Friday, July 10, 2015

Theological Studies Reading List

Thinking about studying theology? Wondering what books to read in order to prepare? Then check out these practical, brilliant, but also highly accessible books that were especially important for my academic theological journey over the last five years of graduates studies:

1) Theology: The Basics (Alister E. McGrath): This was recommended as a preparation book for my first theology class, and it proved to be immensely useful. McGrath is a respectable and well-known historical theologian who offers a very readable overview of the basic components of Christian systematic theology.

2) A Handbook of Theological Terms (Van A. Harvey): Before my first semester at Claremont School of Theology started, I received an email from the school that had a list of recommended books for new students - and this was at the top of the list, for good reason. This is an extremely helpful text that is filled with basic terms that you will want to know as a theologian-in-training.

3) A New Handbook of Christian Theologians (Joseph Musser, Donald Price [ed.]): There are so many books out there that provide overviews of Christian theologians, but this one has always been my favorite. I love the format, which typically has a younger theologian write a brief summary of a more established theologian, and the selection of theologians that it covers is fantastic (process, liberation, evangelical, feminist, black, radical, neo-orthodox, Catholic, etc).

4) Philosophy and Theology (John Caputo): This is not only a great introduction to the crucial debates about the relationship between philosophy and theology ("What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"), but it also gives a good sense of postmodern theological trends, particularly from a deconstructive/continental perspective.

5) Transforming Christian Theology (Philip Clayton): When I started seminary, I was deeply concerned about the Emergent Church movement, having previously been a part of an emerging church for a number of years. Clayton was one of my teachers at Claremont, and he wrote this timely book with an eye on the emergent-mainline church conversation. For any progressive/post-evangelical Christian who cares deeply about the future of the church, this is essential reading.

6) God: A Brief History (Paul Capetz): Because theology just is the study of the nature of God, or "God-talk," this little book by one of my former teachers is essential reading for any aspiring theologian who wants a historical overview of the debates over the last 2000 years about what we talk about when we talk about God. You will get a great perspective on the debates about the trinity, the development of liberal and neo-orthodox theologies, existentialism, process theology, and liberation theologies.

7) Divinity and Diversity (Marjorie Suchocki): Although there are many ethical and political issues that contemporary Christians must address, religious pluralism is certainly an important challenge that must be considered by theologians today. Suchocki presents an extremely accessible and brilliant Christian theology of pluralism that must be taken seriously.

8) Quest for the Living God (Elizabeth Johnson): Written by one of my favorite living theologians, this is a beautifully written text that will familiarize readers with some of the most important trends in contemporary theology, including feminist, black, liberation, pluralist, ecological, and trinitarian theologies.

9) On the Mystery (Catherine Keller): This is an excellent introduction to process and postmodern theology, as well as the growing field of theopoetics - and not to mention, it is written by my doctoral advisor at Drew University. In a sense, this is Keller's mini-systematic theology, which includes her reflections on theological method, God, creation, Jesus, and eschatology.

10) God of the Oppressed (James Cone): Certainly one of the most timely theology books on this list, Cone remains one of our most important theologians, and this is a great way in to his work. While almost any of his books are worth reading, this one remains my favorite.

What did I miss? Feel free to add your own suggestions to this list of books, or even to tell me why I'm wrong about my choices.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Loving the Manifold (REVIEW: The Divine Manifold, by Roland Faber)

For the last nine months or so, I have been reading Roland Faber's The Divine Manifold. When I first noticed that it was being released last summer, I thought that I would never get around to reading this nearly 600 page text - or at least not anytime soon. But then my advisor at Drew encouraged me to spend some time with the book and review it for a theology journal. Having just finished the text, my project next week will be to write the review and submit it for publication. This is not the first time that I have reviewed books written by former professors (Faber was my professor at Claremont), but this task is uniquely challenging. Faber is a deeply complex, intimidatingly brilliant thinker. He knows the process theo-philosophical tradition just as well as he knows poststructuralism, which is quite rare. And he is not just a theo-philosopher, but also a true mystic. This makes for challenging (but rewarding) reading, indeed. In this post, I just want to offer a relatively brief overview of the book and some comments about a few of its highlights. I will eventually post a more in-depth review when I get around to it.

The first thing to note is that this text constantly swings between rigorous philosophical engagements with virtually every major continental/poststructuralist/postmodern theorist (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Zizek, Butler, Vattimo, Bataille, Badiou, etc) and mystical-poetic statements and reflections (inspired by Eckhart, Cusa, Bruno, and Buddhism) that one must take in very slowly to comprehend. As such, there is a kind of rhythm within this text that can take some time to get used to - not to mention all of the neologisms and novel concepts that can be quite difficult to grasp at first. These include: polyphilia, theoplicity, chaosmetics, transpantheism, transunification, in/difference, plurivocity, ecotheosis, substractive affirmation, polypoetics, divine diffusion, perikhora, in/finite interpretation, subtractive affirmation, and so on. For some readers, this style might be initially irritating, but I do think that it is worth the effort. The concepts and arguments demand one's time and consideration. 

In my view, Faber's reading of Whitehead - and the process tradition more generally - is often startlingly novel, largely because he does so through a poststructuralist (mostly Deleuzian) lens. In fact, a majority of this text involves his negotiation between Whitehead and Deleuze. He appears to have mastered both of these difficult thinkers, citing frequently from most of their publications, and offering close comparisons of their interrelated conceptual creations. Faber also challenges those Deleuzians who think that Deleuze superseded Whitehead in certain ways (e.g., by dispensing with the latter's deity and eternal objects - both of which Faber defends, largely on Deleuzian grounds), but he also challenges process thinkers to take Whitehead's post-rational, anti-foundational constructivism more seriously than they have in the past. He differentiates his process theopoetics from process theology at the very beginning of the book, not by dismissing the latter, of course, but by respectfully showing where he parts company with most of that tradition. The two process thinkers that he has the most in common with - and cites most frequently - is Bernard Loomer (the great process empiricist) and Catherine Keller (who has pioneered the process-poststructuralist conversation alongside Faber). 

While there is so much ground covered in the book - comparative theology, hermeneutics, cosmology, religious pluralism, politics, ethics, gender, and sexuality - what particularly stands out is Faber's unique reading/defense of Whitehead's divine "poet of the world" - here rendered as the "divine manifold." His interpretation of this controversial concept in Whitehead's philosophy is extremely subtle. He does not offer arguments for the existence of God. In fact, his argument for Whitehead's divine manifold resonates very strongly with radical theologians like John Caputo, who argues for God's "insistence" rather than "existence." Indeed, Faber concludes the book with a long discussion and sympathetic critique of Caputo's post-theism. But Faber reads Whitehead's God along similar lines (especially emphasizing Whitehead's early idea of God as "principle of concretion"): as the impossible event of love, or the pure love of multiplicity (polyphilia), which affirms and insists in, on, and as multiplicity.

In the epilogue, Faber quotes constructive theologian Laurel Schneider to define love as "letting go (of the One)." As such, Faber argues that God's loving "agency" is that which releases the world's multiplicities to themselves by destabilizing unities and imperial hierarchies of all kinds. God does not "create" the world (in any traditional sense), but rather "saves" it from the violence of the One by insisting on divergences and passing through them (readers of Deleuze and Whitehead will notice the embedded synthesis of their claims here). But this multiple divine does not in any simple sense "exist" (as entity, object, substance, subject) but "in-sists" (as "superject", "event", pure Idea of multiplicity, etc). It is not "ultimate," or "ground of being" either, for there is no single, all-encompassing ultimate in this chaosmos (so this is not panentheism!). Rather, there is a multipliticity of ultimates in mutual (groundless) suspension. And with his key concept of in/difference, Faber means to blur any clear distinction between the divine manifold and the world: they are always already folded together, so neither simply identical nor different. At different points in the text, Faber even labels his process theopoetic approach in ways that resonates with radical theology: post-theism, a/theism, post-theological, etc. But if this is radical theology, it is a new strand, in my view. Here is Faber's concluding paragraph, which nicely illustrates his radical "transpantheistic" approach:

"The Divine Manifold is only 'present' as it touches or releases the entirely living things. Without any preservation, but abundant in intensities of mutual perception, the 'divine game' of love 'neither rules nor is it unmoved.' It 'does not look to the future' nor the past 'for it finds its own reward in the immediate present'. It insists in impermanent events. As they reverberate in its diffusion, they become singularities of love. Shining in their disappearance, they save its universal relevance for another and the lost ones." (507)