Avantgarde Art and Radical Material Theology
- ISBN: 9780367188719
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: October 2020
I was expecting Avantgarde Art and Radical Material Theology: A Manifesto to rather straightforwardly do what the title suggests: to use a particular type of art to develop and explain key features of a materialist theology. And at moments it does this declarative task. Within each chapter, Petra Carlsson Redell places the avant-garde art of Russian artist Liubov Popova (1889-1924) in a theological conversation with figures such as Paul Tillich, Walter Benjamin, Donna Haraway, and Gilles Deleuze, among others. You can see the argumentative logic to this structure, as using avantgarde art analogically to critique the process and task of theology is a creative juxtaposition.
As a manifesto, the aim is to reconstruct theological method in two ways. One, the process of doing theology ought to be radically creative, ever open to theological doings not beholden to a particular tradition or conventional sources. Second, like the “finished” artwork (though impossible because of the ontological condition of humans as ever “becoming” creatures), theological claims ought not to be a repackaging of old ideas, but rather something new, both eye- and mind-catching. Like Popova’s work “Space Force Construction” from 1920, theology should reshape our basic beliefs about the workings of God and the world; it should lead to action to address lived problems, especially climate change. In particular, Petra Carlsson Redell aims to challenge the shadow of Christian complicity in environmental issues (as discussed by Lynn White, for example) as the key consequence of this theological critique.
The larger frame for the argument is Benjamin’s idea of “second technology” recast as a model for theological thought. The heart of the project is then to articulate a “second theology” that echoes the avantgarde style of art. Here, theology arises out of a relational view of creation; a non-dualistic interplay that stresses political action, rather than mere discursive reflection, is the task of theology. Consequently, the author’s target of critique is a type of theology that “aims to master the world” (47) for the good of humanity alone, thereby justifying environmental exploitation.
As the path into this idea, the author sees theology as arising not out of willful human intention, but through the technical and artistic sensibilities of the theologian as artist. Like an artist who lets the art emerge out of their immersion into the artistic materials, a theologian must synthetically live into the various dimensions of theological thought (i.e., Eden, Christ, eschatology) amidst the material actuality of everyday life to thereby do theology. For instance, seeing Eden in the everyday means finding redemptive moments now and within material creation, rather than some far off apocalyptic event. Theology is then a “concrete” doing (24) within the messiness of human becoming, rather than an ontotheology of permanence. Doing theology also means moving beyond denominational boundaries to the meta task of re-forming theology to address the material concerns of our context.
Theology is always embedded into and emerging out of worldly materiality, both human and non-human. As non-dualistic, and thus emphasizing the interplay between the material and spiritual rather than a separation, theology ought to reimagine the way we imagine the human place within creation. It is thus decidedly political; the text gives itself as a manifesto to pursue this aim, to provoke and poetically challenge ossified thinking about the nature of theological thought.
For instance, the author rethinks divine creativity, pointing to the idea that the divine is the “constructive possibility that is as present in the material world as in the abstract world of ideas” (38). Like an artist, the theologian is immersed within a material givenness full of creative possibility; rather than mastering or dominating this given, the theologian must act as a “cyborg” (an idea arising out of the thought of Donna Haraway) made up of partial identities and contradictory standpoints to likewise craft theological fragments. In a similar vein, the author sees Christ as a “celestial machine,” something manufactured through the various communities, sources, and contexts that link Christ to human concerns, as in our questions about “what is it to die, to sink, to rise, to live” (75). In the final chapter, eschatology becomes an all-at-once phenomenon that orients theology within the “timemessiness and spacemessiness” that is the lived everyday (84). Throughout, the argument challenges theological assumptions through discursive “colors” (i.e., ideas) such as machine and cyborg. These provocations are important as they re-energize the process of thinking theologically.
This final chapter was the strongest of the chapters in the sense that it was more consistent and deepest in its treatment of the eschatological theme; other chapters uncritically introduce an idea from a figure (i.e. Benjamin, Michel Foucault) that is then easily integrated into the methodological workshop of the theologian. I, for one, would have appreciated more critical engagement of these thinkers as a means to be better persuaded that these tools fit so easily into the theological toolbox. The author’s other texts (including one on Foucault) have done such work but doing so here would have deepened the overall argument by addressing these critical concerns.
One thing you might have noticed in this review (based on where I began) is that the theological vision largely lacks any necessary connection to the avantgarde art listed in the title. Popova’s work is an interesting example of how theological thinking might work as a creative activity; yet the text’s substantive dimensions are discursive, rather than aesthetic, meaning the links between theological craft and artistic craft aren’t as well articulated as they need to be. Further, greater efforts to justify why Popova’s art serves as the prime example of second theology would have also better intertwined the art into the argument.
That said, there is much to commend about this work. We do need theology that matters to our lives, to address in new ways our everyday concerns and to provocatively call us into healthier practices of existing within (not above) creation. This text makes one think deeply about, and thus hopefully reform, the practical content of one’s life; there is no greater nor more challenging art.
Peder Jothen is associate professor of practice in religion at St. Olaf College.Peder JothenDate Of Review:August 8, 2022