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).

11 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Radical is in the eye of the beholder. Written in the first quarter of the 20th century by Thomas Chisholm, these hymns describe the radical-root-revolutionary message that was part of my upbringing in the conservative evangelical and Methodist traditions. Is this message any less radical than those mentioned in the article?

    Living for Jesus, a life that is true,
    Striving to please Him in all that I do;
    Yielding allegiance, glad-hearted and free,
    This is the pathway of blessing for me.

    O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to Thee,
    For Thou, in Thy atonement, didst give Thyself for me;
    I own no other Master, my heart shall be Thy throne;
    My life I give, henceforth to live, O Christ, for Thee alone.

    Living for Jesus Who died in my place,
    Bearing on Calv’ry my sin and disgrace;
    Such love constrains me to answer His call,
    Follow His leading and give Him my all.

    Living for Jesus, wherever I am,
    Doing each duty in His holy Name;
    Willing to suffer affliction and loss,
    Deeming each trial a part of my cross.

    Living for Jesus through earth’s little while,
    My dearest treasure, the light of His smile;
    Seeking the lost ones He died to redeem,
    Bringing the weary to find rest in Him.

    Great Is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father!
    There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
    Though changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
    As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

    Great Is Thy faithfulness,
    Great Is Thy faithfulness,
    Morning by morning new mercies I see;
    All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
    Great is Thy Faithfulness, Lord unto me!

    Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
    Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,
    Join with all nature in manifold witness
    To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.


    Pardon for Sin and a peace that endureth,
    Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
    Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
    Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!


  2. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Fundamentalism is probably the most pervasive example of radical Christianity of the last century.

  3. Gene Stecher says:

    I remember one of the death of god guys speaking at my seminary in 1966-1967. I’m not absolutely sure who it was but I think it was Altizer. Most of the pastors in attendance couldn’t accept what he was saying. I like the way David has stated Altizer’s contribution; at least for me there’s more clarity. I like to think of the death of god contribution this way: if heaven is empty, earth is not.

    Altizer, Thomas J. J. (1967). The Altizer-Montgomery Dialogue a Chapter in the God is Dead Controversy. Inter-Varsity Press.
    Altizer, Thomas J. J. (2002). The New Gospel of Christian Atheism. The Davies Group. ISBN 1-888570-65-2.
    Altizer, J. J. and William Hamilton (1966). Radical Theology and the Death of God. Bobbs-Merrill.
    Montgomery, J. (1966). The `Is God Dead?’ Controversy. Zondervan.

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    Has anyone encountered the powerful writing of Ted Dekker, as yet. His 2013 novel “Outlaw” is an outstanding example of radicalizing Christianity, i.e., getting to its revolutionary root. In this case its the root that I’ve found the most difficult for folks to accept. For Jesus, and then for Paul, Trust replaced Law, Spirit replaced Flesh. Most can’t accept or imagine a world without Law. Dekker tells this story to the contemporary ear in the most remarkable terms and offers interpretations of reality with the most remarkable characters who become “outlaws.”

  5. Gene Stecher says:

    Luke 16:16 “The law and prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.” (NRSV)

    “Right up to John’s time you have the law and the prophets, since then God’s domain has been proclaimed as good news and everyone is breaking into it violently.” (JS)

    Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (NRSV)

    “From the time of John the ‘Baptist until now Heaven’s imperial rule has been breaking in violently, and violent men are attempting to gain it by force.”

    In The Five Gospels (1993) the JS colored these passages gray, saying that no real sense can be made of their meaning, that the original has been lost. On the other hand I find them quite intriguing and quite consistent with Jesus’ more extreme images, such as castration and assassination.

  6. Gene Stecher says:

    Brandon Scott describes the following paragraph as Jesus’ “radical program.”

    “In the leavening empire of God the unclean are accepted as welcome by God without the necessity of becoming clean. Likewise, when the empire of God is an empty jar, them the community must accept responsibility for its life and not fall back on the narcotic of divine intervention to set things aright. When the Samaritan is the hero-helper, then social cooperation is defined outside the bounds of the traditional agonistic relationships of a patron-client relationship.”

    He then uses Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, to suggest that Jesus was not first born, his father figure was ambiguous at best, and family relationships were conflicted, “putting Jesus in the group most likely to identify with a radical response.”

    Jesus created radicalized space in the context of codified cleanliness and a social contract which created population division, mistrust and powerlessness.

    Scott, Brandon Bernard, “The Reappearance of Parables,” 19-40. Hoover, Roy W. Ed., Profiles of Jesus, Polebridge Press, 2002.

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      “Ritual impurity,” however, is a part of life. It is unavoidable, since it comes from natural sources with which one comes into contact daily. Nothing “sinful” about it. One merely “hosed down” or waited until the contagion disappeared. Nothing radical about it. But, would it have been as important as the Christian texts wanted it to be or was that just another way for the gospeleers to accentuate the difference in their protagonist and “the Jews?”

      There is no way one knows how widespread the rituals were observed, according to an essay in my Tanakh, which notes that these regulations “are reflected in detail only in Priestly literature, and in related texts such as Ezekiel” (p.2045, “Concepts of Purity in the Bible,” Klawans). Priest had to “hose down” the temple, so that would be normal.

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    More on the theme of lawlessness as radical:

    But Ni was a Confucian.
    Of that there was no doubt.
    Tang was a legalist.
    Those two labels had defined Chinese politics for nearly 3000 years. Every emperor had been labeled one or the other. Mao had claimed to eliminate the dichotomy, insisting that the People’s Revolution was not about labels, yet nothing really changed. The Party, like emperors before it, preached Confucian humanity while wielding the unrelenting power of a legalist.

    Steve Berry, The Emperor’s Tomb (a novel), 56

  8. Gene Stecher says:

    Sorry for the duplication. This site had the nerve to tell me last night that I was posting too often. I bet no one has received a message that s/he is not posting enough. What’s going on anyway? Isn’t anyone interested in this stuff besides me (and Dennis). Folks who used to participate aren’t saying anything, and no one new shows up! If I’m somehow getting in the way of participation, at least have the courtesy to notify me that I’m disrupting more than contributing, and I’ll bid a fond farewell.

    • Cassandra says:

      No worries about the post limits, Gene, it’s just an automatic setting on the site to protect against spamming, which of course is not what you are doing. If it happens again send me a message through our Contact Us page and I’ll reset it.

      Not everybody likes to comment on a post even when they read, and some prefer to comment on Facebook rather than directly on the page. That’s typical elsewhere, too, not just on this site. I’ve drafted one final post on Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? and will be moving on to Creative Faith, the new book by Don Cupitt, so that fresh topic should invite some new conversations. Happy posting!

  9. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    The “Dutch Radicals,” who came to embrace what began as an invective term, seeing “radical” as “root,” showed that probably none of the Pauline letters were authentic (or even “letters”). No one has refuted what they showed. They were just neglected and forgotten by most. There is a tendency in statistics called “regression to the mean” (a tendency to “retreat” to a less advanced position… toward the mean) which probably one can apply to many non-parametric situations. The more “radical” the position, the less likely it will be accepted, unless it begins to converge toward the average (mean) view. When it comes to Christianity, polls continue to show that the mythological framework (son of god, heaven, hell, revelation) is embraced over the “history.” If history succeeds in supplanting the mythological framework with its own dry and boring “mythology,” take out the pews and bring in beds – few stay awake for history lessons! (A celestial god winging his way to right the evils of the generation, though… You’ll have ’em standing in the aisles with hands raised high singing “Hallelujah!”

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