Don’t waste time trying to please people who are determined never to be pleased by you

Don’t waste time trying to please people who are determined never to be pleased by you April 6, 2016

David Dark points us to an older post from Wyatt Houtz’s PostBarthian blog sharing Karl Barth’s Letter in Response to Cornelius Van Til’s Questions. That sounds terribly dry, until you actually read the letter.

Barth received a list of “questions” from a trio of American fundamentalists, passed on through a friendly intermediary, Geoffrey Bromiley. The fundamentalists were purportedly seeking to clarify various points of his theology. Barth notes that he’s always willing to respond to such questions as time permits — even when the answers, as in this case, could all be found by anyone who’d read his books. But he also understood that this wasn’t what those questions were about. The American fundies weren’t looking to understand what he was saying, they were looking for ammunition to use against him. This wasn’t an inquiry, but an inquisition by tribal gatekeepers.

This exchange of letters is from the 1960s, but fundamentalist gatekeepers haven’t changed — even now that they’ve been rebranded as evangelicals. They still love to catechize everyone about everything, constantly asking just the sort of hostile and pretentious questions that Barth’s interlocutors sought to trap him with.

Asking questions is usually a Good Thing but, as Barth realized, these folks didn’t ask questions because they were curious or because they wanted to learn the answers. They asked questions because they thought they already had all the answers and they were hoping to confirm that Barth would fail their examination. Their questions to him — their questions to everyone — were simply the discovery process building their case for the prosecution of another heretic.

And Karl Barth, gloriously, didn’t have any patience for that:

… These people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to CD IV,2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

And then, perhaps realizing that he’s put his friend Bromiley in the awkward position of having to pass along a message that boils down to GFY, Barth adds a postscript:

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.

“Please tell the people at Christianity Today that I seem to be all out of f–ks to give about their opinion of me,” Barth wrote, basically.

Beyond the particular context here of evangelical gatekeepers and “the people at Christianity Today*” who still do not seem to have received Barth’s message, there’s a more general life lesson. Regardless of whether or not you have any interest in theology or theological disputes, or any dealing with these particular gatekeepers, you will encounter many people who will demand from you “explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed” on you.

And, as Barth said, you should not be expected to assist them in that.

You don’t have time for that either. Don’t waste time trying to please people who are determined never to be pleased by you.

Good-faith questions deserve a response and good-faith criticism deserves our attention. But prosecutorial catechists do not ask their questions in good faith. They’re just collecting evidence they hope to use against you (against everyone, really), and there’s no reason for you to assist them in that. Any answer to them — either angry or gentle — is a distraction and a waste of time. They deserve, instead, no answer at all.

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* Christianity Today is a publication that believes gay and lesbian couples are “destructive to society.”

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