The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?

 

I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Read the rest of this entry »

Feminism, Trans Visibility, and Gender Politics in Theology

Just yesterday Women in Theology announced a cohort of new contributors to their blog. Reading through the biographies I was very excited to see women from a variety of disciplines speaking into theology, including a colleague of mine! When Women in Theology started a number of years ago, I was still active in the theo-blogging world, and it was like a breath of fresh air in a virtual space that tended to extend the old-boys-club atmosphere of theology rather than make space for other voices.  Over the years, the exceptional thinkers at Women in Theology have addressed concerns of racism, violence against women, Islamophobia, and many other forms of oppression that continue to operate both explicitly and covertly in theologies, church institutions/schools, and worshiping communities. I commend them for this.

When the call for contributors was posted a few months ago, I considered sending in an application and encouraged friends to apply. The first person I thought would be a perfect contributor on the blog was a friend and fellow academic in theology. The call specified the following: “In order to qualify, you must be a woman with experience in the academic study of Christian theology-either as a graduate student or as a professor-and committed to the liberation of human persons, particularly women, from all forms of oppression. […] Women of color, international scholars, non-Catholic Christian women, and those who do comparative theology are especially encouraged to apply.” Unfortunately, my colleague did not qualify as a contributor – because my colleague, while they would identify as many of the above, does not identify as a woman. My colleague identifies as genderqueer. Read the rest of this entry »

Why do theology?

This weekend, a lurker e-mailed asking why I do theology, given that I am not a traditional believer or pious person. It is a question that used to come up a lot here, back when we were more engaged with the theology blogosphere (during a time when it was itself more active, and on balance probably more conservative, than it currently is). The sticking point seemed to be my claim that I was doing theology, rather than simply doing scholarly work about theology.

I maintained, and still do, that there is no magic handshake called “belief” that allows one to engage in the intellectual game attached to the specific system of thought known as “Christian theology.” This is all the more the case given that Christian theology conceives of itself as addressing all of humanity — so why not take them at their word? Further, historically the boundaries between philosophy and theology have always been porous, so why should there be special restrictions on starting from within the “theological” aspect of that blended tradition of thought, while there are no qualifications attached to entering in through the “philosophical” side?

The very fact that this question, which to me fundamentally is a non-question or at least a boring question, keeps coming up seems to me to go back to a lot of tired cliches about the boundaries between the “secular” and the “religious.” I try to practice what Dan Barber or Anthony Paul Smith might call a “generic secularity” in my theological work, a secularity without secularism.

All that being said, I personally do theology because Christian theology is a system of thought in which I have invested a great deal and which has profoundly shaped my life (for good and for ill). It is the place where I feel most able to make a significant creative contribution, in contrast to closely related fields where I’ve invested considerable time, like philosophy or the theologies of other monotheistic religions.

For the near term, most of my work will be in a critical or genealogical rather than constructive vein, but I have done work that I take to be undeniably “constructive theology” (e.g., Politics of Redemption), and I reserve the right to do so again without warning or hesitation.

Are You Dead Yet? Reflections on a ‘Good Friday Faith’

I looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Have you had enough? Are you dead yet?’ (Alexi Laiho, lead singer of Children of Bodom)

I recently came across this Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius, over at Faith and Theology. I felt a shudder of recognition. For this is just the kind of thing I would once have lapped up. Hell, it is just the kind of thing I once preached. So forgive a little post-Easter catharsis.

The sermon fits into a particular genre, soaked in the pathos of The Crucified God. And it deploys a certain tactic: what Anthony Paul Smith dubs ‘weaponized apophaticism’.

I paraphrase: ‘Yes, the great critics of Christianity had a prophetic point. So much of what passes for Christian faith today is wish-fulfilment, a prosperity gospel worshipping a fantasy God. But beyond that, untouched by that complicity in capitalism, is the true God, the Good Friday God. A God who promises nothing, a God who, in the worlds of Rowan Williams “becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand”. Here, in the crucified Jesus, fantasy religion is overcome and we reach the real, beyond any concept.’

It is powerful. It has enough truth in it to be persuasive on some level.

But look at the supporting cast of characters. The Jew, chased out of Spain by the inquisition, who loses everything, then prays to God ‘You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You’; the resistance fighter in the Warsaw ghetto, who in the face of defeat and the Shoah declares undying faith in God.

Judaism comes to the aid of Christianity, on the very Good Friday when the traditional liturgy basks in condemnation of the Jews. Oh, yes, Christians were complicit in that too, but look at the crucified Jesus . . .

I doubt if I am alone in seeing such rhetorical moves – however well meant – as being the worst kind of appropriation. Not least because the very purpose of them is to indemnify ‘Good Friday Faith’: or, ‘Christianity as it was meant to be, as it always secretly was, despite all appearances’. Do Christians have the right to enlist inquisition or holocaust as witnesses to Christ? To feed on Judaism to keep the Cross safe?

Perhaps less obviously, though more fatally, what shines through this whole endeavour is the image of a monstrous God, one who is recognised only at the extremity where we are abandoned and even tortured by God. Faith is proved as our flesh is stretched over this impassable gulf between us and God. No accusation will ever stick against him. If he were to appear as the worst sadist, it would show his love all the more.

So, we are told, ‘we wait’. We wait, stretched over the rack. And that is the problem. This is a theology defined by its obsession with what will come. Are you dead yet? Not yet, not yet. A theology of hope, that keeps us always in suspense, always the living dead.

I’m not sure we really need this theology of the not yet, of saving death. I would rather we defied death and everything that pretends to justify it, including the hidden victim-torturer God beloved of contemporary theology

Are you dead yet? No. I have had enough.

The nature and future of liberal theology

I’m one of a number of people asked to write 1000 words on ‘the nature and future of liberal theology’ for an upcoming issue of the journal Modern Believing. I’ve found this really difficult, partly because of the demands of brevity and not being able to qualify everything I say a million times, partly because of my ambivalence about liberal theology itself. For exactly the same reasons, it’s been a really stimulating process. At the risk of self-indulgence, I am reproducing my first draft here. If anyone has patience to read and comment, I’d appreciate it.

***

Theology is often a matter of images. In the case of liberal theology, two images stand out which define its classical form. Both need critical interrogation. Read the rest of this entry »

No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?

Back in 2009 I asked the question, “what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy?” No one from among the “certain” Christian theologians answered the question. Hardly surprising, as they rarely do answer questions, or engage outside of their own very closed circles. Perhaps it has to do with something about pearls before swine or, just maybe, something about cockroaches scattering when you turn the light on them (I’ll allow the reader to choose their preferred speciesist insult). Without anyone willing to answer, I still have the question rattling around. Recently a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook have been raving about David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and exchanging Christian high-fives about how Hart has really given it to those stupid, incoherent (new?) atheist materialists. I admit it, something about Christian triumphalism in a world bleeding under Christian knives means I couldn’t help but make a few jokes and ask a few aggressive questions. Now, I have never enjoyed reading Hart (his prose so often praised by other Christian theologians has struck me as bloated and pompously overblown, typical of an aggressive 16 year-old overachiever) and I haven’t touched his most recent books (after trudging through the burnt husk of a body that was his reading of Deleuze in The Beauty of the Infinite I had used up all the charity I had for his work), but this question is not really one about Hart in general. Rather, the question has to do with the kind of general condition of the kind of contemporary Christian theology that Hart and others do. When I see a book like The Experience of God or a recent article in Modern Theology by Aaron Riches called “Christology and Anti-Humanism” I cannot help but wonder, who are they writing for? Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,067 other followers