The radical theologian…

I was recently tagged on facebook by someone quoting me as “The radical theologian, Chris Eyre”, which pleased me more than was reasonable. Yes, I try to do theology, notably what is called “constructive theology”, which means, to me at least, not the analysis and categorisation of systematic theology, but branching out into new expressions of theology, and sometimes entirely new concepts. I do this largely from a panentheistic root understanding, and in conscience I do it at all largely because there isn’t a great deal of theology written from this precise perspective. Yes, there’s “Open and Relational” theology (Tom Oord is an example of that who is currently making waves with his popular book “God Can’t”), and there’s “Process Theology”, of which John Cobb and Bruce Epperly are prominent examples, but neither of those is specifically panentheist.

The thing is, I don’t have academic credentials in theology, and regard my writing as “baby steps” in the discipline. Indeed, they may never be more than that, because I prefer to carry on doing constructive work, as much as I’m able, rather than going through years worth of academic programmes which will teach me about theologies which aren’t tailored to the panentheist. Also, I probably don’t have enough years of productive life left in me to spend 10 or more of them in an academic setting.

But what kind of theologian am I? I would tend to say that I was a Liberal Theologian, given the description in this blog post. Though I don’t particularly see myself as following Schleiermacher, who I’ve never actually read, I definitely start (as he does) from “deep inner experiential awareness”. We all, I think, prioritise one side of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and I start with my experience (which is mostly non-negotiable*), pay massive attention to scripture (which I regard as an account of the experience of those in my tradition who are accepted as authoritative over the whole tradition), significant attention to tradition (which I regard as the experience of other members of the tradition in bulk over the years) and, in looking at all these, use reason. My problem with that label is that a lot of constructive liberal theologians pay much less regard to scripture and tradition than I do (which is a feature picked on regularly by conservatives!)

A lot of theologians who I read with significant fellow-feeling are described as “progressive”. So, am I a Progressive Theologian? There are some similarities, in that those with that label tend to work more closely with scripture and tradition than do those labelled “liberal”. But “progressive” turns out to be a label which says that you’re a former Evangelical (which, to my mind, is why they have more time for scripture and tradition), and I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Evangelical. OK, I’ve spent time in the pews at a couple of churches which brand themselves as “Evangelical”, but I was always somewhat semi-detached from them, and was typically labelled as their token Liberal.

Radical, though, is a word I really like to describe what I try to do theologically. “Radical” means “going to the root of” something, and I have a lot of sympathy with the project of stripping away layers of interpretation and looking as closely as I can at the root of all theology, namely experience. “Radical” also has the connotation of going in new and completely unexpected directions, and I certainly try to do that, as much as anything on the basis that in a field in which the base experience is a numinous one, thus extremely difficult to be precise about, having a few additional stories about it can only be a good thing.

Yet, when I look at theologians who are commonly called “radical”, I come across names like Peter Rollins, Thomas J.J. Altizer and Kester Brewin, all of whom are in the Altizer tradition of being “death of God” theologians. I worry that “radical” implies that I base myself in some way on “death of God”, and possibly as well on existential concerns – Kierkegaard and Bonhoefer tend to figure large in radical theology. I am not really a “death of God” theologian – for one thing, I can’t stand Nietzsche, who coined the concept (OK, he had a few very good lines, but on the whole I dislike the way his thinking went). Yes, I can take on board “death of God” meaning the fact that old conceptions of God as am interventionary supernatural force in the world are dead, but not the ontological or psychological meanings which Peter Rollins is in the process of expounding in a new series of lectures on “death of God” theology going on at the moment (Note, these are patron-only lectures, but a few dollars for a month or two does get you a lot of Pete’s previous work…)

I’m more familiar with Pete’s work than that of other radical theologians, but note that Pete is very concerned with the existential questions of fear of death and fear of nothingness or absence of meaning. I don’t fear death (although I have a healthy fear of many of the means of getting there – I don’t like pain very much), and fear of nothingness doesn’t make sense to me, nor does the question which exercises philosophers of “why is there something rather than nothing”. My suspicion is that if I were ever have going to have developed such concerns, my peak mystical experience aged 14 put paid to that possibility. For me, peak mystical experiences remove fear of death (which becomes merely a rearrangement in the All) and concern about nothingness (the experience tends to produce a paradoxical “everything and nothing at the same time” sensation, which you get used to – and in any event, gives you an absolute assurance of the existence of the All). What much of Pete’s work seeks to do is to rid you of the wish to avoid death and nothingness, whereas to me mystical experience gives you exactly the solution to those problems; I can’t help regarding his approach as a little like Origen’s solution to having sexual desire which he didn’t think he should indulge – he famously castrated himself in an appallingly literal following of Matthew 19:12.

Personally, I think Origen’s action (which, to be fair, may be apocryphal) is ridiculous. Perhaps Pete’s removal of concern might be more sensible – after all, it does appear that only a small minority of people historically have been able to have peak mystical experiences, though the incidence of people reporting such experience has shot up in recent years, making me hopeful that in fact everyone might be a mystic in the future – but I still consider it extreme.

Most other theologians called “radical” are in something like the same mould; they are in the Altizer tradition.

And yet, I really like the concept of “radical”, both in the fact that it indicates one is trying to “go to the root” of things. I am, I suppose, always trying to look behind the descriptions of experience of God to “that which is God”, and that definitely counts in my book as “radical”, and in the process I also tend to try to look at things afresh and independently of the tradition of interpretation, which leads me to writing things which people view as “radical” in the other sense, of being something “outside the box”.

Perhaps the one “radical” theologian who does not seem to me to be so much a “death of God” thinker is John Caputo, whose thinking in and following “The Weakness of God” is very much to my liking – it ignores conventional concepts and strikes out in a new direction. Thomas Jay Oord, whose writing has generally been considerably more conventional in most senses, has recently written “God can’t”, which has the same kind of radical tinge to it (let’s face it, all of us were probably brought up with a concept of God which was above all else omnipotent)… perhaps he may start being referred to as “radical”, at which point I will feel that I comfortably fit within the description.


* When I say the experience is non-negotiable, I do not necessarily include what I can identify as the interpretation of the experience. How much of it is interpretation has shifted a little over the years, particularly as the uninterpreted experience is very difficult to talk about. Such experiences as I have had were definitely experiences, were definitely mystical experiences, using the thinking of Happold, James and Underhill to verify that fact, and in the case of several of them were as far as can be established not the result of any physical or mental stressors, mental abnormality, drugs or any other environmental cause.

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