Radical Theology

It’s a scene from the radical theology that might be: An elderly white philosopher collects the last of his papers and, perhaps bitter-sweetly, vacates his university office. In his seat, a forty-something young woman sits down with an electronic tablet and a well-inked journal. She’s of an indeterminate race; her features make any sort of attempt at profiling her into a haphazard guess. She opens her journal, presses hard on the spine, and writes a few words down the page—a focus, the way a Buddhist monk might use the breath.


Difference vs. Change

Phoenix or salamander? What kind of world is this?

Believe it or not, she’s dealing with the “death of God,” or rather, she’s carrying on the legacy of the death of God by moving on. Because, like all such moments in history, the death of God was an historical moment that challenged assumptions and changed the world before it was committed to the dust.

The death-of-God moment was not a dead end. The woman at the table even has an idea of where to go next: it has to do with money, violence, racism, grief—with ethics, with politics, with (ultimately) God. She is the next generation of theology and perhaps the sort of person who we might find walking and talking with Jeffrey Robbins about the issues in his newest book, Radical Theology: A Vision for Change (July 2016).The first few chapters of Radical Theology may be a dense read for newcomers to philosophy, but the further you get into it, the more the book really opens up and breathes. Robbins illustrates his points with examples from popular culture like Lawrence of Arabia and the jazz innovations of Louis Armstrong, as well as signposts in the form of brief (1–2, sometimes 3–4 paragraph) summaries of the relevant movements and key thinkers. He never jumps into a topic without some work done to place it historically.

And that’s a critical element to his whole project. Robbins observes that in his previous work he assumed that radical theology had a lineage and a history that was fairly obvious. Here he backtracks and does the hard work of actually tracing that lineage and showing what exactly radical theology inherited from what movements, and how that can open up its future.

To cite one key (in fact, foundational) example, the “death of God” movement is too often treated like it somehow escapes the fate of all other theological and philosophical eras. Can you imagine if, back in the day, people heard Descartes say cogito ergo sum and just dropped their canes, threw up their hands, and said, “I can’t do any better than that”? Not likely.

The “death of God” belongs with the constellation of other movements from its era: fascism, colonialism, misguided communism, and so on. All of these movements carry the scars of two world wars. As these other political and social movements pass into new phases, so too does the theology of the era. So the question we should be asking isn’t, “Is God really dead?” as though this were ever about an actual post-mortem. Instead we should be asking where the new, most exciting and productive conversations about “the ultimate” are happening around us. How might those conversations now shape our thinking about God?

In last week’s blog post, “What is Religion” (from the Understanding Religion series), I mentioned that Enlightenment-era “scientific” study of religion had limits, such as its very Western-centric attitude. What Robbins book does, in my mind, is take this seriously as a theologian.

I’m not saying Robbins leaves the West so much as actively seeks out and opens a dialogue with people who have been living in the West all along without being acknowledged as fully part of it. The solution here is not to seek out the “exotic.” We’re not stealing resources from some other place and retreating to our imaginary safe fortress where we can somehow consume what we learn without it changing us.

Purity emits the stench of otherworldliness. The quest for purity that characterizes so many efforts at overcoming ontotheology is also haunted by the specter of God as the graven image of white male normativity. This is the stillborn, moral-metaphysical God who is dead. Exposing the idolatry … has heretofore been the task of radical, death-of-God theology. (154)

We’re not going to find a “pure” solution to the problem of God. That is the very definition of what we’ve left behind. Whether you want to explore the idea of the suffering “weak” God of Jack Caputo or the “plastic (metamorphosizing) God” of Catherine Malabou, what radical theologians have in mind is a sense of God as Being as change and resistance and absolute surprise. Such an understanding of the being of God persists in finding “a life in joy, and joy in life, even as it is bruised and bloodied to the point of being black and blue” (142). Robbins offers Louis Armstrong’s work and life as one possible vision of this in practice:

Armstrong teaches us something of the true nature of resistance. Resistance is not reactive, but creative, generative of a counterpower, to be sure, but no less constituent.

Robbins showcases the work of Catherine Malabou as one possible example of this played out in theological terms. What if we stopped thinking of Being like a phoenix, which dies and is reborn? What if, instead, we saw Being as more like the salamander, which regrows the limbs it loses and continues forward in the same scarred but ever-regenerating body? True, the salamander is less dramatic. But if we look around us, which image is most apt?

The question of the “purity” of God’s being presented here is just one of many paths crossed by Robbins. I hope it illustrates some of the richness of this book especially for religious leaders who might be seeking new metaphors for God that are both self-respecting and respectful of the world around us, and at the same time honor the real weight we give to the word ‘God.’

What I appreciate most about this book is that it doesn’t imagine fundamentalists as its main conversation partner. Robbins has walked away from a table where no productive conversation is happening anyway and turned to some genuinely exciting new partners. Once we see that the death-of-God movement occupies a real place in history, and that radical theology is a child of that movement, Robbins demonstrates that it really is possible to move into new, exciting landscapes that address what he identifies as some of the most devastating issues of our time, such as short-sighted capitalism, environmental policy, and exploitation of the politics of identity. Radical Theology successfully lays out the theoretical footing and philosophical heritage for radical theology in the same way that historical-critical scholarship has opened up new, entirely legitimate understandings of the message and person of Jesus.

This is a book that opens windows into the future of theology—and it’s a future that will require humility not only in our definition of God but also in our own attachment to Western cultural idols.

You can now listen to Jeffrey Robbin's lecture from Westar's Fall 2016 national meeting sharing some of his lessons and insights from Radical Theology and other projects.

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. 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.

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