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Looking To The Past: The Backward Movement of Radicals and Conservatives

September 09, 2011


A few days ago Kester Brewin posted an insightful post called ‘The year of opposition’ (can’t link to it as I am writing this on some ipad software). In this post there was brief reference to the words ‘Radical’ and ‘Conservative’ which sparked off some debate. He then followed this up with some provisional reflections on what these words might mean.

Because of the confusion around these terms I thought I would reflect briefly on what I see as the difference. As I do this I wish to make an initial observation. When one is within a field of debate ones definition of sides will reflect the stand one has taken. So while I will attempt to offer as precise a definition of Radical and Conservative as I can in a small post, I am making a case for one over the other.

I would suggest that both the words ‘Radical’ and ‘Conservative’ as used in theology refer to a relationship with the past. In this sense they both move forward by looking back. What is at stake in their difference is the way that they relate to this past. This relation to the past is hinted at in the very etymologically of the words, as ‘Radical’ means to return to the roots and ‘Conservative’ refers to a form of conservation of what has been inherited.

In order to understand the different ways they relate to the past we need to introduce a classical philosophical distinction between potentiality and actuality, a distinction first introduced by Aristotle. Basically potentiality refers to the range of possibilities that something has (e.g. it is possible, though highly unlikely, that I could become a dancer) while actuality refers to the realising of possibility (e.g. if I were to become a dancer). One of the first things we can say in light of this distinction is that all actuality (things that have actually happened) were once potentialities. If they were not then they could never have happened. Traditionally then it has been thought that actuality is the realisation (and thus the end of) potentiality.

In light of this we could say that theological conservatives seek to protect, promote and re-articulate an actuality that they see as true, good and beautiful in the Christian tradition. In short they seek to conserve something that has actually taken place.

The opposite position to this one could be described as a kind of theological new wave that seeks to leave behind what has gone before and chart an utterly new course. Turning from what is actual and striving to build a new frame.

In contrast to both of these I would argue that the theological Radical neither affirms what is actual in the concretely existing church, nor turns away from it. Instead they embody a totally different relation to the Potentiality/Actuality relationship.

Instead of seeing actuality as the end of potentiality the theological radical, echoing Kierkegaard and others, sees a potentiality bubbling up within the actuality of the historical church. The theological radical is one who believes that there is an explosive potentiality buried within this history that ought to be realised.

Instead of turning from concretely existing Christianity, or defending it with apologetics, they are committed to delving into the actuality in order to find some as yet unrealised possibility. Something that Kierkegaard called repetition.

Thus both the radical and the conservative are interested in the past, but in different ways. One thinks that the past must continue to be brought into the present while the other thinks the past is a womb from which an utterly new event can arise (which was one of the founding claims made by Radical Theology as a movement).

This enables us to claim that the Conservative seeks to return to the early church while the radical seeks to return to the event that gave birth to the early church.

17 Responses to Looking To The Past: The Backward Movement of Radicals and Conservatives

  1. KB says:

    iPads, eh?! The link to the ‘Year of Opposition’ piece is here and the one on Radical / Conservative here.

    Great post – I think the 2nd last paragraph nails it perfectly.

  2. Susan Joseph Rack says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and cogent clarification of the relationship of Radicals and Conservatives to the past. It excites me anew to call myself “radical” and helps me to understand my “conservative” in a more helpful way.

  3. Simon Cross says:

    I suppose you might say that the radical is willing for any part of the plant above the ground to be cut back so that a new one can grow from the root. Wheras the conservative would rather prune the plant in order that what already exists would either become stronger, or fulfill its true potential.

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  5. Richard says:

    Can radical theology exsist within such a strong historical context and paradigm of Christianity as new voices are filtered out (or not seen a valid) by such a strong context. I may have just contradicted my last post on transitology and the need for rooting voices in community and practice as this could be seen as part of the context.

  6. Larry Kamphausen says:

    I find your definition of “Radical” and “Conservative” compelling. Though your last sentence for me doesn’t follow from what you said in the rest of the post without further explanation.
    But I wonder if there is a nuance here and it may have to do with Tradition. Which I think can be understood as something living, i.e. neither past nor passing away to give way to the new.
    I wonder if this conversation (and the need to either conserve or seeking the new in the old) really is more a reflection of a loss of connection and continuity. We have lost a sense of having a living faith that isn’t our possession but something we have entered.
    What we may need to regain perhaps is that the Church is the womb of our being made new. We not Christian faith need to be new. We don’t need to make things new, nor conserve things but be made new.

  7. Holly Stauffer says:

    I like the last sentence!

  8. Eddie Green says:

    I am unconvinced that the Church event and Christ event can be separated in the way you describe Pete, and as Larry says the last sentence seems to be from a different conversation altogether.


  9. sjpoole says:

    Pete, do you think labels are useful? What do they add to the conversation? Looking in on Kester’s blog I observed that the initial question raised of ‘backlash’ was quickly swallowed up in radical and conservative name calling, followed by definitions, read with a wry smile and a roll of the eyes by me. Being a mother and teacher I know that as soon as you label a child they are restricted by the label. eg: SEN( special educational needs), EAL (English as an additional language), dyslexic, dyspraxic, ADHD, Aspergers, Autistic, G&A (gifted and talented), high/middle/low achievers, academic, sporty, educationally subnormal , clever, thick, naughty and stupid are labels spoken in staff rooms, the first examples being euphemisms of the latter politically incorrect. Once a child knows their label it’s very hard for them to move away from it, you limit their potential and they live within the label. I detest being asked, are you Christian, religious, evangelical, charismatic, spiritual, emergent, radical, liberal, conservative. I wish to be non of these as the label restricts me to another’s definition of the word. Rather, judge me not, let me be multi-lingual as I refine and change my beliefs, behaviours and actions.

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  11. Geoff Stevenson says:

    This is interesting, thanks. But I do agree with Larry that the final sentence doesn’t seem to follow on its own. Based on the previous paragraphs, shouldn’t we say that the Conservative seeks to sustain the actual, while the Radical seeks to release the potential of the actual?

  12. Lori says:

    Thanks, Pete, for being willing to put your controversial ideas out there. I don’t know if I’ll ever deserve the title “radical, but my hope is indeed refreshed by thoughts of “all things made new.”

  13. Doug Gay says:

    Since you linked to this from the debate on Kester’s page, Pete – I would simply say that I think the rhetoric here conceals as much as it reveals. @sjpoole it is still doing what Kester’s original post did, which is to save the ‘rad’ label for what is seen as the sexiest position (i.e. my own, we all do it…) So you get all the good verbs, adjectives and metaphors – you are bubbling up, utterly new, new wave, new frame, explosive….[nurse, bring the smelling salts] The rest is defensive, apologetic, conservative, returning to the old… [straw… caricatures come to mind]

    But beneath the vivid brush strokes, it is almost impossible to know what you mean here. Let me try a couple of questions just as a way of trying to know what you are meaning – what do you mean by ‘the event [singular] that gave birth to the early church’, how do you describe your access to ‘the event that gave birth to the early church’ and why do you believe we should still be interested in it at all? Why would the ‘utterly’ new always be desirable? Which movement do you mean by ‘the Radical Theology’ movement? I’ll stop there and see if you want to engage this. Peace

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  15. I have to feel the sexy label debate could be a bit of a distracting side show. We all attach meanings to what we hear, they can have little to do with what the speaker intended. Someone could call themselves ‘radical’ and mean it as a purely functional description and a hearer could attribute ‘better-than-you’ value to it. Likewise someone could describe themselves as a ‘conservative’ and mean it as a battle cry.

    I would love Pete to answer Doug’s questions (I writes as being pretty much onboard with Pete’s approach) …. and I might add one more ….. the way you have written your post suggests that an ‘event-based’ theology / philosophy is the only radical form of theology – not sure thats what you mean but could you comment?

  16. Simon Cross says:

    Thinking more again about the plant analogy, what happens when (after we’ve gone back to the root) the plant begins to regrow, does the nourishing of that plant become a conservative act? Or is it still the act of the radical?

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