What is a theological concept? Part 1: Introduction

In this new series of posts I want to ask a question that is simple enough to pose: “what is a theological concept?” The question comes out of lines of inquiry I opened up in Difficult Atheism but wasn’t able to bring to a conclusion, as well as from reflections I have been pursuing since its publication.

As I set out on this series, I understand the question “what is a theological concept” to comprise four main areas of inquiry:

  • When a given philosopher employs a term from the lexical field of theology (say “miracle” in Badiou’s work), how are we to decide whether his use of the term is theological or not? The etymology would suggest that it is; the context of Badiou’s philosophy would suggest that it isn’t. What other factors should be taken into account, in addition to etymology and context? What systematic methodology that we can bring to such instances, one that would take into account all (or nearly all) possible cases rather than approaching each case of suspected theology in a haphazard way or with bespoke criteria intended to ensure a predetermined response?
  • What is it that makes a particular term, or a particular gesture or intuition, a ‘theological’ one?
  • What is ‘theology’ anyway, for the purposes of this question? How is it to be defined and understood, such that a given concept can be qualified as ‘theological’?
  • If a given concept arose within a religious or theological context, on what basis do we assume it to be a ‘theological’ concept? Take ‘miracle’ again, for example, or creation ex nihilo. What makes those notions theological? Is it always about an appeal to an instance of transcendence? What are the exceptions to that rather sweeping rule (i.e. transcendence that is not theological, and theology that is not transcendent)? Do religion and theology hold the copyright on everything they invent?

This series of posts will introduce a set of distinctions that can help us to respond to questions like these in what I hope will be a sophisticated way: distinctions between the ‘provenance’, ‘structure’, ‘content’ and ‘gesture’ of a philosophical concept, and between ‘aping’, ‘imitating’ and ‘following’ religion. We will have to consider to what extent (Protestant Christian) theology is itself secular or secularising, and to what extent the ‘secular’ is a product of, and indebted to, this particular theological heritage.

As this series grows, you can read all the posts on one page here.

There will be further important questions to consider along the way, such as the difference between ‘religious’ and ‘theological’ concepts, and whether by ‘religious’ we really just mean Christian, and whether by Christian we really just mean Protestant. To what extent does Western modernity have theological origins? To what extent do any such origins make modernity itself theological? What implications does this have for modern Western philosophy? I also want to address head-on a question so often conspicuously absent from considerations of the relationship between philosophy and theology: so what? If a religious concept does appear in an ostensibly a-theological or atheistic system, what should we conclude, beyond the predictable trumpet-blowing and cries of ‘gotcha’ on both sides? What is at stake if a secular philosopher draws on theological capital?

My aim, as I embark on this investigation, is to take as little as I can for granted. Perhaps no concepts at all are inherently ‘theological’. Perhaps philosophy per se, regardless of its content, is ‘theological’. Perhaps theology itself is not ‘theological’.

This series is not about beating the theological and philosophical bounds, about saying what ‘belongs to’ religion and what ‘belongs to’ philosophy. Indeed, that territorialising approach is one of the paradigms that I intend to question in future posts.

The conversation I aim to initiate will primarily take place among modern and contemporary French thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, Quentin Meillassoux and others. I will draw on theologians and historians of ideas where necessary, and the conclusions I draw and frameworks I establish will, I hope, be of use beyond the contexts in which they are forged.

I have already broached questions like these in a piecemeal way in the past, and in a somewhat more systematic manner in Difficult Atheism. In the second post in this series I will begin summarising my reflections to date, before filling in the gaps and taking the investigation in new directions.

CC Image courtesy of Lloyd Morgan on Flickr.

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