Branding and Thought: Some Reflections on “Radical Theology”

Recently some of us have been pulled into discussions about “radical theology”. Sometimes these discussions have been useful, but sadly most of the time they have not. I’ve appreciated the efforts of authors here at AUFS to try and tease out the actual sense of this term and trace the ways in which its original meaning has shifted when used by emergent groups to name their own work. Often these emergent Christians — who I know will be upset that I am naming them in this way, but I see no good reason to really differentiate them — do pull on the work of thinkers who have historically taken on this title of radical theology for the work they do. It has been rather strange to see the line be extended from Nietzsche to Alitzer to Derrida to Tillich to Caputo, but setting aside certain issues I have with the supercessionist claiming of Derrida for postmodern Christian thought, I can see a certain family resemblance. Yet, it is still far from clear to me how this is “radical theology”. With Altizer I get it, proclaiming the death of God is radical in so far as it goes to the root. I won’t pretend that I have spent as much time with Alitzer’s work as I should have, and I often wonder how he continues to do work constrained by the Christian frame after proclaiming the death of God. But Derrida is far from a theologian, and I think that, rather than Hägglund, those who read Derrida in this way need to contend more with Michael Naas’s reading. Naas presents a Derrida whose work on religion is far more classically liberal than radical, and of course, we do see in Derrida the same problem of exclusion we find in classic liberal secularism (namely with regard to Islam, the tempered valorization of the Judeo-Christian link, etc.). And Caputo, who I respect a great deal as a scholar and as someone who continues to engage with new work, has presented a version of theology that may be considered radical in terms of the distance it takes with institutional forms of theology and the history of orthodox policing.

I am not known for holding back, so I will be direct. My worry is that these sorts of brandings stand in for actual thinking. This is not an attack — while there are plenty of charlatans in our discipline, I also know that it is helpful to have these kinds of terms to help organize our thinking. And as I do a lot of work on François Laruelle, I know that certain terms have a certain power of attraction. But like non-philosophy, if radical theology just becomes an empty slogan, then every text it is printed within should be burned to at least produce usable heat (an actual pyro-theology perhaps). If thinkers are going to construct a new genealogy of radical theology, then it is incumbent upon them to make that genealogy do work and to differentiate this instantiation from the previous forms. It may be useful then also to at least recognize the danger within this form of branding for actual thinking, that certain concepts can be reduced to slogans and empty shibboleths inoculating those who pronounce them from real criticism.

As some know, I am published in the Radical Theologies series at Palgrave Macmillan. I think the series promises to be a leader in the field of this strange liminal space between philosophy, mainly Continental in terms of influence, and the study of religion, which is mainly Christian and theological in form. What I appreciate about the series is the implied plural nature of this term. There is no single form of radical theology, and in a sense there is a question of what theology will look like after the death of God, which the series hopes to explore. For me, whatever you call it, this form of thinking cannot remain so narrowly Christian or secularist. These two regimes of thought, closely related, are no longer radical in my mind. If theology is to be radical it has to engage not just with St. Paul and the fetish for revolutionary slogans which has grown around him, but with the actual political and social struggles outside of the Christian world. While this may still include a form of Christianity, it is silly to engage with Latin American Catholicism as if it is the same thing as European Catholicism. And it does require engaging with the parts of the world where the post-secular event actually emerged within anti-colonial struggles. We have yet to think through these events, to think through what might happen out of them. Radical theology, to be radical to my mind, has to think this, and not be another playing out of Anglo-European debates about Liberalism vs Traditionalism, Doubt vs Faith, and which third-way is the better third-way.

13 thoughts on “Branding and Thought: Some Reflections on “Radical Theology”

  1. I think that there is a clear genealogical line of thought/influence running from Altizer through Charles Winquist into Caputo’s early work on “radical” hermeneutics and “against” ethics, but I’m not sure why this work should be limited/tied to anything like post-colonialism or other social/political struggles, why be so narrow?

  2. Very well put, Anthony. I couldn’t be in more sympathy. I’m admittedly not in terribly high sympathy with the death of God movement following Altizer, but only because I think it often results in a kind of sloganeering too, and often stands in for real intellectual work. I’d say the same of the death of metaphysics and about every other “death” or “post” out there. The ones that I think have the most potential are post-secularism, which does say things that are very meaningful (I studied with William Connolly as part of my graduate education at Johns Hopkins), and perhaps post-liberalism or post-evangelicalism. I worry that taking the death of this or that thing as carte blanche as it is often taken can run roughshod over the problem that are there, and then “radical” really becomes just “reactionary.” And it ends up reifying “orthodoxy” or other such things, and ascribing far more power to them than they have actually ever had. Christianity and its partial evolvement into Christendom was always a fragile project, and it was often quite well known. And that is also because part of Christianity is about eschatology – the “not yet” that has something to say about the “now,” and which doesn’t determine its meaning, but neither are those things ever separate.

    But, I’m glad that a mutual friend (FB anyway) posted this and I read it. I appreciate the argument as you put it. And for what its worth, these are the kinds of conversations I’d hope to have as things get over their initial rough points, that were very unfortunate. These are the kinds of things that are always lurking for me, invested in philosophy and theory and intellectual history and even theology. All good stuff. Peace.

  3. APS, not sure if that koanish fragment is a kind of pun or what?
    AK, who claims great political significance (as opposed to say theology as a “minor” literature?) and why is this subject more necessary (if not exclusively so) than other possibilities of what some have dubbed “secular” theology?

  4. In 1965, the radical theologian William Hamilton stated the following:

    If “Empty Bed Blues”, Tennessee Williams and “Guernica” are the sights and sounds of neo-orthodox theology, perhaps radical theology is closer to “We Shall Overcome”, Saul Bellow and Robert Rauschenberg.
    (“The Shape of a Radical Theology”, The Christian Century 6 October 1965 p.1222.)

    The series Radical Theologies that Anthony is so kind about is inherently plural in taking its lineage from such work as undertaken by William Hamilton, Tom Altizer and the other radical theologians who both precede them and who follow in- and often against- their wake. It is a way of thinking and argiuing that knows its history but then seeks to express the sights and sounds of today. The inspiration for it did indded come as a place to give space for possibilties, possibilties where continental thought meets the study of religion. Perhaps it is best expressed- at least in my mind as one of the editors responsible for it – as the space and place to claim a radical alternative; where something new can be explored and articulated. This is political: the claim of an alternative.

    So Radical theology is plural: it has its own sights and sounds, its own voices and expressions. It is an open invitation to all who wish to participate in seeking to investigate, argue and express what they think theology may look like after the death of God

  5. dmf, The “emergent” people that Anthony is talking about in the post. I think you should put forward your own positive position instead of asking more vague questions — it’s hard to know where you’re coming from.

  6. I suppose some of this is getting indirectly directed toward me, but let me say this: I’m not the biggest fan of Caputo, however, like APS, I have a great respect for his work. I think that what may be what leads those in emergent circles to “brand” him as radical is largely because (1) Caputo’s work loosely falls into conversation with what we might deem “weak ontology” or “weak hermeneutics”; (2) Caputo was one of the primary participants in the Philadelphia emergent conversations that happened years ago, he was one of the few academics to take emergents seriously; (3) Caputo has since found a way to market some of his writings to the church and seminary market with at least one book published by the United Methodists’ publishing house, Abingdon; (4) Emergents know of Altizer primarily through Caputo’s dismissive rejection of him. Jack and Tom were going to do a project together from which Tom later withdrew. And furthermore: (4) the 1960s tradition of radicalism, and its “second wave” of Taylor, Winquist, etc, is so marginalized that 99% of Ph.Ds in theology graduating today have either never heard of them or have been taught to ignore them; and (5) for evangelicals and “post-evangelical” emergents, continental philosophy written by a Catholic is deemed to be “safer” material, even if it does push some orthodoxy envelopes. Finally (6), very little of the earlier work of Tom, Vahanian, Hamilton, and van Buren are in print. In fact, when Hamilton died there was a mention that he had recently published a book–this book is impossible to find, and I don’t think any of his work remains in print. Much of Van Buren’s work is equally difficult to find, even in libraries. Some of these texts were available on, but that has since closed down.

    At the Subverting the Norm II conference, folks kept asking me, “Where do I start with radical theology?” “I had no idea that this stuff was out there.” There are a few introductory texts out there — Trevor Geenfield’s Introduction to Radical Theology comes to mind — but it must be our “wave” of radicals’ task to do the work of recovery and re-introduction to these older texts if we are to agree that they remain foundational and relevant.

  7. Side note – I would strongly advise against Greenfield’s text. It is largely based on Don Cupitt’s work which is hopelessly boring.

  8. I want to commend this post for calling a thing what is it, namely “Christian”, and add just a quick thought: don’t you all think it would be a great deal less obfuscating (not too mention far more honest) to start saying things like “Christian Cosmology” or “Radical Christianity” instead of “Radical Theology”? Similarly “Political Theology” could much more accurately be called “Christian Political Cosmology” or even “Political Christianity” (this latter name would help clarify the similarities between openly Christian political movements and supposedly “secular” ones. All of this would help deflate the assumed universality of parochial problems in Christian thought and prevent the misreading and/or misappropriation of Jewish, Muslim, and earnestly non-“religious” thinkers (although these are few and far between). As I said, just a thought.

  9. AK, was just responding to the claim that “Radical theology, to be radical to my mind, has to think this”, still not sure why “radical” has to be limited in this way and not address our being in the grips of, wrestling with, other aspects of event-ualities. Similarly I’m always a bit puzzled by the attraction of the homebrewed fellows to Caputo (who has identified his own work very closely with secular thinkers of radical contingency like Richard Rorty) except that they seem to weakly misread him as mostly offering a kind of social constructionist critique (and of course there is his own leftish leanings but this seems as unnecessary to philosophizing as John Cobb’s con-fusing of his own personal progressive agenda with the broad-ranging speculative metaphysics of Whitehead). As a pragmatist I’m certainly not against people making use of historical resources for their own interests, but am opposed to their claiming some extra-personal Author-ity (here perhaps speaking in the name of “radical”) in order to limit the reach of other’s research projects/interests. If this was’t what was being proposed here than I apologize for missing the point but otherwise…

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