Must radical theology be Christian?

I remember hearing a sermon once in which the preacher assured us that God has no ‘plan B’, because God’s ‘plan A’ always works out. Homely as this wisdom is, it suggests something importantly true: God is never dead as long as providence lives. That in turn leads me to offer some hesitant thoughts about debates on the definition of radical theology.

Recently on this site, Jeremy made an appeal that we should be more precise when using the term ‘radical theology’. Too often, he argued, the term is invoked when what is being advocated is really a variant of liberal theology. If radical theology is going to have any distinctive meaning, it should be reserved for those ways of thinking which explicitly position themselves in the wake of the death of God.

I agree with Jeremy, and would align myself with radical theology in his sense of the term. However, this raises another issue, also familiar to followers of this site: to what extent is radical theology intrinsically defined by Christianity (even as it negates or transforms orthodox Christian doctrines)?

If we were to trace a lineage of death of God theology, it would go, not only through Nietzsche, but also through a kind of inverted Barthian view of the otherness of God as it is paradoxically identified with the world. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ and Luther’s ‘crucified God’ would be in there too. And the whole story could be retraced to themes of God’s self-emptying in Christ. On this reading, however heterodox it might appear, the death of God names a necessarily Christian possibility. Indeed, it could be seen as the fulfilment of Christianity’s hidden essence.

The problem here is the risk of Christian triumphalism and supercessionism reasserting itself in the form of the supremacy of the Christian West. It is as if only Christian Europe could have produced the liberating effect of the death of God, and the critical and emancipatory ideas and practices which emerge from it. Don Cupitt – whom I consider a friend and mentor – strays too close to this, in my view. In books like The Meaning of the West, God dies, but is resurrected as secular Western civilisation, always defined against the murky background of the unreformed Islamic ‘other’.

I take the point that we can’t just ignore Christianity, which via the contingent historical exigencies of Western imperialism and capitalism, continues to shape our ways of conceiving religion and politics. Better to name and reckon with this than to be its dupe. I also want to affirm the emancipatory and truly subversive reality of radical theology as a way of occupying Christian discourse precisely to proclaim the death of the transcendent God.

However, that potential needs to be decoupled from any lingering notion of providence. The death of God is not the trope to end all tropes, the inevitable end towards which the historical narrative tends. There is no plan A.

What would happen if we were to turn our attention from the death of God to the death of providence (which is not the same as the liberal capitalist providential fantasy of the ‘end of history’)? Perhaps one result would be a stronger genuine philosophical interest in polytheism, animism, syncretism and magic, not as romanticised, exotic or innocent others, but as difficult and contingent materials with which we should think and work. In any case, I don’t see a necessary contradiction here with radical theology, but a way of taking seriously the way it unlocks a thinking of divinity apart from the unity of being or narrative, a thinking in which Christianity truly becomes one among many.

18 thoughts on “Must radical theology be Christian?

  1. I totally missed out on the earlier conversation, having been out of town for a couple days without internet. So here goes, just some out-loud, not linear brainstorming: Would not making this connection to non-Christian radicalisms in this way require us to make a liberal move, say, like Tillich, Ogden, or even Rahner’s, when it comes to approaching the alien religion? “You reject the Big Other, too, here’s how I do it, and here’s where we’re similar, and I therefore validate you.” Also: I like your direction of thinking here, and suggest this is where Daly and other feminists, for example, move through Tillich and the death of God.

  2. Chris: yes, there is the danger, though I wasn’t presuming any isomorphism between Christian radicalism and any other variety, merely that, without any providential narrative, the field of theological work opens up to other engagements. However, there is still always the implicit temptation simply to ‘mine’ other discourses for resources, whilst staying safe in home territory. I’m trying to wrestle with the implications of Dan Barber’s work on this – what a genuinely diasporic or deterritorializing theology/philosophy of religion might be.

  3. Steve,

    Interesting post. Concerning de-Christenizing radical theology, you wonder about shifting attention from “the death of God to the death of providence”. But isn’t providence already a fairly Christenized concept? Would it be better to ask about the “death of Fate” or, better, “death of the fates”?

  4. Except that to discuss the death of God without touching at the very least on Richard Rubenstein (who has already been very specific about the dying God being the God of History, a near but not exact approximation of “providence”), not to mention other post-Holocaust Jewish theologians, is to neglect a very important development of the trope.

  5. Geoff, It’s widely accepted that the concept of providence was secularized into the modern narrative of progress — and it comes out in places like the infamous “invisible hand,” etc. Steven seems to be saying that the persistence of these notions show that the Christian God isn’t quite as dead as we’d hoped.

  6. Geoff, perhaps my use of the ‘death’ trope itself plays into the kind of Christianisation I’m trying to avoid. I also use the term decoupling, and this captures my intention better: more one of indifference than of a highly charged drama of death. The latter is easily recuperated into a Christian-defined narrative of resurrection. I should be clear: I’m obviously not objecting to the death of God, or arguing that any death of God theology is just warmed over Christian triumphalism. The issue is *how* the death of God is narrated, and to what end – where the very idea of there being an ‘end’ reintroduces notions of purposiveness and a guiding hand (which, as Adam notes, survives into secular discourse). Alana helpfully points out that the death of God in the work of someone like Rubenstein is emphatically neither Christian nor triumphalist. So the importance of exposing the issue of providence is not just that of choosing another doctrine to deny, but of questioning the whole way theological understanding is narrated and performed.

  7. This is a very important question and perhaps it leads to: ‘the death of god’ is where radical theology begins. The shapes of radical theology-and its posisbilities occur out of the death of god- a death of god that is expressed in both christianity and judaism- and the spaces that the death/s opens up is where radical theology begins to occur asd a series of unfinished projects. One orgin is the Altizer death of god which only the christian can- or could- truly proclaim. There is Vahanian’s death of god of the idols- and the possibilibity of the worlding of the word. These were and are radially different types of radical theology but share an orgin in what can be termed the orginary detah of god exoresed by Barth. What occurs in this lineage is a radical theology that is – in some shaoe or form- christian ( perhaps post-christian, para-chrisitian, materlally christian) against ‘godly christianity’. There is- out of the continental philosophy tradition- a radical theology that is situated against christianity- yet arising out of european culture and thought that is at the very least, heavily influneced by christianity and judaism.
    so let’s then open it up with radical god-talk- wherein god is the claim of the possibilty and -for some- the authority of an alternative to what is taken to be normative. god therefore also as both the expresion of the overcomming of claimed limits and the expressed limits of claimed possibility

  8. Steven, thanks for this. From my vantage, the issue that always pops up in the sort of radical theology you mention here is the sort of problem you also mention here, namely the Christianness of it. The question, i suppose, is where to draw the line(s) — if one draws between belief in God or the absence thereof, or between Christendom and the secular, or religion and religionless, etc. … then one keeps something, namely narrative (where such narrative tends towards developmentalism of some kind or another). Or, more broadly, what i would call conversion.

    So the question (for me, at least) is how to articulate these issues such that one could evade the narrative. The immediate thing that strikes me is the “death” in death of God. Death connotes something that was once alive, and so as soon as you speak of “death of ___” you have some kind of narrative. In this sense, death is sort of like confession: you put something in the past in order to keep it, now immunized against the charge that you are keeping it (one can do this over and over and over again).

    How one might use this material otherwise, i’m not completely sure. For me, I’ve always tended to evade ontotheology / the ‘existence’ of God through other means, such as nothingness, or a Spinozistic equation of the divine and the natural.

  9. As a pragmatic anarcho-communist that is influenced by the Situationist International, I also realize that religion and even revolutionary or radical religion is primarily coopted by spectacular society. The fact that we are even having this conversation(well writing thingymajig) is evidence that even radical theological thought is becoming part of the spectacle. Recalling Society of the Spectacle for a moment:

    “The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between cyclical time which still dominated production and irreversible time where populations clash and regroup. The religions which grew out of Judaism are abstract universal acknowledgements of irreversible time which is democratized, opened to all, but in the realm of illusion. Time is totally oriented toward a single final event: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” These religions arose on the soil of history, and established themselves there. But there they still preserve themselves in radical opposition to history. Semi-historical religion establishes a qualitative point of departure in time (the birth of Christ, the flight of Mohammed), but its irreversible time–introducing real accumulation which in Islam can take the form of a conquest, or in Reformation Christianity the form of increased capital is actually inverted in religious thought and becomes a countdown: the hope of access to the genuine other world before time runs out, the expectation of the last Judgment. Eternity came out of cyclical time and is beyond it. Eternity is the element which holds back the irreversibility of time, suppressing history within history itself by placing itself on the other side of irreversible time as a pure punctual element to which cyclical time returned and abolished itself. Bossuet will still say: “And by means of the time that passes we enter into the eternity which does not pass.””

    Doesn’t that sound like something Altizer would say? Minus the Marxian language, Altizer makes it clear that religion is a quest for an unfallen sacred, a backwards movement to eternity and it isn’t false to say that religion is a primary agent of repression and oppression. Further:

    “Ideology is the basis of the thought of a class society in the conflict-laden course of history. Ideological facts were never a simple chimaera, but rather a deformed consciousness of realities, and in this form they have been real factors which set in motion real deforming acts; all the more so when the materialization, in the form of spectacle, of the ideology brought about by the concrete success of autonomized economic production in practice confounds social reality with an ideology which has tailored all reality in terms of its model.”

    Radical theology then, if it is to be free from the spectacle doesn’t neccesarily need to be “Christian” but the death of God can’t in any sense be a purely ideological phenomena either. The death of God might be primarily “real” in a Christian framework, but the death of God means at least one other thing: the death of ideology. Consider it for a moment though, it isn’t true that different ideologies hold up different truths as “God” albeit in different forms. One of my other theological influences, Simone Weil makes the point that even atheists that put their hope and faith in ideologies are still idolaters. Can we say that ideology is just another God to kill? In this sense it might even be said that “God is dead” is certainly not Christian but rather the natural conclusion of radicalism.

    Finally to bring this back to my initial observation that even this conversation is evidence of radical theology is getting coopted by the spectacle. Don’t get me wrong some of the most daring stuff(Zizek and Altizer) really do challenge ideological hegemony, but there are a lot of folks involved in radical theology that aren’t escaping the problem of ideological hegemony(and I include Peter Rollins and John Caputo despite my own reservations with them). If at the heart of Christian thought is subversive faith and praxis(consider Bonhoeffer’s “secret discipline” or Altizer’s “self-saving of God”) I don’t understand why repackaging post-liberal theology as radical theology fufills that goal when in fact it doesn’t even address what is problematic about these theological strands.

  10. Another way to think about is something Gabriel Vahanian wrote jst before his death in a ms planned for the radical theologies series:
    “You do theology not against the background of the death of God but in spite of it.”
    The other question is why do we wish to evade the Christainness of it, in fact the christianness of so much of western culture and thought? it is there- we have to deal with it- and to deny it is to exist in an alternative make-believe world.In a very realist materialist sense, radical theology, secular theology, has to deal with- and aganist- the ongoing existence- and limitation of christianity- and of all claims – incluing its own. So then radical theology becomes a way of weakening such Christianness, of positioning alternatives- especially in a theo-political sense – involving the attempts and possibilties of thinking and doing materialist theology outside the christianness.

  11. Steven, if you are trying to evade the label Christian in a tradition and discourse that comes specifically out of Christendom (Altizer et al.), how can you avoid the liberal move of universalizing? You want to save the language of philosophy of religion for, I assume, emancipatory and liberator purposes of some kind but decoupling the particularity of the discourse, even by shifting to a specific doctrine of providence, holds one open to co-option by liberals or emergents or anyone. Every discourse can be abused. Even if there is a successful decoupling, do you think Tony Jones et al. would stop appropriating radical theological discourse? Or, more to the point, is the impetus for the decoupling an avoidance of co-option or an avoidance of the taint of christendom?

  12. Mike, I agree that avoidance is no use, and that’s why I don’t have an issue making a strategic identification with Christian radical theology. The question, as Dan indicates, is how to avoid the narrative which incorporates a basically Christian shape? How, in other words, to avoid the rhetoric of salvation, in the sense of keeping some orthodox core identity immune from dispersal and corruption? I do think radical theology helps here, but needs to watch out for the shadow of providential thinking.

    Wilson, yes, anything can be co-opted. But i’m not sure I get how you think what I am arguing leads to this. Decoupling from providence is not about universalising providence, it is an attempt to challenge the narrative logic which puts us in need of a telos or of salvation in the first place. Where I’d want to hold on to the destabilising power of certain Christian imagery and practices, sure, they can always be abused. But, as you say, that’s true of anything else, be it Marxism, immanentism or whatever. So I can’t see a specific objection to what I’m saying.

  13. Steven, yes the continuation of salvation narratives that postion providental thinking is a central problem needing to be overcome. Here i find Vattimo’s weak thought, a continual weakening in a heremeutical, post-metaphysical manner helpful. It is perhaps to also find ourselves in the wake of what i term an Italian hermeneutics, somewhere between Ignazio Silone’s ‘christian without a church and communist without a party” and Benedetto Croce’s “we cannot not call ourselves christian.” If that was what helped form the basis of radical theology, what i see is a shift, finally, into that Nietzshean scenario whereby the corpse of christianity continues to be attempted to be resussitated even though God has died- this means we get zombie christianity. the struggles within radcial theology are precisiely those of attemoting to overcome zombie christianity. perhaps- and this my prove too provocative- what if radical theology is actually Durkheimian and it is attempting to express non universal non-providential possibiilties in a wolrd whereby:“the old gods are dead and the new ones are not yet born”.
    In the undertaking of radical theology, we are therefore first and foremost undertaking what can be termed the Durkheimian paradox: our experience and sense of being derived from and contingent upon social order ( or philosophical and radical theological possibilties) actually derived from own presence and own actions.
    so yes radical theology is still a narrative- but first and foremost an auto-biographical narrative of self in praxis- that can- like all narratives- be take up by others and read as applying in some way to ‘them’.
    therefore the death of god positions us as writing narratives of self in what i term the easter saturday of modernity: most of the world lives with neither Good Friday nor the resurrection of Easter Sunday, but rather the indifferent nihilism of
    Easter Saturday; indifferent to what has gone before and not anticipating the hope of Easter Sunday. One day soon I hope to write a radical theology of easter saturday, a radical theology of the most mundane day- neither sacred nor profane, a day without the telos, without the salvation.

  14. w/r/t Vattimo, and my point, as Steve nicely put it, about the need to oppose a “narrative which incorporates a basically Christian shape” ….

    Vattimo: “What can we do with people who apparently do not share civic responsibility either inside our society or outside? … what happens when we arrive at a place which refuses us, like some parts of the Islamic world, what do you think we should preach to them?”
    Rorty: “Europe is not just domination, not just hegemony, not just international capitalism. There is also the European mission civilizatrice. That term has been discredited by the behavior of the colonial powers, but it might be capable of being rehabilitated. It was, after all, Europe that invented democracy and civic responsibility. It may be just an historical accident that Christendom was where democracy was reinvented for mass society. Or it may be that this could only have happened in a Christian society. But it is futile to speculate about that. However that may be, it seems to me that the idea of a dialogue with Islam is pointless.”

    (Vattimo, fwiw, does not object to the response.)

  15. re weakening- vattimo must be weakened against himself – just as radical theology is weakening all strong claims- including such as those that vattimo and rorty express above
    yes there is that issue that adam so eloquently expreses out of the legacy of christian narrative: rorty & vattimo arise out of what was the old western left liberal identity of a salvation narrative – and that of the enlightenment ideal of a universal humanity- and therefore universal human rights
    of course it is still much easier to worry about ‘islam’ over there and its exclusions than to really face up to the ongoing exclusions and structured exclusions that exist in what may be perhaps called- and experienced as ‘western post/christian culture’.
    so radical theology is first and foremost directed against y/our experience and context- focus on the praxis particular and not the universal and you get rid of the salvation narrative

  16. But does the salvation narrative rest on the universal (excluding the particular & its contaminations) or is it achieved through a certain relation between the universal and particular — a relation that can be reversed without affecting its fundamental structure and effects? Directing radical theology first and foremost against the post/Christian experience/context may weaken Vattimo/Rorty but does not itself require different judgment about their considered “dialogue with Islam”. The imperative it generates in either case is to discover an analogy in the archives of Islam. In this case it would be an analogous Islamic deathlife (zombie faith) that can be mapped onto Easter Sunday. For their part, Vattimo/Rorty would celebrate a democratic potentiality in Islam (were they to recognize it). In either case “radical” thought secures itself by anxiously discovering itself outside itself. Can this be weakened to the point of reconfiguring the narrative emplotment? Maybe, but reversing the universal and particular won’t do it. (I’m skeptical too whether the language of death and life admits such weakness.)

    I very much appreciated this post, by the way, in opening the prospect of a new kind of conversation (& specifically of plotting Islam as neither analogous nor anomalous). Stephen asked on twitter how much traction a ‘death of providence’ approach might get among Muslim scholars. Not much, likely. But, for example, a radical theology that presses against providence (its excessive/differential structure, its risk and hauntings, the implied scope of potentiality/actuality, failures of theodicy and liberation, etc) would pose challenges to Christianity as to Islam that do not insist one is directly mapped onto the other. The challenges themselves might be different, so the model of analogy and anomaly (this narrative of salvation and its limits) might be interrupted.

    Readers might be interested in a parallel conversation at the Political Theology blog in their current symposium on Islam — e.g., a recent post and its comments on the Christianity of political theology.

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