God is Love, God is Dead: Radical Theology as Wisdom Literature

Abstract

In this paper I intend to present an outline of a thesis that argues for the idea that Radical Theology is a modern form of Wisdom Literature and, as such, subverts the dominant view of Christianity as a prophetic tradition. Radical Theology can be seen as a constituent part of a 'Wisdom counter-culture' that has informed and reformed Christianity throughout history and is linked to Wisdom Literature through a common view that they claim authority from the human experience of the way the world is, not the way the cultic tradition requires it to be seen. This in turn makes both of them more questioning of God, than the credal cultic tradition and more likely to experience despair and the remoteness of God.

Wisdom literature is a distinctive form of writing found in both the Old and New Testaments. Obviously the suggestion of distinction assumes another, or other forms, from which it is distinct. In relation to Wisdom this is principally the writings that form the rest of the canon, namely, law, history and prophets. The central concerns of these writings are the origin, well being, future and fate of Israel in a national / historical sense and the nation's unique relationship to God. The distinct nature of Wisdom takes various forms, though one to alight on in relation to law, and history here, however, is its existential style. It is often concerned to develop the idea of the individual and God, not Nation and God. [1]

Wisdom Literature, then, endeavours to engage with the world and make sense of it in ways other than by subscribing to the dominant views and methods propagated by the cult, temple and prophets. The term is often used specifically to designate the writings in Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, although elements of writing which characterise these books are found throughout the Bible. [2] It often takes the form of 'sayings' of wise men and encapsulates their reflections on life. As such it is 'world-centred', both in the sense that it draws widely from observation of the world and that it suggests that following such teaching will lead to fulfilment and prosperity. Wisdom was given a human persona and the name of Sophia. She is variously described, as being God's first-born, someone who was involved on the creation and someone whose existence is not dependent on God. Because of the theological problems some of these speculations caused, discussion about Wisdom tended to become poeticised rather than theologised. [3]

In this paper the term Radical Theology is used to designate a loose tradition of thought and writing that, broadly speaking, incorporates theological positions that stand in opposition to the Realist notions of credal orthodoxy. One of the primary contentions that characterise Radical Theologies is the notion of the Death of God, although this may be variously experienced and expressed. In 'Radical Theology and the Death of God', for example, William Hamilton cites no less than ten different ways in which the expression 'Death of God' has been used. [4] Seeing them, in relation to their particular degree of correspondence to deity or the human condition, as offering 'hard' or 'soft' options, he observes that they fall into two different camps, those that express something about humanity and those that say something about God. Thus the term 'Death of God' has been used to express nothing more than a crisis in language and communication between church and an increasingly secular society and nothing less than the literal historical annihilation of transcendent deity. Given even this level of divergence, however, a unifying thesis can be discerned, namely, an experience of the absence of God.

Wisdom literature, in the Old Testament and beyond, can be seen as a way by which women and men asked questions about life and God. As such, it perhaps offered a line of thought that was not permitted or deemed necessary by the opposing cultic tradition that, by its nature, would have much preferred collective agreement to individual enquiry. Wisdom Literature, then, does not make claims for recognition on the basis of the tradition of election and cult, but, rather, it claims its truth to be grounded in the nature of the world.

An aspect that can be highlighted, then, particularly in relation to its cultic antithesis, is its individualism. Wisdom writings appear to have been developed by individuals in response to their experience of the world and passed on to other individuals, perhaps by the method of teacher-student or maybe by written form and read by interested individuals. Either method used for transmission however, reveal similar things. Firstly, that Wisdom was an intellectual and middle-class pursuit, only those who were literate with intellectual courage and a vision that extended beyond the restrictions of the Law would pursue it, and only then if they had the time to do so. Secondly, Wisdom was an existential enquiry and experience and as such might be viewed as a more authentic form of response to the human predicament than was the requirement of rigid adherence to a dogmatic priestly code.

A simple literary analysis perhaps serves the point. The cult, for example, is often exclamatory in its language. Thus its demand is encapsulated in 'Hear, Oh Israel'. This is an objective command that prefixes set theology and obedience to tribal rules. The sub-text is clearly that if an individual is to remain part of the community, they must agree with the theology and abide by the rules. Wisdom Literature, however, is delivered not in exclamatory fashion, but rather by narrative and aphorism, and, as we have observed, not to the community, but to like-minded individuals. A suitable example here, then, might be the observation 'God is love'. This is a subjective observation that requires from the adherent an agreement derived from experience and, as a result, the community of adherents will be fashioned or re-fashioned by the particular set of responses to the statement. Wisdom then, effectively bypasses the cultic tradition. It does not deny its importance or relevance, but claims authority from other sources, i.e. by observing and experiencing the world or by ascribing to the observations and experiences of self and others.

Wisdom had an international origin. [5] Biblical Wisdom possessed an aspect of universalism although in the pre-exilic period it took for granted the Jewish historical experience of family / clan / tribe / national ethos, social structure and world-view and expressed itself in relation to the predominant notion of nationhood in Israelite theology. But, Temple and Cult did not in any sense control, suppress or regulate Wisdom, rather Wisdom simply operated within acknowledged social boundaries. [6] (To exemplify, Wisdom, from its international origins, entered an Israelite social structure based on the notion of community ethics and honour i.e. the notion of individual ethical responsibility was not prevalent and individual actions were relateable to the clan or tribe or, ultimately, nation. But Wisdom was not subject to control by this social structure in so far as the Cult allowed or did not allow its functioning.

The significant moment arrived when Israel was in Exile. With the symbols of Israel's authority (monarchy and temple) both gone, Wisdom, with its appeal to universalism, took a prominent position within Israel's theological life, and instead of being a courtly, intellectual pursuit, it became the preoccupation of every Jew. So its appeal to, and development of, Wisdom, saved Diaspora Judaism from becoming purely a socio-religious form that had nothing more to offer than a look back to a former golden age. [7]

So, what of Radical Theology? I would suggest there is interesting convergence. Firstly, there would seem to be links to the observation made above regarding the international origins of Biblical Wisdom. In a global context it is possible to argue a link between Radical Theology and Wisdom Traditions per se. Just as Biblical Wisdom has Egyptian and Mesopotamian antecedents that informed it and, by doing so, offered a naturalism or universalism to Israelite theology, so too do modern cultural encounters have a similar effect on Radical Theology. Radical Theology as Wisdom for the modern Christian world requires acknowledgement of the literal or metaphorical Death of God. This requires a re-thinking of Jesus away from the cosmic redeemer back towards the human teacher. So what we have in essence is an atheistic tradition that follows the Wisdom teaching of a charismatic man. In a modern setting such a definition must be informed by encounter with Eastern traditions. In this respect the key question must be that if Radical Theology can be viewed as Wisdom Literature for modern Christianity will the encounter result in the loss of Christianity's provincial, historical, prophetic identity (its Jewishness) and result in the development of a universal wisdom identity (its Buddhistness)?

Another seeming example of commonality is individualism which is the pre-eminent form of experience and expression in much Radical Theology. It can be seen in different forms. In academic writing, for example, individualism is attested too by the anti-doctrinal nature of almost all of the material and of its relationship to the way the world is experienced. This type of writing inevitably results in an attempt to persuade the reader of a particular view, indeed, why else would it be written. But the nature of the persuasion inevitably leads to a conflict with doctrine, not a re-enforcing of it. And the result of the persuasion is often supposed to be another discrete view, another expression of another reality, although usually bound by assumed shared beliefs concerning the uniqueness or importance of the Christian tradition. Like Wisdom, then, Radical Theology is a theology borne out of an individual's experience of the world, but, in our time, that experience is underpinned by the modern scientific myth, rather than the religio-cosmological myths of Biblical times. Thus it encounters not a universe enthused with God, but a universe apparently devoid of him and explainable in its own terms.

So, this particular individualistic aspect of the expression of Christianity in Radical Theology is now occurring in an era that has, some claim, witnessed the Death of God. Be the demise of deity perceived as essentially a social phenomena where man is understood to have come of age and must now cope without the comfort blanket of the old man in the sky, or be deity's death literal and historical, the objective referent, the out thereness, to which collective praise and intercession could once be directed has disappeared. What remains is no longer a Christian collective, but, rather, a collection of Christians caught in a paradigm shift that demands an existential understanding of an individual self in relation only to other individual selves.

There is, of course, some significance in where a particular author is coming from. Thomas Altizer, for example, proclaims the literal death of God in the crucifixion of Jesus and a resulting out-pouring of spirit as love. As he observes,

'...in the Gospel of John we find the revolutionary Christian proclamation that God is love'....To know that God is Jesus, is to know that God himself has become flesh: no longer does God exist as transcendent spirit or sovereign Lord, now God is love. [8]

In Altizer's thought we seemingly encounter a form of process theology, where a once objective, primordial deity, the God of the Old Testament, destroys his primordial form to enter into the world as spirit that transforms the physical world into a sacred totality by a simple abolition of the dualist structures and forms that once kept sacred and profane apart. If God existed in an objective form then, for Altizer, the idea that God is love would be meaningless, because the only true statement you could make about such a being would be God is God. The destruction of the dualist principle by deity's abolition of deity allows a transformation of transcendence into immanence and object into subject.

A somewhat different line is taken by Don Cupitt, who adheres more strictly to the Nietzscharian view that it is the idea of God that has died in Western society. Cupitt, however sees value in religion and so, whilst talking up the death of the objective Biblical-Christian God, seeks at the same time an adequate redefinition of the term. Thus he observes,

'There is no God but Love, and to believe in God is to believe in the divinity of Love. (Of course, to believe in something is quite different from believing that something exists.)' [9]

And again,

'The word God doesn't designate a distinct metaphysical being; it is simply Love's name.' [10]

So, despite coming from different ends of the radical spectrum, Altizer and Cupitt demonstrate the essential point that Radical Theology functions as Wisdom Literature in its individualist, non-doctrinal approach as well as in their focus on experience. But further similarities can also be observed in the relationship between Wisdom Literature and the Law / Temple and Cult and Radical Theology's relationship to the Church in the areas of autonomy, power and control.

Control is, by its nature, a feature of doctrine, because as soon as you declare what's true you declare what's false. But control is itself defined by that which lies within its sphere of influence. In short, you can only exercise canonical power over that which you own. Most texts are vague on the fixing of the Biblical canon, positing a form of organic development that roughly sees the Law and prophets forming a natural 'part one / part two axis' with Wisdom incorporated because of the innate quality of the writing and its profound and inspirational nature. However, whereas the books that comprise the Law and the Prophets seem to more or less pick themselves, the Wisdom section was subject to change well into the Common Era. [11] What Wisdom actually comprised, however, is to a degree, irrelevant. The real question is why was it included when its teaching seem to undermine the nature of cultic religion and priestly paths to God?

One possibility is that whilst the undisputed canonical texts were the Law and the Prophets, some Wisdom writings were popular and much read by Jews (and as Wisdom would have been an intellectual pursuit of the upper and middle classes the readership would have been influential) so, although they were considered uplifting rather than authoritative, they were included as a third but distinctly 'down market' element.

Another possibility is that the canon was controlled by the cult and priesthood. As control equals power the 'true' canon of Law and Prophets was subject to their control but Wisdom was a problem. Here was influential writing potentially compromising their position. The best way to deal with it was not to disclaim or ignore it but to incorporate it within the system so that it can be controlled and pronounced upon. The priesthood made Wisdom canonical so they could have power over it, and as soon as they controlled it they said 'of course its OK for you all to read it because it's inspirational poetry, but don't forget, its not as important as the Law and the Prophets'.

A third possibility is that Wisdom demonstrated its innate value to the Jewish religion during the Exile when it offered a means by which Israel could maintain her religious identity away from the land of Israel and without King or Temple. (In later generations its international flavour allowed it to remain pertinent to Jews who had never even lived in Israel). The restoration offered the opportunity for Israel to step back and re-affirm land, king and Temple once more but that would have betrayed Diaspora Judaism. Besides, Wisdom was by then a part of the Jewish religious psyche, so it became valued as canonical literature.

How then do we relate such theories to the modern situation between Church and Radicalism. Does the Church attempt to own Radical Theology and thus endeavour to control it? Or, like Diaspora Judaism, does Radicalism offer the modern western intellectual Diaspora a link to tradition that results in the tradition's inevitable reformation?

Clearly, conservative elements of the Church don't like Radicalism. Anthony Freeman, for example, was sacked from his position of parish priest in the Anglican church for suggesting that an objective God doesn't exist (although he never said he didn't believe in God) [12], whilst Cupitt now communicates with the Church but does not officiate in it. But the feeling cuts both ways. As Cupitt observes,

'While they are singing hymns people may be willing to perceive Christianity as a sacred poetry of Love. But in the real world only power counts, and spiritual power can regard as orthodox only that doctrine which feeds it and strengthens it. Power is for its own sake, and always desires only more of itself. The Church becomes a hierarchical institution, and as Voltaire once said, the higher clergy regard as orthodox those doctrines that are in their own interest.' [13]

And again

'...radical Christians reject the 'orthodoxy' in which truth is controlled by power, and dislike the mental numbness induced by canonical forms of words. In our view religious truth cannot be canonised in fixed doctrines or forms of words.' [14]

The relationship between Church and Radical Theology is complex, but, in short Scripture and Faith, like the Temple and King of Israelite theology, would seem to be increasingly superseded by the Western mind's adherence to the modern scientific myth. Increasingly scripture is undermined by literary analysis, history and archaeology, whilst Faith undertakes periodic subtle, but nonetheless noticeable, shifts in position as changing world-views redefine the stage on which it is played out. But if we dare to make the comparison between the experience of the Diaspora Jews and the experience of post modern Christians as both being disinherited strangers in a strange land, what does that tell us of the future of Radical Theology?

There are, perhaps, two possibilities. The first is that, just as Wisdom was included in the Canon and then defined as inspirational poetry rather than theology, so may Radical Theology evolve into a mainstream Christian poetic, a poetic that would allow an expression of collective Christian anxiety in response to a world that seemingly no longer allows its inhabitants 'old fashioned' or dogmatic faith in the certainty of an objective God. The second may be to act in a subversive manner, effectively re-fashioning Christianity's historical-prophetic tradition into a more universal-wisdom centred one. As Don Cupitt [15] and John Charles Cooper [16], among others, have demonstrated, the contrapuntal tradition in Christian theology progressively, perhaps inevitably, develops orthodoxy out of former radicalism, and sometimes former heresy. Perhaps Radical Theology is ultimately simply 'condemned' to be the next expression of the new orthodoxy of Christianity, a faith itself re-fashioned by the triumph of narrative over dogma and Wisdom over history.


Endnotes

[1] Clements p 22ff.

[2] Wood, pp 41-54.

[3] Wood 99ff.

[4] Altizer & Hamilton p13ff.

[5] See, for example, Crenshaw pp 3ff, Clements p17ff, Bergant (1984) 20ff

[6] Clements pp 22-27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Altizer, p67.

[9] Taken from an article entitled 'All you need is love' which was published by the Guardian newspaper in December 1994. It can also be found on the Sea of Faith web site at http:\\www.sofn.org.uk/agnil.html

[10] Taken from 'All you need is love'. Details as above.

[11] Mellor, 124ff.

[12] See Freeman's 'God In Us'.

[13] Taken from 'All you need is love'. Details as above.

[14] Taken from 'The Radical Christian World-View' a lecture delivered by Don Cupitt at the 12th Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network, Leicester 27-29 July 1999. A revised version was published in the organisations magazine, 'Sea of Faith' No. 38 Autumn 1999.

[15] Cupitt's The Sea of Faith is a journey through modern western intellectual history which attempts to highlight through particular examples (such as Darwin, Schweitzer and Kierkegaard) that the radicalism of previous generations becomes the orthodoxy of the future ones.

[16] Cooper, pp 17-55.

Bibliography

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