That is the overarching question at Subverting the Norm 2, a conference that I’m attending this weekend in Springfield, Missouri. Honestly, not many people addressed the question yesterday, at least not in the sessions I attended. So far this morning, the presenters have pivoted to talking about it.
Last night, I responded to John Caputo‘s plenary address. Some here accused me of failing to actually respond to Caputo, others have wondered if I made a Derridian move, and still others have thanked me for speaking plainly and forthrightly. Some requested that I post my response, so I will do so here. But before that, some prolegomena:
First, Caputo is the rock star of this conference. Several people here are his former PhD students, and many are his acolytes. I, too, am a big fan of Caputo — I think his Weakness of God is a brilliant text — and I had no desire to present a deep critique of his work in this context.
Second, due to no fault of his own, Caputo did not provide me with his manuscript in advance. In academic conferences, respondents are usually able to see the paper in advance so as to write a prepared response.
Third, Caputo is a philosopher of the first order. I am not. I’m a (practical) theologian, well-versed in postmodern philosophy, to be sure, but not at the level of going nose-to-nose with someone of Jack’s caliber. To do so would have been stupid of me and disrespectful of Caputo.
For all of these reasons, to attempt an on-the-fly response to Caputo would have been nigh on suicidal — or at least would have held the potential for a massive trainwreck. So, instead, I composed 13 points of challenge and exhortation for those in the crowd — particularly clergy — who are really trying to answer the question, “Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” Some of these points I prepared before Jack’s talk, and some are a direct result of and response to it:
1. There are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t. I‘m interested in the work of the radical theologians who want there to be a God, even if they’re not willing to affirm that there is a God. There are 7 billion people on this planet, and the vast majority of them want there to be a God.
2. Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.
3. Put less words in scare quotes. Just answer the goddamn question. In his talk, Caputo went through the entire question, “Can postmodern theology live in our churches?” He put each word in quotes, and deconstructed it. “Can” “postmodern” “theology” “live” “in” “our” “churches.” That’s a fun exercise at an academic conference, to be sure. But it rarely works in pastoral ministry. Postmodern theologians and the churchmen and women that are inspired by them — including the emerging church movement — have become adept at eternal deferral. People ask real question, the questions that they want answers for, and we respond by deconstructing the question, telling them, “That’s not the right question,” or saying, “That question doesn’t interest me.” I’ve grown tired of this posture. I’d like us to answer some questions, and to do so forthrightly.
4. Let’s double down on epistemic humility. One of the benefits of deconstruction is that it imbues all of our intellectual activity with the reminder that even our most strongly held beliefs are, ultimately, deconstructible. You might be wrong about there not being a God, and I might be wrong about there being a God.
5. Be loyal to this tribe. We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view of the gospel in the West today. If our version of the gospel is to stand a chance, particularly among the “nones,” then we’ve got to stick together in spite of our doctrinal/theological/philosophical differences.
6. Indefatigably produce original content. Again, if we’re going to change the conversation about what is Christianity, then we have to fill the world with content about this version of the gospel.
7. We must maintain our sense of humor. Like #4 above, postmodernism demands that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, because we might be wrong. Like #5 above, if we can maintain our senses of humor, it will be a more attractive alternative to the earnest, overly serious, even hateful versions of the faith that many people see today.
8. My next book will disappoint you: but I’m not writing it for you. I have a different vocation than a university philosopher like Caputo, or a subversive free-range philosopher like Peter Rollins. My vocation is to think and write through the issues that vex modern-day Christianity. Your vocation is something else — to preach or write poems or blog or something. Don’t try to be Caputo or Rollins. Be yourself.
9. I have never read a word of Žižek. You can’t do it all. You can’t read every book and blog; you can’t listen to every podcast. Find what you want to read and know, and embrace that, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t read it all.
10. Beware of the allure of the word “atheist.” I’ve lived through the waxing and waning popularity of terms like “postmodern” and “emergent.” The term “Christian atheist” is currently waxing. It, too, will wane.
11. People aren’t talking about God. They’re talking about Jesus, the bible, angels, heaven. This conference, at least on day one, was consumed with talk of God. That’s fine. But in my experience, people outside these walls are asking less about God than they are about other volumes in the theological encyclopedia.
12. Don’t get so far out ahead of your army that they mistake you for the enemy and shoot you. That’s a danger after a conference like this, that you’ll go home and preach a sermon on the death of God. Chances are, your congregation isn’t ready for that.
13. Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh of Ex 3:14 means “I will be that who I have yet to become.” It doesn’t mean “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” It is much more eschatological than that. In fact, Jewish Bibles leave this passage untranslated. That commitment to untranslatability should stand in critique of all of our talk about God.