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 [...]
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).
At the turn of the nineteenth century, theology and biblical studies parted ways. Theology committed itself to the exploration of matters of faith, while biblical studies dedicated itself to history and other humanistic disciplines. This divide has never been a clean one, of course. Whether engaged in scholarship or in public discourse, most of us are aware that appeals to God or some ultimate reality continue to be an active part of human vocabulary, persisting even in the face of claims that religion is dying and being replaced by strict secularism—that is, a focus on this life and this world without any appeal to super-natural causes or influences.
While most of us are probably familiar with the controversial April 1966 Time magazine article asking "Is God Dead?", the average person still believes in God, even among those who have abandoned organized religion. According to the Pew US Religious Landscapes Survey, 71 percent of Americans responded "absolutely certain" to the question, "Do you believe in a universal God or spirit? If so, how certain are you about this belief?" Eighty-eight percent were at least "fairly certain." That's a lot of people, and that's just one country. "Large populations of the world don't see a problem with God," observed Westar Fellow Perry Kea at the new Seminar on God and the Human Future, which convened November 22nd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center to discuss critical questions at the intersection of religion and philosophy. "That's not just true of theists," he added. Some atheists are also content to stick with a certain idea of God. But when philosophers began declaring God dead, they weren't referring to a cold body on the floor. So what did they mean?
Scholars of religion confront this question in their own research, implicitly and explicitly. The Death of God question is about more than culture wars, although the culture wars are a symptom of the deeper question. In fact there have always been many definitions of God, and some of the most exciting and challenging ones are hardly the equivalent of an old man in the sky. To begin to open up conversations about some of those options, and to ask whether any particular understanding of God can—or should—have a future in human life, the new Seminar invited members of past Westar seminars to field questions about the visions of God they found in their historical work, as well as what of their own philosophical and theological assumptions came out in their research.
Jesus Seminar scholars Hal Taussig and Bernard Brandon Scott challenged both Jesus Seminar participants and those who have followed the proceedings over the years to acknowledge that the attempt to set aside theology, to say to themselves, "Just the facts, ma'am," was never entirely possible. It was, in fact, shockingly reductionistic at times. They didn't do this with their eyes closed, of course. Jesus Seminar founder Robert W. Funk, in his opening remarks in 1985, touched on this issue:
A fiction is ... a selection—arbitrary in nature—of participants and events arranged in a connected chain and on a chronological line with an arbitrary beginning and ending. In sum, we make up all our “stories”—out of real enough material, of course—in relation to imaginary constructs, within temporal limits.
Our fictions, although deliberately fictive, are nevertheless not subject to proof or falsification. We do not abandon them because they are demonstrably false, but because they lose their “operational effectiveness,” because they fail to account for enough of what we take to be real in the everyday course of events. Fictions of the sciences or of law are discarded when they no longer match our living experience of things.
... Not any fiction will do. The fiction of the superiority of the Aryan race led to the extermination of six million Jews. The fiction of American superiority prompted the massacre of thousands of Native Americans and the Vietnam War. The fiction of Revelation keeps many common folk in bondage to ignorance and fear. We require a new, liberating fiction, one that squares with the best knowledge we can now accumulate and one that transcends self-serving ideologies. And we need a fiction that we recognize to be fictive.
Satisfactions will come hard. Anti-historicist criticism, now rampant among us, will impugn every fact we seek to establish. Every positive attribution will be challenged again and again. All of this owes, of course, to what Oscar Wilde called “the decay of lying;” we have fallen, he says, into “careless habits of accuracy.” And yet, as Kermode reminds us, “the survival of the paradigms is as much our business as their erosion.” Our stories are eroding under the acids of historical criticism. We must retell our stories. And there is one epic story that has Jesus in it.
Jesus Seminar scholars knew the risks of assuming they would be able to tell a purely historical story without appeals to faith or belief. This was a necessary commitment in order to be open to new stories of Jesus and Christian history more generally, but of course, as Funk and others have acknowledged, human subjectivity is inescapable at base—a problem faced by all historians, not just historians of religion. Nevertheless, "to the surprise of ourselves and our opponents," noted Taussig, "the Seminar affirmed the existence of Jesus." Much of the energy of the Seminar was then directed toward "empire of God" language, the parables, because those were considered the likeliest voiceprint of the historical Jesus. So who was the God of "God's" empire?
The historical Jesus' God may be better understood as all good, not all powerful, suggested Taussig. Jesus "was breathtakingly comfortable with incompleteness," and his good God was not necessarily a just God. There are limits to the interventions a good God can do. The tension between the desire for an all-powerful God and an all-good one is evident throughout Christian texts. "Frankly, I don't need Jesus to be this good but fragile God," Taussig went on, "but he reappears in this form in later tradition." Scott, picking up on the theme of the historical Jesus and later tradition, observed, "Jesus uses all the wrong metaphors for the empire of God for his time. The church has always been interested in God, but I see no evidence Jesus was interested. ... I would like to draw a distinction between theological questions and ecclesial questions (that is, about the power of the church). The Christ of faith is a power move of the church—a power move, not a theological one." Charles Hedrick, agreeing with Scott, notes, "I would begin by talking about the world. ... There's no real ethical action behind what goes on in the world. It's an absence of God. When I look at the church, there's a theological perception of God. What, then, is the point of reference for God?"
In light of these questions, John D. Caputo posed the question, "Does it matter whether there is an entity behind the kingdom 'of God'?" Without assuming that we can fully know an ancient person's psychology, at the same time Arthur Dewey offered the idea that we can "seek the imagination of Jesus, what his strategies reveal." We can look at those strategies and ask whether we want to play that game. Susan (Elli) Elliot warned the Seminar away from reductionistic thinking. "When we give priority to language and texts, we are making a theological choice." There are many other options for articulating such questions, such as theology of place, ritual and practice. Diversity is quelled by reductionism. How can we avoid this? David Galston advocated for engaging with criticisms of the Jesus Seminar without at the same time labeling any one person who has voiced them as an enemy; meaningful criticism can open up serious philosophical questions.
Paul Seminar scholars Arthur J. Dewey and Lane C. McGaughy opened their session with an appeal to see the apostle Paul's vision as relational rather than doctrinal. "Paul was working out his experience and appealing to the experiences of his listeners. His logic is inductive, playing to the experience of his listeners," Dewey explains. "It's a constant renegotiation of relationships." To put it another way, "We cannot spin a non-temporal cocoon around his writings." Paul lived in a certain time and place, and interacted with specific communities. Furthermore, "for Paul, it is about God, not about Jesus." Paul appeals to trust in God, as Jesus and Abraham before him trusted God. Paul's vision is incomplete; he doesn't draw his apocryphal vision to a close. Thus, the best way to respond to and build on the work of Paul is to explore the use of metaphor, as Paul does, from multiple angles without settling on any one. His advice in his letters should not be seen as the final word.
The work of translation for The Authentic Letters of Paul was often the work of dismantling the translators' own assumptions. Philosophers and theologians, and anyone who is working with second-order (explanatory) language, need to acknowledge that they, like Paul, are working out of metaphors that may not always be obvious and may not be the final word. "I had functioned through the Jesus Seminar, Paul Seminar, and other Westar Seminars ... as a historian, and wasn't sure at first if this was a good launching point for a God Seminar," McGaughy said. "But what this Seminar signals is that over the last generation, since the time of Rudolf Bultmann and his colleague Martin Heidegger, the whole focus of theology and philosophy of religion has changed to the point where it is now possible for biblical studies and theology to link up again ... because of what Martin Marty has called the linguistic turn in philosophy." We are now in a place to recognize that fundamental questions about God are not about a physical deity but about our language for reality and the limits imposed by that language. Language is the meeting point of major philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Bultmannian theology and biblical studies, and linguistics. "Notice that in all the humanistic disciplines, language has become the root problem of the twentieth century."
Acts Seminar scholars Milton Moreland and Dennis McDonald picked up on Lane McGaughy's point about the departure of biblical studies from theology. In spite of this attempted separation, many who deal with the New Testament remain very much theologians at heart. Often, they assume a traditional view of God based on a literal reading of Acts. "We've got to re-imagine how one goes about using the stories [of Acts] to talk about the rise of Christianity," Milton said. "What happens when you re-situate Acts into a humanistic enterprise of asking what this text is trying to do in its setting?"
The critical moment for the Acts Seminar came when participants placed Acts in the second century. Acts is not a neutral history but a rhetorical and ideological work. The writer of Acts was apocalyptic, supersessionist in how it placed Christianity in relation to its Jewish heritage, and beginning to feel pressures from Marcionite tendencies. "We know more about Christian origins than Luke. It is clear Luke knew more about Christian origins than he told," McDonald explained based on his work in The Gospels and Homer and Luke and Vergil. "This doesn't mean Luke ceases to be significant. He remains significant not about the period about which he wrote but about the period in which he wrote." He goes on, "What we are doing as critical scholars is reconstructing Christian origins in a way that goes far beyond the simplistic and ideological commitments of the author of Luke-Acts. The challenge for us is to view statements about God, Jesus and so on in Luke-Acts not as metaphysical references but as politically charged foundation mythologies that are used to organize early Christian theology to incorporate Paul into the Petrine tradition."
In response to William O. Walker's question about whether there was theological motivation in the formation of the Acts Seminar, Brandon Scott observed, "I don't think you can raise these questions without raising theological issues. ... When you raise these questions, you're going to be messing with somebody's theology." This theme continued as Joe Bessler revisited discussions around the historical Jesus and the church from earlier in the session to ask, "Is Acts the place where collapsing happens, where ecclesial and philosophical questions merge?" Moreland observed in response that this is precisely why assigning Acts a date appropriate to its concerns is so important. "Taking the author seriously within his time period is productive, not just critical."
Perry Kea tied this to second-century Christians' question, "Who are we in relationship to the Empire? ... Who are these followers of Jesus who are not Jews?" Early Christians struggled on the one hand with who they were in relation to the Jews, yet also wanted to retain some continuity with that tradition. While condemning supersessionism, we can still appreciate that Luke had a tough job. Kea goes on, "The God Seminar might use that historical recognition and extrapolate God language from the lived experience of communities struggling for their voice and their identity in the midst of other voices and often powerful forces."
John Caputo, taking up this thread, asked, "What did God look like to this pre-Nicea community?" Moreland responded, "There's not a single view of God in early Christianity. What does the God of Acts look like? A God who kills people who disagree with the group. We get miracle stories that match up with the larger Greek and Roman story world. ... In that competition and staking of claims, they are starting to formulate a deity that is more powerful, distinctive, that is clearly the God, the power."
I will save a report on the final session of the God Seminar, the papers presented by David Galston, Jarmo Tarkki, and John C. Kelly, for a later report since the topic shifted pretty significantly at that point in the discussions. Also, on a related note, thank you for your patience as I continue to produce these reports. The new timing of the Fall Meeting alongside the Thanksgiving holiday created a busier schedule than I anticipated when I set out to report on the sessions. Reports will continue to come out over the next week or so.
Thanks, and as always, don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below![divider style="hr-dotted"]
Cassandra 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.
Westar Institute fosters collaborative, cumulative research in religious studies and communicates the results of the scholarship to a broad, non-specialist public.
Help bring accessible religious scholarship into public conversation.