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Book Preview – “Critical Theology” And Critical Theory For An Age Of Global Crisis (Carl Raschke)

Carl Raschke.  Critical Theology: Introducing An Agenda For An Age Of Global Crisis.  Downers Grove IL: IVP Academic, 2016.  Paperback, e-book.  173 pp. ISBN-10: 0830851291.

The following is a book preview by Carl Raschke in the form of an interview conducted by David Congdon with the author.  It is preceded by the author’s book description.


Critical Theology introduces an agenda for “theological thinking” in the present age of global crisis when what happens in the West can no longer be separated from the “rest” of the world. Drawing on the tradition of “critical theory” in both its earlier incarnation as the so-called the Frankfurt School and its more recent iterations with the thought, for example, of Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and “post-secularists” such as Jürgen Habermas, the book outlines for the reader unfamiliar with this literature what the contours, if not the details, of a present day theological reformulation might look like. In addition, the book explores the relationship between a new critical theology and current forms of “political theology” while bringing to the fore the question of the “religious”, which the older critical theory with its strong Marxist leanings tended to underemphasize. Finally, it shows how the Frankfurt School’s ideal of emancipatory logos can be grasped in new ways that are distinctively “theological”, as one “made flesh.”


DC: Many of your readers will be unfamiliar with the literature and debates that you engage in this work, ranging from Bultmann and Horkheimer to Badiou and Žižek. Could you set the stage for this work? What are the origins of what you call “critical theology”?

CR: Critical theology is in many ways the ongoing twenty- first century legacy of so-called “pomo” theology. Postmodern theology, which started off in the 1980s as an effort to develop an immediate theological application for the tremendously influential philosophy (at the time) of Jacques Derrida, gradually became an extension of what Hent DeVries termed in the late 1990s the “religious turn” in Continental philosophy as a whole.

Right after the turn of the millennium the more youthful cadres within evangelical Christianity became quite interested in these philosophical thinkers, and they became a significant readership for not only two of my earlier books (The Next Reformation, 2004 and GloboChrist, 2008) but for a variety of other works by leading philosophical theologians, such as John D. Caputo and James K. A. Smith. Figures like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek (the latter especially) are leading stars in this galaxy of contemporary philosophical figures who have drawn a considerable following and have become their own household names among academic religious thinkers.

DC: So what changed after the turn of the millennium?

CR: If in the 1990s we experienced a “religious turn” in postmodern philosophy, ten years later we witnessed what might be called a “political turn.” The political activism of many young people during the 2008 election combined with the world-shaking global financial crisis of that year was a major factor in the emergence of this trend. But the social conscience and heightened political sensibility of the young millennials was also a decisive element. The importance of so-called “political theology,” a concept which had gone into hibernation after its moment of glory in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was suddenly revived in the second half of the last decade and became an instant academic sensation about the same time in both America and Europe. The widespread influence of the journal Political Theology, both in its print and online version, for which I currently serve on the board of editors, is one testimony to its importance.

With the revival of political theology, however, has come a profound new interest in so-called “critical theory,” a term once used exclusively for the work of the writings of the Frankfurt School, which flourished from the late 1920s until after World War II, but in the last two decades has come to be used for a wide variety of contemporary theorists who draw on the discourses and explicit sociopolitical critiques found in Continental philosophy (as well as psychoanalysis). That latest iteration is often known as the “new critical theory.” The interdisciplinary interest in critical theory is also expanding rapidly in the present college and university environments. My own institution just past this year inaugurated such a curriculum because of student demand.

DC: What differentiates critical theology from the new critical theory?

CR: The Frankfurt School, with its classical Marxist and secularist biases, was notorious for giving short shrift to the religious dimension of experience, while largely dismissing the importance of the theological in framing the discussion about human emancipation. So I asked myself, if the “political” turn in Continental thought has given us the new critical theory, should not the persistence of the religious turn within the same constellation of thinking yield something we call “critical theology.”

DC: There is a palpable sense of global crisis that you are tapping into in this work. We have also seen a number of attempts to respond to this crisis (e.g., Occupy, Arab Spring). What can theological reflection contribute?

CR: Both of the phenomena you mention were political movements that can be considered ad hoc, on-site reactions to what were perceived as oppressive circumstances but were only barely understood in the larger setting. Both were, in effect, efforts to implement utopian or standard liberal fantasies without any real theoretical sense about what was going on around them. Theology by its very nature, especially in its original biblical context, represents a comprehensive theory of who we are, and how we should act, in a universalistic perspective. Furthermore, theology is always at its core communitarian, and therefore inherently political, as the late Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes always noted. The critical function of theology is always to unmask the “principalities and powers,” including the subtle ideologies, that enslave us. Genuine emancipation requires that we submit to what Badiou calls a “truth procedure,” and “the truth shall make you free.”

DC: You write that critical theology “must do something that the classical Western theological enterprise has not done, or only quite clumsily accomplished. It must address the question of the ‘religious’ head-on and straightaway in a manner that theology is not always comfortable with, or accustomed to.” How did religion become a problem for Western theology and how do you hope a new generation will address it?

CR: The problem goes back many generations, perhaps as far back as the mid-nineteenth century when European colonial expansion led to an encounter with vibrant and complex forms of religious expression. Most religious alternatives to Christianity, other than Judaism, were regarded mainly as some form of heresy or superstition. It was the development in the late nineteenth century of the so-called “social sciences,” which especially pushed Western religious thought in this direction. The social sciences claimed that it was possible to understand religion without deciding whether religious claims were actually true or not. This eventually led to the development of an entirely new field of academic study known as “religious studies,” which claimed to be nonconfessional and independent of theology.

For administrative, political, and of course ideological reasons, theology and religious studies have kept themselves for at least two generations now at full arms length from each other. But I have strongly and consistently argued since at least the early 1980s that they need to find some common ground once more, especially since neither one on its own is capable of truly comprehending the power of the “religious” factor in today’s world. Religious studies as a field tended to direct its focus toward the collective externalities of religion, such as texts and rituals as well as historical and cultural artifacts. It, therefore, totally ignored the “faith” factor as something that must be explored from the “inside,” which had classically been the purview of theological inquiry.

Critical theology affirms the faith factor, but does not regard it as a pure datum exclusive of the complex, turbulent universe of religious symbols and meanings in which that “something” we know historically as Christianity has always been situated. Critical theology, therefore, declares the emancipatory power of the Christian faith, yet it views faith not as a confessional posture but as what Badiou terms a “singularity” as well as an “event” that can be observed from the outside, but radically changes the tapestry of observed history.

DC: Classical Christian theology is understood as “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). You argue that a critical theology is “faith informed by critical thinking” (fides informata cogitatio discrimine). What is the significance of this difference? What changes when we move from understanding to critical thinking?

CR: One could of course argue that the intellectum of classical theology always has a critical edge to it, something I would not at all dispute. But, even more significantly, I want to show not just the relevance, but the indispensible character, of “theological thinking” (not theology in the usual confessional or ecclesial sense of the word) to the task of “critical thinking” overall. To borrow (shamelessly and excessively) from Schleiermacher, I want to say that I am explaining theological thinking to its “secular despisers,” while giving an ardent account of how we should train ourselves to think seriously every time we confront the bewildering and often depressing daily headlines about what is happening in the world.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books besides Critical Theology include Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012), which looks at the ways in which major trends in Continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion” in general.  His previous two books – GloboChrist (Baker Academic, 2008)  and The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004) –  examine the most recent trends and in paths of transformations at an international level in contemporary Christianity. Faith and Reason: Three Views (IVP Academic, 2014), of which he is a co-author, is a conversation among three contemporary Christian philosophers.  Finally, he is current managing editor of Political Theology Today.


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