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What Is Radical Theology?

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In the 2014 horror movie Oculus, a family comes into possession of an ornate antique mirror. They hang it prominently in their home only to discover that strange inexplicable events begin occurring. It’s soon discovered that the source of the menacing paranormal activity is coming from the haunted mirror. Thus, they attempt to get rid of it and destroy it but are unsuccessful because the ghost stops them. The underlying assumption in this film, as in almost all horror movies, is that the ghosts live within the physical structures of our world (i.e., a house, a toy, or a mirror) and cannot exist in our world without them. Thus, the reason why they protect them vehemently. This is a good metaphor for radical theology.

Radical theology haunts confessional theology and should not be confused with confessional theology in the same way a ghost should not be confused with the object it haunts. Confessional theology is the religious structures we participate in when we practice a religion (i.e., the beliefs, creeds, doctrines, traditions, and sacraments). It is the stuff a religion is made of. Radical theology is not a new confessional theology, a new set of beliefs, doctrines, and metaphysics to replace the old one. It is not a religion. Rather, it is what haunts our religions and confessional theologies and like a ghost, it cannot exist in our world without them.

Radical theology is the ghost that keeps us awake at night with questions and doubts. It is what spooks us and our religious sensibilities and reminds us that we are immersed in mystery and unknowing. Unlike a horror film, our goal should not be to exorcise the ghost from the object it lives in or destroy the object, but to make peace with the spirit and discover that it’s there to help us grow and see what’s truly meaningful about our religion. Confronting our ghosts is always terrifying at first, but if we’re brave and let them speak, they often offer us healing and wisdom.

In a way, radical theology is about the critique of religion. However, that’s too narrow a definition because it’s really about the critique of all idols. It’s about the manifesting of ghosts in all our ideological structures be they religious, political, social, economic, etc. The truth is, there are many religions and gods out there that aren’t worshipped on Sunday mornings in churches but they’re just as much religions and gods as anything else.

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement today can be thought of as a kind of radical theology. Here we find a political and social movement that is manifesting the ghosts of racism and injustice that haunt our societal structures. Black Lives Matter is forcing us to deal with our ghosts of white privilege and to question our political gods.

Consider also what just happened in the last week with the whole WikiLeaks debacle. Most of you are probably aware that WikiLeaks has released tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee that show that they were biased against Sanders and did things that gave Clinton an unfair advantage. One could say that the effect of the leaked emails wasn’t that they revealed some shocking truth that we didn’t already know but that they simply brought to the surface the repressed truth we already knew; that our political system is corrupt and that shady back room deals are made all the time that control elections and nominations, to one degree or another. I’m not saying that our democracy is a complete farce, I’m not that cynical, but these leaked emails simply confirm and bring to the surface that which I think we already unconsciously knew but previously could get away with pretending that we didn’t know; that our political systems are pretty corrupt. Thus, WikiLeaks manifested some ghosts.

This is the way radical theology works. It doesn’t allow us to use our religions and gods as a means of escaping the world and each other. It doesn’t allow us to escape into our fantasies but forces us to deal with life and reality. It brings to light repressed truths, these things we know but won’t admit even to ourselves that we know because we’re too afraid to face them because to do so would mean changing. Radical theology brings them to light so that we are forced to integrate them into our thinking and decision making processes.

At its heart, radical theology is a method of deconstruction. It’s a method of peeling back the layers of our religion, politics, etc., in order to understand its ideological roots, where it comes from, and why it was constructed. This means understanding first and foremost that our theology, doctrines, beliefs, and practices are not things we downloaded from God like software off the Internet, but they are human constructs. They are a language of the soul that we created in order to give voice to the ineffable and transcendent aspects of our experience. Radical theology is about understanding and deconstructing religion as a construct. However, it’s important to understand that the goal of deconstruction is not *destruction*, the goal is not to destroy religion, rather the opposite. The goal is to enhance it and bring to the surface what’s really meaningful, true, and powerful about it. Deconstruction is about a kind of reparation, a correction in the way that we think about religion and participate in its structures.

Theologian/philosopher, John Caputo, gives us a great way to think of radical theology and its method of deconstruction. He describes as a shift in thinking made up on three smaller shifts. First, is what he calls the “Hermeneutical Turn.” This means acknowledging that we all read the Bible through the unique lens of our worldview. All interpretations are subjective and contingent upon our biases and presuppositions which themselves are derived from of our background (i.e., our family of origin, socio-economic status, ethnicity, culture, gender, age, occupation, etc). The second shift is what he calls the “Linguistic Turn.” This means understanding that just as nobody speaks “language” but a language, so no one practices “religion” but a religion. Therefore, one must understand the limitations of their particular language or religion and its inability to encapsulate absolute meaning or truth. The third shift is what he calls the “Revolutionary Turn.” This means acknowledging that everything is in a constant state of flux. Nothing about our systems of belief and tradition are static and unchanging. Perhaps it’s not always our beliefs and traditions that are changing but merely the way we perceive them, but this is change nonetheless. These three turns come together to represent a larger shift in thinking that might be called radical theology but again, it’s grounded in this method of deconstruction which we find examples of throughout church history.

During the Protestant Reformation, Luther and other reformers believed that much of what passed as orthodoxy in the church was nothing more than human constructs that needed to be deconstructed in order to liberate people from their oppressive power. For example, the reformers deconstructed the idea that one needed a priest in order to function as an intermediary between us and God. Luther and other reformers worked to show that nowhere in scripture is this idea found. From here they developed their doctrine called the “priesthood of all believers,” whereby each of us could have direct access to God apart from the church and its leadership.

Another great example can be seen in how the reformers deconstructed transubstantiation (the church’s doctrine on the Lord’s Supper that taught that the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus by the priest during mass). The reformers deconstructed transubstantiation back to its eleventh-century roots as an Aristotelian idea imported into the church by scholars heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. By doing this, the reformers revealed that transubstantiation was a human construct rather than a divine one. It was therefore not something to condemn people over and also not something that only the Roman Catholic church could perform. This little bit of radical theology and deconstruction paved the way for Protestant churches to perform the sacrament in confidence.

What makes this so compelling is that the reformer’s practice of deconstruction was intrinsic not just to the Reformation but to Christianity itself. Christianity is a religion that has always been about deconstructing religion in order to uncover what’s really meaningful about it.

James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” Notice what James didn’t say. He didn’t say, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to have the right set of beliefs and religious rituals. One must believe in the Trinity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, and practice communion and baptism the right way” No, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” In other words, to practice love, empathy, compassion, and justice.

Here we see James unknowingly practicing some radical theology by deconstructing religion down to its meaningful elements: love and justice. Jesus does something similar in Matthew 22 where he says that all of scripture and theology can be summed up in the simple command to love your neighbor as yourself. Certainly, James and Jesus were not disavowing their Judaism along with its traditions and beliefs. They still participated within the religious structure of their community. However, they did so in a radical way by recognizing that the structures were symbolic constructs pointing to a deeper religion hidden within their religion. Here we see how Christianity isn’t just haunted by radical theology but actually is (a) radical theology.

Radical theology is only radical if it has something to haunt, something to deconstruct. In the same way, a ghost in a horror film cannot exist in our world without a physical structure to haunt (i.e., a house, a toy, or a mirror). Radical theology cannot exist without confessional theology. I say this to say again, the goal of radical theology is not to destroy religion, rather quite the opposite. But in order for this to work we have to understand the relationship between the two and make peace with the ghosts that haunt us and our structures. Otherwise, we’re going to live in terror of them and be oppressed by them. This results in all kinds of problems that we see throughout church history and even today like: xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, intellectual dishonesty, and an anti-science bias.

For this reason, I think radical theology is really helpful to us Christians who have been burned by fundamentalism and are wondering if there is anything worth saving about Christianity and worth participating in. That’s who I wrote my book for. I think radical theology shows us that there is a lot worth saving and participating in. It shows us that there is a way to reimagine our faith and spiritual communities that is actually deeply faithful to Jesus of Nazareth, his teachings and his story.

Radical theology is a kind of liberation theology, an exodus from oppression. It is good news to the downcast and the broken. It is a kind of sobriety for those of us recovering from an addiction to fundamentalism.

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