Radical Theology and Faith vs Belief

In honor of Paul Tillich’s birthday (20 August) what follows combines Tillich’s helpful reminder of what faith is not with John Caputo’s musings on what faith in a radical theology (a la Derrida) might become.

Tillich3I happened to flip through Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith today and was struck by his insistence upon the difference between faith and belief. Well, that isn’t quite true. I had actually gone in search of this chapter on What Faith Is Not. I am frequently in search of one thing or another these days, and this time I actually found what I was searching for. What I am really in search of is a weak theology, a radical theology that takes my restless searching seriously. This theology must be one that does not offer cheap answers to difficult questions, or it could be one that doesn’t offer answers at all. I am less interested in answers and more interested in questions. My purusal of Dynamics of Faith today reminded me that Tillich also was less interested in certainty (belief) and more interested in the state of being ultimately concerned (faith), or in pursuing something, searching after something with one’s whole being. According to Tillich, “The most ordinary misconception of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (Dynamics of Faith, 36). Accepting theoretical knowledge as fact is a matter of belief, not faith. Faith, on the other hand, is unconcerned with fact and is something much more radical. Tillich understands faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. He makes very clear that one’s ultimate concern must be a concern for the ultimate, which sounds like circular reasoning but really means that one can’t be ultimately concerned about something mundane, ordinary, or non-ultimate. For him this ultimate would be something metaphysically distinct from our reality. While I don’t want to go in the metaphysical direction with Tillich just yet, I appreciate the radicality of his understanding of faith. The matter of ultimate concern reorients one’s life and actions toward that concern. This is not a simple affirmation of a set of beliefs or doctrines, but a call to a different way of operating in the world. Hence, while belief may seem cheap and easy as a matter of assent, faith requires responsibility.

This piece of responsibility and human action as a result of faith resonates with Caputo’s statements on faith in The Insistence of God. Unlike Tillich, Caputo is not interested in metaphysics or even in claiming God’s ultimacy. Yet he is interested in a radical understanding of faith that again reorients one’s entire self toward a different and risky way of life. “I measure theology by the extent to which it avoids the pitfalls of a too-comforting piety…” writes Caputo (Insistence, 24). While belief and approximations to fact or theoretical knowledge may provide some comfort, this is quite possibly entirely antithetical to the Christian message. Faith for Caputo is faith in the event, the means by which we are called upon in the name of God. (for more on the event and radical theology, see this post) The very nature of the structure of events is such that they surprise us and impinge upon us in unsuspected ways, meaning that the comforting piety of belief simply won’t do. “If the name of God is not causing us a great deal of difficulty, it is not God we are talking about” (Insistence, 28). What gets itself called in the name of God, what arrives via the event is, like Tillich’s state of being ultimately concerned, a bit risky and shaky. There is no guarantee that all will be well, at least not in any immediate sense, but nevertheless our responsibility lies in responding to the call, to the event.

Life is messy and raises messy questions; therefore, easy answers just don’t work. Moreover, easy living misses the point. “God’s problem is that God insists, is an insistent problem that won’t go away…” (Insistence, 29). Such insistence requires something of us. If God insists and we exist, then our existence becomes the means by which God acts in the world. This radical theology is not a sit on your laurels, cling to your favorite worship song sort of theology, but is one that calls us out. Thus faithfulness to the event or faith as the state of being ultimately concerned does not rest in easy answers; it finds no solace in piety and prostration, but calls us out of church buildings and into the fray to deal with the messines of the world.

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Caputo’s headless Hegelianism, a theology of perhaps

If you like to play it safe, if you like to stay within the confines of a comfortable and familiar confessional theology, if you like to sit neatly and quietly in a pew or folding chair for a very small fraction of your week in order to be soothed into complacency, then don’t read this book. If, however, you find the all of above way too static, rigid, dogmatic, and terribly boring, as many of us do, then Caputo’s Insistence of God will provide you with an/other way to do religion without religion, an/other form of theology that offers a fabric of life by means of a theopoetics.

9780253010070_medCaputo’s most recent book articulates a theology of “perhaps” as a radical theology (as opposed to confessional). For a great explanation of the difference between confessional/strong theology and radical/weak theology see Todd Littleton’s post on the first chapter of The Insistence of God. The gist, as Todd points out, is that radical or weak theology, by refusing to rely on confessional statements, minimizes God’s responsibility for the world and maximizes human responsiblity in the world. Caputo’s theology is a radical theology of the event, of a call that gets itself called (but that may or may not come from God) and to which we are invited to respond. The event insists and impinges upon us, calling us to respond and be responsibible in our response. When we do so, our response to the event constitutes, for Caputo, the only way in which we can say that God exists. God exists through us, when we respond to the call of the event by acting in the world.

Chapter 5 turns toward a couple of philosophical/theological sources that “postmodern” thinkers/theologians have used and are using to de/construct confessional theology and think instead of a radical theology–Kant and Hegel. Ultimately, Caputo sides with Hegel, but only with what he calls a headless Hegelianism. Here is how his argument plays out.

Kant’s reaction to religion turned around two notions–morality and epistemology (theory of knowledge). For Kant “religion is reduced to ethics and the rest is superstition” (88). Additionally, Kant “found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” since if knowledge remained then he thought we would surely see most of religion as mere superstition–something indefensible in the face of reason and not really worth attempting to defend anyway (98). Caputo argues that postmodern thinkers who operate under a Kantian version of continental philosophy (post-metaphysical philosophy) are really still doing confessional theology as a critique of the limits of what we can know (epistemology) and as an apologetics used to defend religious belief from dogmatic atheists. This type, according to Caputo, defends religion but fails to radicalize it. It can only say that we are not God and that the new atheists (Dennet, Dawkins, Hitchens) are not right. But it fails to describe the nature of events that require a respose to their insistent calling.

Hegel, on the other hand, gains some traction for Caputo by means of the Vorstellung–“a figurative presentation, a representation of the truth in the form of a narrative or a theological figure,” an image that “required conceptual clarification” (88-89). What Kant discarded from religion as mere superstition, Hegel sees as the Vorstellung, the representation, of what the actual truth is behind the narrative, story, or image. Caputo suggests that this is far more radical, the first radical theology, because Hegel dismissed the rational arguments in favor of the irrational story and pictures that are the representations of truth–they are truth becoming true, which means that we only have images of the truth and not the truth itself. This last part is important, because its where Caputo decapitates Hegel, cutting off the “head” that is the Absolute Spirit, God, truth.

A headless Hegelianism for Caputo is “a Vorstellung of which there is no Concept,” an image without the ability to definitely and finally point to a metaphysical truth. Caputo’s theology of perhaps denies that any such truth “exists”, though to be sure it “insists” through the event. And the Vorstellung becomes the stuff of theopoetics–not poetry or aesthetics, but images, figure, narratives that (attempt to) articulate an event.

There is so much goodness in this book (including Caputo’s hilarious dismantling of Zizek in chapter 7), but the two things I appreciate most about chapter 5 are, first, the recurrent mention that he is writing not just for academics but also for people in faith communities. He takes these communities seriously because events occur in the material world, in matter. “The weakness of God means that what is done in the name of God is done by human beings in the name of ‘God'” (107). Second, in this chapter he deconstructs the old two-world theories of traditional metaphysics so that there is no longer a destinction between transcendence and immanence, God and the world, time and eternity. Radical theology, he writes, doesn’t mount a counter-attack against traditional metaphysics, but offers a better option. Rather than choosing one side of all the traditional binaries he gives us a way out of binary thinking altogether. (Of course I’d argue that Whitehead did this in 1929, but that’s probably fuel for a later post or for questions to Caputo on the blog tour video Q&A.)

To repeat, if you’re tired of complacency, tired of confessional statements, and ready for action, for enacting, then Caputo’s Insistence of God is your ticket to a radical theology of the event, a theology of perhaps that calls us, impinges upon us and requires us to respond.

The Enoch Factor

As a budding materialist (for info on what that means, see these posts) and philosopher, I’m not typically interested in books on spirituality. This is probably a fault of mine, but I openly admit it. However, when I first read about Steve McSwain‘s book The Enoch Factor I was intrigued for a couple of reasons. First, I read the Book of Enoch in college and remembered him having been an interesting character of the Hebrew Bible. Second, McSwain’s take on the type of shallow spirituality professed in many churches today seemed right on, and I wanted to hear him out. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.

ImageWhat initially drew me to this book is also what carried me through to the end–McSwain’s unapologetic critique of the type of Christianity that requires assent to key beliefs or dogmas. McSwain himself has clearly undergone a very real transformation after which he understands truth, religion, and faith not as a set of dogmatic statements or theological litmus-tests, but as a journey that could take on many forms. As one who attends an “emergent” church with openly gay ministers on staff, it was absolutely refreshing to hear a former Southern Baptist pastor articulate his understanding of faith as constantly expanding and evolving and his understanding of other religions as equally possible paths to the divine reality. McSwain’s book is truly brave in this regard–he embraces his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and affirms that while Christianity is his chosen path, it is not the only path to knowing God.

The reason I tend not to read books on spirituality is that all too often these books focus on extra-worldly concerns, leaving aside the issues that face us everyday in the world we currently inhabit. I don’t, however, think this is the case with The Enoch Factor. Aside from a couple of statements (which I may have misinterpreted), I think that the type of spirituality McSwain models could in fact be one that renews human individuals in order for them to focus on addressing real-world concerns with new vivacity and a renewed sense of purpose. Knowing God, the way he articulates it, is a journey that can lead each person to a better space, a better personal awareness, and toward a healthier means of living and being in the world. McSwain writes: “Unless there are profound changes in human consciousness–that is, changes in how we look at each other and treat each other, there is little hope for humanity’s survival.” This statement from the beginning of the book signals his desire to address the problems inherent in the physical world we call home through a vital spiritual quest that calls us to give up on “religion” in favor of a life of faith with an acute awareness of the divine and a clearer understanding of our role on this earth.