‘What is speculative realism and what has it to do with the world of ethics, politics, church and theology?’ is the question posed in this special themed edition of Political Theology. Or put another way, has philosophy of religion in the way it has recently evolved, got anything to say to theological attempts to construct critical and strategic accounts of the role of religion in public life? These questions, and the papers that begin to address them, emerged from a ground-breaking conference held at the University of Chester in June 2011, entitled ‘Speculative Philosophies and Religious Practices – New Directions in the Philosophy of Religion and Postsecular Practical Theology’. This event, for the first time, brought together philosophers of religion and practical theologians to discuss the different ways lived practices of religion and religious experience influence understandings of religion and its impact in the public sphere.
It is indeed the speculative return of the Real within Continental Philosophy, associated with the likes of Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux that is driving this crossover debate. Although having very different ideas as to what might constitute the Real, all are agreed that philosophy’s obsession (since Derrida) with the language of signification (what Badiou famously called ‘the sophisticated tyranny’) has reached a philosophical, but more importantly, a political cul-de sac. The euphoric violence of deconstruction has left an aching vacuum – politically and spiritually. The moves by consumerist and global capitalism to fill this vacuum are now also (literally) bankrupted. Thus the Real represents the acknowledgement of objects or entities that have an identity and essence that lies beyond both human thought and experience (i.e. beyond the Enlightenment tradition’s subject-object obsession towards the possibility of object-object relations).
So in relation to both ontological and political set of agendas, John Reader reflects on the importance of Bruno Latour as an important crossover narrative between philosophy and religion and public and practical theologies. Latour’s emphasis on the ethics of knowledge and the importance of assembling matters of concern rather than matters of fact is more accurate in recognising the ‘thingness’ of events and identities – including the non-human. It is a slow and respectful approach that valorises the ordinary, and so is profoundly ethical as it is political. Beverley Clack asserts the philosophical tradition of reflecting on Aristotelian virtues and the life led well in the midst of suffering and deprivations (with reference to the like of Frankl, Levinas and Nietzsche) as an important anecdote to the banal government policy of measuring well-being and happiness. Katherine Moody juxtaposes Zizek’s atheistic speculative philosophy on the God who dies and the spirit-inspired community that assembles in the wake of that event, with the cutting edge work of emerging church practitioner Peter Rollins who sees the future of the church as lying outside any ecclesial boundary as an expression of ‘faith beyond religion’ as espoused by John Caputo. Whether or not this bears much relationship to Zizek’s new communist collective is a question that Moody suggests requires further investigation. Anna Strhan also combines Latour’s version of realism (in which facts ‘can both be real and constructed’) with the methodologies of anthropology to show how some conservative evangelicals respond to secularism as both a real and invented affect (i.e. the assemblage called secularism). Graeme Smith calls for both philosophy and theology to engage in Western liberal society as it is lived, rather than indulging in flights of dystopian or utopian fantasies about alternatives if they are to make a meaningful contribution for the common good, with the pragmatism of Richard Rorty making an important contribution. Elaine Graham meanwhile points out that for the idea of the post-secular to be truly liberating for women then great attention needs to be paid at a political and religious level to the fact that it may be a gendered concept. The post-secular public space may on one level be more friendly towards religion, but there is still a danger that the experience of women, especially religious women, will be edited out of these new narratives as the post-secular opens them up to containment by both religious and secular authoritarianisms.
To access the introduction to the special issue, click here.