Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Write-Up: Critical Theology, by Carl A. Raschke

Carl A. Raschke.  Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Carl A. Raschke teaches religious studies at the University of Denver.  In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Raschke explores how Christian theology can contribute to political liberation.  Raschke refers to a global crisis, which includes disarray on the global scale and the aftermath of the economic collapse in 2008.  Another problem that Raschke discusses is how the communications media enslave people by emphasizing commodification.  Karl Marx’s thought plays a role in Raschke’s analysis, as Raschke notes Marx’s insight that the superstructure (i.e., society, media, etc.) often supports and reinforces the class system.

Raschke presents a history of Christian theology’s political programs, primarily in the twentieth century.  Bultmann, Heidigger, Otto, and Barth were significant figures in this.  Neo-Kantianism also had significant influence in the story that Raschke tells.  (Kant, of course, was a philosopher, but there was a transcendental and religious dimension to his thought, which would influence later neo-Kantianism.)  Raschke also discusses the Frankfurt School, which offered analysis that was supportive of liberation, albeit from a largely secularist standpoint. (Yet, Raschke says in an endnote that some have argued that the Frankfurt School was actually open to religion playing a role in liberation.)

Raschke profiles thinkers whom he believes can inform the agenda that he believes is important.  Raschke discusses how Badiou and Zizez interpret Paul in a manner that is consistent with political liberation.  Law refers not just to the Torah in their thought, but to structures of society that enslave.  Grace ran contrary to such law in Badiou’s thought, and Zizez regarded love as a cure for treating people as commodities.  Zizez interpreted faith as optimism regarding the future.  Badiou and Zizez were still secularists, but they believed that aspects of the Christian religion could be helpful in their analysis and articulation of the importance of political liberation.

What elements of Christianity does Raschke highlight as significant in terms of the agenda that he introduces?  He appears to agree with Zizez’s emphasis on love.  He highlights the incarnation, in which God in Jesus was present with humanity.  That may relate to God’s concern for humanity, which a political theology presumes, but it also seems to relate to how Raschke believes Christians should interact with other cultures and religions in a post-modern age.  At the same time, Raschke maintains that Christians should regard ethics as transcendent: human value and dignity are not relative but are absolute principles from God.

The book is highly abstract and complex, and one may wonder if a lot of academic and philosophical language is being unnecessarily used to express the simple proposition that love is the answer.  It is tempting to think so, and yet Raschke does wade in waters that are deep and complex.  These waters concern trends from the past and the present, in thought and in life, and how the agenda that Raschke introduces engages current trends.

In terms of the political program that Raschke promotes, Raschke seems to emphasize the power of ideas, used by God, to effect change.  He is critical of violent revolution.  He talks about the New Left, and he may be supportive of political activism, motivated, for Christians, by theological concerns.  His hope may be that more people will see the Christian religion as something other than an object of study, a set of creeds, or feel-good platitudes, and to embrace it as something that can make a positive difference in the world for all people, especially the disenfranchised.

This book has its positives.  It is informative in its exploration of theological and philosophical political thought, and some of that thought interacted with other fields, such as psychology.  This book is deep and rich.  The treatment of Paul by Badiou and Zizez was definitely creative.  Raschke’s discussion of how thinkers in the New Left opposed totalitarian Communism was also interesting, since many right-wingers tend to lump the two together as allies.

In terms of negatives, this book could have been clearer in terms of its prose, hopefully without sacrificing its depth.  The prose in the endnotes was very lucid, and perhaps Raschke would have done well to have used that kind of prose throughout the book.  Moreover, while Raschke is interacting with and contributing to an academic discussion, Raschke should have explained how these academic thoughts could make a difference on the ground.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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