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.