Unnatural Theology

Religion, Art and Media after the Death of God

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Charlie Gere
Political Theologies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2018.
     200 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350064690.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Charlie Gere’s Unnatural Theology immerses readers in critical theory, theology, philosophy, and media studies on a seamless journey through contemporary thought, gliding across historical and philosophical currents with effortless ease. Gere lays out his musings in interconnected but discrete chapters linked together with his conceptual frame of “unnatural theology,” which Gere suggests is understanding God in the interstices between presence and absence. In other words, God, as understood by conventional theology, is a human construct from which God necessarily escapes. Instead, Gere calls for us to acknowledge “God as the ultimate empty signifier, or signifier of nothing”(7). As such, we must realize our role in this constructed nature of the divine. Gere proposes that such theological certainty is unnatural and ultimately untenable. Drawing on a host of theorists, but predominantly Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, Gere explores how “natural theology” is an ontological snare by unfolding a series of deconstructivist case studies that interweave both the possibilities and limitations of language for conceptualizing art, ethics, film, literature, nature, and God.

In his first chapter, “An Unnatural Theology for the Anthropocene,” Gere guides us through the via negativa (the focus on what something is not) theological approach of Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa. She melds their thought with contemporary theorists, such as Simon Critchley, Simone Weil, and Giorgio Agamben to explore how the name of God serves as the fulcrum between theists and atheists to suggest that atheism is a new form of negative theology.  Gere’s second chapter “The Silence of God,” invokes Jean-Francis Lyotard’s paper “On the Hyphen” published later in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity (Humanities Press, 1999) to consider the epistemological role of the hyphen in “Judeo-Christian” with Paul of Tarsus as the bridge between what Lyotard suggests for Jews is the absent God whose voice can be found only in the letters of the Torah in contrast to the Christian view of God, whose voice as the human Christ was incarnated. Chapter 3 “Corpus Mystical Anarchism” presents Gere’s support for William Cavanaugh’s Eucharistic anarchism over Simon Critchley’s political anarchism through the lens of Marcus Pound and Frederick Bauerschmidt to offer a way through reified political theology to one of ethics and compassion.

In chapter 4 “Ruskin’s Haunted Nature,” Gere takes us through Ruskin’s rejection of photography’s spectral traces and absence to contrast the presence of nature as an eschatological ecology that presciently speaks to our impending climate crisis. Gere continues his exploration of photography in chapter 5, “Photography in the Time that Remains,” to discuss the Shroud of Turin through G.W.F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche’s  death of God to reflect on how the photographic image disrupts our categories of time and place and to consider with Derrida, Agamben, and Walter Benjamin the ways that photography blends past into the present with eerie apocalypticism. Though initially tantalizing, chapter 6, “Whore Text,” is the least persuasive in the book as Gere muses on the otherness of the female body in contemporary culture as an image of the divine to argue that woman/feminine stands in as the other in the same way in which God is the ultimate Other. With pornography as the nexus through which Gere connects the otherness of “Woman” from medieval thought through Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, and Jacques Derrida, Gere attempts to connect the feminine as other with truth. Even though Gere follows Derrida in moving beyond binary gender constructions and gestures to feminist scholars and artists, this chapter may fail to convince those  who inhabit a female body or identify as female.

Next, Gere turns his attention to an exploration of British Pop artist Richard Hamilton in chapter 7, “Pop Eschatology,” drawing on the thought of Bruno Latour, to suggest that Hamilton’s art is deeply religious in theme and scope despite its reliance on imagery from consumer culture. In “Looking Down from Ingleborough,” chapter 8, Gere returns to thinking with Ruskin, Rudolph Otto, and Derrida about the ways that nature, death, and God escape writing and collapse the binary of nature/culture, since language fails all attempts to circumscribe nature and the divine. Chapters 9, “The Incredible Shrinking Human,” and 10, “Of Clouds and the Cloud,” also speak to failed human attempts to construct theoretical walls between nature and culture since nature is as formidable as it is eternal, and humans shrink against the vastness or void of the cosmos. Gere’s final chapter “Conclusion: God in Black and White” does not summarize his themes, but instead expands on them to consider God as the paradigmatic force of cosmic violence through which God is simultaneously imagined as light yet remains dark, absent, other, and unnatural.

Gere’s extraordinarily readable philosophical and theological meditations demonstrate how to do “theory” well for scholars and students alike. It reads like a who’s who of significant thinkers on the nature of media, literature, nature, death, and God. John Ruskin, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Alfred North Whitehead, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Bruno Latour may be the most recognizable stars of Gere’s cast, but Gere expertly invokes more recent theologians, philosophers, and theorists, including Lynn Hunt, Catherine Keller, Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Mark C. Taylor in a tour-de-force literary conversation that invokes deconstructionist moves through social criticism, media, literature, art, and apophatic theology. Given its glossary and inclusion in Bloomsbury Academic’s Political Theologies series, Gere’s Unnatural Theology offers an exceptional opportunity to explore radical theologies with students in advanced or introductory graduate seminars and may be the intellectual nourishment that advanced scholars might crave as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia A. Hogan is visiting assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Washington and Jefferson College.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charlie Gere is Professor of Media Theory and History in the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University.

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