Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Bleak Theology 101: theology, Theology™, and the theological


When I started this blog, I had no idea how it would be received. I just wanted to express my frustrations about, well, God and God-ish things. And I’ve been surprised that in sharing my frustrations, readers have shared my frustrations with others. So, thank you, readers, you very diverse lot. Misery does love company.

But for all my writing about bleak theology, I don’t think I’ve ever just written down my thoughts and ideas about theology, Theology™, and the theological. [BTW, I like using the trademark symbol (™) when I’m expressing something as an ideology or stereotype. It’s a nice way to signify loaded terms.] So, let me describe some basic groundwork – groundwork required for bleak theology’s setup, its non-foundational foundation.

Theology, the dialectical* demarcation of topics pertaining to the divine,  is ultimately relational, not only in how we encounter the subject of the divine, but how we encounter each other in relation to the subject of the divine. The objective understanding of theology is always in light of our subjective encounter. This does not mean that truth is ultimately relative. It means that theologically, truth is ultimately relational. It is relational because theological truth is about the human in relation to what is significantly non-human that we’ll conveniently and traditionally call “God.” And in Christianity, that “God” is understood through the identities, teachings, and actions of one Jesus of Nazareth, sometimes called the messiah or Christ, as most often described in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament. That’s what we’re working with.

When theology is dialectical, everyone has the opportunity to participate and risk encounter. This means that everyone has a seat at the table to be and act theological. One can act and be theological without believing in an “orthodox” theology – and what is orthodox, anyway? Atheology offers an important dialectical identity and role for theology. This dialectic is a/theology, an integral dialectic. Self-described atheists and agnostics are included not in a way to deceptively convert or tolerate them, but for their honest and contributive engagement in this project. Some of the best theologians are atheists. Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell are my personal favorites.

Along with the theologies we like, there will be plenty of unappealing theologies. They may be militant or discriminatory or exploitative. But theology must continue to be open. It must simultaneously listen and speak truth to power. When theology stops listening and only speaks, it calcifies into dogma and that’s when the trouble really begins. Dogma squelches dissent, even if that dissent is simply a question, creating ideologies. The encounter of dogma is Theology™, the ideology that oppresses a certain kind of flourishing. And many people who hate anything to do with God, often because they have been excluded or marginalized or oppressed, have encountered Theology™.

Thus, theology is inherently participative. Like any discipline or game, which are inherently participative to flourish, it has its basic rules to be obeyed, broken, and/or bent. Its own rules are constantly under scrutiny in light of both its own and non-theological circumstances. But it always in motion.

Because theology is participative, the theological is the personal, meaning that for all of the attempted mapping and systematizing of who and how God is/n’t or may or will (not) be, it’s all still how each of us individually and corporately encounter the subject of the divine. And even if we are atheists (and we always sometimes are) we’re atheists against the understandings of God we’ve encountered (John Caputo says more on this).

And here we find ourselves at our idiosyncratic starting points for our theologies. I’ve said little about God or Jesus or the Bible or the Church or salvation or grace or sin or forgiveness or love or blah blah blah blah. And this is because before we can talk about any of that, we need to create, indicate, and describe a world within which and about which that all has some kind of meaning – even if that meaning is no meaning at all.

But why theology and not religion? What about religion, Religion™, and the religious? Good question. Religion is the category within which theology is understood. Religion is the category. Theology is a certain kind of encounter – a dialectical one – within the category, the framework of religion.

So, when people say the utmost boring, trite, and cliché self-descriptor, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” that means nothing, or when so many writers set up “religion” as a straw man against which they reveal their own special and authentic truth, it is ultimately unhelpful, because we cannot escape religion, per se. It’s the category in which we are working. So theology is not in opposition to religion and neither is the nebulously-defined “spirituality.” We’re just so freaked out about the category of religion that out of resistance and self-preservation we toss the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, we desire something more accessible, malleable, and controllable. And that is theology. Our personal, relational, subjective theological discourse is our ownership and power to talk about God, even if we don’t believe in God.

The problem is that there is a demographic that claims exclusive ownership to this access because of various criteria. This group consists of those who appear more fervent and devout, as if their zealotry gives them valid authority, when really, this authority is dogma. And there are plenty of theologies that react against these dogmas. Some are so-called “liberation” theologies. Some are not.

Bleak theology is not a liberation theology, though I’m sure somewhere it incorporates certain aspects. But bleak theology is a theology of resistance, because lamentation is a form of protest, because it dares to ask “Why?” and “How?” And lamentation is a kind of desire for discourse, even when there is nothing to be heard. Lamentation speaks truth to power after power has thoroughly had its way. Bleak theology is dialectical in its desire for discourse. It hopes for hope. But more on that later.

Theology works within the category of religion for meaningful encounter and the intention of describing that encounter. That encounter is about God and/or, described in negative theological terms, not-God. But this is theology: the description of a certain kind of encounter. And if we can tentatively agree that this is the shape we’ve traced with our finger or a stick or our heart or our imagination or a pencil or our words in the sand, dust, snow, river, or air, then we can begin to hope to understand one another in interesting ways – ways that work very differently in other kinds of categories and relations. Such is theology.

Drawing 1961 Drawing on paper 686 x 997 mm Tate
Lee Bontecou
Drawing 1961
Drawing on paper
686 x 997 mm

*Originally, I had used “dialogue,” but upon further reflection, “dialectic” is the better concept here.

About the author

By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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