This past weekend the Progressive Christian Network and Student Christian Movement of Britain hosted a joint conference in Swanwick titled ‘Godly Mayhem,’ featuring Peter Rollins, Katharine Sarah Moody and George Elerick.
Regular readers of this blog are likely familiar with the work of Rollins, a Belfast-born philosopher-theologian and one of the founders of the ikon collective. Rollins is now based in Los Angeles and his latest book, The Divine Magician, will be published in the New Year.
Moody is an academic whose research centres on the relationship between continental philosophy, radical theology and lived religion, while Elerick is a human rights activist.
Rollins and ikon feature prominently in my latest book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford 2014). In this book, we refute the argument that the emerging church movement (ECM) is just another form of liberal Protestantism or progressive Christianity by citing the use of radical theology by figures like Rollins.
And while Rollins’ thought is probably most accurately located on the fringes of the (ECM), his efforts and those of others to bring radical theology into the ECM conversation have the potential to influence the direction of the movement – if it can still be classified as such – in different directions.
In The Deconstructed Church, we quote from a 1972 Modern Churchman article by John Macquarrie in which he explains what distinguishes radical theology from liberal theology (p. 170):
‘… Macquarrie argues that radical theology takes as its point of departure “the death of God,” that radical theology is a theology of “revolution” while liberal theology is a theology of “evolution,” and that “radical theology seeks the overthrow and transformation not only of traditional religious values but the values of prevailing culture as well.”’
Several of the weekend’s talks and discussions defined and described radical theology. Rollins, for his part, seems to see radical theology as providing the intellectual basis for a ‘religionless Christianity’ that is concerned with the welfare of the world today rather than what happens in the world to come.
The content of the conference wasn’t always easy going. In the final Question and Response session, one of the questions was, ‘Can Peter please write a Radical Theology for Dummies book?’ Another participant refined the request as a Radical Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed book, and it later occurred to me that a book on radical theology in Oxford’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ series would not go amiss either.
But several of the illustrations and definitions of radical theology presented by the speakers were especially useful for me:
The Woman with the Water and the Fire
Rollins shared what he said was an Islamic parable about a woman who wandered the earth carrying both water and fire. The water was to extinguish the fires of hell and the fire was to burn away heaven. Her motivation for doing so was that she would do the good on earth for no other reason than to do the good — neither fearing punishment in hell or striving for reward in heaven.
He said that for him radical theology was ‘finding the Absolute on earth, amongst each other somehow.’ For him, this is a ‘materialist Christianity that loves the world, people and causes.’
Radical Theology as Bringing the Repressed to the Surface
Rollins’ later work has drawn on Lacanian psychoanalysis, one of the assumptions of which is that therapy is about bringing the repressed to the surface. This can happen on an individual level in therapy, but Rollins also sees this happening through the prophets of religious traditions. So, Jesus brought up what was repressed in the Judaism of his time, Luther brought up what was repressed in the Catholicism of his time, and so on. They created radical ruptures which brought equally radical and sometimes unintended changes. Such changes were later institutionalised and needed new prophets to critique them.
This is a view similar to that of the philosopher John Caputo, who sees radical theology as ‘haunting’ confessional theology, drawing attention to what makes particular manifestations of religion unhealthy or oppressive.
In his presentations, Elerick emphasised how difficult it can be for people inside a system to see how they might be perpetuating it – even as they seem to be critiquing it. To illustrate, he played a clip from the Maria Treanor song It’s all about the Bass, which while it seems to critique our culture’s obsession with the thin female body, still objectifies women as physical objects to please men.
Radical theologians, then, must be wary that if their critiques bring the repressed to the surface, it is in a way that is not simply absorbed and institutionalised by the system.
Radical Theology is A/theistic and Materialist
One of Moody’s presentations traced the development of radical theology to the atheist and materialist critiques of 19th Century philosophers, including Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Hegel and Kant. Each of these thinkers contributed different insights to debates about religion. But broadly speaking, they all identified religion as a form of illusionary escapism for those seeking consolation from the struggles of this world.
Radical theologians, on the other hand, embrace atheistic and materialist critiques as valid. They strive to develop an ‘a/theistic’ theology that is not tied up in questions about God’s existence or the afterlife. For them, it is only when we strip ourselves of the illusionary aspects of religion that we will grasp its ‘revolutionary’ potential.
Part of doing this is giving up on the ‘escapist’ fantasy of ‘humanity’s importance’ and accepting ‘humanity’s insignificance.’
“you cannot be fulfilled; you cannot be made whole; you cannot find satisfaction” (page 79).
For radical theologians, this perspective frees people to live life to the full. Life is ‘for nothing but itself’ (Caputo), and should assume ever greater value and intensity for the fleeting gift that it is. As Rollins put it in one of his talks, the Christianity that you think will ‘make you complete disappears,’ and what you get back is the ‘sacred in the material objects of life’ and a faith that is ‘an existential protest against meaninglessness.’