Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Stringfellow on the Freedom of the Word

Here is one of William Stringfellow's many bedeviling quotes about scripture and its role in the Christian life:

Paradoxically, the trouble with fundamentalists, as I try to listen to them, is their shocking failure to regard and use the Bible conscientiously enough. If they honored the Bible more highly, they would appreciate that the Word of God will endure demythologizing, that the Word cannot be threatened by anything whatever given to human beings to discover and know through any science or discipline of the world, or hindered by textual criticism or hampered by linguistic analysis, or harmed by vernacular translations. All these are welcome to Christians as enhancements of the knowledge of the fullness of the Word of God and of the grandeur of human access to the Word. More than that, if the fundamentalists actually took the Bible seriously, they would inevitably love the world more readily instead of fearing the world, because the Word of God is free and active in this world and Christians can only comprehend the Word out of their involvement in this world, as the Bible so redundantly testifies (quoted in Bill Wylie-Kellerman, ed., William Stringfellow: Essential Writings. New York: Orbis, 2013, p. 42).
Now what do we make of this?


  1. if you fix the typo ("endure demythologizing"), i'd like to share it on facebook!

  2. I appreciate the thrust of this quote, but I wonder whether this statement is a little naive epistemologically: "the Word cannot be threatened by anything whatever given to human beings to discover and know through any science or discipline of the world." Science is not neutral and much that has been touted as fact has turned out to be a reflex of prior assumptions inimical to Christian faith. I don't think we can simply say that the church should have no "fear" of whatever the academy says - it has to be critically sifted and often one must hold one's breath. And if that is correct, our difference to the "fundamentalists" would only be a matter of degree. They are in principle right when they say that one must be suspicious - the question is how and in what respects. But that cannot be answered beforehand. Childs often talked about the genuine >challenge< of the Enlightenment, one which necessitated a struggling response from the church. His whole canonical approach is a response to that challenge, one which critically sifts the insights of scholarship yet establishes boundaries that Christian faith cannot cross (e.g. one cannot say - as so much "scientific" scholarship claims - that the Biblical traditions were primarily ideological tools designed to keep an elite in power. On a different note, I would also simply say that the "fundamentalists" I know do in fact display a lot of love for the world, often very self-sacrificial love. Maybe it's because I'm not part of the American context, but these kinds of repeated caricatures bother me.

    1. But I think Stringfellow is making a bigger claim than what you have misread as naïveté. He is not saying that we can accept whatever the academy says in the name of science, but that the academy actually can never say anything scientific about what is most essential to the biblical articulation of Christianity. I assume he does not think that our understanding of Scripture has to adapt to as many waves and whims as are present in scientific theory; yet he may say that scientific theory only ever scratches at the words on the page and never knows how to attack the root of what is taught.

      In short, though I do not wholeheartedly agree with him, I do not think he is coming at it from a naïve view of science or knowledge. I think he has seen very clearly the unhealthy reactions of fundamentalists who must invent extrabiblical doctrines and ridiculous hermeneutics to avoid the controversies of theories that are not even dangerous to the fundamentals of Christianity.

  3. Thanks for your comments. You raise some fair criticisms, I think. If I recall correctly, when Barth spoke at the University of Chicago (in 1962) and Stringfellow was a panelist, he sat next to Hans Frei. But, as Anthony Dancer writes in his book on Stringfellow (sorry, I don't have it ready at hand at the moment), the two knew each other in another context, as they both served on some committee (I think maybe it had something to do with student work). And they didn't necessarily get along that well. As I recall Dancer's point, Stringfellow had little patience for Frei's epistemological worries. Stringfellow often expressed exasperation with academic theology in general, and his relationship with the academy is fraught. As I read him, too (and I think it gets at your first point), Stringfellow would have little truck with any form of scientific reductionism. His interpretation of the principalities and powers as "real" doesn't sit too easily, I think, with any sort of reductive naturalism or materialism. And yes, I too wince a little at the way he characterizes "fundamentalists" -- "conservative evangelicals" is the term I would prefer here -- in this passage and elsewhere. (I want to be clear that "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" are not terms of opprobrium for me.) I would stress, though, that his criticisms of evangelicalism -- post-war revivalism in particular -- are really shaped especially by his frustration with the collusion between religious leaders and the U.S. political establishment (Don't worry: the liberals get an earful too)....All that said, I think this quote illustrates that Stringfellow's view of scripture belongs in close dialogue with dialectical theologians (especially Barth, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, though I'm still trying to work all this out): Thus he stresses a freedom of the Word that can't be checked by open scientific/humanistic inquiry. And I think postliberals should be able to affirm his basic point that a layperson could read the gospel of Matthew without knowing anything about the two-source theory and find the experience liberating and transformative. This latter point may not come out so clearly in the quote above, though.