Radical Theology and the Death of God

On the humanities, blog An und für sich, you can find plenty of talk about radical theology, from lots of different contributors. As for what radical theology encompasses exactly is a matter of debate, with some holding the term rather openly, to include the likes of Peter Rollins and John Caputo, and others calling for more specification, contrasting the emergent theologies of the likes of Rollins and Caputo with the death of God theology of someone like Thomas Altizer, or Slavoj Žižek. In responding to John Caputo’s talk entitled “Can Postmodern Theology Live in the Churches? Perhaps”, presented at the Subverting the Norm II conference, Tony Jones says that “there are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t.”[1] Not everyone agrees though. Over on An und für sich, following up on STN II, Jeremy (I don’t know his last name) proposes that:

“there is only one radical theologian and that is the one who rejects God. I was first introduced to radical theology by reading Altizer. What made Altizer, Hamilton and others radical is that they were Christian atheists.”[2]

The (radical?) theologies of Rollins and Caputo certainly do appear at times to want there to be a God. As Jeremy expresses over at An und für sich, in the comment section of an essay written by Altizer— somewhat hijacked by Rollins and others:

“I worry /…/ that these sort of Christian “Atheists” (coming out of the left-wing of the Emergent Church movement) are ultimately using these sorts of programs and ideas in the service of “saving” God from the evangelicals and the mainliners (both of whom they critique). Although they are opening themselves up to the atheistic critiques of Christianity, isn’t the hope that the participant will rediscover God at the end of the journey?”[3]

Let’s start by looking at Caputo’s theology (what Jeremy calls a “radical theology-lite”). Caputo, rather than wanting to articulate a new kind of Christianity, is interested in what he calls “the event” at the heart of Christianity. While working on and with the Christian tradition, he is responsible to no confessional community.

What Caputo doesn’t like is dogmatic religion— where one group thinks of itself as having privileged access to “the secret”. Caputo hates the idea of absolute certainty. “One important thing we mean by the death of God,” says Caputo, “is the death of the absolute centre, of inhabiting an absolute point of view (Caputo & Vattimo 2007: 117).” For him, religion isn’t about pinning things down. Rather, it has to do with hoping— hoping in the face of our miserable existence, for the possibility of something different, something wholly other. It’s neither an apathetic sort of “I could care less” about God, nor a confessional pronouncement of who God is and what he wants for us. For Caputo, there’s no God whose existence he’s willing to argue over. Rather, what concerns him is an absolute future, a future that insists. “God doesn’t exist, God insists,” as Caputo puts it. The religious person thirsts and is passionate for something more, she refuses to accept that this— this suffering— is all there is. She doesn’t know what more there is, but she still hopes for it, for the possibility of the impossible.

For Caputo, there’s a left and right hand to this sort of “religion without religion”. There’re can be no prayers without tears. On the one hand, the absolute centre is deconstructed. The foundations upon which the modernist framework rests— where man is seen as an autonomous thinking thing— are smashed. Yet Caputo doesn’t want to replace the modernist framework with a mystical one, whereby revelation is understood in terms of contact with something “deeper”. Deconstruction, as Derrida already pointed out before, differs from negative theology. While Caputo appreciates mysticism’s negation of rationalism, the whole point of deconstruction is that no one has direct access to the Secret, not even the mystics. For even mystical experience, Caputo points out, requires interpretation. And this, says Caputo, “has a salutary ethical and political import because it shows us that we’re all in this together (ibid: 117).” Everyone is on the same footing, as he says— no one is “hardwired up to the secret (ibid).” Thus, Caputo espouses no orthodoxy.

Yet, on the other hand, deconstruction is affirmative. This is the right hand of Caputo’s “religion without religion”. For while the idea of a privileged sort of access to the truth is deconstructed, the event contained within them remains “undeconstructible” (ibid: 118). As for what Caputo means by the “event”, he here admits to being an Augustinian. For while all our positive statements about God, or democracy, remain deconstructible— always falling short, erected as mere idols— the affirmative gesture that propels us to make such statements is irreducible. Caputo refers this to Augustine’s notion of the restless heart. The messianic event at the heart of Christianity, the hope for a new world, propels us, despite the contingency of our claims. Caputo’s God is a God thought of in terms of “I know not what”. This relates to Rollins’ theology, whereby God is thought of in terms of the mystery we participate in.

This hoping against all hope, for that which we know not what, for a future that will not come, Caputo associates with democracy. Democracy is a “stand-in”, as Caputo calls it, “for something unforeseeable (ibid: 122).”  This sense of uncertainty and restlessness in the face of an absolute future contains the traces of Derrida’s own messianism— Caputo’s mentor and friend. So does this mean that Caputo yearns for God, albeit in a postmodern, deconstructive mode? Is he an iconoclast— wanting to do away with the idol in order to establish a direct line to the mystery? No. For Caputo, the event is indeconstructible for the very reason that it is always “to come”, never to be attained. Instead, Caputo points to a sort of différance at the heart of religion. By différance, Derrida meant a sort of endless play, of deferral and difference. For Caputo, “the event” is an energetic affirmation. Rather than wanting God to exist, Caputo is saying that, captured in the name of God is something that insists. In true Derridean fashion, the event is imagined neither in terms of being nor nonbeing. For Caputo, like Derrida, the either/or of theism and atheism is too simplistic.

So Caputo, in both On Religion and After the Death of God,  answers the question of how we move from the secular, post-Christian irrelevance of God to the postmodern return of religion with the claim that the secularization of the West has cleared the slate, so to speak, for the return of God— albeit post-metaphysical style. This is radical theology in the tone of Derrida rather than Hegel. A radical theology that some have criticized as not radical enough. For Caputo, the postmodern becomes the postsecular in so far as the death of God means the death of the secular. That is, postmodernism doesn’t stop at the foundations of belief. Any absolute centre, whether it be God, or Reason, falls at the sword. Postmodernism cuts through not only the Christian tradition, but secular modernity too. As Caputo explains, in On Religion, in a section entitled “How the Secular World Became Post-Secular”:

“Nietzsche was trying to argue that Christianity was crucified on its own Cross: by insisting that God is truth and hence on the need for the faithful to be truthful, Christians ought finally to be brought to the point of honestly and truthfully confessing that Christianity too is another fabrication. But a surprising thing happened on the way to the death of God: Enlightenment secularism also got crucified on the same Cross, and that spelled the death of the death of God…

[R]eductionistic critiques of religion turn out to be, on Nietzsche’s own account, more varieties of what Nietzsche called the “ascetic ideal,” a belief in a rigorous and unbending order of “Objective Truth.” For Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead” had a wide sweep that included Absolute Truth, Physics, and the Laws of Grammar, anything that tries to hold the center firm. The declaration of the “death of God” is aimed at decapitating anything that dares Capitalize itself, which included not just the smoke and incense of the Christian mysteries, but anything that claims to be the Final Word. That had the amazing and unforeseen effect of catching up hard-ball reductionistic and atheistic critiques of religion in its sweep (Caputo 2001: 59-60).”

Caputo’s deconstructive messianism is the sort of theology Slavoj Žižek has made it his task to criticize, as was the case during a panel hosted by the American Academy of Religion, which he shared with Altizer back in 2009.  For Žižek, Caputo is moving beyond the old God of Metaphysics (the Big Other), only to reinstate him under the name of the event. Žižek, as anyone who’s read him probably knows, hates the idea of postmodernism and postsecularism. In Less Than Nothing, he states that ‘one of the names of the enemy today is “postsecular thought” (2012: 640).’ It’s the Hegelian, rather than Derridean theological expression, of Žižek and Altizer, that Jeremy over at An und für sich thinks really characterizes radical theology. And it is to their ideas that I now turn before discussing Peter Rollins’ own theology in a bit more depth. For Rollins, like Caputo, is an active voice in the Emergent Church; and yet, the voice he often brings to Church is Žižek’s (and by extension, Lacan’s).

The message of radical theology can be summarized as such: it is only with the death of God that the world can be created anew. Thomas Altizer— one of the movement’s more well known figures— understands this as the reversal of orthodox Christianity’s reversal of the apocalypticism at the heart of Christianity. So while the statement “God is dead” may be heresy in the ears of the orthodox Christians, it is, for Altizer and Žižek, an orthodox heresy. As they see it, it is only through a Christian sort of atheism that the message of Christianity can be restored. Nietzsche becomes the prophet not of an exclusive humanism, but of Christianity. As Altizer says:

“Nietzsche’s The Antichrist may well be the philosophical work in which Jesus is most decisively called forth, and called forth as one whose own way has been totally reversed by Christianity, but reversing that  reversal draws forth an actual way of compassion as is impossible in all orthodox theology (McCullough 2013: 171).”

For Altizer, it is perhaps Hegel who best expresses the absolute death of the cross. For with Hegel, God, through Christ, enters into history, and on the cross, dies. And it is here that Altizer aligns with Žižek; for both offer a Hegelian reading of Christianity, centred on the incarnation as the event in which God enters into history, and the cross as the event that makes possible a true resurrection. The Christian resurrection is here thought of as a truly apocalyptic event. This is the creation of a new community, made possible by the absolute death of God on the cross. As he expresses in an essay entitled “Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?”

“When Christ was dying on the cross, earthquake and storm broke out, a sign that the heavenly order itself—the big Other—was disturbed: not only something horrible happened in the world, the very coordinates of the world were shaken. It was as if the sinthom, the knot tying the world together, was unravelled, and the audacity of the Christians was to take this is a good omen, or, as Mao put it much later: ‘there is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent’. Therein resides what Hegel calls the ‘monstrosity’ of Christ: the insertion of Christ between God and man is strictly equivalent to the fact that ‘there is no big Other’—Christ is inserted as the singular contingency on which the universal necessity of the ‘big Other’ itself hinges (Žižek 2011: 218).”

For Žižek, it is in the miserable person of Christ that we see God, and in so far as Christ dies, we see in him the death of God. He urges us to take this point very seriously. And it is here that he remains true to Hegel; for like Hegel, he doesn’t see the miserable man who dies on the cross as some representative of God, but as God himself. For him, it is only by returning to this topic, of God’s death, that we can recover what he calls “the subversive core of Christianity”. Žižek certainly does see, in the postmodern theology of someone like Caputo, a desire to hold onto God. This has to do with Žižek’s understanding of ideology. For Žižek, we hold onto ideology today in a rather cynical way. We say we don’t believe, but really we do. In Žižek’s eyes, though Caputo says the transcendent metaphysical God is dead, he continues to hold onto him. The belief simply persists in an objective sort of way. He believes through the other, as Žižek puts it. That is, in so far as the very mechanisms that enable this belief remain in place, the belief can continue, even if indirectly. It seems to me that what Žižek would prescribe for Caputo is some psychoanalysis. For the goal of psychoanalysis, thinks Žižek, is to bring the patient into “subjective destitution”, whereby they are able to come to terms with the others inexistence. As Žižek expresses in his film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology:

“Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism, which can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution, whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.”

Such a Christianity is, as Altizer says with regard to his own work, “a heterodox or radical Christianity that dissolves all secularism or “atheism,” for it is far more atheistic than “atheism… (McCullough 2013: 172).”

One of Žižek’s favourite means of making the point about ideology functioning in a cynical sort of way is the joke about Niels Bohr. As the joke goes, one of Bohr’s friends inquires about a horseshoe hanging above the door to Bohr’s house. “You don’t really believe that that’ll bring you good luck, do you?” the friend asks. “I mean, you are a scientist.” To this Bohr responds, “of course I don’t believe it works, but I heard it works, whether or not you believe it does.” Rollins, being the Žižekian he is, draws on this point, that people tend to believe through the other. For Rollins, belief in the big Other, of some object that can satisfy us, or heal our brokenness (what Rollins calls “idolatry”), will persist only as long as the ideological structures that enable this belief remain in place. Following Žižek, Christianity is thus seen as a subversive move against idolatry, against the ideological structures that prevent us from coming to terms with our own brokenness (the void at the heart of the subject, as Lacan would say).

For Žižek, the message of Christ is that there’s no bigger picture. This is reflected, he thinks, in one of his favorite books­― namely, the book of Job. For Žižek, the book of Job is a perfect expression of the psychoanalytic notion of the inexistence of the Other. After being struck down with immense suffering, Job’s three friends― each playing the role of the Big Other’s representative― try to get Job to locate himself within a meaningful framework. But in the end we find God on the side of Job in proving his friends wrong, in so far as there is no meaningful picture of the sort behind his suffering. For Žižek, a theodicy that thinks of suffering in terms of a tiny brush stroke of a much larger painting is obscene. The Christian message says Žižek, is that there is no ultimate framework within which we can secure ourselves and make sense of this miserable existence. We have to confront suffering for what it is, rather than try to make sense of it.

This is a revolutionary message, as Žižek rightly expresses. For the good news of Christianity― what both Altizer and Žižek think is the good news of the death of God― is a sword that cuts through the ideological, social, hierarchical, institutional, etc., frameworks within which we secure ourselves (Žižek 2009). The message of the death of God, and by extension the death of the Big Other, is that another world is possible. The social structures and mechanisms that we treat as absolute are not. And resurrection― what Žižek thinks of in terms of the Holy Ghost qua egalitarian collective― is not possible unless we die to the structures that have up to this point shaped us. The kingdom is not some abstract universality, but a reality to be organized here and now.

Those few passages that tend to trouble some readers of the New Testament, where Jesus is spoken of as bringing not peace but the sword, and commanding persons to forsake their mother and father, etc., are not troubling for Žižek. Rather, for him, these are clear indications of how extreme the Christian message really is. Žižek reads the command for persons to see the social roles they occupy, whether it be as a father or mother as ultimately meaningless (ibid). If I was to give a queer reading of Žižek’s Christ, it would be a Christ that commands his followers to gender bend. To put it another way, if a person fails to see the ultimate meaninglessness of the framework within which they are recognized as either male or female, they remain an idolater, a non-Christian. For in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” as the apostle Paul says.

Žižek, like Rollins, thinks we should take seriously Jesus’ statement, as recorded in Mathew 18:20, that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Žižek agrees with Altizer that the death of God has to be understood in the Hegelian sense, not as presenting an opportunity for thinking God anew (as with Caputo), but as the reversal of the perverse current running through the Christian tradition, that seeks to establish a Big Other in the wake of Christ’s death.  For Žižek and Altizer, the truly Christian approach is an atheistic one― God is understood as having truly died. Yet, we cannot forget, says Žižek, that it is through this final, absolute death of God as Christ that Christ becomes present as the emancipatory collective that is the Holy Ghost. Within the frame of Žižek’s atheist Christianity, we can’t speak about the death of God without at the same time stressing resurrection― that is, the revolutionary collectivization is made possible in the wake of this death. Christianity is apocalyptic; it is the end of the world as we know it (cf. Rollins 2012: Kindle Location 65).

In the questions and answers session of the AAR panel, Žižek expressed a sentiment that I think runs through not only his own work, but that of Caputo and Rollins too― albeit in a different way. He said:

“Why, in [a] secular universe, the need to speak about theology? Precisely this gesture I want to avoid: from the positivity of God to the positivity of man. I want something like a desperate, impotent split in himself, God, relating to no less desperate [a] split in… [the] human being (Žižek 2009).”

In The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, Caputo responds to Žižek’s criticism, that Caputo is letting God back in under the name of the event. Not only that, but Caputo demonstrates that Žižek is more of a postmodernist that he likes to think. For Caputo, Žižek’s attack “reflects his underlying and /…/ unjustified polemic against postmodernism generally (2013: 147).” He therefore suggests that Žižek pay closer attention to his work. Caputo agrees with the assessment of Katherine Moody, that the differences between the two are not as significant as Žižek lets on. As for Žižek’s suggestion that Caputo pay closer attention to the incarnation as the materialization of God, Caputo responds by pointing out the various ways in which he does do. For Caputo, the event is not, as Žižek seems to think, a “wishy washy” spiritualistic “to come”, but a pressure, or call, that issues forth in the present, in the midst of the messiness of life. As I read Caputo, the event is the weight of the world, the weight of the other’s gaze― it is a weight that pushes us outside of ourselves, leaves us unsatisfied, wanting more, praying, hoping against all hope, for the possibility of what seems impossible. It is, Caputo says:

“the infinite pressure exerted on the immediate present by the promise , so that nothing that at present has the audacity to call itself “democracy,” for example, is equal to the call (ibid: 150).”

Then, as for Žižek’s hatred for all things “postmodern”, Caputo rightly points out, I think, that “Žižek’s willingness to play the Christian role is a strictly postmodern ploy (ibid: 154).” Think about it― a theological turn, coming from of a leftist, materialist, intellectual. This would have been unheard of fifty years ago, as Caputo says. This is hardly the reactionary atheism of Richard Dawkins. This is something postmodern, postsecular even. As Caputo explains:

“there is nothing else to call this turn but “postmodern,” if postmodernism means a recognition of hybridity, a weakening of rigid modernist binarities like matter and spirit, faith and reason, objective and subjective, philosophy and theology (ibid).”

But, in a way, Žižek is also not postmodern enough. He shares too much in common, Caputo thinks, with is Radically Orthodox interlocutor, John Milbank. For whether it is the primordial peace spoken of by Milbank, or the primordial trauma of nothingness, as spoken of by Žižek, is this not, Caputo asks, “the search for a transcendental signifier all over again (Caputo 2013: 158)?”

As for Peter Rollins, it’s no secret that he loves Žižek. Žižek’s Lacanianism seeps through the pages of Rollins’ work. Like Žižek, Rollins has taken up the story of our brokenness, of the void at the heart of the subject, and taken it to Church. We’ve already seen that Žižek has, in this postmodern moment, turned to theology, but it is Rollins who takes Lacan to Church, who has imported him into the post-evangelical community. Rollins tells the Lacanian story of the subject, as emerging with a lack. Rollins names this lack “original sin”. It is this nothingness, at the heart of our being, that fuels our desire for something that can make us whole. Lacan therefore distinguished between what he called the “objet a” and the “objet petit a”. The formed is the object-cause of our desire, while the latter is the imagined object that we think will make us whole. As Žižek explains:

“Object a is not what we desire, what we are after, but rather that which sets our desire in motion, the formal frame that confers consistency on our desire. Desire is of course metonymical, it shifts from one object to another; through all its displacements, however, desire nonetheless retains a minimum of formal consistency, a set of fantasmatic features which, when encountered in a positive object, insures that we will come to desire this object. Object a, as the cause of desire, is nothing but this formal frame of consistency (Žižek 1997).”

Rollins is a translator, translating the “Lacanese” of Žižek into the language of Christianity. And he does a good job at it:

“[T]he terms ‘original sin’ and ‘idolatry’ are totally interconnected . The idol is that which we create in order to fill the gap that is original sin; it is that which we think will stop up the void that pierces the heart of our existence (Rollins 2012: Kindle Locations 234-235).”

Despite his academic training, Rollins isn’t writing for an academic audience. Not only does he make accessible the ideas of Žižek and Lacan, but he does so in such a way as to render them relevant. For our era is the era of the idol― of late capitalist consumer culture, where “the ‘Good News’ of Christianity /…/ is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire, rather than as that which evokes a transformation in the very way that we desire (Ibid: Kindle Locations 45-46).” Rollins is writing in the wake of the death of God, on the cusp of a postmodern moment in the life of the Church. He is writing to a community of persons asking God to rid them of God (cf. Caputo 2007: 67; Rollins 2012: Kindle location 815). In The Idolatry of God he asks:

“What if, instead of being the solution (i.e. the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question? To put this another way, what if Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him, but rather smashes it to pieces – bringing freedom , not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but in the very act of embracing them? (Ibid: Kindle Locations 61-64).”

So the Gospel according to Christ becomes the Gospel according to Lacan. Rollins calls us to come to terms with our brokenness, and our unknowing. Rather than turn Christ into an objet petit a, Rollins wants us to accept the harsh reality of what Žižek calls the formal frame of our desire― that we are, ultimately, void, and can never be satisfied. So the mission of the Church and the mission of the analyst converge, in so far as, for Lacan, the end of the psychoanalytic treatment came with what he called a “subjective destitution”, whereby the analysand “assumes the non-existence of the Other and the non-existence of itself as a subject (Verhaeghe 1998: 182).”

Rollins therefore reads the sacrifice of Christ as the sacrifice of the sacrifice itself. In other words: “to speak of Christ paying the debt does not mean that debt is taken seriously, but that the debt itself is abolished (Rollins 2012: Kindle Location 849).” This is― and by now it shouldn’t come as a surprise― a reworking of a Žižekian idea. In Enjoy Your Symptom! Žižek refers to “sacrificing the sacrifice” as “[renouncing] the symbolic alliance which defines the very kernel of our being (Žižek 2001: 191).” This “betrayal”, as Žižek calls it (a word that is not foreign to Rollins’ lips), is the means by which we renounce the object of our desire, or the idol as Rollins would call it. As Rollins explains, in The Idolatry of God:

“[T]o lose the idol means to lose that drive which prevents us from fully embracing our life and taking pleasure in it. It means giving up our desire for ultimate satisfaction and then, in that act, discovering a deeper, more beautiful satisfaction, one that is not constantly deferred but that can be grasped here and now. Not one that promises to make us whole and remove our suffering, but one that promises joy in the midst of our brokenness and depth in the very embrace of our pain (Rollins 2012: Kindle Locations 875-876).”

As pointed out by Caputo, in On Religion, the postmodern moment is, by extension, a postsecular one, in so far as no one has privileged access to “the secret”. Secularism is revealed for what it is. Humanists such as Richard Dawkins, in saying things like religion is “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus,” reveal the confessional character of their outlook. This story about religion, as something evil, trumps others. Their story is treated as the one story, to be applied in an all-encompassing sort of way, to the world in all its complexity and plurality. That is a working definition of fundamentalism right there— to take as a given, as absolute, and all-encompassing, your own outlook, and force it on the world. So Christian fundamentalists treat their outlook as a given, foundational truth (“because the bible says so”), and squeeze life into it. Dawkins et al. do the same with their anti-theism.

The Christian fundamentalism fails to see that the foundation upon which their outlook rests (their reference to the bible, for example) involves a confession (faith in the bible as the true word of God). But Dawkins et al. do the same thing. They fail to see that the foundation upon which their argument rests (the reference to evolutionary biology and instances of religious violence) entails a confession (believing that transcendence is a silly, childish notion, discredited by our evolutionary history and that religion is inherently harmful). We always look at things with a confessional outlook, with a take on things. Some biologists do biology with an open take on things, one that allows for the possibility of transcendence. Some are able to acknowledge instances of religious violence without closing the door on religion, as a force of good in much of the world. Humanists are no different. They operate within an anti-theist confessional framework. What makes one a fundamentalist or not is how one holds this confession. We can be “self-blind” as Charles Taylor says, and treat our outlook as a given, as foundational, or we can acknowledge the confessional character of our outlook.

This doesn’t mean cultural relativism, though. We can defend our positions, and protest against others. It just means that we do so humbly. We allow for remainder, for that which slips through our fingers. “Truth” is never a universal, ahistorical Truth (with a big “T”), but is always a truth that is becoming, à venir. The “truth” we defend should be a truth written with a small “t”. This entails a willingness to hold one’s views in question, to acknowledge our human finitude.

To be able to claim Christianity as part of one’s heritage, yet navigate it in a creative, open ended way: this is the promise of radical theology. This is to tell Christianity in a different way― as inclusive of the marginalized of society, of other gender identities and sexual orientations. The radical theologian tells a different story, to that of the orthodox authorities and much of secular culture. This is a postmodern relationship to Christianity, where foundations have crumbled― where it is no longer possible to know, to make sense of things through reference to any “Big Other”, whether it be the bible, God, or nature. All we’re left with is stories, plural― stories we can experiment on, think with, and celebrate, but which we can never treated as grand, all-encompassing narratives. So we end up being good Derrideans: scared of the word “theism” and “atheism” alike. So the radical theologian is either a Christian atheist (that’s Žižek), or a/theists (that’s Caputo, and in a way Derrida). With radical theology, it’s no longer possible to give stable form to the forces of life.

This open navigation has to be a materialist one, though. Rollins calls this a material Christianity. It’s not enough to think differently. If radical theology is to be successful, as counter culture, it has to affect us, reorient us― it has to translate into a way of life, where we do things differently. If by liturgy we mean those sorts of practices that habituate a certain kind of being in the world, it’s not hard to understand why the Emergent Church has placed an emphasis on it. For it is only through liturgy that we can expect to challenge an individualistic, self-concerned mode of being in the world (cf. Smith 2009; Clark 2011).

Radical theology is opposed to the idea of a privatized Christianity. For Rollins and Caputo, and even Žižek, Christianity is an alternative mode of being in the world, one that challenges current frameworks. Not only is radical theology postsecular in the sense that it moves beyond foundationalism, but in the way it challenges much of secular culture. It names it as idolatrous (Rollins), as not allowing for remainder, for that which falls outside of the law (Caputo).

For me, the promise of radical theology— and I see hints of this in Rollins and Caputo— is the willingness to navigate our secular age in an open ended sort of way; the willingness to entertain a different story. It is to be able to say: “I’m an atheist, but I may be wrong.” Or even better: “I’m an atheist (I think?), but I hope I’m wrong, I wish there could be something more, something better, some sort of happy ending to all of this.” Yet, it is to never treat any one story as definitive, as all encompassing. And here radical theology is not radical orthodoxy.  For Smith, and other radically orthodox theologians, the Christian story is treated as the story. And Žižek appears not that different in so far as for him, the story, that ultimately the world is nothing, is treated as the story. In a way— and Caputo makes this point— Žižek and radical orthodoxy are two sides of the same coin.

I even fear that even Rollins, while taking an open ended approach to the Christian story, fails to do so with the story he tells of our brokenness (a story he inherited from Žižek). Are we to really close the door on the possibility that there could be something more, beyond this life, something better? Why do we have to say, with absolute certainty, that we are broken and there is no answer to these horrors? On the one hand, Rollins rightly challenges the idolatry of our consumerist culture, but I wonder whether he goes too far. He can say, when asked whether he believes in God, that sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t; so why can’t he say, when asked whether he believes in a new heaven and a new earth, that he doesn’t be he wishes it were true.

I recently watched an episode of Louis Theroux’s LA Stories, entitled “Edge of Life”, on patients battling life threatening illnesses. One of them, a young man named Javier, married his partner, from his hospital bed, just days before dying, but was unable even to commemorate the ceremony with a kiss. His body was in to weak of a state from all the chemotherapy (for even a cold, in such a state, is all too serious of a thing). As I watched that episode, as I watched young people fight for their life, and ask the doctors, and themselves, “why?” I couldn’t help but ask the same thing. Why? Why can’t there be something more? Really, am I to just accept that this is it, that there is nothing else, nothing more after this? In her book, When God Talks Back, Tanya Luhrmann asks: “if you could believe in God, why wouldn’t you (2012: xvi)?” Likewise, if you could believe in the eschaton, why wouldn’t you?” As Luhrmann says of belief in God, it’s hard to do; but if you could, why wouldn’t you?

Someone once told me that they rely on a “happy process, rather than a happy ending”. I get this. But when I say “happy ending”, I’m speaking from the point of view that the process has not been happy, for far too many people. There’s no taking it back. There’s been torture, rape, and genocide. The process was not happy, for far too many. So by “ending”, I’m thinking something along the lines of the eschaton, as expressed in the Christian tradition: the idea that in the end there will be peace. Not as a making up for all the tears, for all the suffering for which there can be no excuse, but just as a certain kind of ending, a happy end to what has been an unfortunate process. Of course, this is just a story. A story we can fall in love with, and even hope for, but which can only ever be a story— a hope against all hope, in the possibility of the impossible, as John Caputo says.

For me, there’s two ways out: it’s either darkness, with no hope of light, or darkness with the hope that there may be light. Secular culture is not the answer. Consumer culture, and the city of endless desire, is not the answer. As it stands, there is nothing to make us whole. We are suffering. This world is suffering. All I can do is ask “why”? Here I am, in a sense, Lacanian. I see, in our hearts, a lack. But so did Augustine. Where I part ways with Lacan is with regard to the idea of subjective destitution, of accepting without hope that there is no meaning— just darkness with no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m restless. Here Augustine is my saint, not Lacan (as for Žižek).

There is one thing that prevents me from saying, along with Žižek, that this is all shit. There is one thing that, despite all the suffering, leaves me grateful, leaves me feeling like life should be seen as a gift, a grace. This is love. But the fact that so many have never and will never enter into love, into community, forgiveness, kindness, leaves me restless, leaves me wanting more. I am stubborn. I refuse to sit back and say “it’s all shit”. No. I want for there to be something more. I want to protest against the word “nihil”. I want to proclaim, in the face of this word, another one— that which was spoken of in the gospel of John. According to John’s story, this is a word that was there from the beginning. This is the word that the Christian community came to see in Jesus of Nazareth. This word is none other than that of love, peace, community, and hope. This is the hope that one day, we may all enter into love. It’s like Rust Cohle’s final speech in the last episode of True Detective, season one, where he feels, in the midst of darkness, on the edge of death, something substantial rather than empty. What gave darkness its substance was love, the feeling of his daughter’s love, of his father’s peace.

This was a climactic moment for Rust, seeing that if you’re looking for a pop cultural expression of the nihilistic sentiment of Lacan and Žižek, this is as good as a place to go. Rust is a pessimist, and with the same sort of psychoanalytic twist as Žižek. Throughout the series we see Rust expressing themes such as: 1) at the heart of the subject is a lack, or emptiness, that we are ultimately nothing, our selves an illusion; 2) that this emptiness, at the heart of the human subject fuels its desire; and 3) the impossibility of fulfilment, of being made whole. And this is just to name a few. But in the last scene something happens. Rust comes to find something more than emptiness:

“There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something… whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”

Compare this to the sort of sentiment expressed earlier in the show, according to which “everybody is nobody”, and where the best thing to do is “deny our programming and walk hand in hand into extinction”. This is the sort of sentiment that sees life, not as a gift, but as a “raw deal”, as Rust puts it. Rust thinks the idea of fulfilment is a “life trap” as he calls it. “Why should I live in history he says?…This is a world in which nothing is solved…” This is a view of the world, a feel for things, which sees our sentience as an accident, a mistake even. There is no meaning to it. “Death created time, to grow the things that it will kill,” Rust tells two detectives. This is the “terrible and secret fate of all life: you’re trapped in the nightmare you keep waking up into.”

Radical theology can help us learn to live in what Taylor calls our secular age— where “we are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike,” as Paul Elie (quoted in Smith 2014: 1) says. It is learning to live in a haunted house, where it is impossible to stay in one room for too long, without being unsettled by the ghost of another. It becomes a means of navigating, as restless nomads, a space in which there is no one truth, no one all encompassing story. There are only stories, plural. In a way, by doing radical theology one is learning how to be a pluralist, to be willing to call into question one’s outlook, and test one’s self in relation to others. When our foundations crumble, we realize that stories are all we have. But at the same time, we realize how powerful stories are, and how important it is to think about the kind that we reflect in our practices, the outlooks we reinforce through our celebrations.

For me, the radical theologian is someone who, when faced with the suffering of the other, is able to ask, alongside them, “why?” and hope with them, for the possibility of the impossible. It’s a theology without secure foundations, which can only hope against all hope, because in a secular age, where there is no one truth— no Big Other whom we can make reference to in a grand declaration that “all will be well”— all one can do is hope. The radical theologian is the theologian able to do theology after the death of God, who is able to catch sight of the event captured in the prayers of a mother, praying for her dying son. It is the theologian able to pray with her, to hope with her, in the absence of all hope; it is the theologian willing to entertain the possibility of the impossible. The radical theologian is restless, because there is nowhere to rest her head. She feels the weight of the world, and she has no answers— only hope, prayers and tears.

[1] http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2013/07/08/tnt-caputo-and-jones-subvert-the-norm/

[2] https://itself.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/radical-theology-lite/

[3] http://itself.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/the-self-saving-of-god/


Caputo, J D 2013 The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, Indiana, Indiana University Press

Caputo, J D & Vattimo, G 2007 After the Death of God, ed. J W Robbins, New York, Columbia University Press

McCullough, L 2013 ‘Interview with Thomas J. J. Altizer’, in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 12. no. 3:169-185.

Rollins, P 2012 The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, London, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

Rollins, P, McKnight, S, Corcoran, K & J Clark Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging, Michigan, Brazos Press

Verhaeghe, P 1998 Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London, Rebus Press

Žižek, S 1997 ‘Desire: Drive = Truth: Knowledge’, Umbr(a), web, http://www.lacan.com/zizek-desire.htm

Žižek, S 2008 Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, New York, Routledge

Žižek, S 2009 ‘Whither the “Death of God”: A Continuing Currency?’ Paper presented at American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Montréal

Žižek, S 2011 ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne, re.press

Žižek, S 2012 Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London, Verso


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