[John Reader previews his new book, co-authored with Chris Baker and Thomas James: A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good (Ashgate, 2015).]
This book is both a project and a staging post on a shared journey. It is a place where, for a brief moment, the three of us came to rest in order to explore and expand upon our separate reflections on attempts to construct an appropriate contemporary conceptuality for Christianity, and its implications for engaged practice and public theology. As the initial contact between us emerged from the Political Theology blog when John (from the UK) discovered Tom (from the USA) using the work of Latour, and then drew in his colleague Chris (from the William Temple Foundation—http://williamtemplefoundation.org.uk), it is fitting that we offer this introduction to the project at the PT website. Like all published work, it captures a point in time, and a platform from which we then move onwards and outwards into further work and reflection. Our hope is that by sharing where we were then, it will stimulate others to engage with the ideas and practices which have helped to shape our collective and individual journeys.
So, what exactly is the project? An early review of the book had this to say:
Modernism privatised religion and excluded it from the public square. Postmodernism re-admitted it but only on an ‘it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it doesn’t matter’ basis. Now we are in a post-postmodern/post-secular age when religion is acknowledged to be a necessary partner with diverse others in promoting the common good.
That is not a bad summary of the context we set out to address, and it also highlights the differences between our approach and that of other contemporary strands within theology and philosophy of religion associated with Radical Orthodoxy and Post-Liberalism, both of which veer towards a more imperialistic or communitarian understanding of Christian belief and practice. Our argument is that engaging with those of others faiths or none requires a more open and critical response, an acknowledgement of the fallible and contingent nature of all formulations of belief, a greater attention to the empirical, and, above all, a willingness to learn from the conceptual developments in other disciplines that more adequately reflect the global problems we face, political, environmental and economic. Hence where others perhaps employ philosophy as merely a handmaid to a determinate theological structure, we have tried to engage it on its own terms in order to see what can be learnt and developed. The result could be presented as standing in the tradition of thinkers such as Tillich, Kaufman, Caputo and Keller, and we describe it as Relational Christian Realism and the practices of entangled fidelity.
Having set out the parameters of the task, the book then divides into three sections. The first does the ground-clearing work of examining the contributions of the three main philosophers whose ideas, we argue, are most pertinent. Before this can begin, however, we make it clear that, far from being theory for its own sake, the concepts gleaned from Deleuze, Latour and Badiou can address some of the practical situations encountered in the material religious practices of contemporary faith communities. In addition to the fact that we can no longer assume the existence of settled groups which have been the basis for much church life and practice, we draw attention to the different prevalent attitudes towards authority and the blurring of boundaries both geographical and intellectual:
What is now to be encountered across a range of religious practices and beliefs is a much greater fluidity, freedom and willingness to both select and subsequently abandon whatever appears to be helpful and credible at a particular time. There is a fluidity, a process of change and flow and a much greater propensity to make up one’s own mind irrespective of what any faith establishment may teach or promote (p. 23).
Thus the discourses of networks (Latour), rhizomes (Deleuze) and then the challenge of what fidelity means in this changed context (Badiou), each have something to contribute to our self-understanding. Without going into the details of this more explicitly philosophical section, the main ideas we take from each of these thinkers are as follows. From Deleuze, we take the critique of concepts of transcendence as opposed to immanence; notions of becoming as process rather than static concepts of being; the ethical and political implications of his ideas. From Latour, we take his understanding of realism; of truth as circulating references; matters of concern rather than matters of fact, so that values are always already embedded in social and political discourse; his attempts to acknowledge the importance of the non-human as alongside and entangled with the human, and which has significant consequences for the engagement with environmental issues. Then from Badiou, we take his approach to ontology and how this relates to Deleuze; the notion that one only becomes a “subject” through direct practical engagement, leading into an understanding of fidelity which we present as an appropriate concept for faith activity.
We then move to the theological heart of the book and two chapters which address the key Christian doctrines of God, Creation, Humanity and Redemption. Drawing on the philosophers mentioned, these chapters present a reconfiguration which, while relating clearly to the tradition, also move beyond it into more controversial territory. The following offers an example:
in this book we have determined to take a different path, thinking of God not as an actual being, but as in some way virtual: as a power or powers that are somehow hidden within the actual, along the same plane of immanence with them but not among them as one actuality among others. We have taken this path to preserve something about the idea of God that makes it recognizable as the God of classical western theism: a kind of non-identity if not transcendence, a capacity to play a causal role in the world that is unique if not unilateral. Simply put, a God who is submerged within the play of objects is not what the tradition has meant by “God.” Much better to think of God as the play itself: this is what the notion of God as virtual effects. (p. 92).
As humans we become “pilgrims across the plane of immanence perpetually finding and losing our way as we seek to embody the virtual”, but finding direction and purpose through the connections with the tradition, thus participating in the assembly of the many objects which we find along the way and entangled in the dynamic community of beings-before-God (p. 118).
In the final section we share a number of case studies which illustrate how we believe this new approach plays itself out in a range of material religious practices. Of the three examples, faith engagement in urban renewal and post-secular rapprochement, educational reform in the UK, and environmental issues, it could be argued that it is the latter which is of global significance. With the immediate prospect of more intense weather events and 2014 and 2015 being the warmest on record, then the longer term threat of sea level rises and increasing numbers of environmental refugees, how those of faith both respond in practice and develop appropriate understandings of the relationship between the human and the non-human present major challenges. We argue that the doctrinal reformulations of God as inconsistent multiplicity, hyper-chaos and radical contingency, and creation itself as always menaced and under threat (p. 169), provide realistic ways of viewing the future, with no guarantee of a “happy ending”. Likewise, the prevalent distinction between nature and culture which separates the human from the non-human with the former being in control, lead only to further danger. Instead, we use the discourses of Deleuze and Latour to view humans as always already fully entangled with the non-human, and that of Badiou to search for forms of fidelity, in order to illustrate how practical examples of faith engagement such as support for the development of renewable energy, and challenges to fracking, represent attempts to reassemble the various factors involved, paying due attention to the empirical as well as matters of belief (p. 177). This is Relational Christian Realism in action. By its very nature, this project eschews any neat theological conclusion, but we do believe that it presents the required conceptual framework for those entangled in the material religious practices that strive for the greater public good. As Clayton Crockett kindly says in his endorsement “read and be regenerated”.