The Hermeneutic of Love

Author’s Note: This is part of an essay I wrote for an ethics class last semester on political theology and love. I wrote it at the height of the presidential election, and it seemed appropriate at the time. In the wake of yesterday’s events with Jason Collins being the first major professional athlete to come out as a homosexual, and to see the dismal response from many right-wing Christians, I felt that it was once again appropriate.

Rarely can complex issues such as abortion (including the nature of personhood and when a fetus becomes a person), homosexual marriage, war, racial injustice and economic woes be condensed to bumper sticker slogans. Unfortunately, most political discourse is terribly reductionistic and deals only in short, quotable platitudes. Everything must be tweetable and sound-bite worthy.

Christians on both the right and the left have largely given in to the culture’s idea of what politics should be. Rather than standing above the fray and retaining our own unique voice, we’ve become just another voice in the mob making noise. In response to this, Ross Douthat says, “For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.”[1]

What seems to be infecting the church is a hermeneutic of fear and suspicion. Nothing is what it seems, the other is always against us, and anyone who disagrees with us is automatically our enemy.  The heart of the problem with American Christianity in regards to it’s political engagement is that we have bought into the lie that we must demonize our enemies. In so doing, we strip them of their personhood and their God-image. We enact violence on the other rather than show them love.  We have bought in to the us vs. them mentality that has come to dominate much political discourse in the last few decades. There also seems to be a move away from the Church as an inherently political institution. Politics have become either an-ecclesial or anti-ecclesial rather than realizing that there is no such thing as an a-political theology.

The counter to this is to embrace a hermeneutic of love, a hermeneutic that sees all of reality through the radical, self-giving love of Christ. We need to be driven by the absurd love demonstrated in Christ. As Glen Stassen and David Gushee say, “Jesus taught that participation in God’s reign requires the disciplined practices of a Christ-following counter-cultural community that obeys God by publicly engaging in working for justice and refusing to trust in the world’s power and authorities.”[2] The hermeneutic of love drives us not necessarily to do social justice in order to do evangelism, but to do social justice because we have a sincere love for the other and want what is best for them.

A hermeneutic of love begins with silence seeking understanding. Christians should be knowledgeable about the myriad complexities of any political issue before engaging. Graham Ward says, “The world is changing. And we have to understand how even if we get lost in the thickets when we try to sort out the complexities of why.”[3] If Christians are to be fair to their opponents, we must first understand what our opponents are saying and why they are saying it. To misrepresent an opponent’s position is to enact violence on that person and to sin against them by bearing false witness.[4]

The hermeneutic of love is also defined by an engagement with the Real against the Ideological. Christians are obligated to sort through the spin, the lies and the partisanship to pierce into the truth of things. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Without God, all seeing and perceiving of things and laws become abstraction.”[5] The Ideological engagement with politics consists of dealing in abstractions rather than loving real people. It is this dealing with abstractions that leads Christians to forget that at the other end of their scathing remarks and actions are real people created in the image of God with real problems and pains that need to be addressed. The hermeneutic of love always remembers that our decisions and rhetoric impact real people who need to know that they are loved.

The way forward for Christians consists of demonstrating the hermeneutic of love through the humility of repentance for our past wrongs. We must repent for not speaking out for the oppressed. We must repent for forgetting that on the other end of our chicken sandwiches and protests and tweets are real people who deserve to be loved and who possess the image of God. We must repent for forgetting that the woman who is seeking an abortion is in desperate need of love, not condemnation. We must repent for selling the gospel to our partisan (Republican or Democrat, Right or Left) political ideals.

The hermeneutic of love understands that we have been made free through the death and resurrection of Christ, but it understands that this freedom is not a freedom-for-ourselves but rather a freedom-for-the-other.[6] We are made free to be in loving relationship with the other in whom we encounter God. We do not seek our own good in the political process, but the good of the other. This has nothing to do with Utilitarian ideals, but with a concrete love for the other. It drives justice and humility for the Christian. Just as God has bound himself to us through the creation and the atonement, so the other is bound to us by our Christ-likeness.[7] We are free to give ourselves entirely to the other and to seek their well-being above our own.

Ultimately, the hermeneutic of love should be the driving force behind all that we do. There is no room for selfish political battles or for a culture war that leaves a trail of wounded people behind the righteous soldiers. The hermeneutic of love drives us beyond our books and institutions, beyond our gated communities and private schools, and beyond our selfish ambition to care for the neighbor, to seek justice for the oppressed, to love the outsider, and to heal the wounds caused by the dominating hermeneutic of fear.


[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 6.

[2] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 468.

[3] Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 23.

[4] See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 47-62.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 49.

[6] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 63.

[7] Ibid.

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Doxological Theology Part IV: Derridean Objections

Given this play between saying and unsaying, in which the via negativa maintains priority without possessing for itself a kind of “last word,” how is the theologian after Dionysius to respond to the classic Derridean objection: is this not, in some important sense, a bluff? Negative theology, Derrida will claim, “is always occupied with letting a superessential reality go beyond finite categories of essence and existence, that is, of presence, and always hastens to remind us that, if we deny the predicate of existence to God, it is in order to recognize him as a superior, inconceivable and ineffable mode of Being.”⁠1 Negative theology “claims not to do what it nevertheless does all the time,” predicating Being—and the like—of God, and inscribing God back within the frame of what goes by the names “onto-theology” and “metaphysics of presence.”⁠2 Insofar as the via negativa passes again into a saying, is it not an attempt to ground a secure possibility of predicative speech? And does not this grounding re-inscribe God  as ultimately an object or function given for thinking the presence-at-hand of things in the world? Even as we affirm that God is not a being, God still, according to this line of accusation, remains a kind of being who is not a being.  How is this formulation not, in the last analysis, ideological?

According to Marion, “It could be answered that mystical theology obviously does not intend to re-establish in fine what it denied, but to pass, through the way of eminence, from predication (affirmative and/or negative) to a decidedly non-predicative form of speech, namely the prayer which praises (ύμνείν).”⁠3 The objection that remains, however, is that “one always praises with a title… or insofar as…, thus by naming.”⁠4 Marion responds to this in part via the logic of proper names; the proper name is proper to the named precisely by virtue of its impropriety towards the essence of the named. A proper name does not predicate an attribute, but gestures toward what it signifies without predication. Indeed, for Dionysius, God “falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being.”⁠5 Dionysius deals with this at some length in the first chapter of The Divine Names. “Realizing all this, [the independence of God from metaphysical determination] the theologians praise it by every name—and as the Nameless One.”⁠6 Dionysius frequently reflects on the proper namelessness of God alongside necessity of naming. Thus, according to this logic of im/propriety, “as Cause of all and as transcending all, [God] is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is.”⁠7 It is according to this logic that even those most essentially “proper” names are transgressed; thus, echoing Paul, Dionysius argues that the wisdom by which God is named “wise” is a form of foolishness. These names point, in the mode of icon, towards a confrontation that remains unpossessed by the names themselves.⁠8

1 Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, “In The Name,” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, ed. John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 21-22.

2 Marion, “In The Name,” 23.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Ibid., 23.

5 Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” 141

6 Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” 54.

7 Ibid., 56.

8 Marion will also refer to this as a “saturated phenomenon.” Marion, “In the Name,” 39-40. A saturated phenomenon is differentiated from two options given for appearance by Husserl: that appearance which is adequate to what appears and that which is inadequate, where appearance fails to measure up to the concept to which it is submitted. Instead, the doxological moment is described as a moment in which appearance exceeds the concept given for it. His phenomenological description highlights both the limitations of phenomenalogical description per se and the necessity of faith; phenomenology can say nothing about whether this confrontation actually happens, since the third moment has nothing more to say after saying and unsaying, but instead listens for what may or may not speak. Thus, while the question of predication can be settled in theory (via the notion of saturated phenomena), the question of ideology remains theoretically undecideable, resting on the side of the confrontation itself.

Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism– Chapter 3 Politics

This post is a part of the Religion, Politics, and The Earth blog tour. Below is an analysis of Crockett and Robbins’ chapter on Politics. One can buy the book here

The idea of politics as an arena for activism or a place where non-political human beings, i.e. non-politicians, join in a unique struggle to change the political landscape dominates Western culture. The rise of online petition websites and the emergence of the Obama administration’s “We The People” line of communication signify that politics is a discrete profession that lay persons may only enter as a special occasion. Crockett and Robbins challenge this picture of politics. Jacques Ranciere and Antonio Negri provide the basis for their thesis: “[D]emocracy is the very principle of politics—not that democracy is the least bad system of politics, or that democracy is one governing system among other first defined in the taxonomy of Aristotle’s Politics, but that it is only by the quintessentially democratic rejection of the prerogative to rule of the entitlement to govern that politics is born by the coming to power of the people.”

State power is a derived power, and the State derives its power from the people within a given State. The distinction between State-politics and the truly political for Crockett and Robbins, then, is “that no matter how alienated, how disenfranchised, or how exploited they may feel or they may be, that without the people’s consent—whether avowed or disavowed, tacit or expressed—the system would wither and die without their life giving force.”

A rare thought, indeed.

Crockett and Robbins, in addition to defining a democratic landscape of the political, are concerned with delineating the materialist parameters of the political. Thus, the question of “Who will decide the destiny of humanity?” The destiny of humanity is bracketed currently, waiting on the completion of a democratic-revolution-interrupted.

Crockett and Robbins analyze the emergence of religion repoliticized; a departure from the Enlightenment trends of personalization and privatization of religion. By moving away from an apolitical religion, the New Materialism interacts with the type of religion mentioned in Joel’s post four days ago. Religion as politicized is apparent in the June 2009 protests in Iran. The colors, the chants, and the ethos of the protests took on the character of a “genuine popular uprising,” not a religious/sectarian/dogmatic revolution.

A few days ago in France, the countrywide legalization of gay marriage passed through the government. Constantly in the American media, stories are being published about the changing tides of American public opinion concerning gay marriage, marijuana, and other issues. Usually, these shifts in public opinion are accompanied by a question: “Will the governors, representatives, senators, and president respond to these changes adequately?”

In this question, the line between the political and politics can be seen. The power of the State is derived, but it seems as if the people from which the power originates have forgotten themselves as the source of political power. The ceding of political power operates as a false consciousness to elevate the derived power to the ultimate material force in deciding the destiny of humanity. Such a situation is what Crockett and Robbins bemoan as the “perverse logic” by which States procure enemies as a necessity. That is to say, the State creates and sustains an enemy for fear of losing the illusory position of supreme power.

How can people realize the derived status of political power?

That is the continuing question that Crockett and Robbins address throughout the rest of the book. The political message is central to understanding the new power dynamics of a New Materialism, but the conclusions to the problems of politics vs. the political are hidden within the rest of the topics interrogated by Crockett and Robbins: Art, Ethics, Energy, Logic. The main leap that a member of a neo-liberal state ideology must make is to realize that politics as such is not political. The Political is the power in potentia (Spinoza’s potentia) not the construction and manipulation of the Statist political machinery as such.

 

Once again, feel free to read the reviews and purchase Religion, Politics, and the Earth. Amazon

 

Religion, Politics, and The Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 4, Art

This post is part of our ongoing review of Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins’ book Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. The book is available for purchase here.

As with the rest of the book, this chapter is more a manifesto than anything else; the analysis of the history and contemporary situation of art offered here are offered towards the possibility of a revolutionary praxis of art. As my predecessors have done, I’ll briefly trace the argument before offering a reaction.

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson, in this chapter, are concerned, of course, with materiality. Under what material conditions is art done, and what material function does art perform? The authors argue that there is a certain natural conceptual linkage between art and religion; both are concerned with “materially unjustified but existentially vital representation.⁠1” Premodern is characterized according to this narrative as a reproduction of the divine nature. It is thus characterized by tendencies toward representation and order. The important break occurs, as with so many things, with Kant.

According to the Kantian paradigm, beauty is still linked with the apprehension of “design,” but this apprehension is characterized by a sort of free play in which purpose becomes directly linked to the act of striving toward it, rather than to a fixed representation of the divine. The history of art assimilates this orientation, and art becomes the privileged site of this striving, displacing roles that had traditionally been the domain of religion. Traditional understandings of representation are also displaced, as this emphasis on the striving act privileges aspects of apprehension over the thing-in-itself, and lead to the characteristic “decomposition” that characterizes the passage of 20th century art towards abstraction.

Since the concept of beauty privileges representation by necessity, the notion of the sublime gains primacy in modern art. The sublime, rather than privileging harmony of representation, is the site of a disjunction in this harmony, opening up a field in which reason is forced to step in and make a moral decision. The sublime is both attractive and repulsive, resisting re-inscription in meaning and sense, such that any re-inscription passes a certain responsibility onto the viewer.

Attempts at an art of the sublime (Dada, Surrealism, etc) are all plagued by a similar problem. Capital is an adaptive beast, and easily absorbs any new opening of the sublime as a form of spectacle, which can always be commodified. The challenge for a revolutionary practice of art thus emerges: what kind of revolutionary sublime can “free subjectivity from the force of capital?”⁠2 Given that the capitalist sublime dissolves all forms into raw material for the relations of capital, what kind of form resists this interpellation?

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson marshall Felix Guattari and Terry Eagleton to create a synthesis that might point the way. From Guattari, they want to take the notion of sensible ruptures that produce a more life-affirming collectivity. Part of this is a form of shamanic vanguardist practice of art, one in which the position of the artist lends a certain subject-supposed-to-know aura to the artist’s critiques. From Eagleton they want to take the identity of form and content in the socialist sublime; a form of practice so determined by its content that it would be irreducible to formal description; thus an alternative kind of sublime, but one by definition (as that form which resists) is always shifting to oppose capital’s attempts at re-inscription. Revolutionary art, then, constantly rematerializes against capitalism; “in the streets, the networks, the institutions, and the bodies of the artists themselves.”⁠3

The question that arises for me in this chapter, then, is why art? What kind of work is maintaining the identity of art as such doing for the revolutionary? It may seem in some sense like a naive question, and the fact that I have a paper draft that I’m actually getting graded on to do mean that I unfortunately don’t have time to fully unpack this thought, but it seems to me that the kind of identity described between the content and form of revolutionary art are such that it becomes necessarily hard to separate revolutionary art from any other part of revolutionary practice. After all, what is the real distance between the subversive aesthetic practice and the tactical practice of, say, guerilla gardens? I don’t bring this out to criticize the indistinction per se (my girlfriend is a mixed media “artist” who doesn’t think art is a word that is doing any non-ideological work for us anymore) but it seems like in reality all we’re left with is the artist as cultic personality, as subject-supposed-to-know; but if we can’t disjoin the practice of art from any other part of revolutionary practice how can we even identify that role?

1 56

2 63

3 68

Doxological Theology Part III: Saying and Unsaying Give Way

Our next chapter review for Crockett and Robbins’ book is coming tomorrow. Just a heads up. – S

Dionysius’ writing in both The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology is given over to this very question (that of the direction of named praise to what can only be nameless). Opening The Mystical Theology, addressing Timothy once again, the Areopagite writes that “my advice… is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upwards as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.”⁠1 Bereft of further content, this advice would seem of little help, except as a vague experiential platitude, indulging in a sort of vulgar divorce of thought and life. Dionysius’ mysticism, however, is precisely a mysticism whose concern penetrates thought and life simultaneously, refusing the oppositions by which thought and life might seek to evade marriage in doxology. It is precisely in light of a rigor of thought that coincides with a life of praise that the theologian should read his warning against “those caught up with the things of the world, who imagine that there is nothing beyond instances of individual being and who think that by their own intellectual resources they can have a direct knowledge of him who has made the shadows his hiding place.”⁠2

The admonition to union over understanding, then, gives the form for a specifically doxological mode of thought characterized by three distinct moments or ways. As Dionysius lays out succinctly in The Mystical Theology:

“What has actually to be said about the Cause of everything is this. Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should [1] posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, [2] we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that [3] the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.”⁠3

Drawing upon the causal logic available to him as a student of the neoplatonists, Dionysius grounds [1] the possibility of a starting point—a via positiva—in the insight that as an effect of God’s act of creation, the created perfections bear some proper relation to the perfections of the Cause. Thus, the divinity which remains properly nameless takes its most proper names from the conceptual, materially indeterminate perfections found in created Being. Since this God still remains properly nameless—still transgresses the bounds of even the most properly transcendental perfections—[2] each of these names are then, in the via negativa, loosed, given away, negated as names that can only fail to determine the God to whom they are addressed. Important to note, here, is both the relative primacy Dionysius gives to negation, and the ontological significance of that primacy. This primacy affirms God’s non-circumscription in Being, even as Cause. In his treatment of Moses, note the removal of God from ontological determination:

And yet he [Moses at Sinai] does not meet God himself, but contemplates, not him who is invisible, but rather where he dwells. This means, I presume, that the holiest and highest of the things perceived with the eye of the body or the mind are but the rationale which presupposes all that lies below the Transcendent One. Through them, [according to causality] however, his unimaginable presence is shown, walking the heights of those holy places to which the mind at least can rise. But then he [Moses] breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.”⁠4

Thus, through created things, a certain onto-logic is apparent, by which causal perfections admit the accumulation of real knowledge of the world according to its own ordered existence. Even for this far-reaching knowledge, however, God remains precisely that which cannot be thought—cannot be known—except as the one who confronts the human person precisely in her unknowing. This admits an otherwise strange dynamic between speech and silence: “the good Cause of all is both eloquent and taciturn, indeed wordless.”⁠5

Even in its priority, however, this unknowing gives way, for the simple silence of unconcern cannot be appropriate to this one who, in unknowing, confronts. “For this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings.”⁠6 The theologian will note that it is the negative moment, the dispossession, that becomes the site of transcendent praise, but the second moment only thus transforms in light of the third moment; thus its priority, but thus also its surpassing. And so, [3] the doxological moment comes to surpass both the vias positiva and negativa because the one who acts and knows in this third moment is more properly God than the speaker. Nothing new remains to be said, and so the speaker offers both saying and unsaying as a mode of prayer/praise (the action of the speaker) in which the speaker is, per Dionysius’ advice to Timothy, moved towards this God (the action of God, which the action of the speaker goes out to meet, and to which speech defers). In prayer/praise, this God occurs as irreducible to conceptual idolatry, and the intellectual possessions one may have accumulated are given prayerfully away as iconography.  In this doxological moment, the dispossession affected by the via negativa becomes a site in which we may be confronted by God as by the face of another. “The more [my argument] climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with him who is indescribable.”⁠7

1 Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology,” in Pseudo-Dionysius : The Complete Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 135.

2 Ibid., 136.

3 Ibid., 136.

4 Ibid., 137. Bracketed additions mine.

5 Ibid., 136.

6 Ibid., 138. (emphasis mine)

7 Ibid., 139.

Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 2, Religion

In the second chapter of their book Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism, Clayton Crockett and Jeffery Robbins tackle the history of the relationship between religion and its materialist critique and the differences between the critique of the classic materialists (Feuerbach, et. al.) and the new materialist critique of Slavoj Žižek before offering what they see as the constructive implications of the latter for Christianity specifically. What I want to do here is talk a bit about Crockett and Robbins’ approach to the materialist critique of religion and add to the practical implications that they outline with an eye to Evangelical Christianity specifically. This chapter is conceptually difficult without any background in Žižek or Lacan, so I’m going to do a lot of summarizing and explaining before getting to the extension of the practical implications. My hope is that this can serve as a primer for those who are interested in the book but are intimidated by the approach Crockett and Robbins employ while highlighting some additional things to think about.

In essence, the difference between classical and new materialism resides in the consequences of the critique. Feuerbach and Freud saw religion as a debilitating crutch, something that had to be overcome so that the ultimate truth that science and empirical evidence provide could shine through and humans would no longer be dependent on anything but their own reason: the epitome of secular humanism. Religion, in other words, is a false consciousness–a way of thinking that helps us escape the reality of our situation. Žižek and other [Lacanian] materialists point out, however, that all consciousness is false consciousness. Following Lacan, Žižek argues that our symbolic and imaginary orders (how we imagine ourselves to be and the social-judicial order that governs that) are our reality; they keep us from experiencing the terrifying Real (what we really are, which shatters our imaginary selves.) So even if religion were to be erased, it would immediately be replaced by some other false consciousness, and there’s no telling if that would have better or worse results.

Žižek is willing to bet we’d be worse off since he thinks that religion, at its core, really has a lot to offer. What is metaphysically or ontologically real is of no consequence for Žižek since no “system,” whether that be a purely empiricist epistemology or any other way of being in the world, is the Real itself. The choice between a world in which there is religion and one where there is not is a false dichotomy because one cannot not choose false consciousness. Religion has the potential to be politically mobilizing, to be the driving force in moving humanity toward a better political reality. In this way, New Materialism moves beyond critique to a reconceptualization and radicalization of religion.

This way of thinking about religion–or reality itself for that matter–may strike some as extremely problematic. But instead of attempting to make a counter-case for why this isn’t how things really are (i.e. false consciousness, etc.), I would encourage readers to understand this Žižekian-Lacanian move as the implementation of a theoretical method. That is, one need not accept Lacanian psychoanalytic categorization of reality as really true in order to understand that, as theory, it can help us think about something familiar in a radically new way. Crockett and Robbins are reading religion. This is how literary theory (which “popularized” Lacan among humanities disciplines outside of philosophy) typically works. What is important in this method is that it helps highlight the implications of a non-reductive materialist approach to religion which validates religion as a way of seeing the world that is compatible with science and can also provide the resources for more robust political action. That is where we now turn.

The implications for this in Christianity should be pretty obvious: Take the Incarnation seriously, tracing out its implications as far as they go. For Žižek and Radical Theology, that means the death of God. That is the inevitable conclusion of a truly materialist Christianity. Some might call this “Christian atheism,” but there’s a very important difference between not knowing if there is a God and claiming that there definitely is no God. The latter is what “atheism” implies, and that doesn’t seem to be what is going on in this move. This conclusion allows us to believe the efficacy of belief itself. That is, when we claim the fundamental truth of God, we are not believing, but claiming direct knowledge instead. The classical materialist critique works the same way: what is repudiated is not a leap of faith, but a fundementalist empirical claim to know God directly. Belief has no efficacy in either case. By continuing on as if we believe, it is not that we come to a more authentic faith; rather, we  come to see our belief as externalized (it is not I who believes, but my prayer believes for me) and can finally see and understand the structure of our [false] religious consciousness. No more transcendental guarantees. No assurances. Just a dangerous leap of faith. This is how Christianity truly reclaims the fundamental risk with which it was established in the first place. Christianity is re-radicalized.

The importance of this move is to reconfigure Christianity in such a way that it can be a viable mobilized political force. If we are aware of the structure of our false consciousness, then we will be able to finally unmask and root out the commodities that appear to us as “a magical object endowed with special powers” (C&R quoting Marx) within that structure. Put differently, we can come to see much more clearly that religion in America is ultimately about money. The solution is not to sever the connection between religion and money but to read the Gospel through the lens of this problematic. We suddenly see that stories like Jesus feeding the 5,000 really are about the redistribution of wealth and not primarily about a supernatural miracle. When Jesus says, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” it’s a mistake to read sin into debt. This is an economic claim. (C&R follow John Dominic Crossan on both of those examples.) We are then poised to organize political action against systemic oppressive structures.

Now that we have a good sense of what Crockett and Robbins are gesturing toward, we can ask: Why would this be difficult for a Christian to grasp, but particularly an Evangelical? The Bible says it right there, doesn’t it? There are many passages and verses that instruct us to always plead the case of the widow and the orphan, to make sure that our religious practice always results in mercy and justice. Why does that not lead to organized political action against systemic oppression? One obvious answer is that using words like systemic and political sounds a little too socialist for some Evangelicals. That may be reductive, but I think we can generally agree that most Evangelicals are part of the religious Right, which sadly means they hear the gospel and discourse about contemporary social justice on a systemic level in two different registers. But there is another, more complex issue that I think is actually more problematic than right wing political rhetoric.

Evangelical Christianity is too spiritualized.

Evangelicalism has a long history of personal spirituality going back to Lutheran Pietists in the 18th century (and probably earlier than that.) What follows should be so familiar to Evangelicals, that it might hardly sound like a problem at all–it will just sound like what Christianity is. Becoming a Christian means having faith in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. It is a personal intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Once one is a Christian, there’s a lot of talk about one’s relationship with God and Jesus, God’s personal love for us and plan for our individual lives, “being Christlike” in our actions (which usually means abstaining from “bad stuff”). We also want to feel something from our faith. We can do that if we “go deeper.” How one goes deeper in one’s faith usually involves adding more prayer, memorizing more scripture, thinking more about the sermons we hear, “being obedient to God’s will,” emulating Christ’s humility, worshipping harder, being in the light of Christ…

Am I being vague enough?

What the hell do any of these things actually mean?

Many Evangelicals complain about feeling like they’re “in a rut” spiritually. They remember feeling God strongly at some previous time, but now everything seems so mundane. That’s because most of what Evangelical Christianity requires of believers are abstract, personal, intellectual activities (meaning in one’s mind, nothing academic necessarily). We have to read the Bible. We have to pray more. We have to contemplate… stuff. Engaging in service activities is one way of achieving a closer relationship with God. But the purpose is always our own spiritual health and development. Serving becomes an intellectual exercise–a way for us to feel closer to God. Our orientation is always toward our own personal spirituality.

And it’s important to note that “service” among Evangelicals rarely if ever requires any sort of political action let alone in the radical way Crockett and Robbins suggest.

We just have to “love on people.”

I cannot tell you how much I hate that phrase. Jesus didn’t just love people; he actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. He actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. And for that, he was crucified. If all we are doing is trying to be friends with some homeless people, with some inmates, with some refugees, we are not part of the solution. We’re part of the problem. We’re not doing anything to help them.

We have a mental block. Evangelicals don’t really know what Christianity is all about. Saying it’s about Jesus, it’s about forgiveness of sins, it’s about freedom for ourselves, seems to me (and to Crockett, Robbins, Žižek, Crossan, etc.) completely wrong. Christianity must become the political force that it has the potential to be, one motivated by justice from systemic oppression; the problem is that, at least for Evangelicals, we are going to have a really hard time laying down our own feel-good personal spirituality in order to do so.

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Religion, Politics, and The Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 1 Digital Culture

This week FluxofThought is participating in a blog tour of Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins’ Religion, Politics, and The Earth: The New Materialism.  This week we will be going through the chapters chronologically and giving a first critical look at the text.

The first chapter of Crockett and Robbins’ handles the revolutionary potentials of the Internet and social media.  Crockett and Robbins make a great effort to explain the role that social media played in Iran’s 2009 presidential elections and in the Arab Spring.  Crockett and Robbins posit that Twitter was essential for coordinating protest.  This observation about political dissent and Twitter helps one recognize the negotiation between the material and immaterial.

Crockett and Robbins say, “…the transformation of the media landscape made possible by the rise of social media is a necessary cause, but not a sufficient one, for positive political change.”  Social media becomes an important political tool.  Crockett and Robbins make the distinction that the utilization of twitter for political purposes is the creation of a “little brother:” a use of media that circumvents the control of the state apparatus.

However, it is not simply the state apparatus that draws concern, but “…it is the technology and the corporate collusion that makes Big Brother’s dream of a surveillance society a viable possibility.”  It’s not simply the state apparatus that is problematic, but it is also that the state and capitalist political economy are entangled.

The entanglement of capitalism and state moves beyond what Marx called the free laborer toward what one might call the free consumer.  Individuals have the ability to make their own choices on what they want to consume.  With online marketplaces, the individual consumer has total control.  Crockett and Robbins explain that this is “Big Brother with a softer side”

Crockett and Robbins locate a revolutionary potential in digital culture and social media.  Largely, I find Crockett and Robbins convincing, though there is a great deal of nuance that is missed.   Understanding Twitter is a tool for resistance is fine, but it neglects the serious critique that media ecology brings.

Specifically, I think to Paul Virilio’s grey ecology.  Green ecology is the study of the impact of material pollution on nature; in a like matter grey ecology is the study of the pollution of technology and speed on media and history.  Grey ecology is an examination of speed and technology on the finitude of the human subject.

Virilio has a particularly interesting take on technology and speed, a type of analysis he calls dromology.  Simply, it is the case that  “We are replacing the expanse of the world with speed.”  The relations of speed supplant the real existing geography.

In regards to Twitter and social media, it is as Virilio says “…‘real time’ now takes precedence over real space.”  There is a certain tele-objectivity when one looks at twitter.  When one views their twitter feed one watches a flow of information in ‘real time.’  This is the instantaneity of news and media.  Overall, this isn’t bad or problematic, but simply it requires a certain consideration.  Twitter, a technology that is a part of the dromosphere, accelerates one’s perception of time and history.  One feels a sort of limit of perspective, maybe even claustrophobia when watching a Twitter feed.  Twitter moves incredibly fast: it is not possible for one to read every tweet.

It is certainly the case that Twitter can be used toward a revolutionary end, though one cannot neglect the speed that is involved in social media and the Internet.  The revolutionary cannot forget the inverse of speed, slowness.  The Internet is not a neutral technology: capitalism has colonized, if not seized altogether, the Internet.  The only form of resistance to speed is deceleration: slowing down work and the production of media.

Certainly, let us use all of the tools at our disposal against capitalism toward a revolutionary end, but let us not be pushed into hyper-reality.  Let us oscillate between resisting with speed and slowness.  Do not be bound to one type of resistance, but use every tool and every mode of life against capital.

Doxological Theology Part II: Idol and Icon

Of course, as the trained theologian will not fail to note, to address praise to this God is no mean feat. As Jean-Luc Marion highlights, the conflict between idol and icon is always “a conflict between two phenomenologies.” [1] As such, it is a conflict not between two competing objects with competing referents who otherwise are (have their Being) in the same way, but one between different ways in which these objects may be. That even objects which reference the ‘correct’ God may be idols, and the fluidity with which objects may traverse the divide between idol and icon both suggest this distinction. Rather, what is at stake is two distinct “modes of apprehension [or reception] of the divine in visibility.” [2]

For Marion, the basic form of the idol is not that of illusion or forgery. It is not properly illusory because it consists rather in the recognition of precisely that which cannot help but be seen; the idol stabilizes (grasps) that which captures the gaze, so that it can become a point of reference, given for the gaze’s use. It is not properly a forgery because the fabrication only enters the status of idol in the later, determinative, moment when it presents as “that which will fill a gaze.” [3] “The gaze makes the idol, not the idol the gaze—which means that the idol with its visibility fills the intention of the gaze, which wants nothing other than to see.” [4] The gaze stops upon some thing (the idol), and the idol re-presents that stopping point—the gaze’s own aim. Thus, the privileged metaphor for Marion is the invisible mirror; what the idol presents to the gaze is the gaze in its own intention, but it shows this in a way that masks over—renders invisable—its own operation. [5]

The icon, on the other hand, phenomenally inverts the operation of the idol. The icon is not determined by the gaze, but “provokes” it towards a vision unaccountable within its own aim. [6] In the icon, Paul’s formula rendering Jesus the “icon of the invisible God” becomes paradigmatic; the icon does not present the visible as a means of discerning between visible and invisible, offering an image for the grasp of the gaze. [7] Instead, the icon presents the invisible precisely as invisible; as that which confronts the gaze without becoming an object for the gaze’s determination. The privileged reference here is a face; because the gaze and aim that determine the icon as icon are not those that belong to the one who apprehends the icon, but to the icon itself as presentation of the invisible, the one who apprehends finds in the icon not a thing but an aim alien to herself, by which she is confronted. Thus, while the idol’s reflexive origin admits a fixed point of return, the icon can be submitted to no measure, no aesthetic, but only to its own apocalyptic, abyssal “infinite excessivess.” [8]

What is important here for the student of theology learning to pray and praise with Dionysius is the idol/icon analytic when applied to the conceptual names of God. How are we to address our praise to true God rather than idol?

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Note the resemblance of the invisible/invisable distinction here to Althusser’s formulation of the ideological interpellation of the subject as subject.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 20-21.

Doxological Theology Part I: Intro to Pseudo-Dionysius

Well hi.

I’m currently working on what will probably be a long series of posts. These posts are in large part an attempt to work through some of my own issues with theism and “God-talk” by going back directly to the (ostensible) source of some of my issues: the western analogical tradition. I’ll be spending the next couple months or so thinking beside (and perhaps beyond?) Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. I don’t know where this will lead, really, but I’ve been holding these thinkers at a distance so long that it seemed as good a time as any to just jump in and see if I could find anything worth leaving with.

Since I’m not bluffing about not knowing where this’ll all go, I don’t know what else to do by way of introduction to this series but to dive in.

Pseudo Dionyisus The Elder and Pseudo-Dionysius the Neoplatonist

At the outset of The Divine Names, the writer whose works have come to us under the name Dionysius the Areopagite announces his intention to one named Timothy, a “fellow elder,” to provide “an explication of the divine names, as far as possible.” [1] That the qualifier “as far as possible” is added should surprise no serious student of theology, trained as she will be in the difficulties of becoming adequate to the task presented by that “name above all names.” What may be more apt to slip by her attention is this address, from one elder to his fellow. Knowing, as the contemporary scholar will, that this name Dionysius recalls a figure in the book of Acts who could not possibly have written these texts, is this name and this address simply to be understood as an attempt to increase the exposure of the work? Or does the attribution and address place these reflections firmly in the context of a particular gathering, a particular liturgy, and the prayers of a particular tradition as it attempts to pray after the co-incidence of this divinity with one particular human life?

True sayings about God, after all, are true for the Areopagite not in virtue of “plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit.” [2] Thus we must not “resort to words or conceptions… apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed.” [3] Dionysius is concerned to speak from these texts and this Spirit not because the God to whom these reflections are addressed is a parochial God, identical to or possessed by some (Christian) religious order, but precisely because the God who ‘shows up’ in these texts, this Spirit, and this person Jesus is a God “beyond Being itself.” [4] “Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.” [5] Even as the self-revelation of this one enjoins a certain kind of speech, so also the inscrutability of this one, for Dionysius, enjoins a certain kind of silence.

This, of course, puts the Areopagite in a rather strange discursive position. On the one hand, these texts and these names come to him from a specifically Jewish tradition, one for which these very categories “Being,” “The Good,” “logos,” appear transgressively as strangers. Dionysius himself subtly apologizes multiple times throughout The Divine Names for the impropriety of his neoplatonic terminology. [6] On the other hand, even the earliest proclamations of this one Jesus play freely and without anxiety among the categories given by the most rigorous traditions of pagan wisdom. The very name this writer selects remembers a convert in Athens in Acts 17—a conversion which takes place as a direct result of free interaction with Hellenic philosophical traditions. What is significant, both in this play more generally and in the Dionysian corpus in particular, is the way a happening is welcomed which appears as something unanticipated, excessive to both traditions of thought; something which impinges ex-statically upon thought and life, which pushes each of these traditions of thought outside of themselves, out to meet the processions of this ‘unknown God.’ The Areopagite can thus theorize rigorously in terms of Being and causality, temporality and eternity, while still offering each of these ruminations in praise of a God who will not be contained by these categories.

 If all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being most be able to transcend knowledge… How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all things while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable? [7]

Thus, for Dionysius, in the simultaneous necessity and impropriety of attempting to name this nameless One, saying and unsaying—silence and metaphysical constructions of the highest order—are to be gathered together and offered up in praise to the God who comes to them as a foreigner and, transgressing the bounds of each carefully constructed name, nevertheless may receive them each as something which goes beyond simple saying and unsaying; as a doxological word; a word of praise.

[1]  Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Divine Names,” in Pseudo-Dionysius : The Complete Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Ibid., 61, 64, 65, 74. Colm Luibheid highlights this pattern in relation to specifically Proclean terminology.

[7] Ibid., 53.

Nonviolence

Violence demands a response, and those who must respond hastily assume that the proper response to violence is more violence. But as followers of the Crucified One we respond to violence by nonviolently pointing to the One who bore the ultimate consequence of the wretchedness of humanity. We testify in word and deed to a radical nonviolence that is to be the new ethos of the created order.

In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that the “retribution” Jesus speaks about in Matthew 5:28-32 is a “just retribution” that takes place “only in not resisting it.”[1]  Leviticus 24:20, the Old Testament law behind this teaching, assumes a divine retaliation, not a human one.[2]  As human agents we react to injustice against us not by assuming that it is our responsibility to right wrongs but God’s. “For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil.”[3]  Nonviolent reaction to evil committed serves to show the ultimate allegiance of the church to Christ: “Our voluntary renunciation of counterviolence confirms and proclaims our unconditional allegiance to Jesus and his followers, our freedom, our detachment from our own egos.”[4]  The ethic of the church is Jesus.  This is not a rejection of cultural and political contexts but a grasping of Christ.  The church is not running away from politics but running toward Christ.  This is what the church is and must be to the world.

Bonhoeffer’s thesis is strengthened when considered in relation to Miroslav Volf’s work on memory. For Volf, the heart of the Christian faith lies not in the insistence that wrongs committed always deserve a response but in embracing the “risky territory marked by the commitment to love one’s enemies.”[5]  This happens not through remembering wrongdoing or forgetting about wrongdoing but remembering correctly with a desire that is fueled neither by hate or disregard but by love for the wrongdoer. This is not wishful thinking or neglect of justice; rather, “the obligation to remember is an extension of the obligation to attend to the wrongs committed.”[6]  Remembering rightly the wrong suffered by loving the wrongdoer and letting God be the one who enacts retribution is the Christian way of justice.

The ultimate act of violence has already been committed at the cross; Christians can remember correctly the wrongdoing of the other because God has made peace through violence.[7]  The gruesome killing of the Son of God is the epitome of violence, for it was against both God and man.  And the very fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead and vindicated by God means that violence is defeated because life is the new reality of the cosmos.  Violence became something that God did, once and for all.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonheoffer Works. Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 132-33.  Bonhoeffer is not rejecting political and national ties here as such.  The bowing of the church in Germany to the Third Reich confused the religious and political allegiances of much of Germany.  Bonhoeffer is careful to not tie the church to any particular nation or culture but to Christ alone.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

[6] Ibid., 204.

[7] Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, xi.