Radical Theology: The New “White” Religion?

Radical Theology: The New “White” Religion? April 25, 2013
Slavoj Zizek

I’ve experienced some strange extremes lately. First, I attended – and spoke at – the Subverting the Norm conference in Springfield, MO, where we took some time to consider how, if at all, so-called “radical theology” could exist within today’s religious systems. Then I got home and found my latest TIME Magazine, with a cover story titled “The Latino Reformation,” which reveals what most within Protestantism have known for some time, which is that formerly Catholic Latino Christians are dramatically reshaping the face of the American Christian landscape.

Interestingly there is little to no overlap between these two groups – a point which was made clear to me by the fact that there were very few people of color in attendance at Subverting the Norm. One comment, from an African-American woman who was there, was that the very focus of the conference (on academic, esoteric questions of theology and philosophy) assumed the kind of privilege still dominated by middle-class white males. Put another way: while we’re busy navel-gazing and discussing the meaning of Nietzsche’s “death of God,” non-Anglo religious leaders were busy dealing with real-world problems, right in front of them.

A fair critique, for sure. I’ve said before that philosophy is the preferred recreational sport of the intellectual bourgeois elite; she just put a finer point on it.

Then I read an article by Diana Butler Bass on the Huffington Post this morning that indicated such a bifurcation along both racial and ideological lines:

The first group, the unaffiliated, is largely uninterested in conventional religion, embracing humanism, non-specific forms of spirituality, or post-institutional forms of community. Their concern with old-fashioned religious questions is waning, as is their commitment to religious structures of the past. They are, by all reports, angry at the admixture of religion and politics that has roiled American life over the last three decades, and prefer more inclusive, less dogmatic but more pragmatic politics.

The second, those from other world religions and immigrant faiths, are more — rather than less — convinced of the importance of religion in society. Minority religions are surging into the public square building new worship spaces, wearing distinctive dress and pressing for rights in public schools. As is often the case in American history, immigrants become more committed to God and the church upon arrival here as traditional faith provides avenues of comfort and security in a new world.

The first group she describes largely describes the participants at subverting the norm; the second reaffirms that the fastest growing branch of the Christian faith today really could not care less what we were doing in Springfield. This is concerning on several levels to me. First, it indicates a growing racial divide within Christian circles which, once again, runs counter to the increasingly pluralistic dynamic of the larger culture around us. Second, though the Radical Theology/Postmodern Christian camp is asking compelling questions, at least for guys like me, we God nerds hardly even acknowledge the realities of the Church we’re talking about. Rather, we’re stuck on the old post-WWII community church model, which increasingly only exists in our minds. And the blade cuts both ways; ask one hundred Latino pastors how much they care about Zizek or Derrida when they’re preparing for Sunday worship, or meeting with a family in crisis. I’m guessing you’ll be met with more than a few shrugs or blank stares.

On the one hand, I understand the need for academic work to be “out front” to some degree, stretching the boundaries of the conversation, and trying at least to peer into the future at what may lie ahead. But the very makeup of the discussions and speakers at the event (myself included) points to the clear myopia of our perspective at the moment.

So what to do about this? Do we abandon the talks about postmodern Christianity and radical theology? I hope not, as it’s still very important in the grander scheme of our culture. But the conversation certainly needs to change. One suggestion I made to the conference planners is to give a more practical focus to future conversations. Personally, I would love to sit with a handful of thinkers and practitioners in the field of liberation theology and talk about how – if at all – these radical theology concepts dovetail with what they’re doing on a daily basis. And I would hope that , despite our propensity for geeking out on philosophy and abstract theological concepts, we’d take a step back and make room on the stage for those who are leading this new Christian Reformation to talk about what matters most to them and those who attend their churches.

Granted, we probably won’t find many ways to wed prophetic speaking in tongues with Pete Rollins’ “Idolatry of God,” but there are fundamental undercurrents that are part of the greater human experience into which we can tap together, hopefully with the aim of yielding something that matters to people outside of our own rhetorical and theological circles.

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  • Sean Muldowney

    I like what you said and how you said it. I needed help articulating this for myself. The Radical folks challenge me, cognitively, right where I need it: assumptions, worldview, privilege, etc. It’s good for me, because I’m a “head before heart person,” and my theoretical framework needs to change before any of my praxis changes. But practically, these things get worked out out in conversation and service alongside real-world folks with real-world problems. Radical, and Liberation, have challenged and contributed to me being (dare I say) a better evangelical.

  • “Radical theology” is just what we call postmodern theology right now, right? Postmodernism has always been a cabal of white guys – just slightly younger white guys than the old white guys they are rebelling against. That doesn’t make radical theology bad or negligible but it seems like an inescapable fact. We’re nowhere near a situation where everyone is at the table when we do theology. One positive upshot is that postmodern critiques have made room for a lot of critiques from the margins, some of which are brought closer to the center. But it is still white guys making room at the table which is full of white guys for a couple non-white non-guys.

  • While I agree with what you cite in your post, it is something that non-white scholars/theologians, such as Soong Chan-Rah (@profrah), have been trying to tell us–White Anglo U.S. Christians–for at least the past decade, if not longer. This is terribly unfortunate and, I think, exposes our “unintentional” yet very real condition of internalized racial superiority. There is a great need for us to confess our cultural-theological myopic pride and begin seeking out, including, listening to, and learning from our sisters and brothers of color. And perhaps instead of–or at least in addition to–inviting them to join us and our conversations, we go to them and ask them to share with and teach us.

    • Dan Hauge

      This is so key. We white Christians still instinctively operate from the position of “we’ll set up our conferences according to what interests us, and then see if we can find people of color who want to join us”, rather than working to completely flip that script and see how we can learn from these other communities.

  • There’s a commonality of subjectivity and the centering of context in both pomo religious thinking and liberation theology that has been central to changing the way I think about God and the practice of Christianity. It was that commonality that helped me jump off when all this talk of Zizek resulted in my face devolving into blank stares every time yet another straight, middle/upper-class, white dude started using big words. What the pomo stuff was leading me toward, but never quite bringing me to, is what I started finding in James cone and Robert Goss (and as I’m slowly working my way through “The Queer God,” Marcella Althaus-Reid).

    I’ll share a couple of snippets from Cone’s “God of the Oppressed” that I read recently which struck me to the core.

    The importance of Marx for our purposes is his insistence that thought has no independence from social existence. In view of his assertion that “consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence,” theologians must ask, “What is the connection between dominant material relations and the ruling theological ideas in a given society?” … [By] Feuerbach’s contention that religion is a human projection and going deeper than Marx on the problem of ideology also demonstrates convincingly the function of a social a priori in all thinking and thus refutes decisively the naive assumption of many theologians who claim that God-ideas are objective and universal. Theologians must face the relativity of their thought processes: their ideas about God are the reflections of social conditioning; their dreams and visions are derived from this world. … Theology is political language. What people think about God, Jesus Christ, and the Church cannot be separated from their own social and political status in a given society.


    White theologians fail to realize that [the dominance of white Enlightenment discourse in theology] is just as racist and oppressive against black people as Billy Graham’s White House sermons. This is so because the black judgment on this matter is that those who are not for us must be against us. In this connection, one is reminded of the observation by Marx: “Philosophy [and, we could add, theology] and the study of the actual world have the same relation to one another as masturbation and sexual love.” Since most theologians are the
    descendents of the advantaged class and thus often represent the consciousness of the class, it is difficult not to conclude that their theologies are in fact a bourgeois exercise in intellectual masturbation. Certainly, if one takes seriously the exploitation and suffering of black people in America and Jesus’ proclamation that he came “to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18), then the absence of the urgency of the gospel of black liberation in modern and
    contemporary American theology can only confirm Marx’s contention that “your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property… [For] the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

  • The problem in my mind is that the things we are trying to deal with as “the problems” in Western Christianity are, as the meme puts it: #FirstWorldProblems. The rest of the world’s Christians for the most part are too busy just preaching, ministering and evading execution to worry about issues so many of us Westerners think are “crucial”. The fastest growing segments of the church are the ones that are too busy living the gospel to worry about Derrida. I say this not out of self-righetousness, but as a man who’s spent too much time worrying about Derrida. We probably have to start learning from the people who are successfully living and sharing the gospel in other places, rather than trying to reinvent our own squeaky wheel.

  • I don’t know how much I should say, but there was actually an argument on Twitter a few months ago between some of my feminist Christian friends and one of the leaders of this so-called radical theology movement about this very subject. The Radical Theology Leader said he wasn’t really interested in questions about diversity; he wanted to focus on philosophical stuff. Yeah, that didn’t go over so well!

    • I see your point (and I witnessed the interaction as well). However, it seems to be too much of a reduction to say that he said he simply “wanted to focus on philosophical stuff.” While I think he is radical in the sense that he is not concerned with identity politics, I don’t think he meant he was simply not concerned about diversity. It seems like he meant there is an underlying foundation that is broken that we should focus on. Lack of diversity is a symptom of THAT sickness, not the other way around.

  • I would never has suspected that the gap was so large until I (an Anglo, ordained Mennonite pastor) took a position on the pastoral staff of a historic African-American congregation. I am continually impressed with how disparate the conversational tracks are between the churches I used to serve (which is why I’m reading this post) and the one that I now serve (where I know no one to discuss it with).

  • Ryan


    Thanks for the piece. As an undergraduate with a growing philosophical interest in pomo theological conversations, I feel challenged to make my interests relevant to global issues. But I would like to suggest one potential point of overlap: James K.A. Smith. His books range from “Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology” and “Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church” to his Pentecostal text, “Thinking in Tongues.” Although he is a young white guy reacting to old white guys, his ability to engage with Anglo-RO folks, mitigate the pomo fears of conservative evangelicals, and offer pentecostal contributions to philosophy makes him quite unique among Christian intellectuals.

  • tanyam

    I take very seriously the idea that we have different gifts. I’m not going to wade into a conversation about Derrida — but who is going to speak with those who are already conversing?
    Moreover, philosopy, like science, is never entirely sure where its going. In the field of science, you spend a lot of time in a lab trying things that don’t work, working on a small question that, finally, surprisingly, turns into a big question that may save lives. If you think Marx has been helpful (and I do) you have to think about all those years he spent with his nose in a book. Probably Hegel.
    And while people of color, for example, were talking about their experiences over HERE, people over THERE were doing the intellectual work that prepared the academy to listen. Exposing the falsehoods in this or that. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they could be elitist and in need of correction–I just don’t think I’d throw out the entire enterprise. I really wish the world had more terrific parole officers — people who could help desperate people figure out a path. But that doesn’t mean that you or I have what it takes. Maybe our gift is to be moral philosophers, theologians — who never lose sight of real people’s lives.

  • There mightn’t be many Latinos in “radical theology” as you understand, but there’s certainly a strong liberation theology trend amongst Latino Christians. My (Episcopalian) parish has a couple-hundred-strong Latino congregation led (yes, that’s still the appropriate word in this occasion) by an ex-Catholic, now-Episcopalian priest from El Salvador who is a disciple of Monsignor Romero and preaches pretty straight-down-the-line liberation theology.

    • right, which is exactly why I think we should be discussing radical theology in the context of something like liberation theology.

  • Pentecostalism is where the overlap has the most potential, I think. There’s a lot of really cool surprisingly progressive stuff going on with the Pentecostals these days. But I don’t think white guys who read Zizek should necessarily self-flagellate for being bourgeois rebels. The whole idea that we’re supposed to wring our hands over racial diversity is itself a bourgeois liberal presumption. The Latino Christians that I know are quite happy to do church without us. I don’t think that the black church particularly needs us either. I do agree with you that the excessive navel gazing gets really annoying. One of the guys was talking on Homebrewed about the way that his particular materialist theology didn’t really have an ecclesiological expression at the moment. I was like no shit Sherlock!

  • Johnmark

    I’m glad self critique is rising amongst this crowd. There’s a tendency to feel like your hand is stamped once you’ve opened a thick book about Christianity.

    Verses play in my head when reading this and most comments.

    “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all
    knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have
    not love, I am nothing.”

    I don’t want to say that this is a complete waste of time. – I think it’s very needed to talk about marriage before actually doing it. Sometimes with how specific and ‘up in the clouds’ all this philosophy gets, i worry it’s just a hamster in a wheel. a hamster with a lot of knowledge. sure. but…

  • Jesse Turri

    Good post Christian. It got me thinking about three things:

    1. Philosophy is not just for the “intellectual bourgeois elite”
    Even people who say they don’t like abstract philosophical concepts and would rather “hit the ground and help real people,” are in fact espousing a philosophical concept which they must have worked out conceptually at some point. No?

    Which brings me to my next comment:

    2. ‘Doing’ something and ‘thinking’ something are the same thing to me, i.e. thinking a thought is not doing nothing. The mental process of thinking about ideas is something we all do everyday. So I don’t see the dichotomy of ‘thinking’ vs. ‘doing’ being very helpful.

    Sean Muldowney’s comment above is an example of what I mean. Radical Theology’s propensity for “roughing up” the realities of those middle-class white males you mentioned, is actually DOING something to help in the grand scheme of things (I know you acknowledged this).

    This leads to thought 3:

    3. As to why more racial diversity is not evident at events like Subverting the Norm, Bo Sanders wrote a great piece about this at HBC.

    The problem isn’t that bands like Mumford and Sons or U2 are all white guys. One thing we need to do is learn to distinguish between how a band came together and how the music industry functions.

    To paraphrase Bo, no conference is or can be the full expression of the kingdom on earth. It is NOT nor can it be Heaven. It is not supposed to be. Just like no band can play every type of music. This not a problem. The problem comes if mumford and sons is the only music you listen to, or Pete Rollins is the only writer you read, or Subverting the Norm is the only conference you go to this year…

    • Yes! This critique of not being perfect in representation often sounds to me like climate change critics claiming that global climate change is not occurring because it is snowing in Edmonton in April. Just as local weather does not prove or disprove global patterns, Subverting the Norm is not the problem. If every conversation you are a part of looks like Subverting the Norm then we have an issue to discuss.

      What would be super awesome is if all those who were at Subverting the Norm would now travel up to Toronto for the NAIITS Symposium on Indigenous Mission and Theology. http://naiits.org/

  • I agree, Christian. I think that the focus should be liberation theology, and we should hear from voices from lower-income churches and countries. God and certainty are significant to these traditions, because liberationism comes out of the lived Gospel experience in community rather than the “doubting” of the dominant culture of which they’re a part.

  • numenian

    When I look at most of the conversation on the Christian landscape, I see Newtonian phsysicists arguing for their perception of the world. Heck, it works! No need to go anywhere else. Let’s keep focused on dogma, ritual, and tradition!

    Yet it does not recognize the deeper and paradoxical nature of Quantum Spirituality: the heart of Christ. The yes/no of particle/wave likeness of non-duality in mysticism. There can be no conversation between the two.

    From the life of Christ, it is quite plain he gave us a spirit of action and not a system of belief. A system of belief, the Jewish faith, drew his harshest criticism. Such certainty of a defined faith is central to Newtonian spirituality and an unimaginable loss. Yet that is called for: let it go.
    But if we do let it go, where is the conversation and grounding exegesis? Nowhere.
    How we believe is far more important than what we believe. This does not make what we believe necessarily inconsequential; it simply places it in the right perspective.
    What I am trying to say is that there is no common ground of conversation between what the Church is and what it needs to be.

  • prophetsandpopstars

    I’ve been thinking about this post for the last few days. Glad you wrote it. I seriously hope that theologians are always thinking our way forward into the undiscovered badlands. However, most people don’t. Most people are still wondering whether or not God loves them, are they being good enough and where they go when they die? I dont believe any amount of conversation or divergent philosophy is going to add much to world of the majority Christian. And that’s a good thing.

    How we live will always trump what we say. I’m an exploratory theosopher and I don’t understand half of what I hear myself say.

    Our conversation needs to find its way to the street where we are standing for those who can’t stand for themselves, working alongside those speak a different language (and can’t understand our theasturbation, anyway), stepping into the suffering of those who don’t know how to grieve, praying that those lost in darkness will move towards the Light.

    We have to have the conversations, but our pomoprocessliberationneoenightenedfundigelicalism will fail to make an impression, on a historical scale, on anyone who didn’t have space in the reality of their life to go to the conference.

  • Andrew Shepherd

    I graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School with an MDiv in May (A place that accepts and teaches many of the “radical/post-modern” ideas you’re talking about) and have been working as a Pastoral Resident at a church in Phoenix, AZ. One of the things I’ve realized in this short time is that Gustavo Guitierrez, and other Liberation theologians, have been right all along: the point of theology is to serve as a “Critical reflection on Praxis.” Meaning that you go out, do ministry, whatever that means, and then use theology to reflect on it, where it was effective, what it means to be effective, who’s been included, who’s been excluded, etc. The problem I see with using post-modern theology in the way it seems like your conference used it is that it’s beginning with question that aren’t coming from concrete practices.

    There’s a tendency in overly theological circles to equate “faith” with “theology,” and the two are not the same thing. It’s great to rethink concepts of God, to brainstorm new ways to understand life in the church, to question whether or not “Ontology,” or “whiteness,” or philosophical stances belong in the church. But they are not faith. They are not (usually) people’s concrete experience of the divine in the world.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that if you want to use theology in a radical or post-modern way, then dive into the world, using theology to recognize where your own privelege might be getting in the way, breaking down the way in which your own power is being used to separate you from others. Engage with those who aren’t like you, and reflect on it. But don’t use theology and philosophy as the end all.

    • Andrew Shepherd

      Also, more of a pet-peeve, bu Derrida isn’t the only fundemenntal post-modern philosopher. Y’all should read some Foucault.

    • GMac

      This is a very good point! It’s all too easy to fall into “ivory tower” syndrome and to be justifiably criticized for not pro-actively applying the theory to a real world scenario. But surely one reason is simply geographical – not everyone can easily go to the places where some of these ideas could be applied. And I would imagine that the majority of theorists are doing their own small (or maybe not so small) part in their own locality.

      It’s a tricky one though, because to simply “go out, do ministry, whatever that means” is exactly the reason why there’s so much talk about it. What exactly do we go out and do? Indeed, theory and praxis must go hand in hand. While I’m theorising, I need to do, and while I’m doing it, I need to think about it.

      The bottom line is we can’t exactly go wrong with doing “love”, right? (and for that matter, thinking about it too)

  • On the road to Emmaus

    Why do white theologians, academics, and pastors act like this is a new phenomenon? I’m flabbergasted when I hear white people talk as if they’ve just discovered that the church is divided along racial lines and that whatever academic theology they hold dear — Tillich, Barth, Caputo, etc. — doesn’t mean shit to people of color, most of whom struggle to make ends meet. Radical theological discourse seems self-satisfied and self-congratulatory with its smug talk about the “death of god.” It’s also laughable that inviting liberation theologians is going to fix the problem. The last I checked they don’t speak for or to the segments of the church that are growing. If you all want to fix your people of color problem, start attending their churches, get to know them as PEOPLE and not the latest cause, invite them to lunch, have them over for dinner, let your children hang out with their children, etc. In other words, worship and break bread with them, share life and community with them. It’s so odd that a group that can talk ad nauseam about the “face of the other” is so blind to the actual faces of the people of color around them.

    • Mike Ward

      The problem is people like Piatt think they’ve rediscovered the one true version fo Christianity so when they look around and don’t see any black people, they scratch their heads trying to figure out why black people only worship in false churches. It is absolutely inconceivable to them that they’ve simply create one more Christian sect–a pretty average one at that–and that it shouldn’t be any surprise that their new sect is just as racially homogeneous as the sects they left to form it.

      • Mike Ward

        I’m sorry, in this instances replace black with Latino. It’s all the same problem. A bunch of middle class white kids who’ve got it all figured out trying to teach everyone else how to do church.

  • In reading this critique of privileged religious discussions (i.e. Radical Theology), I see some good points, yet at the same time, we can’t ignore that postmodernity is primarily a cultural force that is shaped, owned and entered into by white, western cultures – emphasis on primarily.

    The reason is that it is a rejection of “modernity” – something that very few cultures outside of the western world had to endure following the Enlightenment. It is fair to critique movements like Radical Theology for being white, male and privileged, but always with a nuance that the modernity/postmodernity shift is primarily a Western issue.

    If you haven’t been marred and de-humanized by modernity then you don’t need to return from it. In many ways, postmodernity is a return to a kind of situated tribal affiliation posture that allows for dynamics to re-enter the Western world that have never left the Majority world. This is a good thing, but it may require that the Western world work through postmodernity in collusion with non-western ideologies – yet at the same time understand it is distinct and needs its own spaces to do so at times.

    Hence the need for a conference like the one being critiqued – as long as we can accept that it is reparative therapy from the influence of modernity and not privileged bourgeois speak.

  • Not sure if geeking out on “radical theology” is any different than geeking out on “liberation theology”.

    Maybe the problem is in assuming that philosophizing is “geeking out”. As if philosophy = Dungeons and Dragons.

  • John

    My masters thesis was on synthesizing the soteriologies of Paul Tillich and Gustavo Gutierrez, two representatives of the camps you described. Thank you for this: this makes me feel like my work is important. 🙂

  • Wes

    It may be helpful to stop using racial or gender differences (White, Latino) as a means by which to set-up an opposition and then to stereotype them all and then to easily dispose of them. Which theology is right or wrong (“liberation” or “radical”)? Which theology is racist or not? These queries may well hide a hidden form of bigotry, which ironically set-up a right/wrong camp. It seems to me it may be better asking more productive and affirming queries that challenge without dismissing. This article seems to want to accuse someone of being racist before understand a more open, pluralist and tolerant view of the “other”. Let’s try to build up and not tear down.

  • wes

    It may be helpful to stop using racial or gender differences (White, Latino) as a means by which to set-up an opposition and then to stereotype them all and then to easily dispose of them. Which theology is right or wrong (“liberation” or “radical”)? Which theology is racist or not? These queries may well hide a hidden form of bigotry, which ironically set-up a right/wrong camp. It seems to me it may be better asking more productive and affirming queries that challenge without dismissing. This article seems to want to accuse someone of being racist before understand a more open, pluralist and tolerant view of the “other”. Let’s try to build up and not tear down.