The Poverty of Theology

Ben Myers has a post up ostensibly about the virtues of reading in a society where “progress is worshiped”. Of course reading is good and should be prized, though I’m not willing to go all the way with Myers’ assertion that reading is an act of theological resistance (whatever that might mean, we’re never told that by theologians who proclaim that Christianity is the true site of revolution and resistance).  What really struck me, though, was the antagonism towards progress, towards the idea that our global society worships progress, which strikes me both as a bit too retro (Horkheimer and Adorno did this better than any theologian) and, more importantly, wrong.

In London today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gideon Osborne, delivered the UK’s spending review. For those who don’t know, this is essentially the budget and sets the spending agenda (in this case the lack of spending agenda) for the current government’s expected tenure. Gideon announced massive cuts to education, both for schools and universities, social housing, an inadequate spending increase for the NHS, a cut in community policing, and an increase for intelligence services. This government has essentially ended, for the foreseeable future, New Labour’s restoration of a society that valued social welfare. A number of independent think-tanks have come out saying that the poorest will be hit hardest by these spending cuts (George Eaton’s blog summarizes this) while the richest in the country will continue to pay less tax and this all despite the Con-Dem coalition’s constant braying of “fairness”. Read the rest of this entry »

Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging II

Second day of the conference, fewer people in the chairs today. Find it interesting how small this conference is compared to the Idea of Communism conference. I won’t speculate on why, but just note it. Anyhow, today is almost entirely devoted to distributism. That would suggest it is the predominant form of Christian social teaching, though a friend humorously suggested that Mugabe is the truest distributist in history. Polemical! More below.

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Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging

The proceeding being the attempt at liveblogging the Centre of Theology and Philosophy’s (Dept of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Nottingham) conference “Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money” (July 9th-10th). I’ll try to post on the interesting bits. Do hope this doesn’t mess with everyone’s RSS feeds.

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Pseudo-Žižek

By now most everyone is familiar with Žižek’s style of thinking. Often there is a high level of theoretical engagement with a particular topic mediated through a series of counter-intuitive assertions, often bordering on offensive, and a number of jokes that display impressive sense of comic timing. The man’s numerous and often manifest personal tics that he (rightly really) does not hide during his presentation and lectures make him one of the most easily impersonated academics around. Young men (and it does seem to be mainly men) in theological and philosophical circles have taken to impersonating Žižek’s style of thinking. Pretend there is some catastrophic event that wipes away civilization as we know it and after a long period of decline and regeneration the scholars of the future begin to try and put together Žižek’s corpus from millions of fragments found on the recently discovered, but degraded, Google archive. Surely these scholars would have to compile the texts of Pseudo-Žižek and find some way to differentiate these texts from Žižek’s actual writing. I am sure these future scholars will be much more skilled at Žižekian philology than myself, but perhaps they will find these few suggestions helpful.

If the counter-intuitive idea is counter-intuitive simply because it doesn’t make sense then it is likely a work of Pseudo-Žižek. If the political position is aggressively pessimistic about the current state of the world but then includes some discussion about what is needed is a more faithful ecclesia then it is likely a work of Pseudo-Žižek. If the author goes on at length about how the real politics is beyond Right and Left while supporting the notion of conservative social values and some form of national socialism then it is a work of Pseudo-Žižek. Remember, Žižek doesn’t balk at saying he is on the Left and those who babble on and on about being beyond Right and Left always mean they are the third column of the Right and just too stupid to get any of the good spoils for themselves. If these scholars of the future don’t make these differentiations then they will confuse Žižek the committed egalitarian Communist with the third-way fascism of some of his self-declared acolytes.

The fantasy of “quasi-Catholicism”

Regular readers will be familiar with quasi-Catholicism, a term coined by Anthony to describe the phenomenon of theologically educated Christians who deeply admire the Roman Catholic Church and even ascribe it a certain degree of practical authority, yet do not actually become Roman Catholic. In milieux such as Anglican or Lutheran confessions, such a stance is perhaps understandable as a kind of drive toward unity that recognizes we’re not quite there yet, but in more evangelical settings, it is arguably much more strange. After all, most evangelical groups have tended to have a deep suspicion of the RCC and are generally very congregational in practice if not in explicit polity — reflecting a more “democratic” ethos that distrusts hierarchical authority and intellectual elites.

Yet it is precisely this last aspect that may explain why intellectually-oriented evangelicals are attracted to Roman Catholicism (and here I would claim some personal insight, as I was at one time an intellectually-oriented evangelical and actually converted to Roman Catholicism, albeit without the intermediation of academic “quasi-Catholic” discourse). Think of how the RCC appears to someone in an anti-intellectual evangelical setting — a place where there is a clear line of authority, where theology has a chance of becoming enforcible doctrine, where education in general is highly valued and intellectual authorities have a great deal of day-to-day power, where ministers must go through a rigorous program of study and formation rather than relying on personal charisma, etc. This is somewhere they could feel welcome, finally! What’s more, this is somewhere that people like them are in charge, rather than being a marginalized and distrusted element. Surely, this is how things should be, this is what “the church” that is “really the church” looks like!

Why not become Roman Catholic, then? Well, frankly, there is a lot of “weird shit” going on in actual existing Roman Catholicism, especially from the perspective of evangelicals — devotion to Mary and the saints, folksy practices that appear to be both “unbiblical” and “superstitious,” etc. The irony here is great, since the power of the binding authority that evangelical quasi-Catholics so badly want to exist has been established in the modern era precisely in relationship to the Marian doctrines that an evangelical cannot accept. So the RCC becomes a kind of fantasy-object, a model for the idealized evangelical version of “the church” that the quasi-Catholic intellectual would create and enforce if given half the chance.

Now I realize that I’ll get some defensive comments here, so I want to be clear that I’m talking about gut-level appeal rather than conscious belief. Obviously intellectually-oriented people are very good at coming up with compelling intellectual reasons for what they’re doing. But given that it’s young adults who tend to become “quasi-Catholic,” it doesn’t seem implausible or offensive to me to think that there is more going on here than objective assessment of the theological data. This gut-level appeal may also explain why “the church” is such a third rail among theology bloggers — what one is challenging in critiquing the fashionable strong ecclesiology is not an actual existing institution or a “regulative ideal” to which that institution should aspire, but the quasi-Catholic intellectuals’ fantasy of their own power and authority.

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