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A Review of
Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2016.
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Reviewed by Lyle Enright
The early Church Father Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, takes a hard look at this question and what it means for us in Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis. Where Tertullian wondered what secular philosophy could possibly contribute to the Kingdom of God, Raschke isn’t at all sure that the Kingdom can survive much longer without a powerful dose of philosophical education, specifically from a Marxist perspective. It is thus no accident that the “critical theology” he proposes looks a lot like the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School, a German intellectual heritage whose history he explores throughout this book’s six chapters.
Raschke refers to the past century as an era of “new world disorder” in which the momentum of constant conflict became the catalyst for globalization. In the wake of war and the economic collapse of the 1930s, the Frankfurt school emerged as a new attempt at the Marxist social experiment: returning humanism to Marxism, it did not aim at a violent overthrow of the ruling class but an ethical revolution towards radical democracy. Hannah Arendt had famously suggested that Nazism and other evils emerged not from practiced cruelty but from good people taking for granted a certain picture of “business as usual,” and so the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt school aimed to interrupt business as usual: the “grand narratives” of the status-quo which produced “elect” groups of people who established and inherited dominion over the world. In a word, critical theory’s target has been modern theology.
Any time that humans have sought to impose and legitimate a total, top-down account of things, says Raschke, they have been doing theology–though what each theology takes for its “God” varies from case to case. This includes the “magical” thinking of the World Wars and turn-of-the-century religious violence, Euro-centric Enlightenment “Reason” and our own culture of the global market. The recognition of and attention to this reality in our own time is known as the “religious turn” in contemporary philosophy and, rather than creating an opportunity to expose and excise religious once and for all, Raschke sees here the potential for an “uncompromising faith stance” to meet the “systematic, social, and psychological concerns of the Frankfurt school.”
To exemplify this sort of thinking, Raschke offers readings of two philosophers–Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek–who utilize Christian theology in their pursuit of a new, universal vision for the world. For Badiou and Zizek, a faith community is a “fighting collective,” a group of people spurred by a common experience and seeking to restore creation. Raschke views such communities as exemplary because they seek, as their first goal, to reorient the agenda of theology as a discipline and method towards emancipatory ends, deconstructing all “over-determinations” of the human condition. However, both Badiou and Zizek advocate a “Christianless” Christianity, taking the form of religion but understanding salvation as part of a historical-materialist view of the world.
Doesn’t such a meeting amount to Athens simply colonizing Jerusalem? According to Raschke, this is the wrong way of seeing the problem, and assumes that Athens and Jerusalem have ever really been as separate as we tend to think. For Raschke, there is no theology without political implications and no politics that does not seek some transcendent legitimacy. The “political theology” that Raschke is advocating here suggests that it is impossible to completely separate or conflate politics and religion. Instead, he says, it is a secular negotiation of the religious, rather than an inquiry into the impact of religion on the secular. It is a rejection of any nostalgia for a long-lost and normative religious account of things, instead conducting a “genealogy” which tracks the “force of god” driving movements and moments.
This approach to theology, Raschke says, addresses our need for a new universal vision; it “rehabilitates the Christian narrative in a manner that both affirms its status as historically situated divine revelation and addresses decisively from a singular angle of vision the global crises in which we find ourselves enmeshed today.” At times, however, it is difficult to tell whether Raschke’s “rehabilitation of the Christian narrative” simultaneously requires its abandonment as it does for Badiou and Zizek. Early on, Raschke’s definition of “God” appears to name history itself, a force requiring faith insofar as we “cannot understand it…only name it, acknowledge it, and testify to its effects.” At the same time, Raschke is insistent that critical theology do what academic “religious studies” has thus far failed to do: to understand religion as religion and to appreciate the new force that religion has achieved on the contemporary global stage. In a world defined by an over-abundance of options, the “return of religion” cannot be reduced to the question of fundamentalism but must include an account of how religious belief itself captures the imagination, speaking to concrete circumstances and offering a whole vision, a “Kingdom of God” which is not purely immanent or transcendent but is truly ready-to-hand. However radical Raschke’s imagination, it is still incarnation which, for him, best addresses our world, enabling a form of critical religious engagement which is at least as global as the conditions of enslavement it seeks to address.
The agenda which Rashke offers in Critical Theology is not a set of concrete, missional steps but more of an existential framework. From this vantage, Raschke does not tell us how to live our faith in this world but wants us to be critical of those who would provide us with such easy steps. Readers familiar with Liberation theology will find familiar arguments in Critical Theology and will find Raschke a welcome ally in that project. But between this approach and a tendency towards philosophical jargon, Raschke may be frustrating reading for some. His discussions of Badiou and Zizek are especially dense, and he does little to demystify those iconoclastic thinkers for a more traditionally-minded audience. What he does offer, though, is a way of locating oneself as a person of faith in a world that is simultaneously religious and secular, global and localized, chafing against all truths and yet in desperate need of Truth. Having no patience with top-down checklists for cleaning up the world, Raschke wants us to remember that we do not save the world by first transcending it and then returning: Scripture and history, revelation and philosophy all give us the tools we need to get started right from where we are.
Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. He is currently writing a dissertation on political theology in contemporary literature, exploring the ways in which narratives of divine power can also act as critiques and revisions of political power and sovereignty. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in multiple venues, popular and academic. He often dreams of the riches that adjuncting will bring and hopes that they will one day finance his desire to finally learn how to write good fiction.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com