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Radical Theology, The Tooth Fairy, and Doubting Thomas

April 9, 2013

I just returned from the astoundingly great conference Subverting the Norm 2, where I was honored to present a paper The Impossibility of Grief: Listening to and Learning from Loss  (I’m hoping the paper will be selected for publication, so I won’t be sharing it here).  But even better than the chance to present was the opportunity to hear from some truly incredible people on the cutting edge of theological practice in our time, folks like John Caputo, Kester Brewin, Namsoon Kang, Pete Rollins, Katharine Moody, Micki Pulleyking, and Barry Taylor.  They are a part of a longstanding movement that is– at least to my understanding– beginning to define itself more clearly under the umbrella of ‘Radical Theology’.  And somewhere between the preparation of my paper, my reading in recent weeks (Rollins, Brewin, and the forthcoming Caputo), and the many wonderful talks I heard, I felt myself moving forward in understanding some of the large moves which this theological project is undertaking.

The constant question that these theologians both ask and sustain is this:  “Is there a God?”.  This movement can seem to be headed toward atheism, and so this is a reasonable question.  The resistance that such questions get from these thinkers is also evident, which raises the level of suspicion even further.  It seems like their avoidance of offering a direct answer to such a fundamental question is evidence that they are in fact atheistic theologians (however contradictory that term might seem).

But what I’m starting to see is the reason for this resistance, and how instructive it is.  Radical Theologians resist the question of ‘Is there a God?’, because they consider that the wrong question.  A better question is, ‘What results from our belief or disbelief in God?’.  It is common to hear the assertion that ‘If there is no God, then anything is permissible’.  But as Kester Brewin points out in his amazing new book After Magic, the opposite is all too often true:  with God on our side, human beings are especially capable of some exceedingly violent, inhumane, and ungodly behavior, and most pointedly in the name of their god.  Brewin notes Dostoyevsky’s assertion ‘if God does not exist, everything becomes permissible,’ but points out that that all too often, ‘With God, everything is justifiable’.

So we see in this school of Radical Theology the trenchant observation that while our doubts can be dangerous, our faith can be even more dangerous.  Pete Rollins goes so far as to say, “To belief is human; to doubt, divine”.  We can become so busy guarding against our doubts in God’s existence that we miss the greater danger:  the ways in which our belief in God’s existence is making us much, much worse.  This human tendency toward belief in God, it turns out, can be deadly.

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One of the treats waiting for me when I returned from the conference was a ringside seat for the final removal of a baby tooth from our six-year-old daughter. She is just realizing the depth of my tooth phobia, so she saved the experience for my return, then relished my discomfort as she tugged it free of the last bit of flesh and dabbed up the blood.  I needed to lay down, to be honest.  But once the tooth was tucked into its envelope, it was left to me to play the part of the Tooth Fairy.

Now understand, please, that said child has long ago cracked the code of the holy trinity of childhood:  the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny.  In a kind of epiphany one summer, she spoke from her car seat in a knowing tone (and right in front of her little sisters!), “Dad, is Santa Claus real?”  My answers about the historicity of St. Nicholas were not satisfying, and so we made an appointment to ‘talk about this later’.  Which was all the signal she needed to know that she had lost her own innocence.  I’ll never forget her smile beaming at me from the rear-view mirror:  a mix of joy and sadness.

So it was a bit surprising that she went through the regular rituals of the Tooth Fairy on Saturday night:  texting said fairy, tucking the tooth into an envelope, and writing a note of explanation and inquiry about the magical arts of tooth fairying.  Clearly, there is a part of her that wants to believe, even when she clearly does not.  And the next morning, as she reviewed the responses and the coin she got from the Tooth Fairy, she leaned in to whisper questions about how I had engineered the whole exchange.  She is enacting the belief (for whatever reasons she has), willfully ignoring her better judgement.  She is suspending her disbelief in order to manufacture an experience she desires.  She is enacting her own (lost) innocence.

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I thought about this, too, in terms of the Gospel Lectionary text from yesterday, the account of Thomas’s encounter with the risen Christ.  We often look down on Thomas for his doubt, feeling oh-so smug about our own faith, even in the absence of any physical evidence in our experience.  But Thomas might be a healthy critique of our tendency (not toward doubt, but even more importantly) toward faith.  We believe in spite of ourselves and our good judgement, we hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe, and that can be a detrimental thing if it reinforces our own bad behaviors.  Thomas should be credited with taking the time to figure out just what had happened before he started on his new life.  To chart a path toward a crusade of love, rather than a crusade.  He embraced his disbelief, rather than ignoring it, and in so doing headed a potentially fatal case of zealotry off at the pass. He needed to be as sure as he could be, and that is admirable, not foolish.
I have several friends who have followed a path somewhat similar to this project of Radical Theology, and the results have been surprising (at least to me, I’m embarrassed to admit).  My presuppositions had me worried that they would become increasingly amoral, but the opposite has been the case:  without the superstructure of belief in an otherworldly God who would somehow eventually overcome their weaknesses and failings, they have fully embraced their own lives and moral choices, to great effect.  Leaving a lot of us who hold to much more orthodox belief more than a little envious of their newfound depths of kindness, grace, and love.  By moving away from ‘God’, they have become much more like Christ.

Which is a pretty radical move indeed.

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6 Responses to “Radical Theology, The Tooth Fairy, and Doubting Thomas”

  1. Elizabeth Weaver says:

    Incredible piece Mike.

  2. Matt Gallion says:

    Dude–

    Love it. It was SOOO good to see you again. Let’s not wait years before that happens again.

  3. Karen Vrom says:

    A rose by any other name…

    I think the point is — I hate to use “Christianese” for this, but here goes — a personal relationship with the living God. You can’t just blindly follow orders from someone; I did that with my parents for years, and that was definitely not a relationship. I understand many horrible things have been done in the name of Christ, but I do get concerned that the pendulum has swung the other way, towards unbelief. Which is NOT the same as doubt. I firmly think that doubt is necessary for faith, and may in fact be two sides of the same coin. In fact a sermon on doubt strengthened my budding faith many years ago.

    Is belief subject to abuse by humans who have managed to abuse every concept and technology? Absolutely. Does that mean we should turn our back on God? I don’t think so.

    I love the example of Ella, and agree we should NOT be exchanging our judgment for belief. To the contrary: I hunger for honest, doubt-filled examinations of our faith.

  4. Jake Bouma says:

    Thanks for this piece, Mike. It was especially helpful for calcifying my own thoughts on StN.

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