I recently went on the Faith and Capital podcast to talk about my book. We chatted about the limits of the liberal politics of inclusion, different ways of thinking about and evaluating political violence, and a bunch of other things! You can listen to the podcast here.
[Note: This text represents the introduction to a lecture I gave at the University of Copenhagen earlier this month. The remainder of the lecture investigates The Kingdom and the Glory at greater length. I felt that this section can stand alone and may be of broader interest.]
Giorgio Agamben is surely the most theologically erudite living philosopher. While theology has formed an increasingly important site of reflection for contemporary European philosophy—as seen in the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology and the more recent studies of the apostle Paul from a materialist perspective—there is no other single figure who has displayed such an imposing command of the full range of the Christian intellectual heritage, from the New Testament to the great theological debates of the 20th century, from doctrinal treatises to liturgical texts, from the stakes of the doctrine of the Trinity down to the smallest details of a monk’s habit. As a scholar of theology, I often find irritating errors in the works of other philosophers, but never Agamben. There is always room to nitpick—to lament that a certain scholar has not been cited, a certain theme left unexplored—but the quality of his work on Christian theology is unquestionable.
It is not only the depth and breadth of his engagement with Christian themes that sets Agamben apart from his contemporaries. If we compare him with another theologically astute philosopher such as Jean-Luc Marion, we see a clear difference in purpose. Whereas Marion, always a conservative Catholic thinker, has increasingly advanced a confessional theological agenda in his work, Agamben’s purpose has been unrelentingly critical and genealogical. Although he does have normative commitments that lead him to privilege certain figures in the history of Christianity—notably Paul and the early Franciscans—and view later developments as a kind of betrayal, he never advances a doctrine that takes those privileged sources as an authoritative canon. Instead, their successes and failures serve as materials for thinking through our own contemporary dilemmas.
Another way of putting this is that he draws no firm distinction between theological and philosophical materials. Continue reading “Agamben on philosophy and theology”
I like to think that there will come a point in my life where I will have time to think about something other than teaching, but I think I’m a little way off that yet. I’m just over a third of the way into Semester 1 and already Semester 2 is looming large. I’ll be teaching three courses next semester instead of the two I’m teaching this semester, and if I make it through alive I’ll be in danger of believing in miracles. I’ll probably post about all three courses separately over the course of syllabus design and redesign, but I’ll be teaching Great Christian Thinkers Part 2, the second half of my first year intro course, an Introduction to Political Philosophy, and a module on Marx, Hegel and Dialectical Thinking.
The idea behind Great Christian Thinkers Part 2 is to give students an overview of some major Christian thinkers so they get some familiarity with some of the Big Names of Christian theology, some initial sense of the development of Christian theology over time, as well as a general sense of how some of the core theological concepts we’ve looked at in semester 1 play out in later thinkers. Last time around they did St Paul, Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher and Barth.
This iteration of the course is themed around suffering, and in semester 1 we’ve been working through major Christian doctrines in relation to the idea of suffering as follows:
WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 7: ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?
This is probably the only module on the course where the students will spend a lot of time with pre-20th century Big Name Theologians so I’m trying to work out which of those thinkers are most important for the students to have some familiarity with. I’m tempted to keep the line-up roughly the same but perhaps swap out Barth and add in Catherine of Siena so we can really spend some time thinking about the crucial shifts that happen in the medieval period. But I’m also not a specialist on any of those thinkers (maybe more so with Aquinas), so would gratefully appreciate any thoughts on the following:
- Which are the most indispensable Big Theological Thinkers, especially pre-20th century?
- What’s some good secondary reading on any of those Big Names that might help me find interesting ways into thinking about them, especially when it comes to the role of suffering in their work? I’d love to use the Aquinas section to think about the crucial role of Christian encounters with Jewish and Muslim thought in forming systematic theology, for example.
I recently edited a special edition of Modern Believing looking at the relationship between philosophy and Christianity; it’s out now and you can read it here (hit me up if you want to read anything in there but don’t have institutional access). Alongside my editorial, the special edition includes the following articles:
Beverley Clack: ‘On Returning to the Church: Practicing Religion in a Neoliberal Age’
In 1999 I wrote an article ‘on leaving the church’ (Craske and Marsh 1999). In this article I revisit this theme having recently returned to church. I explore the themes that led to me leaving (the Christian contribution to the history of misogyny and the desire for liberation, coupled with the desire to have the freedom to think); themes which, paradoxically, are not dissimilar to the reasons behind my return. The paper engages with the reductionist functionalism of the dominant social and political paradigm of neoliberal consumerism, and engages with Michèle Le Doeuff’s claim that the framework provided by religion for life is attractive, precisely because it allows for uncertainty and a deep engagement with the realities of being human.
Vincent Lloyd: ‘Achille Mbembe as Black Theologian’
The Cameroon-born, South Africa-based Achille Mbembe is one of the preeminent theorists of race writing today. Leading the current wave of critical race scholarship that views anti-Blackness as a metaphysical rather than merely social problem, Mbembe’s work brings together the tools of psychoanalysis, critical theory, and postcolonial studies. In De la postcolonie: essai sur l’imagination politique dans l’Afrique contemparaine(2000),1 Mbembe focuses his critical lens on Africa as object of fantasy and resistance to fantasy; in his most recent work, Critique de la raison nègre (2013),2 Mbembe turns to the figure of the Black. While Mbembe himself offers provocative suggestions about the implications of his work for religious thought, his account of anti-Blackness as a metaphysical problem opens constructive avenues for re-thinking Black theology. When Blackness is defined by death, the critical practice Mbembe describes and commends may be understood as a form of resurrection, restoring death-bound-being to life. I argue that reading Mbembe as part of a conversation in Black theology can expand the Black theological imagination.
Katharine Sarah Moody: ‘The Death and Decay of God: Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity’
Radical theology has an intellectual heritage that can be traced to the idea of the death of God in western philosophy, and Christian theologemes remain of conceptual interest to a number of continental philosophers and philosophers of religion because this religion is, to quote Slavoj Žižek, ‘the religion of a God who dies’. I introduce readers to re-conceptions of the theologeme ‘God’ by John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek and illustrate how philosophical interest in Christianity is inspiring religious discourse and communal practices that aim performatively to enact the death and decay of God
Marika Rose: ‘The Christian Legacy is Incomplete: For and Against Žižek’
Slavoj Žižek’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Christian legacy as the only hope for the future of radical politics has, unsurprisingly, made him popular amongst many Christians and theologians in recent years. This article explores the underlying logic of Žižek’s celebration of the Christian legacy, arguing that his dual celebration of the Christian and European legacies not only reveals the entanglement of his argument with the white supremacist logic of Christian superiority but begins to expose the ways in which Žižek’s focus on Christian Europe is inconsistent with his own fundamental ontological claims.
This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:
Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?
I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.
The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Continue reading “The White Christian’s Burden”
Just yesterday Women in Theology announced a cohort of new contributors to their blog. Reading through the biographies I was very excited to see women from a variety of disciplines speaking into theology, including a colleague of mine! When Women in Theology started a number of years ago, I was still active in the theo-blogging world, and it was like a breath of fresh air in a virtual space that tended to extend the old-boys-club atmosphere of theology rather than make space for other voices. Over the years, the exceptional thinkers at Women in Theology have addressed concerns of racism, violence against women, Islamophobia, and many other forms of oppression that continue to operate both explicitly and covertly in theologies, church institutions/schools, and worshiping communities. I commend them for this.
When the call for contributors was posted a few months ago, I considered sending in an application and encouraged friends to apply. The first person I thought would be a perfect contributor on the blog was a friend and fellow academic in theology. The call specified the following: “In order to qualify, you must be a woman with experience in the academic study of Christian theology-either as a graduate student or as a professor-and committed to the liberation of human persons, particularly women, from all forms of oppression. […] Women of color, international scholars, non-Catholic Christian women, and those who do comparative theology are especially encouraged to apply.” Unfortunately, my colleague did not qualify as a contributor – because my colleague, while they would identify as many of the above, does not identify as a woman. My colleague identifies as genderqueer. Continue reading “Feminism, Trans Visibility, and Gender Politics in Theology”
This weekend, a lurker e-mailed asking why I do theology, given that I am not a traditional believer or pious person. It is a question that used to come up a lot here, back when we were more engaged with the theology blogosphere (during a time when it was itself more active, and on balance probably more conservative, than it currently is). The sticking point seemed to be my claim that I was doing theology, rather than simply doing scholarly work about theology.
I maintained, and still do, that there is no magic handshake called “belief” that allows one to engage in the intellectual game attached to the specific system of thought known as “Christian theology.” This is all the more the case given that Christian theology conceives of itself as addressing all of humanity — so why not take them at their word? Further, historically the boundaries between philosophy and theology have always been porous, so why should there be special restrictions on starting from within the “theological” aspect of that blended tradition of thought, while there are no qualifications attached to entering in through the “philosophical” side?
The very fact that this question, which to me fundamentally is a non-question or at least a boring question, keeps coming up seems to me to go back to a lot of tired cliches about the boundaries between the “secular” and the “religious.” I try to practice what Dan Barber or Anthony Paul Smith might call a “generic secularity” in my theological work, a secularity without secularism.
All that being said, I personally do theology because Christian theology is a system of thought in which I have invested a great deal and which has profoundly shaped my life (for good and for ill). It is the place where I feel most able to make a significant creative contribution, in contrast to closely related fields where I’ve invested considerable time, like philosophy or the theologies of other monotheistic religions.
For the near term, most of my work will be in a critical or genealogical rather than constructive vein, but I have done work that I take to be undeniably “constructive theology” (e.g., Politics of Redemption), and I reserve the right to do so again without warning or hesitation.
I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Have you had enough? Are you dead yet?’ (Alexi Laiho, lead singer of Children of Bodom)
I recently came across this Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius, over at Faith and Theology. I felt a shudder of recognition. For this is just the kind of thing I would once have lapped up. Hell, it is just the kind of thing I once preached. So forgive a little post-Easter catharsis.
The sermon fits into a particular genre, soaked in the pathos of The Crucified God. And it deploys a certain tactic: what Anthony Paul Smith dubs ‘weaponized apophaticism’.
I paraphrase: ‘Yes, the great critics of Christianity had a prophetic point. So much of what passes for Christian faith today is wish-fulfilment, a prosperity gospel worshipping a fantasy God. But beyond that, untouched by that complicity in capitalism, is the true God, the Good Friday God. A God who promises nothing, a God who, in the worlds of Rowan Williams “becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand”. Here, in the crucified Jesus, fantasy religion is overcome and we reach the real, beyond any concept.’
It is powerful. It has enough truth in it to be persuasive on some level.
But look at the supporting cast of characters. The Jew, chased out of Spain by the inquisition, who loses everything, then prays to God ‘You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You’; the resistance fighter in the Warsaw ghetto, who in the face of defeat and the Shoah declares undying faith in God.
Judaism comes to the aid of Christianity, on the very Good Friday when the traditional liturgy basks in condemnation of the Jews. Oh, yes, Christians were complicit in that too, but look at the crucified Jesus . . .
I doubt if I am alone in seeing such rhetorical moves – however well meant – as being the worst kind of appropriation. Not least because the very purpose of them is to indemnify ‘Good Friday Faith’: or, ‘Christianity as it was meant to be, as it always secretly was, despite all appearances’. Do Christians have the right to enlist inquisition or holocaust as witnesses to Christ? To feed on Judaism to keep the Cross safe?
Perhaps less obviously, though more fatally, what shines through this whole endeavour is the image of a monstrous God, one who is recognised only at the extremity where we are abandoned and even tortured by God. Faith is proved as our flesh is stretched over this impassable gulf between us and God. No accusation will ever stick against him. If he were to appear as the worst sadist, it would show his love all the more.
So, we are told, ‘we wait’. We wait, stretched over the rack. And that is the problem. This is a theology defined by its obsession with what will come. Are you dead yet? Not yet, not yet. A theology of hope, that keeps us always in suspense, always the living dead.
I’m not sure we really need this theology of the not yet, of saving death. I would rather we defied death and everything that pretends to justify it, including the hidden victim-torturer God beloved of contemporary theology
Are you dead yet? No. I have had enough.
I’m one of a number of people asked to write 1000 words on ‘the nature and future of liberal theology’ for an upcoming issue of the journal Modern Believing. I’ve found this really difficult, partly because of the demands of brevity and not being able to qualify everything I say a million times, partly because of my ambivalence about liberal theology itself. For exactly the same reasons, it’s been a really stimulating process. At the risk of self-indulgence, I am reproducing my first draft here. If anyone has patience to read and comment, I’d appreciate it.
Theology is often a matter of images. In the case of liberal theology, two images stand out which define its classical form. Both need critical interrogation. Continue reading “The nature and future of liberal theology”
Back in 2009 I asked the question, “what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy?” No one from among the “certain” Christian theologians answered the question. Hardly surprising, as they rarely do answer questions, or engage outside of their own very closed circles. Perhaps it has to do with something about pearls before swine or, just maybe, something about cockroaches scattering when you turn the light on them (I’ll allow the reader to choose their preferred speciesist insult). Without anyone willing to answer, I still have the question rattling around. Recently a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook have been raving about David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and exchanging Christian high-fives about how Hart has really given it to those stupid, incoherent (new?) atheist materialists. I admit it, something about Christian triumphalism in a world bleeding under Christian knives means I couldn’t help but make a few jokes and ask a few aggressive questions. Now, I have never enjoyed reading Hart (his prose so often praised by other Christian theologians has struck me as bloated and pompously overblown, typical of an aggressive 16 year-old overachiever) and I haven’t touched his most recent books (after trudging through the burnt husk of a body that was his reading of Deleuze in The Beauty of the Infinite I had used up all the charity I had for his work), but this question is not really one about Hart in general. Rather, the question has to do with the kind of general condition of the kind of contemporary Christian theology that Hart and others do. When I see a book like The Experience of God or a recent article in Modern Theology by Aaron Riches called “Christology and Anti-Humanism” I cannot help but wonder, who are they writing for? Continue reading “No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?”