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The Violence of Radical Theology

Burning church2

Perhaps the most significant critique of radical theology is that it’s a theory virtually confined to a demographic that is white, privileged, and college educated. As such, it can be violent to people in less privileged contexts where theology is done for survival (i.e., developing parts of the world and socially oppressed communities in the U.S.). I have heard from some of the few people of color within the radical theology movement that it would be seen within their churches as violent, colonial, and just another example of white supremacy disempowering them. Again, where theology is done for survival, as it always has been in oppressed communities, radical theologians can look like the Spanish conquistadors inadvertently bringing small pox upon the “primitives” they’ve come to educate and save. Thus, radical theologians have to tread lightly when coming into contact with such communities. However, it’s not just underprivileged communities that do theology for survival.

As a pastor, I have spoken with “Twelve Steppers” in my church who have felt disempowered sometimes by my overwhelming critique of God. Twelve Step programs succeed in large part because they help people find strength in a “higher power.” Here we see people from a variety of political, racial, and economic backgrounds, doing theology for survival and radical theology can make that harder for them. Perhaps I’m merely making them more aware of their own repressed doubts/anxieties but nevertheless, I’m making their recovery harder by doing so. However, the list doesn’t end there, because I’m doing theology for survival too.

I was drawn to radical theology because I was spiritually dying in conservatism. I needed to find an expression of Christianity that was healthy in order to get healthy myself. Radical theology provided a framework that helped me detox and find a way of living that set me free from the tyranny of belief and certainty. In a way, radical theology saved me by killing my faith in a murderous and oppressive god. I at least do radical theology for spiritual survival. However, members of the Christian LGBT community do it for physical survival as well. As the pastor of an affirming church, I am uniquely aware of how much suicide, depression, and PTSD permeate the Christian LGBT+ community. Those that survive (physically and/or spiritually) are often those that were able to engage in deconstruction and find a meaningful identity either outside Christianity or one inside progressive Christianity. Thus, some even do radical theology for survival.

I say all this to say, we radical theologians cannot underestimate both the need and positive effects of theology. Asking people to live in a world without theology, metaphysics, and metanarratives is like asking them to live in a world without oxygen. There is actually real science behind that claim. Recent sleep studies have shown that dreams are not the result of randomly firing neurons or our unconscious wrestling with anxieties and desires. Rather, they are the way our brains create and maintain neural pathways. In short, dreams are necessary for survival. And what are dreams but myths we create to make sense out of the world. We are myth making machines even when we’re asleep and we create them to survive. We are all doing theology for survival whether we know it or not, including radical theologians.

Radical theology is not post theology or post metanarrative. It comes loaded with certain metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality and the meaning(lessness) of life. Like confessional theology, these ideas give their adherents a certain sense of mastery and even joy. Spreading shocking and bad news often come with secret dark pleasures. It always feels edgy and cool to play the part of the trickster and rebel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but to be clear, radical theology, like the ideologies it critiques, offers similar psychological benefits because it’s not post metaphysics or post metanarrative. It’s just a different kind. It’s not a pure critique because there is no such thing as a pure critique. All critiques are done from a certain vantage point and with certain goals in mind. Radical theology is not just a critique of metanarratives but always seeks to replace one with another and the thing about metanarratives is that they are inherently violent – namely towards other metanarratives. The question is – do radical theologians understand this and take the violence of radical theology seriously?

Perhaps the most radical thing I’ve ever heard from a radical theologian was from Katherine Sarah Moody, “Not all gods need to die, just the murderous and oppressive ones.” Not only do all gods not need to die, it’s actually impossible to kill them all because as Caputo reminds us, “As soon as one god dies another is resurrected to take its place.” This is because we humans are myth making machines. Which means that we’re meaning making machines and where there’s meaning there’s a god. As Tillich put it, where there is an “unconditional affirmation” and “excessive attachment” there is a religion and a god. If the purveyors of radical theology cannot affirm this, then their radical theology is just crypto New Atheism and not very radical at all. Radical theology *must* be just as good at affirming certain gods and theologies as it is at denying them.

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