Sunday, June 10, 2007


"Mainline theology needs to understand [both] how we are part of the problem and how resistance can be formed. The primary issue is not first of all advocacy, in the form of doing things for others in ways that leave the self intact, but self-critique." [Joerg Rieger, God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), pp. 190f.]

Karl Marx once said that the premise of all criticism is the criticism of religion. This was, in its own way, a supreme compliment, because although he disavowed its transcendentalism (which he wrongly mistook for nothing more than philosophical and political idealism), Marx recognised the power of "religious" language and sentiment to deal in hopes and possibilities which the grinding wheels of production and consumption otherwise drain out of people. In the end he substituted a myth about history and a messianic class for religious eschatology, living up to his reputation as the last (and least obviously theological!) of the great Hebrew prophets.

Of course it is no more or less meaningful to talk of "religion" in the abstract than it is to talk of "humanity" in the abstract. People are not one-size-fits-all. They only come in gendered, cultured and socialised forms - in different, sometimes contradictory shapes and sizes, that is. So it is also with religion - a fact which those who try to sweep it all away with a cavalier hand and an indiscriminating mind fail (or refuse) to notice.

It is unavoidable, then, that Riegler is talking here, in the first instance, not about "religion" but about Christian and Hebrew theology - where (though you might not know it from the behaviour of many of their adherents) self-critique is, in both traditions, constituitive of any capacity they have for meaningful speech and action. It isn't an add-on, after-thought or optional extra.

For example, there is no Christianity which can properly avoid its own confrontation with the Cross, the place where our human and religious propensities to demand sacrifice, to create systems that kill, and to legitimate injustice are exposed to the searing and unanswerable criticism of the innocent victim - the one who has to be killed becuase his existence exposes the non-necessity of such regimes.

The cross is also the place where the perpetuators of the cycle of violence are undone by a response which is truly radical precisely because (at great cost) it refuses to perpetuate the core problem: "Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing...". By contrast, to strike back is to "curse the power [at night], and live by it by day."

In the midst of its internal warring and its external anxieties about cultures which are less well disposed to it, organised Christianity urgently needs to re-capture that sense of theological self-critique. Criticism of its own failure to live truthfully in the light of unconditional love should become the premise of any criticism it engages in the wider culture. Not out of masochism (as some will claim), but out of reflexivity and faithfulness.

At which point the same question also reaches out to Muslims, to humanists, to those of many faiths, no-faith and anti-faith. Where is the self-criticism intrinsic to your patterns of thought and behaviour which enable them to acknowledge betrayal and victimisation - and not just to see betrayal and victimisation as someone else's fault? This is the truly redemptive question of the darkened imagination.

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