Few thinkers in the contemporary academy have spanned such a breadth of subject matter as Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver. Well into his fourth decade of teaching, the Harvard-educated philosopher has left nary a stone unturned in the fields of continental philosophy, religion, and theology. And during the past five years, Raschke has been especially busy turning stones, publishing multiple books that seem well-timed for our emerging economic, political, and social calamities. Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy, published a few months after the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, examines the motivating force of religion as it shapes, transforms, and contests the political discourse of modern Western society. Before this came Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event, an important theoretical work in the academic field of religious studies.
Raschke’s latest book is Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, an adroit work of theological praxis that is perfectly positioned for our contemporary dislocations and aporias. With his trademark intellectual capaciousness, Raschke highlights the themes of Critical Theology in this interview while also exploring theology’s identity crisis amidst the rise of ethno-nationalism in Western nation-states, the global integration of neoliberal economics, and the emerging “world precariat” class. Raschke offers keen insight here, not only on theology’s possibilities as it loosens itself from the dogmatic moorings of Christendom but also on its potential trajectories as a renewed discourse for critical activity.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In your latest book, Critical Theology, you write about a confluence of economic, institutional, cultural, political, and religious factors that are contributing to a “profound global crisis.” Which of these factors carry the most significance? And what kind of repercussions are they meting out upon our world?
Carl Raschke (CR): If you asked me those questions five years ago, I would have said that religious factors are the most significant, but today I would say it is the economic factors. I don’t write about these economic factors as much in Critical Theology as I did in my previous book, Force of God, nor do I speak about them as much in the new book I’m working on, which is a theological take on what we mean by neoliberalism, but I think there are two economic factors that are drastically reshaping our planet: gross income inequality, which reflects the lack of a living wage, and the integration of a global economy and its domination by elite groups and corporations that are in alliance with democratic governments.
In some ways, we are now seeing the immiseration and alienation process that Karl Marx wrongly predicted for the nineteenth century, though for different reasons than he projected, and this has tremendous overtones. Low wages and concentrated power have helped lead to the rise of Right parties in Europe, Asia, and around the world. These factors also help explain the increasing attractiveness of figures like Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in the United States, as well as the astronomical popularity of Vladimir Putin in Russia, which is partly driven by the controlled media and partly by genuine grassroots support. We’re therefore seeing a growing conflict between a small number of very economically powerful elites and what one theorist has called the “world precariat,” people who are living on minimum wage, can barely pay the bills, can’t move up in life, can’t start families, can’t own homes, and can’t do all the things the middle class is supposed to be able to do. Our problem is that rising out of poverty and into the middle class has always been the economic dream of Western psycho-democracy, and that dream is failing. There is an effort on the part of the elites to capture the precariat with a new ideology, which has generally been called neoliberalism.
I didn’t write about this so directly in Critical Theology because the agenda of the book was mainly to raise the issue of critical theory: What do we mean by critical theory? What role can it play in the coming world? But I believe that critical theory is crucial to solving these economic, social, and cultural problems.
TOJ: Let’s shift then to a more explicit look at Critical Theology. In what ways has theology’s identity changed since the dawn of the twentieth century? And how does this change in identity transform theology’s purposes in the world?
CR: Until the early twentieth century, or the mid-twentieth century in the Western world, theology was the handmaiden of Christendom. In other words, theology was the official theory machine of Western society. Even when theology didn’t give the church certain kinds of curial powers, it at least recognized the ultimate spiritual or moral authority of the church, and it basically spoke for that institutional structure. In that role, theology served as the underlying value system and intellectual worldview for much of Western civilization.
What shattered this global power of theology was, of course, the two world wars. It has been said by historians that we didn’t really have two world wars; we had one ongoing world war with a very long armistice. In other words, what we call World War I and World War II are the twentieth-century version of the Thirty Years’ War. As I write in Critical Theology, these crises gave birth in the interwar period to what Karl Barth called crisis theology and what the Frankfurt School called critical theory.
Then, after the Allied victory at the end of World War II, a new, economically prosperous version of the Peace of Westphalia settled over the West, the Pax Americana. However, this also led to the erosion of the moral authority of traditional institutions—and theology—an erosion which reached its own flashpoint in the short-lived cultural revolutions and upheavals of the sixties. These crises, which were worldwide and not confined to California or the United States, were crises of self-confidence for the postwar baby-boom generation because as David Harvey and Daniel Jones have shown in their historical treatment of neoliberalism, these movements produced very little political change. All the assumptions of the past seemed up for grabs, yet the upheavals of the sixties and seventies led to the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States, the election of Margaret Thatcher in England, and the beginnings of the ascendency of neoliberalization and ultimately globalization.
TOJ: So now that the global landscape has moved on from the Christendom model and we are in that neoliberal place, how has theology shifted?
CR: Theorists of neoliberalism point out that neoliberalism is essentially an economic system that is based on consumerism, on what Wendy Brown calls the “entrepreneurship of the self.” That is, neoliberalism is based on the creation of new subjectivities that are largely consumer subjectivities—not productive subjectivities but dependent consumer subjectivities—that are in some sense under the spell of a grand illusion created by the global economic system. To use traditional militant language, there are of course sites of resistance, movements, and so forth, to thwart these enchanted subjectivities, and I would say that theology has historically played the role of a site of resistance.
But in other respects, theology has also been a site of legitimation. According to Brown, with the production of new subjectivities, we have developed an ethos of spiritual consumerism, and this ethos has its roots back in the late sixties with the so-called turning east. When I started teaching at the University of Denver in the early 1970s, we were at the high point of that. All my students were dropping out of class to be with some guru and to get spiritually high. There was a sense among these students that you didn’t need to take LSD to have a transcendental experience; you could read the Bhagavad Gita or sell flowers on the street and chant at night. It was a religious movement.
This is a little off-topic, but the production of these new subjectivities, which are in many ways a part of this productive process, has been religious. These subjectivities are very personal; they are divorced from tradition; and there is no institutional infrastructure to support them. You can even think of ISIS as a toxic example of this new production of subjectivity. The contemporary European social philosopher Olivier Roy describes this as a process of “holy ignorance” and “formatting” in which religion is nothing more than an expression of a particular kind of subjective formation. Or to use the language of psychoanalysis, this is an infinite project of desire.
What we saw, then, in the 1950s—and then accelerating in the 1960s—was the deinstitutionalization of religion, or what Roy called the “deculturation” of religion. This was the loosening of religion from whatever collective moorings bore it in the past so that religion has become nothing more than a virtual system of symbolic markers whereby I can, as a subject, begin to develop my own identity, my own person, and even my own fantasies of resistance to the global system.
And through these self-justifications—or gang-like justifications given that that our peers within our subcultures certainly play a role—we develop radical subjectivities that don’t really have any depth or history to them. Instead, they are often built on resentment or on what we might call consumer-produced fantasies. And in that respect, to be a little provocative here, there is a spectrum, not a dividing line, between an ISIS recruit and those of us who go online to give money to defeat warlords in Africa or some other humanitarian cause. In some ways, both the ISIS recruit and the humanitarian donor have a global or cosmic fantasy about things based on a well-tuned, well-customized, subjective desire that has been produced by what Lazzarato calls the neoliberal sign machine. And theology has worked within that particular ambiance now for thirty years.
I just finished writing a book that will hopefully be out next year on postmodern theology during these years. And of course, the hallmark of postmodern theology has always been the imperative to deconstruct. I think, however, that the usage of that term has never been properly understood—it has certainly been abused and misused by certain academic entrepreneurs. Deconstruction has been used to describe our sense of the breakdown of systems of authority, as if one were shouting, “Let’s go out and deconstruct! Let’s go out and burn a building!” Although it’s got that sort of connotation, that’s not what deconstruction means, at least not in a Derridean sense. But this whole notion of being critical of authoritarian structures is still a very appealing and addictive psychology for the disaffected, even as we’re coming to realize that it has not been revolutionary. Instead, this destructive impulse has been part of the production of private subjectivities that have been commodified apparatuses of the global neoliberal sign machine.
TOJ: Given your critique of subjective desires, is there much hope for a theological desire, particularly as we see it reflected in ecumenical movements? Can we employ a strategy of resourcement in which we pull the revolutionary and resisting theologies of the past into the context we are now facing?
CR: There is always a kind of ecumenical sentimentality to Christianity. The fifties and sixties were the high-water mark of what we call “institutional ecumenism”—that was when the World Council of Churches was developed, which became a massive biopolitical bureaucracy. And now we have a sort of ecumenism that goes beyond Christianity, particularly in the interfaith movement, where there are conversations with Islam and so forth.
It’s always good to talk to people who are different than you and to have conversations in which you try to understand your differences and see where you might have a common ground. Jesus would have told us to do that. Jesus said to be peacemakers. However, what ecumenism has normally done is to start from a system of symbolic registers that we already buy into and define ourselves by, and then we don’t really make an effort to find the deep singular site of all these registers.
In Christianity, you can find the site of all the symbolic registers of historical denominationalism in the Gospels and, to a certain extent, in Paul. What was Paul really doing? This is one of the gifts of scholarship over the last fifty years: we are for the first time beginning to mine, to dig deeper. I would even say that we’re fracking—that’s probably not a good word to use, but scholars are doing a form of intellectual fracking, getting into those veins of signification and meaning that are contained in the scriptural texts and in the canonical theologies of, say, Roman Catholicism so that we can understand what Christianity really is at its source. Every Christian will say that the real source of Christianity is Jesus, who was called the Christ because of an event that happened on a not unknown date two thousand years ago that we call Easter morning and so forth, and now we’re philosophically digging into that.
In Revolution of Religious Theory and Critical Theology I write about looking over that event horizon and the singularity—the Christ—of that event, and I point out that even atheistic philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek see this as really important, as something that we haven’t quite figured out yet. And that is what I would call a radical ecumenism.
The problem is that most intellectual enterprises are so bound up in institutions. Many Protestant denominational seminaries perform ecumenics within a framework that attempts to preserve their own heritage rather than throwing away everything about what it means to call oneself a Methodist, Catholic, progressive Christian, or evangelical, announcing a new epoché as radical as René Descartes or Edmund Husserl, and staring the singularity in the face. I think that once we are willing to let go of our institutional commitments, which is what Jesus did in terms of the history of Judaism, we might be surprised and shocked. Jesus says, “I’m the Messiah, this is what the messiah really means—you’re staring the singularity in the face, which is me,” and of course, the people of his time had no idea what he was talking about, and he went to the cross. Now we’re in the same boat: the Messiah is there, but we’re missing it. We don’t want to look at it. We have too much to preserve.
TOJ: In both Critical Theology and The Force of God you conclude with a deployment of the force of thought into the streets for the sake of emancipation. It is the practice, as you put it, of “an intelligent fidelity to the event of God.” In other words, both books end with a militant call to arms. But this isn’t the typical call to arms as envisioned by various historical strains of Marxist materialist revolutionary discourse. It is a critical, participatory performance that is also the calling into service of that which is critically thought through faith, as you put it. Historically, however, this call has been highly idenitarian in character in that it corresponds to a specifically Christian vision of the kingdom of God. How, then, does this not become yet another salvific technique, by which non-confessional men and women are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, or Spirit. Or, to say it another way, how would you respond to those who might view this deployment as yet another signal toward a Christian semiotics of salvation and expansion?
CR: Let me get right to the point—which I know is the peripheral focus of this interview—how does this fit into theologies of identity, identity politics, and so forth?
First, identity is not related to the singularity; it occurs after the event. Identity is like a sociological version of G. W. F. Hegel’s owl of Minerva—it spreads its wings only after night has fallen. And just as Hegel says that philosophy paints its gray in gray, after the fact, so it is with theology and culture, yet we go back, and we try to rescue or distinguish the colors to keep them from coalescing. We try to ossify them; we try to say this is who I really am. That’s the question of identity.
The notion of the religious singularity challenges all identity. Pharisaic Judaism was Jewish identity at the time of the incarnation; Jesus was a singularity. I’m not saying that Jesus and Muhammad are equal—because I don’t think that from a confessional standpoint—but you see something similar after Muhammad goes into the cave, the angel Gabriel speaks to him, and he emerges with revelations. He seems to come out of nowhere, and people think he’s crazy. He brings together certain strands of the monotheistic religions that were practiced in curious ways at the time, all of which have been lost to history now, and it’s like something new and radical is happening. Muhammad was, in that time, performing a kind of radical ecumenics.
Now, I wasn’t raised with a Christian identity. We started going to church when I was eight, and I didn’t take it seriously. That means that as an adult, I didn’t have to fight with an existing worldview of who Jesus was. I had to discover it, and in weird experiential ways I discovered this on my own. I could say that, in my own way, I stared the singularity face to face. And you could say the same thing for Martin Luther. He was a monk, but he had a radical conversion experience. I won’t go into the details of that, but in the so-called incident of the tower, he first grasps justification by faith, and he thinks, “Holy smokes! This is what this means—this has a whole new meaning that doesn’t fit, doesn’t converge with, and can’t be derived from what I’ve been taught before.” This kind of an awakening is something I’ve been arguing for since the 1970s.
Identity is basically an effort to try to capture something that has been lost. It’s not an effort to form something new. In that sense, identity politics and identity theory are reactionary; they are not progressive. This is not surprising. The Roman Empire was able to manipulate identity for the sake of the grand imperium, the new empire; likewise, the grand imperium of institutionalized neoliberalism now manipulates identities in the same way. As I write about in my next book, the university is probably the site where this happens most effectively.
TOJ: That’s a good way of saying it, that identity is an effort to capture that which has been lost, not an attempt to forge ahead. It seems that this is closely related to a topic that you teach about, write about, and advocate for, which is the religious. This seems to get at the difference between the religious and religion.
CR: I believe you’re referring to my book The Revolution in Religious Theory, in which I develop Gilles Deleuze’s idea of the singularity in the locution of “the religious.” There, I use the metaphor of a black hole to articulate the singularity and the religious approach to that singularity. A black hole is both a source of tremendous energy and a source of destruction. It is something that helps keep the order of the cosmos in place, but we don’t want to get near it. In the same way, your house is heated and made comfortable by a roaring fire, but you don’t want to stand in the fire or get too close to it. This existential proximity to a tremendous force is what I call the religious.
In contrast, our current idea of religion comes from colonial administration rhetoric of the nineteenth century. But that’s not to say that the word religion was first used in the 1800s—the Romans used it as a way of identifying people, as a system of administration. And we do the same thing today when we talk about being a part of, say, a Squid Society Facebook group or when we identify someone as a Pharisaic Jew, a Nestorian, or a follower of ISIS. Yet the reason that the Romans hated Christians is because Christians resisted this impulse; they wouldn’t allow themselves to be reduced to one single concept within a broad taxonomy. The Christians wanted to make universal claims, to say that all of the other items in the taxonomy were false or illusions, not true gods. And the Romans said, “Well, of course we know they’re not true gods. That’s the whole joke about it.” That’s because their true god was Caesar. Their true god was the state.
The Romans’ true god was secular power, and that’s the kind of world we live in today. We don’t want to accept the reality of anything radical. We don’t want to challenge the global, highly managed, pluralistic religious system. And so religious studies, you might say, has become, as a field, the effective, offshored management system for the neoliberal global economy, which forages for religious identities.
TOJ: Is there a way to conceptually differentiate between the religious and the theological, as you use the term in Critical Theology?
CR: Let’s put it this way: the religious is the event horizon of what I call the singularity. Perhaps we can use the term revelation—it has a lot of excess baggage, and it sounds like an exclusively Christian idea, but I think it works well. It’s a concept that I’ve been writing about since the seventies, since before I read Jacques Derrida. For example, when Paul writes in Ephesians that everything he says comes from his “apocalypsin,” which gets translated in the English as “revelation” (see Eph. 3:3), what is he talking about? We know what this experience looked like from the outside, but from the inside, that’s the singularity in Paul. That event, that road-to-Damascus event, that particular singularity, which was not anything like a prophetic inspiration from God, it was so out there. It was so off the wall, and it changed everything.
That’s what I mean by religious, when we reach that edge, that event horizon of the singularity, where in some way an energy or power brings about dynamic change by which we reorient ourselves morally, spiritually, and even physically. People have these kinds of life-changing events. Sometimes Christians call these experiences “being born again,” though a lot of those experiences are obviously scripted and they don’t tend to last. Call it revelation. Call it the conversion experience. There are Christian terms, but there’s a phenomenology about these in all different religions, and this is what I’m trying to get at. Perhaps there is something underlying all of it, something that we can’t see and can’t know, just like we can’t experience what goes on inside a black hole. But we have to get back to that edge of the singularity to understand the religious, and that’s what I am calling for. And I think Christian theology is simply the complex record of how this explosion of the singularity worked itself out in terms of the sign system and symbolic mandates of Mediterranean culture and then later northern European culture and now, as I talk about in my book GloboChrist, in the East and in Africa.
The Yale theologian Lamin Sanneh says that there is no essential content to Christian revelation, and as the oral religions die away and a unique form of Christianity develops, I believe this is true. Christian revelation always finds its appropriate form. And the fact that it isn’t bound to a particular form means that we have to look at it very seriously. But the problem is that Christian theologians don’t do that. They’re always trying to preserve the complex heritage of their faith or to make it relevant, and those are the wrong emphases. Instead, we have to ask what’s going on here that we haven’t yet realized, or as Martin Heidegger would say, what is left “unthought.” What’s the most thought-provoking thing that we haven’t yet thought of? And what’s going on with this event, which is the event that I talk about at the end of Critical Theology, the logos made flesh?
TOJ: If I recall, you discuss this “unthought thought” in your very first book, The End of Theology.
CR: Right, that’s Heideggerian terminology. You could say that intellectually—though not existentially—it was reading later Heidegger in the summer of 1977 that sent me in this direction. It was also what led me to read Derrida. That said, I think my experiences in the sixties and my writings in the early seventies about revelation and conversion anticipated this pursuit of the unthought thought.
TOJ: What then is the connection between The End of Theology, which was your first book, and your most recent book, Critical Theology, which was published forty years later? How do you perceive the arc of your thinking between these two texts?
CR: I think that the arc of my thinking is characterized by my attempts to find a new language in every era or decade that I live through for this underlining singularity. It’s something that I’ve experienced on my own and that I can continue to experience and reexperience in different times and different ways. I’m definitely planning to write about this before I go—not in a memoir but in some way that brings together the many crazy experiences I’ve had over the decades and the people I’ve come across.
The one thing I’ve learned is that if you keep yourself open to constant rejuvenation of your thought by way of what I’m calling the great singularity, it never gets boring, and there are always new ideas. That’s the one thing I’ve found: the older I get, the more vitalized and passionate and interested I get in things I’ve never been interested in before. You’re supposed to wear out as you get older, but the opposite has happened for me. I’m like Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.