“There is little at stake for you in this.” This is a complaint often spurted out with exasperation after a debate has reached its physical end point, when all parties involved are essentially exhausted, and directed towards those of us who do work in the liminal space of philosophy and theology (a kind of queer philosophical theology?). The force behind this accusation, always it seems with the presumed answer “nothing” as they often lump us all as some kind of Big Lebowski-esque nihilists, again relates to an old saw here: the questions of tradition, belief and authority. I may be wrong, but the complaint seems to me predicated on the notion that the study of theology only matters to those whose lives are caught up in the “Church”, that is in some form of the Christian tradition that looks to historical theology for its dogmatic basis (there will of course be different formulations here), the notions and concepts that will aid in spiritual and communal formation. Those who look to study theology and do not submit themselves to this authority, it seems to them, have little at stake in their study.
Setting aside the hypocrisy of this complaint, which is nonetheless worth noting, since some who make this complaint also accuse those who would call themselves secular thinkers of only being such on the basis of a Christian heresy and so subject, in some roundabout way, to Christian theology. But yes, let’s set that aside, since arguing with those folks usually results in accusations and jumps in logic that, well, are better left to sit in the light and wither. What then is behind this complaint from those who make it in good faith? Those who truly believe in the Christian story and, though they may argue with their Christian brothers and the rare sister about this doctrine of the Trinity versus that Soteriology, are genuinely at a loss for why those who (in their view at least) are atheists (I would have difficult accepting this label and have never called myself such) would want to discuss theology at all. I think, due in part to some bad experiences during my graduate experience, I’ve had trouble formulating a response, lumping these genuine people in with those who spew invectives against that Deleuzian or this Calvinist Pentecostel (to say nothing of the racism and homophobia just randomly spewed forth), all the while sitting around wine stained tables declaring that only they, they alone, welcome debate and why won’t those bastards come debate them without all the ad hominems. It was certainly a strange sight to behold and I am quite open that I found the whole experience damaging, even if I was able to keep my soul by the end of it. But it means I’ve been rude to these genuine believers who, if I had perhaps been less quick to defend myself, more trusting of their genuineness, could have made interesting discussion partners and even friends. For that I am sorry and apologize.
So, what is at stake? I would need to reject the premise that theology is only important for those who have submitted their life to some particular tradition and history. To riff on a Laruellean motif: theology was made for creatures; creatures were not made for theology. In the midst of a rather strange Facebook thread, it came out that many didn’t think theology could be assessed on the basis of its relationship to historical imperialism or colonialism, all the while demanding that proper Christian theology belongs to the historical councils and its safeguarding. Somehow (I don’t see how it is possible) the second was necessary, while the first was contingent. This perverse statement, one I would put in the ranks of a radical evil, was even uttered by a relatively prominent theologian: “Empires do bad things, but the Holy Spirit can bring good things out of bad. Such were the Councils.” In a certain sense, this form of meta-theological theodicy makes it rather difficult to explain to my genuine interlocutors what could possibly be at stake for me in the study of theology. I refuse to be forced, as another friend said, to make a confession of faith or unfaith on the basis of terms I don’t accept, and so we will have trouble, even peaceably, discussing what is at stake in a way that could be communicated to one another.
For in a certain way, before I share my own story, I have to wonder about the very question itself. After all, presumably the genuine interlocutor thinks that something is at stake for him or her. What is it? Salvation? But surely they know their tradition teaches that salvation doesn’t come by having the correct knowledge or by works alone, but by grace. Eternal life? Certainly that could have been pursued with doctoral study and the various apparatuses of academic life, for it appears, in their tradition, to be offered to everyone. But more than that, without truly knowing what is at stake for them, it is more difficult for me to know what these things could mean outside of some lived context; the study of theology has some bearing on our lives outside the bounds of publications and academic study, regardless of how much one may value it or not. And so, certainly, when we study theology something that is at stake for both us must be this: for me, as for the genuine orthodox interlocutor, how one lives is at stake.
Here I may begin, starting as I do from radically different first principles, to lose my genuine interlocutor, but perhaps they can forgive me that confusion and extend some grace in at least listening. Perhaps a discussion may follow. But let’s return to that aphorism: theology was made for creatures; creatures were not made for theology. Without any of the hangups of thinking the secular is a purely neutral space (who does that anymore?!), without thinking that the secular itself doesn’t have to answer for its own violence, without thinking that the secular is a transcendent good or any of that, I begin with a generic secular understanding of what is happening in theology, whether it be Christian or not, and the religions such a theology serves and masters (it is an amphibology). It is simply this, no theology has ever been sufficient, no theology has ever accurately named the divine or extrapolated its principles, all theology is failure, and this failure can’t be re-inscribed by the theologian ironically as a victory over the world, for all theology is ultimately world-shaped, and yet there are instances in theology that in the last analysis escape the world and can be materials for creatural construction.
In some ways this is a simple dualistic theory of theology (and teasing out the differences between religion and theology is important, but outside the scope of what I can do here as I haven’t quite worked that out for myself). One pulled from Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze and Negri. It can be stated in various ways, some better than others, some more physicalist than others, some more interesting than others, but essentially it says: theology is not one thing. The identity of theology, it’s “as-One” character, is as a duality of the open and closed, active and reactive, productive and stratafied. The parts of theology that are so vitally important to a creatural life, one where we (to borrow from Aristotle and the Islamic philosopher-theologians after him) live as if immortal, where the lived experience of life is in some very meaningful sense immortal, well these parts of theology, I think, will come from the vital, open, productive, side of the duality. And to understand that, you have to take theology as-One, you can’t simply give up on it, and throw it away (as an “authentic atheist” might), but you do so in order to connect up with something, to strike out on a new vector. In other words, I still have some faith, and it’s even a faith informed by tradition! A faith in creatures, what can be constructed out of creation, what is given in creation, but because it is based on the idea that tradition (theology) was created for creatures, I could never take any single tradition as self-sufficient. In this form of the generic secular the study of theology means the study not of Theology (usually a universalist Christian form) but of regional theologies. Judaism, Islam, Gnostic, and so forth. For, we are in some sense without-Theology, we were not made for it, but we did make it and at points, it has allowed for divine thinking, for little explosions of liberty, but it has also had to be resisted for those same divine thinkings and explosions of liberty.
Perhaps at this point I will have lost my genuine interlocutor, since this language game is rather different from their own piety. And I understand that, I am speaking from the perspective of radical immanence, with reference to concepts drawn from a relatively unknown French philosopher and some others known in particularly French ways, and to them that may appear as a stumbling block. So let me attempt a kind of translation. At some point a former friend, it was a difficult friendship and when it broke it was painful I think for both of us, but he told me about his conversion experience to Christianity. He told me that it came after a difficult break-up, and after hearing some theologians talking on the radio, he went to his local parish priest and told him that he wanted to learn how to love. It’s a beautiful story and I was very moved by it. And without saying anything about his own stakes in theology, I want to take this story and use it as a lens for asking a general question about the state of Christian theology today.
Everywhere, except amongst the vipers huddled around their wine stained table, I hear theologians talking about dispossession, the poor, love, and everyone I look I see “the Church” practicing possession, repression, hatred of the poor, and so I have to wonder, what does any of that have to do with learning to love? Of course, and it is sort of silly to have to say it, there are pockets that are very concerned with these things, but they tend, in my experience, to be very unconcerned with their orthodoxy and so more in line with the kind of generic secular formation I touched on above. But in general, what does Christianity have to do with Christ? What does yet another metaphysics of hierarchy have to do with love in 2013? What does theodicy – and I take the metaphysics of hierarchy to be above all else a theodicy, and theodicy to be above all else a form of radical evil – in its meta-theological form which turns attention away from theology’s role in racism, imperialism, colonialism, and all such forms of the wrong state of things, what does that have to do with love? You start off wanting to learn to love, and you end up unable to speak in the face of those who you now share a tradition with as they supporting a Pope attacking nuns, a theologian claiming that Muslim students unjustly arrested don’t deserve our support because as Muslims they are questionable people, a tradition that is more fearful of the implications of evolutionary theory than the ecological crisis, more concerned with the dignity of the unborn than the imprisonment of the living. You end up wanting to learn to love, and end up having nothing to do with it.
For me, this is what is at stake in the study of theology: I too want to learn how to love, but I want in the end to have something to do with it. And this is what I strive for in my teaching, whether it be in the Christian tradition or any other. I try to tease out with my students, regardless of their own personal faith commitments, what is most beautiful, and look in the face at what is most ugly. This isn’t easy, but it is certainly at stake for me in my personal life and in my life as an educator.