A Punk Rock Eschatology

Growing up in the 90’s means participating in any variety of teenage subcultures.  Certainly, the most contentious is punk.  Anyone who has ever listened to The Sex Pistols, The Ramones or The Clash has participated in the endless dialectic of authentic punk and poser.  What is authentically punk: TRUE PUNK™?  Fundamentally, these discussions are absurd.  Cultural movements among all people, though especially teenagers are dynamic and ever-changing styles.  There is only one guiding logic of punk rock.  Maybe this guiding logic relies on too much on a historical example for its legitimacy, but I think it works.  In 1977, Sid Vicious chanted the bridge to God Save the Queen: “NO FUTURE.”  Boldly, I argue that “No Future” is the logic of punk as well as an eschatological statement.

In recent days while browsing through posts on Reddit, I came across a really troubling post.  If you’re familiar with Reddit you know all too well of the troubling content regularly posted.  Though, the post that piqued my interest was not explicitly because of misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc (however, these things were all present).  The post was a simple picture of a young Muslim girl dressed in typical “punk” fashion.  Punk is such a contentious term in regards to fashion, culture and music, this contention was played out rather typically in this post.  One user says,

Punk is about rebellion and the rejection of the accepted social standards. That taqwacore stuff, “islamic” punk etc. seems like an oxymoron. Punk is punk. The concepts of “christian” punk, “islamic” punk make no sense to me.

This user misunderstands the logic of punk.  Punk rock is not about rebellion, it’s an eschatological prediction on the future made based on a certain critique of neoliberal capitalism.  Yes, punk rock is rebellious, but this rebellion is secondary to its eschatology.  This is why punk rock works so well within Abrahamic religious traditions.  Being a Christian youth often means needing to find spaces for self-expression outside of normative Christian culture.  Okay, so I’m clearly speaking from a position of Christianity, but my diagnosis of self-expression can be extended to other religious traditions, like Islam.

Why then does punk work with Christianity? Simply, it is because Christianity and punk rock share a similar eschatology (generally, I feel unable to talk about eschatology in Islam.  However, it shares a similar form with Christianity).  There is an orientation toward the meaning and politics of the end times.  Christianity and Islam share a certain apocalypticism that echoes punk rocks “No Future.”  The early church understood this the best.  The budding biblical scholar often asks why were the gospels authored so long after the death of Christ?  This is due to Christianity being apocalyptic and expecting Christ’s imminent return.

The early Christian church lived in a tension with apocalyptic themes.  They lived precarious lives: Christ could return any day.  The contemporary context is certainly different, but there is a certain apocalyptic tension that exists in the present with punk rock.  There is a questionable future: life lived under the flows of neoliberal capitalism make tomorrow uncertain.

It may be the case that the early church lived as a precarious and apocalyptic assemblage, but can a similar assessment of the contemporary church be made?  It is true that some strains of fundamentalist Christianity hold that the stars are right and Christians could be raptured at any moment.  In this interpretation of eschatological events, there is very seriously no future.  Though, the precariousness of capitalism also puts all Christians in an apocalyptic position: a position of no future.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

A Modest Plea Against Theological Inclusiveness

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This week, as has become customary every couple of years or so, I re-read Marcella Althaus-Reid’s contribution to the book Another Possible World, a 2005 compilation of conference papers evaluating the state of then-contemporary theologies of liberation. In her essay she accuses, not only the usual targets, (mainstream, “European” theologies) but liberationist thought itself of being incapable of thinking rigorously about the intersection of poverty, class, and queer bodies. Althaus-Reid ties this inability to a number of factors: for instance, liberationist thinking is militarist and identitarian in a way that predisposes it to concessions of efficacy and expedience. Thus, the poor is most prominently poor, straight, males, and once those problems are addressed, [for the liberationist] we can move on to include women, queer folk, etc. It’s important not to read her point reductively: it’s not that liberationists are secret queer-phobes, or that they would claim to be doing this prioritizing, but instead these priorities play out at the level of material relations. A radical sermon from the likes of James Cone, she notes, seems easier for militant churches to receive than the actual concrete relations implied by the collision of cultural and sexual difference in their midst. Also important to note is the way that the target of Reid’s ire is not merely exclusive, but in fact inclusive rhetoric. She doesn’t spend a lot of time on this particular point, but I want to draw attention here. Because of the formal properties (the closure) of inclusionary process, inclusionary self-identity can’t receive difference as such uncolonially, no matter how transgressive the identity is upon which inclusion is based.

Queer is, it seems to me, for a number of reasons, the one predicative identity that gets closest to the ability to do some theological work. Its etymology and history are both really nicely suggestive, and thus tempting to take up in a certain way (for me, even more tempting, etymologically, than, say, “poor” or “oppressed”). The word, in its earliest use, carries connotations of “de-centered,” “oblique.” It’s not hard to see why, especially working from an apocalyptic framework, the word is ecclesiologically attractive. The trouble, though, is that there’s a certain sedentary nature to (even that!) naming that makes a home in a world where there really are “straights” to hate and name “queers.” I really do believe that we are to live and work and gather in a way that can only be called “queer” by a “straight” world, and that’s part of what makes it tempting to embrace such a name for oneself. The word “queer” comes to “queer” folk as violence from the beginning, however, and to proclaim a shared “queerness” with those to whom that name has come not by choice is to forget that violence. If we are to be called queer, it can only be insofar as a straight world recognizes us as something that does not fit, and as already-queer folks recognize us as folks who are cast out alongside them. All that requires living, and working, and gathering in a certain way, and it requires gathering in a way that isn’t so much about inviting already-called-queer people into something (perhaps a place where the name Christian might come to them) but instead to a kind of intermingling to the point that we might become indistinguishable.

This, to me, as many things do, points back to that discursive aporia of Christian theology Lucas gestures towards in his first post. Christian attempts to think the significance of queer bodies theologically have historically had very little to say that can register meaningfully as “good news” to queer folk. In light of a long history of Christian violence, it seems rather hard to imagine “well, now you can join too” as news anybody’s going to really appreciate. This isn’t to denigrate open and affirming congregations; if anything, I’m saying that’s the least a little local church could do. Perhaps what I’m saying is that any attempt to move beyond the discursive aporia is going to have to be reckoned by its ability to think beyond the given categories for sexual discourse in the contemporary West, and is going to have to be radically unconcerned with its own self-identity. It’s going to have to be a way of thinking, say, the significance of the person Jesus, that neither insists on a sort of originary harmony in denial of the violence that underwrites the contemporary order nor leaves the maimed and silenced and killed with no place to stand and no word to say.

Forgive Us Our Debts

Strike Debt! is one of the latest movements of Occupy Wall St.  Strike Debt! is a push for a dialogue as well as action concerning debt culture in the United States.  Perhaps this movement has gained so much traction because debt is such a familiar topic for Americans.  Daily life in our society has become anxious and precarious.  Some of us live paycheck to paycheck; others live nervously anticipating movements of the market.  How long can we continue?  Will we get sick and not be able to work?  Will we experience another devastating market crash?  How long can we keep up on our monthly payments?  Strike Debt! strives to create networks of support and withdrawal from debt culture.  Certainly, these are activities that are important for a large portion of the social body, but what about Christians?  Can Christians Strike Debt?

The Christian church we hear about in acts is one that shared things in common.  This is a radical network of support that Christianity has lost.  The church has lost its radical community to family life centers, zumba classes and Christian bookstores.  Detractors of anarchism and communism often cite that the early Christian church lived in such a way because they were waiting for the end of the world and the return of Christ.  Though, is this much different from the way we live, don’t we live expecting some apocalyptic event?  Every Sunday we pray for the coming kingdom; we anticipate the end of the world.  Michael Hardt and Toni Negri explain this apocalyptic tone in contemporary politics saying,

“…the predominance of violence to resolve national and international conflicts not merely as last but as first resort; the widespread use of torture and even its legitimation; the indiscriminate killing of civilians combat…This vision of the world resembles those medieval European renditions of hell: people burning in a river of fire, others being torn limb from limb, and in the center a great devil engorging their bodies whole.”(Negri and Hardt, Commonwealth, Pg. 3)

How can the Christian community prepare for the end of the world?  Can Christians strike debt?  Can they take revolutionary action?  Perhaps, instead of striking against debt and other types of refusal, the Christian approach to the precariousness of everyday life is to forgive debts.  The forgiveness of debts is not simply the refusal of participating in debt culture, but the extinguishing of destructive and violent energies.  To forgive is to unbind one’s love upon another, blotting out one’s sins.

There is a strong precedent in the Christian church to spiritualize the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps one of the most oft said prayers in the Christian church.  Though, it is in this prayer we ask:

“ Your kingdom come
 Give us each day our daily bread
  And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:4 NRSV)

As God forgives our sins, we are to forgive “everyone indebted to us.”  If our belief and actions are to be anchored by the Christian faith then the debt culture and the violence of financial capitalism must be wiped away.  Forgiving debt is a much more radical move than simply withdrawing or striking.  The Forgiveness of debts imagines new relationships between individuals and capital.  If we are to be subjects of Christ, as Joel said in his previous post, it requires an erasure of our capitalist subjectivities.

Perhaps, to parse this transformation out in a more radical way we can use the language of Deleuze and Guattari.  In the essay Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium, Deleuze and Guattari explain, “There is no ideology, there are only organizations of power.”  This is to say that Capitalism is a certain organization of power and to counter this power new organizations must be implemented.  In using this logic we find the means of the erasure of our capitalist modes of desire and production.  Changing the organizations of power changes the way one desires.  We must re-purpose our social organs toward a new becoming, becoming-Christ.  To forgive debts is to transgress against the capitalist organism.

Parenthetically, a temptation here might be to call for conformity toward what Paul in First Corinthians calls the body of Christ.  Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ is one body with many members, assemblages of members performing the duty of organs. Thinking hierarchically, the church certainly is a dominating organization of power, but hierarchy and rigid organizations of power must be exorcised from the church.  Can we imagine the church as a radical community of support and care?  There is merit to Paul’s words, but the image of the body of Christ, that is the hierarchy of the church, is far too stratified and fixed.  Paul’s body allows only for a narrow outpouring of the multifaceted desires of the Christian body.

Becoming-Christ is a repurposing of our machines of accumulation into machines of forgiveness and hospitality, our machines of hierarchy and stratification into machines of support, mutual aid, and democracy: the organs of Christ and the church must be organized into machines of kenosis, which is to say machines of self-emptying.  Instead of acquiring wealth and extracting labor we must construct they machines of love and forgiveness.  Private property has no place in the kingdom, for there is enough to go around.  What is a debt anyways?  Debt is a semiotic agreement, but Christ frees us from our debts and in turn we must free each other from debt.  Not a year of jubilee, but a world turned on its head.

A rigid grid ought not be fixed to the kingdom of God simply because love is not rigid.  Forgiveness is hard; especially when we are required to forgive that which capitalism makes us cling to.  Christian love is often transgressive against capitalist machines of accumulation.  Property, exchange and capital hold no bearing under the logic of Christ who instructs us to forgive and love wastefully.  In the face of precarity and capital let us freely love and freely forgive.

Barth and God-talk

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“This alone –– note, God’s Word alone –– is the answer that possesses genuine transcendence and thus has the power to solve the riddle of immanence…We must give this answer, but this very answer we cannot give.”[1]

In his essay “The Word of God as the Task of Theology,” Karl Barth attempts to put forth the task of the theologian. The task that is both the theologians plight and promise.[2] This task, the theologians plight and promise, is both the necessary and impossible task of speaking of God––the question of God. [3] For Barth, the question of God arises from human existence. This question comes to be from the human realization that her entire life stands in the shadow of death. Thus, this question that gives rise to the theologians task, the question of God, is the negativity of human existence.[4] “For [she herself], the human, is the question. Therefore the answer must be the question.”[5] It is out of this negativity of human existence that, for Barth, both the question and answer of the task of theology surfaces.[6] However, this task is an impossibility, according to Barth. The answer to this question, to the “human riddle”, is the Word of God; it is the event of God doing something new. It is the event that cannot be comprehended; it can only be revealed as the impossible becomes possible, as God becomes human.[7] Nevertheless, this question, which rises up in the need of the human, moves one to “ought” to speak of God. However, this ought does not imply can.[8] For Barth, “to speak of God would mean to speak that word which can only come from God [herself]: the Word, God becomes [human].”[9] It is only as God reveals Godself that the Word may be spoken. Where God enters into the negativity of our existence with Her fullness, it is only there that speaking of God may occur.[10] We humans cannot speak of God, but because God has become human, we may speak of God. However, we are to do so in a way where the answer is never dissolved into the question, nor vice versa; rather we are to speak “along this narrow ridge”[11] of answer and question, of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Thus we are to speak of the Word of God, “the living truth”, in awareness of the “unavoidable absence of this living truth”[12] in all our sayings. The task of the theologian is to say that which cannot be said, to speak of God. And in faith, the “plight is also the promise”. For in faith, “it might be possible that the Word –– the Word of God that we will never speak –– has taken our weakness and perversion, so that our word becomes capable of the Word of God precisely in its weakness and perversion.”[13] The question is the answer because we have faith that in the negativity of our existence, God, in God’s fullness, will speak the Word of God.


[1]  Barth, Karl. Word of God and Theology: “The Word of God as the Task of Theology, 1922,” 185-186.

[2] “Our plight is also our promise.” Ibid., 196

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Ibid., 177-8.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] For Barth, this question comes out of humanity’s cry for salvation. “The human does not cry for solutions, but for salvation; not for something human again, but for God as the Savior of his humanity.” Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 184.

[8] “…even in the precise moment of the divine calling and equipping, we still cannot speak of God.” Ibid., 185.

[9] Ibid., 185.

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid., 194.

[13] Ibid., 197.

Badiou Post 1: Particularity, Violence and Theology

“the fundamental ontological characteristic of an event is to inscribe, to name, the situated void of that for which it is an event”[1]

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In his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Alain Badiou offers a critical analysis of that nebulous, and oft abused philosophical subset, ‘ethics’. Badiou proceeds to offer his own constructive concept of an ‘Ethics of Truth’. Both this critical analysis and succeeding construction are, in addition to being a militant challenge to the bourgeois ‘ethics’ of liberal-democratic societies, immanently relevant, critically, to current discussions regarding theological language, method, metaphysics, lack thereof etc. (insert any other vogue approach specific only to theology). I will now (very) briefly exegete a few points Badiou makes in this book before proceeding to the main point of this post; theology’s recourse to its own particularity as the most insidious form of violent oppression.

Badiou first offers the reader a critical description of what he labels the ‘ethical ideology’.  In short, this ideology is that pious brand of thinking endemic to the western world in which we conceive of humanity as essentially powerless before an evil presupposed a priori to exist. This presupposition of the state of humanity neutralizes all attempts for constructive good, leading us to even denounce all such attempts as evil in themselves. Thus, humanity is forced into a static place of simple subsistence; the status quo of the state is preserved in the never-ending process of defense rather than liberation.[2] Badiou correctly notes, “This is sophistry at its most devastating. For if our only agenda is an ethical engagement against an Evil we recognize a priori, how are we to envisage any transformation of the way things are?”[3] There are other negative consequences associated with this particular ideological instantiation, however, for the purposes of this post we will table those until next week.

Simultaneous to this poor state of the human, each person and society has as its ethical directive a responsibility for the care, respect and upholding of the untouchable, impossible to understand and, ironically and most contradictory, self-mimetic ‘other’. [4] Again tabling for now some of the more poignant aspects of Badiou’s analysis here, i.e. highlighting the inherently religious character of conceiving of ‘ethics’ in the principled sense[5], the important point to note is that this false construction of the ‘other’ leaves all discourse regarding ethics in a stagnant place. Differences are ontologically basic. Sameness is where the real work of truth lies, according to Badiou. Yet, constructive acts of good, defined outside the parameter of maintenance and defense of the current ‘state’, are affectively neutralized now in a two-fold sense of the powerless human faced with the ever present evil and with the ever evasive ‘other’ keeping the person constantly in place.

Badiou aims to construct his own way forward via a reformation of the question of ethics into one, which corresponds to his theory of ‘truth process’. In short, truth processes contain three major elements:

  • the event, which brings to pass ‘something other’ than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the event is a hazardous [hasardeux], unpredictable supplement
  • the fidelity, which is the name of the process: it amounts to a sustained investigation of the situation, under the imperative of the event itself; it is an immanent and continuing break
  • the truth as such, that is, the multiple, internal to the situation, that the fidelity constructs, bit by bit, it is what the fidelity gathers together and produces[6]

The event is both a situated event, reliant upon the current ‘state’ or status quo context, and a radical breaking with such a situation. The text cited at the top of this post names that particular relationship of the event to the state. The event names that void within the current situation, that visceral lacking thereof that can only be experienced in a revelatory moment to which the subject of truth wills her fidelity after this experience has passed.

This brief analysis of how Badiou situates the contemporary situation of the ethical ideology, in addition to his subsequent proposal for its upheaval, is I think important for theological discourse for at least one reason. It adequately describes how much of contemporary theology functions. The current ‘state’ of theology is one premised upon a similar recourse to ‘otherness’. Here this discourse insidiously traps its human agents within a triumphalism of the in-breaking and rupturing act of the supreme ‘other’. This move, I wish to maintain, is similar to the aforementioned concern for the allusive other in the realm of ethics. Concern for humility, acknowledgment of human limitation and fetishizing of difference serve not a liberative function but to bind and control both the human side of discourse and the divine. Radical difference defines the boundaries of discourse. Transgressing this boundary with talk of constructive metaphysics[7] or anything else becomes a violent act.

In this sense, the state of theological discourse is once again a violent maintenance of the status quo, deceptively masquerading as true emancipation and dynamic breaking. Theology champions its particularity while those outside the fold struggle for something of concrete emancipatory value. What sort of event might emerge from within this ‘state’? I think that is an important question, especially since the event that may require fidelity in this case is the leaving behind of that particularity and the embrace of something more universally real.


[1] Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.  London; New York: Verso, 2001. 69.

[2] Badiou. Ethics. 13. “if the ethical ‘consensus’ is founded on the recognition of Evil, it follows that every effort to unite people around a positive idea of the Good, let alone to identify Man with projects of this kind, becomes in fact the real source of evil itself. Such is the accusation so often repeated over the last fifteen years: every revolutionary project stigmatized as ‘utopian’ turns, we are told, into totalitarian nightmare. Every will to inscribe an idea of justice of equality turns bad. Every collective will to the Good creates Evil (bold print mine).

[3] Badiou. Ethics. 14.

[4] Badiou. Ethics. 24. The mimetic nature of this permeated concept of the other, an essential characteristic of the ‘ethical ideology’, manifests in what Badiou is able to illustrate as the very controlled and co-opted ‘other’; culturally/ideologically relative sameness bearing down upon the practical application of such a concern for the, now insidiously mythical, ‘other’. “Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics and of the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference…(here Badiou references Muslims and other non-western peoples whom are unacceptable as the ‘other’)… “Respect for differences, of course! But on the condition that the different be parliamentary-democratic, pro free-market economics, in favour of freedom of opinion, feminism, the environment…”

[5] Badiou. Ethics. 23. Interestingly Badiou actually points to the irreligious appropriation of this ideology of the other, taking off of but somewhat distinct from Levinas’ own concept, as the that which he is attacking in this particular instance. “We are left with a pious discourse without piety, a spiritual supplement for incompetent governments, and a cultural sociology preached, in line with the new-style sermons, in lieu of the late class struggle.” It is not difficult here to see the connection between the aforementioned stagnation of emancipatory theory/action rooted in the weak human/a priori evil and this conception of the ‘other’.  This is not however, to say that the religious roots of such a notion of the ‘other’ really give this anymore authorities validity.

[6] Badiou. Ethics. 67-68.

[7] This is not to say that there are not also issues associated with this approach.