In what is surely the largest gathering of verbose dudes in gingham shirts happening anywhere in the Western hemisphere this year, the annual Karl Barth Conference finished up today at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme of the conference was Barth and the Gospels. Since my PhD thesis is in a large part made up of discussions about Barth’s reading of the Gospel parables, I thought I would fly over and sit in.
It began on Sunday night. After 20 hours of exhausting travelling, myself and my buddy Taido made it on time to barge in on Jurgen Moltmann’s opening address. It might have been worth the journey alone to see the 89 year old saint present the legendarily complex teaching that Barth expounded on predestination and election. The key, he reckons, is to remember that freedom is not unencumbered choice, but relationality. Everything straightens out then, allegedly.
The next morning, Eric Gregory, a Princetonian giant laid out all the ways people read the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was a great way to show just how fascinating Karl’s reading was. Right after him came the Duke Divinity lecturer Willie Jennings, who considered Barth’s interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler and challenged us to unmask the power of Mammon in our life. It was such a great presentation that I enjoyed it, even though it trod right across the very fulcrum of my thesis.
The papers came thick and fast. Like everything that Americans organise, the conference seemed to assume that you can’t be using your time right unless you are busy. We got to listen in on great talks about Barth’s reflections on Jesus in Gethsemane, on the disciples on the road to Emmaus, on the Greek make-up of the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John and the parable of the Prodigal Sons. And that’s not even mentioning the myriad of fine papers delivered in break-out sessions or the conversations had over the fearfully bad coffee, or the talk by Bruce McCormack that may become the matter of myth in the coming years as he began with an extended discussion of a Jose Saramago novel as a set-up to present a mind-bending, intricate argument which says more but not less than that God’s love is generative of death.
I am sure there are people who would like to read a more detailed account of the conference, but I am not the person to write it. I never feel fully at home at an academic conference, because I am at heart not an academic. An exhaustion quickly settles when I have to navigate the strange terrain of conversation among graduate students and early career academics and established veterans. There is little small talk. There is just big ideas. There is little listening, but lots of nodding and hmming and uhhuh-ing. It is work, I suppose. We’re all at work, but for these three days our office is this strange space and we go to work with people who aren’t our colleagues.
What I did want to talk about though is America.
I promise to be brief.
Princeton is perhaps the most sumptuous place I have ever been. It is luxurious in a way I can’t communicate. It feels like a 5 star resort but for research. The theological library is the second biggest in the world. Their new books section is about the size of the theology library in its entirety in my home university. Everywhere is air conditioned. The shops all sell very stylish clothes, even if they aren’t fashionable. The houses are run down in the way that requires careful maintenance, invariably done by people with darker skin than me. I have seen more police cars in the 3 days I have been here than I would see in three months in Ireland. There are flags constantly in view, whenever you are out in public.
It is a wonderful place. But its greatness rests on such shaky foundations.
This all became very clear for me when I went to buy stamps for postcards (they have Karl Barth postcards here!!). Inside the beautiful little post office on the beautiful Palmer Square I found a mural. It was painted in 1939, as part of the New Deal, by Karl Free. It reminded me of the public murals you still find lingering from the Soviet era in eastern Ukraine. Whereas that public art was invariably modern and decisive, this is romantic and idyllic. Three white men stand on the left of the piece, dressed in the uniform of Englightenment-era philosophers. They are surrounded by symbols of learning – an antomical skeleton and a globe and Hellenistic sculpture. Their faces are impassively, stoically set towards the right hand side, where the future is found in all graphs. Above them, from the heavens, are angels bearing trumpets. The artist has caught them in the moment of annunciation. There is no Christian imagery anywhere in this painting and the angels are neither the cherubim of popular imagination or the more closely Biblical fear-inducing messengers. They are mature. Directly below them sits Columbia, with her shield of liberty at her feet, a bald eagle perched beside her and behind her the famous Naussau Hall of Princeton University.
The last element of the artwork are two “natives”. They are largely naked, coming out of a jungle of palms, and cowering under the glory of the trumpet ring that heralds the arrival of the book-carrying white men. The native woman is on her knees and might be pulling her man away, out of the scene, frightened to even engage with these civilised characters. Lest this visual feast does not satisfy you, the artist has explained it all in verse beneath:
America! With Peace and Freedom blest,
Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest,
Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,
Exert thyself ’til every Art be thine.
Consider these words. There is no peace even in the image thus depicted. The America that looks upon this art when posting birthday cards to nephews back home and buying packing tape before moving to a bigger house is an America that today pants after fame, and so utterly despises rest – that basic commandment of YHWH – that they do not even assure maternity leave for pregnant women. The science whose invitation they have pursued has created bombs strong enough to kill us all and has been co-opted by an economic system that only staves off killing us because there would be no one left to buy things. The voice divine that animates this artwork is the Unmoved Mover of the Deists, not the God that took on flesh much darker than that of Columbia.
Tonight there is a vigil in Princeton, starting at the local AME church, where the city will walk and stand in solidarity with the victims of racial violence. Then tomorrow they’ll go back to work and back to school and back to the post office and their lives might be exciting and ascetically dedicated to learning or back-breaking and devoted to mowing lawns but they will be so awash in the lies of histories never told that even prayer doesn’t seem to bring relief.
On the globe in the painting, America is literally the only country in the world. Imagine how sad living in that world must be.
I like visiting America. But I think I am very glad that I don’t have to call it home.
Your Correspondent, If you don’t believe him, believe in America!