Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
(1984; Penguin edition, 1993) 184pp.
I enjoyed this little novel, winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, though many critics have panned it and suggested it should not have won the prize. Edith Hope is a thirty-something woman banished by her friends to a short exile in Switzerland for her unforgivable indiscretion and foolishness. The novel is a measured unfolding of the story of how she ended up where she has, of the different characters who make up her companions in exile, and of her gradual self-realisation. Edith is in-between her former life now dismantled and perhaps lost to her, and … what?
The enigmatic Mr Neville, one of her hotel companions, introduces her to his philosophy of life.
‘It is a great mistake to confuse happiness with one particular situation, one particular person. Since I freed myself from all that I have discovered the secret of contentment.’
‘Pray tell me what it is,’ she said in a dry tone. ‘I have always wanted to know.’
‘It is simply this. Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everything she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored. One can be as pleasant or as ruthless as one wants. If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood – simply please oneself – there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again.’
‘Or, perhaps, entirely happy.’
‘Edith, you are a romantic,’ he said with a smile. ‘I may call you Edith, I hope?’
She nodded. ‘But why must I be called a romantic just because I don’t see things the same way as you do?’
The conversation goes on for a while longer, this ‘dangerous gospel.’ And then,
‘You are wrong to think that you cannot live without love, Edith.’
‘No, I am not wrong,’ she said, slowly. ‘I cannot live without it. Oh, I do not mean that I go into a decline, develop odd symptoms, become a caricature. I mean something far more serious than that. I mean that I cannot live well without it. I cannot think or act or speak or write or even dream with any kind of energy in the absence of love. I feel excluded from the living world. I become cold, fish-like, immobile. I implode. My idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all day, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening.’
‘You are a romantic, Edith,’ repeated Mr Neville, with a smile.
‘It is you who are wrong,’ she replied. ‘I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together.’
Another refrain from the story concerns a piece of advice Edith learned from her father: “This is when character tells.” That is, when one can stand firm and sure within oneself and stand one’s ground in the face of and in spite of the criticisms, slights, discouragements and difficulties that assail.Anita Brookner has crafted a subtle story about love, and about character, and about the growth of one’s character if one is willing. Yet in the end we are left with questions unanswered, questions which call us to reflect on the nature of our lives and loves, choices and character. Who is Edith, and for what does she ‘hope’? How well does she actually know herself? And is her final decision a vindication or repudiation of Mr Neville’s advice? More pointedly, is the modern concept of ‘character’ at odds with our vision of love? If one of the marks of a good novel is that it will stimulate us to think deeply about the larger questions of life, Hotel du Lac qualifies as good.
Volf & Croasmun have a bit of fun critiquing critique, and introduce a new term coined by Christopher Castiglia to describe the “unmistakable blend of suspicion, self-confidence, and indignation” sometimes found in those who love to critique others, especially traditional biblical interpretations and theological formulations.
Conservatives like jeremiads; progressives relish critique. They interrogate and unmask; they trouble and problematize; they expose and subvert; they demystify and destabilize. For theologians no less than for nontheologians who practice it, critique is often infinite; it applies to everything—to biblical texts and biblical figures, to the church today and throughout its history, to God and to all aspects of modern societies—and it never stops.
Some of the progressive critical impetus comes from the Christian tradition itself, not just from the prophetic castigation of misuse of political power or religious rituals, but from the conviction that sin is most powerful when it appears as goodness, and therefore it conspires to present itself as godliness. And yet there is a fundamental difference. Today’s critique, as a rule, offers no positive alternative; its normativity is antinormative. Unlike the prophets of old, many theologians today engage not just in criticism but in what some critics of critique have called “critiquiness.” They shy away from offering a positive vision in whose service they undertake their critique; for then this vision, too, would recursively become a target of the critique. In the absence of a positive vision, critiques easily devolve to mere griping, knocking things down. Unmasking gives the impression of intellectual profundity, and griping offers the cheap thrill of understated self-righteousness. Both get old quickly and accomplish little; in fact, as the biblical admonition regarding exorcism suggests, they often make things worse (Volf & Croasmun, For the Life of the World, 54-55).
I remember my first theology teacher (John Yates) telling me many years ago that I needed to develop skills of critical thinking. He was right, for such skills are crucial intellectual tools in any field of study. But any good thing taken too far becomes a fault. Critical thinking that devolves into “critiquiness”—an intellectual habit of endless deconstruction and criticism sometimes undertaken simply for the fun of undermining the position of another—is a sign of intellectual laziness and a sense of personal superiority. It becomes a means of closing down rather than opening dialogue and discovery on the quest for truth. It may give the impression of intellectual profundity, but it is merely that: an impression, a mask better discarded altogether, not least in theological studies where the truthfulness of the Christian claim is the object and criterion of our study.
I was interested to read the chapter on academic argument in Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish.
That is what you have to do to earn your bona fides as an academic: enter an ongoing conversation about a topic deemed to be important—not important in the larger world (although it may be), but important in the academic world—survey the arguments now competing for attention, and put forward an argument of your own that corrects the others or outflanks them (by bringing them together in a ‘higher synthesis’), or reconfigures the field by arguing that your predecessors have asked the wrong questions; you, of course, have the right ones (167).
That is, the process of academic argument is to join a conversation that is underway before we come to it, detailing an intellectual problem and its outstanding issues, the present scholarly approach and arguments with respect to the problem, to set forth one’s own argument to persuade others that your own approach is superior in that it addresses the outstanding issues.
Perhaps more interesting is his claim that academic arguments ‘don’t matter.’ They are strictly ‘academic,’ concerned, that is, with the intellectual points at stake, and as such, not concerned with outcomes, real-world consequences or implications, and so on. Academic argument is neither activism nor formation. It does not seek nor intends to change the world per se but to understand it—pace Karl Marx (176). Academic argument does not seek to move mountains; it seeks rather to move the mind. An academic argument ‘shouldn’t be political, therapeutic, or exhortatory. It can, however, have political, therapeutic, and exhortatory effects, as long as those effects are not aimed at…’ (175).
Also of interest is the idea that not every topic is properly speaking, academic. Fish discusses several examples: holocaust denial, the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to others, and creationism. Fish finds that in each case the academy has decided the topic is something else masquerading as academic: lies and distortions in the case of holocaust denial, or religious dogma pretending to be science in the case of creationism (180). This might be all well and good with respect to the particular matters raised, but it does appear that in contemporary universities, some positions of argument are being deemed out-of-bounds not on the basis of their academic demerit but because loud cultural voices are declaring that such-and-such a topic is illegitimate as a form of enquiry. It may be that argument is still required to determine what may be argued about.
With respect to theological argument, Wolfhart Pannenberg reminds us of the distinction between faith and theology—a distinction all theological students should note:
Individual faith is certainly not tied to this basic argument. We can believe without it. But faith of that kind is not theology. Only arguments count in theology. Theology cannot ignore the question of the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. It cannot ignore the underlying relation that leads to the rise of faith and the statements of the christological confession. Theological argument neither here nor elsewhere makes faith or the Holy Spirit superfluous. Nevertheless, it is also true that appeal to faith and the Holy Spirit is not of itself an argument (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, 287; in subsection on “The Method of Christology”).
Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom
(New York: Harper Collins, 2016)
Stanley Fish, distinguished professor of law in New York and Florida, argues quite simply that “argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we have” (3). The world, he says, is rhetorically constructed; we live in a world “bereft of transcendence” (12) and so absolute truth, certainty, and authority are beyond us. We can hope only for persuasion and must argue for it. Nor is there a world without argument or a language so purified of ulterior motives and hidden or overt agendas or rhetorical devices, so objective and factual that it transcends the need for argument (21). Argument arises on account of and in the context of doubt. If doubt may be introduced into the present consensus, argument ensues. In fact, argument can introduce doubt, if only to create its own momentum. Fish cites as examples the serpent in Genesis 3, or the smoking lobby. Thus when and wherever rhetoric is used to inspire doubt in order to progress its own argument, the only adequate response can be rhetorical—a counter-argument. Yet argument is two-faced and double-sided leading either to the Good—via ‘good persuasion,’ a rational sorting of argument based on answering the question, What’s the best thing to be done?, i.e. the good, the right, the best, the fitting—or to the Bad—via ‘bad persuasion,’ which aims at the sympathy of the audience and at leaving the opponent nothing to say. Its question: How do I win? (46). In the end Fish appeals to Aristotle: the best we can do is take care that rhetoric’s potent appeals are deployed solely in the service of truth. ‘Tether the undeniable power of the ethical and pathetic to a rational purpose…make ethos and pathos subordinate to logos and not the other way around; we can have our rhetoric and not be eaten by it too’ (47).
This is a synopsis of the first chapter of Winning Arguments. In the final chapter Fish continues his argument that there is nothing but argument: we live not in an abstract world of ‘undistorted or purified communication’ (Habermas, Orwell) where universal harmony is the goal and every word is weighed and cleansed, but in the realm of ‘instrumental purposes’ where every conversation is irremediably situated and local, the entire field of discourse ‘saturated with interest’ (200). This claim is problematic for both religious believers and for ‘liberals’ (those committed to the Enlightenment philosophical program inaugurated by Kant). For Fish, these two groups are both committed to a world without argument, the first by appeal to a higher authority to which all should give assent, the second to what Fish labels a ‘thin proceduralism,’ rules of engagement that bracket off interest-laden norms that produce social and political division (201)—what can and cannot be spoken of or assumed, and the formation of a public language of ‘such generality and metaphysical emptiness that to speak it is to commit oneself to almost nothing’ (202). Whereas religion privileges obedience to a higher authority, liberalism privileges the exercise of choice by the free and autonomous individual. The problem with religion is that not all hold the particular beliefs espoused by the religion; the problem for liberalism is the difficulty of securing a polity in which conflict gives way to harmony when the supreme value is the will of the individual.
And yet, although religion and liberalism are locked in an opposition for which there is no resolution, they are alike in one respect—their claim to be universal, albeit in different ways. Liberal universalism is to be achieved by subtraction, by removing or bracketing comprehensive moral dictates not everyone would recognize; religious universalism is inherent in the comprehensive claim of a religion to be bearing a truth everyone, including nonbelievers, should acknowledge. One kind of universalism says, ‘be an independent, rational chooser rather than someone chosen and scripted by deity or a pregiven morality’; the other says, ‘forgo your independence—you really don’t have it anyway—and allow yourself to be absorbed into a structure not made by hands’ (204-205).
Fish argues that we live in an unredeemed world in which there is no ‘God’s eye view,’ no ‘final meanings of the kind that would stop conflict in its tracks.’ These, simply, are unavailable. In such a world all we have is argument. This is real; it is also ideal: ‘no argument means no assertion, no exploration of alternatives, no movement, no advance in knowledge, no building of community’ (208). This is why the question, Why can’t we all just get along? is illegitimate: ‘a quarrel is evidence of co-existence’ (208).
The wish to escape argument is really the wish to escape language, which is really the wish to escape politics, and is finally the wish to escape mortality—and it won’t matter a whit. For one effect of inhabiting the condition of difference—the condition of being partial, the condition of not being in direct touch with the final unity and full meaning of the universe—is that we long to transcend it; and it is that longing, forever disappointed, that keeps us going (212).
Between the first and last chapters are four chapters dealing with political, domestic, legal, and academic arguments respectively. Each chapter brims with points and illustrations showing how arguments ‘work’ in each of these arena. The most humorous chapter concerns domestic arguments where Fish insists that the only way to ‘win’ in the domestic sphere is if both parties win and so transcend the argument, as it were. This is not to argue for a lack of argument or disagreement, but to show the way in which domestic arguments ‘work.’ The only forward in a domestic argument is to cease from the making of points—establishing whose facts are most correct—and taking up an entirely different mode of interaction altogether, the way of softness, pardon, and forgiveness. Is his point in this chapter at odds with his overall vision and claim? Could such a strategy work in politics or the court room, for example? His answer seems to be No because the context, the participants, and the goals are so different.
Fish writes in a way that is up-to-date, perceptive, at times humorous, and deeply insightful. The purpose of his book is to encourage his readers to engage in argument, passionately, intelligently, aware of the rhetorical and argumentative tactics and strategies at one’s disposal, and using them to advance the quest for that which is good, beneficial and true. He encourages us to become persuasive.
It is likely that many Christians will question his claim that we live in a world bereft of transcendence, that there is no God’s-eye view. Many Christians will rightly point to Jesus Christ as ‘the truth,’ to Scripture as inspired Word of God, and so conclude that Fish is wrong. Such reasoning is too hasty, however. I, too, affirm that Jesus is the Truth with a capital-T, and that Scripture is divinely inspired and authoritative. But our apprehension of this Truth is only ever partial; we see through a glass darkly, and this is the only way in which we can see, this side of eternity.
And so we must argue, intelligently and honestly, and in pursuit of a greater apprehension of the truth. And perhaps more importantly, we must demonstrate the truthfulness of our convictions by living them. The argument of the Christian must always be more than intellectual, more than merely words—though never less! Rather, in a pluralist world the church bears witness to the Truth that lies at the heart of all reality, and does so by the way in which it lives, as Kevin Vanhoozer has so ably stated:
The church’s aim should be to render a faithful interpretation of Scripture.…the reading that gives rise to a way of living that most approximates the life of Jesus himself, the harbinger of the kingdom of God.…The community of believers represents a prophetic counter-culture that challenges the gods and myths of the day with regard to which world and life view best fulfills humanity.…Again, this is not only a matter of correct doctrine but also a matter of faithful biblical performance. The church must be the cultural incarnation of the story of God in Christ (“The World Well Staged? Theology, Culture and Hermeneutics.” In God and Culture, Donald A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Eds) (Carlisle: Paternoster, 27-28).
David Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth
(Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2016). Pp. xiii + 223.
Last week I reviewed Galli’s recent introductory biography of Karl Barth for evangelicals, and expressed the hope that evangelicals might engage with the Swiss master. This review is for those who have decided that they would like to do this but perhaps are unsure where to begin. Those new to Barth and seeking an understanding of his life and work will find David Guretzki’s new book helpful. Guretzki’s primary aim, restated several times in his text, is to ‘provide a guide—a handbook of sorts—explicitly designed to help new explorers of Karl Barth to get quickly acclimatized to his thought’ (xi). Further, he aims to get his readers reading Barth for themselves and relying less on secondary assessments and commentary (205; cf. 180). Whether he succeeds in these goals remains to be seen, but he has certainly written a text that makes it easier for new readers of Barth to engage directly with his work.
The book is divided into two parts: Getting to Know Karl Barth with five chapters, and Exploring the Church Dogmatics with four more chapters. In the first chapter entitled ‘Why Karl Barth?’ Guretzki gives two reasons in addition, of course, to his reputation and stature which requires anyone who wants to be theologically informed to come to grips with his theology (8). First, says the author, Barth is thoroughly Christ-centred, and second, he is thoroughly biblical (9). As such he is also ‘spiritually valuable’ (14). Guretzki is convinced that Barth’s theology ‘will persist not because he got it all right…but because it so consistently recenters our search for God in God’s own search for us in the person of Jesus Christ whom we follow in life and in death’ (41).
After a brief second chapter which provides a thumbnail sketch of Barth’s life and career, the third chapter addresses a list of seventeen very practical ‘frequently asked questions’ about Barth’s life, theology and work arising from many years of teaching students. The fourth and fifth chapters are the longest in the book, comprising almost 100 pages. Chapter four is an excellent, well-nuanced and judicious ‘Glossary of Concepts and People’ explaining twenty-four entries, which new readers of Barth will find very helpful. Many of the entries are focussed on methodological moves made by Barth (e.g. analogy, correspondence, dialectic, Historie and Geschichte, etc.), although some also explain material concerns. Of the many terms which could have been included, Guretzki has chosen those that he judges are used by Barth in a distinctive way (47). The final chapter of Part One suggests ten readings that novices might engage from Barth’s career prior to his work on the Church Dogmatics. In fact Guretzki laments that ‘so many are unfamiliar with the riches of Barth’s earlier works, many of which are often, in my opinion, far more interesting to read’ (93f.). I imagine that Guretzki has in mind the explosive rhetoric and fertile creativity that marks Barth’s formative theological work. In any case it is refreshing to see new readers being encouraged to ‘explore’ these early works. The chapter concludes with a brief ‘detour’ which accentuates the volume of Barth’s exegetical work outside the Church Dogmatics, and what one might expect from this biblical work.
The four chapters of Part Two serve as an orientation for new readers to the Church Dogmatics. Chapter six is a primer explaining the structures and features of Barth’s magnum opus, while chapter seven is called a ‘User’s Guide’ to the work. Here Guretzki argues that ‘the CD is read aright when used as a theological tool, not necessarily as an artifact to be viewed in and of itself’ (159). Guretzki introduces the reader to the Index, discusses preaching and the Church Dogmatics, and gives tips for starting and leading a Barth Reading Group, or writing a research paper on some aspect of Barth’s theology. The eighth chapter provides a very brief overview of the content of each part volume of the Dogmatics, together with a suggested reading plan for each part volume which is particularly helpful. The reading plan is divided into three categories for those who want to ‘sample’ Barth’s work, ‘study’ Barth’s work, or undertake a more ‘scholarly’ engagement with it. Those who follow the plan as a ‘sampler’ will end up reading about 10% of the Dogmatics, those who ‘study’ about 20%, and those engaging as ‘scholars’ about 33% of the whole work. The final chapter provides some suggested resources for further engagements with Barth scholarship and aids.
This is a very useful book for students and readers new to Barth’s theology. In my estimation Guretzki has succeeded in his task of preparing a guidebook which alerts the newcomer concerning the adventure to be had, things to look for, and pitfalls to avoid. I especially appreciated some of the excellent advice he gave along the way, such as the warning against relying too heavily on a single passage or volume when interpreting some aspect of Barth’s theology. He rightly notes that many errors of interpretation have been made in Barth studies because readers have read only part of what Barth has said on a particular topic, and not weighed what he has said on the same topic in other places (71). And he is clear that reading a guidebook about something is utterly different from experiencing the real thing. Guretzki has not written a book that will make reading Barth himself unnecessary, but a book that will help them read Barth for themselves, and equip them to understand his work more carefully as they do so, whether or not they finally agree with his proposals.