Tutors Talk Books: André Barbera
February 20, 2020 | By Les Poling
André Barbera started teaching at St. John’s College in 1990 after graduating from the University of North Carolina with a PhD in musicology; he would go on to write books and articles on jazz and the history of music theory before settling into the intense academic work at St. John’s. Last month, after an extended hiatus from publishing, his latest book, On Faith, Works, Eternity, and the Creatures We Are, was released by Bloomsbury Academic: a reflection on Christian faith, the confounding nature of time, and the inherent contradictions of belief. We sat down with Barbera to talk about the origins of his book, the St. John’s Program, and more.
Let’s start with a brief biography. When did you come to St. John’s?
I’ve been here 30 years, and I can connect my stay here with the book in two ways. About four or five years ago, I had a sabbatical, and I used the time to read about faith and works, which is what the book is about. And I also had the advantage of the Program. Having been with the Program for 25 years—I had a way to start reading and thinking. So in that regard, my time at the college is important for the book. But the connection of faith to works is a subject that interests me. There are a lot of things that might be interesting, but this interests me: I have an interest in it. I’ve been, for at least 25 years now, an active member of the organization called the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It’s a religious organization, but all of its work—its manifestation—is working with the poor. That’s something I’ve been doing for decades. That would (at least on the surface) be called works, and St. Vincent de Paul is a Roman Catholic organization, so one might say “you’ve got faith here, you’ve got works here.” And before that, I did things that seemed to me to be works associated with faith. During the Vietnam War, I was a conscientious objector. I maintain it was a faith-based objection. It was in some way connected to faith, and it was a work.
So that’s a bit of biography.
When did the actual writing of the book start?
Five years ago, I had a sabbatical, and I spent about five or six months reading. After about six months, I decided to hold myself accountable to some degree and do the following: Write down my notes, actually type them up: six months’ worth of pieces of paper. While typing up the notes, I realized that increasingly I was not simply recording what I had read, but extending or at least experimenting with what I had read. By the end of the year I knew that I had something. It was not well formed, but it was, in my mind, on the subject of faith and works. So that’s when I started writing. A few other things came along [that distracted from the writing], and about two years ago, I decided that I had had it. I’d had this thing with me, and I hadn’t done anything with it. So I set the following demand on myself: Either take a version of this and get it published, or simply incorporate it into what I would like to work on now: not volume II [of the book], but the next bit of writing.
Ron Haflidson, who is a tutor here, was publishing a book in a series called “Reading Augustine.” And he notified me of it and told me who the general editor was, and I contacted him, and he was interested in what I had. I didn’t set out to write a book on Augustine; I didn’t write a book on Augustine. But he, as much as anyone, influenced what I had to say. So I brought to the fore a couple of points where I knew it was his thinking that led to my thinking.
Incredulous is maybe a strong word, but I find it hard to believe that the book exists. I’m a theologian because I decided I was a theologian. I’ve written books before, long ago: scholarly books, with lots of footnotes, on something I had been trained—music, music history. I’ve done that. I stopped doing it when I got to St. John’s; the way I put it is that I stopped and took the time to think. I stopped writing and started thinking. And, well, I’m just surprised, delighted, delightfully surprised that there’s this book.
It seems like part of the Augustine angle of the book has to do with the paradox of “faith seeking understanding” and the idea that people living lives of faith are bound by time. God—and a true understanding of God—is not bound by time; the person of faith is.
There’s no need for faith among the understanding. If you understand, you understand. So one can see why it would go the other way. “Faith seeking understanding” is an expression that Augustine came up with—he intentionally slightly misreads a passage in Isaiah.
There might be many reasons to be faithful, or to say “I have faith” or to believe, but I think it’s always present, and always probably foremost, that one believes in the hopes of knowing, of understanding. It’s the purpose of faith. The more I thought about that, the more inherently contradictory it seemed, and that is: you want to know something, but what you want to know either you can’t know, or you can’t comprehend, or it takes an infinite amount of accumulation. This condition is one of inherent contradiction leading to anxiety.
My initial title for the book was Anxious Faith, but the book is in a series, and the titles have a certain sequence, so I let the general editor come up with a title. The condition of anxiety, I maintain, is manifest in the works [of faith]; that’s why there are works. Works are the manifestation of the anxiety. But I don’t claim that you believe today, and then tomorrow you do something. There is not a temporal sequence from faith to works, although one might say you need to believe in order for the work to be a work of faith. The other problem I became quite certain of is: One doesn’t even know if one believes. You might believe that you believe—whatever it is that you believe—[because] we’re creatures of faith. Although I’m only talking about Christianity, we are creatures of faith; we believe all sorts of things. I put it this way: We, the creatures of faith, are also the unfaithful, but we are not the faithless. We just don’t keep the faith. No one keeps the faith continuously. There are times when you keep it, but there are also many times when you don’t. At one point I had dedicated the book to hypocrites and idolaters, by which I mean everyone. I say in the course of the book that the faithful are the hypocrites. The faithful are the ones who say “I believe such and such.” It takes some kind of chutzpah to stand up and say you believe in something, knowing damn well that, while right now you believe it, sometimes you don’t.
It sounds like the idea of the works is that they’re part of the process of making some sense of faith.
Works are living a life of faith. A so-called faithful life will never totally make sense. It’ll never even make a lot of sense. But the person of faith is always in this position, I think, [of faith not making sense]. I describe the condition as being doubly in the dark. You’re in the dark about the object of faith, whatever that object might be. When I say you’re in the dark, you’re asking “Does the object accept my faith? Am I accepted as a faithful person?” Don Quixote spends much of Don Quixote trying to investigate his claim: “All the knight seeks is to be acknowledged by his lady as her knight.” So: “Does the object of faith accept my faith?” You don’t know. The other way that you’re in the dark is regarding your true intent. You ask yourself “am I faithful?” I maintain that you never know. You can believe that you believe, but I don’t think that you can know that you believe. Your status is always up in the air. You always face tests of faith and never really know the results. In the book, I talk about literary figures who remain faithful [when tested]. Ahab is one, from Moby Dick, who remains faithful to the whale. When I say “remains faithful,” I mean “is at least faithful once.” I ask the question: “If you’re faithful once, is that good enough?”
So in writing the book, was it mostly articulating questions and thoughts you’d been having your whole life?
Yes. But it was by having the time and, maybe for once in my life, the patience to read, and to care a lot about what I was reading, and to write it out and say “that’s not right.” I’m hardly saying “I got it,” but I was able to get a lot of the questions out.
Now that the book is published, a lot of those articulations are crystallized in a physical form. Do they take on a different significance at all?
I know this: what I’ve claimed serves as a starting point for going on. So in that regard, my claims are kind of a springboard, especially regarding time, or the notion that God might not be temporal. That leads to all sorts of interesting possibilities. But if you’re asking me “has something been resolved?” No. But I’m glad I did it [wrote the book]. And I hope to entice a few people to talk with me about those things.
That’s the beauty of actually publishing a book—at least one person will.
There are a few people I know who will read it, even if they do so out of obligation—which is fine with me! And although it’s indisputably about Christian theology, it very much comes out of St. John’s College. In other words, anyone who reads it would say, “oh, this guy’s worked his way through the Program!” One might ask: “Why is this literature in the book and not that?” Well, because I had to read this for seminar, and I didn’t have to read that. And that’s evident in the book. I truly am grateful for the college and the Program. It’s not the only way, but it’s a very good way to work on this [the theme of the book]. The subject of the book is something that has disturbed me for decades, since I was a teenager, and the Program and the entire environment, the college, have been conducive to taking up the most important things in my life and examining them.