Friday, 27 November 2015

'...but the greatest of these is charity.' Hunsinger and the Barth-Revisionists

If in some mind-bending moment in the life of the Church of England, I was put in charge of all training for all clergy and lay-ministers, everywhere, I would require that trainee ministers take classes in how to read. I don’t mean remedial English. I mean hermeneutics at its most basic level: how to read and inhabit someone’s argument, thought processes, ideas, and perspective — even, or especially, when you don’t agree with their final verdict. I have sometimes wondered about setting a debate as a final assignment, in which students must opt to argue for a position they cannot stand! The idea is not to increase piety for piety’s sake (though a bit more piety may not always be a bad thing), but rather to increase our ability to dialogue and disagree well, by which I mean in an informed and intelligent way. The latest wrangling in the C of E about sexuality will require exactly this sort of thing (and, so far, it seems to me there has been little attempt to really inhabit and understand the arguments of both sides - though the shared conversations might begin to help). Furthermore, it would be mandatory that, unless time has been taken to really understand and inhabit someone else’s point of view and the reaosns for which they have adopted it, freedom to comment upon the quality of their argument or fidelity of their persepctive be suspended. Hermeneutically speaking, this is known as charitable reading. It is not so much a disposition, but a discipline. It does not withold the need to critique, but makes a virtue of proper understanding beforehand.

This is the proposal George Hunsinger makes in his new book on Barth-interpretation, Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermenutical Proposal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015). From begining to end this book is a critique of the revisionist school of thought, most associated with Hunsinger’s Princeton colleague Bruce McCormack. Essentially the Revisionists accuse Barth of inconsistency and incoherence, and make quite interesting (!) claims about divine ontology in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Most significant amongst these claims is the idea that it was the divine decision to be God pro nobis, God’s self-eleciton, that gave rise to God’s ontological ordering of God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In response, Traditionalists like Hunsinger argue that Barth sees the eternal tri-unity of God as giving rise to God’s decision to be God for us in election. Hunsinger’s argument is that the Revisionists’ position is methodologically weak because it 'fails to honour the principle of charity’ (xvi). This is not as simple as saying they haven’t read Barth properly. Bruce McCormack, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones (the principal revisionists referenced here) are significant theologians of high standing in their own rights, and all have published weighty volumes in support of the revisionist position. Hunsinger’s problem is that none of these scholars has responded adequately to the Traditionalist scholars - Hunsinger, Paul Molnar, Joseph Mangina - who offer an alternative reading of Barth and have published equally weighty tomes defending and articulating their position.

Hunsinger tries in this volume to overcome the impasse between the two schools of thought by offering a kind of mediating principle in the notion of ‘charity’. In a discipline such as systematic theology, which involves the reading and exegeting of texts, to determine which is the most charitable reading we must ask which is most faithful both to the text and also to what the author of the text was trying to do. It means avoiding the levelling of critiques such as inconsistency unless absolutely necessary. Hunsinger’s point is that in the case of Karl Barth the revisionist critique is unnecessary, and that without much effort a more coherent and more traditionally trinitarian Barth can be discerned within the same texts as those the revisionist cite as indicative of their own position.
In order to do so, Hunsinger describes the key aspects of the revisionist account in detail, drawing attention to the key articles, book chapters, and monographs in which these arguments are made, and then proceeds to offer his alternaitve reading - or at least to highlight the problems with such readings raised in the Barth corpus. Hunsinger’s critique of the revisionist perspective demonstrates the kind of charitable reading he advocates: it is thorough, closely argued, and depedent on trying to inhabit the perspectives of his opponents in detail. But in one significant way it falls short of a putative understanding of charity: the tone of the argument. In several places Hunsinger sounds frustrated with the Revisionists, and thier lack of care in reading Barth. This is understandable; it feels as much like a matter of justice as it does theological correctness - has Barth had a fair hearing? But agitation makes for awkward conversation. I have wondered what the corridors of Princeton must feel like given that two giants of Barth studies teach there, and they disagree so profusely (though I recognise professional disagreement does not necessarily equal personal discourtesy at all).

And this brings me back to the future of the C of E, and the way we learn and think together over difficult topics. The most dominant voices should not be assumed to be the most accurate or correct. Going forward will require detailed, close listening to the perspectives of others, and close, detailed critique too. To engage charitably is not to hold back, but to make sure when the advance of any argument is made it is accurate, fair, and faithful. It also means getting the tone right: speaking the truth in love, one might say, or else the good disagreement will fail before it has really started. 

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