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.”
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, 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).