Thursday, June 5, 2014

Four Theologically Transformational Texts

After finishing my first year of coursework as a PhD student at Drew, I've been reflecting on some of the books that have especially challenged and transformed my theology. There are, of course, so many that I could list, but I've narrowed it down to just a few for this post. To be clear, while these are all excellent texts, I am not saying that they are necessarily my favorites. In fact, some of these would not make such a list. Rather, these are four texts that have radically shifted my philosophical theology:

A Christian Natural Theology (1965), by John B. Cobb, Jr: During the summer of 2011, I enrolled in a course on process theology that was taught by Marjorie Suchocki, one of Cobb's former students and a brilliant process theologian herself. This was one of the the required texts for her class. While I had previously read a few books on process theology, this one changed everything for me, leading me to write my MA thesis on Cobb and process theology and ultimately to apply to Drew to study process theology with Catherine Keller (also one of Cobb's former students). It was this text by Cobb that more-or-less launched process theology in the 1960's. Cobb was convinced that process thought provided a superior alternative to the most respectable theological options at the time, including Altizer's death of God theology, Barth's neo-orthodoxy, and Tillich's existentialism. He therefore also believed that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead was superior to Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger. This book, which is a clear and detailed theological analysis of Whitehead's philosophy, convinced me that Cobb is right. I've been a process thinker - and a huge fan of Cobb - ever since.  

Deconstruction in a Nutshell (1997), by John Caputo: Just as Cobb's book provides the perfect introduction to Whitehead, Caputo provides the ideal entrance into the philosophy of Jacques Derrida with this text. Because of my experiences in the emergent church movement, I was exposed to Derridean deconstruction in the early 2000's - although that certainly doesn't mean I understood it! To be sure, I have struggled to overcome the unfortunately common stereotypes of deconstruction as a relativistic, nihilistic, anti-religious, and apolitical philosophy that reduces everything to mere language. John Caputo came to the rescue with this excellent book, which succeeds in clearly - and vigorously - arguing against these common misinterpretations of Derrida. Caputo persuasively argues that Derrida has always been deeply concerned with meta-linguistic matters of ethics, politics, and faith. Although his theological books on deconstruction are also excellent - including What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, On Religion, The Weakness of God, and The Insistence of God - this text is certainly the best way to get a sense of what Derrida is up to. He covers key topics like the khora, differance, the gift, the messianic, justice, religion without religion, democracy, etc. 

Process and Difference (2002), ed. Catherine Keller & Anne Daniell: Even though theologians like Cobb carved out a viable path for process theology, what is a person of faith to do if they affirm both process theology and deconstruction - or 20th century continental philosophy (Heidegger, Levinas, Deleuze, etc.) more generally? This is not an easy question to answer since Derrida is critical of any form of metaphysics while, on the other hand, Whiteheadians tend to be highly suspicious of philosophers and theologians who do not put their metaphysical cards on the table (because everyone's hiding them somewhere!). While Whiteheadians like David Ray Griffin have argued that process thought is a more radical and constructive "postmodern" philosophy, the contributors to this brilliant volume of essays argue in another "de/constructive" direction. For post-structuralist Whiteheadians like Catherine Keller and Roland Faber, Whiteheadian process thought is highly resonant with the likes of Derrida and Deleuze with their mutual emphases on becoming, difference, and relationality, as well as their shared critiques of representationalism, essentialism, naive realism, and foundationalism. Keller's two essays are classics, both of which I find myself frequently referencing in conversations and papers to connect Whitehead to thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze, and Donna Haraway. Faber's chapter, while dense, argues for a non-ontotheological, non-logocentric interpretation of Whitehead's God. Joseph Bracken's essay is a brilliant comparison of Whitehead's creativity and Derrida's differance. And Arran Garre's essay that argues for Schelling as the common link between Whitehead and continental philosophy is absolutely stunning and persuasive. 

The Predicament of Belief (2011), by Philip Clayton & Steven Knapp: After finishing my BA in religious studies in 2010, I attended Claremont School of Theology to study for my MA in theology and philosophy of religion, largely because I wanted to work with Philip Clayton. His inspiring work was actually the reason that I switched from a focus on biblical studies to philosophical theology. I am convinced that nobody has a grasp on the contemporary science and religion dialogue like Clayton does. After studying in Germany with Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the great post-Barthian theologians of the 20th century, Clayton (arguably) went on to become the leading theologian of science of our time. In this book, co-authored with his friend Steven Knapp, he succinctly explains his theological method and conclusions as a progressive Christian thinker. His respect for contemporary science, religious pluralism, historical criticism, and deep awareness of the problem of evil has powerfully influenced my own thinking. Fusing a neo-Whiteheadian emergentist cosmology with a distinctly Christian panentheism, Clayton's progressive theology ultimately cuts both ways: against both radical liberals and traditional conservatives.

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