Branding and Thought: Some Reflections on “Radical Theology”

Recently some of us have been pulled into discussions about “radical theology”. Sometimes these discussions have been useful, but sadly most of the time they have not. I’ve appreciated the efforts of authors here at AUFS to try and tease out the actual sense of this term and trace the ways in which its original meaning has shifted when used by emergent groups to name their own work. Often these emergent Christians — who I know will be upset that I am naming them in this way, but I see no good reason to really differentiate them — do pull on the work of thinkers who have historically taken on this title of radical theology for the work they do. It has been rather strange to see the line be extended from Nietzsche to Alitzer to Derrida to Tillich to Caputo, but setting aside certain issues I have with the supercessionist claiming of Derrida for postmodern Christian thought, I can see a certain family resemblance. Yet, it is still far from clear to me how this is “radical theology”. With Altizer I get it, proclaiming the death of God is radical in so far as it goes to the root. I won’t pretend that I have spent as much time with Alitzer’s work as I should have, and I often wonder how he continues to do work constrained by the Christian frame after proclaiming the death of God. But Derrida is far from a theologian, and I think that, rather than Hägglund, those who read Derrida in this way need to contend more with Michael Naas’s reading. Naas presents a Derrida whose work on religion is far more classically liberal than radical, and of course, we do see in Derrida the same problem of exclusion we find in classic liberal secularism (namely with regard to Islam, the tempered valorization of the Judeo-Christian link, etc.). And Caputo, who I respect a great deal as a scholar and as someone who continues to engage with new work, has presented a version of theology that may be considered radical in terms of the distance it takes with institutional forms of theology and the history of orthodox policing. Read the rest of this entry »

Oy vey!

Has anyone else heard the recent story about a Jewish professor at York University who, while giving examples of reprehensible ideas in class, such as “Jews should be sterilized,” had a student walk out and tattle to an Israel advocacy group on campus, who then tattled to the media?  Here’s the story.

I don’t think the tattling culture among students is anything new, nor is miscommunication anything new whenever one deals with people.  But what really bothers me about the story is that an organization on campus did not hesitate to tattle a tattled story to the media, without checking any information about the context of the story or the individuals involved in the story.

On choosing a major

I often advise students to get a major in what they’re interested in, with no reference to job training. This article makes that basic point in a particularly powerful way:

I came to college with few resources, but one of them was an understanding, however crude, of how I might use my opportunities there. This I began to develop because of my father, who had never been to college—in fact, he’d barely gotten out of high school. One night after dinner, he and I were sitting in our kitchen at 58 Clewley Road in Medford, Massachusetts, hatching plans about the rest of my life. I was about to go off to college, a feat no one in my family had accomplished in living memory. “I think I might want to be pre-law,” I told my father. I had no idea what being pre-law was. My father compressed his brow and blew twin streams of smoke, dragon-like, from his magnificent nose. “Do you want to be a lawyer?” he asked. My father had some experience with lawyers, and with policemen, too; he was not well-disposed toward either. “I’m not really sure,” I told him, “but lawyers make pretty good money, right?”

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, pre-law would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog.

Since I started at Shimer College, I’ve had a related thought — if none of us is guaranteed a job anymore, if even the “sell-out” options such as law school are clearly no longer a sure bet (if they ever were), then suddenly it seems a lot more “practical” to get a thorough humanistic education than to get training in accounting or whatever. A trip through the Great Books will bring benefits no matter what happens, while the four years you spent learning to be an accountant are going to be a total loss if you don’t get an accounting job.

A Rude Question

Is it just me or is Halden increasingly coming to argue for things that AUFS contributors and readers have argued, often against him, for years? Or maybe it just feels like years because it is on the internet. Either way.

“From Seminar to Jail Cell”

Scott McLemee’s IHE column this week recounts the story of some Zimbabwean activists who have been charged with treason for starting a discussion group about events in Tunisia and Egypt and ends with a link to a petition demanding their release. Please consider signing and passing along the link.

Roland Boer’s struggle against censorship

Recently, Roland Boer has been engaged in an experiment, submitting very explicitly sexual papers to various venues for biblical studies. A recent example is his SBL paper entitled “Too Many Dicks at the Writing Desk, or How to Organise a Prophetic Sausage-Fest.” Much to his delight, he’s been asked to change the title — and bizarrely, the request is only to change the term “sausage-fest,” while leaving “dicks” unmolested. This has led to a series of posts over the controversy, culminating in a post in which Roland copies over a letter from the executive director of the SBL chastising him for making this private and courteous discussion public — and above all, for violating SBL culture, which apparently consists in “discussion not argumentation.”

Now on the one hand, Roland’s project here is almost tautological — he knows that the biblical studies establishment is prudish in certain ways and he’s intentionally submitting papers that trigger that prudishness, so that they can be rejected, thereby demonstrating the prudishness we all knew was there to begin with. What’s startling to me, though, is that the paper was initially accepted at all — if there was a time to quash it, it was surely at the stage where there was the plausible deniability of “a high volume of submissions.”

Once it was accepted, though, it’s hard to believe that anyone seriously thought that a person who would submit a paper with the term “sausage-fest” in the first place would respond to a request to change it with something like “Oh, wow — I had no idea people would react negatively to my title! Of course I’ll change it!” Now it appears that the only play left is to represent Roland as a terribly rude person who blew this all out of proportion, such that it’s best for the SBL if he’s not allowed to present and further disrupt the warm collegiality that we’ve all come to expect, etc., thereby making the classic move of pretending a substantive disagreement is really a procedural issue and giving people who were uncomfortable with the term “sausage-fest” (and yet, I repeat, apparently fine with the term “dicks” — who exactly are these people with these super-precise sensitivities?!) a seemingly more principled ground for objection.

Saint Vincent College and the Illusion of Pedophilia

I’m a graduate of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.  I often credit my work ethic, my writing, and my preparation for graduate school based on the rigor and richness of my academic experience there.  I have many good memories of Saint Vincent inside and outside of the classroom, and I have kept in touch with many of my professors.  I was deeply influenced by the spirituality of the Benedictines, even if I rebelled against it while trying to emphasize my Protestant identity as an undergraudate, and I credit the Benedictine tradition of having a fine library to my discovery of radical theology in the underground stacks in the center of campus.  (I got locked into the library one night, and that night I discovered Altizer’s books.)  Saint Vincent isn’t a place most people know about beyond it being the site of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp, but it was a formative place for me and I have many fond memories.

This has been discussed on this blog before:  the number of colleges requiring a faith statement or a particular denomination affiliation for hire.  Catholic colleges have taken the lead with this, mostly as a result of Vatican statements on higher education from the turn of the century; however, there is something to be said legitimately about preserving the Catholic voice on the contemporary theological scene and Catholic colleges wishing to promote Catholic thought.  The problem is, I think most of us would agree, that what gets defined as “Catholic” is often very narrow and ecclesiastical rather than upper-case “Catholic” in spirit. Read the rest of this entry »

In which I blame the “victim”

Inside Higher Ed has published my response to Timothy Larsen’s piece on discrimination against Christians in academia. I argue that the evangelical community itself bears most of the blame for any tension that evangelical students experience in higher ed.

I already have my first comment, from someone who apparently thinks the purpose of liberal education is to turn students into New Atheists and who refers to me as Mr. Kotsko. Ah, IHE commenters: you are truly amazing.

The desperate plight of Christians in academia

Evan makes a sensible point about the controversy over adjunct Catholic studies professor Kenneth Howell’s dismissal from University of Illinois and subsequent reinstatement, in the course of a discussion of Tim Larsen’s article on discrimination against Christians:

there’s no reason to think that any crisis of anti-religiosity is demonstrated at UI. If anything, the only reason why Howell has successfully been reinstated is because of the huge influence that Christianity maintains in our universities. Other adjuncts have not fared so well. If an adjunct instructor were dismissed for offending students with a Judith Butler reading, for instance, I can’t imagine they would have received such support or had such luck in being reinstated. The incident would have been another data point amongst many others and wouldn’t have made any news.

I agree with Larsen that if discrimination against Christians is happening, it’s bad and some kind of action should be taken. I do think that conservative Christians do present special pedagogical challenges, both because of their own attitudes (above all the tendency toward persecution complex, which is understandable given that Christian leaders are constantly teaching them to expect persecution from godless liberals) and because of the tendency for non-Christian students and, unfortunately but sometimes understandably, non-Christian faculty to react very negatively to them.

Faculty are of course the adults in the room and should figure out better ways to deal with them and guide their students in such ways — in particular, I think faculty need to be sensitive to conservative Christian paranoia and do their best not to set it off — but I think Christian leaders need to be held responsible here as well. There are probably better ways to spend the kids’ time in youth group, for instance, than presenting high school as a hotbed of violence where you’re likely to step on a used syringe while trying to dodge the couple fucking openly in the hallway and presenting college as a place where the godless indoctrinators are going to give you an F unless you tow the party line. The reality is that non-Christian faculty and students are human beings who necessarily bring their experience into the classroom, and often their past will have included negative experiences with Christian intolerance — a situation that is not helped when Christian kids are taught from age five to be as militant and defensive as possible when the topic of religion comes up.

Ontological assholishness

I often complain that I am singled out as being an “ontological asshole,” even though people are routinely much meaner to me than I would ever dream of being. I think this exchange is a good example of the phenomenon. If you read the comment, you’ll see that it basically says that everything we’re doing at AUFS is completely worthless if not outright farcical — and it does so at great length. That, in my mind, is mean. When Anthony responds angrily, as any human being would, several people leap to the original commenter’s defense and shame Anthony for overreacting, in the process seriously understating the negativity of the original commenter.

This happens again and again — the only possible sin in blog conversations is “tone” (which is, incidentally, the most difficult thing to pick up as intended in online communication!). Any kind of content gets a free pass, as long as the “tone” is right. When the sacred law of “tone” is violated, suddenly we’re locked into procedural conversations about how we all need to show the proper respect. And weirdly, it’s always the people with the minority opinions in a given setting who need to be lectured about respectfulness.

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