I returned on Saturday from an overnight trip to Villanova University where I was attending a conference on postmodern theology called “The End of Religion? Faith in a Postmodern Age.” I was ecstatic to be in attendance, not only because I never get the opportunity to attend such things (and when I do, something happens at the last minute to prevent my departure), but also because I’ve been digging deep into radical theology in the last few months, so to get to hang out with a bunch of other theology nerds and listen to great scholars like Jeffrey Robbins, Merold Westphal, J. Aaron Simmons, and, of course, John Caputo, was an excellent experience for me.
I’ll sum up my reflections in four points here…
1. Religion has ended many times, and begins anew with each ending. Robbins took a good look at the progression of Christianity from the death of Jesus up to the present age, showing the shifts in thinking from apocalypticism to the need for church structure to the establishment of the creeds. As the ages changed, so did the church, and so it will change with this world come of age.
2. Being in dialogue with postmodernism doesn’t mean you’re going to wholesale reject ontotheology, or, for the sake of this post, anything articulating metaphysical ideas about God (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). I kind of knew this already, thanks to Homebrewed Christianity, but in particular I drew this from Aaron Simmons’ talk. He opted to keep his paper more personal than technical (though his capacity for philosophical language shone through), and discussed his journey between the camps of being a Christian (where members of this tribe are wary of his postmodernism) and being postmodern (where members of this tribe are wary of his Christianity, particularly Pentecostalism). To have feet in both camps will generate confusion, but bridging the gap is necessary.
3. Radical theology isn’t as parasitic as it likes to think it is. It certainly functions as critic and antagonist toward confessional theologies, but it isn’t trying to rid the world of them, or even come up with its own ontotheology. Jeffrey Robbins’ talk discussed RT’s need to embrace ontotheology rather than avoid it, using the work of Catherine Malabou to make the statement, “God is not dead; God is plastic.” While Malabou’s understanding might not be entirely Whiteheadian, Robbins makes a very cataphatic (rather than apophatic) statement that sounds very much like Process theology. Even Caputo made statements about the necessity of the creeds, which, for him, function at least as carrying on the memory of Jesus. RT and its use of deconstruction are not meant to destroy, but will serve to at least burn away the chaff of our belief structures.
4. Radical theology has the ability to empower…when it is properly translated. One of my own frustrations with RT is its tendency to position itself in the ivory tower of academia and use academic language, and that was true of this event in a few ways as well. One of the best things Greg Horton, the moderator, did during panel discussions was have them take sixty seconds to define terms or names they had used so that people watching could know the significance or meaning of those words. By doing this, Horton brought RT out of its tower for a little while, and made it more real. This event as a whole was successful in doing that. I must also give credit (again) to Aaron Simmons, who speaks with a more pastoral than academic tone, making his dialogue with postmodernism very down to earth, and Merold Westphal, who worked hard to speak in plain language, even with his definition of ontotheology. These two created a nice contrast to the talks of Robbins and Caputo, who were very technical and ethereal, respectively (and respectfully).
Overall, I’d say every church needs someone in dialogue with postmodernism, and I don’t mean trying to disprove it. The world has moved into the 21st century whether the Church likes it or not, and we cannot go back. It is time we learned to listen to men and women of postmodern philosophy and the voices it has spawned in order that we may learn how we have faith in this world come of age.