A Brief History of Radical Theology

Trevor Greenfield is an Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies at Open University with research interests in Radical Theology. This is the opening chapter of a series which was later published as a book by O Books.

Part 1: Atheism, the new Christianity

In the UK, if you possess a familial nature, you can choose to Meet the Ancestors on a Thursday evening. On Sunday evenings you can join the Time Team and on various other nights of the week you can discover the Secrets of the Dead, encounter the Lost Treasures of the Ancient World or simply ponder on what The Romans did for us. There's no doubt about it, just like black is the new white and staying in is the new going out, archaeology is the new rock and roll.

There is much amusement to be found in these popular expressions of post-modern paradox and in true post-modern style we all know they are not to be taken seriously. Yet sometimes I still find myself wondering just how far can you go? Is, for example, the only truth that there is no truth? Are new labour old conservatives? Is war the new peace and weakness the new strength? Or are we all just paying homage to Orwell?

A paradox that would seem to be appropriate to religion in our current time might be found in the observation that atheism is the new Christianity. Last year the Archbishop of Westminster declared that Christianity had all but been vanquished from Britain whilst at the same time the Archbishop of Canterbury declared it to be an exciting time for faith. Do we find in these clerical observations another paradox, or can these statements be reconciled?

I suspect that far from being vanquished, Christianity is alive and well in Britain, you simply have to recognise it in its new form. Religion was once required to provide answers about how the universe worked. Now we have science. Where once religion was the vehicle for social and political cohesion we now have notions of national identity, liberal democracy and the free market to orient us and give us our sense of place in the world. Religion provided us with God, but we seem to have largely given up on God and, as someone once observed [G K Chesterton, ed], when people stop believing in God they don't 'believe in nothing', they believe in anything.

So what is Christianity's new form? I would argue that it is lifestyle, in so far as the concept of lifestyle seems to have arisen out of the old modernist preoccupation with culture. So the contention is that Britain remains a Christian country, not in religious inclination, but in its lifestyle, a style that has been informed and fashioned by two thousand years of ethical evolution dressed in Christian culture.

For two generations theologians have spoken of religionless Christianity. Now it is coming into being. The lifestyle of Britain in the twenty-first century is Christian, regardless of individual beliefs. British culture is inherently Christian. People are free to find or not find God in whatever form or expression they choose, but they can't escape culture. The Archbishop of Westminster sees defeat because he recognizes Christianity in its old form, authoritative, imperialist and transforming. But Christianity in the post-modern world is individual and atheistic and it no longer informs culture, other than through the echoes of historical evolution. More to the point, perhaps, both the Archbishop and the Church still need Christianity, but Christianity no longer needs the Church.

There are issues too with the Archbishop of Canterbury's notion. It's not really an exciting time for faith because faith, in a Christian context, is no longer required. Unless you hold to the medieval conception of Christianity, faith is anachronistic. It was appropriate in an age of mythological and cosmological exegesis, but now for myth read metaphor. Just as Christianity is religionless, so is it faithless. Tertullian's requirement to believe because it is impossible will no longer do. Faith is placed not in the metaphysical, but in the ever-extending horizons of science and society. The problem for post-modern Christianity is that through its role of cultural backdrop it still endeavours to mediate reality, but does so through symbols that, increasingly, succeeding generations do not relate to. Notions of redemption through sacrifice and original sin are alien to our culture and the symbol system, whilst recognised as part of our heritage, does not, generally speaking, engage with individuals or society in any way other than through metaphor or as art. Art, of course, offers salvific possibility for humanity, but only of a salvation that is existentially perceived.

Theologically, Christianity has functioned through paradox. Life is found in death, wholeness in that which is broken and success in failure (and few, if any, have ever failed and succeeded as spectacularly as Jesus). It's fitting then that its final transformation is found in a secular atheism where the Genesis myth is inverted, where it is not Man that has become God, but where God has become as one of us. So how did it happen? How did we develop from a world that offered religious certainty to one where there is no more, as Philip Larkin saw it, "sweating in the dark about God"? In this new series we will trace the developments of the transformation in Radical Christian thought. Taking the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as the philosophical foundation, twentieth-century theological responses ranging from Karl Barth to Lloyd Geering will be examined and used to chart major movements in Radical Theology.

Broadly, the movement can be characterised as one that has taken theology from the real to the non-real and re-located it from heaven to earth. Yet, more significantly perhaps, it also a journey from certainty to uncertainty. Another key element is the recognition of the continuing value of religion, a value that, in turn, has been variously expressed. Non-realism, for example, denies the existence of an objective transcendent God and holds to the belief that the idea of God is a human creation. But the denial of the objectivity of God is not necessarily a denial of an existent God, rather, a rejection of a particular type of deity. John Robinson, for example, in Honest to God, draws on the theology of Aldus Huxley to show how developing a view that associates the universe with God results in a redundancy of the term 'God'. Thus natural religion can offer a path forward to a non-supernatural model.

Other attempts at non-theistic explanations of the universe that allow for a sacralising of nature so that religion can continue to offer meaning to humanity have been attempted, with varying degrees of success. Thomas Altizer's early Christian Atheism, for example, appears to be an attempt to locate the Death of God in historical terms, with the crucifixion of Christ consequently being seen as the self-annihilation of the objective, transcendent, and ultimately oppressive God of the Old Testament. Thus the last two thousand years are re-defined as a witness to an out-pouring of deity into the world in such a way that spirit informs flesh and flesh informs spirit. The world is made sacred by its encounter with deity and although dualism is destroyed it does not necessarily follow that the term 'God' becomes redundant.

Don Cupitt as well, of course, has also heralded the Death of God (albeit a different God and a different death) as an idea that effectively sacralises the world. Cupitt's attempt, if you accept his basic 'one-world' premise, certainly seems a more robust definition. God, in the supernatural sense has never existed and the problems of definition encountered in a natural theology, such as Huxley's, do not occur because Cupitt's use of language precludes the possibility of allowing a monistic ontology to be defined theologically.

Yet, regardless of the particular worldview expressed and regardless of how well it adheres to a non-realist position, it can be argued that those who claim to know of God's non-existence claim to know an awful lot. What is the basis of such knowledge? Certainly we can intellectualise, discuss the defining moments in human history or rejoice in the triumph of critical thought over religious dogma. But isn't it nothing more than the ultimate exercise in self-deception if that is what our disavowal of deity is based upon? Does an explorer who sets out to find an island and fails to do so prove the island's non-existence? Is God dead, or absent? Indeed, is God in any sense a being at all?

The idea of a deity maintaining radio-silence or a creator who has simply gone on a cosmic walkabout may not be a particularly satisfying conception. Yet ultimately, the idea of absence brings with it not knowledge, but, rather, silence and unknowing and may even imply the possibility of return. Recognition of the absence of God, rather than the proclamation of the death of God may ultimately push us towards that style of theology that sets out to prove the existence of another piece of existence. The danger, of course, is that what it actually produces is either the idea of a being 'far too small' to be God, or just the bemused indifference of those who decline to indulge themselves in theological word-games.

If we are to embrace notions of radical uncertainty then clearly we must do so by accepting the in-built uncertainty of the notion of radical uncertainty. 'I don't know' is an answer that is rarely satisfying, particularly so in the endeavour to find answers to questions of a religious or theological nature. By contrast 'God is dead' offers a finality that seems to allow us the opportunity to put an entire mode of thinking and being behind us and move forward to create new ideas and expressions. Whether such intellectual confidence is truly justified, or by focusing on one reality we have simply lost sight of another is a debate we must encounter.

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