‘But I was never as ironic as I tried to be.
Really, I just wanted to be the girl who got into the boys’ club’.
I am sure I am not the only woman in theology who resonated deeply with Brandy’s most recent post. That Brandy raised the obvious similarities – of discerning the depths of sexism and patriarchy – of women across various fields highlighted the manner in which ‘excellence’ or even ‘appropriate development’ in professional environments is entangled by the patriarchal paradigm; a patriarchy that goes all the way down. As I have previously shared, all of my post-graduate study has occurred in an environment where I have been the sole women studying systematic theology. I have enjoyed genuine friendship with all the men in my program, and to be honest, in the latter stages of thesis writing these men provided solidarity that I was quite literally desperate for. However, it has always been hard for me to express something of my experience as (what often felt like) the ‘token women’, and as a feminist trying to find a path in the cultural landscape of systematic theology. It has been even harder for me – and has taken years finding a way – to critique the field of systematic theology among those who I have hoped and needed to be my friend, especially when that critique involves an area of research they are involved in. For that reason I have often kept quiet about my concerns regarding the culture of scholarship in systematic theology (and especially the particular sub-cultures that I have found myself ‘lucky’ enough to engage with). It has been far easier to offer substantive feedback regarding a theological argument than to confront the broader institution. Often this has meant engaging in private – secretive, even – strategies of resistance.
Four and a half years ago I made the decision to not read Karl Barth. It was a personal and private commitment that I felt I could not really share with anyone. The reasoning seemed (and still does at some level) naive and rather embarrassing, and I was sure that the men around me would not understand. Certainly my ‘not reading Barth as a matter of principle’ has been a strategy built upon various personal experiences that are obviously far from universal. And to be clear, this strategy has very little to do with my taste or distaste for Barth’s scholarship (a theologian I felt deeply drawn to in all my undergraduate studies). Nor do I simply ignore how large his figure looms, or the enormous influence of dialectical theology per se. Rather, my commitment to not reading Barth arose because of my concerns regarding the institution of Barthian scholarship and my understanding of identity for theologians on the margins. By not reading Barth I was, and have been, engaging in what I believe is a form of resistance; a small gesture that I could manage as I tried to find a voice and place beyond tokenism. There are several ways in which I have understood this to be resistance.
First, this has been a means to resist the production and control of ‘serious scholarship’. It is no secret that systematic theologians have consistently critiqued contextual theologies for lacking rigor. I learned very early on in post-graduate studies that if I were to be a feminist that distanced herself from contextual theology my male counterparts would (instantly) take me more seriously. In the canon of Protestant scholarship, the rigors of Barth studies and Hegelian philosophy serve as a green card into the world of serious scholarship. I clearly remember thinking that I too could dive into the Dogmatics and carve out an identity as the ‘woman Barth scholar’ (keep in mind that the theological community in Australia is rather small) who is a ‘serious theologian’. And yet my identity as a young woman feminist demanded that I critique these claims of ‘serious scholarship’. This has been a difficult journey, especially as I have found myself drawn to women scholars who have become the litmus test for serious feminist scholarship (Sarah Coakley and Kathryn Tanner for example). And of course, to be published and employed one must prove themselves to be rigorous in their approach. Still, the further I became engaged in circles of systematic theology, it was Barth who was proven the definite voice in the major issues of Protestant scholarship. It was clear time and time again that many around me felt a failure to consult Barth in numerous areas of doctrinal debate was a failure to engage in serious scholarship. I felt (and still feel) that it was not only legitimate to, but also that I had to, resist this.
Second, by not reading Barth I am attempting to resist ‘confessional identity’. By this I am referring to the way in which ‘Barth’ is invoked as the magic word for ‘orthodoxy’. I am both tired and bored of the liberal /conservative melodramatic critique of modernity in which Barthian orthodoxy gets to play the tall, dark, and handsome hero in every single performance (I have deployed this all too easy tactic myself). Not only has this typology become an almost crude cliché, the claims to orthodoxy continue to function as a silencer of the radical, and nearly always a silencer of those speaking from the margins. Consequently, systematic theology continually evades the challenges raised by those outside the guild and status quo is maintained through the hyper-control of orthodoxy. Feminists have been silenced and ignored by these tactics for decades. Of course there are feminist Barthians, and there are minoritised scholars working with various forms of Barthian theology. However, nearly every time I have read Barthian scholarship and glanced over the footnotes I have seen been struck by how (obviously) this culture of systematic theology supports white men talking about what other white men have said. Even those I know to support feminism in general largely fail to consult non-white men in their own scholarship (and yet strangely become defensive when questioned about this). It is as if ‘orthodoxy’ really has nothing to do with the concerns of non-white men and those in the know don’t care. Yes, one could argue ‘all the more reason to get involved’, but I have felt it even better to simply resist furthering the conversation.
Third – and perhaps this is really the best way to make the first two points – by resisting Barthian scholarship I have hoped to resist ‘institutional powers’. From my perspective, Barthian scholarship seems a power unto itself. Actually, it seems an American Protestant power unto itself. When I attend conferences in America it is the Barthians who stand out, who have the large crowds, who have the ‘big names’. What stands out is in fact the white man’s club. It is like watching the powerful movement of Patriarchy – striding confidently with long able legs while wearing leather patched tweed jackets. You often hear the lament of the poor white scholar: ‘it is so hard not to be a queer, black, disabled, liberal Biblicist’ we are told. It is the trump card of all institutional powers: ‘what momentum, there is no power here, we are now the minority!’ Last year while attending the AAR I slipped off to a session at the SBL to hear some ‘legends’ of minoritised biblical scholarship. There were 14 people in the room, including the five panelists. Don’t believe the hype; the man is still the man and the institution holds all the cards. In systematic theology American Barthianism epitomizes this.
So I think for now I will go on not reading Barth. It is a measly form of resistance; I know that. But it seems for those on the margins to resist the lure of the centre, there at least needs to be some recognition of how any theological culture defines the centre and locates the power associated with serious scholarship and the enormity of claims pressed upon ‘orthodoxy’. I don’t expect to have too much influence, and in all my hypocrisy I know myself not to be a great revolutionary. But where I have the energy to resist I will, and I might not keep it a secret next time.