Apocalyptic Utopia: Hope, Resurrection, and the Church that need not survive

In his highly praised and influential study of the notion of apocalyptic in antiquity, Christopher Rowland maintains that “apocalyptic is more than a matter of eschatology.”[1] I want to affirm this, but not in the way in which Rowland intended. It seems to me that apocalyptic is more than how eschatology has typically been thought. Apocalyptic is, as J. Louis Martyn explains, “the birth of a new way of knowing both present and future.”[2] Apocalyptic is an expectancy of God’s action of crucifying this evil age and resurrecting it with the new creation. To think apocalyptic is to think the gospel’s proclamation of God’s power, in Christ, breaking into the present. I propose here, that to think apocalyptic is to necessarily think utopia, and to think these together is not primarily to think at all but to live and work for liberation.[3]

Gustavo Gutiérrez in his groundbreaking work A Theology of Liberation contends that commitment to God’s liberating work in history ––the creation of a just society––is one that lives in abandoned confidence to the future. “This commitment is an act open to whatever comes.”[4] In hopes of living into and working for a new society and a new humanity, Gutiérrez proposes that one must live not in remembrance but in critical analysis of the present in orientation towards the future.[5] A turn to the future is necessarily linked to an urgent and critical questioning of the established order in its “historical contemporaneity” because only those benefiting from the present desire to uphold it.[6] Those being crushed by the ‘historical contemporaneity’ find hope in the future only by way of a subversion of the present.

This shift to the future, this eschatological problem, is, according to Gutiérrez, “a renewal of the theology of hope.”[7] Hope is a political reality; hope is a turn to the future that, as already addressed above, subverts the established order. Hope is an expectation of the future; it is a “not-yet” projected into the future as one works for transformation of the present in expectancy of the future.[8] In other words, to hope is to wait in active expectation of God’s apocalyptic action.

We hope in the promise of resurrection, for the resurrected Christ is humanity’s future. The promise of resurrection is a criticism of all that is because it is an undoing of the present order. This hope in the death and resurrection of Christ as our future is one that must be rooted in historical praxis for it is our “perilous and hopeful present.”[9] To hope is to abandon any grasping of the future, for in hoping one receives the future as a gift. Hope is an active waiting of the future in the present; “true generosity towards the future consists in giving everything to the present.”[10] To hope, to be open to the God who comes in Jesus Christ, is to be liberated from history while utterly immersed in it.

By utopia, I mean to use it in the way in which Gutiérrez has elucidated. The term utopia is used by Gutiérrez to further illuminate what he means by an historical initiative to create a new society and a new humanity. But it is not the concept of utopia that leads peoples to work for liberation, according to Gutiérrez; rather, the utopian vision comes from people who experience the underbelly of history, those who are being crushed by the powers and whose only hope is revolutionary liberation. Utopia “is characterized by its relationship to present historical reality.”[11] Utopia is a movement into future that is “not-yet” but is to be achieved––it is not as a restoration of “lost paradise.”[12] Moreover, it is not merely a reforming of the current and established order; instead, utopia is a complete upheaval and rejection of the prevailing system. In the utopian vision, the present evil age is to be completely struck at its root in movement towards a new future. “…utopia is revolutionary and not reformist.”[13] If utopia does not result in historical, concrete praxis, it is an abstraction of reality, according to Gutiérrez. Utopia is a transformation of what exists by way of an “emergence of a new social consciousness and new relationships among persons.”[14] And it is only the poor who can proclaim such a utopia.

In short, to think apocalyptic is to think of abandoned living to God’s open future irrupting in history. To think of apocalyptic is to think of hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; a hope that subverts the present in its active waiting of a future that is not yet. It is a hope that throws itself on the crucified and resurrected Christ; that is, throws itself on the grace that “crucifies nature in order to bring new life out of nothing.”[15] Finally, to think apocalyptic is to think utopia, that is, the revolutionizing and liberation of history by way of this active hope in the resurrected and crucified Christ.

I want to conclude with some reflection on what it might look like for the Church to be revolutionized by apocalyptic utopia. I have found that even with thinkers like Gutiérrez who propose this radical utopian (and, I argue, apocalyptic) vision, do not often apply such claims to the Church. Often these thinkers desire to “uncenter” the Church as the exclusive place of salvation (this questioning of the ecclesiocentrality of the Church is something very important it seems to me), however, I wonder if it is enough to merely “uncenter” the Church? If the Church is complicit in the oppressive social system, and, even further, helps perpetuate the dominant ideology of the prevailing social system that crushes the poor, is “uncentering” enough? Gutiérrez proposes that to address this problem the Church to cast its lots with the poor for a more just society. However, I question whether a more just society can be created if the institutions that oppress the poor––which the Church is involved in––are not first toppled? Moreover, could it not be that the Church––as complicit in the prevailing social system and dominant ideology–– needs to collapse, too? If Gutiérrez maintains, as he does in regard to the powers that be, that oppression needs to be struck at the root, and if the utopian vision of revolution over reformation were applied to the Church, would the Church really need to survive?

I want to agree with much of what thinkers like Gutiérrez propose in regards to the Church, I affirm that the Church is to turn to the world (I might even say that Church only ever occurs as sent into the world); and I affirm that the Church is to cast its lot with poor. However, what troubles me about thinkers like Gutiérrez is that they are unwilling to denounce the Church as it is complicit in the present structure and the current power it wields. Instead, they take the current location of the Church as given, and rather than question it, they propose that the Church use such power to influence others on behalf of the poor. Can the Church cast its lot with the poor, that is, intermingle its body with the crucified bodies in its midst, without first striking the root of its own power with revolutionary praxis? It seems to me that the Church need not survive. I mean this in two ways. First, it seems to me that the Church, as it is complicit in the present system, needs to collapse like every other oppressive power. Secondly, if the Church does not live for itself, and is to cast its lot with the oppressed, then the Church is to be continually crucified. If the Church abandons its life to God for the world, then the Church, it seems to me, could never survive.

[1] Martinus C. De Doer, “Paul, Theologian of God’s Apcalypse.”

[2] J. Louis Martyn, “Apocalyptic Antinomies in the Letter to the Galatians.”

[3] “The dialectical aspect of the issue requires thought-passion—not to want to understand it but to understand what it means to break in this way with the understanding and thinking and immanence, in order then to lose the last foothold of immanence, the eternity behind, and to exist, situated at the edge of existence, by virtue of the absurd.” Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 569.

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 121.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 122.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 124.

[10] Ibid., 125.

[11] Gutiérrez, 135.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 136.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter Kline, “Queer Theory and Apocalyptic: The Upbuidling That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We Are Always in the Wrong.”

An Altermodern Christianity

Growing up in an evangelical church setting means that I am annoyingly familiar with the paraphrased version of Romans 12:2.  Be in the world, but not of the world.  This paraphrased verse haunts me wherever I go.  How can I come to terms with this paraphrase?  Thinking back to my evangelical up bringing this paraphrase was used to convey the idea that the Christian lives in the world, but does not conform to the practices of the world.  However, this was all reduced to an ultra-conservatism that has little to do with Christianity.  Don’t be secular; only uphold “Christian values.”  Resistance to secularism does not do the church any kind of service, rather it spawns such annoyances as Christian politics, family values, Christian music, Christian Book stores, Christian movies, etc.  Can it be said that any of these exercises of creativity advance the Christian project?  No.  To lay out a critique of the way Christianity attempts to resist the secular I will import several ideas from Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Commonwealth.  Hardt and Negri use the terms modernity, anti-modernity and altermodernity to parse out certain movements against the current hegemony.  The contention here is that the evangelical resistance to secularism is a type of anti-modernity, though, what is needed is a movement of altermodernism, a rupture in the discourse and the negotiations of power.

First, a clarification of terms and how they relate to the problem posed here.  Modernity is a paradigm of thought that has its interests in progress and enlightenment.  Everything that may push back against modernity is labeled as superstitious or backward.  Movements and resistances that work against modernity, but contained within modernity, are anti-modern.  The anti-modern is a resistance that does not seek to overturn current power relations, rather simply change the prevailing hegemony.  Hardt and Negri note that some examples of anti-modern movements are proletarian resistances, slave rebellions, peasant revolts and to a lesser extent Christian movements to create an evangelical and non-secular culture.

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that there is a clear difference between a slave revolt and making cheesy Christian music.  This contention is worth keeping in mind, but the evangelical Christianity has a larger political goal in America that is clearly anti-modern.  Among evangelical Christians, one can see a real resistance to secularism.  In this resistance to secular culture one can find a serious political agenda.  This political agenda is not to topple the dominant paradigm of power, but rather legislate certain cultural values. 

Moving past modern and anti-modern, Hardt and Negri present a third option, altermodernity.  Altermodernity can be understood succinctly through a famous Zapatista slogan, “A world in which many worlds are possible.”  The idea of altermodernity is to not simply resist, but to move from resistance to alternative.  Hardt and Negri explain,

“We intend for the term “altermodernity” instead to indicate a decisive break with modernity and the power relation that defines it since altermodernity in our conception emerges from the traditions of antimodernity – but it also departs from antimodernity since it extends beyond opposition and resistance.”

Altermodernity is a rupture with modernity and anti-modernity because it moves beyond any fixed resistance.  A notion of resistance and anti-modernity is necessary, but one must not get stuck in anti-modernity.

Then, what does this all mean for Christianity?  There is a resistance to modernity to be found in evangelical Christianity, but evangelicalism has become stuck in resistance.  Christianity ought not be so interested in legislating morality or creating a culture of resistance that keeps “Christian values,” rather Christianity needs a rupture with the current modes of power.  When one speaks of the kingdom of God it is something altermodern, it cannot be legislated and it cannot be understood in the current paradigm of power.  Taking Jesus seriously means desiring a world where there are no such things as scarcity and property does not have such a hold over us.  The kingdom of God is altermodern in that it is a rupture with modernity and anti-modernity.  It is a movement that claims that the first are last and that the hungry will be filled with good things.

A Molecular Method of Aggregation: The Church and Molecular Politics

            Speaking of radical movements and Christianity often produces the question, “How does a radical Christian movement work with a larger movement of radical politics?”  Can radical Christians participate in the same movements of rebellion as anarchists or communists?  Generally, this is a question of organization.  A radical Christian politics (as many contributors of this blog have put forth) is not simply a localized movement, but it is rethinking our world in a new light, it is imaging the immanent kingdom of God.  Surely, this is no small task, nor is it only a desire for Christians.  The idea of a new world, the rethinking of economic and political assemblages is the desire of many other individuals with diverse ideological interests.  How do radical Christians fit in to an exercise of subversive politics? 

            Various modes of struggle have been attempted throughout history against capitalism and other regimes of repression.  Leninism, anarchism, etc have all been dominant historical modes of struggle that have ultimately failed.  Currently, there is no centralized mode of struggle.  In America there is a fragmented political left.  What does this mean for those who are anchored by revolutionary politics?  Should there be a re-institution of a centralized politics.  No, a new organization must be sought after.

An ideology that is closed off to other intellectual circuits eventually dies from irrelevance.  One must imagine an organization of power that is decentralized and not dependent on any ideological orthodoxy.  This is where molecular politics begin.  Rather than attempting to unite under a common ideology there can be a space for a multifaceted approach.

“Desire, on a social terrain, refuses to allow itself to be confined to zones of consensus, in the arenas of ideological legitimation. Why ask a feminist movement to come to a doctrinal or programmatic accord with ecological movement groups or with a communitarian experiment by people of color or with a workers’ movement, etc.? Ideology shatters; it only unifies on the level of appearance.” (Negri and Guattari. New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty. Pg. 80)

It seems simple enough to add in a radical Christian movement to the list.  Why ask a movement of radical Christians to come to ideological accord with any other group or vice versa?  Ideological orthodoxy is not required for a movement against capital. 

  Rather than any singular ideological banner, imagine a loose network of molecular political nodes, each releasing a subversive and revolutionary energy.  These molecular political nodes can link together and make a molar political assemblage. 

“…[W]hat is essential is that each movement shows itself to be capable of unleashing irreversible molecular revolutions and of linking itself to either limited or unlimited molar struggles (and only collective analysis and critique can decide which) on the political and syndical terrain of defending the general rights of the national and/or international community.” (Negri and Guattari. New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty. Pg. 80)

The question for radical Christian politics is then the form and the means of struggle it will take against capital as well as the molar linkages it can make.  What would an “irreversible molecular revolution” look like for a molecular radical Christian movement?

            A previous post I contributed cited a possible moment of subversive action in the forgiveness of debts.  Perhaps debt is a starting point, but it is only a starting point.  A radical Christian politics is larger than just easing economic suffering; it is imaging a new world.  A radical Christian politics that imagines new forms of rebellion and upheaval in way of Christ, it is a turning of the world on its head economically and socially.  Only our collaborative imaginations can bring forth a new world.

Drones: Sum Ergo Sum Rectum

Descartes’ famous undeniable aphorism, “I think; therefore I am”, is perhaps the most recognizable artifact of the modern philosophical movement. Furthermore, as a piece of the ideological edifice of modernity, the cogito ergo sum also provides the rationale for the entirety of philosophical projects undertaken by the moderns: the entire world can be understood, controlled, and manipulated via the thoughts of a single man. (Man was used intentionally here.) If Descartes’ saying was perhaps the onset of modernity in earnest, then the last grasp of power by modernity ideologically is the use of drone warfare. Drone warfare, more accurately described as drone executions, follows a logic similar to that of Descartes but with a more sinister tint. Descartes and modernity worked within the boundaries of “fairness” in a sense; modern science and modern philosophy were part of dyadic relationship that attempted to keep each other in check. (It didn’t work in the end, but whatever– at least it was somewhat fair.) There is no such sense of fairness when it comes to using drones to execute targets. Death by drone comes quickly, practically invisibly, and completely unilaterally. For centuries, war has generally carried the risk of physical harm or death even to the most powerful militaries; however, drones completely undo that dyadic relationship of balancing self-harm and desire. To really get a sense of the arbitrariness and unfairness of drones, one should really read the white paper (linked to above) that describes the ‘limits’ to the use of drones on individuals. When drones take to the skies, the only logic functioning is “I am; therefore I am right.” That is to say, since the necessary antipodal foil to the gesturing and functioning of the agent (Drones/Descartes) has been removed, there is no longer a precursor to validity, except for existence.

Drones are quintessentially modern but also morbidly modern; drones strive for two goals of the major ideological systems prevalent in the West today: Modernism and Capitalism. One of the goals of modernity is controlling reality, and the second goal that drones achieve is the fantasy of contemporary capitalism concerning creating reality. Where modern philosophy and ideology usually had a semblance of balance, modernity after capitalism proper attempts to remove these balances in an effort to become creator, i.e. when the system is threatened, the invisible hand of the markets becomes another ideological tool to secure power. Drones do not abide by rules, laws, or judges—what has been done by a drone cannot be undone. Drone warfare is a creative enterprise where the drone itself has ceased to be an agent in reality and has become the ultimate creator, and thus controller, of reality. After losing the conditionality of Descartes’ axiom, the fabric of reality is not something to be controlled; it is something that is created. By creating reality, one no longer must abide by the legitimating clause of the ultimate modern axiom: I think, therefore I am. Instead, to legitimize one’s existence, one must be the creator of reality itself: I am; therefore I am right.

In summation, this late capitalist deviation of modern attempts to understand the world are emblematic of what it means to be postmodern. More than revealing something appalling about society and technocratic warfare, drones reveal a liberating thought by emulating this thought’s opposite, i.e. drones cannot, by definition, be wrong in their judgment. What has been killed by a drone has been killed for real. A drone assumes that what an individual does must be right. This necessity of being right reflects the dire seriousness with which modern fundamentalism (in all of its forms) sees the world as on the precipice of apocalypse. These fundamentalisms say, “Our actions/thoughts/beliefs must be right because the entire world depends on them.” The postmodern sentiment when it comes to being right is that I am not a drone: I am; therefore I am– everything else is an empty space to be filled in. There is no movement embedded in this axiom. Various movements can be attached to it, liberated by it, or critiqued against it, but at the end of the day, the postmodernist can change her ways. When drones dream, they dream of the actual world, not as bizarre, perfect, or desired; drones dream of the world that is, because it is the only world they can possibly see.

One should append to the Cartesian aphorism the temporal duration of what it means to be; when Descartes discovered his indubitable being, he discovered it for eternity. The “I” of modernity does not fall in and out of existence, because it is believed to not be a construction. Descartes’ claim is not just “I think; therefore I am,” he claimed (rendered in ironic Judeo-Christian fashion) “I think; therefore I am what I will be.” The fairness of modernism comes from its insistence on the ability to be wrong and to correct those wrongs. Drones cannot dream of a new world, because identity in the late-Capitalist ideology is cemented by a self-affirming existence; thus, one sees the renewed prevalence of avowed conservatives taking a page from liberal or postmodern movements by saying, “You only think gays should get married because that’s your personal opinion.” For identity after Capitalism is something that is neither a construction nor a practice. Identity after capitalism, in the age of drones, is the uncaused justification for material existence; identity is now the primacy of what it means to live in “bad faith.” Nietzsche speaks here to this sentiment by way of a song from the prelude to The Gay Science:

“Lured by my style and my tendency,

you follow and come after me?

Follow your own self faithfully,

take time– and thus you follow me.”

I hope it’s clear at this point that drones are no longer the central issue. What is at stake in the age of drones is the creation of a paradigm of identity that is morbidly, defectively modern. By following a logic of “I am; therefore I am right,” the process and performance of identity is not recognized as a construction but is, instead, posited as a transcendent Big Other. This Big Other is not a typical manifestation of ideological construction; for the Big Other becomes the self. Existence that is self-adjudicated and necessary is not compatible with the phenomenology of what it is to be a human. It is the existence of a drone.  Only when the individual is in complete control of her fate (when she can say I did/do/will do things wrong!) can identity become an enterprise liberated of this necessary eternity. When drones murder people in faraway lands, it is not only a question of military might or regional stability, but a question of the very ability to have a non-necessitated identity.


White paper link: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf

Double Taps: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/12/20/1171594/-Any-outrage-about-Double-Tap-Drone-Strikes-Killing-Rescuers-and-Children-Any-sympathy

Embracing the guilt of the neighbor

What responsibility do I have to my neighbor?  How am I to act toward them? With love. That is what the Bible tells me. That is what I believe. But I have been struggling through this question a lot in the last few years, lacking the necessary words to convey my thoughts. What must the church, the believer, be in its relation to the other? Even more, how do we, when wronged, love the one who wronged us?

How am I to forgive and love the man who slammed his 60,000 lb. cement truck into our family van, killing two girls under the age of 5 in the car behind us? How am I to be a Christ to the one whose actions drove my mother into alcoholism and caused me to be diagnosed with depression? How am I to love him? I profess Christ.  I have experienced the reality of grace. How do I, how does the church, love the other, especially when they are guilty?

I think this is a live question. It must be the church, the bride of Christ who, in her imperfection, witnesses to the perfection of her Bridegroom. In our brokenness, we love the neighbor because Christ has done the same thing with regard to humanity.

What I want to do in this post is to briefly place Luther and Bonhoeffer along side one another on the place of the neighbor in the life of the Christian. I don’t pretend to be an authority on either thinker or to have fully thought out every possible implication these extended quotations have for this or that particular issue. This post is at once a meditation on the necessity of the neighbor and a challenge to those who read this think through the shape and intensity of your external love toward the other.

In The Freedom of the Christian (1520), Luther writes the following,

“Everyone should ‘put on’ the neighbor and act toward him or her as if we were in the neighbor’s place. The good that flowed from Christ flows into us. Christ has ‘put on’ us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. The good we received from Christ flows from us toward those who have need of it. As a result, I should lay before God my faith and righteousness so that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor. I take these sins upon myself, and labor and serve in them, as if they were my very own. This is exactly what Christ did for us. This is true and sincere love and the rule of a Christian life.” [1]

Divine mercy has been dispensed to the church through faith in the event of Christ. In his assumption of human nature he has taken human reality up in to the divine life. Because of this reality (one that is simultaneously past, present, and future) I am to put on the neighbor. The church as it witnesses to the reality of Christ is the conduit of divine mercy.  The love of God flows through me to my neighbor. Instead of hindering it or quietly seeking to discern whether my neighbor is worthy of love, I love freely, for Christ loved freely. My love for the neighbor means bearing all that the neighbor is in love. For Luther, this meant even taking their sin and treating it as if they were my very own. To bear the other is stand in loving solidarity. The church has tasted the divine, and its witness to the world to come and taste this flowing fountain works itself out in bearing the weight of your neighbor’s very existence.

Like Luther, Bonhoeffer places the ethical action of the human agent squarely within the reality of what Christ has done,

“Jesus does not want to be considered the only perfect one at the expense of human beings, nor, as the only guiltless one, to look down on humanity perishing under its guilt. He does not want some idea of a new human being to triumph over the wreckage of a humanity defeated by its guilt. He does not want to acquit himself of the guilt by which human beings die. A love that would abandon human beings to their guilt would not be a love for real human beings. As one who acts responsibly within the historical existence of human beings, Jesus becomes guilty. It is his love alone, mind you, that leads him to become guilty. Out of his selfless love, out of his sinlessness, Jesus enters into human guilt, taking it upon himself.” [2]

Christ embraced the guilt of the world in assuming humanity. His love was such that he did not value his intrinsic righteousness while the world perished under the weight of sin and guilt. In assuming this alien guilt, Jesus acted responsibly. Our parents teach us that true responsibility is owning up to our obligations. Here, however, responsibility is radically redefined in light of the Christ event. The sin and guilt of all humanity, a byproduct of idolatry, pride, and rebellion, is taken into the divine life in the God-man Jesus Christ. In so doing, a rubric for truly responsible action is supplied to us,

“Because Jesus took the guilt of all human beings upon himself, everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in so doing they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.” [3]

With Christ as my example, when I freely assume my neighbor’s guilt I become guilty. True responsibility means embracing the guilt of the world in love. Indeed, this is the requirement of all those justified by Christ. Those who seek to avoid the guilt associated with putting on the neighbor show themselves to be outside the bounds of the justified sphere in which Christ has acted. It is only in this engagement with the world that I found myself fully in the scope of God’s redeeming purposes, for in doing so I mirror Christ.

* Author’s Note – For a thorough treatment of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of accepting guilt, see Christine Schliesser’s Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Accepting Guilt

[1] Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed, 423
[2] Ethics, 275
[3] Ibid., 275-76

A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. We haven’t touched the Old Testament at all. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?

Becoming-Wasp, Becoming-Orchid

Some of the most foundational thinkers in political philosophy, Rousseau, Hobbes, etc, start the discussion of the genesis of the collective social body with certain conceptions of human nature.  All who have taken introductory courses in philosophy or political theory learn of the headache that comes with arguing about human nature.  While human nature has been an interesting development in political philosophy, asking whether human nature is fundamentally good or evil is the wrong sort of question.  Appropriating Spinoza’s ethics, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt explain that one should not ask what human nature is, but what it can become.  What is it that drives humans together into association?  What does human nature become in capitalism?  What can it become?

What is the motor of human association?  Love.  Love is what drives humans together into collaboration and toward freedom and autonomy.  Maybe love sounds a little sentimental as philosophical foundation for politics, but love can be understood as a serious political reality.  Despite it’s best efforts, capitalism cannot account for all of the productive energies of the human individual or assemblage.  Human society has certain mechanisms that emerge separately from the capitalist mode of production.  Negri and Hardt call this the commons.  There are some things, while perhaps swayed by capitalism, are not explicitly governed by the logic of capitalism.  Capitalist production is certainly a dominating logic, but there are other types of production that are of note.  For capitalist production other types of production are necessary, the production of living arrangements, domestic work, friendships, religious communities, intellectual associations, etc.  Capitalist production is an apparatus that has captured these and other types of social production.  These types of social production are what Negri and Hardt call the commons.  Love is the driving force behind the commons and what pushes humanity to desire one another.  Love is desire as a positive force.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus the discussion becomings is made through a biological narrative of the orchid and the wasp.  Evolutionary biology tells a narrative of the orchid imitating the wasp for the propagation of its species.  Deleuze and Guattari correct this narrative in saying that the orchid is becoming-wasp and the wasp is becoming-orchid.

“The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp…What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real.  The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious.”(A Thousand Plateaus, 12)

What is essential here is that the encounter between the two entities creates a new reality, a new becoming.  What does it mean for the orchid to become-wasp and the wasp to become-orchid?  It means a mutual love for one another.  It is a rupture in business as usual.


Here, one can see that love is a type of production.  In Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 he explains the alienation and production of the worker.  Capitalist production produces the worker.  “…[L]abour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore he does not affirm himself but denies himself.” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 60)  Labor is external to the individual, through labor the individual produces and in this meeting of flows the individual becomes a worker.  Capitalist labor produces the worker, but love can produce a specific subjectivity as well.  Love produces what Negri and Hardt call the multiplicity, the subjectivity of the commons.  “Love is the power of the common in a double sense: both the power that the common exerts and the power to constitute the commons.  It is thus also the movement toward freedom in which the composition of singularities leads toward not unity or identity but the increasing autonomy of each participating equally in the web of communication and cooperation.  Love is the power of the poor to exit a life of misery and solitude, and engage the project to make the multitude.”(Commonwealth, 189)  Love is an erasure of our capitalist subjectivities as workers and it is in collaborative power that a rupture is created and there is an entrance into a new social body.

Asking whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad is the wrong question, rather the question should be what could humanity become?  Love is the motor of the social assemblage, but love does not go unchallenged.  Love can go wrong.  Love turned back upon itself is evil.  Evil is that which obstructs love.  Very concretely, evil is any barrier that one may see in daily life.  Property, boarders, governments, violence are all evil in that they obstruct the common and keep humanity apart.  Love is the only movement that can remove obstructions and evil.  Love defeating evil is indignation, it is a liberating joy and the creation of the commons.

Sacrament as Excess

I’ve been going back over some of the work I began last summer on a paper attempting to think sexuality and marriage theologically. This is to be a reworking of my undergraduate thesis, which will probably bear little resemblance to that paper in any way except a reuse of one or two sources and a concern with thinking “good news” for queer folk that actually is good news (as per my previous post). I really think that the way Paul locates marriage among those natural orders that Christians are free w/r/t is crucial to thinking sexuality as something that is “queered” as it mingles with the body of Christ by baptism/crucifixion/resurrection. The struggle for me, then, is how to think that alongside the sacramental status of marriage in the post-Pauline church (which, in practice, is hard not to read as a straight endorsement of marriage as such).

As I was thinking through the deadlocks I reached before the semester started, I started wondering about the sacramental status of marriage alongside Zizek’s notion of overconformity; the way to break up an ideological order, for Zizek, is not to simply resist explicitly (resistance is what the order counts on) but to identify fully with one of the operative rules of law at work in that order, refusing the implicit exceptions by which the law functions. For Zizek, this act of taking the law more seriously than it is built to be taken subverts the law’s own ideological function and breaks it apart as a functionary of the given order. While Zizek works out this notion of overconformity from a reading of Paul’s reflections on the law in Romans, he distances himself from the notion that this is a straightforward reading of what Paul is doing; it seems to him to be an operative logic that Paul gropes at but never quite identifies explicitly.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if something like this excessive character really is at work in the way Paul addresses issues other than the law (gender and marriage, for instance). Furthermore, I’m wondering if this logic of excess is endemic to the notion of sacrament itself.

One helpful thing for me about this way of thinking, at least while I’m “trying it on,” is that it fits rather nicely with Paul’s proclamations of freedom AND his non-libertinism. It also deals well with the manifestly “excessive” character of pre/Augustinian treatments of marriage/celibacy. Thus, the other side of the coin (of getting so damn married that polite, married society can only say “whoah, slow down, buddy”) is getting so damn not-married that tempered, discerning, independent folks can only say “whoah, slow down, buddy.” The trick, from there, is that it’s easy to inscribe even that into a sort of “right” and “churchy” way of doing sexuality. I think it’s pretty obvious that that’s the world we now live in. Even if there’s something to this schema of sacramental excess, it’s difficult to know what to do with it in a world where even excessive marriage and celibacy have been successfully assimilated into the power complex of marriage itself.

Maybe, remembering how marriage is to be sacramental doesn’t help one “know what to do,” so much as it reminds us that the position we’re in is always that of eunuchs who are to receive other eunuchs as means’ of grace? Which is not to say that the sacrament is not to be practiced, but that it is to be practiced only sacramentally; that is, only as a way of learning to be opened/given for the life of the world. A good friend and prominent influence of mine recently asked the (rhetorical) question “what if all sacraments were nothing more than the irruption of the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus into the institutions of normal well-adjusted life?” I think this gets close to where I want to be going, but the problem I can’t shake is that the sacraments manifestly aren’t that. It seems exceedingly easy for this sort of sacramental talk to get re-inscribed in a mindset where the most revolutionary thing one can do is prop up actually existing church practices. It may be my pessimism, or it may be my heavy Quaker influences, but it seems to me that even and especially our rituals and patterns of being churchy have to die before they can be something else.

Reason and Imagination: Why We Need Bodies and Metaphors in order to Know Stuff

Like any great story, this one begins with a Fall from grace. But it is not forbidden fruit that precipitates the protagonists’ fall—it is Plato’s Gorgias. This is the Platonic dialogue Martha Nussbaum, in Love’s Knowledge, identifies as the moment of great schism between philosophy and poetry, and quickly following, between aesthetics and truth, reason and emotion. It is here, one could contend, that Western thinking began to go wrong in its assertions about human rationality, partitioning off narrative from syllogism and desire from knowledge.

To place the blame for compartmentalization solely on Plato’s shoulders is to caricature him, though it is not hard to see that what begin as intimations of these dichotomies in ancient philosophy crystallize through the history of ideas, for example, in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and most markedly in the post-Kantian analytic-continental divide, where the distinction between syllogism and poetry has never been more stark. In short, regardless of where we choose to locate the dismembering of the poet-philosopher who embodies imaginative reason, we can survey the landscape of contemporary humanities departments and observe that this dismembering did at some point occur.

It is why folks like Jerome Shaffer, no doubt an astute philosopher of mind, can get away with saying that emotion is an encumbrance to reason and ordinary life without anyone batting a lash. We’ve bought into the anthropology that says to “know” is to reflect, absent the bias of desire or imagination, on the propositions of syllogisms interpreted through the pre-conscious Kantian categories of the mind, and we’ve bought into a schema of values that says this kind of knowing is the highest human activity.

Well people, Jamie Smith and I are here to tell you IT AIN’T SO. We are not the first and will not be the last to tell you this brain-in-a-vat proposition grinder is not necessarily what constitutes ‘knowing’—continental philosophy from Husserl onward asserts precisely this point from various angles. It is from the deep well of their thought as well as recent cognitive science (and, of course, the Christian tradition) that Jamie, in his new title Imagining the Kingdom, crafts his compelling case for the way in which reason is not only insufficient without imagination, metaphor, and embodiment, but that reason, of the propositional/syllogistic sort, is in fact premised upon these three things.

How is this case, you ask? Because it turns out, says Jamie, that the way we acquire understanding of anything begins as kinesthetic and aesthetic—that is, through bodies, and with a kind of pre-conscious, affective imagination. As far as the kinesthetic is concerned, Merleau-Ponty did the phenomenological leg work to help us arrive at an account of the ineluctably incarnate, body-based nature of ‘meaning’ or ‘knowledge’. The current science on neural plasticity confirms this body-centrism. The routine experiences of our bodies in actual space and time, their habituation, generates the neural maps that chart our perception, as a study with eye glasses and the adaptive eyesight of a parliament of owls confirms. Our sensorimotor experiences are the scaffolding of our perception. That scaffolding is rearrange-able, not fixed. It is, as we so often say in theology, ‘context sensitive’, and it needs a body in order to exist.

Before you get skeptical, let’s talk about what Mark Johnson identified years ago as the conceptual primacy of metaphor. Metaphor has incredible kinesthetic and aesthetic potency. It turns out that almost all of our controlling metaphors correspond to bodily movement in space. We ‘climb up’ the corporate ladder. We ‘dive into’ a good book. We speak about psychological intimacy as if it were physical proximity. “We used to be so close. Now she’s distant and we’re drifting apart”. The fundamentality of spatial metaphor, says Johnson, confirms that in fact “the logic of our bodily experience provides all the logic we need in order to perform every rational inference, even with the most abstract concepts”. We acquire abstract reasoning through our bodily experiences themselves as they are refracted through metaphor. There is no such thing as disembodied abstract reason.

The aesthetic consequences of this, as we can imagine, are huge. Reason is fundamentally aesthetic because of its reliance not on discursive propositions but on the surplus of meaning offered by metaphor, where networks of associations are forever set off by the comparison of two unlike things. It is imagination, which is preconscious and pre-desire, that facilitates the comparison of opposing metaphorical terms. This is part of why narrative is also so fundamental to human understanding. It too is predicated upon imagination and embodiment, and it too can be true even if not syllogistically so.

That narrative requires imagination is in fact something that 12th century mystic Richard of St. Victor, the subject of my next post, understands extremely well. He understands it both implicitly and explicitly, in both form and content. Not only does he write explicitly about the relationship between reason and imagination, but he does so by means of the spiritual interpretation of scripture, that is, by means of biblical narrative (rather than by means of, say, a treatise on the nature of contemplation). Assigning Rachel as Reason and Leah as Imagination, Richard uses Genesis as a leaping-off point for schematizing the faculties of the mind in the ascent to the knowledge of God. His writing defies genre categorization to an extent.

Now that I’ve whetted your appetite for medieval mystics and allegorical readings of scripture, let me conclude with a qualification.

What the primacy of metaphor and aesthetics prescribes as an ideal genre for humanities scholarship I’m not exactly sure. As a recovering analytic philosopher who still prizes clarity of thought among the highest virtues, I’m reticent to advocate too hasty a marriage between poetry and philosophy. Surely translating Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into metered rhyming verse would accomplish little besides the invention of the world’s best drinking game, as would mining A.A. Milne’s cherished Winnie the Pooh stories for a lucid treatment of France’s 20th century political industrial complex. What I’m saying is that poetry and philosophy have to a certain extent rightly occupied separate literary spaces, because they ultimately are not the same thing, even if more closely related than we may have thought. The implications of this fact ought to be teased out by any and all who can do that kind of thinking.

The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology

I keep encountering an assumption about liberal theology in general that has really been gnawing at me since I started diving deep into the work of the man who started it all, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Here’s the problem clearly stated: Many folks define liberal theology as theology that takes its starting point from experience, e.g. either one’s own cultural-historical values, or (more commonly) transcendent human reason. As a result, they conflate Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism with secular humanism, Enlightenment reason, etc.

While it may be that there are contemporary liberal or post-liberal theologians out there who think theology should or can only be done this way, I would like to contend that they have no [direct] connection to Schleiermacher’s theology. In fact, Schleiermacher doesn’t use the word experience (ErfahrungErlebnis, or Praxis) unless he’s talking about the experience of a feeling (ein Gefühl). What has happened, I think, is that experience has been conflated with feeling, and Schleiermacher’s original use of the word “feeling” has been dropped altogether.

That said, there are two major problems with this conflation:

1) Experience and feeling are quite clearly not the same thing in Schleiermacher’s theology.

2) Feeling isn’t the basis for Schleiermacher’s theology; rather theology is what points us back to the feeling. It is what makes explicit an implicit feeling and helps explicate how such a feeling is possible.

So before you go around the campus of your seminary tomorrow telling everyone how Schleiermacher almost destroyed theology altogether until it was rescued by Karl Barth, let’s try to understand this complex and fundamental aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology and philosophy of religion.

We’ll begin by recovering what feeling is. When Schleiermacher talks about feeling, he does mean pre-reflective sorts of things like joy, remorse, sorrow, etc. By pre-reflective, he is speaking in a phenomenological sense (or proto-phenomenological if you prefer.) He means embodied feelings that are prior to thought. But these, according to Schleiermacher, are derivative of one single feeling: What he calls the feeling of absolute dependence.

Before I get to what that feeling is and what it means, we have to ask: Why feeling? In the wake of Kant, a number of philosophers (Jacobi, Schelling, and Schleiermacher, to name a few) are trying to solve the problem of how the realm of the noumenal (the real) can cause any effect in the phenomenal without resorting to Spinozism. (For the sake of space, I’m going to assume a working knowledge of those concepts. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read a short primer here and here.) Understanding how these two realms are connected was a problem Kantianism couldn’t solve. It seemed as though the only alternative was to turn back to Spinoza who had posited the universe as one Substance (God) with two attributes extension and cognition. Jacobi, et. al. thought Spinozism was pantheistic (which it obviously is) and mechanistically determined (which is far less obvious and certainly debatable) and thus nihilistic (Jacobi invents this term in relation to both Spinoza and Kant.) Determinism, it was thought, leaves no room for moral agency.

Schleiermacher, at the beginning of The Christian Faith (his systematic theology) reconfigures the three realms, outlined by Kant in his Critiques, in which human beings interact with the world (Understanding, Reason, Aesthetics for Kant; Knowing, Doing, and Feeling for Schleiermacher.) He makes the claim that both knowing (theology) and doing (ethics) are important in religion, but they cannot be said to be the most essential aspects of religious piety–that from which religious piety springs forth. Schleiermacher notes that devout piety is quite often demonstrated without much theological knowledge at all; that is, if knowledge were the most essential aspect of piety, theologians would naturally be the most pious Christians. We know that’s definitely not true. Theology, in fact, does not require any religious piety–it can be completely areligious. Doing is less important to what we’re focusing on here, but suffice it to say that while piety typically leads one to ethical behavior, Schleiermacher doesn’t think that ethics necessarily requires piety–that is there are plenty of ethical people who are not religious pious. Therefore, ethics cannot be the basis for religion (as Kant believed.)

Establishing feeling as the basis for religion is a way for Schleiermacher to do an end run around the problem of knowledge and the real while ditching the watered-down religion of Kant. He doesn’t want to deny the existence of a transcendent real (a thing-it-itself realm) in the way that Schelling’s philosophy does as reflected in Schleiermacher’s rigorously transcendent account of God’s attributes. But by making the “I” dependent on the real, he doesn’t have to explain how it is that the “I” could have direct knowledge of the real on which to base a theology and thus a religion. Schleiermacher agrees with Kant that the “I” does not have direct access to the real epistemically, but the real, which must imbue every phenomenal object, can affect us pre-reflectively, and dependence is the primary way in which this manifests.

Why a feeling of dependence? This too is wrapped up in debates of Schleiermacher’s day regarding human freedom and ethics in the face of determinism. Human beings, according to Schleiermacher, cannot be absolutely free, because if we were, we could never have any sense of dependence on anything. That is, absolute freedom is not compatible with even partial dependence. However, Schleiermacher thinks that partial freedom is compatible with a feeling of absolute dependence–even necessary for it. We can exercise freedom to an extent, but this freedom is always delimited by dependence. It is in trying to exercise absolute freedom that we begin to develop the sense that we are actually dependent upon something, and the more this feeling develops, Schleiermacher thinks, the more religious one becomes until one realizes one is absolutely dependent. We can see now that this isn’t just a theory about Christianity–it’s a theory about Religion as such. Schleiermacher thinks this is why it’s possible to have a religion without God. He also thinks that’s wrong, but he understands why some would stop short of positing God and instead contemplate their absolute dependence on the totality of the universe itself.

But the universe is not enough to constitute the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence. This is [partially] why Christianity is the true religion for Schleiermacher. God is the only “thing” transcendent enough to fulfill the role of Whence.  Schleiermacher’s theology proper (doctrine of God) is fascinating, and maybe I’ll do another post on that, but let me just sum it up briefly: God is first and foremost love and wisdom (loving wisdom), that which is pure activity necessarily free and freely necessary, aspatial, atemporal, in whom all that is possible is actual, the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. Agree or disagree, the point is that this is radically not the God of secular reason. The transcendental ego has absolutely no need of this sort of God. God is all but absent from Kant’s account of religion–he’s a footnote (you can read a brief account of Kant’s religion which I wrote here.) There are some similarities between Schleiermacher and Kant (I think their christologies and ecclesiologies are comparable), but they arrive at those from very different places and for very different reasons.

Let’s go back now to theology in general and the notion of starting points. Theology’s role in all of this is to make explicit the implicit feeling of religion in general. Schleiermacher, in his letters to a friend, Dr. Lucke, about The Christian Faith, explains that he would have put the opening propositions regarding feeling at the end of his systematics if he hadn’t thought people would be upset that his system didn’t have a proper climax (i.e. that it didn’t end with an eschatology.) In other words, Schleiermacher thought that the result, the conclusion of any theology is the feeling of absolute dependence and that the task of systematics is to ask what sort of theology there must be to explain the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.