Francisco de Zurbarán, "Saint Serapion"

I finished reading Dr. Michel Barnes’s article, “Ebion at the Barricades: Moral Narrative and Post-Christian Catholic Theology” (Modern Theology 26:4 2010, 511-548). He eviscerates Catholic systematic theology, the field to which I have given (at least) my early career. My profession lies bleeding on the floor. I am delighted. And not simply because I am Facebook friends with the man.

The article concentrates on the place of moral questions in modern Catholic theology, their contexts, and the original place given to evil in patristic Christianity. Modern theology, he argues, has given too much pride of place to atheist positions, and due to this bears a disproportionate need to explain the origin and nature of evil. Christianity, however, has never been an attempt to explain evil, except in the mysterious response to it God gives in the grace of the cross. Barnes outlines his own thesis:

Christianity offers no substantial account or explanation of the origin(s) and nature of evil, that in a fundamental way Christianity is not concerned with offering such accounts, and that when the task of supplying accounts of the origin(s) and nature of evil is made central to the content or narrative of Christian faith that faith is made false: it is misunderstood. (514)

Barnes is making both a systematic (for lack of a better term) and an historical argument. Historically, Christianity has not been concerned with gaining ground with non-believers in a fictitious neutral-zone (morality); systematically, this means theology cannot be so concerned. It is clear that modern theology is so concerned, a point Barnes notes with alacrity, and its unmooring from Scripture appears in his article as one of the prime indications of modern theology’s failing vital signs. Barnes’s countermeasure – not to defend systematic theology, but to offer an alternative – is the resuscitation of grace, primarily through the eyes of Augustine, and a concomitant insistence on the mysteriousness of evil. Plainly: theology’s focus must be on God and his grace, and not evil. Evil is a privation; theology cannot and should not make something of nothing, as it were. “We must try to be good,” says Barnes, “because to do otherwise would be a sin against hope. But we must also understand that the Kingdom has not yet been handed over; it is being gathered. And we are a pitiful lot—which is why it is good that we receive pity” (538). He does not desire to advocate benighted ignorance, or willful agnosticism, but Augustine’s reverent attitude toward grace.

I am afraid my sketchy summary must suffice for now, as I am anxious to consider certain details at greater length.

Barnes links the current state of systematic theologians (and Scripture scholars) to the experience of the Third Reich. With startling gravity, he argues, “one can say that the problem of physical and intellectual participation in the Third Reich is specifically indicative or a characteristic of modern theology” (526). The sickening interaction with the Nazis serves to define modern theology, he insists, and not the mythical moral or scientific rift emblazoned in most systematic narratives. This interaction, one that is more wound than anything positive, helps to explain modern theology’s tendency away from Scripture into “neutral” categories, and its interest in its own survival. Barnes says:

One lesson that modern theology may have learned from the Third Reich is the survival benefit of cultural collaboration and the inhibiting effect martyrdom has on the development and promulgation of one’s own theology. Opposition leading to death — “martyrdom” — is ineffective at every level except one: personal moral integrity or purity. (ibid)

Neither dominant Western theologies nor liberation theologies, neither conservative nor liberal, escape Barnes’s critique. The problem is one of making atheist themes dominant concerns, of focusing attention on what might be understood by those that do not share the Christian faith and on adopting their terms. This is one reason why, I think, Barnes highlights theology’s new interest in its own survival – an interest that emerges in the academy as a need to be taken seriously by the academy – since the success of theology, as opposed to the holiness of the individual theologian, is a distinctively modern preoccupation. Not all theology is preoccupied like this, and Oscar Romero comes to mind as an admirable exception, but I cannot deny that most modern theology betrays the taint of an investment in worldly success. Modern theology is, unfortunately, a creature of the academy.

Barnes’s argument is a broadside to systematic theology, and I think Barnes does Horatio Nelson proud. As I am not of a mind to rescue systematic theology as if it were a profession that should continue life as is, I am not disturbed to observe the destruction. Nor am I exactly delighted to hear of my profession’s malevolence. All the same, I should consider the claim with generosity and sympathy. Modern theology is deeply wounded; I am happy and saddened to admit it. I only wish Barnes had set his sights on more recent Catholic theological interlocutors. Here I think of Roger Haight, John Milbank (though Radical Orthodoxy does receive mention), Aidan Nichols, and Thomas Weinandy to name a few whose interests vary. Karl Rahner receives the burden of Barnes’s attention.

The article is almost of two minds in its focus on both the real place of morality and evil in theology, and on systematic theology’s failures. But it would be an injustice to divide the two arguments; they are stitched together. In other words, it will do me no use to separate Barnes’ systematic claims about evil from his systematic claims about modern theology. I almost wish I could commit that violence to his argument, since it would rescue an incisive claim about Christian morality all while preventing me from painfully reflecting on Catholic systematics.

But if I am eager to accept one side of the coin, I must take a look at the other. I am not bright enough to be so global, so I will focus for a moment on the absolutely parochial: the blood on my own hands.

Have I allowed my theology – which is, at this point, at best nascent – to be determined by atheist agenda? Have I permitted the concerns of the age to obscure the grandeur of God, and forgotten the Christian narrative that portrays that grandeur? Do I, like I claimed of poetry, lend credence to privation? It is too massive for me to know. I do understand, as much as one can understand, the lack of context with which Catholic systematic theology operates. I function with a short memory indeed. Perhaps I can blame my youth, but not for long. Yet I work to remedy this ignorance, nettled though the problem may be.

Most of all – most of all – I comprehend my lack of facility with Scripture, and that I am not held responsible for that lack. Dear and admired professors, mentors, hold me responsible. My job description does not. And I find Scripture to be the clearest surface in which I find my own condemnation. I do not know its pages as I should, and do not let its wisdom take root in me as I should.

So, what now?

To use Barnes’s own logic, there is nothing God cannot redeem, and theology is forever in need of redemption. I have followed my vocation so far, and though I can see that God has led me into a wilderness, I ought to trust him to guide me – and my fellow theologians – through it. I do not mean this naively; I mean it earnestly, and the two ought not be confused. Scripture must make its return to theology, even if systematics must in some manner die for this to happen. Perhaps I can be made an instrument of Scripture’s return. I do hope my dissertation will serve Scripture, though Scripture makes its appearance at the end. I even hope that I can do my work, and well, within the academy itself – broken though its walls may be. God’s mercy is mysterious, after all, and I dare not hope to place limits on it, even in the case of a sinner such as myself. Or, should I fail to serve God (and theology), I pray sincerely that God will render unto me what he does with most of his theologians (even good ones): that I will be forgotten.

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