James, Theopoetic(ally), part 2

Jurassic World just went ham on the worldwide box office, and that means two things: 1) I've now all but won a bet, and 2) sequels are popular. So, here's the first "part 2" on Love, Rinse Repeat.

Although I'm also learning a lesson, never start a series until you've got a few spare mentos in the pack. I needed to be like Marvel, who have their next ten years of movies planned and ready to go... whether we like it or not. It's a few weeks since part one, which you can read here, and so if you've been patiently waiting I apologise, I was out of Mentos, and frankly I still am, so I make no promises that you won't have to wait again... anyway, in radical theology, every season is advent.

The briefest recap of James, Theopoetic(ally) is that I'm looking to see if we might find, in James, an ally to the task of deconstructive/weak/radical theopoetics. 

But you might ask: "'theopoetics', 'deconstruction', 'weak theology'... what do all these words mean?" (Heather certainly asked that, and spellcheck is still trying to autocorrect half of them) - so I thought before we go further, it would be of help to offer some ideas for what is going on in these terms.

In case you haven't guessed already, we're going to nerd out a little here... if you want something a little lighter with some jokes, go check out my story about golf, you want something a little more heart-felt and heart-warming, check out Heather's post on the Body of Christ.

Otherwise, let's get started.

Theopoetics - Callid Keefe-Perry, who edited Way to Water: A Theopoetics Primer had this to say on the idea on a Homebrewed Christianity (TNT) podcast:

"Theopoetics is an acceptance of cognitive uncertainty regarding the Divine. An unwillingness to attempt to unduly banish that uncertainty and an emphasis on action and creative articulations regardless. It also suggests that after the dust has settled and things have been done and said in the name of God the reflection and interpretation to be done, ought to be grounded in dialogue, and enacted with a hermeneutic of hospitality and humility. 

Yes it's the case that we can't ever know God and God's fullness, but I can't know my wife and my wife's fullness, so like, what's the big deal let's proceed... I'm not going to try and enact some scientistic firm theological sayings that I can know God all the way, and know how God's going to act, or how God's going to judge, I can't know it. But instead of shutting down... you actually have to go and do and act regardless, and you're going to screw it up, so sin boldly, but sin boldly in the attempt of justice. And when it's done, and you've done that creative action or articulation and you realise you fucked it up, well then polish some stuff up, but polish it up together in a community, and a community with bodies that are different than yours, so that you can figure out how to do it better next time, and then do it again! But do it better next time."

When Caputo (who was the first person I read use the term) speaks of theopoetics, he often does so, in something of a contrast to theology, or more specifically theo-logos. A logos about theology, based firmly in, you guest it, logical presuppositions and rational confessions/doctrine. Poetics implies a looser tongue and weaker language. It evokes the ideas of stories, creative language, of parables, paradoxes, and reversals, of jokes and poems, songs and similes, desires and dreams. It is speaking of God (yes, still speaking of God), but from a posture of perhaps, an embrace of uncertainty - but an uncertainty which still responds to the call to act - with faith, hope, and love. 

James seems to be all about this, he uses stories, wisdom quips, analogy, parable and paradox and prayer to try and get at something that's going on. And he doesn't seem so much concerned to lay everything out in a neat, assent-able manner, but rather in a way that hurtles the reader towards action... action that may not necessarily work out, but could be worked out in the working out.

Deconstructive Theology - (Everything here basically covers "weak" or "radical" theology too, so pick your favourite term and run with it... there is also a case to be made that Slavoj Zizek's "Material Theology" is a close relative to all of this, like a cousin who you're close to, but still find out most of what's going on in their lives through Facebook)

There are a few different people who could be called on to give account of this movement, Kester Brewin, Peter Rollins, and of course John Caputo, are the chaps I'm most familiar with, but if you have others, let me know. Caputo (who's name I just had to write three times as it kept correcting to "Manputo"... which feels like a "philosophy bro" knock off), writes that Deconstructive theology seeks "the deconstruction of the conditioned name order to release the unconditional event that is sheltered by that name".[1] For instance, the work of Feminist Theologians to show that the male naming of God is the construction of particular social, cultural, and political conditions and then, in turn make possible the use of feminine names/pronouns for God so as to allow for a fuller, deeper, wider, and less contained understanding of God, is an act of deconstruction (and a mouthful of a sentence). Deconstructive theology then works at all levels to expose and tear down the conditions around the name of God so that something going on within that name can occur. Caputo again in The Weakness of God:

The modest proposal I make… is that the name of God is an event, or rather that it harbors an event, and that theology is the hermeneutics of that event, its task being to release what is happening in that name, to set it free, to give it its own head and thereby head off the forces that would prevent this event

"Wait a second, Liam... where did this whole "event" thing come from?"... ok, a quick survey of the characteristics of the event (once again based on Caputo's The Weakness of God -- I swear I've read other books):

Uncontainability” – a name (like ‘God’) may give temporary shelter to an event but it cannot contain it fully. “Translatability” – events are what names are “trying to get at, what they are trying to actualize”. “Deliteralisation” – the name cannot be with a literal force, as if it named the event like it would a concept. “Excess” – we are called to respond to events, “it is not our doing” unlike a name which we determine and define, it “is done to us”. “Evil” – nothing guarantees the success of the event. “Beyond Being” – Not an actual being, or being itself, “but an impulse or aspiration simmering within both the names of entities and the name of being”. “Truth” – the event is capable of the “open-ended and unforeseeable future that the name harbors”. “Time” – an event has an “irreducibly temporal category”. Events are not what it present, “but what is coming”.

There is an event going on in the name of God, but an event does not have it's own legs to run the race, it is an insistence, which relies on us responding to its call, to bring it into existence. Which might be why James is so concerned about a faith without works - what good is thinking without responding? The name of God, Captuo would say, is a call... a call which needs us to become a deed. 

I know this is a whole lot of word play, but this is the groundwork. The main point of all of this, is to share that I think James' letter really resonates with this kind of reading. I feel as though James is working theo-poetically (or at least supports that kind of work), and James is deconstructing (or at least opens the door to our own deconstruction), and James might even, ever so possibly get on board with the idea of the name of God as an event (or, with fear and trembling, I might insist on James coming on board with insistence).

One final idea, is the notion that radical theology opposes and critiques any system or structure which settles with (or abdicates responsibility to) the sublime move (a term I'm taking from Kester Brewin). This is a move where the only change that a movement or system promises (or more importantly, delivers) is on a sublime level, leaving material reality unchanged. Be it drugs, art, or religion, if the only thing on offer is a change at a sublime level, where any practical, political, or material change is deferred or denied, then that system must be critiqued and replaced. True change comes all the way up from the roots, not a promise hovering just out of reach. As James would say, what good is a system, a faith, which sees the one in need and says "go in peace" and abdicates all responsibility for earthly change? What good is it to have a faith in something sublime, if we stay up there (as Johnny Cash would sing, "so heavenly minded you're no earthly good") - In the positive, Brewin uses the example of MLK, who had been to the mountaintop, but chose to come back down to where the work was needed...  What good are the right words if nothing changes? Right words are just the kind of thing to constrain the event, action seeks to respond to the event, seeks to respond to the call, to make God happen here and now.   

Who's ready for part 3... not me.  


[1] John Caputo, The Weakness of God, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006).