I remember hearing a sermon once in which the preacher assured us that God has no ‘plan B’, because God’s ‘plan A’ always works out. Homely as this wisdom is, it suggests something importantly true: God is never dead as long as providence lives. That in turn leads me to offer some hesitant thoughts about debates on the definition of radical theology.
Recently on this site, Jeremy made an appeal that we should be more precise when using the term ‘radical theology’. Too often, he argued, the term is invoked when what is being advocated is really a variant of liberal theology. If radical theology is going to have any distinctive meaning, it should be reserved for those ways of thinking which explicitly position themselves in the wake of the death of God.
I agree with Jeremy, and would align myself with radical theology in his sense of the term. However, this raises another issue, also familiar to followers of this site: to what extent is radical theology intrinsically defined by Christianity (even as it negates or transforms orthodox Christian doctrines)?
If we were to trace a lineage of death of God theology, it would go, not only through Nietzsche, but also through a kind of inverted Barthian view of the otherness of God as it is paradoxically identified with the world. Hegel’s ‘speculative Good Friday’ and Luther’s ‘crucified God’ would be in there too. And the whole story could be retraced to themes of God’s self-emptying in Christ. On this reading, however heterodox it might appear, the death of God names a necessarily Christian possibility. Indeed, it could be seen as the fulfilment of Christianity’s hidden essence.
The problem here is the risk of Christian triumphalism and supercessionism reasserting itself in the form of the supremacy of the Christian West. It is as if only Christian Europe could have produced the liberating effect of the death of God, and the critical and emancipatory ideas and practices which emerge from it. Don Cupitt – whom I consider a friend and mentor – strays too close to this, in my view. In books like The Meaning of the West, God dies, but is resurrected as secular Western civilisation, always defined against the murky background of the unreformed Islamic ‘other’.
I take the point that we can’t just ignore Christianity, which via the contingent historical exigencies of Western imperialism and capitalism, continues to shape our ways of conceiving religion and politics. Better to name and reckon with this than to be its dupe. I also want to affirm the emancipatory and truly subversive reality of radical theology as a way of occupying Christian discourse precisely to proclaim the death of the transcendent God.
However, that potential needs to be decoupled from any lingering notion of providence. The death of God is not the trope to end all tropes, the inevitable end towards which the historical narrative tends. There is no plan A.
What would happen if we were to turn our attention from the death of God to the death of providence (which is not the same as the liberal capitalist providential fantasy of the ‘end of history’)? Perhaps one result would be a stronger genuine philosophical interest in polytheism, animism, syncretism and magic, not as romanticised, exotic or innocent others, but as difficult and contingent materials with which we should think and work. In any case, I don’t see a necessary contradiction here with radical theology, but a way of taking seriously the way it unlocks a thinking of divinity apart from the unity of being or narrative, a thinking in which Christianity truly becomes one among many.