Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Do we really get Romans?

Do we really get Romans? A little Badiou and Žižek can help.

It's been said that reformations and revolutions in Christianity begin with a re-reading of Romans.

That is certainly true of the Protestant Reformation with Luther's epoch-shaking insight into the meaning of the phrase "the righteousness of God."

It is true as well of Barth's commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which in the words of a Catholic commentator "burst like a bombshell on the playground of the European theologians." Barth's leveraging of Paul's argument in Romans served, in the shocking aftermath and disillusionment of the First World War, to turn the scholarly, cozy, and complex arguments of 19th century Protestant thinkers on their head and usher in the relatively long era that we today know as Neo-Orthodoxy.

The long-tenured regime of Neo-Orthodoxy collapsed - quite quickly really - in the mid-to-late 1960s with the cultural revolution of that period, which coincided with the rise of both religious studies as an "alternative", at least in America, to the intellectual cartel of Barthianism and the Barth-based mainline Protestant establishment and the emergence of so-called "secular theology," which gradually morphed into a new establishment with its own signature and features. Much of today's Christian postmodernism has this latter development as both its source and heritage, although it is also fair to say that its initial impulse in the form of applied Derrideanism was derived from the sense of a thoroughgoing "gappiness" in conventional liberal constructions of God along with the realization that there was room for postulating a "holiness" that could be glimpsed in all the holes of the not-so-monolithic text. That is the genealogy of all "religion without religion."

Secular theologies, whether they be grounded in the grand narratives of 19th century bourgeois progressivism or the "apocalypse now" and "destruction of metaphysics" themes of the post-Sixties decades, are always the products of good economic times and social stability. The varieties of "crisis" theology" - the original terminology for Neo-Orthodoxy - find fertile soil in political or economic anxiety and social upheaval. All the current discussion of what may be coming "after postmodernism" may be setting the stage for the emergence of a 21st century crisis theology, though one completely and obviously unlike what reigned from the 1930 up to the 1960s.

Besides Romans, crisis theologies - if that's really the word we want to use - always turn out to carry the genetics of a previous and hitherto marginalized philosophical movement. Luther relied indirectly on nominalism for his critique of Thomism, indulgences, and Catholic sacramental theology. Barth "discovered" Kierkegaard. If a new crisis theology is in the making - most likely with its own re-appropriation of Romans - what might that be?


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