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Updike’s Version

In response to:

Mr. Updike's Planet from the December 4, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of John Updike’s Roger’s Version, Frederick Crews makes a number of assertions about the theologian Karl Barth, almost all of which are riddled with factual errors. Although issuing the disclaimer that Updike may have done violence to Barth’s intent, Crews proceeds to comment as if he were really describing Barth and not his perception of Updike’s use of Barth. The following errors, all of them elementary, should be corrected.

  1. Barth did not “downgrade ethics.” He wrote a number of ethical treatises, one of them numbering 685 pages (in English translation) alone, and some of them among the most important to have been produced by a Protestant theologian in this century. Throughout his career Barth, who was a leader in the church’s resistance to Nazism, insisted on the inseparability of theology and ethics.

  2. Barth did not “welcome human imperfections” for any reason, least of all because he supposedly considered them necessary to distinguish the Creator from the creature. Crews’s distortion of this matter is so crude as to require no further comment.

  3. Barth’s characterization of God as “Wholly Other” was not meant to suggest divine aloofness, but to underscore the mystery of the presence of divine grace. Crews may be forgiven for this misinterpretation, since it is common among theologians as well.

  4. Barth did not maintain “that the very notion of a first cause was meaningless without Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture.” He maintained that the idea of a first cause had nothing to do with the living God depicted in the biblical narratives.

  5. Barth did not understand the doctrine of creation to entail “a covenant with the unborn to secure general salvation through the Cross.” Crews’s statement here is virtually unintelligible. Suffice it to say that Barth understood the covenant implied by creation to pertain to the living (not to the “unborn”), and that he did not understand the cross to have procured “general salvation”—a term he would have regarded as meaningless, since he believed that salvation was nothing if not personal and concrete.

Finally, although not involving an error of fact, Crews’s opinion that Barth was “prescientific in spirit” deserves comment. It is true that Barth rejected “scientism,” or the idea that the method of the natural sciences is canonical for establishing the conditions of meaning and truth in all areas of discourse. Given the level of sophistication in the rest of Crews’s theological remarks, the burden would seem to fall on him to explain why he is doing anything more here than venting the usual modernist prejudices. Be that as it may, it might be noted that some of the more interesting studies of Barth in recent years have been concerned with certain methodological parallels between his work and modern theoretical physics.

I enjoyed the rest of Crews’s essay very much, but I’m afraid that when it comes to theology he’s simply out of his depth.

George Hunsinger

Bangor Theological Seminary

Bangor, Maine

Frederick Crews replies:

William Pritchard’s sarcasms in his second paragraph are launched at a critic who wants to “reduce” John Updike to the level of Joseph Conrad. But that critic is a straw man. I invoked Heart of Darkness in a thematic, not an evaluative, context: Updike’s equating of an alien and menacing negritude with a “random energy too fierce to contain in any structure.” That is what Conrad did, too, though with stronger artistic effect than can be found in Roger’s Version.

Mr. Pritchard misrepresents the goal of my essay as a mere deploring of illiberal ideas on Updike’s part. On the contrary, I was trying to account for the morally ambiguous, self-undermining character of certain novels and for Updike’s eventual adoption of a sardonic, cat-and-mouse manner. Like many another academic commentator, Pritchard refuses to acknowledge that uncongenial turn in Updike’s career. Naturally, then, he is offended by my effort to come to grips with it.

Unfortunately, George Hunsinger’s challenge to my “crude” and “virtually unintelligible” discussion of Karl Barth requires a more detailed reply. Though he fleetingly admits that I was characterizing not Barth but Updike’s tendentious apprehension of Barth, he now insists that we get Barth straight. Very well: here are my answers to his five numbered points.

  1. The early Barth, admired by Updike for such writings as The Word of God and the Word of Man, did “downgrade ethics” in a specific and important sense. He chastised the liberal churches for emphasizing mere “virtue” instead of “fear of the Lord” (Harper Torch-book edition, p. 77); he dismissed the conception of Christianity as “essentially a religious ethic” (p. 147); and he called instead for recognition of “the bondage which prevents the human will from achieving the good” (p. 156). “Man,” Barth wrote, “cannot begin to answer the ethical questions in actual life. He can only recognize that he is wholly incapable of commanding an answer” (p. 166). Even the later Barth of Church Dogmatics, while attempting to spell out what the Christian life ought to entail, denied that such an effort could bear divine endorsement.

  2. My alleged “distortion” is in fact pure Barth: “Without this possibility of defection or of evil, creation would not be distinct from God and therefore not really his creation” (quoted by Updike, Picked-up Pieces, p. 89). The same point can be found elsewhere: “Would he be the Source of all being and Creator of all things, unless in comparison to him, all being had to be disqualified as not being, and all things recognized as estranged and fallen away from the good and perfect life which belongs to him alone?” (Word, p. 168)

  3. I said of Barth’s “Wholly Other” God not that He is aloof but that He is “immune to influence by our good deeds.” That point is so quintessentially Barthian that it could be illustrated almost at random. For Barth, man can never hope to compel God’s attention or mercy; grace flows freely in one direction only. As Barth put it in one of Updike’s favorite passages, “There is no way from us to God…. The god who stood at the end of some human way…would not be God’s (Word, p. 177). It is god’s ineluctable strangeness, according to Barth, which “drives us…to look for a basic, ultimate, original correlation between our life and that wholly other life” (p. 288).

4, 5. Barth confutes Mr. Hunsinger in the following statements among many others: “the purpose and therefore the meaning of creation is to make possible the history of God’s covenant with man which has its beginning, its centre and its culmination in Jesus Christ. The history of this covenant is as much the goal of creation as creation itself is the beginning of history” (Church Dogmatics, III, 1: 42). “Only by what we otherwise know as the relation of father and son being broken through by the Word of Christ the Crucified and Risen…do we come in sight of what Creation means” (I, 1: 447).

As for “general salvation,” Updike had good reason to speak of Barth’s “virtually antinomian doctrine of all-inclusive Grace.” “Salvation is certain,” Barth wrote, “because the new man is present from above…” (Word, p. 180). Unlike Mr. Hunsinger, Barth conceived of election as pertaining not initially to men “as private persons in the singular or plural” but to “these men as a fellowship” that is all-inclusive (Church Dogmatics, II, 2: 196). Christendom is thus merely “the provisional representation of the whole world of humanity justified in Him” (IV, 1: 643). Even the godless man “belongs eternally to Jesus Christ and therefore is not rejected, but elected by God in Jesus Christ; and…he is appointed to eternal life with God…” (II, 2: 306).

In sum, Mr. Hunsinger is wrong on every point. As for his proposal that Barth’s dogmas anticipated “modern theoretical physics,” I can recommend a book that might help to disabuse him of such folly; it is called Roger’s Version.

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