Listen to This Man

An ongoing hobby of mine is to try and help keep my favorite theologian, William Stringfellow, in circulation. In the past, I’ve written about his ideas on biography, on the sexuality and the circus, on his partner Anthony Towne’s amazing obituary for God, and more. This time, in Commonweal, I had the opportunity to review an important new book about him—An Alien in a Strange Land, by Anthony Dancer. It goes a little something like this:

A lifelong Episcopalian and inveterate Bible-thumper, Stringfellow was a Protestant in the most etymological sense. He saw Christianity as a call to dissent. The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth recognized this, and urged an audience at the University of Chicago in 1962 to “Listen to this man!” Barth saw in Stringfellow’s writing a “theology of freedom” more concerned with proclaiming the gospel than with catering to the habits and fads of American society—a theology unwilling, as Stringfellow put it, “to interpret the Bible for the convenience of America.” Barth also saw in him a way of doing theology free from the pomp and insularity of academia.

That Stringfellow has remained mostly ignored in academic theology is at least in part his own doing. He would say that, for the sake of vocation, he had “died to career,” both in law and theology. Though he did quite a lot of each, he refused to define himself by the professional standards of either—they’re principalities in themselves. His writing is decidedly vernacular even when demanding, the product of reading far more from the Bible and the newspaper (as Barth urged preachers to do) than from the theological canon. “A person must come to the Bible with a certain naivety,” Stingfellow wrote; “one must forego anything that would demean God to dependence upon one’s own thoughts.” What he wrote is a model for serious, engaged, and yet decidedly lay theology, carried out with a sense of both play and dire seriousness. Caught as we are between the blogosphere rabble and the over-specialized academy, we need more of this today.

Best of all, the folks at Commonweal realized that they had an article by Stringfellow in their archives: a 1972 call to “Impeach Nixon Now. What’s so special about that? you might ask. Weren’t a lot of people calling for Nixon’s resignation in 1972? The thing is, the article is dated May 26. The Watergate break-in was June 17 of that year, less than a month later. Stringfellow’s concern, though, was more serious than what ultimately brought about Nixon’s resignation: above all, the continuation of a brutal, illegal, unnecessary war.

We should have listened.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.