The term “radical theology” (aka: death of God theology) probably originates in the 1960s and was coined by academics like: Gabriel Vahanian, Thomas J.J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Paul van Buren, et al. These academics were grappling with the meaning of God in the modern world – a world that has “come of age,” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s terminology, who was considered by Altizer and other early radical theologians to be a proto-radical theologian and one of the grandfathers of the movement in the early 20th-century, along with Paul Tillich.
Radical theology is an attempt to explain the secularization of the Western world after The Enlightenment, after the birth of the scientific age and the demythologizing/disenchanting of the Western world from its medieval superstitions and pre-modern understandings of natural processes. More recently, it’s very much a reaction to the unprecedented horrors of WWII, the holocaust, and the future possibility of nuclear annihilation. The felt absence of God and the inadequacy of traditional religion to address the problems of the 20th-century, very much gave rise to radical theology.
However, no understanding of radical theology would be complete without mentioning Luther and his theologia crucis (theology of the cross) which he wielded like a hammer on the late-medieval church’s worldview and power. It was his understanding of the cross as antithetical to direct knowledge of God and worldly constructions of power, that set the foundation for all future deconstructions and critiques of religion, and even modern atheism itself. Hegel, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche all credited him as an enormous influence on their thinking. Thus, radical theology traces its roots through them back to Luther, and then onto earlier forms of Christian mysticism and apophatic theology (negative theology) in the early medieval church.
To say that God is dead can mean a lot of different things and radical theology is about exploring a range of ideas therein. It can mean:
- There is no transcendent deity on-high and there never has been.
- The idea of God is in need of radical reformulation. We simply need new ways of talking and thinking about God. The old ways don’t work anymore.
- Christianity and the church are no longer healing or useful and need to die.
- The concept of God no longer makes a meaningful claim on most people’s lives. People have no use for God anymore. God has outlived his relevance.
To be clear, radical theology is not pure atheism but rather a dialectical way of understanding the overlaps between atheism and theism and suspending any strong claims either way.
In my opinion, radical theology is trying to save Christianity from itself. It’s trying to articulate it in a way that makes sense in the modern world. At the center of radical theology is the cross and the idea that the suffering and crucified God revealed in Christ, is a weak and powerless God. If there is a God, she/he is no all-powerful Supreme Being. Radical theology also takes its cues from the Incarnation and the Apostle Paul’s concept of kenosis from Philippians 2, this idea of the self-emptying/self-negating God who has poured himself out into the world. Christianity is thus a religion built on the idea of God’s death or transfiguration into a “Holy Spirit,” that takes the form now of beloved community, love, and justice itself.
Here radical theology takes on a decidedly political and social emphasis which, in my opinion, is its ultimate purpose: to liberate us from our idols and to liberate us from oppressive religious/social systems so that we might become mature human beings that focus on that which really matters (i.e., justice, human well-being, etc).