A Philosophy of Christian Materialism

Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good

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Christopher Baker, Thomas A. James, John Reader
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2015.
     220 pages.
     $112.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781472427328.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this contribution to the Contemporary Continental Philosophy of Religion series published by Routledge, three authors construct a philosophy of Christian materialism that addresses lived experience. In doing so, they draw upon particular figures and themes in continental philosophy. Their goal is a new version of relational Christian realism that emphasizes deep connection and entangled fidelities. 

A recurring theme in A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good is the endeavor to overcome the transcendent-immanent dualism prevalent in much of Christian theology. This theological vision seeks to stay within the immanent plane. This requires new language.

These authors reject both an entirely secular vision of existence and classic Christianity (especially Radical Orthodoxy). Their alternative draws from the Christian realism tradition but it uses new categories, new theology, and new philosophical ontologies. The primary philosophical resources for this alternative are Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, and Alain Badiou.

After a few chapters laying out method and related issues, the authors say they consider religion, generally speaking, a fidelity that engages material loyalties and commitments within the social, economic, and political spheres. It requires no transcendent, extramundane reality. Religion calls our attention to what is near. Religious orienting is always fluid, not something definitively given by one person or one community.

Given their aversion for a transcendent God, the authors work to articulate the language for their alternative. The God they describe is not a transcendent agent imposing purposes from a realm that transcends the material world. God is an immanent power within the cosmos, but not identical with it.

Hidden within the realities and actualities of existence are “virtual” powers. This virtuality is God but God is also the ungroundedness of existence. God is “not as an actual being,” they explain, “but in some way virtual: as a power or powers that are somehow hidden within the actual, along the same plane of immanence with them but not among them as one actuality among others” (92). This also means God has no unity.

Moving from their characterization of God, the authors address briefly other key Christian figures and themes. For instance, Jesus is a happening quantitatively more powerful than most happenings. He creates a higher than usual number of productive links between objects or elements within the plane of immanence. Jesus unsettles the actual and mobilizes the volcanic powers of the virtual (God), but the only way Christ can leverage power within the world is through alliance with other actualities.

Creation is not a static order God set in place long ago. It is an enclosed but inclusive ontic domain characterized by flexible ordering. From it emerge possible meanings and values. Creation so conceived is good, corrupt, and renewable: an ongoing gift. 

Humans in this theological vision find themselves entangled in multiple fidelities, within which they encounter God. Those who gather as the people of God imagine new ways of bringing being into actual reality. As expressions of the restless God, humans are also restless. This offers an eschatological vision with no final beatific end for humans, Earth, or the universe. The restless process is unending and redemption stubbornly contingent.

The authors address briefly other common themes of Christian theology such as fall, sin, redemption, imago dei, and more. Of particular note is that relational Christian realism affirms a cosmic, nonanthropocentric vision of redemption. This redemption is contingent upon the various ways in which divine virtuality is expressed amid the interplay of actual things in the world.

The final three chapters of the book address issues of practical engagement in the public sphere. Relational Christian realism engages the tangled fidelities of existence, say the authors, and thereby contributes to public life. Chapters address radical hospitality, equal distribution and flow of power, attractions, and the reassembling of the public commonwealth. Case studies and examples abound, addressing in particular urban community empowerment, education, and environmental issues. The final chapter offers brief reflections on some political implications for relational Christian realism. The hope envisioned here is not based upon a God as an organizing center of power but in the virtuality expressed within the entangled fidelities of existence. 

A Philosophy of Christian Materialism offers an intriguing theological vision. The authors identify weaknesses in earlier forms of Christian realism and flaws in Radical Orthodoxy. They draw from Continental resources not often mined by Christian theologians, while being informed by open and relational thinking characteristic of the Whiteheadian tradition.

The book tries to do too much. The authors rightly see the value of explaining the method, theological vision, and practical implications of their new perspective, but this probably should have been three books, not one. Readers will feel sharp material shifts between the book’s sections, and the writing and rhetoric varies widely. 

I was especially intrigued by the “relational” in this Christian realism and its disdain for “transcendence.” I found no clear definition of what the authors mean by divine transcendence. But enough phrases led me to think the authors were rejecting the view of a God essentially disconnected from existence. I find this helpful, and I find helpful their emphasis upon an immanent God entangled within actualities. But how is this God “relational” if not in any sense transcendent or “other?” Is this pantheism or panentheism? If the latter (which the authors identify), some measure of divine transcendence seems essential.

In sum, this important book requires follow-up to explain and develop its intriguing themes. The alternative theological vision it sketches seems like a needed alternative for our day, but we need further elaboration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Jay Oord is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Wesley Center, Northwest Nazarene University.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Reader has been both a parish priest and theological author and educator over the past 30 years. Recent books include: Blurred Encounters; Reconstructing Practical Theology; Entering the New Theological Space, co-edited with Christopher R. Baker; Christianity and the New Social Order, with John Atherton and Christopher Baker; Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing, written with Helen Cameron, Victoria Slater and Chris Rowland; and Heterotopia, written with Caroline Baillie and Jens Kabo.

Thomas A. James is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Southfield, Michigan. He holds a PhD from Union Presbyterian Seminary, and is author of In Face of Reality: The Constructive Theology of Gordon D. Kaufman and several articles in Political Theology, Zygon, The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, and The Bulletin of the North American Paul Tillich Society. He served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary from 2008 through 2012.

Christopher Baker is William Temple Professor of Religion and Public Life at the University of Chester and Director of Research for the William Temple Foundation. He has written and co-edited eight books and 30 book chapters and journal articles exploring the relationship between religion and urbanisation, the role of religion in public policy and social welfare, and the role of religion in civil society and the reshaping of church within the urban environment. Publications include: The Hybrid Church in the City; Postsecular Cities, edited with Justin Beaumont; and Christianity and the New Social Order, written with John Atherton and John Reader.

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