Looking Back on a Month of Radical Theology

by

This has been a busy month. I’ve been swamped with working 35 hours a week plus school plus maintaining a blog. However, I must admit that as February winds down I reflect back on this month of blogging with marked ambivalence. This month of blogging has made me rethink the purpose of blogging. While this was undoubtedly the most time and energy I’ve ever invested in my blog, it was an investment that I began to question as the discussion it engendered was few and far between. This is partially my fault because I did not keep my summaries condensed, and I did not offer possible discussion questions. However, I ultimately decided that blogging is for my enjoyment alone. Hence, even if my reviews of both Crockett’s and Altizer’s book did not generate the discussion I had hoped for, I am still content that I profiled two books of radical theology that truly transformed the very way I approach theology. Not only had they been highly influential in my past, I also know that delving into these texts over the last month stretched me intellectually. I struggled so much with Crockett’s work, but upon completion I remembered what I admired so much about it: its honesty. I think one way to test the influence of a text is the degree to which that work never leaves you. I feel as if Crockett’s Interstices is one of those works that will forever haunt my theological thinking. Of course one can always choose to ignore those insights, but if theology is to remain ethical then it must attend to the very things that terrify it. I also hope that reviewing Altizer’s work offers a tiny glimpse into the true sophistication of his theology. It’s always tempting reduce someone’s theology to a couple of talking points, but it’s obvious that Altizer’s theology is far more profound that his opponents every gave him credit for. There’s also an aspect of Altizer’s theology that strikes me as incredibly honest, namely his attention to historical research and Biblical criticism. While there are numerous ways for theologians to avoid the messiness of historical scholarship, Altizer dives right in headfirst because as he claims at the beginning of his text, for theology to be theology it must be historical.

I also find Altizer’s theological vision admirable. Is there any other modern theologian who remains so consistent throughout his career completely possessed by a desire for a new theological thinking? His sincere theological voyage is one that has been utterly solitary, and perhaps Barth is right in saying that the theologian must always remain on the outskirts of society to properly fulfill his task. As Crockett would also remind us, theologians who theologize without any assurance of the truth of their claims, may actually be mad. Radical theologizing is always somewhat pathological. It can be a sickness (unto death?) that comes over us, forever disturbing our existence. I’ve come to terms with this, and I hope to enjoy my symptom. If William James could identify some religious believers as being sick-souled, then perhaps all genuine theologians are the ones who must suffer to truly rethink theology in our modern world. As Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

I just found this quote from Altizer about theology and sickness.

“[T]he God who we can actually know is too terrible to contemplate, so that in this perspective, there is no more dangerous or more pathological vocation than theology, a discipline that truly is a sickness unto death. Why then choose theology? Why accept such a loathsome and pathological calling? Can one here be at most simply a scapegoat? Would it not be far wiser simply to end such a calling?” (Living The Death of God, 105)

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21 Responses to “Looking Back on a Month of Radical Theology”

  1. A.J. Smith Says:

    Being a fellow blogger, I can understand your displeasure with the lack of conversation. I know on my blog, my best posts have generated little to no conversation, while my worst and least informative posts generate the most conversation. The one that got mentioned on F&T, for example, was a not-entirely-thought-through piece that took me about 15 minutes to write (shorter, actually, then it took me to write this comment).

    In your case, though, I have actually printed out your series on Altizer, Crockett, and the Death of God (I have a theology binder for the best stuff from various blogs, sad I know). I very much appreciate benefiting from your reading. By no means stop (although how you work 35-hours a week and balance graduate school and a blog is completely and totally beyond me).

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Glad to hear it. The balancing act is easier than it sounds, and I actually have friends (true story).

  3. Dave Mesing Says:

    Yeah, I’ve found that generally speaking, I still felt satisfaction when I blogged through something and there wasn’t much discussion. Doing the summaries, etc. is as helpful for my own thinking as anything, and I suppose that’s why I keep trying to maintain the blog.

    I’ve been awol for most of the month of February, and pretty worn down with school and other things.

  4. jerome Says:

    I’ve only recently started following your blog, and although much of the content here is way over my head — I’m undergraduate sociology major, merely dabbling in theology and psychoanalysis — I’ve found your writing (especially these past summaries) useful as a sort of intermediary engagement, a stepping stone into unfamiliar areas.

    I’m not exactly in a position to discuss anything here… but I do appreciate the time you’ve put into this blog, even if it is for your own edification.

  5. Robert Minto Says:

    As someone who’s blogged in various places for the past five years (I started WAY too young) for reasons as various as profit (I payed my tuition as a sophomore from a blog about freelance writing), harassment (I had a pseudonymous political blog in which I raised hell for a few months), and finally conversation and intellectual growth (my current blogs), I understand your frustration about comments. Especially because your model is Kotsko’s wonderfully active blog. But here’s the thing — serious condensing of difficult books is never going to promote a community of commenters by itself. An und fur sich’s success at that level occurs because the blog already fosters a habitat of crackling dialogue from much more frequent, much ‘lighter’ posts. I don’t think you need to worry about whether you’re accomplishing a good thing — you remind me of Per Caritatem which also doesn’t get much commentary but is nevertheless one of the best blogs out there. I guess my point is just that your month of radical theology shouldn’t necessarily depress you — the story of A.J. and his binder is affirmation enough of that — and that if your goal is lots of dialogue, then you should probably consider altering your blogging technique a bit. Personally I admire the serious way you blog, and would hate to see you become depressed and unprolific because you aren’t getting the kind of feedback you want from the kind of posts you write. Keep going, Jeremy! I will certainly keep reading. (And A.J.’s binder isn’t filled yet. =)

  6. Jeremy Says:

    You started blogging when you were what 16? Crazy.

    It’s not as if I’m expecting everyone to follow along scrupulously to every review. It would be naive of me to think that format is going to promote tons of comments, I guess I’m just glad to hear some are benefiting from the effort I put into reviewing those two books that are very dear to me. The ‘lighter posts’ are something I’ve experimented with, but I ultimately don’t think that’s the direction I’d like to take my blog. I mean I don’t really want to be the kind of blogger that only stimulates discussions based on polemics. For instance, I’ve written some on evangelicals, but I think it’s just too damn easy to make fun of them. That and I don’t see it being a very productive enterprise.

    I also didn’t mean to come across as whiny or bitchy about the lack of dialogue generated. This is largely my fault. Also, I think I would worry if tons of people started interacting with my blog as it might suggest that the ideas being produced are common and generally palatable. I’m not depressed about the month, and I’m glad to know that some find it entertaining even if it was hard to follow.

  7. Jeremy Says:

    And hey if nothing else this month can be seen as kind of a experiment for our upcoming book event

  8. clayton crockett Says:

    Jeremy, I just want to say how much I appreciate your devoting so much time and effort to my book, and it haunts me too! There’s something uncanny about reading one’s own work, especially in public and through others’ eyes, part of it satisfies a very acute desire for recognition, but part of it also provokes anxiety: what did I say? Why did I say that? I don’t (know if I) deserve being thought well of, etc.

    But also I want to affirm what you said about Altizer, who is an inspiration and a challenge for me, ever since I read his work in the early 90s while doing an MA at Virginia. I don’t exactly share his vision, but it is powerful and important, and his commitment to radical theology is indefatigable. Furthermore, he has always gone out of his way to befriend and nurture younger theological voices, and this is a deep passion and compassion for which I am incredibly grateful. Finally, Altizer gave a sermon at the memorial for Charlie Winquist after Winquist died, which is one of the most striking and moving events I’ve ever witnessed. It’s strange how there’s this tradition of radical theology in the US, and I feel compelled to honor it as I do my thinking and work.

  9. Jeremy Says:

    As I went back and read some of his theological memoir I was struck by his theological clarity and personal honesty. He spoke so candidly about Winquist’s funeral and about his concerns over Taylor’s abandonment of theology. However, the various disclosures remained respectful and free of bitterness. What i also was struck by was the way he interwove both theology and biography. In a chapter that’s released here [http://altizer.narod.ru/memoir/chapter14.html] but was not included in the final edition of the book he discusses the injury he sustained after he had to jump out of his burning house. It’s incredible to read how he reads this destruction as an apocalypse that demanded a rebirth of his theology. The fire consumed all his books, and he interpreted this as a challenge to do a new theology sans authority.

  10. clayton crockett Says:

    I remember the fire, as well as some of the aftermath, and Jeff and I visited him in the Poconos the following summer with Noelle and Gabriel Vahanian. It is pretty amazing. I enjoyed reading the memoir also.

    I thought it was neat that Zizek affirmed Altizer’s vision of the death of God in their AAR session, and Tom seemed pleased with that. He didn’t engage with any of the discussion or comments after, he just preached his sermon on Blake and sat down. It was a beautiful moment.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    I really want to lisen to Altizer’s speech. Someone recorded Zizek’s speech but failed to record Altizer’s. I like to think Zizek’s affirmation of Altizer’s theology is (on some level) vindication for years of exclusion. Hell, if nothing else, it makes all those theologians who like Zizek (or at least think he’s cool) have a difficult time reconciling their approval of him with Zizek’s support of Altizer’s theology (considering Altizer is almost universally neglected/despised).

  12. Clayton Crockett Says:

    I agree totally, and I thought the whole session was being recorded, but like you I’ve seen the Zizek presentation on youtube, but not Altizer’s which was pretty extraordinary.

  13. Brad Johnson Says:

    Jeremy, I’ll ask around, re: a recording of the Altizer talk. I was under the impression, too, that the entire session would be recorded.

    Also … don’t sweat the lack of comments. Hell, I’m going through a 900+ page novel on AUFS, and am lucky to get two comments. Occasionally, we’ll even have book event posts that get no comments at all. I’ve decided it’s to the betterment of the internet just to have this stuff available — no matter if a conversation emerges at the time in the confines of a comment box. It will be found.

  14. Jeremy Says:

    Let’s hope so. As long as the big Other enjoys it I should be able to derive some sort of enjoyment out of that.

  15. Brad Johnson Says:

    The other thing w/ Altizer in particular, less so Clayton, is that I’ve found it hard to talk about his work — conversationally, that is. There is something about it that almost screams out for solitude. When conversations have emerged, they too often tend to be about Altizer himself (something which also tends to happen with Zizek). Not sure exactly what makes the subject matter, or the philosophical/theological maneuvers therein, so difficult to translate conversationally, but it has certainly been my experience. It also seems to bear out in Altizer’s experience of theology, as well, as he articulates beautifully in his memoir.

  16. Jeremy Says:

    I remember that’s how I came to Altizer’s theology. I found a copy of Radical Theology and the Death of God in some old bookstore. The only reason I purchased it was because it was red and black and slightly terrifying. I remember reading it on the bus in college hiding the cover like I was reading porn. It felt like I had found this horrible treasure that nobody should know about.

    I couldn’t tell you why conversations about Zizek and Altizer often times digress into being discussion of their personalities. Part of it is obviously both Zizek’s and Altizer’s fault for being so damn interesting, bizarre, and passionate. But yeah, I don’t even know how to explain his theology to someone who has a marginal grasp of theology. That’s also why secondary sources can never properly represent radical theology. It always ends up turning into accusations of simplicity or obscurity.

  17. clayton crockett Says:

    I love that story about Radical Theology and the Death of God, which I bought at a bookstore in Charlottesville. For me, what got me hooked on this stuff was the collection Deconstruction & Theology, with essays by Altizer, Taylor, Winquist, Raschke, Scharlemann, which I also got my first year (of my masters) at UVA in 1992. Then I convinced Scharlemann, with whom I was working, to let me write my MA thesis on Altizer, so I focused on his idea of “anonymous humanity” in Total Presence. Scharlemann encouraged me to write to Altizer, so I did, and he was very engaging and helpful. But he trashed my thesis after I sent it to him, after I’d moved on to Syracuse. And Charlie Winquist would have him come up to Syracuse ,and we would argue and he would accuse Charlie and I of not doing theology. Good times.

  18. Brad Johnson Says:

    Altizer can be witheringly honest in his appraisals of things. I have literally no idea what he will say about any given book or piece of music or movie. He is an absolute wildcard.

    I’d read his book on Blake while studying for my MA. It was completely unrelated to the pretty traditional, even conservative, work I was doing at the time. But, to say the least, I was “exploring.” I’m also pretty sure I encountered him in the collection that Clayton mentioned, Deconstruction & TheologyM. None of it really struck me, though, until my advisor, David Jasper, told me repeatedly that my dissertation was in a kind of dialogue with Altizer. Funny, I told him, because I’ve no clue what you mean. After being told this enough, I finally started looking into the matter, and finally saw what Jasper meant.

    Altizer has had trouble identifying what I’ve done as theology — though, to be honest, many people have. And would probably even resist saying I was ever in dialogue with his work as such. But, he is certainly gracious to those who show any interest in his work.

  19. clayton crockett Says:

    Yeah, Altizer is incredibly gracious personally, but he is also unbelievably honest and can be extremely critical. He once told me of someone who asked for his honest opinion of something he wrote and when Tom hesitated he pressed, and then Altizer told him, which made him cry.

  20. Jeremy Says:

    Why doesn’t that surprise me about Altizer? If he didn’t think you and Winquist were doing theology, then what did he call it, philosophy? However, I remember when I first read Interstices and Epiphanies of Darkness, I had a hard time understanding how in the hell it was related to theology. It took me a second read through to begin to understand why this was actual theology, albeit a fully secular kind.

    Crying? I think everyone knows there’s no crying in theology.

  21. clayton crockett Says:

    I think for Altizer what Winquist and I did was suspect as theology mainly because it wasn’t metaphysical; he thought it was too epistemological.

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