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?