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Essays, Justice, Pedagogy, The Politics of Scripture

From Critical Theory to a New “Critical Theology”

The emergence of a new critical theory for the 21st century, exemplified in the writings of such theorists as Foucault, Agamben, Žižek, and Badiou as well as in such zones of contemporary discourse as biopolitics and globalization theory, has tremendous yet still uncharted consequences for theological thinking.

The emergence of a new critical theory for the 21st century, exemplified in the writings of such theorists as Foucault, Agamben, Žižek, and Badiou as well as in such zones of contemporary discourse as biopolitics and globalization theory, has tremendous yet still uncharted consequences for theological thinking.

With the interest of all these late twentieth and early twenty-first century figures in religion and related theological issues, is it not perhaps time to name a genre that to date still remains unnamed – critical theology?

The name is starting to be used routinely and ad hoc in scattered cenacles, but no one has boldly sought yet to map the actual conceptual terrain of any new “critical theology.”

One of reasons perhaps is that the expression itself conjures up a cloud of untimely and misleading associations, such as the “crisis theology” of the interwar years 1920-40, which later morphed into what eventually became known as “neo-orthodoxy.”

Another factor possibly is the neo-Marxist bias against, and the long-standing “New Left’ contempt for, theological and religious issues, which the earlier “critical theorists” wore prominently on their lapels.

Finally, much of the discourse of any nascent critical theology may be automatically confused with political theology. It is true that the discourses overlap significantly in places, but they also diverge – just as appreciably.


Critical Theology and Political Theology

The notion of a “political theology”, which has gone through different transformations and iterations since Carl Schmitt first coined it almost a century ago, comes down to the realization, as many contemporary academics from Mark Lilla to José Casanova — Jürgen Habermas excepted — have demonstrated, that the genesis and formulation of ongoing of active political ideas cannot be separated from transcendental arguments, particularly when it comes to the enunciation of moral imperatives, such as human equality and the promotion of human rights.

Political theology, therefore, discerns deeply the “force of God” behind the force of politics itself. And it constructs its analysis and orchestrates its positions around this important controlling assumption.

Political theology by and large is a normative discipline, although descriptive procedures and protocols invariably and incessantly come into play in the elaboration of what might broadly be described as a kind of transcendental political theory, while invoking the term “transcendental” in something of the manner it was used from Kant through Husserl.

Critical theology, on the other hand, is not so much normative as diagnostic, or – if we may employ Gilles Deleuze’s accepted nomenclature – as “symptomatological.”

The crucial architecture of a critical theology is built around the method of “genealogy,” as first articulated by Nietzsche and later refined extensively in the cultural theory of Michel Foucault.

For Nietzsche, genealogy reveals the concealed value sources of our very epistemologies. For Foucault, genealogy discloses the “power/knowledge” dynamics of our historical epistemes, the taken-for-granted formations that we pass among collective selves as the foundations of knowledge and “truth.”

A critical theology examines these formations through its own “transcendental” method, probing further than any standard genealogical approach into the generative source dynamics of even those “religious” realities stalking behind the masks of politics. We might refer to its modus operandi as not only “metatheological,” but also meta-transcendental, a transcendental “deduction” of transcendence as a whole.


Critical Theologizing in the Study of Religion

At the same time, a critical theology is in no way merely “reductive” toward, nor “suspicious” of, the structures it mobilizes for its special “diagnostic” reading of various cultural assemblages as well as the transcendental background of social, economic, and political phenomena.

A critical theology, as opposed to a critical theory, identifies and peers into what Derrida and his compiler Gil Anidjar would term “acts of religion” in accordance with might be labeled a driving theory of the religious itself.

A critical theology is, therefore, the discourse that unfolds this driving theory.

The need for such a driving theory is posed by the reality of globalization itself. Olivier Roy, in his highly influential book entitled Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (Columbia University Press, 2010) about the character of the “religious” in the age of globalization, makes the case for such a “critical theology”, because the very Enlightenment paradigm of what Derrida himself has called a “religion without religion” is becoming obsolete.

Religious positivities in the historical sense, Roy insists, are inherently and “phenomenologically” bound up with recognized cultural formations. But today’s religion is essentially cultureless, especially as the effects of global connectivity and communications systems rapidly erase the “traditional” substance behind the numberless and often commodified spiritual practices and arbitrary, spiritual “markers” (e.g., pop Kabbalism for New Agers, or “worship bands” at African mosques) that are everywhere in evidence from Britain to Bangladesh.

Since these new sorts of spiritual ephemera, or the more austere types of new, stripped down religious “fundamentalisms”, all have the force of conviction, if not fanaticism, behind them, they all emanate from an undefined mood of what we ourselves might dub “universalism without universality”, a general condition Roy characterizes as the new “holy ignorance.”

The prompt for a critical theology in a global context is offered by Roy. “Neither philosophy nor culture, but a constant reminder of a transcendence, irreducible to the material world, and on which the word order is founded: what should be religion’s place in the social order.” (p. xiii)

Or, better yet, what should be the “theological” resources on which we draw the critical analyses and insights to lay bare with a certain discursive sophistication this “constant reminder of a transcendence”?


The Convergence of Religious and Theological Studies

While “theological” pursuits in the last half-century have often focused on explicitly Christian, quasi-Christian, crypto-Christian, New Age, or perennialist themes that still bear the mark of what is nowadays regarded often as a privileged and dominant Western point of view, the so-called study of religion – or “religious studies” – has bracketed almost obsessively both the theoretical and theological tasks by focusing, sometimes exclusively, on selective anthropological and historical particularities that satisfy the unstated secularist criteria for what still remains a “Eurocentric” method of inquiry.

Likewise, the default status for those more savvy scholars who acknowledge the deep bias behind what is glibly passed off as the “objective” investigation of all things “religious”, is a kind of unreflective deference to confessional accounts of what religious or theological statements are supposed to mean, especially when these accounts constitute the “discourse of the other.”

A good example is how many religious scholars will at once allow one of Roy’s hypothetical “deculturated” Muslim speakers to have his full and unchallenged say, while automatically dismissing a present day evangelical or Pentecostal testimony as somehow tainted with the obvious biases of the “dominant culture.”

A global critical theology, however, would seek to facilitate the deconstruction of the ever seductive Western “myth of objectivity” as well as the false “insider/outsider” dichotomy in which present day scholarship has trapped itself.

At the same time, a global critical theology would go where no probe has necessarily gone before in elaborating a genealogy of the political, not to mention the politico-economic, dimensions of culture where what we term the “religious” has profoundly evident and compelling theological implications. It would also confront the illusory Hobson’s choice of descriptive rigor versus transcendental normativity, a habit of mind that regrettably has lodged like some alien genome in our own operative episteme since Kant first distinguished between “theoretical” and “practical” reason.

For the first time in the evolution of contemporary learning and letters, a critical theology, therefore, would strategically merge the theory of religion with the “theological” constitution of all transcendental inquiry, which the persistence of the religious factor in the world we experience everyday pushes inexorably upon us.

It would not be independent of a political theology. Indeed, it would serve to ground it in richer and ever more “critical” ways.

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