|361 - Barth and Textuality|
Barth and Textuality
By George Lindbeck
"The growing awareness of the importance of texts in our day favors the intertextuality in which all texts interpret each other on the same level, rather than the intratextuality [Barth] in which one privileged text functions as the comprehensive interpretive framework.... A religion, especially a heavily textualized religion such as Christianity, can be expected to survive as long as its Scriptures are not ignored. It has no future except in its own intratextual world. One may hope that more and more Christian theologians, whether Protestant or Catholic, will soon get the message."
THIS essay is more about the theological situation in which we find ourselves than it is about Karl Barth. I could not speak otherwise even if I wanted to, for my knowledge of him is sadly second-hand. Yet even second-hand knowledge may perhaps suffice for a discussion of the effects of changes in context on the understanding of texts.
The particular Barthian texts I have in mind emphasize textuality-specifically, that of the Bible. It may be helpful to say a word about the concept before proceeding.
Texts, as I shall use the term, need not necessarily be written: they may also be transmitted orally, or by ritual enactment, or by pictorial representations. What is characteristic of them is that, unlike utterances or speech acts, they are fixed communicative patterns which are used in many different contexts for many purposes and with many meanings. In their written form, texts can have a comprehensiveness, complexity, and stability which is unattainable in any other medium. This is one reason why textualized religious-religions with sacred scriptures-have an enormous competitive advantage over pre-literature ones. It is also a reason why it is not altogether absurd to talk, as some literary critics do, about the priority of the written over the spoken word. This certainly makes sense in literate cultures. Even in pre-literate ones, so one could argue, the communal priority of ritual and oral traditions makes them cognitively and linguistically basic: they indicate the frameworks within which individual utterances are possible or meaningful. When looked at in this way, it is a mistake to think (in Greek fashion) of spoken words
George Lindbeck is Professor of Historical Theology and Fellow of Silliman College, Yale University. He is the author of The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984) and Charismatic Renewal and the Lutheran Tradition (1985), and a member of the Editorial Council of THEOLOGY TODAY.
||362 - Barth and Textuality|
(in the sense of situationally specific speech acts) as prior, and of texts as simply their written form. If this were so, texts, like the present uttered word, would have only a single "intended" meaning (as both literalists and de-mythologizers assume) instead of that multiplicity of virtual meanings with which their employability in varied circumstances endows them. Barth never speaks of textuality in this manner, but his discussions of the biblical text, it seems to me, cohere with it.
This is not the time or place to analyze these discussions in extenso, but simply to recall some familiar themes. For Barth, as we all know, the actual text of the Bible in its wholeness and its details has an importance which it is impossible to match, I suppose, in any major theologian since Jonathan Edwards. In order fully to hear the Word of God in Scripture, theologians and the Christian community at large are called upon to engage in close reading of the entire canon in its typological and christological narrative unity in ways which are imaginatively rich, conceptually exact, argumentatively rigorous, and forever open to the freedom of the Word, to new understandings. Historic doctrines, as he puts it in one place, are useful hypotheses and heuristic devices (CD, I/2, p. 865), not improvements on the text itself. Proof-texting is, therefore, to be avoided, Similarly, the shaping of experience, the warming of the heart, is important, but the projecting of our experiences onto the text by pietistic allegorizing must be eschewed. When the text thus controls communal reading, Scripture can speak for itself and become the self-interpreting guide for believing communities amid the ever-changing vicissitudes of history. It is thus that Christians come to live in "The Strange New World Within the Bible," of which Barth spoke in one of the better known of his early addresses delivered seventy years ago in 1916 at the Swiss church in Leutwil. Textuality is not much in evidence in that address, for he had not yet retrieved the Reformation (and, indeed, for the most part, pre-Reformation) way of reading the Bible I have just outlined; but as time went on, the strange new world becomes ever more intratextual, firmly located within the biblical text itself.
Intratextual worlds can vary greatly even when the texts which constitute them are largely the same. The Hebrew Bible as construed by the later Rabbinic tradition is Torah-centered, whereas Christians reading the same books emphasize the narratives and give the whole a different center, the stories about Jesus. Whatever may be true of other intratextual realms, life within the Christian one is life within a story. It is to listen to the tale the Bible tells, "to learn its rhythms, to follow the twists and turns of the deep laid plot, to tremble at the warnings it has in store and to celebrate the victories it relates." Cross and resurrection define the really real, the fullness of God's own identity. Dying and rising with Christ are not metaphors, but rather the literal truth which shapes all action, thought, and experience into conformity to the One in whom alone full humanness resides.
These astonishing claims will never lose their strangeness this side of
||363 - Barth and Textuality|
the eschaton, but yet their resonances are different now that nearly a generation has passed since the last volume of the Kirchliche Dogmatik. Intratextual 'Bible reading, one might say, has become intellectually easier, but practically more difficult, and this has consequences for the theological enterprise. I will try to characterize both the greater ease and the greater difficulty, and also say something about the consequences.
The intellectual shift now gaining strength outside theology and the church can be usefully compared for our purposes to the change in thought patterns taking place at the time of the Reformation. In both the later twentieth and early sixteenth centuries, big systems become unfashionable and particularities increase in popularity. The earlier shift is from the medieval scholastic preoccupation with metaphysics and logic to the humanistic attention to texts and rhetoric, while today a not totally dissimilar textualizing of reality is apparent in figures as diverse as historians of science, such as T. S. Kuhn, and literary theorists, such as Jacques Derrida. We find it natural, as previous modern generations did not, to speak of encoding data, following scripts in scientific investigations, and inscribing reality in texts. Trope and metaphor everywhere reign. The sharp divide between Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft has broken down.
In the exact sciences, one speaks of "modelling reality" rather than "discovering the truth" and, at the other extreme, literary criticism bristles with theories which rival those of the hard sciences in technical complexity. A well-constructed mathematical proof is seen to have strongly rhetorical features, and a good poem is recognized as possessing its own kind of rigorous logic: a misplaced comma can spoil everything as can a displaced dot in an equation. One hears rigorous scholars casually remark with the authority of the commonplace, as I heard recently, that the epistemological grounding of a physicist's quarks and of Homer's gods is exactly the same. It is rhetorical force rooted in forms of life which gives them different cognitive status (and here, of course, quarks win over homeric gods by a wide margin in our society).
I shall refrain from discussing whether plausibility is lent to this denial of universally privileged epistemic and interpretive standpoints by Wittgenstein's language games, Quine's webs of belief, or Richard Rorty's pragmatism. Whether or not these or other justifications of current or sixteenth century developments are valid or invalid, the point is that intellectual climates change, and the ones we are considering are congenial to close reading and to self- interpreting texts. Not that Renaissance humanism and modern textuality are the same: for one, the book of nature, for example, is divinely written, while for the other it is socially constructed or composed. Nevertheless, for neither are there intellectually grounded objections to the legitimacy or possibility of
||364 - Barth and Textuality|
treating a classic, whether Christian or pagan, as a perspicuous guide to life and thought. The only question is whether one is interested in trying and can make it work.
Not only is the change in climate analogous in the two periods, but also the character, though not the quantitative distribution, of the theological responses. Some read Scripture in the newly congenial way, and others on both the right and left refuse to do so and thus become isolated from the intellectual mainstream. The conservatives in the sixteenth century were able to retreat to a scholastic ghetto in order intellectually to legitimize their nonhumanistic treatment of Scripture. The equally nontextual theologies of the radical Reformation were not so fortunate. They had neither scholastic nor humanistic legitimacy and, despite their popular appeal, were ineffective in sustaining long-term and large-scale communities. Both conservatives and radicals were intellectually marginal and suffered as a consequence, though in very different degrees.
It is worth mentioning in this connection, that it was not radical Reformation theology, but rather Calvinist intrascriptural textuality legitimated by such things as Ramist logic, the beginnings of Baconian science and humanistic rhetorical emphases which proved to have the greatest revolutionary potential for building community under adverse circumstances in such places as France, England, and New England.
Related, though not identical, to this community-building power is the inter-communicative force of Reformation biblical interpretation. One notable example is the way it kept the Lutherans and Reformed talking to, each other. They were sacramentally divided for deep historical, cultural, and sociological reasons, and yet they were so unmistakably similar in their way of reading Scripture that they continued to take each other seriously as fellow Christians who must be listened to even when it would be less troubling simply to ignore each other. Despite their sometimes bloody disputes, they constituted a single community of interpretation to a remarkable degree.
Also notable is the way each of these confessions held together without any overarching organizational structures, not even the ability to convoke common councils. (The Synod of Dort was the closest to being a general council on either side, but even it was basically a Dutch gathering with some foreigners in attendance, and it happened only once.) Among the Reformed, to focus on them, the Hungarian, Swiss, Dutch, French, Scots, and English churches were totally independent-they even composed separate confessions of faith-and yet their fundamentally common hermeneutics kept them in communion even in the midst of fierce arguments.
For the first hundred years or so, Reformation Bible reading remained sufficiently intact to play a unitive role, and Protestant divisions proliferated chiefly when it was replaced by rationalistic orthodoxies--of which the Westminister Confession was an admirable, and the Helvetic Consensus a less admirable, example-and by pietistic:
||365 - Barth and Textuality|
enthusiasms. Yet during the earlier period, the Bible read as a selfinterpreting text has never had greater power except perhaps, and in a very different way, in the first centuries of the church. (One could also cite Rabbinic Judaism and certain forms of Islam for non-Christian parallels.)
Yet the textualist critique of the right and left, needless to say, does not center either on their lack of social power and intercommunicative force, or on their intellectual marginality. For Barth and the magisterial Reformers, the basic error of both groups is to deny the authority of the external word of the text, to deny that Scripture is self-interpreting. They did not locate the hermeneutical key to the Bible inside the Bible. They supposed that its theologically and religiously significant sense can be adequately translated into extra-scriptural concepts and language whether Aristotelian, mystical, or revolutionary. Stated in modern fashion, their error was to think that the realities of which the Bible speaks are found in doctrinal, metaphysical, moral, experimental, or historical domains above, behind, beneath, or in front of the text. The strange new world, to return to Barth's youthful formulation, is within the Bible, not somewhere else. Because they thought it was somewhere else, they resorted to extra-scriptural principles and frameworks of interpretation: scholastic and ecclesiastical for the conservatives, spiritual and popular for the radicals. It made no real difference that one set of hermeneutical principles was pro-establishment, the other anti-establishment, one favored the oppressors, the other the victims of oppression, one the status quo, the other the revolution. Both made the Bible captive to alien forces, cultural in the one case and counter-cultural in the other, and thus distorted or destroyed the gospel. Behind their differences, they are identical. As Luther put it, the papists and the Schwarmer are like two foxes, snarling at each other and pulling in opposite directions, but tied together by their tails.
For those who favor the kind of Bible reading practiced by Luther, Calvin, or Barth (and also practiced to a not inconsiderable degree before the Reformation), contemporary conservative and progressive opponents of intratextuality naturally look very much like their sixteenth century counterparts. Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists read the Bible as a handbook of natural science or as a collection of doctrinal proof texts. Progressives treat it as a collection of clues for critically reconstructing history, or as a treasury of symbolic expressions of religious experience or therapeutic wisdom, or as a text disclosive of possible ways of being in the world, or as a source of warrants for individual morality, or social and political action, or liberating praxis. Thus, captivity to establishment culture or to anti-establishment counter-culture continues, the power to build community or maintain communication across divides is absent from theology, and intellectual ghettoization threatens. These are the similarities between the two periods as an intratextualist might see them.
Yet there are also great dissimilarities even from the same
||366 - Barth and Textuality|
perspective. Nothing even faintly resembling a new Reformation is on the horizon. Barthians are few in number, and the practice as distinct from the theory of intratextual Scripture reading does not flourish even among them. Despite an increasingly congenial--or at least permissive-nontbeological climate of opinion, thinking and living within the strange new world is notably unappealing to most theologians. We need to ask why this is so.
Practicality, as we shall see, is the major problem, but there are also other difficulties which should first be mentioned. The first is the greatly increased intellectual power of progressive modes of thought. Anti-establishment utopianism has moved from exile on the margins in the sixteenth century to capture the establishment itself in the period of Enlightenment and after. The mental habits instilled by generations of faith in progress remain powerful even in the face of two world wars and the menace of an earth destroyed. Most theologians, like other people, and quite unlike sixteenth-century folk, look for help to the wisdom of the present and the future and discount the past. Thus, Barth's attempted retrieval of a way of reading the Bible which is in most respects thoroughly pre-modern seems hopelessly obscurantist. It is dismissed without a hearing as violating, for example, the canons of historical criticism, of critical theory, or of the hermeneutics of suspicion.
Further, the de-christianization of Western establishments (even if not of the masses in the United States) has proceeded rapidly since Barth first spoke of the strange new world within the Bible. Thus, the dominantly progressive theology of the mainline Protestant churches has increasingly become anti-establishment (and since Vatican II, that includes Roman Catholic theology). The result is a major shift in polemical fronts rather like that which took place in the early days of the Reformation. Luther's battle was at first entirely against the medieval establishment in religion and theology, and only later did he find himself also engaged against the anti-establishment forces of the radical Reformation.
Now, from an intratextual perspective, as we have already suggested, systematically anti-establishment theologies, like establishment ones, imprison Scripture in alien frameworks of interpretation, but their motivations are likely to be profoundly different. Their interest is not the apologetic one of accommodating to the culturally dominant groups, but rather that of mobilizing the church on behalf of the marginalized. Further, their appeals to the authority of Scripture in support of prophetic protest can be vehement. They are in special need of biblical backing because their power position is weak: neither ordinary Christians, at least not middle-class ones, nor society at large are likely to be In their side. Thus, in the appeal to the authority of Scripture for the
||367 - Barth and Textuality|
sake of nonapologetic, nonconformist church reform and action, the left resembles Barth and the magisterial Reformers; and yet it may be as or more dangerously extratextual than old establishments.
When looked at this way, it seems that Barthian theological strategies need to shift just as did those of the Reformers. His struggle was almost exclusively against apologetical conformism, and in contrast to Luther and Calvin, he did little work on the temptations of nonconformist prophetism. This is unfortunate, for the argument on the left is in some respects more complex than on the right. The Reformers were, on the whole, right in their polemic against the establishment theology of their day-Roman Catholics also now recognize that-but they were clearly wrong in rejecting the radical left lock, stock, and barrel. That mistake must at all cost be avoided. Concern for the victims of oppression cannot be left to extratextualists.
There is another respect in which Barthian theological strategy needs to be revised which, however, has no real parallel in the Reformation period. The Reformers did their work from the very beginning in a humanistic ambiance, while Barth's intellectual milieu was mostly innocent of the new textualism. He theologically anticipated much of that textualism, and this is a mark of his genius, but it is also a source of weakness.
The weakness is comparable to what might have happened if Luther and Calvin had lived before the dawning of the Renaissance, and yet had arrived in the course of their Bible study, quite apart from people like Erasmus, at the importance of knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, the need for critical texts, and the necessity of rhetorical skill in the interpretation and application of Scripture. They would have been tempted to think that humanism was a product of the Bible rather than something to be assimilated and used biblically. They might even have talked in rather odd ways about knowledge of revelation in order to vindicate the scientific, wissenschaftlich, character of their humanism against regnant scholasticisms.
Perhaps something similar occurred in the case of Barth. Once he has assimilated insights into the biblical world which are nonbiblical in origin (even if he happened to be the one to think of them), he seems inclined at times to suppose they are derived from the Bible. I am told by those who know better than I that this is a problem with his treatment of man/woman relations and much of his social ethics. He does not seem to realize the degree to which he is redescribing scripturally the views on these matters which were his as a bourgeois male Swiss democrat, but instead tried to derive them substantively from Scripture. Not that he always makes this mistake. Much of the time it is clear that, for Barth, living in the world of the Bible is a matter of assimilating extra-biblical realities-what one is, does, and thinks one knows-into that strange new universe. It is a matter of biblically encoding or textualizing the cosmos which one in large part shares with nonbelievers. Yet with
||368 - Barth and Textuality|
disturbing frequency, it seems to me, the gears shift, the blik changes, and what has been baptized into the world of Scripture is treated as if it had been born there.
It may well be that his doctrine of revelation, especially his talk of the rationality and self-evidence of the event of the knowledge of God, is the most damaging instance of this. My colleague, Hans Frei, argues that Barth's discussion of these matters in I/1 and I/2 can be understood as an analysis, without benefit of J.L. Austin and his successors, of the logic of performative utterances, and this I am willing to accept. Yet, in the absence of something like Frei's explanations, the discussion reads to me like a good job of baptizing bad epistemology. It is as if Barth felt compelled to provide legitimacy for a way of reading Scripture which was illegitimate in his intellectual environment, and therefore cobbled together a set of notions about knowledge of revelation and about theology as science which, to readers less acute than Frei, seem to trade heavily on mistaken descriptions of knowledge and of science. That in itself is unobjectionable. If theologians happen to need an epistemology-and only a purist Wittgensteinian would deny that this might sometimes be the case-and when only a bad one is available, they have the responsibility to baptize it as thoroughly as possible. The difficulty is that-at least to the unwary reader-Barth seems to think his doctrine of revelation is read off from the biblical world rather than baptized into it. Thus, those who find the doctrine nonsensical are disbarred from reading farther. Unable to make sense of what appears to be the foundation of the whole Church Dogmatics, they stop in mid-course. They do not realize that the heart of the enterprise is a retrieval of the Reformation version of the way of reading the Bible which already begins in New Testament writers with their typological and christological appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that this hermeneutics is logically independent of the apparent starting point. They never discover the strange new world of the Bible as Barth describes it.
Correcting this fault, the fault of confusing theological baptism with biblical birth, frees interpreters of Barth from the straight-jacket in which some of them, Thomas Torrance for example, seem to be enclosed. Biblically faithful theology can take many more different forms than they seem to grant. One may inscribe neo-Platonism within the biblical text, as did Augustine, or Aristotelianism, as did Aquinas, or late medieval nominalism, as did Luther, or Renaissance humanism, as Calvin did to a greater extent than Luther; or finally, as Barth tentatively suggested at the end of his life, one may even construe Schleiermacher as giving a biblical rendering of the experiential-expressive world of Romanticism. None of these theologians was fully successful, and none pictured what he was doing as I have done, but to the degree they lived in the Bible's strange new world, they wrought better than they knew.
Furthermore, what they did can still be done. Barth scripturally encoded descriptions of reality which sometimes have an Hegelian cast,
||369 - Barth and Textuality|
and there is nothing in his approach to prevent others from trying to do the same with Whiteheadianism or Marxism. It may, in fact, be an obligation. God also illuminates through the little lights of creation, as Barth says in IV/3, and it is not impossible that Whitehead or Marx may have perceived some of these lights better than Christians. Even if that is not the case, Christians are commanded to bring all thoughts into captivity to Christ. Theologians who find some system of thought useful are thereby mandated to transform and absorb it into the biblical intratextual world. Thus, the possibility of an, by Barthian standards, authentically biblical process or liberation theology cannot be excluded a priori. The current climate of opinion can help. It makes it easier to see the heuristic value of large-scale systems even in abstraction from their original truth claims, and how they can be retextualized and redescribed within another web of belief-for Christians, the biblical one. The possibilities are unlimited. It may be that the ancient approach to Scripture which Karl Barth has renewed will yet provide a powerful means for promoting that pluralistic unity and resilient flexibility which by general consent theology badly needs.
Yet the practical difficulties are formidable, and here I think especially of the loss of familiarity with the Bible which started in the relatively recent past but has accelerated rapidly in the last generation. We need to look at the phenomenon before we ask what can and should be done about it.
Barth never confronted the difficulty. In all his work, from the Leutwil address on, he presupposes an audience which is well-informed about the Bible however disastrously they misread it. This, perhaps, is why he seems so optimistic. He seems to think that once people stop imposing their alien interpretive categories on Scripture, it will be easy for them to learn to read it as a self-interpreting text. They know it well enough for that.
Whether or not this optimism was ever justified, it is certainly unwarranted today. Biblical illiteracy has greatly increased, not only in the society at large, but also within the church. If the data provided by the Gallup Poll can be believed, our society is not being in the least secularized nor even dechristianized: more, rather than fewer, people claim to be Christian and even to have born-again experiences. Yet all strata are being debiblicized including professedly biblicistic ones. Robert Bellah and his associates cite evidence in Habits of the Heart that, beginning in the 'sixties and attaining dominance in the 'seventies, a kind of therapeutic expressive individualism displaced older and more biblical idioms in books even from conservative evangelical publishing houses. Acceptance of Christ as one's personal savior is still the touchstone or shibboleth of piety in this evangelical literature, but the Jesus one accepts is no longer chiefly the forgiver and redeemer from sin. He is rather, "the friend who helps one find happiness and self
||370 - Barth and Textuality|
fulfillment." When compared to Billy Graham back in the 'fifties, Bible-thumping TV preachers seem extraordinarily casual about what the book actually says. Playing fast and loose with the Bible needed a liberal audience in the days of Norman Vincent Peale, but now, as the case of Robert Schuller illustrates, professed conservatives eat it up. They do not know enough Scripture to notice the difference.
The Bible, to be sure, is not the only victim of contemporary forgetfulness. American history, world history, and the corpus of Western classics are fading from the collective memory. Yet the Bible is the chief loser. It was transmitted, not only directly by reading, hearing, and ritual enactment, but also indirectly by an interlocked nest of intellectual, literary, artistic, folkloric, and proverbial traditions. As this heritage fades, so also does scriptural knowledge.
This fading makes impossible two preliminary ways of living in the world of the Bible. The first is intercommunicative or linguistic. As we have just seen, the universe of discourse is not as biblical as it once was. There was a time when believers and unbelievers alike shared a common scriptural language. They could communicate, even when they did not agree, on a whole range of issues on which our society, having lost the linguistic and conceptual means, perforce remains silent. Abraham Lincoln had available a biblical idiom of judgment, sin, hope, and mercy in which the whole country could be powerfully addressed. This continued to be true to some extent even in the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., a mere twenty or thirty years ago. One wonders whether it is still the case in the time of Ronald Reagan. Thus, it has become harder for us as a nation, as Christian communities, and as individuals to live within the linguistic world of the Bible.
Second, imaginative living within the Bible has also become difficult. Intratextuality has vanished even among those who are familiar with the biblical words. We have forgotten one of the great feats of collective human imagination, the use of figuration and typology to weave together into a single narrative-encompassed whole the rich diversity of canonical literature from Genesis to Revelation. The story of how this structure was undermined by Pietism and post-Reformation orthodoxy, later abetted by historical biblical criticism, has been told by Hans Frei, and the background filled in by Jeffrey Stout, but the imaginative patterns lived on, as Erich Auerbach has recalled for us, in the great tradition of realistic novels from Jane Austen to Solzhenitsyn. Even more completely than typology and narrative, however, we have forgotten how to fill the interstices of the text with playful yet not capricious midrashic fancies. Jewish rabbis have much surpassed Christian theologians in this art, but when one turns to poetry, the situation is different, Milton's Paradise Lost, it can be argued, is the greatest piece of scriptural midrash ever penned.
The skill imaginatively to absorb extra-textual realities into the world of the text has also weakened. Our language, to be sure, is sprinkled with dead biblical metaphors. We speak of so and so, for example, as a
||371 - Barth and Textuality|
Martha, a Mary, a Samson, a Solomon, or a Judas. This is quite different, however, from imaginatively inscribing the world in the biblical text and troping all that we are, do, and encounter in biblical terms.
Unbelievers as well as believers once saw the world imaginatively through scriptural lenses. Thomas Huxley, the famed propagandist for Darwinian evolution, spoke repeatedly of justification by verification rather than faith. The phrase as he used it, historians have noted, was weighty with imaginative associations with Pauline texts as interpreted by Protestants. The point is that justification for the scientist also comes through selfless and submissive openness to the truth whatever it may be, however hard it may be to accept, except that he hears the word by verifying, not by faith. Furthermore, much the same traits of probity, responsibility, and love for humanity flow from this justification by verification as the evangelicals attributed to justification by faith. In Huxley's day, one might say, the scientific enterprise was carried on in an imaginatively biblical world even by agnostics and atheists. It is not clear that the loss of these biblical trappings, trumpery though they sometimes were, has made either science or scientists more trustworthy or more humane. The scientific enterprise, like other human works, is brutish, nasty, and perhaps short when denuded of religious tropes.
Let us then draw together these remarks on the loss of the text. There was a time when life in the world of the Bible was easier than now. It seemed quite natural to Wordsworth to write in 1815, "in these unfavorable times ... the grand store-houses of enthusiastic and meditative imagination ... are the prophetic and lyrical parts of Holy Scriptures, and the works of Milton," Nor was it only the imagination of poets which was nourished by the Bible. Black preachers, for example, were 'full of it. In the words of Henry Mitchell: "The black preacher is more likely to think of the Bible as an inexhaustible source of good preaching material.... It provides the basis for unlimited creativity in the telling of rich and interesting stories (about the biblical characters), and these narrations command rapt attention while the eternal truth is brought to bear on the black experience and struggle for liberation. The Bible undergirds remembrance and gives permanent reference to whatever illuminating discernment the preacher has to offer." If this kind of midrashic preaching (of which, by the way, Luther was also a master) is still going on, so much the better, but its future is dim, and the poetic imagination is clearly not nourished by the Bible as it was in Wordsworth's day.
Nor does improvement seem likely. The growing awareness of the importance of texts in our day favors the intertextuality in which all texts interpret each other on the same level, rather than the intratextuality in which one privileged text functions as the comprehensive interpretive framework. Even in our day, to be sure, some texts attain a fleeting primacy. One youthful cohort is imprinted with the TV text of Star Trek, for example, but its elders are little affected, and its younger
||372 - Barth and Textuality|
siblings go on to other (and on the whole, perhaps, less edifying) texts. The centrifugal flux of intertextuality has replaced the community, communication, and continuity-constituting power of intratextuality, not only in traditionally Christian lands, but also in literate and pre-literate societies molded by other sacred texts. This loss of intratextuality is perhaps a more serious part of the global crisis than are the social, economic, and political problems to which we more commonly advert.
If this is so, if biblical amnesia in both church and society is anywhere near as great as we have suggested, we cannot avoid asking, in conclusion, about the implications for Barth's theological program.
The suggestion I want to advance is that theology and the church should do everything possible to practice and encourage culturally interesting readings of the text. In this way, they may help, not only the church, but also the world. They may induce it to use the language of Zion and thereby render unbelievers a service no less important, perhaps, than are clothing the naked or visiting those in prison. Barth may not make much of this cultural dimension of the God-willed mission of the church, but he was an eminent practitioner of it.
The chief hope for this mission, needless to say, is that Christian communities relearn skill in the use of their own tongue. This hope is biblically mandated, but there are also more worldly reasons for it. As debiblicization advances, those for whom the Bible is indeed a guide to the feet and a light to the path, sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb will be under increasing pressure to form enclaves of mutual support. As students of history and sociology, both religious and profane, are well aware, networks of socially deviant groups of the deeply committed are often the seed-beds of new life. It is not unreasonable to hope that what grows from these seed-beds, when and if that happens, will be ecumenical. In part because of historical criticism, as Barth also recognized, divisive traditional ways of reading the Bible have been relativized; and the new yet ancient intratextual mode-prefundamentalist, preliberal, and preevangelical-gives promise in our day of being unitive, not divisive.
Meanwhile, the task is to promote whatever interesting ways of reading the Bible increase familiarity with the actual text. Perhaps we need to be less jaundiced about the pallid "Bible as Literature" courses which avoid all historical-critical questions and theology. They promote biblical literacy even if not biblical faith. Further, some of the newer currents of literacy criticism are not all pallid. Midrashic deconstructionist disciples of Derrida practice close and exciting reading of the text whatever else they do, and we can learn from them even while rejecting their intertextuality-their lack of interest in how the scriptural world can absorb others. Nor does biblical scholarship always treat the text as a set of clues for the discovery or disclosure of something purportedly
||373 - Barth and Textuality|
more important (whether reconstructed history or possible modes of being in the world). Thus, for example, some practitioners of the new social history meticulously examine the actual functioning of the text in all its particularities in the life of biblical and postbiblical communities. They thereby imprint the text upon the memory and tell us much about how Christians have lived and can live within the sacred text. Anything, in short, which makes it easier to live linguistically and imaginatively in that strange new world is to be theologically encouraged.
Work which does not do so may be technically indispensable for theological professionals within the church, but it is of no direct help in living linguistically and imaginatively in a biblical world. This was true of humanistic skills in the sixteenth century-knowledge of Greek and Latin, of textual criticism, of rhetorical theory-and it is also true of most historical-critical biblical scholarship. Cutting closer to the bone, however, the same reservation applies to much purportedly Barthian theology, not to mention other kinds. The function of Barth's theological descriptions of biblical realities such as cohumanity, the concept of time, or the doctrine of election is to lead back to the text in much the same manner as does good literary criticism. To study or use these interpretive devices in any other way is rather like substituting a Freudian account of Hamlet's Oedipus complex for the actual reading of the play. That, I suppose, is why Barth was unhappy with Barthians. Familiarity with the text is indispensable. Thus, even profane readings of Scripture which promote this familiarity are to be preferred to theology, however edifying or orthodox, which turns attention elsewhere.
In this emphasis on the knowledge of the text even when it is misread, I am, as it happens, repeating not revising Barth. As he puts it, if only the Old and New Testament Scriptures are known, they have not in the long run been reduced to "a mere letter ... but have continually become a living voice and word.... To be sure they have sometimes been almost completely silenced in a thicket of added traditions, or proclaimed only in liturgical sing-song, or over-laid by bold speculation, or searched only for dicta probantia in favor of official or private doctrine, or treated merely as a source of pious or even natural or impious morality, or torn asunder into a thousand shreds.... But they have always been the same Scriptures and the community has never been able to discard them. Scriptures? A mere book then? No, a chorus of very different and independent but harmonious voices ... the Bible has always spoken afresh, and the more impressively sometimes when it is surrounded by all kinds of misuse and misunderstanding. That Scripture upholds the community is not something Christians can fabricate by their own Bible-lectures [readings] and Bible-study, or even by the [Reformation] Scripture principle, but it is something that Scripture achieves of itself. It does it by very strange and devious ways [of which, from Barth's perspective, modern biblical criticism is one]. To the shame of its most attentive and faithful readers, it may not do it directly, but in the form of an echo awakened in the outside world, so that its readers have begun to
||374 - Barth and Textuality|
study it in a new way [may not the new textualism and deconstructionist literary criticism be such echoes in the outside world?].... It is the Holy Spirit who upholds the community.... But according to the defiant saying in Eph. 6:17, that 'sword of the Spirit' which protects and defends [the community] is the Word of God.... And so we can only say to Christians who are troubled about the preservation of the community or the maintaining of its cause ... that the community certainly cannot uphold itself, but that all the same it is in fact upheld ... continually in the hearing of this word" (IV/2, pp. 673-5).
The passage I have quoted sounded like a magical incantation thirty years ago when Barth composed it, but it now reads like nontheological commonplaces. A religion, especially a heavily textualized religion such as Christianity, can be expected to survive as long as its Scriptures are not ignored. It has no future except in its own intratextual world. One may hope that more and more Christian theologians, whether Protestant or Catholic, will soon get the message.
Yet the end has not been reached. Close reading of Holy Writ and attentive listening to God's word are not identical. The hearing does not occur without the reading, but it does not happen, so Christians believe, except in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or to use the imagery we have been employing, it is not enough to dwell within the Bible linguistically and imaginatively. Something more is needed for it to become the strange new world within which believers are called upon to live and theologians to do their work.
Barth has a way of speaking of this "more" which, if I understand it rightly, is remarkably prosaic. As far I can make out, it is self-reference which turns the biblical world into the strange new world. Scripture textualizes everything, including theologians and the work they do. When this is expressly realized, the God unsubstitutably identified and characterized in the text, supremely in the story of Jesus, becomes, as Barth says, "the basic text" (IV/2, p. 122).
A comparison may help. Contrast reading a book by an author one supposes dead, and then reading the same book with the knowledge that, whoever the author is, she is the one who observes what one does and will decide one's future. The second reading will be more, not less rigorous than the first, but in a drastically different way. All the intellectual tools employed before will again be utilized and more besides: one never knows beforehand what might prove helpful in learning who the author is, what she likes and dislikes, and how she might evaluate one's work and character. One will try to took at oneself and one's world through her eyes so that one can behave appropriately. The text itself will change. Items unnoticed on first reading will leap to attention and others will fade into the background. How, for example, could one have missed those allusions to Mozart and to Izaak Walton which reveal the passionate musician and devoted fisherwoman? Some of her major
||375 - Barth and Textuality|
interests have been overlooked. After such a discovery, one might be tempted to glow with satisfaction at one's love of music or be dismayed at one's dislike of fishing; but one would try not to let these emotions get in the way of reading. Perhaps the author approves of neither pride nor shame in such matters. The sensitivity to nuance which only imagination can bring would be important in one's study, but only as controlled by conceptual exactness and argumentative precision. The utmost in objectivity is essential: one's future is at stake.
So much for the parable. The application is straightforward. It is because Barth interprets the text in this matter-of-fact fashion that he says of living in the strange new world, of reading the Bible in the power of the Spirit, that it has "far more affinities to the comfortable truth that two and two make four than to the most powerful conceivable, bittersweet irruptions from the sphere of the numinous" (IV/2, p. 129).
The theological and preaching task, then, as Barth said, is exegesis and yet more exegesis of the kind we have just described. First comes identity descriptions of the ever-living and present Lord of the text: that is, trinitarian and christological doctrine. Only thus can one know who and what he is and wants for his church. But the worlds in which we live change. They need to be inscribed anew into the world of the text. It is only by constant reexplication, remeditation, and reapplication that this can be done. One can see why Barth regarded theology as the most flexible yet exacting, the most playful yet serious, of all intellectual disciplines.
Furthermore, when theologians and preachers go about this task with competence, they will not only be helpful to the community of faith, but are almost bound to make the Bible interesting to many of those who are outside. Like the Athenians, our age is on the lookout for new things; for new readings of present realities; or, to use a fashionable expression, for strong misreadings. But strong misreadings of present realities are what Christians inevitably produce when they interpret present realities within so deviant a framework as the Bible. They cannot help but violate conventional construals of the situation on both right and left. That is why they may prove intriguing to many worldlings providing they are both unapologetically biblical and unmistakably competent in dealing with the things the worldlings know.
Fortunately, one does not have to be a Barthian or a self-conscious intratextualist to do this. Reinhold Niebuhr was not, and yet he was a great practitioner of the art. Perhaps he would have succeeded even better in illuminating the American situation of his day if he had been more adept in the ancient exegetical tradition which Barth renewed. Be that as it may, we can take him as well as Barth as partial guides. It is by going about its own business of redescribing the world in biblical categories, rather than by apologetic conformity to an establishment or nonconformist advocacy of an anti-establishment that Christian theology will become interesting. Non-Christians may not agree, but they will not be indifferent-as they now are to conservative theologies on the
||376 - Barth and Textuality|
right and professedly prophetic ones on the left. It is thus by the apparently plodding but intrinsically absorbing task of working with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (to use Barth's phrase) that the theologian can best contribute to church and society.
There is much more that could be said. As for me, I belong to the more Catholic-or, if you prefer, medieval-wing of the Reformation. I think Barth misread the Bible on the sacraments, on the church, and, despite the good things which he had to say about John XXIII, on the papacy. These differences, however, do not for a moment detract from his achievement in almost single-handedly recovering for theology that ancient understanding of the Bible as matrix and norm in which the church can be renewed, and in which Christians can learn to agree to disagree, not in permissive pluralism, but within the single and authoritative universe of biblical discourse which is the Word of God. It is only by conscious and assiduous work from within that biblical universe, quite apart from whether one follows Barth's own descriptions of it, that postliberal theology can perform its task.