Taubes on theology

I’ve been reading Taubes’s From Cult to Culture and finding it fascinating and challenging. One particular passage struck me from his Tillich essay, which I had read before in a “death of God” anthology edited by Altizer, where he claims that the very fact that we must do theology is already a sign that the old religious symbols are losing their meaning:

Surely, theological interpretation is an achievement, and perhaps it is only by way of dialectic that we can translate the original symbols for the present situation. But perhaps it is the “temporal situation” that forces theology to use the dialectical method. That the theologican has to resort to interpretation is only the reverse side of the fact that the symbols have grown mute. It may very well be that only dialectical terms that border on atheism are appropriate to the present situation. But I would not conclude from this that the dialectical interpretation of symbols is on a “higher level” than their primitive meaning. For the first generation of Christian believers the coming of the Messiah was a reality and not an ontological problem. Many generations did not stumble over the concreteness of central symbols like Father, Lord, or King of Heaven. I would not hold it against these generations that they could use these symbols naively and did not need to develop an allegorical or dialectical interpretation…. The progress in theological interpretation throughout history runs parallel with a gradual withdrawal of divine presence. Theological “re-presentation” and theological interpretation are driven deeper and deeper into the web of dialectics because the divine presence is more and more veiled. (212-213)

The trilogy of articles of which the Tillich essay forms the first part is a study of the concept of dialectic through the lens of theology (with particular emphasis on Barth, whom he takes to be a significant innovator in dialectical method). He admits in the next paragraph that the dialectical framing of the essay — which attempts to find a philosophical interpretation of the theological enterprise — may be artificial or unfair from a certain perspective, but the dialectic has a force of its own. It can’t simply be picked up and dropped where convenient — it has its own inertia, and it tends toward (or testifies to?) the dissolution of the religious symbol.

In other words: doing theology tends inexorably toward atheism. As soon as reflection and translation get a foothold, the whole enterprise is well on its way to running aground. Certainly many readers here have some experential confirmation of this theory: we have all known people (and perhaps been people) who have instinctively avoided “questioning their faith” out of fear of losing it altogether (probably a faster process now than in past historical epochs, given the artificiality and fragility of the various forms of “fundamentalism” in the context of the modern world). Perhaps conservative churches are right to be suspicious of theology, to view seminary education as a liability….

What I wonder is how Taubes would react to the contemporary American theological scene. Certainly the “death of God” theology that would find his work so resonant is by now a fringe phenomenon — Altizer has been marginalized for decades, and the biggest proponent is Zizek, who is often not recognized as such. But could we view the various liberationist/”identitarian” theologies as being caught up in the same dialectic? Could the historical role of feminist theology, for instance, prove “objectively” to be the weaning of women off of Christian religious symbols, irrespective of the intentions of individual feminist theologians? Could we not say that the inner logic of black liberation theology is the conversion of the black church into what it already de facto is — the organizing center of black political life?

From another perspective: it seems to me that the “mainstream” of theological reflection, as with apparently everything in American culture and religious life, is divided into conservative (Barthian, Radox — essentially “neo-orthododx”) and liberal (overwhelmingly process) wings. What would Taubes make of the hegemony of process theology in liberal circles?

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17 Responses to “Taubes on theology”

  1. Bo Eberle Says:

    The mode in which hegemony within liberation theology manifests seems to be, in my experience, identity politics. I’m having more trouble identifying that hegemony in the process world, but I’m sure I’m blind to it. Could you help me out, Adam? (or anyone)

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m saying that process is the hegemonic form of theology among liberals. Even those who aren’t doing it officially are continually making reference to it, expressing sympathy toward it, etc. I had to explain why/how I wasn’t doing process in the context of my dissertation.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It occurs to me that we may be using the term “hegemony” differently. By “hegemonic,” I mean “dominant in a tone-setting, if not strictly numerical, way.” You seem to be using it to mean “reflecting the dominant ideology”?

  4. Bo Eberle Says:

    Yes I think so, and I suppose being somewhere where Process isn’t taken seriously whatsoever I have a skewed view of what liberal theology is like

  5. Bo Eberle Says:

    Union- the house of James Cone

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve heard they’re pretty openly hostile to philosophical approaches there.

  7. Bo Eberle Says:

    Yeah, I’d say Cone sums up if not a dominant attitude a common one “No one ever died for Hegel, I don’t give a shit about Hegel.” There’s good work to be done here though if you seek out the resources. Thatamanil is especially great. I do wonder if when Taubes says stuff like “I would not hold it against these generations that they could use these symbols naively and did not need to develop an allegorical or dialectical interpretation…. ” if the appropriation of those symbols in something like black theology- “black Jesus” would qualify. I criticize liberation theology for being theologically conservative and not questioning their symbols, but I wonder if they are the kind that do not need allegorical or dialectical interpretation, as Taubes says, due to their very practical, political nature.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I encourage you to track down the Taubes book — the three essays in question are the first three in the section Theology after the Copernican Turn. He talks about how in the early days of dialectical theology, the eschatological symbols of Christianity suddenly had an immediate purchase they had not had for most of Christian history — I’d imagine a similar thing is going on in most forms of liberation theology. The most successful and vibrant movements in liberation theology all seem to have some form of immediate appropriation of the biblical symbols (Jesus as liberator in Latin America, the Exodus in Korea, etc.). Which would of course be the opposite of what I propose above….

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I should say, too, that there are good reasons to be suspicious of philosophical approaches. “But it can be used for good” is in many ways just as simplistic a position as “philosophy is always evil.”

  10. Bo Eberle Says:

    Thanks, Ill track it down, really enjoyed his book on Paul (even if it was a bit all over the place). Yeah, philosophy wouldnt be seen as evil, and I hope this is not the case in the future, if it wasnt the enterprise of white males. That’s the hangup, not anything about essential about philosophy (unless the even more sinister conclusion is that philosophical discourse IS inherently an expression of how white people think).

  11. ben Says:

    For the first generation of Christian believers the coming of the Messiah was a reality and not an ontological problem. Many generations did not stumble over the concreteness of central symbols like Father, Lord, or King of Heaven.

    Punk died when the first kid said
    “Punk’s not dead”

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You’ve read Taubes’s essay on punk?

  13. interstitcher Says:

    “What I wonder is how Taubes would react to the contemporary American theological scene. Certainly the “death of God” theology that would find his work so resonant is by now a fringe phenomenon — Altizer has been marginalized for decades, and the biggest proponent is Zizek, who is often not recognized as such.”

    What about radical theology more generally (which, of course, is quite conscious of its lineage via Hegel, Nietzsche, Tillich, and Altizer) in thinkers like Charles Winquist, Mark C. Taylor, (and more recently) Jeff Robbins and Clayton Crockett? This seems to fit even for people like Caputo and Vattimo, for that matter. Your comment about connecting identitarian theologies to their respective politics makes me think especially of Robbins whose “Radical Democracy and Political Theology” makes the claim that radical democracy is the political instantiation of the death of God. His is not an identitarian theology, per se, but more in line with the lineage I identified above coming down through/from Altizer. But it arrives at a political theology nonetheless.

    I haven’t read the Taubes article you mention, but is it accurate to suggest that it’s not simply that theology tends toward atheism as such, but a politicized one?

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I am familiar with all the work you mention in “radical theology,” and I think it’s still fair to say that it’s marginal. (I say this as someone for whom that label may be “least bad,” too, so I don’t mean it as a swipe or anything.)

    Taubes doesn’t make the political connection explicitly in the article I mention, but political theology is an omnipresent concern for him. So yes.

  15. hundr Says:

    This reminds me of Marcel Gauchet’s argument in “The Disenchantment of the World”, where he calls Christianity the religion of the end of religion.

  16. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    Making reference to my own largely unnoticed dissertation, “In the Horizon of the Infinite: Paul Tillich and the Dialectic of the Sacred”…

    Taubes wrote in “On the nature of the theological method,” Journal of Religion 34.1:

    “At the end of his Ecce Homo, Dionysus stands symbolically against the Crucified.In the letters and fragments, however, written in a last clarity of mind before heentered into the night of madness, the veil is lifted from Nietzsche’s ultimateconcern: Dionysus and the Crucified, merged into one symbol…. Hence,Tillich’s ontological interpretation of theology, which is his most originalcontribution, adds a chapter to the history of Dionysiac theology in the Christianframe of reference.

    Tillich’s Dionysiac theo-logy challenges the ecstatic Dionysiacs like Ludwig Klages, [Arnold] Keyserling, and other disciples of the pagan cult, who descend into the night and worship earth, race, blood, [and] flesh as sacred powers,abhorring reason as the enemy of the soul. The spirit pulses through the Dionysiac elements in Tillich’s theology, which tries to reconcile the powers ofthe deep that are sacred and the powers of light that are divine. The spirit doesnot live in enmity with life, but even the abyss of being is illuminated by alogos.”

    Altizer praised Tillich similarly in an unpublished manuscript with handrwitten notes, dated 1958-1960 in the Altizer archive in Syracuse, “Nietzsche’s Understanding of Christianity and its Influence Upon Contemporary Theology” (in the archive, box 4) using very similar language. Here Altizer states that Tillich continues Nietzsche’s “Dionysian program.”

    We could debate what this might mean, but I think there are theologians attempting to do theology in this key, but none of them are mainstream or taken seriously by the church or ecclesiastical arms like most seminaries. Tillich is rarely taught in most seminaries, let alone the other names mentioned above.

    Taubes elsewhere names Tillich’s theology an “ecstatic naturalism.” Tillich never quite makes this statement himself, though there is one obscure book review that he wrote where he nearly says this phrase, but this is of course where Robert Corrington picks up his project, which is quite different than the Altizer-Leahy-Taylor-Winquist trajectory of thought. Am I making any sense here?


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