By Samuel Cripps
I left the Episcopal Church once. I left because I was still a teenager, and like many young people, I was unstable in my faith, but also, and not insignificantly, because I couldn’t recognize my faith in the church where I had found it.
So, I took the walk that many Anglicans have taken. I went to the Roman Catholic Church. I found what so many, though surely not all, orthodox Anglican reactionaries have found: that vaguely intoxicating sense of moral and ecclesial certainty and superiority. I went all the way into Roman Catholicism. I initially joined my local Novus Ordo parish, but as soon as I moved cities, I went straight for the closest Extraordinary Form parish — not quite sedevacantist but pretty close. I swam the Tiber, and I kept swimming, but it never felt like home. It always felt like a hotel room, a place to stay for a while before heading back home.
So, eventually, I came back to the Episcopal Church. I started going to my local parish, and after about a month of attending, I scheduled a meeting with the priest. We chatted about where my religious journey began, where I went, and why I left home in the first place. I told him that I had left because it seemed that the Episcopal Church went sideways, that I’d left because I wanted to be faithful to Jesus, and I didn’t hear the same Jesus preached from the pulpit that I’d met in the Bible, that I’d left because what was being taught wasn’t challenging me to be more like Christ and to embrace the challenges that accompany that mandate. Rather, it was affirming me to be the man that I already was. I left because I didn’t believe in a theological anthropology that was different from the one I found in Scripture. But, I related to the priest, despite those differences, the Episcopal Church was my home, and it was the place that God called me to follow him. The priest then told me that the Episcopal Church is not the place for me, and it would probably be better for all of us if I just went back to where I came from.
Instead, I went to seminary, and what I found there was a place that affirmed me and what I understood to be my orthodox beliefs. I found people who thought, in many ways, much like I did. I found other young people who held somewhat extreme and rigid views on the faith and how the church should be run. And we were pretty sure we were right. It felt good, and it felt like I’d finally found a home in the Episcopal Church.
Then I found Karl Barth. More precisely, I found John Calvin, who played well off of my burgeoning reaction against Anglo-Catholicism. That strong reaction came, I think, from a mix of distaste for wool cassocks and a newfound love for Billy Graham sermons. Then John introduced me to Karl, and I found something that I had never thought of: reasonable reaction.
I read an essay of Barth’s titled “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century,” and what he described as happening at the tail end of the 19th and early 20th centuries was startlingly similar to what I still think the church is facing. But Barth didn’t say “burn it all down” or “split off and start your own church.” No, he gives the churchman the tools for triage and the means for prognosis.
Barth talks about the “all-pervasive rationalism and a retreat of vital or would-be vital Christianity into undergrounds of many kinds,” and how theologians take themselves and culture far too seriously, which only erodes the credibility of theologians with the culture. It’s like that older family member trying to use TikTok to stay relevant with young people. All that ever does is make the young people think that you’re even lamer.
To this 20-something Christian in America, this all sounds familiar. It’s a comforting recognition in many ways to know that this isn’t the first time that the Church has had to deal with this issue: how does the church relate to the modern people?
And I think that we can look back in history and see who Barth was reacting against. He’s watching as the basic articles of faith are eroded to an unrecognizable state in an attempt to be relevant to the “rational man.” Figures like Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Hermann provided the catalyst for a Barthian neo-orthodox reaction against these things.
But my absolute favorite bit, and the bit that made me sit up straight in bed and read it excitedly to my wife, is where he talks about 19th-century evangelical theology and its openness to the world.
Barth says that this openness to the world opened every window and door to the house of theology, that the study became completely overstimulated by what came in, and that there was so much to be dealt with and discussed and challenged and examined that there was nothing left, no energy left for the task at hand. There was no “love or zeal left for the task to be accomplished within the house itself.”
If I were a doctor working down a checklist for the diagnosis “Modern Crisis in the Episcopal Church,” I would go ahead and put a big checkmark down for this one.
Secondly, Barth asserts that in this opening up of windows and doors to the outside world, many doors were shut within the house that should have stayed open. The outside world and the attempt to make theology work for it actually shifted what theology was, it changed its very nature, in that instead of the school of Christian theology being eaten up by zeal for God, it was eaten up by zeal for the “modern rational man.” Barth describes this by saying “nineteenth-century theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment.” Of course it did, and of course it still does. What I’m picking up from Barth is that with those windows and doors flung open to the world, the saltiness of the house of theology didn’t make the world more savory, it just diluted the salt within the house. In the attempt to appeal to the modern man, the house of theology removed all the things that make it appealing. It was, in Barth’s words, “forced to make reductions and oversimplifications.”
The last point here is the one that really got me sitting up straight and reading close, where Barth says, “fatal errors blew in, were admitted, and made themselves at home. These errors, far from being simply tolerated, enjoyed birthright, even authority.” That just hits the nail square on the head. The doors and windows were opened to the world, the interior doors were shut, the gospel was diluted, and errors blew in. It seems like an obvious order of operations, but I think that it’s important to recognize. It’s important to recognize that in liberal Protestantism, there is always this order of operations. That when the Church abandons articles of faith, other things will fill the space there; errant things, false things, malignant things.
But Barth is a reactionary, and he spurs on his readers to be reactionaries too. He doesn’t encourage us to ideological extremes, nor to schismatic groups who’ve maintained ostensible doctrinal purity; he invites and incites the reader to a reactionary and theological middle ground.
I don’t mean to say that the means and ends that Barth engages with and lands on are theological middle ground. Many of his points and conclusions are extreme and hard to swallow, nor would I say that his systematics are moderate, they aren’t. But I think that his ecclesiology is, and I think that his “philosophy of pragmatic theology” is. Though, despite my whopping two years of theological education, and this may surprise you: I’m no expert on Barth, merely a friend.
Barth asserts the radical idea of completely recentering how theology should engage with the world. And that is radical really. Do you go the route of the radical-traditionalist Catholic and regard Vatican II and the current pope with suspicion, or seek a new integralism, or otherwise retreat to engage only within your own enclave? Do you go the route of the majority of the Episcopal Church and her liberal protestant cousins to pander and conform your faith to the ways of the world? Do you go the route of many parts of the ACNA, and react so strongly against the culture that you make exclusion dogmatic?
Or do you go the route that Barth gives us: the route of radical reasonability, of generosity while firmly planted, and discussion but only on theology’s terms? Barth doesn’t tell us that we are to disengage from the culture or from the world — quite the opposite. We are implored by Barth to engage theologically with the world, with culture, and with Scripture. Barth tells the reader not to retreat to her own enclave or to pander, but to strike the middle ground between the two. That theology must be done within the house, but with the windows and doors open just enough for those walking by to be able to hear.
I can see this radical reasonability in the church today; it’s not hard to see if you look for it. But it is not commonplace. Rational and good-faith dialogue among Christians is hard to find, certainly within our tradition.
But for me, I think that I may have found something that gives me as a young Christian, and God willing as a young priest, a great deal of hope. I have hope, because I’m not left with two bad options. I have hope that I can recognize my own reactions in faith within the history of the Church. I have hope because there is a place for me in the Episcopal Church. And I’m left heartened that the same things that we face today have been faced before, and that I can be a reasonable reactionary against it.
Samuel Cripps is a senior Master of Divinity student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, WI, and a postulant in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Samuel also serves as the advertising manager for The Living Church.