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‘Paradigm Change in Theology’ Was Published 25 Years Ago, But the Time Is Now!

22 Jul 2014

In 1989 Hans Kung and David Tracy published Paradigm Change in Theology based on a symposium held at the University of Tubingen. Contributors included such high profile names as Moltmann, Schillebeeckx, Boff, Gilkey and Cobb. The subject areas covered included hermeneutics; scientific theory and theology; political dimensions of a new theological paradigm; feminist and liberation theologies and relationship with other faiths. Were they right to flag-up such fundamental changes, and, if so, where are we now?

Looking at theology within the Church of England twenty five years on, one might be forgiven for concluding that far from signaling a paradigm change, what we have seen is a regression to a pre-Enlightenment understanding that plays into the hands of a hierarchy nervous about its loss of authority, and a communitarianism which extols the virtues of practical action at the cost of any serious theological reflection. Like political culture the emphasis is upon presentation (or “spin”) rather than substance or critical engagement. Although forms of political engagement were driving forces behind the original book, nothing much has come of these since, and those who look for a more radical approach have been marginalized by both church and theological establishment. So it is time to revisit the notion of a paradigm change for theology in the light of recent philosophical and political developments.

In recent blogs and publications my colleagues at the William Temple Foundation have used and adopted the language of “blurred encounters” in relation to faith engagement with social action and the inevitable crossing of boundaries, cultural, geographical and intellectual, that accompanies such engagement. Whilst this is correct and in the spirit of the original book, Blurred Encounters: A Reasoned Practice of Faith, it does not refer to the subtitle of the book nor what I intended to be the more radical nature of the work. This was not supposed to be simply about pragmatic responses to challenging contexts that required a willingness to compromise and to be “eaten well”, but also an attempt to produce a post-foundational theology by challenging the strict demarcation between faith and reason that has characterized theology since the time of Kant. If that sounds too demanding and theoretical, then it probably explains why even my colleagues have shied away from that dimension of the book, and my aims of providing criteria by which one might assess the validity of the actual blurred encounters.

In engagement with the book, there have been no references to the notion of a post-foundational theology, nor any sense that others understand what this means. Others more critical of the work imagine that this is a matter of having a certain fascination for the writings of particular philosophers and thus not essential to the project. In the light of new publications I want to restate the argument that “Blurred Encounters” was pushing towards a paradigm shift in theology.

Ten years down the line and others have been able to pursue these ideas more effectively. Whitney A. Bauman, in the recently published Religion and Ecology: developing a planetary ethic, has taken further the concept of the crossing of boundaries and argues that religion and science, humanity and nature, sacred and secular, are always already intertwined, and that attempts to separate them have been the result of a particular metaphysics that itself leads to damaging consequences, notably those associated with globalization and its detrimental impact upon humans in less advantaged parts of the world, and indeed the planet as a whole. He also draws upon sources that I have since been able to pursue such as Deleuze and Guattari, Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, Karen Barad and Catherine Keller. I will attempt a summary of his ideas.

Bauman describes what he calls Agrippa’s trilemma which lays out the three main possibilities for how we claim to justify our knowledge (pp18-21). The first two of these are representative of the domination exercised by globalization and are, foundationalism and circularity. “Foundationalism operates (most often) by digging down to what is perceived to be a base of reality: whether material (as in scientific materialism) or ideal (as in the creation of the world according to divine laws by a good God)”. Circularity is a particular version of the same form of argument. The third option and the one favoured by Bauman is that of infinite regress, where instead of trying to bring the process of truth discovery to an end, instead somewhat in the manner of Latour who sees that truth is a matter of keeping the references circulating, the acknowledgement that we are all contextual, perspectival, embodied and changing creatures, means that our knowledge claims are always on shifting grounds. A post-foundational theology would thus recognise that our knowledge is always provisional and contingent, and that it is when we try to stop the references circulating – which is always an arbitrary decision – that power dominates over truth, and both humans and non-humans find themselves on the wrong end of that power.

Following this alternative approach to its logical conclusion, Bauman suggests that we need to abandon a foundational metaphysics, to acknowledge that agency “goes all the way down” including therefore that which we see as non-human, that human exceptionalism is to be left behind, and that the boundaries between subject and object are always permeable. (p162). This applies also to our own sense of personal identity: “Our internality is nothing without the multiple others with which we are in constant interaction, and our bodies are made up of multiple biological, historical and cultural others. However one draws the boundaries around a concept or identity, that entity is always already multiple” (p163). This will lead to a different approach to environmental ethics and issues of political power. So the question for a new theological paradigm is whether it can cope with a post-foundationalism and acknowledge that its truth claims are subject to challenge and uncertainty.

There are now two main strands in such a developing approach, one associated with what is known as the New Materialism and the other related one we are calling Relational Christian Realism. The latter will be spelt out in detail in the book A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, (Baker, James and Reader, Ashgate: forthcoming). Both yield a theology more modest in its truth claims, and a conceptual discourse more appropriate for engagement with contemporary political and scientific issues and, we will argue, a paradigm change for the discipline as a whole. The difference between this and the global ethics advocated by Kung and colleagues is that: “the not-yet space of emergent newness is just as much a reality for the rest of the natural world as it is for humans” and the task facing us is to discern which particular emergent assemblages will lead to the flourishing of both human and non-human (Bauman, p153).

So whereas the original paradigm shift envisaged by Kung, Tracy and colleagues involved only the human, in this new context as described by Bauman, Crockett and ourselves, it is the whole human non-human nexus which emerges as the site for discussions of the ‘public good’ and for revised religious and political activity.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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