely lyric "Humbly I adore thee...."  But, theologians from Origen onward seem only to have been fabricating metaphors that are unraveled by critics who find loose threads, and re-knit, in a cycle that repeats century after century. 

Knowing that the cycle is a cycle is valuable; and knowing the source against which all these theologians exerted their imaginations is valuable; and coming up with our own metaphors based on our own experience is valuable -- indeed, it's half of what we do in EfM.  But reading what others in other times came up with to describe their experiences of Scripture?  It's a bit like reading a book of crossword puzzles that someone else has worked through.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Reading this instead of talking, I guess i would add history/historical context to the list of what's relevant to how they develop their ideas.It shapes not only how they answer the questions, but also what the questions are.
Like the knitting metaphor! (Yay Updike!) In keeping with the sense of history though, whatever pattern they knit has to somehow use or refer to what the previous patterns were. The goal then might be to push us to think about the questions/pattern and less to find the perfect pattern, which seems to touch base with that Augustine quotation a few weeks ago abut certainty and faith.