Critical Theology

Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis

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Carl A. Raschke
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , August
     2016.
     175 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851294.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Carl Raschke has spent his entire career at the intersection of theology, social theory, political philosophy, and the hurly-burly of practiced American religion, and in his 75th year he remains as provocative and insightful as ever. His recent primer, Critical Theology, is a welcome handbook for those with philosophical backgrounds seeking to ground their study of the Frankfurt school with something like Jürgen Moltmann’s liberation theology, or for those of a theological bent trying to grapple with the dense social critiques of a continental philosopher like Slavoj Žižek. Of course, the main purpose of the book is to introduce the agenda of critical theologians to a wider audience (presumably a wider, reformed, and evangelical Christian audience since the publisher is IVP). In carrying out this task Raschke is lucid in his explanations and mostly convincing in his call to action. 

Critical Theology begins with a brief historical synopsis that covers the major events and responses Raschke sees as milestones in the development of what has coalesced today into a coherent field of thought. Monuments like Barth, Habermas, Heidegger, Bultmann, Marcuse, and Horkheimer are all touched on, if somewhat episodically, in order to draw a connecting line between French and German Marxist philosophy and the development of critical theological voices in the middle of the 20th century. 

The middle portion of the book lays out a compelling answer to what Raschke suggests is the first task for any good critical theologian: “Recognizing that there is a crisis” (42). To support this, Raschke proposes a marked symmetry between the cultural crisis of the middle of the 20th century and the challenges facing the present. He draws on the works of Taubes and Arendt to tie an extended line between the “automated thought processing” of Arendt’s reports from Eichmann’s trial (45) and Taubes’s sense of theology as the janus face of the political (57), to the present where dissent from the norms of political correctness is perilous and politics itself has been substituted in the public sphere as an all-encompassing social discourse. 

The final two chapters, which make up nearly half the book, are spent weaving together Raschke’s proposed responses to the socio-political crisis he has identified. Here, Raschke’s colors fly with vigor and verve. His first target is the field of religious studies itself, wracked with a 19th century protestant eurocentrism masquerading as 20th century empiricism (113-14). This uncritical approach has led to, in his estimation, “the almost total eclipse of the philosophy of religion within the study of religion.” As a result, “though religion is almost by definition what Jürgen Habermas would term a system of ‘communicative action,’ no effort has been made to deploy the exploding genre of communication theory in the analysis of religious phenomena” (115). 

To this, Raschke proposes turning focus away from religion and toward “religion”: not in an emotive, spiritualist way à la the boomer hippies of the 1960’s, but in a critical and semiotic way that deploys the existentialist conundrum Raschke draws from Hereclitus: “What do we mean by logos?” This is a question in which, as he suggests, “questions of theory, questions of theology and questions of philosophy” all find their origin (127). At the core of this “religious” sense Raschke, echoing Kierkegaard, writes that we must acknowledge and take seriously the very potent “force of God” (128): the world changing, culture shaping force most singularly manifested by the resurrection of Christ event and its reverberations over the last two millennia. 

Raschke’s primer provides an excellent description of how critical theology and critical theory have been and continue to grow more intertwined. He lays out in clear detail how some of the major figures like Badiou, Žižek, Habermas, and Weber have influenced and interacted with the field, and presses a compelling vision of how new theologians and theorists could carry the torch of these thinkers. But one wonders if anything in Raschke’s formulation of critical theology’s future could evoke the same simple wonder—carry the same “force of God”—­­as a Jewish rabbi saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The same question applies to the saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”—words that have compelled so many billions to reimagine and renegotiate the world. What is lost in the conundrum of academia’s endless complications and critical re-imaginings around theology is that what we take for granted today as normative was itself a critical reevaluation. The (Christian) “religion” Raschke’s critical theology is meant to engage with and repurpose into a grand critique of the crisis inhering in the present social and political milieu is, at its core, already meant to be a rebuke to the powers that be. And it is not clear how, if in any way other than nomenclature, Raschke thinks critical theology should remain moored to that tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Raubach is a doctoral candidate in Reception Theory at Aarhus University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carl A. Raschke is professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, specializing in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. 

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