Tom Greggs' forthcoming 'Theology against Religion' is clearly the most exciting theology manuscript I have read in a long time. Tom looks at the critique of 'religion' as found in Barth and Bonhoeffer. After a careful analysis of their work he identifies ten central motifs in religionlessness which he then uses to develop a vision for theology and indeed the church of the future. How should theology look like, how should the church look like in a time when Christianity as religion is a thing of the past?
To whet your appetites, read the concluding section of chapter four below. The book will publish in October in the UK (US: December). The cover on the left is a draft design.
Motifs in Religionlessnes (Tom Greggs)
A theology which takes the critique of religion seriously will in the first instance be (1) radically christocentric. In seeking to understand who God is, it will necessarily look to Jesus Christ, and seek to learn from Him. In doing this, such a theology will seek to affirm the humanity of God rather than any perceived innate divinity in humans. It will be a theology that realizes that the veil is truly rent, and God is most visibly seen, in the dead human corpse of the human who died for other humans, hanging on a cross. Jesus Christ, as one who stood in opposition to religious authorities and rulers, as the one who was never a member of a priestly class and never created a priestly class, and as the one in whom there is no longer any distance between God and humanity, will be the governing rule of a theology which takes the critique of religion seriously. Revelation will be understood not simply as a ‘thing’ in relation to Him, but as the act and event of God by which He is known to individuals and communities by the power of the Spirit.
Through this radical christocentrism, this theology will be (2) christocentrically world-affirming. In realizing that Jesus Christ is God’s eternal Yes to creation as something other than Himself, and in realizing that this Yes is the beginning of all of God’s works and ways, a theology which takes the critique of religion seriously will affirm the world in its worldliness as the creation of God, the blueprint of which finds itself in God’s eternal self-election in Jesus Christ. Far from any hint of dualism, this theology will recognize the implications for the world of God self-determining Himself to be human in the person of Jesus Christ. As another distinct from Him, creation is the self-willed expression of God’s desire to be for another. Creation in all of its variety and particularity must be seen as having its determination in the eternal will, decree and overflowing love of God to be for another, personified in the second person of the trinity, who bears the name of Jesus Christ. Because of this, there can be no singular prioritization of those who are religious or of the church since God wills and elects all creation, and in His work of reconciliation overcomes the negative aspects of created existence.
A theology which takes the criticism of religion seriously will also be orientated on (3) God’s promeity and reconciliatory work and nature. God is not simply for the world in a general or abstract manner, but is for the world in the works of creation, reconciliation and redemption. This is not, however, to fall back into a preoccupation with personalized and ego-orientated expressions of salvation. Rather, it is to recognize God’s work of reconciling the whole of creation in Christ, the Pantokrator. Rather than an engagement in speculative and abstract games regarding the nature of God, a religionless expression of Christian theology will seek to emphasise the God who is known by His acts and events for all creation. This determines that, even in its brokenness and sinfulness, creation is the creation which God wills ultimately to redeem, rather than ultimately to destroy. God’s Yes to creation is always louder than any No He might utter to aspects of fallen creation.
This theology seeks to articulate (4) a pneumatological realness, emphasizing the work of God the Spirit in relating the ways and works of God to creation, human communities and individuals. The event of the giving of the Spirit is the basis of all discussions of the reception of the revelation of God, and it is only as a dense expression of this reception that the church has its being. The church is the place in which the Spirit may be deeply at work, but the Spirit who blows wherever He wills cannot simply be bound to the church. Extra muros ecclesiae, the Spirit is also at work, relating creation to God, and enabling humans to participate actively in God’s ways with the world. This is not to say that a theology against religion has a place for natural theology, as if God could be known apart from God’s self-revelation, but it is to say that the power of the Spirit is such that the miracle of revelation can take place in which ever way God chooses. Wherever one can perceive the fruits of the Spirit, one can imagine the operation of the Spirit being present in the world. This is not as a result of various religious expressions, as if these condition the Spirit into being present, but is rather as a result of the multiply dense presences of the Spirit acting in creation. The ‘realness’ of this aspect of this kind of theology rests in its this-worldliness. Realizing that God humbles Himself to engage with creation, it is necessary to affirm the particularity of creation even in the acts and events of the work of God the Spirit. The Spirit works within creation in order that creation and God can remain fully and respectively creation and God, while still uniting the two to each other. The Spirit enables creation to be the creation it was always intended to be, rather than removing those who seek to live an ‘otherworldly’ life from creation. There is no establishment of a religious ideal in this theology, but only of a pneumtological reality within the particularity of human and creaturely existence.
This theology, therefore, (5) preserves created, human and historical particularity. There will be (6) a certain degree and affirmation of mystery in this theology. This is not a mystery which signifies a groping after answers in the darkness, or a filling of the chasms of human ignorance with the letters G-O-D. Rather, it will be a mystery grounded in the majesty and otherness of God the Creator. While the concept of God can be used to plug ever decreasing gaps of knowledge with a deus ex machina, the overpowering glory of God is such that His brightness is blinding, and ever more glorious and worthy of praise.
As a result of this, a theology which takes seriously the critique of religion must be a theology which is (7) fiercely anidolatrous in its articulation of God. God cannot be confused with a simple idol of human religiosity nor the projection of human desires and ego. The true Godness of God is such that God should not be confused with either a spatial localizing of an idol or a human religious imagining of a metaphysical concept. God cannot be identified with a space or a community in which God might be presumed to be, but is affirmed as the God of all the world, who is the Creator and therefore beyond all human imaginings. This means that theology should not confuse God with religion, with the implication that one can see lines of continuity between Christianity as a religion and other faiths as well: like Christianity, these faiths, too, belong to the category of religion, and the nature of God relativizes Christianity no less than it does these other expressions of religionists.
This theology is a theology, therefore, which is (8) unwilling to engage in articulating binaries. It is unwilling to draw lines too sharply around the boundaries of the church (in which God is seen as present) and all else in the world (in which, somehow, He is not). Instead, taking seriously the critique of religion will mean that theology (9) cannot so neatly differentiate between secular and sacred spaces, but must recognize the one Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who does not take the flesh of an institutional priest but simply of a human being. This Jesus did not engage in creating religious binaries, or indeed in creating a religion, but engaged in breaking down many of these divisions, mixing with women, the ritually unclean, Samaritans, and ordinary women and men in their daily lives. He told stories about such ordinary lives (about shepherds and lamp stands and lost coins) to tell people about God. A theology which takes the critique of religion seriously must be one that is thus concerned with life in all its fullness, not only content to meet people in their religious spheres or in moments of existential weakness, but concerned to meet people in the fullness of their lives, and to deal with (10) the whole person.
Some words of Bonhoeffer seem apposite to conclude this section of the book. He writes simply but arrestingly: ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life.’ It is this calling of Jesus to life that a theology which seeks to follow the trajectories of Bonhoeffer and Barth with regard to the critique of religion should seek to follow. In the following two sections of this book, it is this calling to life, in conjunction with the motifs outlined above, that will be considered in a formative and constructive religionless Christianity in relation to a complexly secular and pluralist world.