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Theology Against Religion

Greggs, Tom. Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth (New York, T&T Clark, 2011), xiv+242. $39.95.

Reviewed by Brandy Daniels (September 30, 2015)



In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, religion became a hot topic for critical inquiry, a turn engendered by (at least) three trends: (1) the academic work theorizing religion and ritual that began, at least most notably, with Durkheim and took root through the works of J.Z. Smith, Eliade, and Bell (amongst others), (2) poststructuralist insights on the socially constructed nature of knowledge and the inextricable bind between knowledge-power, and (3) the historical, socio-political role religion played, both overtly and not, in undergirding and justifying the antisemitic, colonialist, and racist violence of the modern, “Enlightened” West. Scholars like Talal Asad (Genealogies of Religion, Formation of the Secular), Tomoko Masuzawa (The Invention of World Religions), and Gil Anidjar (Semites), closely traced the formation of religion and its racializing, hegemonizing logic. In theological studies, scholars began to discern similar critiques of religion from within, many turning to 20th century neo-orthodox theology as a key resource. A diverse range of scholars from Charles Mathewes and Jefferey Stout to Oliver O’Donovan and John Milbank to J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings have turned to Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to varying degrees (and varying ends) for a kind of post-religious theology, not only to further elucidate the devastating effects of religion as ideology via Barth and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of the way liberal theology aligned with and supported the Third Reich, but to gesture towards alternate approaches via the constructive insights of the beloved 20th century German theologians.

In Theology after Religion, Tom Greggs offers one of the most recent contributions to this trajectory in theological scholarship—of, as he puts it “theologizing secular critiques of religion”—exploring its potentialities for a theology that offers “a simultaneously more faithful and more positive engagement of a post-Christendom world, marked by secular and pluralist forces” (10). Greggs sees within this anti-religious theology resources for a faithful Christian account of and response to secularism and religious pluralism that avoids both the universalizing, hegemonizing accounts of religion, on the one hand, and the fundamentalist accounts of Christianity on the other. Using Barth and Bonhoeffer, he proposes a constructive theological account of religious pluralism where “the integrity of the particular religionist is maintained, but there are new potentials for openness to the world” (10).

Gregg’s argument unfolds in three parts, beginning in part one with a survey of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s respective critiques of religion, carefully tracing and highlighting their similarities. I suppose that this may be a section of the text that is of great interest, and perhaps some debate, amongst those immersed in Barthian or Bonhoefferian studies. While I find a great deal of theological riches in both Barth and Bonhoeffer, and engage with them to differing degrees in my own work, the research that I do is pretty far outside the purview of Barthian or Bonhoefferian studies—I use Barth and Bonhoeffer rather then study them. That being said, all I will say—all that I feel I can say—about the first part of the book is that Greggs offers a close, careful survey of the primary source material’s treatment of religion as a category and construct. From that close reading, Greggs offers a list of ten motifs of a theology that takes of the critique of religion seriously, which serves as a kind of transition to part two, where he explores doctrine after Christendom. Here, Greggs uses the Bonhoefferian-Barthian grounded account of a theology against religion to propose faithful, open accounts of two doctrines that have often been wielded against interreligious dialogue and pluralism: soteriology and ecclesiology. Continuing to draw closely on Bonhoeffer and Barth, Greggs proposes a “universal salvation as a non-personalized version of salvation,” suggesting that this account doesn’t foreclose genuine interreligious dialogue while at the same time upholding the centrality of Jesus as victor (103). This approach is non-personalized in that it shift from an individualist, anthropocentric focus to an emphasis on God and God’s reconciling and redeeming work i the world, or as Greggs puts it, “away from self-interested religious presentations of salvation and back to a truly theological focus, appropriate to the God to whom salvation belongs”;this turn in focus on God’s redemptive, reconciling work also marks its universal impact —“God’s condescending, patient, free, overflowing grace” redemptive for all (104).

Greggs then shifts to propose a post-Christendom ecclesiology. Building on Bonhoeffer’s question of “what does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world?,” Greggs tacks on added cultural conditions, asking what it means “in a simultaneously de-Christianized and religiously pluralist society” (124, LPP p364). Greggs finds a resource here in Barth’s pneumatology, suggesting an ecclesiology of the spirit that is both dynamic and actualistic, which precludes an ecclesial essentialism and “allows for a greater openness to the idea that God is present outside the walls and confines of the church” (130). This chapter on ecclesiology was, for this particular reviewer, one of the most theological rich and relevant sections of the book, but was also the section that raised the most questions. Given that theologians like Sarah Coakley and Eugene Rogers have recently called our attention to the absence of pneumatological reflection in modern and contemporary theology and the potentialities in it, Greggs’ turn to the Spirit as an ecclesiological resource struck me as particularly insightful. Interestingly, in light of the ecclesiology of the spirit he calls for, Greggs turns to critique two contemporary “postmodern” church movements, the Emergent Church movement and the Fresh Expression of Church group. “Though these movements work ‘to relate social and cultural movements in society more broadly to modes of being church,’” Greggs explains, “these groups have nevertheless worked within a framework of asking how best to be church rather than seeking primarily to identify the operative and dynamic work of the Holy Spirit” (131). In this way, he suggests, these movements are no different from other “essentialist models of church.” A pnematological ecclesiology, for Greggs, then is a community of intensity and activism (135), a community within the world (136), and a community within the world (141). I found Gregg’s descriptors, and his critiques, compelling, but also found myself longing for more analysis here. What is it that has limited ecclesiological forms on these counts? Is it simply the lack of a robust pneumatology, or are there other factors at play that pneumatology offers insights for? Does this demand a eschewal of denominations altogether? What might it look like to actually take these pneumatological ecclesial markers seriously in our culture and the congregations that are a part of it?

In terms of that last question, Greggs does turn to this matter of, for lack of better words, application, in the third and final part of the text. Before doing so, however, he concludes his section on doctrine by turning to what a theology of religionlessness might offer to reflections on secularism and the role of religion in the public square. Here is where Greggs most explicitly offers the fruits of a theological critique of religion. “Put crudely,” he prefaces, “simply accepting the critique of religion (as espoused by the likes of Feuerbach and his intellectual heirs, Nietzsche and Marx) leads to an intolerant atheism; refusing to accept the critique of religion leads to fundamentalism…Engaging theologically with the critique of religion,” however, “offers the capacity to engage critically and formatively from within” (152). Proceeding to argue how this is so, Greggs turns to accounts of the relation between religion and the secular by Charles Mathewes and Jeffrey Stout. Turning to the latter in particular (by using, in part, the work of the former), Greggs seeks to ground his argument for his account of a theology against religion by arguing that Stout’s turn to democracy as a norm indicates “a failed recognition of the importance of particularity” (156). Challenging Stout’s reading of Barth’s “commedable commitment to democracy,” Gregg’s reasserts the possibilities and importance of a theology against religion for engaging in a pluralist, secular society (155, n39).

In the final section of Theology Against Religions, Greggs concludes with three chapters that seek in different ways to engage with questions of pluralism. Chapter 8 serves as a kind of summary and transition from the doctrine section, where Greggs summarizes what his theology offers. “Freed from reflecting on continuities and discontinuities,” he explains, “a theology of religions framed by a theology against religion disallows any violence towards the otherness of the other, who can all too often be read as oneself or described in one’s own terms” (180). He reminds his readers here of the pneumatological emphasis of his approach, calling for a recognition of the Spirit’s “multiple densities” and also adding an additional doctrinal frame, calling for us to realize that eschatology is not fully realized (185, 194). From there, he moves in chapter 9 “from theory to practice,” turning to interreligious dialogue and the practice of “Scriptural Reasoning” as a resource for a non-religious theological task that honors particularity and plurality (196ff). The text concludes with brief, broad rejoinders—a coda, as he puts it—on the importance of mystery and hope in and with this religionless theology and the pluralistic, secular culture it speaks to and alongside of.

Herein lies my biggest critique of Theology Against Religion: that the text tries to do too much, and in that, ends up not offering enough. By this I mean, Greggs offers a compelling call for interreligious dialogue grounded in a close reading of Barth and Bonhoeffer on religion and framed by a re-articulation of some key doctrines, but then only offers one practice, and a rather brief examination of it, as a resource. I recognize that this example was precisely that, an example, offering a concrete example of what this kind of theology might look like and gesturing towards other possibilities and applications. Nevertheless, I found myself wanting a more sustained engagement with Scriptural Reasoning (or any other example Greggs might have offered) in order to be more convinced not so much of its particular usefulness but of the broader viability and coherency of the theology Greggs calls for and its effects. This was the same sort of question I had with Gregg’s ecclesiological critique of the Emergent Church movement: a desire for a deeper probing of the issues at play in the critiques, and the issues at stake that his own approach more adequately addresses. The shallowness of these engagements with practices and their effects was particularly frustrating given Gregg’s close reading of Bonhoeffer and Barth on religion in the beginning, but understandable given the broad scope of his argument. I could not help but wonder if I would have found Theology After Religion all the more gratifying if it honed in on just one of the three doctrinal loci he addresses, giving the doctrine, and the practical and cultural impact of its reimagination, the same kind of careful, deep reading? In spite of my critiques of Gregg’s text, I found in it a compelling theological call for, and construction of , a theology against religion in and for our increasingly plural, secular culture. The value and significance of what Greggs offers is precisely why I wanted more from it, to better understand not just what this religionless theology might offer us, but what it might look like to embrace and embody it.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.