Theology for the End of the World by Marika Rose: Book Review

Dr Marika Rose is a senior lecturer of philosophy, religion, and the liberal arts at the University of Winchester. This blog is a review of Marika’s newest book, Theology for the End of the World. The book is an invitation to honesty, honesty about who we are, what has influenced us, the institutions we participate in, and how we use God in our lives. If we choose to accept this invitation, we will find no escape from the need for analysing our own complicity in harmful and oppressive systems and actions. This is especially true if we find that we are trying to justify ourselves with notions that we are progressive or are fighting for liberation simply by virtue of opposing the narratives of conservative Christianity or by using the language of freedom and equality. 

In the 19th century the German philosopher Georg Hegel presented his idea of a dialectical form of argument. This type of argument focuses on the ways in which opposing sides engage with one another and is usually presented in three stages of development. First, a thesis which produces the second stage, known as the antithesis, the rejection of the original thesis, and finally the synthesis which resolves the tension between the two. In many ways Marika’s book is dialectical, it presents the thesis of traditional Christianity and the antithesis offered by progressive interpretations of Christianity. Yet rather than trying to offer a synthesis of the two, where a thoroughly Christian vision embraces liberation, equality, and the critique of oppressive hierarchies, it instead offers a synthesis which asks us to acknowledge the ways in which both the thesis and antithesis of Christianity have and continue to cause harm. 

Marika opens the first chapter by stating that “Christianity has a very long history, and a lot of it is terrible. It’s tempting to deal with this history by disavowing it, by suggesting that real Christians wouldn’t do the kinds of things that actually existing Christians have done”. The following chapters deal with various concepts which are central to actually existing Christianity and the ways in which those concepts have been used to perpetuate harm and produce systems of oppression. Whether this is in relation to patriarchal family structures, racism, capitalism, or colonialism, Marika successfully problematises both traditional interpretations of Christian theology, history, and scripture, as well as supposedly subversive and progressive interpretations and actions. 

One very powerful example of this is found in Chapter 6, titled Mammon. Marika retells the story of Justin Welby’s “war on Wonga”, a payday lending company, and the campaign Jubilee 2000, a Christian campaign for the cancelling of debt at the start of the new millennium. Although both could be viewed as attempts of Christians to right the wrongs of inequality and poverty which capitalism produces, they ended up working to perpetuate capitalism. For example, Welby’s problem was not our economic system built upon debt but rather “the wrong kind of debt: unfair debt”. Similarly, although the cancellation of debt which Jubilee 2000 campaigned for would make a real difference to the lives of individuals and countries, it failed to disrupt the relationship between creditor and debtor. Marika’s book does not only highlight the ways in which Christianity acts to legitimise and perpetuate systems of oppression such as capitalism and racism but also its complicity in creating these very systems. 

Theology for the End of the World offers an apocalyptic theology which calls us to reject the world as it is, reject God as a tool to be used for gradual progression in society, and reject romanticised depictions of an essentially ‘good’ Christianity. This rejection is not rooted in atheism or in abandoning Christianity, instead it is based on a call to abolish the world as it is, along with its hierarchies of power and oppression. In a very orthodox way Marika reminds us that we are invited to experience creation and God as existing for joy instead of as tools to be used for our own purposes. At this point I think of the opening words of the Westminster shorter catechism, that humanity’s chief end is to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever”. However, the book goes beyond a simple proclamation of joy in God and in creation as the antidote to Christianity’s various ailments. 

Marika argues for an “abolitionist theology”, recognising that an immediate abolition of the various systems of oppression we encounter in the world does not necessarily produce an end to the oppression itself. For example, with the abolition of slavery in America, racism simply mutated into new structures of violence such as the Jim Crow laws. Marika draws on the ideas of the abolitionist organiser Mariame Kaba and “the idea that what we should be aiming for is not the immediate overthrow of everything, but instead ‘non-reformist reforms’, small changes that function not to shore up the power of the world but to undermine and diminish it”.  This type of being in the world, this way of being Christian which Marika presents, requires a deep and meaningful honesty which is almost existentialist in its tone. 

After reading the book I am left with several questions. How do we undermine the world as it is without further perpetuating harm and upholding systems of oppression? What does this abolitionist theology look like in practice? Where are we to go from here? Marika does not offer an answer to these questions, nor does she aim to. Rather the book is a call to seek to answer these questions with the type of honesty which acknowledges the ways in which our radical politics, our progressive Christianity, and our best attempts at bringing about liberation can further perpetuate harm and uphold the very systems we seek to dismantle. In a way it is a book of spirituality and confession, it does not offer a solution to Christianity’s problems but asks that we participate in the ancient Christian practice of confessing our complicity in the sins of the world, while we simultaneously continue to participate in bringing about the community of God and the liberation and joy which we hope could come with it. It truly is a theology for the end of the world as we know it. 

Theology for the End of the World is available to purchase from SCM Press