What Does (Certain) Contemporary Christian Theology Want from Philosophy?

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews recently published Charles Guignon’s critical review of S. J. McGrath’s Heidegger: A (Very) Critical Introduction. The critical nature of the review is located in Guignon’s condensed, patient and pedagogical review of what Heidegger actually wrote and said against McGrath’s reported false re-casting of Heidegger’s thought. Being pedantic is not normally conceived as a good thing, but in the case of dealing with someone who seems to have “missed the point” a bit of pedantry, that is going point by point, can be called for. Essentially, Guignon is surprised to find that McGrath seems to miss the way in which the ontic and the ontological are played off one another and not, as McGrath appears to argue, confused. Guignon shows the consistency of this method as it runs from Being and Time to the later works of Heidegger. Guignon’s final sentence is damning: “McGrath treats Heidegger unfairly by overlooking his explicit accounts of his project and methodology, with the result that his “(very) critical introduction” to Heidegger is not so much an interpretation as a hatchet job.” If Guignon is to be believed the book is neither critical in the Kantian sense nor an introduction, but can only be decribed as “very critical” if this refers to the health of scholarly research itself.

This book is published under the series title Interventions and each volume on a particular thinker, like the Heidegger title, carries the common subtitle A (Very) Critical Introduction. The series is associated with the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, which is ostensibly part of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies here in Nottingham but is a bit more ethereal than that as it exists more through conferences outside Nottingham and the two book series. Despite the explicit notion that the Centre is for both the study of theology and philosophy and their multi-faceted relationship, part of the aim of the book series appears to be doing apologetics. Is apologetics the main locus through which theology and philosophy should meet or does it betray something about relationship itself? In so far as the Centre attempted to be the theological place where this relationship could be explored it seems fair to ask these questions.

Which leads me to the question already found in the title to this post, what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy? It seems to me that the (very) critical introductions are not concerned with being actual introductions, but with apologetics. If that is the case contemporary Christian theology doesn’t want anything from philosophy. It appears they come across it, perhaps are troubled by its difference from Christian theology, and must neutralize it. Is it the case that Christian theologians of a certain kind only read Heidegger or Badiou or whomever to show that the Church Fathers were already right? If so, why not just present the Church Fathers? Is it because of a fear of the influence of someone like Badiou instead of Clement of Alexandria? Is it just another instance of ideational Schmittianism? So, seriously, what is at stake here? And what do they want?

One final remark. This is a true empirical question, not ideology or an ad hominem attack. Empirically, the sort of Christian theology I’m thinking of has a kind of au courant character to it. Derrida and Levinas in the 90’s, a bit of Deleuze in the late 90’s, some Badiou in the early noughts, now even talking about Meillassoux and Laruelle. This suggests to me, in part, that it isn’t really true that Orthodoxy is never done, since there is already a decision that “the” Church Fathers are already right, but that it is really the task of philosophy that is as infinite as nature.

59 thoughts on “What Does (Certain) Contemporary Christian Theology Want from Philosophy?

  1. I’m tempted to say that Radical Orthodoxy is the first theological movement to locate heresies at the “philosophical” level — this would be a major innovation insofar as the dogmatic language has basically all been negative, while they’re proposing some positive account of being (a hierarchical ontology of analogical participation) as demanding consent. (In that sense, the Radox “brand name” is arguably appropriate, in that they’re trying to push the defense of orthodoxy to a more foundational level.)

    The arguments tend to echo the often tautological refutations of heretics, as in the constant claim that the rejected ontology “doesn’t account for” some key point in the “orthodox” ontology — an argument that only works if the “orthodox” ontology is taken for granted. But these claims are all much less firmly “grounded” in my view than are the classical dogmatic debates. Like you could say that the Arian Christology “can’t account for” the fact that we praise Jesus as God in the liturgy, baptize into Jesus, etc. — but those were points of reference the Arians also accepted and kind of had to fudge. You really can’t take the same approach with Deleuze or whoever, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

  2. This is a bizarrely public forum for challenging the editorial choices of a man you have easy access to in person: have you talked to Conor about these questions?

  3. I think one way of taking rob’s point is that the certain contemporary Christian theology you’re questioning here wants from philosophy the appearance of intellectual legitimacy. To flash the ‘Dr’ and the ‘PhD’ as vindication of the capacity to think reasonably. As in, not only can we do this our way, but we can do it their way better and be recognized for it. What Adam says: not only do they not see this, but they do not account for the thing that we can and do account for.

    (But I’m not sure how that kind of common recognition about the insecurities of evangelical intellectuals leads to a critique of some self-serving nature in the academy.)

    But, to me, I’ve not really seen analytical philosophy make arguments that the philosophers making the arguments do not actually believe in–which should be the case if we’re really just isolating ourselves to the logical structure of the arguments. Plantinga hasn’t ever produced a strong logical argument for naturalism that worked from common premises to an interesting conclusion; can one imagine Russell doing that for a rational religious belief? It’s the stake that each one has in making an argument defending and advancing each one’s own beliefs and viewpoint that puts all that “We’re just confining ourselves to the structure of the argument” to the test. But if someone does advance an argument the person doesn’t really believe and accept, just to see if she can do it without some motive to discover in the end a reductio’s hidden truth of that alternate position (“Aha! See, if you really accept this, you end up with accepting X, and that’s unconscionable!”)–if you just made great arguments for the fun of it, does that fall under the title ‘philosophy’ at all?

  4. It doesn’t really seem like I have “easy access” and I do not see why discussing an academic book series in public is improper, but I’ve removed the offending passages because they were obscuring the actual point I was trying to make. Really, is it any worse to say these things online and ask for discussion than to say them about some other book series editor surrounded by people happy to support your slagging it off? I find it strange that one of the most aggressive theological movements would be so sensitive to criticism, public or otherwise.

    Regardless, this is a question about theology and philosophy. Why do theologians read philosophers in 2009 and write polemics against them? I understand why someone like Tina Beattie writes a kind of “Against the New Atheists”, but why Badiou? Why Heidegger? Why Deleuze, Meillassoux, and Laruelle? What’s the goal?

  5. Jeff, If Anthony is criticizing someone in their capacity as series editor, he is critizing them in a public capacity, and criticizing them publicly is perfectly acceptable — indeed, it would be bizarre to keep it private.

  6. Also, Charles R., I think that your argument flattens out some necessary distinctions — you almost seem to be treating “having an opinion” as a brute fact distinct from argumentation. Not making a convincing argument in favor of beliefs you don’t hold isn’t just a matter of bias — in the cases of highly intellectually developed people, the beliefs may follow from a perception that there just isn’t a strong argument in favor of the opposing belief.

    I’m pretty sure that there are many people, especially among those inclined to become academics, who actually “try out” various points of view and wind up sticking with the ones that seem to hold up best. That seems to be different from having been raised a fundamentalist and remaining a fundamentalist your whole life, for instance. I know this happens because it’s happened to me — on my political convictions, for example. I was brought up in a conservative home and am deeply familiar with conservative arguments. I have found them wanting and moved on. I don’t need to act like the jury’s still out every time the topic comes up.

  7. These days, when up and coming hip-hop and R&B artist want to ‘make a name for themselves’ in mainstream entertainment, they often pay tons of money to get the most famous ‘rapper’ alive (Mr. Lil Wayne) to rap for 30 seconds on their song, and thus, gain some sort of credibility by interacting with the most famous hiphop artist alive right now.

    I’m not sure if I see much of a difference between this, and an up-and-coming theologian writing a polemic against someone who’s currently at the top of the philosophy ‘game’. As living continental philosophers go, Badiou would be like Jay-Z, and Meillassoux would maybe be Lil-Wayne, and thus, certain theologians will write about these figures for no other reason but to try to gain notoriety through meaningless controversy.

    Is there any reason for a dogmatic theologian to write a book critiquing the ‘failure of immanence’ in Deleuze, Badiou, Meillassoux (who doesn’t use the term) and Laurelle? Of course not. But, will the book be writing regardless. Of course. And what good will this do theology? No fucking idea.

  8. Building off Michael’s analogy, maybe it’s more like a Christian R&B group doing a song where they rip on a mainstream person — in the expectations that a certain percentage of their audience will feel superior for listening to the Christian alternative. The danger, however, is that someone will listen to the mainstream music and realize the Christian parody sucks.

  9. “Meillassoux would maybe be Lil-Wayne.”

    You did it, Michael. You uttered a sentence that even made my cold heart warm up just a little bit.

    OMG Michelle = Judith Butler

  10. “Maybe my position is correct, but I was willing to have a debate.”

    I figured it was just so obviously correct that it wasn’t interesting to consider the other view. So it’s straight to jokes.

  11. Adam, I don’t think we disagree; my point is that the apologia for analytical philosophy (now removed) made the argument that you can’t just deny someone out of hand for their political alignments, you have to look at the “cogency” or, as I’d call it, the logical structure of their argument. If this is true, though, then all of what analytical philosophy is as a praxis is just argumentation: there are no interested persons doing philosophy, there are just occasions in the world where logical arguments are being presented by some body. Any highly intellectually developed body should be able to produce strong arguments regardless of its own political, social, geographical beliefs/views. The perception of the strength or weakness of an argument as “argument for the opposition” falls away if the arguments are reduced to their logical structure: there is no opposition.

    But as you note, that’s just not what happens. We make reductions on arguments using political combinators, and thus avoid having to work out someone’s arguments if we understand the presuppositions or premises they’re working from. And while it’s true that people do occasionally work through the thoughts of others to see for themselves how things are from that perspective, that’s not what I was denying: what I am denying is happening is this taking place *all the time* as (analytical) philosophy. What you are describing, especially as a personal anecdote, is the subjective process of having one’s mind made up–but the claim was that we should get past subjective biases and look at the cogency of arguments, and that’s (analytical) philosophy.

    It’s just not what happens, and it doesn’t seem that what we get if we practice that way is philosophy.

    Anthony, is the concern that if we admit these things are apologetics, then it shouldn’t be admitted alongside works of philosophical interest in the same published series? Since this would be disingenuous, as apologetics works don’t introduce or represent ideas well but instead neutralize them and prevent thought? But what makes that admission better than the other admission that this is just poor scholarship or poor philosophy? Can we forgive a series for including poor arguments, but not if it includes blatantly partisans ones, when the intended goal of the center publishing the series is a reconciliation (so I’m guessing) of philosophy and theology?

  12. Charles,

    Thanks for asking some clarifying questions and introducing a bit of seriousness amongst the levity.

    First, I want to say that this isn’t really about the book series as such. The book series, and specifically the recent review, are only occasions that brought up a question I’m troubled by time and time again. What does contemporary theology hope to gain through polemics that often misrepresent and disfigure non-Christian philosophy? Is it an apologetic task or something else? It isn’t really my goal or desire to police a book series I have absolutely nothing to do with other than being, at rare times, in the same physical space as others who do. If, at some point in the future, I’m able to edit a series I will then have to answer before my own tribunal and be slagged off around beers too. So, let’s be clear on that for the sake of any discussion that might actually happen and the sake of the many, many lurkers who may or may not want to murder me.

    That said, I would never expect anyone who has published a book they poured time and effort into to admit that it is poor scholarship or poor philosophy. These things do surely happen, but I’m not trying to say, in the least, that all these books are poor scholarship (in the unredacted post I even linked to a very positive NDPR review of the book on Naturalism). So, yes, I am much more forgiving of a series for publishing poor arguments, as these are most often accidental or the result of a decline in the powers of a thinker. I am less inclined to give much respect or time to a book series that is biased but does not admit of its intentional
    bias (whereas I am also more forgiving of unintended and unconscious biases that we all have in our written work). I just want there to be some sort of recognition that this is what is going on in projects such as these or someone to try and explain how I’m missing the point.

  13. Faculty of Université de Vincennes à Saint-Denis = Wu Tang Clan, which means Michel Foucault = Ol’ Dirty Bastard

    The question seems to be whether or not there is a role for theological apologetics against philosophical positions. If the apologetic writings of church history are a model, it makes sense to combat people like Zizek, who is not denouncing religion but proposing transformations of theological concepts. It makes less sense to rail against people like Badiou, who is kind of indifferent to religion (at least in his presentation).

  14. Three points (that doubtless reflect my own interests): I’m surely not the only one to have been drilled into saying “despoiling the Egyptians” whenever this debate comes up. We make use of contemporary thought, and feel obliged to mark out our position in regard to it.

    Secondly, I get the impression that a great deal of theologians refer to contemporary thinkers because they are part of our present, and that is what we want to say something about. So just as Foucault wrote about Descartes in addition to archives of the everyday, we refer to our present and the philosophers who inhabit it.

    Thirdly, we often want to utter an old truth (whether you are talking about the Gospel or some other ancient wisdom) in contemporary terms. And connecting to contemporary thought and idiom helps us to do this. An example: saying that the cynics embraced freedom of speech is gonna sound dry and UN-like. So we have to refer to Wittgenstein’s logical dead ends, to essentialism, or to modes of work on the self to retain the enormous danger and difficulties their thought engendered.

    These are empirical remarks not because I disagree with your criticisms of the series, or because I represent “that” kind of thought, but because there is perhaps enough common ground to make my own motivations relevant.

  15. I think that these great philosophers/rappers are already theologians, in the sense of Deleuze’s quote from the Logic of Sense: “…it is our epoch which has discovered theology. One no longer needs to believe in God. We seek rather the ‘structure,’ that is, the form which may be filled with beliefs, but the structure has no need to be filled to be called ‘theological.'”

    Apologetics is secondary, it is political and polemic, and it is to some extent necessary, but it is not theology as I view it. Radical Theology is the opening up of a new vision, the attempt to articulate an important experience, rather than simply the defense of a commitment to a doctrine.

    Theology and philosophy are on the same level, immanence if you want to use that term, and neither gets to be “queen.” Of course we have to consider traditions, history, institutions, all that stuff. But why does radical theology have to be forced into the service of defending and sustaining prior faith commitments or fending off threats?

    I find Radical Orthodoxy to be very useful as social critique, and mostly useless as theology.

  16. Anthony and other commentators,

    For whatever it is worth, I have a list of reasons for why I (as a theologian) read philosophy, and “want something” from it, and some suggestions for what other theologians may want from philosophy.

    I have to read philosophy — because it is interesting, engaging, and helps me better understand the world, society, ideology, and history; I think it overlaps with theology (as Clayton put it so well), and therefore needs to be addressed sometimes as a discourse occupying the same mental space (or the boundaries are blurry), which can sometimes be helpful, or sometimes troublesome; I think many contemporary philosophical ideas have been borrowed from “theology,” and this should be recognized – we should know when a philosophy is making theological claims (though the danger of this is a witch-hunting attitude); philosophers often have better insight into society then theologians, and thus what I “want” here from philosophy is to borrow ideas (Is that bad? I don’t think so); philosophy gives me really hard questions to deal with, and challenges me in a way that “theology” cannot (due to its often defensive posture); and I add that all of these reasons are reasons why I don’t think “that ‘the’ Church Fathers are already right” (though I do think they are right about some things).

    As to what some others may want: maybe to stop what they perceive as the intellectual “policing” of theology by philosophy; maybe to give an account of why Christianity is rational for those who doubt the credibility of faith. Maybe, as Hauerwas once suggested in regards to Milbank: “he wants to win” (and is this always bad? Maybe, but can we be honest about how often this motivates so many academics to do what they do?); maybe we (I add myself here) theologians lament the fragmentation of the disciplines.

    In relation to this last point, I want to mention that I find a slight “turn” in Hauerwas’s thought, especially in his recent book on the university. He does not christen theology as the discipline to pull all disciplines together, but rather, with the aid of philosophy, theology is to help us “understand why what we know is so often a jumble” (31). All truth is truth to theology, but there will be no universal account of everything. The task of theology is to “force the questions to be asked,” and to humbly serve God and God’s people.

    Also, I have a question: is there something wrong with wanting to give your thought credibility? I love all of the humor about philosophers and rappers, but I think this analogy only applies to certain ways of gaining credibility (and I do not deny that this rapper-way is rampant these days); at the end of the day, if my theology cannot deal with the ‘cultured despisers of religion’ (past and present), then my theology sure as hell does not demand much respect. So, I think there are at least two ways of gaining credibility – either through an honest engagement with powerful ideas, or through the whole rapper-analogy-method.

    Please forgive my narcissistic response, and accept it as a tiny bit of empirical evidence to help with your questions.

    Peace,
    Thomas

  17. I want to clarify – when I said “at the end of the day, if my theology cannot deal with the ‘cultured despisers of religion’ (past and present), then my theology sure as hell does not demand much respect,” I don’t thereby mean that I have to do what they do, or inhabit the same “space” as them so as to displace or destroy their ideas. I think a theologian needs to be able to account for “critiques” received from philosophy, but an “account” may take various forms, which may not end up being a rational refutation, or “winning” over one’s “opponent.”

  18. ‘I think a theologian needs to be able to account for “critiques” received from philosophy’ – but really though, are the philosophers of the present day genuinely involved with critiquing theology directly. For them, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the view of theology, after the death of God, is not a live option, and not even worthy of critique.

    And equally, as I have said also said elsewhere, how would one possibly win? Of those philosophers alive to receive these critiques, (off the top of my head Badiou, the speculative realists) most would just shrug and (like a Christian might simply and fairly do when a metaphysic has ‘no need of that hypothesis’ with regard to God) say ‘so’? you are appealing to an opition which is not true’. So then, what is the audience for such polemics? If it is Christian theologians articulating Gospel message in a contemporary context, ie to other Christians and theologians, or “despoiling the Egyptians” – well fine, but this is an internal dialogue to Christianity. Or is it, worst, theology being parasitic on philosophy – repeating the worst errors of liberal theology in that one articulates the terms of revelation in whatever philosophical language there is to hand, both denying the uniqueness of revelation even if one says ‘it’s like X philosophical system, but a bit better’ – a faster train on the same tracks if you will.

  19. Alex,

    I find all of the questions you articulate to be agreeable ones to raise. I am not sure how much they are rhetorical, or how much you are wanting a response, so I will respond just a little. Sure, I doubt a theologian could really “win” an argument, e.g. with Badiou, and I would see no point in it if one thought they had “won.” But do you doubt that theologians still want to, even if they cannot? Do you doubt that a spirit of competition is not what drives much (too much) of theological engagement with philosophy?

    Another point I would like to mention: I think there is an interlocutive encounter between the revelation and the world that is neither strictly an internal dialogue with Christians, nor ‘theology being parasitic on philosophy.’ it is an encounter in which we theologians learn something, without simply being parasitic of philosophy. I think Rowan Williams has put this well:

    The assumption [of communicative theology] is that this or that intellectual idiom not only offers a way into fruitful conversation with the current environment but also that the unfamiliar idiom may uncover aspects of the deposit of belief hitherto unexamined. In fact, it involves a considerable act of trust in the theological tradition, a confidence that the fundamental categories of belief are robust enough to survive the drastic experience of immersion in in other ways of constructing and construing the world.

    So, what I mean to say is that I think an encounter is necessary between the object of theology and “this or that idiom,” and it does not necessarily matter whether the proponent of that idiom (Badiou, or whoever) responds with a simple “so?”

    Also, in regards to your question “are the philosophers of the present day genuinely involved with critiquing theology directly”: I suppose this is an open questions – it could go either way. I suppose most living philosophers may be ignoring theology, considering it a dead end. Does this fact not imply something? Does it imply, at the very least, that previous critiques of theology are valid? Why is the death of God an assumption for so many philosophers?

    Peace,
    Thomas

  20. The serious of the recent posts raise some very pressing and important questions about the fundamental orientation of theology toward the culture in which is always already enmeshed.

    While I share some of the skepticism about the editorial direction/vision of this new series, which aims to publish volumes on both individual thinkers and concepts/issues under the rubric of “seek[ing] and perform[ing] tactical interventions in a manner that problematizes the accepted terms of [current] debates.” In their “refusal of disciplinary isolation,” the books set out to treat the figure/concept both within its own field of emergence and “to analyze what consequences such thinking may have for theology, both positive and negative, and, in light of these new perspectives, to develop an effective response.” The series is self-consciously written from a place of theological engagement.

    Here the underlying issue, which also gets to the various questions about theological orientation/method, is whether theology can ever really speak out of a cultural vacuum. Although trite to repeat here, this would seem to recall the old opposition between a correlational and some kind of Barthian mode. Obviously, the later is more complex and not so neatly opposed to correlation, since even in Barth’s late writings he starts speaking about signs of the Kingdom outside of ecclesial structures. Still, Barth serves as a useful, if strategic, flashpoint here. Correlational approaches have been long disparaged by their opponents as merely conflating theology and culture rather than letting theology confront culture. I belabor this well-worn debate because I think something like it is at work in Radical Orthodoxy, which I also think tries to absorb elements of both. I think especially of Ward’s and Loughlin’s recent work, although differently executed, on the subject of apollogetics.

    To my mind, Radical Orthodoxy often asks all the write questions, but usually fails to provide convincing answers. But it’s predicated on a particularly violent reading strategy. Consider again the editorial statement: the series self-consciously puts itself against the two intellectual extremes, deconstruction and scientism, it views as its enemies so as to offer an “alternative that is otherwise than nihilistic.” Clearly, I think their portraits of these so-called enemies are profoundly reductive, but here again we see the typical reading strategy of Radical Orthodoxy. I find this particularly curious, since the series itself aims to counter reductionistic moves it sees elsewhere. (More personally, I have found Cunningham’s book to be extremely reductionistic and violent in its readings). I think the previous comment about how Milbank wants to “win” is on target.

    I suppose the answer I’m rambling toward is one about rhetoric and reading. This series (and McGrath’s introduction especially) doesn’t intend to be introductory in the commonsensical way, but “interventionist.” The question then becomes one about the modality of that intervention. I think that, given it’s (varied) connections to Radical Orthodoxy, these interventions necessarily will be textually violent. Because it already assumes and writes from a theological space that has already defined its “dangers,” it’s necessarily confrontational. The solution isn’t to attempt some sort of impossible non-confrontational strategy; rather, one must have a radically alternative role of the relation between theology and its others, where the very “and” (which the series describes as equally “dangerous”) is examined as enacting a performative space of immanent possibilities.

    That’s my rambling two cents…
    Nic

  21. Christianity has a long history of inventing categories/questions such that the best example of the category, or the best answer to the question, is Christianity. I think that’s essentially what’s going on with RO. Philosophy is said to be faced with some problem to which the only solution is analogy. A kind of interpellative mechanism — importantly, most philosophy tends not to listen. So the question is why RO feels the need … perhaps insecurity, perhaps envy (in the way that the colonizer envies the colonized’s “innocence”, the colonized’s apparent heedlessness of the colonizer’s law, etc).

    But this is just RO, and there seems to be a further species of the Christian theology colonizing genus, as in Nate Kerr or in the recent article by Sherman that was mentioned on this blog. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on there.

  22. Thomas,

    When I have a spare moment I’ll write a longer response to your points, which I take.

    Dan,

    What is interesting here is that none of the philosophers that RO are against note that they have the problem to which the answer is analogy. Hence there is a need to re-present their thought, read it, against the grain as it were – hence x, y and z figure are nihilistic despite themselves, and the solution is analogy. Again, the question appears to be one of audience – to whom does one say such things?

    The point seems to be to warn Christian thinkers off certain figures, as they are nihilistic and have bad consequences. Simultaneously, and through doing this, the idea is to articulate a vision of Christianity that is intellectually sophisticated and satisfying on it’s own grounds and hence ultimately more interesting than those French chaps you previously liked to read. They therefore often follow a pattern that X figure says something interesting, but which ultimately ends badly, yet the Christian tradition, Y patrisitc figure has a similar but superior thinking through of roughly the same problem. It’s a kind of G.K. Chesterton attitude very much in – the romance of orthodoxy is always superior to whatever young buck philosophy might come along, partly because orthodoxy, in theory, is supposed to hold so many things in tension without ever going to one extreme or the other, and often present the ulimate both/and to philosophical problems (in theory anyway). Hence for RO, Christian politics are monarchic/aristocractic and democractic – ie almost all of Aristotle’s basic regime categories at once. This obviously requires you to think all these tensions as actually neccesary, in Christianity or philosophy, which they may well not be.

  23. “What is interesting here is that none of the philosophers that RO are against note that they have the problem to which the answer is analogy.”

    Yes, I agree completely. And I do think this operation is in concord with the majority tendency of Christianity. A somewhat hackneyed yet helpful example being that of “Hinduism”, which had to be invented in order for there to be something that tries (inadequately) to address the “religious” problem that Christianity succeeds at. Of course “adherents” of “Hinduism” wouldn’t recognize themselves doing what Christianity says they are, but that’s beside the point. For the aim of Christianity here is to colonize, literally of course, but more abstractly as well — abstract colonization here consisting in making impossible any path incommensurable with Christianity, as well as in making any extra-Christian paradigm account for itself in Christian terms.

    Concomitantly, when certain Christians say X is a “parody” or a “lesser version” of some Christian Y, I see this as a kind of ideological-interpellative move. Historically speaking, Y is a reaction to X, but the ideological move consists in the claim that X is some kind of “fall” from Y.

    Fwiw, this I think is the real weakness of Kerr’s book, when he poses Christian apocalyptic over against ideology. Historically speaking, after all, Christian apocalyptic is what ideologically intervenes on pre-Christian apocalyptic discourses.

  24. Weirdly, I was just thinking about the question of other religions while making my breakfast and was about to make somewhat the same point with regards to Chesterton’s view of Buddhism and the ‘Hindoos’ where one gets the impression that he somehow thinks these many millions of people for thousands have been living a somehow trunanced version of the human existence and have a serious inferiority to his own particular paradox strewn version of Christianity. Simply put, there is more than one way to live life.

  25. “Simply put, there is more than one way to live life.”

    It is appreciation of this point that separates Hauerwas, essentially a Wittgensteinian, from RO.

  26. Alex and others,

    Where does the term “diagonal” pop up in RO (and relate) author’s texts? I am familiar with a Milbank quote about the plane of immanence exceeding itself in a diagonal direction (towards transcendence), and I know Tony Baker is writing a book about Christian perfection that has the word diagonal in it (Diagonal Advance: A New Account of Christian Perfection).

    Anywhere else?

    Also, as far as the whole parody issue, it seems to me that this is always in danger of treating Christian theology as another “instrumental reason,” by working backwards from results to the starting point, i.e. we adhere to doctrine X because it produces Y-political result. I know this last line of logic has already been pointed out by Dan Barber, Alex and (maybe) others in this comment thread, but I simply wanted to point out its instrumental posture, and also add that this goes against much Christian thought – thought that insists on the uniqueness of the object of revelation, and of the ecclesial community. At the end of the day, are we all ready to go with whatever produce the best “results”? Does this not (often) skip the important step of asking why Y-political result is desirable?

  27. No specific reference (although Milbank does mention it in his recent book of poetry), but just a general theme that runs throughout the whole RO philosophical corpus – neither X nor Y, but both X and Y. Viz, for example, the much discussed Rome conference statement – neither faith nor reason, but faith and reason, a fairly Catholic (both upper and lower case) stance, in theory.

  28. Thomas asks, “Why is the death of God an assumption for so many philosophers?”

    My question is, why isn’t the death of God an assumption for so many theologians? I think that’s crucial, but it cannot be taken seriously when any whiff of negativity condemns you to nihilism.

    I see theology when it’s not church theology as set free from apologetic imperatives, and free to press ultimate questions without any pre-given answers. I also like Tillich’s idea of self-criticism, where one attends to one’s own tradition, history and practice and struggles with its imperialistic and colonialistic implications. Today, there is so much colonialism that still occurs, economic and neo-liberal, plus the colonalization of the self that is so pervasive in terms of our basic desires and beliefs. After Freud, Lacan and Zizek, it’s hard for me to take the question of conscious belief as the most central or ultimate question.

    The post-secular is in part an ideological movement of and for late capitalism, even as the modern division (that was always unstable) between secular and religious erodes. At the same time, corporate capitalism is entering into a death spiral, which threatens to take all human life and culture down with it. As Marx says, all critique begins with critique of religion.

  29. I want to echo Clayton’s comment somewhat — I totally understand the apologetic imperative for theologians who are priests, etc., but shouldn’t lay theologians, especially ones who feel alienated from their own surroundings (like the evangelical RCC-wannabes), view their task differently? I think we see an astounding amount of “cognitive regulatory capture” among theologians.

  30. As I said above, I think the apologetic imperitative exists beyond being pastoral in the wider church. For lay theologian, working in an often aggressively secular academy, an attempt to carve out an intellectually sophisticated version of Christianity that criticises recent developments in philosophy from a strictly orthodox perspective is, firstly, an attempt to keep the academic faithful inside the fold (Deleuze might be interesting, but not as interesting as the patristics) and defend the place of Christian theology as intellectually robust within that secular academy itself. More the former than the latter I would think: Christian theologians are then able, in discussions with philosophers at least able to say that x isn’t that hot because of y reasons.

    Let’s take Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing book as an example: Derrida is sexy and interesting, but his account of writing only ends in necrophilia, whereas a finally liturgical (neo)platonic account completed by Christianity gives us both transcendence, and a intense celebration of the immanent in the materiality of the mass, as well the mass itself founding the very possibility of any authentic community.

  31. I’d also like to echo Clayton’s response, but to do so in a way that also reverberates back. Clayton asks why the death of God isn’t taken as an assumption by so many theologians and then goes on to argue for openness when asking questions. That’s problematic. If conscious belief isn’t the central question (and I don’t think it is), then working out of conscious disbelief or, worse, an expectation of conscious disbelief is not really helpful.

  32. I don’t think you’re accurately portraying Clayton’s comment. First, I don’t see him talking about “openness” in any kind of generic way. Second, if he’s not wanting to talk about the level of personal conscious belief, then maybe that’s a hint that we should understand the “death of God” as something other than personal conscious belief. I mean, yeah, obviously a lot of people say they believe in God. The “death of God” as a cultural phenomenon has never meant near-universal atheism.

  33. To Clayton and his echoes,

    To put my previous question in context, I was responding to Alex’s statement:

    but really though, are the philosophers of the present day genuinely involved with critiquing theology directly. For them, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the view of theology, after the death of God, is not a live option, and not even worthy of critique.

    My response was:

    I suppose most living philosophers may be ignoring theology, considering it a dead end. Does this fact not imply something? Does it imply, at the very least, that previous critiques of theology are valid? Why is the death of God an assumption for so many philosophers?

    In writing these questions, I assumed one could say something along the lines of 1) we live in a culture in which this is the assumption, or one could say 2) previous critiques of theology are valid, and therefore theology is no longer worth the time for philosophers, etc. Because Alex was trying to explain why philosophers don’t care about theology, it seems to me he was leaning toward answer #2: theology is not a”live option” after the death of God. Adam views the death of God along the lines of #1: it is a “cultural phenomenon.”

    So, to respond to Clayton: “why isn’t the death of God an assumption for so many theologians?” I say, if it means taking our context seriously, then yes, many of us do in fact take the death of God as an assumption. I place myself here, e.g. in that I spent much of my free time earlier this semester engaging a death of God theologian, and writing two essays on it. I take this seriously.

    Though a diversity of intellectual positions are held by those in this conversation, it would seem to me that many of us would say that God is dead, that is, God as construed by certain theologies (I am certainly happy that certain images of God have been deconstructed). At the same time, who takes the time to do theology if they really think God (in every possible way/shape/form/conception) is dead? Call God what you want – the Sublime, the Real, the (Christian) Trinity – who of you thinks God is dead? Or are we simply policing the realm of divinity to make sure no one and nothing takes its throne? I know this is ad hominem, but I mean nothing malicious by it. I am trying to get at which God[s] we may or may not think are dead, and I am sure there are a plethora of opinions on this among this blog’s readership.

    So, back to my question: Why is the death of God an assumption for so many philosophers?

    Thanks for the conversation,
    Thomas

  34. I’d say that it differs between the US and Europe. In Europe, there’s a sense — probably justified — that the ecclesiastical form of Christianity has basically lost its grip on the culture and is unlikely to ever come back. It just doesn’t seem like a live issue. Europe is post-Christian, and I would say the interest in theology among philosophers is meant to trace out the ways in which it is post-Christian (the Agamben book I posted on seems like a particularly clear example of this general tendency). But the thought of somehow converting to Christianity and going to church, etc., just doesn’t arise.

    In the US, I do think that a version of this same “death of God” phenomenon is at work, but you’d need to do some serious work figuring out the precise form it takes. But since a certain Christianity has so much more influence over the culture, I think that the position among US philosophers tends to be basically a reactive atheism that only rarely lends itself to the casual “of course God doesn’t exist — now what’s going on in these theological texts?” attitude that is available to Europeans.

    Of course this is broad-stroke stuff and probably exaggerates the impotence of church Christianity in Europe — particularly the UK, where some of our same stupid debates (like intelligent design) are taking place to some degree.

  35. Adam,

    I think you are on to something here. I also think there is a correlative theological side: RO was born, more or less, in the UK (the Europe side you point to), and is maybe a little different in tone than theology here in the states (though much of the tone has been adapted at times), e.g. many theologians here fight against civil religion, rather than secularism/atheism.

  36. I appreciate the echoes, and for me, the “death of God” does not mean garden-variety atheism. In fact, the death of God means many things, including for some the possibility of any resurrection. Then there is the neo-Hegelian/Lutheran “death of the death of God” in Caputo. I just think that the empirical fact
    of the question whether or not people are more or less religious does not settle the question or claim of the death of God. Ultimately it raises the question of life, and to what extent death and life are opposites, which is something the Derrida gives us reason to question. And the same with the opposition between conscious and unconscious, beliefs and practices, etc. For me, the death of God provides this opening to ask theological questions, and this is very Heideggerian. Also, the death of God implies the substitution of another god, of capital or money, as Philip Goodchild so clearly points out.

    Since I’m not a philosopher, maybe that’s why it doesn’t concern me as much whether or how philosophers assume the death of God. I think it’s a modernist assumption that founds most modern and contemporary philosophy, that one can and should strictly distinguish between secular and religious viewpoints, and one can only do philosophy in a secular and non-religious manner. But that’s what postmodern or poststructuralist continental philosophy undermines, as well as the global resurgence of religion in thought and culture.

    I don’t want to downplay or denigrate the extent to which we have to involved in apologizing or justifying our existence and vocations in many and whatever ways. I have to do this at a state university too. But I didn’t want to study theology at a or teach in a seminary because I didn’t want to have to be responsible for these disputations.

  37. Dan Barber,

    Not to beat a dead horse, but I have a fairly simple/clarification question in regards to this statement: “Fwiw, this I think is the real weakness of Kerr’s book, when he poses Christian apocalyptic over against ideology. Historically speaking, after all, Christian apocalyptic is what ideologically intervenes on pre-Christian apocalyptic discourses.”

    What are these “pre-Christian apocalyptic discourses,” and who were the proponents of this discourse?

    Thanks,
    Thomas

  38. Well, I’d be happy going with “pre-Christian discourses,” minus the apocalyptic element. My point was simply that Christian apocalyptic discourse functions ideologically in its intervention/judgment upon pre-Christian discourses.

    As for whether there are pre-Christian apocalyptic discourses, perhaps, but more relevant is that, after the ideology of Christian apocalypse, there are non-Christian apocalyptic discourses (in other words, using one’s interpellation as resistance, etc), for example the Ghost Dance.

  39. I don’t think you are saying, d, that you are against such thing as the Ghost Dance, right? So then, isn’t there possibly a mode of Christian apocalyptic discourse that might work for you?

  40. I just wanted to point out that McGrath isn’t a theologian reading philosophers, he is a Christian philosopher who has written primarily on Heidegger thus far, though his current work is concerned primarily with psychoanalysis. His methodology is what he calls “theological deconstruction,” in that he attempts to show the implicit theological roots of many declared atheisms, hence why his first book (The Early Heidegger and Medieval Philosophy) is aimed at showing that while Heidegger clearly attempted to shed his neo-Scholastic background with Being and Time, many of his concepts are rooted in his background studying Aquinas and Scotus. This sort of work is being done in his current research on Freud’s debt to German Idealism as well as the fact that the idea of the unconscious was not “discovered” by Freud but goes back to Medieval Christianity.

    I also wanted to point out that McGrath isn’t part of the Radical Orthodoxy group/movement/school/whatever, trust me, I cornered him on the topic this past Fall.

  41. Michael,

    Thanks for the comment. I have to say that I don’t really see the difference between a radical orthodoxy theologian and a “Christian philosopher” that sees their work as a “theological deconstruction”. Radical Orthodoxy is not a coherent movement with coherent goals so much as a certain attitude. I was familiar with McGrath’s approach, though I haven’t read his first book, and I’m not certain how showing the implicit theological roots of many declared atheisms does much outside of a historical interest. That is, unless you’ve already decided that the theological roots are some how “more true” than the reworking they get in atheist philosophies. For instance, it hardly bothers me that Heidegger still has some neo-Scholastic elements in his thought, but it does bother me, knowing about both neo-Scholasticism and Heidegger, that we’re supposed to think his thought can then be reduced to a kind of neo-Scholastic abortion.

    The same goes with most of these weird genealogical projects. Sure, there is a pre-history of the unconscious before Freud’s more accepted discovery of it. So? It obviously didn’t reach the cultural and intellectual importance it has now until after Freud and is more indebted to his theory of it than a locatable but occluded theological theory (and why is it always specifically Medieval Christianity? There are theories of the unconscious in Islamic thought as well according to Deleuze and Guattari.) I mean, Michael Mack has traced Freud’s debt to German Idealism already and does interesting work with this theological root without then falling into a polemic against Freud.

    As to his affiliation, I never meant to suggest that he was part of Radical Orthodoxy the Movement. In so far as there are certain individuals who have a good deal invested in the brand of Radical Orthodoxy and understand it as having a certain coherence I can see how McGrath isn’t part of that. However, there is a wider tendency in contemporary theology/Christian philosophy (again, I really don’t see the difference) that can be aligned with this name.

  42. I think there’s something important in such historical analyses and it has nothing to do with showing that what is older is somehow more authentic. That is to say, it is not saying that Heidegger can be reduced to his Scholastic influences or that Freud can be reduced to Schelling. Rather, there are particular thinkers who claim to have made dramatic and drastic breaks with the history of thought and what such work shows is not only their own historically embedded situation (like good hermeneuticians should, perhaps) but also shows that there is a conscious decision being made in such declarations.

    So in the case of Freud, we can say “Yes, he was indebted to the Idealists, etc” but what is more interesting is to ask why he consciously breaks with the tradition, why he abandons his vitalist lineage and claims that what he is doing is founded on good empirical science rather than on the works of Schopenhauer or Schelling.

    I don’t think showing that these thinkers have made such decisions is necessarily polemical, or at least it need not be, and that’s not how I have read McGrath’s work. I think what he is doing is trying to show is, as I said, simply the historical situation and decisions made by these individuals. So his current work on Freud for example isn’t trying to destroy Freudian psychoanalysis, but point out this huge history of thought that went into the product known as Freud. This history was seen and widely known by his contemporaries, who were doing interesting and different things with this same historical material (Janet for example). What McGrath is doing in such analysis is showing that while we have this seemingly linear history of the unconscious that begins with Freud, that there are other possible ways of viewing the unconscious, and the first step to understanding this is by looking to what went in to this remarkable historical forgetting with the institutionalization of psychoanalysis.

    In this same way, the work on Heidegger is not trying to say “Forget Heidegger, go read Scotus!” But to say rather that what he is doing is historically grounded and that in order to understand Heidegger, we need to understand this decision to “break” with the tradition and why he does it. McGrath connects this to his flirtations with Lutheranism prior to the writing of Being and Time, and his turn to Kierkegaard, which I think are relevant for understanding Heidegger’s work.

  43. Michael,

    It seems to me that these historical things are interesting, but only as historical studies. It isn’t like this is very new though and you seem to be suggesting that it is worthy of respect because it is. People have been tracing Heidegger’s debt to the Scholastic for a very long time. The same goes for Freud and most any other towering figure. I think McGrath’s very (critical) introduction is a polemic, but, yes, I agree that this sort of historical study doesn’t have to be. I suppose these things can be helpful in terms of thinking differently than the state of the situation, but I wouldn’t think any serious thinker ever waits for historical permission to think somewhat heretically from a Freud or a Heidegger.

    Do you really think that, to really understand the creativity and depth of Being and Time, one has to understand in any deep way that Heidegger was influenced by Aquinas and Scotus? That repeats a kind of fetishistic reading of major figures I find really unproductive.

    That said, I had a browse about your blog and am interested in your Schellingian spectral vitalism.

  44. “Do you really think that, to really understand the creativity and depth of Being and Time, one has to understand in any deep way that Heidegger was influenced by Aquinas and Scotus? That repeats a kind of fetishistic reading of major figures I find really unproductive.”

    I don’t think you need to understand the debt Heidegger has to Aquinas and Scotus in order to get Being and Time, no. But for those involved in Heidegger scholarship (as his first book is intended for), this is valuable information. You also have to remember that his very critical introduction is not an introduction in the usual sense, as he explains in the opening pages, but a diving in head-first.

    I’m glad you checked out my blog, I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on what I’ve been working on over there.

  45. Michael,

    Since the publication of Theology and Social Theory one of the primary methodologies of radical orthodoxy has been to claim that despite the fact that X secular discourse would regard itself to be un-theological, it’s claims, structure, and intellectual space find their roots in theology. Indeed this is even the case for the concept of the secular itself. Since the terms of the discourse are in fact theology, though this is unacknowledged, then theology has a right to criticise them without worrying too much about their supposed secularity, on a level playing field. This case be seen in the work of all the major authors of the series, and has it’s roots in Gillian Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology and Alasdair Macintyre’s work. A secondary claim is often added, since X secular discourse represented a trunanced, or in Anthony’s terms, an aborted, form of theology, the only way out of the aporias and unintended social consequences of the discourse at hand (be it philosophy, politics, economics, science) is a return to a full, complex theology to get the answers we require.

    Hence “the implicit theological roots of many declared atheisms” as McGrath does is entirely within the RO remit. The argument proceeds like this: since Heidegger’s philosophy is an unacknowledged theology, then we need to return to real theology which already a) signaled the paradigm he explored and b) will solve any problems he has discovered by providing a richer account. At the very least, it is trying to assert that theology matters more to these debates than has been previously acknowledged. Hence McGrath’s reading of young Heidegger.

    Note, I’m not saying this is an invalid technique at all, indeed, it has been very influential for my own work and I would imagine the work of others posting here.

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