Over the last several years, I’ve developed a morbid sort of fascination with the phenomenon of humanities academics calling for the demise of their own disciplines. For one thing, it’s a curious inversion of Upton Sinclair’s aphorism that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”; rather, scholars of this particular deconstructive bent have made an art form out of biting the hand that feeds them. For another, it comes amidst the widespread dismantling of liberal arts departments by the same neoliberal forces that such academics (virtually to a one) deplore.
I’ve often thought that the “Death of God” theologians of the 1960s–70s were the archetypal examples of scholars willing the demolition of their own discipline. For a number of theologians associated with the movement, the outpouring of God into the world through Christ’s death represented the end of the divine altogether, a kenotic act setting the world “free” into its modern secularity. “Theology” was, ultimately, destined to become a set of ongoing ruminations on the creative possibilities of a no-longer-enchanted cosmos.
I was wrong, though, to think their approach represented the height of disciplinary self-destruction. As it happens, Elliot R. Wolfson takes this “a-theological” movement a step further still in Giving Beyond the Gift: Apophasis and Overcoming Theomania (a book which, interestingly enough, is written from a distinctly Jewish perspective—there’s no rhetoric of divine kenosis available to him here). For Wolfson, the Death of God theologians didn’t go nearly far enough: to focus on the disappearance of the divine still reflects “a relentless and maddening obsession for transcendence, even if the latter is construed as a negative presence, that is, a presence that is present only as the absence of presence.” What is required, for Wolfson, is a more radical forgetting of God altogether—“the death of God reaches fruition when we forget what it is that we have forgotten, a twofold oblivion that signals the end of theology and not the possibility of its rejuvenation.” Even naturalistically thinking of the world as a “gift” is a step too far: “On what basis can we assume a force of charitable love at work in the universe without anthropomorphizing its source?”
Notably, there is an element in Wolfson’s arguments here that falls within a fairly established theoretical current. To wit, one of the more frequent motifs in postmodern theology as a whole (not of the Radical Orthodoxy variety) is an overwhelming concern with idolatry. To be sure, sometimes this theme can be worked out constructively. Jean-Luc Marion deploys this concept skillfully in distinguishing between the idea of the idol (a creation of human beings made to be gazed upon) and that of the icon (a window through which God gazes upon human beings). And as someone deeply committed to the metaphysics of classical theism, I’m aware there’s always a theological risk of collapsing the genuinely transcendent Creator into simply a “being among other beings” subject to the limitations of any finite subject. That error, in a sense, one could call “idolatry,” in that it forces God down onto the ontological level of human beings (and not in the sense effected by the Incarnation).
But this is not, typically, how postmodern theologians use the concept. For Wolfson and others in the postmodern current wielding the charge of “idolatry,” it’s the traditional tenets of monotheism as such, even understood through the lenses of analogy and metaphor, that are the fundamental problem. Deconstructionist theologian Peter Rollins—once a favorite of “emergent church” types—has argued that to think of God as the summum bonum, that toward which all human desire is teleologically oriented, is to engage in idolatry. In the specifically Christian context, Slavoj Žižek denies the possibility of sacramentality (or, implicitly, a metaphysics of participation) as idolatry, accusing the tradition of “fetishiz[ing] contingent natural objects.” And Wolfson himself conceives his anti-theological project as a paradoxical means of avoiding idolatry absolutely, by abandoning the thought of theology’s subject-matter altogether. Anything else must perpetuate “the theolatrous impulse that lies coiled in the crux of theism.”
Historically speaking, there’s a sense in which none of this is particularly novel. Much of such argumentation, at bottom, turns out to be simply a variation on Ludwig Feuerbach’s old hypothesis that all “God-talk” is merely a maximalist projection of fundamentally human impulses and desires onto an imaginary Great Other—so why not just slough off the debris? The claim isn’t especially clever or provocative from a theological standpoint either. In the Christian tradition (and, I would tentatively suggest, the mainstream Jewish tradition as well), idolatry is always relative—confusing that which ought not be worshiped with that which ought be worshiped. To contend that any thought of the divine is per se idolatrous is too clever by half, missing the entire point of the prohibition: monotheistic thought has never imposed an absolute bar on thinking of God within the bounds of His own self-disclosure.
Yet the real driving impulse here, I think, is not so much metaphysical as it is ethical. To ask whether the claims of the classical tradition have been actually rebutted is to commit a category error; from a certain theoretical perspective, the very act of making totalizing metaphysical claims—such as the assertion that God has spoken—is itself the root of violence, and is to be abjured on moral grounds. Such a claim, on this view, is the very essence of idolatry.
This position, though, is highly contestable. Notably, appeal to the transcendent must necessarily relativize any authoritarian claims within the sphere of the immanent. In the Christian tradition, through Baptism the subject is committed to a fellowship that spans millennia and precedes all political regimes. And the rite of Holy Communion has a fundamentally equalizing structure: rich and poor alike must kneel at the foot of the cross and receive that which is not theirs by natural possession. But more fundamentally, if appeals to the real—that is, necessarily transcendental metaphysical claims—are always intrinsically violent, what plausible alternative ground for peaceful social coexistence is available? In seeking to eradicate the possibility of violence, it seems to me that “anti-theologies” that reject a metaphysics of the transcendent will inevitably end up inscribing much more of the same brutality.
Suffice it to say that I see little point—whether academic or pragmatic—in “theologies” that want to be anything other than discourses about the One in whom all things live and move and have their being. One thinks here of Flannery O’Connor’s legendary quip about the Eucharist: “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Those who reject theology’s subject matter root and branch should have no qualms about saying so; honesty is certainly the best policy. But those who would cheer such declarations, or the dismantling of the discipline they would entail, should resist the assumption that doing so would lead to a more morally enlightened age. After all, the horrors wrought by the various totalitarianisms of the 20th century—which gave rise to the great lamentations of postmodern thought in the first place—do tend to suggest otherwise.
John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.