The nature and future of liberal theology

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”

No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?

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?”

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. Continue reading “Branding and Thought: Some Reflections on “Radical Theology””

Radical Theology-Lite

I recently posted this comment in response to this blog post. Thought it might of interest to some readers. Note, this an edited version of my comment:

I really wish you guys would stop using the term ‘radical theology’. You have invented an entirely new genealogy of radical theology (Hegel, Tillich, Derrida and Caputo). Arguably, only Hegel belongs upon that mountain. Neither Derrida nor Caputo are proper theologians. Moreover, you’ve also enshrined Tillich, the liberal theologian, par excellence. Why is Altizer curiously omitted? In reality, what is being offered here is radical theology-lite. In this genealogy of this new tradition of radical theology-lite we are really getting a liberal theology that is in denial about its roots. Not that there’s anything wrong with liberal theology. There’s a lot of good ideas in the history of liberal theology. It is my contention that the reason why many emergent do not simply accept that they are liberal theologians is that they have bought into evangelical propaganda regarding liberal theology. Due to the fact that many people who are part of the emergent-radical camp are disaffected evangelicals, they simply cannot accept liberal theology and the mainline church. As a result, new words were made up that attempt to outdo liberal theology (see progressive, radical, incarnational, or emergent). Notice that “liberal” is always a dirty word in these circles. Liberal theology is always the convenient strawman that is created to make the new “third way” appear categorically distinct from its conservative and liberal brethren. I find the caricature of liberal theology that is operative in the discourse at Homebrewed Christianity unacceptable. In many ways, liberal theology is consonant with the radical theology-lite values laid out here: pluralism, humility, belief with doubt, an appreciation of symbolic language and political.

In response to the Subverting the Norm II Conference, Tony Jones wrote, “There are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t.” He is mistaken. I would argue that there is only one radical theologian and that is the one who rejects God. I was first introduced to radical theology by reading Altizer. What made Altizer, Hamilton and others radical is that they were Christian atheists. That was actually radical and Altizer grounded his atheism through a strange reading of Hegel, Blake and Milton. He didn’t equivocate with all of this postmodern posturing about language, mystery and the unknown. Radical theology was ontological.

I am curious about what is driving this rapid need to appropriate the term “radical”. It is overused in modern theology (see radical orthodoxy, radical theology, “ordinary radicals”). I am almost tempted to say that radical is an empty signifier that simply designates something as “cool”. Is this just another effort in the endless re-branding on the theological market? Is radical theology-lite simply the left-wing of emergent movement trying to buck its more conservative followers? What made the time right for someone like Caputo (upon whom this movement is clearly dependent) to capture the attention of theologians? I almost think that the desire to brand this theology as “radical” is a way to push actual radical theologians out of the market. Isn’t it bizarre that Tony Jones would act as if there are some bad radical theologians out there who don’t want to believe in God? For God’s sake, the whole point of radical theology was to proclaim the death of God! Translating that into radical theology-lite terms, we have this warped notion of Lacan’s Big Other that now is basically another way for the believer to disabuse himself of a false idol. The Big Other is bad. The God who is beyond the Big Other (who is insisting in the event) is good. It is only through ridding one’s self of the Big Other (which is possible?) that one can arrive at a purer, more “real” conception of God. The irony being that the very need to find a God beyond the Big Other in and of itself is a sign that the Big Other is still operative in the ideology grounding this theology.

Liturgical Ground of Radical Theology

As readers of AUFS know, we are friends with Thomas J. J. Altizer. We don’t always agree with him. Sometimes, dammit, we might even dislike him. But, so it goes with friendships, no? Today, I sent him a review I recently submitted to a journal of David Jasper’s recently published The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament and the People of God. The review was not without its negative comments, some of them quite substantial. But David, too, is both a friend — of mine, anyway, if not the blog as a whole — and an adult, so I think he can handle it. Altizer’s emailed response, however, was of a different order, and I think a fine exhortation for others to read more (or any) of Jasper’s work.

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I have just read an excellent review by Brad Johnson of David Jasper’s concluding volume of his trilogy on the Sacred and am moved to all too briefly respond. For many years I have been following Jasper’s work with great admiration and what most fascinates me is that he is a genuinely radical Church theologian and perhaps unique as such. Indeed, he is the only theologian who now gives me hope in the Church, and who might even lead me back to the Church. I suspect that a fundamental source of his power is that he is the only contemporary or even modern theologian of the Eucharist, and of a Eucharistic consecration that is apocalypse itself, as originally understood by Paul, and then lost in that profound transformation of the Church occurring after Paul. I am truly fascinated that Jasper so fully embodies both the modern imagination and a genuine and even original liturgical thinking, the latter apparently inherited from his father, and the former wholly his own, but here they truly coincide. I have a taste of this myself in my attempt to understand Finnegans Wake as our only purely and fully literary enactment of the Eucharist, and I have myself sought in vain for a liturgical ground of my own theology, even if it might well be present here.

Of course, Jasper is an Anglican priest, and I sense very lonely as a radical Anglican theologian, certainly I reached a dead end in attempting to become a radical Anglican theologian, and was perhaps justly rejected in my attempt to become an Episcopalian priest on the grounds of mental illness. Moreover, I have never wholly been able to escape the judgment that the only genuine theology is a Church or ecclesiastical theology, surely we non-Church theologians are very lonely even if we can give witness to a powerful theology wholly outside of the Church. Already this begins with Milton, in my judgment our most powerful Protestant theologian, who created a non-Church theology, as most powerfully embodied in Paradise Lost, but explicitly theologically enacted in his Doctrina, even if the latter is wholly ignored. Here, is an interesting and revealing fact. Milton, universally accepted as one of the greatest of all poets, wrote a full systematic theology, perhaps our only systematic theology that is a fully Biblical theology, and yet it is wholly ignored by all but Milton scholars. I understand Jasper as being in continuity with Milton, and I deeply share that with him, and if Milton was the greatest theologian of the Radical Reformation, I can thereby understand Jasper in the perspective of the Radical Reformation, a perspective that might even enlighten his liturgical theology.

I often wonder if there is any genuinely contemporary liturgical theology apart from Jasper, just as I also wonder if anyone else has even attempted an in depth liturgical theology, notice how absent this is from Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy, and yet how primal it apparently is in Eastern Orthodoxy. Is it possible that Jasper is creating a wholly new Church theology, one not only genuinely liturgical and genuinely radical at once, but one in which the truly liturgical and the truly radical are inseparable? Perhaps his theological situation is far more lonely than is mine, and for just this reason, even if potentially it might have enormous power. Perhaps what we most need is a truly revolutionary Church theology, one seemingly forever made impossible by Barth, and by all of the neo-orthodoxies, both Catholic and Protestant, and here there is a deep continuity between Catholic and Protestant neo-orthodoxy.

Perhaps only a truly radical liturgical theology will deliver us from neo-orthodoxy, if so let us bless David Jasper, who may well be at this point our only theological hope.



Christianity and Atheism

Some friends and I are beginning a reading group on Jose Miranda’s Marx and the Bible. It’s a fascinating text that I’d highly recommend. I stumbled across this quote in the second chapter that I thought deserved some commentary.

“The reader is not going to find here another book on the “God is dead” theme or on the much-discussed “secularization,” nor the nth attempt to “recover” the atheists by making them see that although they might say that they deny the existence of God, deep down they accept it. We have had more than enough apologetics in recent centuries, and in my opinion the atheist has the right to be an atheist in peace without someone continually interpreting his position as undercover theism” (p. 35)

I couldn’t agree more. Although this text was written back in 1971, it is amazing how pertinent it is today. Over the last two years I’ve been avoiding theology (for professional and personal reasons), and I must say that I’ve becoming increasingly annoyed with Christian theology’s engagement with atheism. The Christian theologian’s relationship with atheists has always been a violent one. Too many theologians seem intent on appropriating atheism and somehow Christianizing and colonizing atheistic voices. For example, Westphal’s work on atheism was geared towards subjecting Christianity to the critiques of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (the holy Trinity of atheism) and enabling Christians to use these critiques to strengthen their faith. It reminds me of the ways in which some evangelicals have courses in apologetics to prepare students for (imagined) hostile and secular university professors with the hopes that the young believer will be impenetrable to competing worldviews. I also wonder if postmodern theology’s project to integrate doubt and atheism into the Christian tradition is just one more attempt to domesticate atheistic critiques. Perhaps Miranda is right that we should leave the atheists alone because they are inevitably used as means by which Christianity attempts to convert non-Christians to the faith.

The Self-Saving of God

I just rediscovered this strange document [below the fold] which is an abbreviation of the most important chapter of perhaps my best book, Godhead and the Nothing. Why did I do it? I have forgotten, and even though apocalypse is absent here, this motif of the Self-Saving of God may be my most vital one. This also unveils the ultimate challenge of Gnosticism which we so commonly evade, for Jonas maintains that the Self-Saving of God was created by Gnosticism and may well be its most ultimate challenge.

Even if my original studies of Blake and Hegel mute or disguise this motif, I can now recognize their dominance for Hegel and Blake, and perhaps for all of our most radical vision.

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Continue reading “The Self-Saving of God”

“so that I could kiss him more deeply.”

I posted this on my blog a few months ago, but so few frequent that den of iniquity I feel reasonably okay cross-posting it here. (Though perhaps I already posted something like it here ages ago. I can’t remember anymore.) At any rate, this is an excerpt from the final version, now in print and on sale.

I was reminded of it today while reading the posts and conversations on gender, cultural studies & ontology. In my own mannered way, I feel I at least tentatively teased my way, stumbled perhaps, onto thinking about very similar issues.

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While reflecting on the Jewish proverb, “Man thinks, God laughs,” Milan Kundera cannot help but wonder why this God might be laughing. His conclusion is appropriate to our dilemma: because “man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from that of another. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.” In its expectations of beginnings and endings that stabilize meaning and significance, and thus seek to fill an absence, humanity misses the joke, and, too, the “sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” that Kant ascribes to laughter. As we will see, though, the intensity of this excessive “nothing” is a joke that can easily get out of hand. The punch line of reality is too much, leaving us in stitches on the floor with our most insane of laughs, screaming between snorts “No! Stop! No more!” — unsure whether we mean it or not. . . . What we find, nevertheless, is that amidst the apparent chaos of laughter and repetition, theology is neither stymied nor silenced by its impossible task. . . .

Might we strip it bare, this question theology asks and/or is asked, to get beneath its textual, textile surfaces, and behold it in its natural glory? Moreover, might we yet behold the question of theology’s character, for us the fundamental problem of theology, in its essential, naked truth and origin, as it strives to understand all it can of, and indeed to fashion the very categories of thinking about, the divine? Continue reading ““so that I could kiss him more deeply.””

A Note on the Theological (Mis-)Use of the Word “Ontological”

The AAR seems to run in cycles for me. The first year I attended I remember the complete disillusionment I felt with the event after sitting through three sections that seemed far weaker and less exciting than at smaller conferences. I don’t know if it was really the quality of the paper so much as the pressure everyone seems to be under to attend as much as possible, thereby crippling the most vibrant part of conferences, in my opinion at least, the discussion that flows from the Q&A out into the hall and hopefully well into the night. That’s where I’ve discovered new lines of research and felt like I actually engaged with fellow scholars. And that simply happens very rarely at the AAR, once about every other year or so. Though the work of Synousia has made great in-roads at a permanent place for secular theologians/philosophers that simply isn’t available at the Continental Philosophy and Theology group that seems to have to vie with the interests of Christian phenomenologists as well as more interesting work. Continue reading “A Note on the Theological (Mis-)Use of the Word “Ontological””