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Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis

Carl A. Raschke
Published by IVP Academic in 2016

“Political theology” signifies two types of inquiry, concerning either the political implications of theological thought or the theological presuppositions of political theory. Recent surveys of the subdiscipline have tended to adopt the former approach. For instance, An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology (William B. Eerdmans, 2011), edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey, canvasses the key texts by political theologians of the past century and of the present. Political Theology: Contemporary Challenges and Future Directions (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), edited by Michael Welker, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, and Klaus Tanner, surveys the past, present, and prospective states of the theological subfield. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2015), edited by Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips, offers contemporary political readings of historical theologians. Elizabeth Phillips’s Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012) perhaps comes the closest to adopting the opposite methodological approach by examining the subfield’s historical development and theoretical schemata. Yet these texts remark only in passing on the religious resonances of recent critical theorists. By contrast, Carl Raschke’s Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis concentrates almost exclusively on the theological implications of Continental social and political philosophers of the past half-century.

Raschke argues that contemporary theologians have yet to reckon fully with our twenty-first-century geopolitical moment. Western culture (“the once proud post-Communist, secular international order”) teeters on the precipice of global catastrophe wrought by the triple threat of neoliberal capitalism, nation-state neo-colonialism, and anti-environmental ecocide. To rectify this, Raschke equips his (presumably Christian) readers with the theories of a number of recent political thinkers whose atheistic worldviews nonetheless incorporate the most socially radical insights of Western monotheism. Chapter 1 launches Raschke’s narrative in the early twentieth century, recounting the revelation (by cynical intellectuals disillusioned by World War I) that globalization intertwines religion with nationalism. Adopting and adapting the existentialism borne of the interwar cultural crisis, Karl Barth’s “crisis theology” attacked liberal German thought (which had shifted from progressivism to fascism) for confusing theoretical constructs with experiences of the wholly Other. Meanwhile, the first generation of critical theorists were responding to the crisis of Marxism, in which the Western working classes turned socially conservative instead of leading the socialist revolution as hoped. These philosophers of the Frankfurt School refined the Hegelian insight that no entity (including a social class or political movement) exists truthfully as given in its one-sidedness. Raschke seeks to fuse the dual intellectual currents of crisis theology and critical theory into what he calls “critical theology”: a shared critique of the ideological justification of the (constructed) status quo in the name of a radical divine spirit.

In chapter 2, Raschke insists that recognizing a crisis as such is, in itself, a significant intellectual accomplishment (although it needs to be followed by an explanation of, and strategy to solve, the crisis). Raschke revisits Hannah Arendt’s concern about evil’s banality, particularly how the conditions for the Holocaust could repeat themselves in any culture governed by grand narratives (such as the secular liberalism or the radical Marxism which both flourished in the wake of Christendom). And in chapter 3, Raschke argues that political theology always presupposes a social crisis of religion. To illustrate this, he returns to the very fount of Western thought to show how the theological inquiry which flourished in Plato’s Athens had developed out of the socio-political “death” of the Homeric gods. Raschke then tracks the history of political theology from Augustine through Spinoza to its twentieth-century rejuvenation in Carl Schmitt, who argues that all modern political concepts are “secularized theological concepts.” After having been restricted for more than a millennium within epistemological absolutism (first theistic, then naturalistic), political theology shifted toward a pluralist discourse. Inspired by the Frankfurt School, the New Left revealed the Enlightenment’s notion of universalism as the bad faith of Western colonialism. But in the wake of the twenty-first-century’s War on Terror, the Great Recession, and international immigration crises, Raschke wonders now whether pluralism (much like “multiculturalism” and “postmodernity”) is an outdated notion which only made sense within pre-crisis neo-liberalism. Now, pluralism increasingly appears to function as an ideological metanarrative which serves to incorporate certain subaltern groups into bourgeois society rather than to affirm any sectarian revolt against the system itself. By taking the Christ event as ground zero for politically theorizing a new universalism, critical theology must abandon inquiries about the theological notion of sovereignty undergirding the nation-state’s [il]legitimacy in order to discern “the force behind faith.”

Accordingly, chapter 4 tracks the shift in critical theory’s relationship to religion. Whereas the old guard of the Frankfurt School had abandoned religion (alongside consumerist mass culture) as an ideological “opiate of the masses,” the newest generation of Marxist critical theorists (particularly Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek) feel compelled to attend to religion as a source of revolutionary spirit: as Žižek insists, Christianity and historical materialism should serve each other as “accountability partners.” While historical materialism portrays God as being “always-already … dead” and eschews any hope of cosmogenetic harmony or eschatological restoration, it nonetheless stands in need of Christianity’s (religiously unique) assertion that eternity is accessible only through time (namely, via the incarnation event). Likewise, Badiou examines the revolutionary dynamic of a faithful commitment to a truth event (such as performative truth of the Christian resurrection), which is not a fact to be evaluated objectively but is instead the Hegelian “power of the negative,” subjectivizing a subject through a summons to self-identification.

Chapter 5 then narrates how mid-twentieth-century liberal theologians, seeking to expand their academic domain beyond a myopic Christianity, created the secular discipline of Religious Studies. Even as the discipline of philosophy itself has grown increasingly interested in the truth-claims of religions, religious studies scholars have often ignored or downplayed them (for example, discourse about “world religious traditions” neutralizes the potentially revolutionary power of actual faith-committed subjects). This disengaged theoretical stance has been exacerbated in the postmodern semiotic turn, as Marxism’s materialist critique of society’s economic base transformed into a cultural critique of its ideologies. Raschke ultimately affirms a stance neither of modernist positivism nor postmodern irony, but of a sincere return to the meaning-generating singularity of the event, particularly the “Christ Event.” In chapter 6, Raschke insists that modernization need not result in either a turn from religion (secularization) or a return to religion (reactionary fundamentalism); instead, postmodernism can call for a return of religion (in the revolutionary political sense which the old critical theorists had ignored). He leaves readers to ponder the social implications of Christian theology’s historically contingent logos, which is “both all-too-familiar and profoundly not-yet-thought.”

Raschke has written a fascinating, fluid, and timely text that nonetheless seems to misconstrue its own significance. While Raschke presents his account of “critical theology” as a novel prescriptive project which ultimately rejects its intellectual predecessors, what he actually offers instead is a descriptive project which affirms the crisscrossing currents of critical theory and crisis theology. Despite Raschke’s insistence on the insufficiencies of both these approaches, the true way forward would be to continue their extant trajectories rather than to break radically with them. In fact (his own claims to the contrary), Raschke’s text is an argument for the former conclusion. More perplexing than the text’s thesis is its format, which inadequately serves his twofold goal of narration and theorization. While Raschke generally employs a chronological approach to his subject matter, within each chapter there are thematic excursions which haphazardly jump out of historical sequence: readers would do well to approach chapters 2 and 3 as a single chapter and to read the fifth chapter before the fourth. As it stands, the text’s oscillations between topical and historical structures make it difficult to follow Raschke’s argument to its conclusion.

Critical Theology also misses the opportunity to analyze Giorgio Agamben’s political work on St. Paul in The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford University Press, 2005). Inclusion of this text would not only expand Raschke’s examination of Badiou and Žižek into a triad of recent secular studies of Pauline political theology, but it would also prevent Badiou and Žižek from appearing as singular intellectuals rather than as representatives of a larger materialist wave of critical theory. Perhaps most troubling, however, is the striking absence of both feminist and liberation theologies. The former is bypassed entirely, while the latter only appears once (and even then only in describing Jurgen Moltmann’s influence upon Gustavo Gutierrez). These omissions would be more understandable if Raschke conceives this project to be a purely internal critique of stereotypically Western social and theological thought (rightly associated with the patriarchal and colonialist framing of the Euro-American ‘canon’). But because Raschke lays out this text as a historical narrative (populated by a legion of intellectual characters) contextualizing our present social moment, his androcentric and Eurocentric emphases make the silence of certain theological sectors (which have spent decades thinking in the same direction as himself) all the more notable and lamentable. If this text is meant as a map of political theology’s intellectual landscape, then it is missing key geographies. But if it is meant as a compass to orient political theologians toward the future, then it should place more trust in its bearings from the twin poles of crisis theology and critical theory.

Cite this article
Andrew Van’t Land, “Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 207–210

Andrew Van’t Land

University of Kentucky
Andrew Van’t Land is professor of philosophy at the University of Kentucky.