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.
I am not known for holding back, so I will be direct. My worry is that these sorts of brandings stand in for actual thinking. This is not an attack — while there are plenty of charlatans in our discipline, I also know that it is helpful to have these kinds of terms to help organize our thinking. And as I do a lot of work on François Laruelle, I know that certain terms have a certain power of attraction. But like non-philosophy, if radical theology just becomes an empty slogan, then every text it is printed within should be burned to at least produce usable heat (an actual pyro-theology perhaps). If thinkers are going to construct a new genealogy of radical theology, then it is incumbent upon them to make that genealogy do work and to differentiate this instantiation from the previous forms. It may be useful then also to at least recognize the danger within this form of branding for actual thinking, that certain concepts can be reduced to slogans and empty shibboleths inoculating those who pronounce them from real criticism.
As some know, I am published in the Radical Theologies series at Palgrave Macmillan. I think the series promises to be a leader in the field of this strange liminal space between philosophy, mainly Continental in terms of influence, and the study of religion, which is mainly Christian and theological in form. What I appreciate about the series is the implied plural nature of this term. There is no single form of radical theology, and in a sense there is a question of what theology will look like after the death of God, which the series hopes to explore. For me, whatever you call it, this form of thinking cannot remain so narrowly Christian or secularist. These two regimes of thought, closely related, are no longer radical in my mind. If theology is to be radical it has to engage not just with St. Paul and the fetish for revolutionary slogans which has grown around him, but with the actual political and social struggles outside of the Christian world. While this may still include a form of Christianity, it is silly to engage with Latin American Catholicism as if it is the same thing as European Catholicism. And it does require engaging with the parts of the world where the post-secular event actually emerged within anti-colonial struggles. We have yet to think through these events, to think through what might happen out of them. Radical theology, to be radical to my mind, has to think this, and not be another playing out of Anglo-European debates about Liberalism vs Traditionalism, Doubt vs Faith, and which third-way is the better third-way.