Radical Theology: An Imperfect Primer

180px-Nietzsche187aI had intended to make a post on radical theology a few months ago.  In fact, I thought that I had written it, but for the life of me, I can’t find the darn thing, so I’m assuming that it was just a brainchild that was never born.  Either way, now looks like a good time to talk about a particular branch of theology that I’ve chosen as a dialogue partner this year, and why in the name of the dead God I would do such a thing.*

Somewhere in the vicinity of 1882, this man with the most amazing mustache ever made the following statement (quoting Hegel):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

This is a pretty bold statement, one that gets quoted without the best understanding of what it actually means.  I mean, can we really kill God?

OK, maybe it’s understood better than I give the average droog credit for.  What our old pal Nietzsche is saying that we’ve effectively moved on beyond the need of for God.  This wasn’t as uncommon as many people believe for Nietzsche’s time; the Enlightenment brought a lot of confidence in man’s capacity for thought and invention, and some were beginning to wonder if God was actually real in the first place.  It was right around this time that we started to see psychology emerge as well; brilliant minds began to see God as something in the mind (or an invention thereof), so it’s not quite as radical as you might think for Nietzsche’s time.

The radical part, in my mind, is some theologians, as in people who study God and say some pretty awesome things about him, decided that a new theology was in order…based on the principle that God had died…and stayed dead.

Here’s what’s really aggravating thing, though…

…wait, hold up…

“Pat, you haven’t explained it yet!”

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  That’s the problem.

Radical theology has a lot of meanings to a lot of different scholars.  An attempt to summarize radical theology (like, say, in a blog post) is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, and the more you read, the less you often know.  There are, however, a few things we can point to that can define a theology as “radical” in this sense:

  1. There is no God, at least not in the orthodox, metaphysical sense.  This idea of God either never existed to begin with, or died at a specific point in history.  Modern society has moved on from the need for a transcendent God.
  2. The concept of God functions still in the world for a number of different reasons, but it can be easily demonstrated with just a little deconstruction the underlying motives behind peoples’ theologies and demonstrate that the “God” they claim to worship is, in fact, an idol.
  3. Meaning and purpose still do exist, however, in the event invoked in the name of God (this is really big in John Caputo’s work, The Weakness of God.) Jesus also still exists as the greatest example of how one should live.

Even those three points are hard to really run with as epitomes of radical theology, because no two radical theologians seem to be alike in any way.  I first encountered radical theology through the writings of Peter Rollins (and some people even question how much of a radical theologian he is), then through Caputo, and I’m now diving in with Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton’s Radical Theology and the Death of God, and I can tell you, each one of these writers is markedly different from the last.  I’m diggin’ on Hamilton more than Altizer for his writing style, but Altizer’s ideas about a literal death of God fascinate me, and neither of them seem to really get down with Jacques Derrida (who was just becoming active around the time that they were), something that most radical folks are guilty of today (not that it’s a bad thing, just…tired).

Anyway, if that little summary only served to confuse you, don’t worry; I’m confused too.  The Wiki articles on the subject are short, but helpful, and Rollin’s works are pretty approachable if you find them.  These guys have a good set of notes on the subject too.  There’ll be more to come on this subject in the coming days!

*That’s a joke about radical theology.  You’ll understand it by the end of this post.

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2 thoughts on “Radical Theology: An Imperfect Primer

  1. Pingback: Review: Too Good to be True: Radical Christian Preaching, Year A by Christopher Rodkey | Everything is Theology

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