A Weak but Potent God

Seminar on God and the Human FutureThe Seminar on God and the Human Future gathered on March 21, 2015, at the Spring national meeting to launch a five-year project on what we mean by a little word with big consequences: God. When Westerners speak of God, they can mean many things: Supreme Being, First Cause, Creator, Lawgiver, the source of all that exists, the energy or force that pulses through all reality, the “ground” of being, the All. We speak sometimes, too, of a “God of the gaps,” of that which surpasses human understanding. Rilke called God “the primordial tower,” which we circle without ever figuring out who or what we are.

Radical theologian John D. Caputo, whose work was celebrated by the Seminar, asked attendees to consider a new way of thinking about God: a weak but potent God, God as “the great perhaps.” As Caputo explained, this approach to theology comes in the wake of work done by twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich:

It is Tillich who initiated, at least in the most decisive way in the twentieth century, the critique of supernaturalism and the attempt to understand religion in the mode of what Heidegger described as “being in the world” … a mode which taps into the depths of mundane life.

Joseph Bessler of Phillips Theological Seminar, in his paper “Moving Words,” contrasted Tillich with his contemporary Karl Barth, who “sought in the face of World War I to draw theology back from public discourse and to protect it from the gross failures of modernity.” Tillich’s willingness to put theology out into the public sphere, as a public art, may be his best legacy. It is in that spirit that the God Seminar has issued a call for participants who are willing to engage with this and other meaningful theological questions in a very public way.

God as an absolute Being diminishes God in a way by revealing the human need for stability. A mighty, unchanging God is safe. Such a God can be made to stand for whatever aspects of life we find comforting and would rather not give up. Other kingdoms may falter, but surely a kingdom “of God” is stable. A kingdom sounds grand and certain, so we settle into complacency about it. Of course it will come. God is in control. Yet the Kingdom of God in practice is not certain at all. We’re continually pulled from the false stability of where we are now toward a vision that is not yet real. This vision is attainable in the sense that we can always move closer to it and yet it is never quite done in the sense of arriving in paradise. Consider French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of justice: “The law can strong-arm us, but justice calls.”

Law—of the sort that takes you down to the courthouse—is not justice. There’s a weakness to justice, weakness in the sense that there is no safe or predictable structure handed down from a king or even the cosmos to us that says, “This is justice. Do it exactly like this and you’ll be fine,” or “This is the law. The law is always just, so you can trust it.” Sometimes human law fails to meet the higher value of justice. Likewise, sometimes human claims about God fail to meet the higher value or concept of God.

The temptation in a conversation like this is to jump to a familiar escape route: “Of course human beings can’t understand God. God is bigger than any human thought. We can only do ‘negative’ theology by talking about what God is not.” But Caputo is not claiming God is a Supreme Being, a higher entity, or even the “ground” of being. He’s not asking us to imagine a particular being in the sense of a potentially physical entity that exists. Instead we are invited to consider God as weak in the same sense as the weak force of justice. Sarah Morice Brubaker, a Phillips Theological Seminary professor and writer for Religion Dispatches, put it like this:

There’s a really big difference between talking about the weakness of God and really following that through [as Caputo has done], versus simply saying, “Well, God isn’t vulnerable to the constraints of being. God doesn’t show up within beings’ terms. That was fascinating to me reading [The Weakness of God] because there are many similarities between the two approaches notwithstanding that huge difference. I was thinking of Jean-Luc Marion, a very theologically inflected French Catholic philosopher who wrote, among other things, God without Being. The God you get there is not a vulnerable God. It’s a God who is so invulnerable even being can’t contain him—and I agree it’s a ‘him’ in this case. This is a God who no matter what you bring at him, can say, ‘Whoa, step off, back off. That’s nothing. I can bust those categories without breaking a sweat.’ … It’s kind of a rescue mission [to prove God’s invulnerability].

How is Caputo’s view different from this absolutely powerful God of Marion? Answering that question requires us to let the idea of God get a little messier (with the promise that it straightens itself back out as we go). We do this by “deconstructing” the concept of God.

Statue of Justicia (Justice), by Walter Seymour Allward, outside Supreme Court of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Deconstruction simply means interrogating the concepts handed down to us by our communities and traditions for the sake of understanding those inherited concepts more deeply and even in a new way. When you deconstruct something, you destroy the concept in the sense of picking it apart, but then you rebuild it with a better understanding of the full range of its meaning—why people care about it and appeal to it in everyday life. You purposefully play with the language to see what it’s all about, in the same way you played with objects as a child both to understand the world better and to understand your own power to manipulate objects into tools that may help you or hurt you. There are no guarantees when you do this that you’ll retrieve either the language or the object in the exact form in which you received it. Deconstruction does involve risk. In this case, we’re willing to take that risk because the value of God is up for question in our modern, increasingly scientific and technological and nevertheless earth-bound community. What sort of God—if any God at all—makes sense in this world?

The point here isn’t to dismiss or downplay the importance of whatever you are deconstructing. It’s deadly serious business. We should avoid what Caputo and others semi-jokingly described as “postmodernism-lite,” that is, deconstruction used as an apologetic tool that pulls apart human stories of reality in a materialistic, reductionistic way of saying, “See, if you interrogate an idea far enough down, there will be nothing at the bottom.” Why are we deconstructing the human story or idea of God? What are we deconstructing God in the name of? We must not forget why we employed the method in the first place.

We’re deconstructing in the name of a value, and the one I most often heard named during the God Seminar discussions was justice. Justice is not served by understanding God as some outside being that lays down absolute law, who “balances the scales” in the end. We know that because, to give just one example, we can’t forgive our enemies on the principle that we expect God to hurt them later, what Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary (emeritus) referred to as the “myth of revenge.” Forgiveness in the radical sense of the word comes without such a condition even on the metaphysical level. When the apostle Paul said the weakness of God trumps the strength of the world, he surely didn’t mean to imply that was because God has the bigger bludgeon. “Faith, hope, and love are the virtues of the unhinged,” Caputo warned. Before that: “In the name of God, something gets itself said and done.” God is a call, an allure, a threat, and not necessarily human in the sense of active agency. Westar Fellow Susan (Elli) Elliott, in unpacking this example of forgiveness, compared the identification of a people by a shared story over against identification of a people by shared landscape. One sees in her example how the land itself shapes and suggests the work of the future, not by wielding a kingly power to bring it about but because it is the horizon presented to us by our own past:

We’ve talked [in the Big Sky region] about the difference between the metanarrative that comes from Europe primarily, that has been successfully imposed upon this hemisphere and on our territory. There’s a huge difference between grounding in a place in the earth and grounding in a metanarrative that’s alien, fundamentally alien to the place. When we think about forgiveness, when we look at the layers of what has happened to our places … of the removal of native plants and replacement with agriculture and mining, change[s] … that are unforgiving, [we might ask] what it means to turn to the landscape in which we dwell for our collective memory.

Forgiveness, in this sense, comes about not because God is a supreme bully who’ll whack you if you put your toe over the line but because forgiveness opens up a new possibility for moving forward. Nothing can take away the fact that human actions have changed the land under our feet. Will we take a risk that changes that trajectory? Sometimes you have to take a chance on a world-changing event.

“You’re talking about the fact that God, theology, event, are verbs and not nouns,” observed Lane McGaughy of Willamette University. “The assumption that is built into Latinate languages is that naming came first … but really language starts with verbs, that is, calling things, not naming things. … I hear naming as a way of pinning things down, that, as it were, fossilizes or sediments them.” Event understood as a verb is messianic, always something coming in the midst of the relatively stable structures—social, legal, theological, and so on—by which we live our lives. That relative stability is important, but sometimes a single act can change everything. All of this should be very familiar: the Bible is one story after another of this kind of experience. God is the warning that the event is possible, never here but always calling. As the German philosopher Heidegger warned in Being and Time about the project of being, when you arrive, you’re dead; to complete the circle, to reach paradise, is to cease to exist at all. Caputo sums it up: “Paradise is the death of hope.”

Jesus Seminar ballot box

Participants voted using the Jesus Seminar ballot boxes, a choice which Robin Meyers, author of Saving Jesus from the Church, suggested might be an interesting statement in its own right about the importance of public theology.

What sort of theology is implied by this idea of God? What is the work of theologians who accept this idea of God? Jeffrey W. Robbins of Lebanon Valley College recommended two books by Caputo for members of the public who are interested in pursuing this further. The first is On Religion: “Who do I love or what do I love when I love my God?” The other is What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, a reclamation of Sheldon’s novel In His Steps from the evangelical cultural “machine” to remind readers of the concern for social justice that underpinned the question, “What would Jesus do?” In fact we are living in an era in which the lines between philosophy and theology are not nearly so neat as they have appeared in past eras, especially since Heidegger famously described theology as a closed circle and philosophy as an open one. Robbins explains:

People are rethinking the conditions of possibility for philosophical theology. … If radical theology happens in confessional theology whenever confessional theologians get themselves in trouble, because they’ve thought themselves to the limit and all of a sudden stumbled upon something that religious authorities perhaps are uncomfortable with, the same phenomenon happens within philosophical circles. Throughout especially twentieth-century continental thought, what you have is philosophers thinking themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, and interestingly once they think themselves to the limit of what philosophy allows, all of a sudden they stumble upon God—or they stumble upon, not God as some kind of entity, some hyper-being, but they stumble upon religion. How do you talk about that which is beyond your ability to talk about, your ability to conceive? Philosophy thinks itself to its limit and becomes theological … All the while, Martin Heidegger tells us that never the two should meet. What we’re seeing is the two bleeding into one another.

The Seminar concluded its sessions with a vote on the statement, “The subject matter of theology is God conceived as a supreme being or highest entity.” The recommendation for the vote was BLACK, which means the seminar committee was urging both professional and public participants to DISAGREE with the statement and open up the question of what the subject matter of theology truly is.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about the new Westar Seminar on God and the Human Future. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Sex, Shame, and the Bible

It might seem like a funny way to start out: I’m sharing my least favorite Robert Frost poem with you. Stick with me.

Frost himself described “The Subverted Flower” in a 1960 Paris Review interview as one he would not like read widely. When pressed, he said it was about “the frigidity of women.” The poem, a romantic encounter between a man and woman in a field of “goldenrod and brake,” begins as flirtation and desire but devolves into shame—not for the woman but for the man, who is literally reduced to a beast when she hesitates on his gesture:

She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-hearted flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.

………….

… her mother’s call
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
An eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began,
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.

“The Subverted Flower,” A Witness Tree, 1942

Sometimes we read a poem not because we like it but because it captures an emotion. Even as I resent the man’s inability to empathize with the “girl,” I appreciate the precariousness of his attempt to cross into intimacy. The failure, at once subtle and devastating, actually undermines both partners' understanding of the man as human, as though he "should" have known how to woo her in a way that wouldn't expose her power to fell him with a look. Shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown recently recounted a similar story of a man who approached her at a book signing and urged her to broaden her research on shame to include men, saying, “Men experience shame, too, deep shame. And before you start bringing up too-tough fathers and so on … my wife and daughters would rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.”

Many years of research later, Brown locates this shame in the tendency for people, both men and women, to derive power from the specific roles they hold for one another. When one person exposes his vulnerability to the other, it can fundamentally alter the dynamic between them. How can we deal with this in a healthy, affirming way? One answer suggested by Brown is to become more willing to live with discomfort, without assuming we will ever “get good at it” to such a degree that we actually “like” the discomfort. As we become sensitive to our own continuous attempts to draw our power from others, we become better able to sit longer with the discomfort that results. We begin to recognize that roles can change and our relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, lovers, etc., can survive and even improve.

Unprotected Texts Knust

This article is part of a series on Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust.

In a way, this is a softening of my comments about Buddhist meditation from a couple weeks ago. Handling discomfort is one skill meditation teaches. Speaking from more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith work, I can vouch for the fact that this skill doesn’t get easier, only more necessary. So this week when I picked up Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by biblical studies scholar and American Baptist minister Jennifer Wright Knust, I was elated to discover a kindred spirit who is unwilling to let the Bible’s enormous variety of attitudes toward sexuality—with all the related facets of shame, vulnerability, and self control—go unnoticed.

Knust in no way attacks the Bible or Christians. Rather, she asks readers to begin with the text itself, to learn what it actually says, and to consider in what sense we want to be guided by what we find. She opens with a personal story about the bullying she experienced as a sexually inexperienced twelve-year-old who nevertheless was pegged the school “slut.”

As studies of the slut phenomenon in American high schools have shown, when it comes to being called a slut, the story is pretty much the same: A girl who is a misfit for one reason or another is selected (she’s the new girl, she develops breasts earlier than the other girls, her hair is different—whatever). Then the stories start, irrespective of what the girl has or has not done. … My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. … Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon. (2)

People who don’t read the Bible stories closely, or who learned to hurry past uncomfortable passages, may not realize just how diverse the Bible’s approaches to sex and sexuality really are. Maybe I’m being too euphemistic when I say that. Let’s face it. Some people undeniably know about that diversity but pretend it doesn’t exist. Knust confronts that issue, too. Countering the existence of such a thing as “biblical standards” of sex, she presents this helpful overview:

The Bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to marriage, women’s roles, sexy clothes, and the importance of remaining a pure virgin for one’s (future) spouse. According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine. Visits to prostitutes are also not a problem, so long as the prostitute in question is not a proper Israelite woman. According to the Song of Songs, a beautiful girl who enjoys making love can fulfill her desires outside of marriage and still be honored both by God and by her larger community. Sex is a good thing, and sexual desire is a blessing, not an embarrassment. Yet according to Exodus and Deuteronomy, sex is a matter of male property. Men can have sex with as many women as they like, so long as these women are their wives, slaves, or prostitutes, but a woman must guard her virginity for the sake of her father and then remain sexually faithful to one man after marriage. First Timothy offers yet another perspective: a woman must marry not so that she can express her desires appropriately but so that she can become pregnant and suffer the pangs of childbirth. God requires women to suffer in this way, and has demanded labor pains from them since Eve first sinned in Eden. Nevertheless, other New Testament books argue that the faithful followers of Jesus should avoid marriage if possible, in anticipation of a time when sexual intercourse will be eliminated altogether. Could one imagine a more contradictory set of teachings collected within one set of sacred texts? (8)

Sitting with these texts is a risky pursuit. It puts us in a position of discomfort, especially those of us who were raised with a “biblical standard of sex” mentality (whether or not we still adhere to it). I hope that you will join me, first of all, in reading this book over the next few weeks, and second, in testing some new, perhaps more vulnerable responses to today’s debates on this subject.

By the way, Brené Brown made one other point about vulnerability: it most often appears in situations that require a virtue we can all admire—courage.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Marcus Borg: A Collection of Tributes

Learn more about Marcus BorgDear Westar Community,

It is with sadness that we received the news of Marcus Borg’s death on January 21. Marcus Borg was a major contributor to the work of the Jesus Seminar in its seminal period.  In his career, he modeled the ideal of a Westar Fellow. Marcus ably bridged the gap between the academic guild and the general public. His books are cherished by Westar associates for their clarity and honesty. We at Westar will miss him terribly. Our sympathies go out to his family.

From Marcus

"Me and Jesus, the Journey Home"
Marcus Borg, The Fourth R

A few years ago I received an invitation from an Episcopal group in the San Francisco Bay area. “We want you to talk to us about Jesus,” they said, “and we want you to make it personal.” Nobody had ever asked me to “make it personal” before. Trying to figure out what to say, I wrote the words “Me and Jesus” on a page. I reflected on those words. What emerged was the story of “me and Jesus”—of what I could remember about Jesus from my childhood, adolescence, early adulthood all the way to the present. I see now that my “personal and academic pilgrimage” has been tied to the figure of Jesus from the very beginning...

Tributes to Marcus 

We have been overwhelmed by the number of tributes poured out to Marcus across social media, news sites, and blogs, a selection of which appears below.

"Much will be said, and deservedly so, of Marcus Borg’s career and contributions," wrote Westar Fellow Arthur Dewey. "No one can forget that his writings and lectures spoke to people far beyond the scholarly pale. But I cannot forget that notebook he forever carried to catch something unexpected, nor that shuttle ride to Atlanta’s airport, when he gently detailed his personal quest for his Christian roots. As he finished, I looked into that gentle face and found compassion again, as if for the first time."

Looking for a place to share your own response? We invite you to contribute here or on the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar Facebook page, where there is already a growing collection of anecdotes, favorite quotes, and expressions of gratitude for his work.

Memorial to a Beloved Advisor, and Friend - Marcus Borg
Fred Plumer, ProgressiveChristianity.org

It will be impossible to ascertain just how big of an influence Marcus has had on the Progressive Christian movement, but I believe his biggest gift was the fact that he was a consummate teacher. It did not matter if it was one of his books, one of his lectures or if you were lucky enough to experience it, one of his quiet conversations, he always wanted to communicate in such a way you would get it...

My Friend, Marcus Borg
Rev. Barkley Thompson, God in the Midst of the City (blog)

Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble. Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?” He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, "I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m right." ...

Marcus Borg, leading liberal theologian and historical Jesus scholar, dies at 72
David Gibson, Religion News Service, The Washington Post

Borg emerged in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels. Alongside scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which brought a skeptical eye to the Scriptures and in particular to supernatural claims about Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection from the dead...

In Honor of Marcus Borg
Brian D. McLaren (blog)

Hardly the hard-bitten “liberal theologian” out to eviscerate Christianity of any actual faith, Marcus Borg impressed me as a fellow Christian seeking an honest, thoughtful, and vital faith, ready to dialogue respectfully with people who see things differently. ... Some friends of mine wrote about Marcus somewhat uncharitably on a few occasions. I remember a dinner where he asked me many questions about them, utterly non-defensive, sincerely trying to understand where they were coming from and how he could still seek common ground with them, something I wish his critics had done more earnestly with him...

Beloved Bestselling Author Marcus Borg
HarperOne, on Patheos

Marcus Borg was an internationally revered speaker and scholar who authored or co‐authored 21 books, some which were New York Times and national bestsellers. His books have won multiple awards and been translated into twelve languages. The New York Times called him, "a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars." ...

Marcus Borg Reintroduced Me to Jesus
Katherine Willis Pershey, Christian Century

Marcus Borg modeled how to doubt faithfully, how to believe rationally, and—most importantly—how to move “beyond belief (and beyond doubt and disbelief) to an understanding of the Christian life as a relationship with the Spirit of God.” Though his progressive take on scripture was anathema to many, to others it was a revelation...

Local Renowned OSU Jesus Scholar Marcus Borg Dies at 72
Anthony Rimel, Corvallis Gazette-Times

Borg’s scholarship was aimed to make Jesus a figure of the present that people can have a relationship with, rather than focusing on literalist interpretations of the Bible...

Marcus Borg didn't just study Scripture; he lived its message
Maureen Fiedler, National Catholic Reporter

I interview a lot of people -- wonderful people -- for "Interfaith Voices." Many are outstanding scholars and people of deep faith. But sometimes, someone really stands out. That was the way it was with Marcus Borg. Memories of my interviews with him came rushing back when I got the news that he had passed away on Wednesday...

4 Commandments for a New Christian History (Gnosticism series)

This is the final post in the blog series on Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? Up until this point I've followed along with King's critique of existing methods of doing Christian history. But of course no one wants to stop at criticism. The whole point of King's book is to encourage us to try out new strategies while mindful of past mistakes. In her final chapters King presents a range of experiments recent scholars have attempted, and gives specific advice for doing Christian history in a new way.

Credit: Pixgood.com

For today's blog, then, I have set her advice into guidelines, updated somewhat by the recent conclusions of the Christianity Seminar. Let's call them commandments, because we need to take them seriously for a while. It's too easy to sink back into what's familiar.

Guidelines for a New History of Christianity

  • Thou shalt not assume books of the New Testament are more historically important than other early Christian texts.

We actually don't know which texts came first, and in most cases there is healthy scholarly debate even around the exact dating of books within the Bible, ranging from within a couple decades of the death of Jesus to the late second century. Nag Hammadi and other texts have an equally wide range of possible dates of composition. Let's not confuse the theological importance of a text with its historical importance.

  • Thou shalt pick an audience.

Knowing your audience will help you decide how to choose what problems you tackle and what terms you use to define them. If you are a pastor speaking to a conservative-leaning mainline congregation, or a guest speaker at a Unitarian Universalist gathering, words like "gnostic" and even "Christian" might hold different meanings. Likewise, an academic writing a paper for New Testament scholars in one context maybe needs to take a different approach to the topic of early Christian history when engaging with classicists or patristics scholars. King quotes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on this point: "Scholarship, current and past, is always produced by and for people with certain experiences, values, and goals. Hence one must investigate the implicit interests and articulated goals of scholarship, its degree of conscious responsibility, and its accountability" (245, quoting Rhetoric and Ethic).

  • Thou shalt not seek the "origin" of "faulty" teachings.

First, what makes a teaching faulty? By whose standard? Second, all religions are derivative in the sense that they are all a mixture of traits of the religions that came before them. For example, Christianity inherited traits of Judaism, Greek mystery cults, and the philosophy and sciences of the times. If Christianity, even at its most traditional, is built upon the religious beliefs and practices of its predecessors, we shouldn't be concerned that non-traditional varieties of Christianity or related movements are somehow inferior simply because they also borrowed from other systems. Syncretism, writes King, "is 'an aspect of religious interaction over time'; it is about change, about the dynamics of religious beliefs and practices through time and across geographical and cultural space" (223, quoting Peter Van der Veer, "Syncretism, Multiculturalism, and the Discourse of Tolerance"). We must not assume truth always comes before error (228), or that truth is pure and unified while mixing is contamination (229).

  • Thou shalt become curious about ancient Christian literary production and social formation.

If you're not trying to find the "origin" of a religious movement, then what are you doing? You have a lot of options here. King (p. 190) suggests literary production and social formation. Let's become curious about how people invented and reworked the stories of their communities. Rather than saying we only care about the most original and earliest version of a text, let's become interested in what sort of community or person wrote a given text. For instance, who would want to take Paul's understanding of baptism as a ritual for Gentiles to be adopted into the people of God, and change it into a ritual for awakening the hidden, divine self? Both the adoption community and the divine-self community are surely interesting groups of people.

May we all go forth and re-tell the story.

This is the final post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book formed the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Radicalism and Christianity

roots racine

As many people know, the word radical comes from the Latin word radix, which in French became racine, which means root. In French, Rue Racine can be translated to English as Main Street.

So, in effect, “radical” in its definition is not really radical. It just means the root or main meaning of something.

However, getting down to the root or core of something can be a radical act. If, for example, we want to get down to social equality, we have to enact justice. If the pathway to justice is blocked by cultural or institutional prejudice, then the activity of equality can involve social protest or other acts of civil disobedience. It is the history of trying to get down to the basics against those powers that block the way that has added “revolutionary” to the meaning of the word radical.

Faces of Radicalism in Christianity

The history of Christian radicalism is the history of theologians or theological movements attempting to get back to the root of the gospel despite and often against the institutional tradition of the church. There are many radical thinkers and movements in Christian history. Some we might consider conservative and some we might consider liberal.

Francis of Assisi was radical in his time (1182–1226). He understood the gospel to be about equality, identification with the poor, humility, and compassion. These were his root directives, we could say, and by them he practiced a type of Christianity virtually unheard of among his contemporaries: non-violent, inter-religious, and universalistic.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was radical in his day because he stood against the institutional church and its corruption. His root directive was a proper understanding of and adherence to faith, scripture, and Christ. He translated the Bible into the language of common people and he denounced the autocratic powers of the Pope. Politically, Luther stood against the 1525 Peasant Revolt in Germany and was in this sense conservative. Yet, because of his scholarly approach to the Bible and his stance against the institutional church, he is commonly thought of as liberal.

A theologian who stood against Luther and with the peasants was Thomas Muntzer (1488–1525). He identified the gospel with the cause of social revolution. He accused Luther of believing in a honey sweet Jesus. Eventually, he was captured, tortured, and executed. Muntzer was politically radical in his time, yet his radicalism was rooted in apocalyptic vision. Today, due to his biblical literalism, we would likely call Muntzer conservative.

The Social Gospel

Though born in the 19th century the Social Gospel was the first radical movement in Christianity in the 20th century. It dealt comprehensively with the question of a revolutionary change in society. It was rooted in the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The Social Gospel was radical because it rejected traditional Christian moral teaching and traditional Christian beliefs. In the eyes of social gospellers, traditional Christianity was both otherworldly and irrelevant to the social crises of the day. According to Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), the doctrinal history of the church (concern for beliefs such as the incarnation and justification by faith) had hidden from the church the gospel of Jesus, which concerns the kingdom of God. The true point or aim of the Christian message is to reconcile heaven and earth, that is, to re-create earth as the dwelling place of God.

The Death of God

The Death of God movement, like the Social Gospel movement, emphasized this world and rejected the supernatural traditional of Christianity. It’s reasoning, however, was not directly related to the question of justice in society. Rather, it was a crisis in the credibility of Christianity in light of modern science and philosophy that ignited the Death of God movement.

The Death of God is an expression taken directly from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) who, in turn, drew the expression from G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). In Nietzsche’s understanding the idea of God represents the long, transcendental or supernatural tradition of western thought. Simply put, unchanging and eternal truth rests up in the sky with God and is not to be found on earth. Nietzsche claimed that this notion of truth as otherworldly has died in our time. That is the death of God.

Theologians who took Nietzsche and modern science seriously also claimed that God had died in our time, but they linked this to a different image. Taking the key from Colossians, theologians like Thomas Altizer (1927–) emphasized the idea of kenosis or emptying. God in effect had left heaven or died to reside completely on earth. Indeed, there is no distinction between the earth and its history and God. This is a theology of radical incarnation: Altizer states, “It is [the otherworldly] God himself who is the transcendent enemy of the fullness and the passion of [hu]man[ity]’s life in the world, and only through God’s death can humanity be liberated.”

Concluding Remarks

Radical movements in Christianity usually come about in response to a perceived crisis, whether social or individual. Radicalism is significant to everyone, for human beings do not normally change their lifestyles except in response to a crisis. A medical doctor may tell us that unless we stop smoking or drinking, our life is in danger. The knowledge of that crisis can change us.

Radical is also an ambiguous word because it often means extremism. Sometimes what is perceived as extreme is right and just. Martin Luther King, Jr., was frequently judged extreme yet today his non-violent movement for racial equality is accepted internationally as a remarkable achievement. But other forms of extremism are dangerous and unjust. The racism that defined Nazi Germany and that continues to emerge in society today is an obviously harmful form of radical extremism.

In relation to Christianity and radicalism two points can be made. The first is that a radical person or movement often re-defines Christianity according to a basic insight. The second point is that the person or the movement is often responding to a crisis.

Today, the future of Christianity and, indeed, the future of God is a radical question with extreme responses. The extreme on the negative side involves religion with violence because such forms of extremism are based on the desire to control coupled with the fear of change. The negative and radical response to change is the use of violence to control. It is a type of religious psychosis or even sociopathology.

But a second extreme response can be judged positively. This is the response that sees a crisis and that knows change is inevitable. In the face of change, the response is to address root directives that can enable change for the good. Christianity, in its history, has examples of “good” radicalism when the inevitable of a new situation is faced with hope and courage.

The Modern situation for Christian theology includes vastly improved understandings of history—especially the history of the Bible, vastly advanced understandings of the universe, and vastly deeper understandings of human psychology. Add to this, a fourth: a vastly realistic understanding of religion as a human cultural creation. None of these major elements existed when the Bible was written. None were present when Francis of Assisi imagined his universalist form of Christian practice, and only an inclining of what was ahead was available to 19th Century thinkers still comfortably set in societies of male privilege. What all this means to contemporary, positive Christian radicals is the new challenge of re-imagining religion and, in this, asking a very difficult question: does religion have a future with humanity? Is it still possible to have religion or religiosity in a manner that makes a genuine contribution to the human future? Or is it the case that with the death of God must also come the death of religion for human’s sake?[divider style="hr-dotted-double"]

David Galston

David Galston, Ph.D., McGill University, is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (2012).