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No fleeing the world

04 September 2015

John Saxbee discovers a fresh approach to getting entangled

A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled fidelities and the public good
Christopher Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader
Ashgate £60
Church Times Bookshop £54


MODERNISM privatised religion and excluded it from the public square. Post-modernism readmitted it, but only on an “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it doesn’t matter” basis. Now we are in a post-post-modern/post-secular age, when religion is acknowledged to be a necessary partner with diverse others in promoting the common good.

So runs the narrative to which this latest addition to the Ashgate series on Contemporary Continental Philosophy of Religion addresses itself. It majors on a recent shift in Continental philosophy ensuring that materiality matters when it comes to articulating a coherent theological prospectus for the 21st century. For the authors of this philosophy of Christian materialism, matter matters most; and, because matter is plural, complex, and interconnected, such Christian materialism must entail equally plural, complex, and “entangled fidelities”.

This is especially the case in our post-secular culture, where “a transformative aggressive agenda for public and political change” cannot be achieved by a complacent reassertion of traditional orthodoxies.

There is nothing modest about this endeavour. The three contributors see themselves as undertaking “the ambitious task of constructing a philosophy of Christian materialism fit for purpose for the 21st Century and that engages with its existential and structural complexities. In doing this we hope to make an important contribution to philosophy of religion and the way it views religious practice and engagement in the actual world.

“However, we are confident that in addressing this primary task, we also enrich the disciplines of practical and public theology with vitalising conceptual frameworks emerging from the re-engagement of philosophy with the Real. Integral to this process is the reassembling of Christian theology and the institutional church in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere in which it is currently engaged.”

This is a tall order, but they do enough to ensure that this is a project that deserves to be taken seriously and pursued with some urgency.

This assessment may surprise those who are reluctant to stray far from traditional Christian accounts of God, humanity, and the created order — and Baker, James, and Reader do favour some unfamiliar and complex conceptualisations. But these should not be a deterrent to engaging with the overall argument. The opening two chapters go a long way towards explaining and clarifying the esoteric language associated especially with Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, and Alain Badiou, whose shift towards “speculative realism” has re-invigorated Continental philosophy in recent years.

The key concept is “relational Christian realism”. To be “realist” in this context is to insist, with H. Richard Niebuhr, “that Christian faith engages non-theological sources of insight, and claims about God’s relation to the world are claims about empirical states of affairs that can be measured by broad features of human experience”. For such Christian realism to be “relational”, there must be a recognition of the extent to which human and non-human (including divine) agents are interconnected in non-hierarchical equivalence. Thus the authors part company with the idea of a transcendent divine being.

But this does not dispense with God! The next two chapters seek to re-shape the doctrine of God in terms redolent of liberal, panentheist, and process theologies; and other key doctrines are given a similar makeover. It is arguable that the authors have moved so far from traditional beliefs that this attempt at reconfiguration is difficult to sustain. Yet there is a great deal here to challenge the hubris sometimes attributed to post-liberal theology and Radical Orthodoxy. This alternative response to the prevailing mood is welcome.

The remaining four chapters convert theory into practice with a series of engaging and effective case-studies focusing on urban community empowerment, education, environmental issues, and politics. These do indeed “ground some of the more abstract discussion of this volume”, and it might have been better to begin with them rather than launch the reader headlong into some quite obscure philosophical theory.

A three-way collaboration of this kind is not easy to pull off, and there are variations of style which could threaten the book’s coherence. But such personal and intellectual entanglements exactly mirror the pluralism and relationality at the heart of this timely and thought-provoking essay.

Incidentally, the extraordinary cover image of entangled electric cables emerging from a clearly unstable junction box also serves to reflect a project that is as risky as it is energising.


The Rt Revd Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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