Theology of Culture: A Dubious Enterprise?

Rachael Rajan

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.

References

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.

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The Return of the Gods: Popular Culture and Theological Pessimism

Cain S., P.
October 17, 2013

  Logical Priority Reading Group: Cobb, Kelton (2005)  

The perdurability of religious attitudes and the theology that couches them is best demonstrated in history’s failure at eradicating them. If the recent explosion of debates around the age old theist-atheist divide, and the evolution of the meta-debates about criteria for evaluation of victory on either sides of the divide, are anything to go by then there is no definitive solution to the various disputes in the foreseeable future. Then, given that we cannot put an end to these various contentions right away, I will restrict this very brief essay [pertaining to the first four chapters of Kelton Cobb (2005)] to a discussion of contradictory impulses of the theonomous aspects of popular culture.

The idea of the brutish herd obstructing individual satisfaction is one that is often deployed in artifacts of popular media and culture. The Brad Pitt starrer Fight Club, 1999, referenced in Cobb (2005, p. 10) for its therapeutic awareness of modern nihilism, is one such example. Here, the individual and his sovereign will is pitted against the wage slavery and addictive consumerism advocated by the decent, successful people with whom he has a shared existence. The dénouement of the film, however, is the narrative embodiment of the motto: if you try this in real life you’re screwed.

The take away from such a narrative on a closer look is hardly edifying. For, contrary to the movie’s explicit content the message is that you will never be able to break free from social constraints; look at Brad Pitt in this movie, even he failed: you don’t stand half the chance Edward Norton did. That the film made a huge amount of money in box-offices around the world goes on to show that at least some of its viewers appreciated the premise of the movie: you are owned by what you own. Yet, does this eliminate the irony that they ultimately had to purchase their access, whether through movie tickets or DVDs, to this therapeutic message?

The notion of coming away stronger from the experience of evil and suffering has a long lineage. Nietzsche and Niebuhr, an atheist and a theist respectively, shared this notion; looking further back in time, Homer and Hegel too in their own ways held this view. The revulsion man feels amidst the horrors of brute nature and tyrannous men itself affirms the delicate human sensitivity that recognizes these states of affairs as foist upon him by an indifferent fate. Accordingly, man finds it in himself to reject the arbitrary state of nature as not completely determining how he will act. Such rebellion against nature is evidenced in ethical, legal, and moral systems the world over; even the most primitive societies have notions of what is permissible and what impermissible that are highly idiosyncratic.

It would not, then, be remiss to say that the very ideals of reaching for the good of all mankind, aspiring for justice and truth and beauty, are ideals that emerge from nature only by the rational intervention of man. Yet, this intervention consists in denying the state of nature as unworthy of us, even as wanting severly in certain respects. The theological, or theophanic, realisation that nature is in no need of our human scruples, but it is we who need our wits about us to deal with its various processes and manifestations, cannot then after its emergence in social consciousness be naturalised away neatly. The various ways that society tries to make life better for its denizens is a manifest token of its unnatural, or supernatural, leanings in respect to an ideal way of life.

If my analysis holds water then the modern denial of transcendence in products of popular culture itself stands as a proxy for the theological aspirations of modern subjects. We can find vindication for this thesis in the increasing popularity of posthumanism in the context of political and social consciousness[1], the rise of horror as the new popular genre in movies and books[2], and the recent tendency in jurisprudence to disparage the Natural law tradition[3]. It would, thus, seem that the modern denial of transcendence, and obsession with the finitude of man, is a symptom of the profound but secret desire for the denied object. Popular culture rejects theology only provisionally, and in a piecemeal manner; and what is rejected is often quickly replaced by fabrications just as, or even more, fanciful than the previous ones.

Work Cited

Cobb, Kelton. (2005). The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. Ch. 1-4.


[1] See Rectenwald, Michael. (2013). < http://insurgentnotes.com/2013/10/the-singularity-and-socialism/ >. Web.

[2] Speaking in relative terms. ‘Why is horror less popular than other genres? “Generally, people anticipate feeling entertained and feeling good when they leave a movie,” explains Fischoff. But while horror films excite and arouse, they “often leave people feeling nervous and unsettled,” despite any catharsis. “This is not a state which leads to fond memories.”’. See < http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/10/25/why-our-brains-love-horror-movies-fear-catharsis-a-sense-of-doom.html >. Web.

[3] See Whiteley, Patrick J., & Bolt, Robert. (2002).  “Natural Law and the Problem of Certainty: Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons”. Contemporary Literature Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 760-783. < http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1209041?uid=3738256&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21102778140647 >. Web.

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What is Logical Priority?

We closely read philosophical, and critical theory, texts from a logical perspective. Our objective is to propositionally articulate and defend criticisms, commentaries, and new perspectives on key texts. Logical priority is the only game in this town.

“The True is…the Bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk; yet because each member collapses as soon as he drops out, the revel is just as much transparent and simple repose. Judged in the court of this movement the single shapes of Spirit do not persist any more than determinate thoughts do, but they are as much positive and necessary moments, as they are negative and evanescent. In the whole of the movement seen as repose, what distinguishes itself therein, and gives itself particular existence, is preserved as something that recollects itself, whose existence is self-knowledge, and whose self-knowledge is just as immediately existence” (Hegel, 1977).

It is true that there is too much of the Dionysian element in a gathering of academics, philosophers, and lay men wrangling over concepts. But, the giving and asking for reasons articulated and defended between interlocutors settles at least one thing quite unambiguously: that the truth of the matter exists independently of any and all of the interlocutor’s assorted prejudices. And, it is this truism that is the perpetual warrant of thought’s Apollonian fixity.

The “What”

We examine philosophical texts, one at a time, over a period of three weeks [more or less, as per consensus] and submit essays dealing with either one, or all, of these evaluative criteria: criticism, commentary, and analysis.

Books will be chosen as per availability, every month/ reading cycle, whichever is earlier. And, final drafts of defended essays, or opinion pieces, will be published on a group-blog with appropriate credits to individual writers.

Our aim is not consensus building; rather we want to read texts in a way this is argumentatively defensible within a framework of expressive semantic logicism. Our final court of appeal is not good taste, or popularity, but logicality and breadth of perspective alone.

Rules of Engagement

1. This group is committed to one truth: the truth of the stronger argument. All commentaries, criticisms, constructive programs, and defences must be articulated propositionally. That is claims must be expressed with valid/ defensible premises leading to unfailing consequences under the relevant quantifiers for the semantic issue at hand.

2. We encourage the use of MLA standard citation, or any other citation style which specifies author, volume, date, and page information, and a list of secondary references used to make claims. Failure to provide complete citations will count as a verificational issue with the argument.

3. Please keep to deadlines.

Work Cited

Hegel, Georg, Friedrich, Wilhelm. (1977). Phenomenology of Spirit. New York, NY: University of Oxford Press. P.27- 28.

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