Theological Approaches: Constructive and Comparative

Preparing for qualifying exams is intense. Going back over every book and paper that might be relevent to your five topics is helpful for compiling the work you have done over the last four years.

I am constantly thinking and reading about theology. One of my fascinations is the various models or frameworks that others employ to outline the theological endeavor. Some use a ‘landscape’ motif, with this group over here and that group over there, while others utilize a ‘spectrum’ analogy often moving from one ‘direction’ to the other.

One can do this in a historic sense,  from classic on the left to contemporary on the right, or more of a conviction/conclusion breakdown with conservative at one end and liberal at the other.*

The first list I encountered was in my pre-doctoral prep when researching the discipline of Practical Theology I would often see the field contrasted with the ‘Big 4’ schools of theology:

  1. Systematic
  2. Historical
  3. Biblical
  4. Philosophic

Practical Theology is different in that, like Sociology, it utilizes qualitative methods like interviews, case studies and ethnography.

I also like Grenz and Olson’s approach in “Who Needs Theology: an invitation to the study of God“, where they move from:

  • Folk to
  • Lay to
  • Ministerial to
  • Professional to
  • Academic

They don’t seem to find much value in either the Folk or the Academic (who only write for or can be understood by other academics) but they make a good case for the middle 3 approaches.

Recently I have come up with a  different spectrum:

  • Creedal
  • Confessional
  • Constructive
  • Radical

Creedal asks “What has the church historically believed about this?”

Confessional asks “What do we as Christian say about this?”

Constructive asks “What can we as Christian say about this?” or “What do we want to say about this?”

Radical asks “If we weren’t bound by institutional constraints, what would we say about this?”


It wasn’t until I was updating my blog’s ‘Big Ideas’ page that I realized that my real passion is not a ‘constructive’ but a ‘comparative’  approach. I am fascinated by the diversity and complexity of faith communities and historically situated or contextual approaches. I love to survey the landscape first (comparative) and then figure out where I want to travel to or settle down (constructive).

This approach has been very helpful to me so I wanted to pass it along.


What about you? What spectrum or framework have you found helpful?  



* Those who have read me before will know that I contest this second spectrum because there are schools outside or past liberal schools of thought and they are not accounted for but simply lumped into the liberal camp for lack of nuance and specificity. 

Between Radical & Confessional Theologies: Whitehead’s God

Guest-post by  Austin Roberts.
He is a PhD student at Drew University, studying with the incomparable Catherine Keller.  
[listen to her podcast here
You should 100% follow his blog and you might want to read his book on eco-theology Process pairing Jürgen Moltmann and John Cobb

As a process theologian, I often find myself in the position of needing to explain or even defend the God that Whitehead affirms.  I have these conversations with fellow academics and intellectual types who just can’t see how some of us can still call ourselves theists after the ‘death of God,’ as well as fellow Christians who struggle to see how one could reconcile process panentheism with the God of the Bible.

While the former group tends to be extremely critical of any hint of transcendence (whether in reference to God or otherwise), the latter group gets uneasy with the process theologian’s special emphasis on God’s immanence.  For the former, transcendence is more-or-less relativized – if not entirely eliminated – by immanence.  For the latter, it is usually the other way around: God is infinitely transcendent and created everything out of nothing.

For those who care to go into this kind of discussion, the core theological question up for debate is this:
how immanent and/or transcendent is Whitehead’s God?

I’m certainly not going to try to answer this with any sense of finality.  What I primarily want to do here is to point out the difficulty of this issue when we have, broadly speaking, two types of theologians reading Whitehead in different ways today:

  • those who resonate with Radical Theology
  • those who are committed to Confessional Theology.

This is exciting to me, even as it brings new challenges to process theology.  I’m not claiming that there is a full-blown contradiction between these two approaches, and perhaps there’s a way to bring these two approaches closer together.  Even so, they are starting out with different assumptions and concerns that certainly shape their contrasting readings of Whitehead’s theism.

At the risk of oversimplifiction, there’s a sense in which Radicals tend to read Whitehead primarily through a poststructuralist lens (Derrida, Deleuze, Butler) while Confessionals read him primarily through the lens of tradition and scripture.

This makes for a rather striking difference between the two.

One could always follow the “Whitehead without God” approach (Bob Mesle, Donald Sherburne). One can also see Whitehead’s God as nothing more than a cosmic function – and therefore wholly “secularized” – that is necessary for a coherent process worldview but totally uninspiring for spirituality or religion (Steven Shaviro’s reading in his “Without Criteria”).

Personally, I think there are serious problems with these interpretations (that’s for another post) and they remain minority reports within the process community.

Let’s consider two streams of process theology, what I’m calling the Radical and Confessional paths.

On the one side are those who read Whitehead’s God in ways that strongly emphasize immanence – a kind of Radical theology, perhaps, usually with the help of Deleuze’s poststructuralist philosophy of immanence.  Few process thinkers go so far as to deny God’s transcendence entirely (although see Kristien Justaert’s process pantheism in “Theology after Deleuze”), but the concept as more commonly understood is very much relativized by a more immanent God.  This is rapidly becoming an influential way of reading Whitehead (I can confirm this based on my experiences at both Drew and Claremont where most students of Whitehead tend to lean this way).

My former professor Roland Faber, signaling a stronger shift towards immanence with his Deleuzean reading of Whitehead, argues for “trans-pantheism” as opposed to the more standard reading of Whitehead’s panentheism.  He digs deep into the Cusan paradox of God as “Not-Other” and places a stronger theological emphasis on Whitehead’s immanent creativity.  He interprets the later Whitehead as seeming inclined “to replace any remaining connotations of God’s transcendence with a totally immanent divine creativity” (Process & Difference, 216).  As with John Caputo’s radical theology, Faber will also say that God does not exist but insists as the interrupting event of the new.

For Faber’s radical process theology, God is always “In/difference”: the insistence on difference and relationality of all differences.  For the Radical approach, questions of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, Revelation) tend to be secondary (at best) to the political and ethical implications of theology.  The thinking here is that an immanent theology is better equipped for this-worldly activism based on democratic practices, over against difference-denying oppressive forms of hierarchy that are rooted in transcendence.

On the other side are those who read Whitehead’s God in ways that try to maintain more traditional theological intuitions of transcendence.  I see this as a kind of Confessional trajectory for Whiteheadians that has been much more common for Christian process theology over the last fifty years.  Confessional process theologians are not necessarily Orthodox in their beliefs, but they tend to have a stronger concern than the Radical process theologians to maintain ties to the Christian tradition and to more thoroughly align their theology to the Bible.

John Cobb is an obvious example here, especially evident in his rather high Christology in which he intentionally remains close to the creedal confession that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.” By reading Whitehead’s God as a balance of immanence with transcendence, he can affirm that God is the most powerful reality in existence, that our existence is radically contingent upon God as our Creator, and that we depend upon God’s grace.  Attempting to do justice to key themes of the Bible and Christian piety, Cobb will claim that because God is always working for the good in the world and truly loves her creation, God can genuinely reveal herself in particular ways, our prayers can be answered, people might even sometimes be healed through God’s action in the world, and that death ultimately does not have the last word.

Unlike Radical process theology, Confessional process theologians unequivocally affirm God’s existence as a real being (e.g., David Ray Griffin’s cumulative argument in his Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism).  A neo-Whiteheadian approach, as in Joseph Bracken’s theology, pushes even closer to traditional commitments and asserts a stronger (“asymmetrical”) sense of transcendence than even Cobb.  Like Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle and Augustine did with neo-Platonism, Bracken will use Whitehead as a general philosophical framework for special revelation in scripture and tradition, allowing the latter more authoritative sources to revise the former when necessary.  The doctrinal results for him are an orthodox view of the Trinity, creatio ex nihilo, and bodily resurrection.

Some of us might cringe at the Radical approach, others at a Confessional approach.  To Confessionals, the Radical approach might sound even more esoteric and complicated than Whitehead himself and irrelevant for practical or spiritual life outside of the academy.  To Radicals, the Confessional approach might sound outdated and naïve at best, or imperialistic and oppressive at worst.  Or some of us might instead be able to see the two as constrasting rather than contradicting and perhaps look for a way to learn from both, even if we share the more basic assumptions of one or the other.

If the Radical approach is helping to keep Whitehead relevant to postmodern intellectuals, religious skeptics, and academics – perhaps even effecting a “Whiteheadian revolution” or a “return to Whitehead” in contemporary philosophy and science – the Confessional approach tends to have much more traction for pastors and laypersons.

This distinction seems to me to exemplify the challenge of identifying the task of theology today: is it important to do theology primarily for the sake of the life of the confessing church, or can we (should we) move on and do theology primarily because of its continuing politically subversive and ethical power for society?  This is not a question just for those of us in the process community, but rather for any theologian who finds herself in this predicament, between the Radical and the Confessional.

Caputo Responds AAR part 2

In part 2 we hear from friend of the podcast Jeremy Fackenthal and then get Caputo’s response to all the papers – including those from part 1.Beer_Labels-Caputo-phone_rev03

If Jeremy Fackenthal sounds familiar, you may have heard him from the popular breakout session at EVTC 2012 session “Marx & Whitehead” or his previous AAR session on Occupy The Church.

We look forward to your feedback on these fantastic papers – which will be available in E-book format next month.IMG_3164

The Theology Nerd Throwdown is excited to welcome Chalice Press. They are the offical publishing sponsor with lots of great books and resources for theology nerds, preachers, and church planters. They just might become your #1 favorite progressive Christian publisher. So check them out.


Come Join Tripp & Jonnie for the Conference, Live Podcast and Craft Brewery Fun.

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*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***

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Taking Caputo into the [insert practical places discussed]


3 Books for the Price of 1!

6 week online class w/ Peter Rollins

6 week online class w/ Peter Rollins

The Caputo Session at AAR from the past year was amazing! This is part 1 of that night. Part 2 will follow in just a couple of days.

We look forward to your feedback on these fantastic papers – which will be available in E-book format next month.
The Theology Nerd Throwdown is excited to welcome Chalice Press. They are the offical publishing sponsor with lots of great books and resources for theology nerds, preachers, and church planters. They just might become your #1 favorite progressive Christian publisher. So check them out.

Come Join Tripp & Jonnie for the Conference, Live Podcast and Craft Brewery Fun.

Come Join Tripp & Jonnie for the Conference and Craft Brewery Fun.

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***

Barrel Aged Graphic_crop2_rev1

Subscribe to the new stream.


Subscribe on iTunes Here!

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An Important ‘A’ from Jack Caputo

I am always learning and part of blogging for me is comparing notes with other people. It is part of my education. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything – I am just attempting to supplement the cultural conversation I watch stream by.

Quick Disclaimers:

  • I am not a radical theologian and don’t do radical theology. I am just conversant with the thought for the purpose of addressing some big problems that it points out. 
  •  While I love Caputo’s work (I really do) I obviously don’t buy into his project hook-line-and-sinker or endorse his views 100% [a friend asked me to clarify that from now on].
  • I do however have an early pdf of his soon to be released book. 

I’m only half-way through Caputo’s soon to be released book The Insistence Of God, and am about to get to the substantially titled chapters (on Malabou, Zizek and Millbank) but I found some stuff in the early parts of the book that were eye-opening.

The first is the helpful addition of an ‘a’.

The second is about the death of god. 

Jack reports to be doing ‘a radical theology’ several times. That seem like an important distinction. In this new book, he is not representing the totality of the radical tradition and approach – he is offering ‘a’ radical theology.

After introducing his ‘perhaps’ project, he says:

I would understand it if, at this point, the orthodox theologians feel rejected, if they get up and leave, before my lecture has even started, rejecting out of hand the very idea that this is theology at all. I share their suspicion. Indeed, such a suspicion of what I am doing is the condition under which I do it, under which I conduct what I am calling a “radical” theology. I would publish this book under protest if the orthodox theologians did not protest it. If this “theology” were not suspect, if it did not threaten a walkout by the pious, I would not be associated with it. What I call theology is possible only under the condition that it might not— perhaps—be theology…

There are 5 layers of explanation in the first chapter alone, but I am obviously not able to post them all here until the book comes out. Suffice to say that he starts chapter 2 with Plato’s pharmacy (pharmakon) and ends with Hegel as the hero.

The second, and in my mind more important, distinction relates the death of god. Caputo takes his point of departure from the ‘death of god’ theologians [a point of considerable concern] when he says the following:

Notice what the “death of God” means in the chiasm: God dies unless we come to God’s aid and let God be God in our lives. What has been traditionally called death of God theology is a headline grabber but it is a misleading misnomer—it should have been called the birth of God…

That is why I never speak of the death of God but of the birth of God or the desire for God (desiring sans all Lacanian lamentable lamentation over the lost phallus) and why Eckhart’s account of the story of Mary and Martha (ch. 3) is one of the inspirations of my theology of the event, as will become more and more clear as we go along. God is what God does, and what God does is what is done in the name of God, which is the birth of God in the world.

This seems a significant distinction to me. It clarifies ‘a’ point of departure.


Couple of reminders in closing: 

  1. I am not doing ‘a’ radical theology. I’m just a curious conversation partner. 
  2. I do not endorse Caputo’s (or anyones) ideas carte blanche
  3. My copy of the book is pre-editor and pre-publisher. The previous quotes should be taken with that in mind. 
  4. These thought have been formulated within a vibrant set of friends I am reading the book with. Any of the above thoughts that you do not agree with were theirs. 
  5. I have enjoyed reading about other genealogies of radical theology as well.  

Radical Responses

Two weeks ago I put up a post built around Tripp’s notes for his High Gravity talks with Pete Rollins for the Summer Reading Group they were hosting online around the subject of Radical Theology.
Little did I know that this would be so poorly received. The main critisim came from 2 divergent camps:

  1. Those who are really into Radical Theology (RT) and feel both territorial about the subject and indignant that their favored father was left off of Caputo’s genealogy (and thus the Rushmore poster promoting the Subverting the Norm 2 conference)
  2. Those who are frustrated and flustered by the subject all together

I could literally write an entire post about how intriguing the juxtaposition of those two groups are. However, here is a letter from Patrick F. that gets to the heart of the matter. His words will be in black. My jovial responses will be in green.


Forgive me for chiming in a few days late…

  • No worries mate! It happens on every blog post and I was out of town on a Middle School Work Week so the timing worked out.

I wrote a blog post last week ( a day after this came out) about how I felt the need to shelve Caputo’s The Weakness of God.

  • OK. TWOG is not easy reading… admittedly. BUT let’s not shelve it entirely just yet … being as it is the best book on the subject that I have read in the last decade.

Most of it is far beyond my reach as an armchair scholar (I’m not in seminary at this time). 3/4 of the time I have no damn clue who the heck he’s referencing, and a quick search to find out about those folks is clear as mud (Derrida being the big example).

  • Maybe a different Caputo text would be more appropriate to start with. He has several amazing volumes that are not as … ‘technical’ as TWOG.

I know I can’t read EVERYTHING (thanks, Tony Jones!) but I feel like I need to have read SOMETHING prior to tackling that book (or much else of what Caputo writes).  Here’s that post, if you’re interested:

  • I will look forward to checking that out. I have enjoyed your writing in the past.

This post, however, hasn’t made things much clearer.  I realize these are notes on a text, but looking at your definitions only makes me more confused.

  • Hmmmm…. I am surprised by this. I had hoped to make things more clear by boiling it down. Rest in the confidence that you were not the only one who objected. Just keep in mind that those who most objected that I made it TOO clear and that I should have let people wrestle with it themselves because the struggle is what produces any good at all.

For example:
Your definition of radical theology is really broad.  To say it’s a theology that isn’t tied to a denomination or sanctioning body really doesn’t say much; there’s plenty of theologians out there who theologize without working in the context of a church.   If we’re simply talking about people who talk about God, you could call Donald Miller a radical theologian by this definition.

  • Wrong. Donald Miller is accountable to both his home church in Portland’s pastoral staff and to his publisher (and subsequently their readership at Christian Book Stores)
  • I don’t want to be mean, but that fact that you even think that Donald Miller could be in this category let’s me know that you have not gotten this concept.  Radical Theologians are OUT THERE. They do not report to the church and are not accountable to the ecclesiastic structure or to its history. I can not overstate this.

Listen: Tripp and I are both pastors at Mainline churches. We do not do Radical Theology – we are only hosting this conversation because it provides a much needed critique of the existent structure. Homebrewed is outside of most people’s outer boundary… and we are not Radical…. we are only in conversation with the Radical tradition. Just think about that. 

If I go on to your definition of Confessional theology, things do a get a little clearer in that you tie any approach to theology that looks to classical thinking to its definition (which would lump Miller in here).  Couple that with Tripp’s notes that radical theology is parasitic to confessional theology, it leads me to think that radical theology has to reject any theology at all that might attempt to articulate anything metaphysical.

  • On this account your are 100% accurate. Now I feel bad about being so hard on you about that last point 😉

And for all its antagonism toward confessional theology, many confessional theologians are coming around to the kind of thinking (or at least attitudes) that radical theology champions without radical theology’s help.

  • I would contest that it is without RT’s help. Ever since the Death of God movement and that famous Time Magazine cover in 1966, RT has had an influence on all of us.

I’m kinda annoyed at Tripp’s note that “radical theology reserves the right to ask any question.” OK, fine, but why do they spend so much time asking questions and little to no time attempting to answer them?

  • AH HA! We find the crux of the problem: Constructive Theology attempts to answer the questions. That is not what RT is up to! You are asking a Bulldozer to be a Comero. Look … it’s just never going to do that. I don’t know what else to say … those are unrealistic expectations.

I love Peter Rollins, and many of his writings have impacted me, but listening to Tripp interview him is one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever heard.  I feel like Caputo makes more attempts to answer questions posed to him, but does so almost in a way as to say, “There is no question.”

  • Good one! Yes, Pete does not like to answer’s Tripp’s brand of questions (and for good reason). Whereas Caputo just says “that’s not a real question”. Caputo is a living legend. He gets to decide what questions to answer and which not to. Rollins is a friend of the podcast and has to make himself available and be somewhat approachable for the interrogation that Tripp puts him under. No other author subjects themselves to that level of vulnerability. So while it can be infuriating … it is only because Pete agrees to a level of hand-to-hand combat that almost no one else would even dream of. Most authors would not even consider letting Tripp ask them real questions.

One thing I don’t get is how subbing metaphysics for theo-poetics actually helps radical thinking.  When I was reading the Weakness of God, Caputo seemed to make the claim that, by doing away with metaphysics, he was solving the problem.  It sound more like avoiding the question to me (see point above). If we’re going to affirm an event, but otherwise not talk about it except with poetic language that has little concrete meaning (thinking about what Tony Jones said at the Cornhole match), why should I believe there’s an event to begin with?

  • THIS is a great point!!! And …. if this had been your only point …. we could have done an entire post on this subject alone!
  • You let me know if you want to chase this rabbit down the hole because … I love this subject. (By love … I mean that it is all I think about every day of the week that ends in a ‘Y’)

Oddly enough, looking back over what I just wrote, maybe I get it better than I thought.

  • That makes sense.

I really like some of the things posed and pushed for by radical theology,

  • For sure! It is a much needed critique.

but I feel like if I look deeper into it, I’m left very wanting.

  • That may be rectified by accepting the nature of the project.

Also, like Micky was saying, I feel like I need to wear a dunce cap while I’m reading it sometimes.  It’s articulation is way, way over my head.

  • Fair enough. Admittedly, RT is not for everyone. Of the 50,000 IP addresses that downloaded from HBC in the past months, 146 were even interested enough to sign up for High Gravity. It is a niche market. 

Everyone feel free to chime in with your thoughts and concerns. All we ask is that you please let us know if you are in a PhD program in Chicago.