Logical Priority Reading Group: Kelton Cobb (2005)
A theology of culture that expressly sets out to locate in cultural artifacts, which do not concern themselves with religious subjects and symbols, the substance for normative theological discourse becomes highly suspect, blurring the line between theologian and cultural theorist.
Juxtaposed with theologians who are just as thoughtlessly dismissive of culture, theologians of culture are often thought to represent progress and culture in theology. These latter exist as an intramural community with little in common with their religious colleagues, or the laity. It was all very well for Tillich to experience the ecstasy he did on beholding Botticelli’s Madonna with Singing Angels, and to argue for a theology of culture which might engage great works of art. But, this only so long as the endeavour was restricted to the task of correlating questions and concerns that arose in culture with respect to a fixed (in content) religious theological response. I shall not here address the distaste for popular culture (as opposed to great works of art) that Tillich shared with Adorno and the rest, since as Cobb shows, Tillich’s framework might just as easily be applied to popular and all cultural artifacts (p.99). What shall be addressed here are merely the implications for cultural theology when a theologian loses sight of Tillich’s fairly limited notion of a theology of culture, and fancifully patches together a culture of mutually incompatible theologies.
Cobb sums up the theoretical inadequacies of cultural studies when he says that “too much postmodern anti-theory” makes its focus on the disenfranchised untenable (Cobb p.69-70). One criticism levelled against cultural studies which applies to theologies of culture as well is that it assesses only “the degree to which it [i.e. cultural artifacts] is either liberating or oppressive” (Cobb 70). What is the nature of the liberation, and how it may be distinguished from the oppressive, both central concerns of traditional theology, is almost never considered seriously. These are only vaguely teleological if at all, while most religious theologies espouse at least some form of teleology. Consequently, unlike the latter, they do not have any meaningful way to talk about purpose, satisfaction, and peace (unlike Herder’s teleological theology) outside of an unequivocal acceptance of individual experiences of liberation through the many dubious felicities of consumer culture.
Almost uniformly overlooked by theologians of culture is the idea of the transcendental metaphysical reality, as found in Aquinas and Aristotle alike, which exists not for its value, as do all cultural artifacts, but as the formal unity of all possible conceptions of value. The tallest building in the world has been made for the benefit of man, yet the transcendental god of religious theology would not benefit either from man’s existence, or his pain, or pleasure. What implications does the ghost of the old theology have for the theologies of culture, rooted in the leisurely analysis of mass-market ephemera and fly by night celebrity cults?
Cobb provides as an example of theologians that imitate the methods of the Birmingham school Pinn (among others like Cone, Dyson and Spencer) who has applauded popular music of the Black community (rap, hip-hop, etc) for resisting not only the social order, but even the theology of Black churches, going so far as to call for atheism, the argument basically being that a God that allows suffering can’t exist. Yet, if atheism were sufficient for the treatment of these evils why do we need theologians at all? For now that god is dead and the priests have been defrocked, why not also dispense with theology.
In this continued malingering of cultural theologians is there not a fragile, and embarrassed, hope for a god who will rise to their aid? A god with clay feet born from the imaginative hodgepodge of historical religious theology, and worshipped by their tenure-track iconoclasm, does not after all deserve homage any more than the transcendental metaphysical reality worshipped by Aquinas.
Invariably theologies of culture in their tendentious explanations tend to ignore the religious theological traditions’ own conceptual heritage, their overall incompatibility with modern beliefs and popular culture, and also their independent capacity for resistance against our modern ills. An argument from the vice of many vicars, after all, hardly proves the villainy of an unseen god, and still less does it demonstrate the untenability of Ibn Taymiyyah’s, or Iraneaus’ theology; all of which they would have us all disregard in one fell swoop as stuff and nonsense.
Other seemingly less extreme theologians have in the last few decades still been guided by the same assumptions. For instance, theologians like John Cobb and Bernard Haering have used the claim that absolute, exclusivist knowledge of God is impossible to call for a general openness to ideas in other arenas to expand upon what is already known. This just shows how ignorant of classical theologies are these their moderns peers. For, Hindu, Islamic, and Christian theologies all believe in the impossibility of achieving a complete rational understanding of God. Yet they have seemed to get by fine while remaining Hindu, Islamic, and Christian theology respectively in our modern quasi-secular theological age.
There has also been a significant move away from dichotomies between the soul and body, heaven and earth, sacred and secular, etc. (Abioje 2002). This is in line with theologies of culture that can’t seem to tolerate these distinctions any more. Yet such claims are neither central to life in a scientific modernity nor capital for reflection on ethical problems. Why does the pursuit of these disputatious and peripheral metaphysical notions remain a central part of cultural theology, dealing as it does with songs and videos and kitsch and high art? And why does it still require definitions of sacredness and secularity, when these distinctions have fallen out of serious modern philosophy? This would make some sense if cultural theology were also committed to traditional theology where these metaphysical notions have their schematic and inferential place.
While Tillich’s theory came about in response to his despair over the dualism of religion and culture, it was not a thoughtlessly accommodative theology that he sought to establish. He writes, “religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion”, meaning quite simply that spiritual yearnings get reflected in culture despite the separation of the two domains (Tillich p.42), and not that what is cultural is religious in any normative sense, as theologians of culture have consequently treated the matter.
Perversely enough, theologies of culture treat culture as the substance of religion, and religion as a form of culture; creating a vicious explanatory circle. Their naïve willingness to lose ground with logical and conceptual incompatibilities—as though theology so conceived would lend itself to postmodernist bricolage without coming to mean nothing, or at least not very much—is in the final analysis an embarrassing eulogy to the loftiest achievements of the Enlightenment, and the saintly unbelievers of modernity.
Abioje, P.O. (2002). New Trends in Christian Theology: the Catholic Church as
a Case Study. Journal of Arabic and Religious Studies, Vol 16. University of Ilorin.