A Theory of Bird

A couple weeks ago, I presented a paper at a conference within a conference–the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion which meets during the annual meeting of the AAR. I was asked to write and present a response paper for one of the NAASR panels after submitting a short paragraph with an account of what I think “explanation” is as a method in religious studies. My presented paper was in response to an essay by Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, two scholars who are deeply interested and invested in cognitive science of religion. I won’t rehash their paper here; it suffices to say that they were arguing for a comprehensive reductive explanation of “religion” as the best kind of explanation we can have through an appeal to a reductive method from the biological sciences. In the course of the discussion following their paper and the three responses to it, one member of the audience made what struck me as a rather strange remark.

“Why are we talking about a ‘theory of religion?'” he objected. “What does that even mean? To me, having a ‘theory of religion’ is like having a ‘theory of bird.’ It’s completely meaningless.”

In other words, religion isn’t special. In one way, his comment makes sense in the context of NAASR. This is the organization that has consistently railed against scholarship that renders religion as “special” in any sense. “Critical religion” emerged from (or founded) NAASR in the mid-80s and has more or less maintained the same position since then: Religion is no-thing. It isn’t special in relation to other “master categories.” To many in this camp, there shouldn’t be a protected discipline called “religious studies” at all. The position goes even further, however: any attempt at all to safeguard religion from “disinterested” academic study, even if only a perceived attempt, is taken to be “crypto-theology” or as part of a “theological agenda.” The prefix “cypto” is crucial here. On this view, most of the scholars that make up the AAR are actually engaged in a kind of theology, even if that majority would deny that theology is what they’re doing (for example, as Eliade and other phenomenologists of religion did and do.) These erring scholars do so through obfuscating the discussion surrounding what “religion” as a concept is or ought to be even while they claim that religion is something “out there” that we can identify and understand through comparison, description, interpretation, and explanation on the religious adherent’s own terms.

How is this obfuscation to be identified and proven to actually be theology-in-disguise? A genealogical account of the ways this obfuscation has operated along lines of power, masking Protestant-Christian motivation (even if latent) has proven amazingly fruitful But this move has already gone through a variety of vexed iterations in its relatively short history in religious studies. At first, proponents thought we ought to drop religion in favor of less problematic categories such as “politics” or “culture” (e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald)–thereby paradoxically (and unwittingly) rendering religion “special” in the sense that it required special attention to its discursive formation in a way politics or culture didn’t. Proponents of this position have since recognized that these other categories also have discursive histories that must be reckoned with, and that they are all actually inextricably linked together in important ways. This has produced some very interesting, fruitful, and important analyses of the relationship between these categories, particularly in analyses of Western colonialism (e.g. the uses of Christianity for disciplining politically liberal colonial subjects) and the relationship between “the secular” and “the religious” in Western political discourse.

At this point, however, we’ve strayed very far from what the initial comment was getting at. While his intention was to remove the “specialness” from religion, he did not do so by appealing to the social and political construction of the category. On the contrary–his comment  was intended to render religion simply natural. This solves the problem of obfuscation, since the comment implies the meaning of “religion” and to what it refers, like “bird,” is so clear as to need no theorization at all. However, there’s a problem here. If religion does not need a theory because it’s like “bird,” then religion cannot be no-thing. It is, in fact, something that apparently requires no theorization about what it is because it’s “in the world” for us to find just as birds are.

This position isn’t actually coherent–for what does it mean to say one doesn’t have “a theory of bird?” As one of my colleagues quipped when I related this story, it would be rather odd to find orinthologists wringing their hands over whether they are allowed to appreciate the position of the bird-lover (or the bird?)–to accuse each other of crypto…chirpology? But putting that aside, “religion” is obviously not like “bird.” That is, even if there is a “theory of bird,” it is certainly nothing like a theory of religion, as the entire history of religious studies shows us–as many careful genealogies of the field show us. While we might characterize the former as “positive” in the sense that it could tell us why a penguin is a bird but a bat is not (via the positive characteristics that birds possess) the latter is the story of the contestation of the very existence of any positive concept of religion and how an insistence on clear, empirically demonstrable instances of religion is actually extremely problematic often because of the politics that generates such claims. What religion “is” in this sense is primarily the story of what it is not and that it is not. It is no-thing. It is an academic invention. It is a political force. It is a discursive structure of power. As such, to insist on a rigorous genealogy of a concept such as religion must be to insist on its lack of clarity–on its slippage, its incommensurability between accounts, its disjuncture with any attempt to describe it in absolute terms. Because once we encounter an insistence on simplicity and clarity, particularly with a complex concept like religion, there’s a good chance that there are ideologies at work intent on normalizing themselves for purposes of power through an appeal to clarity and simplicity.

Which brings us back to NAASR, critical religion, and the panel where I heard this comment. It seems “a theory of bird” reflects a deep tension within NAASR itself and among scholars who are interested in denying “religion” special status as strongly as possible. To put it bluntly, the language of “natural science” seems to be the only way in which many scholars in support of the Critical Religion project can conceive of “critical approaches to religion.” The language of genealogy (in the philosophical sense) and the language of natural science are not in conflict on this view; rather, natural science seems to be the only option once the work of showing that religion is no-thing is complete. In other words, for Critical Religion, genealogy is the work that needs to be done to clear the way for the real critical work of a “natural science of religion” that can get at a wholly natural, often evolutionary biological account of what religion is, which underlies and grounds even the genealogical account.

But if genealogy must insist upon complexity, slippage, difference, disjuncture, etc., then this is an utterly incoherent position. In short, it assumes that natural science is neutral, that it is the only method that escapes politics, that it has no inherent politics, no discursive history–that it has no ideology–and, thus, is outside the scope of genealogy. One of my fellow respondents at the NAASR panel questioned Taves and Asprem on this very problem. From his perspective, it seemed as though Taves and Asprem were presenting the choice to use evolutionary biology as an explanatory method as completely apolitical. Thus, on their view for example, explaining the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 by employing evolutionary biology has no discursive political history or baggage. He rightly questioned whether that was actually the case. In response, Taves argued that to say evolutionary biology has a politics is to engage in a dangerous, anti-intellectual project no different than climate change deniers claiming that climate change is a partisan political issue and not a scientific one.

Of course, this is totally ludicrous. Let’s ignore the fact that Taves’ comment completely misunderstands the meaning of “political” as employed by the respondent. Given so many NAASR members’ commitment to genealogy, it is, at first glance, very difficult to see how an analysis of the genealogical development of the natural sciences could be rejected out of hand so easily. Not a single person objected to Taves’ claim about the politics of evolutionary biology, let alone the claim about theories of birds. It’s especially bizarre because the history of natural science–particularly those branches that study human beings–have a deep colonial history that is often inextricable from both religion and politics, often part of the same project of disciplining and civilizing the colonized into acceptable liberal, Enlightened subjects.

If there’s anything this election season has taught me, it’s that it is a mistake to too quickly assume that people who hold two seemingly contradictory positions are actually hypocritical or acting in bad faith.

There is an explanation for this, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it can be illuminated through a genealogy of Critical Religion that shows how their deployment of “genealogy” obfuscates a problematic commitment to natural science as apolitical and, therefore, outside the scope of what genealogy is concerned with, i.e. ideology. There’s no room for a full account here, but on my view, it has to do with a too-easy, extremely vague distinction between “scientific” and “confessional” which, as I mention above, goes back to the 19th century. But I can offer this observation in closing: The relationship between post-structural genealogical theoretical modes and a commitment to natural science as a method in religious studies has generated a very interesting form of doublespeak wherein the demand for clarity of language results in the obfuscation of a contradiction, namely the one outlined above.

If you pay close enough attention to those scholars typically associated with NAASR and Critical Religion (Russell McCutcheon, Craig Martin, etc.) you begin to notice a pattern. Any new scholarship that, in their view, “protects” religion as a concept in any way is automatically full of terms intended to obfuscate the author’s point, which in turn is intended to make the argument difficult to attack–the point being that such obfuscation always prevents a reduction of the concept to more “concrete,” “clear,” or “real” terms, i.e. those of natural science. Thus, if we can point out the key terms that are meaningless, we can dismantle the author’s argument. This is the same strategy utilized by analytic philosophers and historians who find continental philosophy and “theory” in general to be needlessly dense, complex, and obscure, e.g. Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze is talking about something really simple in the most complicated way possible. If we can demonstrate the simplicity of the argument, we can show it’s not just a simple argument but a pointless one. This demand for clarity of language, that “words matter,” betrays the Critical Religion commitment to natural science which actually contradicts any commitment to genealogy they claim to have.

In other words, these scholars have staked their careers on proving to us (very successfully, I think) that religion isn’t simple. If it were, why would we need to have so many histories of the discursive power relations that generate the concept in various contexts and for various purposes of political power? Why is there ever a demand for simple straightforward language or simple, easy definitions of terms in analyses of religion–for commensurability, conjuncture, and on, and on–when genealogy shows us that the moment you encounter claims to simplicity and clarity in language, you can be absolutely sure things are not simple or clear? There is incommensurability. There is disjuncture. There is dissonance. How could there not be if “religion” is a cultural construct formed along lines of power?

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The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

I’m looking forward to the HBO series The Leftovers, which will begin its second season on October 4. I enjoyed the show immensely last summer despite my initial reservation regarding the involvement of a former Lost producer. One of the reasons for my enjoyment, of course, is that I think the premise of the show is quite beautifully explicative of a lesser known or recognized aspect of Max Weber’s theory of religion: The rejection of a totalizing material explanation for religious ideas in favor of understanding the latter’s efficacy in their political, social, economic, and historical contexts.

Last summer, I caught a review of the pilot episode from Slate‘s Culture Gabfest podcast. The questions and speculation surrounding the supposed aims of the show were what drove an ultimately tepid review. As I say, the reservations are not without good reason given the way that Lost spiraled out of control and, in retrospect, never really found any solid footing in terms of a premise to begin with. Reflecting back, the entire series was mystery all the way down with the promise of some kind of satisfying explanation. Deep down, I think most of us knew by the end of the fourth or fifth season (maybe much earlier) that the writers and producers probably weren’t going to be able to pull off anything satisfying. What drove the popularity of the show was the allure of a material explanation that would tie up all the mystery in a nice bow, giving us a collective sigh of relief. So strong was this allure that everything that happened in the show was somehow tied back to this center–which ended up being essentially non-existent. In other words, both action and character development on Lost never moved forward in any meaningful way. It was always directed backward, or inward, to the mysterious core, the material explanation that would make everything make sense.

And so this review immediately jumped on the premise of The Leftovers, which is based on a novel of the same name: 140 million people worldwide disappear on Oct. 14, 2011, and no one knows why. Given the first season, one thing is clear: We will never find out what happened to those people because the answer to that mystery is not what drives the narrative. It is fundamentally the opposite structure of Lost even though both shows begin in more or less the same way–the introduction of a mystery whose fog hangs over the entire series.

Rather than the cause of the mystery, The Leftovers is interested in exploring what Weber would call an irrational interjection into the rational progress of history. How do human beings respond to incomprehensible tragedy, paradox, revolution, and prophecy? The Leftovers is about the formation of new ideologies–religious ideologies in particular–out of the chaos of history. It is about the consequences of the introduction of the unexplainable, the prophetic, and the mystical into history and the ways in which these introductions render everything that follows irreversibly changed.

Weber’s understanding of theodicy is germane here. In Sociology of Religion, Weber devotes a chapter to a material account of the rise of theodicies among both wealthy and impoverished classes. His argument is that theodicies provide rational explanations of evil and fortune that would be able to reconcile why some had much and others had basically nothing. This explanation is not new. Weber is essentially borrowing from previous intellectualist traditions in theories of religion from the 19th century. The explanation is also weak and, frankly, not that interesting, but Weber then follows this analysis in the next chapter with a really interesting move. He drops the intellectualist explanation for theodicy from his analysis of what theodicy does. In other words, the political, economic, and social effects of the popular circulation of theodicies within a society have nothing to do with their “original” material cause. You can’t get to those effects from the material causes without the circulation of religious ideas (their social psychology) that bridges them.

One could potentially trace a line from the beginnings of rational explanations for fortune and evil to, for example, the development of the Protestant ethic and then the spirit of capitalism, but the reasons why Weber thinks these kinds of rational explanations devlop fit more into his broader theory about rationalization as a general feature of human life rather than as something that has specific explanatory purchase on later historical concepts like the spirit of capitalism. And when an irrational experience, idea, figure, event enters the scene, material explanations go completely out the window. That’s because, for Weber, the “concepts” that drive history in radically different directions are formed out of confrontation with the irrational.

For example, for Weber, the Calvinistic belief that one stands alone before a God whose motives are wholly irrational (i.e. not approachable by human reason) coupled with the previously existing general dominance of “moral behavior” in Christianity, generates a particular mode of moral activity (inner-worldly asceticism) that in turn produces the spirit of contemporary capitalism: the earning of money for the sake of money itself. (You can find a more detailed explanation of these moves in Weber here and here.) Importantly, it is the specific Calvinistic formulation of the problem of the relationship between God, world, and individual Christian that has causal efficacy rather than the underlying, “rational-material” cause of that formulation that would tie it to any other such formulation (i.e. in other religious practices/systems.) There is an irrational, terrifying relationship between God-I-world that necessitates the generation of new modes of social organization.

The collective character of The Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers represents Weber’s analysis quite explicitly–to the point of actually incorporating it into the core of their own system and ritual practice. Their aim is to continually instantiate the original event that generated a new way of being in the world. They don’t want anyone to forget what happened on the day 140 million people disappeared. But their interest is not simply the exercise of memory. As in Christianity, it is performative. It’s the institutionalization of the event’s irrationality into the collective memory which will generate a new politics, social structure, and economy. The Guilty Remnant, however, reverses the Christian performance of the Eucharist (or, one might say, negates it) because the very idea that reasons don’t matter–that a causal explanation for the mass disappearance is irrelevantis actually integral to their practice.

In the penultimate episode of season one, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the leader of The Remnant, tells Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) that she thinks about the day of the disappearance “every fucking waking moment” but that “it doesn’t matter what happened.” This is precisely the opposite of Christianity. In both cases, we have an event which, for the faithful, utterly changes universal history. Yet in Christianity, we have a teleological cause; God’s ultimate and final reconciliation of the world to himself necessitates the Christ-event. In the case of The Remnant, there is no cause. They have explicitly institutionalized the original charisma of the event-sans-reason. It is a rejection of both the classical religious explanation as well as the reductive materialist explanation. There is no why and it is in the very act of performing this rejection that the center of The Remnant’s religious power resides. In continually instantiating the irrationality of the event, they attempt to resist the reification and institutionalization of the event on its behalf. For example, in the finale, by orchestrating the placement of the life-like mannequins of the disappeared in their former homes, The Remnant forces the citizens of Mapleton to recall the charismatic power of the original event, which in turn tears down the edifice of normalcy and solemn acknowledgement erected by the local government.

It’s unclear what endgame, if any, there is for The Remnant other than to be a living negative force (in Adorno’s sense) against the institutionalization of the event–to ensure that people understand that everything has now changed. All attempts to return to “the normal” reify and mask the irrational event as merely an aberration, a tragic but ultimately insignificant historical event to be commemorated like any other tragedy (with State acknowledgment, parades, memorials, holidays, etc.) The Leftovers, then, is not merely an indictment of institutionalized religion. It is also an indictment of the modern project of history, of empiricist accounts of religions. It is critical of attempts to synthesize the once irrational event into a rational flow of cause and effect, rather than attempt to seize upon the tension the irrational produces within the political, social, and economic and ask how its circulation contributes to new forms of social organization.

Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories

There has been a veritable explosion of counter-stream movements in the last few years that have not only gained ground but have actually had serious social effects: Anti-vaccination (fear of medical professionals in general), anti-chemicals-in-food (or “chemicals” in general), continued climate change denial, etc. These movements all operate with a very similar rhetoric which points to a nefarious plot to profit off of an ill-informed and vulnerable public. The key to resistance is to arm yourself with the true scientific (or “alternative”) knowledge that isn’t being produced for profit. The recent surge of hidden camera footage produced by pro-life activists in an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is exemplary of this logic as well. That case is particularly interesting because we have a now decades old position (anti-abortion/pro-life) being presented as an exposé of a conspiracy to profit from the sale of dead babies and in the name of “mainstream science.”

For those of us arguing against this kind of rhetoric, it often feels like talking to a wall. The response is typically that we have been sucked in, are blind to the reality that is all around us, are uncritical shills ourselves. It often feels as though the very arguments that we generate against these theories get turned on us. “You think I’m being uncritical? You’re the one being controlled by Big Pharma/the liberal media/the abortion industry/etc. Wake up!” The script is flipped. And the truth is, the rhetoric of these claims is eerily similar to the kind of social philosophy that has been the core of the humanities since the middle of the 20th century–the kind of social and cultural criticism out of which many of us are attempting to build a career. Furthermore, given the proliferation of the theories mentioned above, we are force to ask: What is the difference between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory? Why can’t a conspiracy theory be critical or vice versa–or are those in fact interchangeable?

The French sociologist Bruno Latour thinks, in general, they are. In his 2004 essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Latour laments this very thing: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He begins the essay citing a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. For example, even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

Do you see why I am worried? Latour writes. I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

Latour’s concern here is heightened even more today in a way that he probably could not have imagined even just ten years ago. Though the Internet was already showing signs of movement toward larger and larger echo-chamberfication, there were certain mediums that did not yet exist; namely, vast networks of social media. YouTube didn’t exist. MySpace, Friendster and the like were at nowhere near the level of information production and circulation that Facebook and Twitter are today. But for this reason, Latour’s “criticism of criticism” is perhaps even more important in our contemporary climate. Latour continues, chastising those of us making a career out of social and cultural criticism:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

Before I get to Latour’s solution, I want to parse this relationship between the structure of conspiracy and critique a bit more. Drawing a sharper distinction between critical and conspiracy theories at this point will help us to see how we can further distinguish them using Latour’s solution. Latour points out here, I think, only a surface level rhetorical similarity between these two discourses. He is right that there is a structural or formal similarity, but even that is only superficial. Take any of the examples I mentioned at the opening of the post; those are all structurally similar to each other. There is an entity of some kind that has duped the public into thinking its motives have been above reproach when, in fact, it has been profiting from the public’s suffering, actually putting the public’s well-being into very serious jeopardy. Arguments for the existence of institutional racism or structural socio-economic injustice also seem to follow this same pattern. There is an entity to which certain segments of the population are blind. Their continued blindness has perpetuated a threat that has always been there but is now institutionalized through its normalization (i.e. because these segments of the population think of it as normal, they can’t see it as a problem.)

However, we can already begin to see in these examples the important differences to which Latour does not give enough attention in his initial analysis. These differences, I think, can be summed up in the difference between entities. Latour does admit that while conspiracy theories identify a physical group of people, critical theories are interested in abstractions–society, discourse, etc. But this isn’t a small difference. To be sure, critical social and cultural theories accuse more “visible” entities too. For example, we implicate Halliburton and Dick Cheney in the creation of the second Iraq war. We point to a conspiracy there. The difference is that both the effects of that conspiracy and the conditions that made it possible extend far beyond the aims of the conspirators and into the realm of abstractions such as “capitalism,” “discourse,” “neo-liberalism,” etc.

Those abstractions themselves are not conspiracies in the same sense because those who participate in them are not “historically” complicit in their original creation; they are complicit in their perpetuation and thus their creation by cultural inheritance. In fact, it would be hard to say that these abstractions, though they certainly exist, were “created” in the same way that conspiracy theorists want to say Big Pharma created the “myth of vaccinations.” That’s a really important difference. The latter kind of conspiracy theory is the stuff that Hollywood dramas are made of. They begin and end with the people involved. Critical theories may point to people who are consciously involved in a phenomenon “conspiratorially”–but those conspirators are always only an example, a particular manifestation of a larger systemic problem that always transcends their specific conspiracy.

Latour, I think, downplays too much the necessity of critical cultural and social analysis of discourse, of structures of power, of political economies, etc. Of course, I too have written here in the past about my desire to move beyond mere critique and toward a more constructive discourse. And though I disagree that the state of critique is in as dire a situation as Latour claims it is, I think Latour does provide us with an interesting proposal for doing that.

Latour’s solution to this problem, the confusion between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory, is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

A better way of putting this, I think, is to say that Latour is adding a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. By “value” I mean descriptions that are not facts–attributions of beauty, certain attributions of goodness or badness, attributions of fear or disgust, etc.

I would contend, then, that Latour’s proposal shares more similarities with the projects of Simmel or Weber, with the added dimension of an ethical standpoint from which analysis is performed–that is, with the dimension of social critique. When Horkheimer and Adorno abandoned the old sociological descriptive project, which was epistemically relative and anti-empiricist, and was championed by the Neo-Kantian sociologists of the early 20th century like Simmel and Weber, we might say, anachronistically, that they also shifted the focus of social analysis from matters of concern to matters of fact. That maybe seems counterintuitive, particularly because these figures (especially Weber) argued polemically against using sociology as a platform for social criticism. Weber thought that had no place in scholarship. But his approach to social phenomena is exactly what Latour describes here. The “historical individual” (a concept I’ve written about here) in Weber’s sociology is almost identical conceptually to what Latour is calling a Thing here. That is, a Thing for Latour is an historical-cultural concept that is formed out of the nexus of other Things and values which cross it and give it its character and significance.

Using this framework casts an even sharper distinction between critical theories and conspiracy theories because we can show how the latter will always be trapped in the logic of matters of fact while the former can easily move beyond facts to concerns. In other words, critical theories are equipped to talk about values (fear, comfort, danger, safety, familiarity, violence, privilege, advantage, etc.) and show how they become transformed into facts: “White people attribute the values of danger and violence to young black men” becomes “Young black men are violent and dangerous” through the normalization of police and other state violence against African Americans as evidenced by the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers and the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, can only describe what they take to be the facts: Big Pharma wants to profit from the death of our children; Mexico is sending us its most violent rapists and other criminals; Abortion is a means for profit from the discarded body parts. You get the idea.

Why Raising Your Voice Matters

The responses from Christians to the SCOTUS ruling last week have fallen across a wide spectrum including all the hits from predictable fear mongering about Christian persecution to more reasonable responses reminding conservative folks that the church isn’t supposed to have any political power to standing united with a group who has received some measure of equality. There’s a response on this spectrum that at first blush seems easy to place because the people championing it tell us that it’s a neutral, middle ground kind of argument. These people are calling for respect on both sides, casting Jesus as neither Democrat or Republican but “just Jesus” as a means of arguing that everyone should try and love everyone else. Here are some reasons why this “middle ground” is not neutral at all.

The folks calling for this “ceasefire” are almost all white straight males. People who have never been the victims of systemic injustice have the luxury to ruminate over the potential negative effects of a watershed decision like the one last week. They have the ability to consider the feelings of the oppressors (even if they claim to understand the plight of the oppressed) and ask whether we’re being too hasty, thereby potentially infringing on the rights of those oppressors or maybe even just hurting their feelings with the way we talk about this issue.

The moderate position is attractive because it situates itself as having critically considered all view points equally. Like Libertarianism, it has an “in-the-know” quality that marks those who espouse it as privy to something concealed from the majority of other people. For Libertarians, it’s knowledge of particular government operations and agendas that “someone” is trying to obscure from public view–only those smart enough to see it can. For moderates, it’s the sense of clarity that they attribute to themselves over those on either the left or the right–a division, by the way, which is always uniquely demarcated by the moderate person. The moderate claims a unique sense of clarity on the issue which is unavailable to either the conservative or the progressive person. That doesn’t mean that moderates are always smug and self-satisfied. Nor are they stupid. I think the opposite is true actually. They have a firm utilitarian conviction that what they’re after is happiness for the largest number of people, and they see love and respect as the best road toward that goal.

Moderate Christians, who think that those celebrating last week’s decision are dangerously aligning the church with the state, who want to remind everyone that, yes, Jesus wasn’t a Republican, but he wasn’t a Democrat either, are misunderstanding something very important though–the reality of facing systemic oppression. From the moderate perspective, conservatives should drop the vitriol and carefully consider the arguments of the opposition. On the other side, progressives are supposed to treat conservatives with more respect, understanding that they’re people of tradition, and not inherently bad. This, however, misses the point. The argument from the progressive side is not that conservatives who want to deny equal rights to same-sex couples are inherently bad people; it’s that the system in which we have all been complicit is bad and needs to change.

Moderates and probably many conservatives (at least in Chicago) wouldn’t flinch at all at the idea that there exists a bad system in which we are all complicit, if that idea is put in the context of race. If you live in a densely populated urban area (as my wife and I do), it is an inescapable reality. It confronts you daily. No one would ever think to return to those passages once used both implicitly and explicitly to build this system in the first place and say, “Now hold on everyone–are we sure we aren’t stepping on the feet of those with a religious conviction that the races should remain separate?” I see no tenable reason to think that the issue of homosexuality is going to be any different.

If there’s one thing that the movement for gay rights can learn from the landmark decisions on the part of racial minorities that were made 40-50 years ago, it’s this: The fight is far from over. Those who have lost their jobs, have been denied housing, have been bullied to the point of suicide, have been maimed or murdered have no time to nicely explain to those on the other side of these acts of horrible oppression why they want them to stop. They don’t owe them a nice discussion about it either. And the ruling last week doesn’t end those things. There is so much more work still to be done.

It’s true that this work is going to involve a lot of dialogue. But it is not the case that said dialogue need involve a patient respect on the part of the LGBTQ community for opinions that are clearly bigoted and wrong, that are causing violence against them. As a white, straight, male Christian, I may have the time and and ability to speak lovingly and patiently with people who think that SCOTUS made the wrong decision, who want to double down on their reading of the Bible, etc. Certainly, there are people in my life with whom I want to be patient and loving when it comes to this issue because many are my friends and family. Most of my friends and family are thoughtful, caring people, and when you’re a thoughtful, caring person, it takes a really long time to come to see that you are actually complicit in a system whose construction you had nothing to do with but whose benefits you receive daily.

At the same time, I have to recognize that the middle school boy who is just beginning to realize that he is definitely gay does not have the same opportunity to have a patient dialogue about this realization. I have to recognize that the woman denied a job or housing for being gay does not have the time to patiently listen to those who have just denied her those things explain their reasons for why they think homosexuality is a sin. So while I have the incredible luxury of patience and kindness on the one hand, I also stand with folks who do not have that luxury, who need voices to be raised because they are actually in danger. My voice is raised not because I’m being hasty, not because I haven’t considered all the angles, but because real lives are at stake, and my religious commitments call on me to do something about that.

On the Uselessness of Bodies

In his essay “On Religious Illusions,” Raymond Geuss draws parallels between the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School and religion on the grounds of what Geuss sees as their shared relationship to the Enlightenment, broadly conceived. Namely, the regime of Enlightenment thought has given a certain disproportionate weight to the concept of “usefulness” when it comes to the evaluation of claims. This should not be confused with utilitarianism, for empirical facts can be useful in a non-utilitarian sense—though Geuss’s point is perhaps especially true in the case of utilitarians.

Geuss argues that for people like Horkheimer and Adorno, this intense focus on the instrumentality not only objects and ideas but action as well is part of the problematic logic of capital. The Enlightenment has made two critical errors: A sharp distinction between what is instrumentally useful and that which is inherently valuable; the development of criteria for the rationality of instrumental action (i.e. that which is guided by instrumentally useful empirical facts). There is no criteria given, however, for judging that which is purported to be inherently valuable, or for the rationality for action that is done for its own sake. A truly free society, says Geuss of Adorno, would reject this distinction between instrumentality and inherent value as having no purchase in reality.

In other words, the inherently valuable is useless on the view of the Enlightenment according to Geuss’s reading of the Frankfurt School critique. The path to resisting this ideology is not to then become useful, but to remain useless in order to disrupt the system. In other words, for Horkheimer and Adorno, religion’s uselessness is actually its greatest advantage. Geuss writes:

Religion does not fit into the modern world of universal functionality, and thus could, under some circumstances, become a bulwark against the closed world of bureaucratic domination which resulted from the full realization of the Enlightenment project, that is, against what Adorno called “the administered world.”

Of course, for Adorno, this sort of uselessness-against-administration can’t simply be uselessness as such—or any-old-uselessness. It must “instantiate an autonomous configuration of meaningfulness and value, and also effectively resist and maintain itself against the infinite ability of our society to assimilate and co-opt deviancy.” In other words, the truly useless must eschew all attempts by the logic of the capital-instrumental complex to reify it and thereby neutralize its threat.

On whether or not religion can accomplish this, Geuss is extremely doubtful. But his disdain for religion, I think covers over too quickly the radical potential this view has for reading other structures of domination, especially those in which economy and race, or economy and sexuality (or all of the above) are tied together.

This post is titled “On the Uselessness of Bodies” because as I was reading Geuss’s essay, I was struck by how quickly he connects action and what he calls “the metaphysical need” (i.e. religion) such that inherently valuable action is always a response to some kind of ideational desire. This is, I think, an ironically Protestant oversight on his part (the starkly anti-materialist activity of religion). As such, any consideration of bodies is thoroughly omitted from the discussion. But I think there is a strong sense in which we can use the concept of uselessness to read the treatment of bodies of color under white capitalism. Consider the rhetoric of most white conservatives on questions of the relationship between bodies of color and poverty: Laziness, entitlement, etc. In other words, useless. The rhetoric in response to the rioting in Baltimore, Ferguson, and the other protests around the country is similar: Riots accomplish nothing; the protests prevent hard working [useful] people from getting to their jobs, etc.

Geuss writes, “To be really useless is not simply to drop out of the society completely into the underclass of delinquents, deviants, terrorists, or the long-term unemployed.” The problem is that this too misses what it means for bodies as opposed to action to be useless. Impoverished black bodies, or other impoverished bodies of color, defy the white capitalist complex not because their action is merely inherently valuable as opposed to instrumentally useful. It is rather because their bodies themselves are not instrumentally useful and therefore not valuable. Inherent value plays a different role in the status of bodies in this reading of uselessness. Bodies are perhaps one of the only things in the logic of capital today whose value extends beyond utility/commodity as long as they’re white. White bodies are inherently valuable. Bodies of color are thus useless in the double sense of being neither inherently valuable nor instrumentally useful.

To take this reading of bodies via uselessness to its full conclusion, however, entails that these bodies remain useless since the demand of human flourishing, according to the Critical Theory, is not to fix the current system but to overhaul it completely. This is the logic of riots over against the logic of the current system which demands that people destroyed by it work within it for change. It is for that reason that people of color and those in solidarity with them must riot and protest. They must remain useless to the current system, because it is only in this uselessness that there can be any radical hope for a different future.

What is Religious Studies?: A Primer for the Perplexed Theologian (Part 2)

It’s taken me a while to get this second post together primarily because the account I want to give is still a little difficult to get straight in my mind despite all that studying I did for my first qualifying exam (or maybe because of it?) The reason it’s difficult, I think, is because I’m wanting to employ a sort of hybrid language in order to highlight a point of difference between the very two discourses I want to bring together but also use that language to clear some space for theological discourse within religious studies. We can call these first two cultural studies on the one hand and something like “religious studies social science” on the other, the latter being far more ambiguous than the former. One of the primary differences, I think, lies in each discourse’s orientation toward a specific project: human emancipation. One tends to take this project as its banner, while the other, though not seeing anything necessarily wrong with that project, resists the sort of “judgment” that must flow from it.

Thus we have disciplines within “cultural studies” such as gender studies, critical race studies, etc., which are more than willing to call on the carpet those discourses of oppression which perpetuate systems of injustice, and hold the individuals and communities which utilize them for their own benefit accountable for those crimes (even if only abstractly.) On the other hand we have “mainstream” social science, an intellectual environment which is able to foster and sustain projects which examine the KKK or neo-Nazi communities without passing any “professional” judgment. That’s not to say that these aren’t contentious interlocutors within sociology or anthropology, but the fact that these sorts of projects can happen at all highlights the strain within these disciplines to maintain the sort of “ethical neutrality” that the social sciences hold dear as a means of certifying their methodology as “scientific.” Religious studies sits at the crossroads of the humanities, the social sciences, and, whether it likes it or not, theology (though these borders are probably more like a flood plain) and that fact provides ample opportunity to think about what these differences mean in the study of religions, especially at a key moment in that study’s history.

In the first post, I gave a brief account of two major strands of theory and method in the history of religious studies. One of the most important interventions in this history is the 1993 publication of Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion. Prior to Asad, engagement with what we call “critical theory,” “cultural studies,” or “postcolonialism” had largely remained outside the purview of religious studies, generally speaking. Scholars in the 70s and 80s were raising important, perhaps even “postmodern,” questions about the categories employed in religious studies and about the category “religion” itself, engaging in what could perhaps be classified as a “deconstruction” or a “new historical” assessment of the field but without appeal to any of the texts or figures that were underpinning the similar moves being made in other humanities fields (most notably literature.) It wasn’t until Asad that the field strongly embraced a continental philosophical figure (Foucault) as having something significant to contribute.

Russell McCutcheon notes as much in his 2000 review of Asad’s text writing that Asad really is the first significant figure to write a text belonging to the field of religious studies that engages with what McCutcheon simply calls “postmodernity.” He writes that it should be obvious why Foucault’s thought lends itself so well to the study of religion, particularly because the questions in religious studies had, in recent decades, shifted from the categories of religion themselves, to the scholarly discourse engaging these categories. Indeed McCutcheon’s own work (Manufacturing Religion, 1994) as well as the earlier work of J.Z. Smith (Map Is Not Territory, 1978; Imagining Religion, 1982) had set out to rigorously interrogate the ways that scholars take not only “religion” for granted in scholarship but every category employed, including the names of the major religions and analytical categories such as “experience,” “ritual,” or “sacred” and fashion them into monolithic “givens” which set the parameters of the field.

Referring to any methodology which could be classified as phenomenology of religion, theology, etc., McCutcheon goes on to write:

For scholars committed to the belief that religion, to whatever extent, somehow transcends human knowledge and historical causes, this Foucaultian insight on the utterly taxonomic and highly contested nature of all epistemological claims is troubling.

However, at the beginning of the review, McCutcheon makes the off-hand remark that even though religious studies had yet to see a continental figure enter into the theoretical discussion, another related discipline had been engaging with “postmodern” thought for quite some time already: theology. Though we can’t hold McCutcheon to explaining himself in a book review, it seems odd that he would so casually throw out those two sentences so close to each other (i.e. in the opening paragraph of a 1,000 word book review.) At the risk of reading too much into this, one explanation might revolve around what exactly is troubling about Foucault’s analysis of discourses of power and to whom. In other words, Foucault’s analysis is only troubling to those who have been engaged in a particular discourse, all the while assuming it was universally normative and natural (i.e. the default way of being in the world) or those who think one must identify a natural way of being in the world as a foundation for both knowledge and ethics. If one were to accept that all discourses involve sets of power relations, then to engage provisionally in a particular discourse is not troubling but simply what one must do. That move, arguably, weakens the notion of “power” itself in some problematic ways that both dissolve the meaning of power all together and can potentially allow destructive, domineering discourses to hang around under the guise of “provisionality”–but that’s an argument for another post! My point is that there are theologies which acknowledge the genealogical critique and embrace it as an attempt to disempower theology as a method of doing theology. It is true that for many theologians, Foucault’s, but especially Asad’s, critique is not just troubling but devastating. But given McCutcheon’s seeming awareness that at least some strands of theology have been engaged with the world of theory in which Foucault’s work circulates, surely Asad’s work can’t be troubling for theology in toto.

Furthermore, it’s clear McCutcheon sees Asad’s critique as a welcome ally in in his quest to establish a new reductive-naturalistic methodology in religious studies. Though in Manufacturing Religion McCutcheon is pretty insistent that he is not proposing a dogmatic reductivism, his dogmatic rejection of anything resembling theology (in his mind) seems like fertile ground for Foucaultian critique and, I think, highlights the tension between social science and cultural studies I described at the beginning. Indeed, Asad’s publication of Formations of the Secular (2003) makes McCutcheon’s proposed alliance even more unlikely, since Asad argues that “the secular,” like “religion,” is not a natural category, but has a discursive history, complete with its own politics and ideologies. That’s not to say that McCutcheon himself was or is blind to this or that his own methodological position is completely demolished by this revelation. But the contested nature of all epistemological claims means all and therefore applies to any natural-scientific discourse McCutcheon and his cadre proposes.

A professor in a theory and methods seminar said once that while Asad’s observation about the secular is important, it actually doesn’t get us anywhere new. In other words, it’s a completely deconstructive move (in the general sense) that doesn’t propose any constructive way forward. It’s a problematizing of the way things were done. I’m inclined to agree if all we are committing ourselves to with his claims is the fact that discourses involve relations of power, often times asymmetrical ones. The nagging persistence of theology in the background of the history of religious studies highlights another issue with Asadian genealogy.

An oft cited assertion of Asad’s is one he makes in the introduction to Genealogies, claiming that oppressed peoples do not make their own history; it is instead fashioned for them by their colonial oppressors. He writes, “Even the inmates of a concentration camp are able, in this sense, to live by their own cultural logic [by their own internal relations of power]. But one may be forgiven for doubting that they are therefore ‘making their own history.'” This point is certainly not without merit. We may cite more than dozens of examples where the history of an entire people is written for them. However, not all situations are that extreme (Asad notes that the concentration camp example is extreme.) Sometimes the colonized do exercise agency, and if we were to follow Asad strictly on his rejection of that claim, I would wager we would, upon closer examination of a particular situation, come to see that the genealogical method is sometimes too blunt an analytical tool.

For the last year, I’ve raved to anyone who would listen about Jason Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan, which is a stunning example of the claim that the colonized exercise agency in determining categories like religion and writing the history of how those categories come to be. They do so according to their own internal politics and for their own non-colonial-influenced reasons. Josephson’s account is deeply complex and difficult, weaving together hundreds of years of religious and political history, folk spirituality, and intermittent contact with the West. To be clear–Josephson’s account is a kind of genealogy. However, its goal is to explicate the asymmetries of power circulating internally to the colonized (the Japanese.) To return to theology for a moment, I often wonder what Asadian genealogy can make of liberation, black, feminist, or queer theologies? Should we read any of those figures and conclude they don’t have historical agency but are merely operating according to and writing in the hand of their oppressors? Obviously, these theologies make very good use of Foucault to expose discourses of power from within theology itself, but for the purpose of doing theology differently. In other words, they are interested in maintaining a discourse which proponents of Asadian genealogy have written off as oppressive in toto without recognizing that internal to the discourse are those seeking to destabilize for explicitly emancipatory reasons.

I don’t want to rule out the possibility that some “theologies of emancipation” are perhaps still unwittingly in service to an oppressive theological discourse (though I very seriously doubt it)–but that’s sort of the point here. In other words, genealogical accounts are vital, but they are only one aspect of a more complex picture which also includes the ideas, practices, and material-historical-social-economic conditions of both the colonizer and the colonized and may even be willing to eschew such a dichotomy if it doesn’t prove useful. Working out a methodology that can adequately address this complexity without attempting to reduce it to any one functional or phenomenological-symbolic explanation is, I think, an important place for religious studies to go.

Routinization, Rationalization, Renunciation: Max Weber’s Account of Christian Asceticism and Critical Theory

Below is a slightly modified version of the paper I delivered at AAR last weekend for the Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group. The panel was titled “The Frankfurt School: Foundations and Fixations.” My paper perhaps falls under the former more than the latter of that pair, though I think it addresses some “fixations” as well, namely the commodity form as the central point of critique in most analyses of capitalism under the heading “Critical Theory.”

 In Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism we find three different types of rationalization at work in the construction of this ethic and the subsequent spirit, which arises from what Weber calls the “inner-worldly asceticism” of Reformed Protestants. This reading of Weber, while I think quite plain from a careful examination of the text, complicates the more or less standard intellectual history which reads “rationalization” as co-terminous and interchangeable with “instrumental reason,” and, perhaps even more germane to the Frankfurt School, also complicates Georg Lukács’ appropriation of the term in History and Class Consciousness in the formation of his concept, reification. The aim, then, is to show that Weber’s analysis can offer an important supplement to what has become the dominant way of reading capitalist economy in critical theory. My conclusion is that though reification is indeed a modified version of Weber’s “rationalization,” the construction of the concept such that it subsumes all “logics” of being-in-the world to the commodity form, reduces Weber’s concept to one “type” and flattens the complexity of “rationalizations” at work in the formation of contemporary capitalism in Weber’s view. In other words, where Lukács identifies a single ideology that must be overcome, Weber sees a complex web of calculative moves, none of which are necessarily ideological in the sense of being epiphenomenal of capitalist economy and all of which contribute to the logic of contemporary capitalism.

Reification, as Lukács defines it, is the calculative process by which something that is non-commodity becomes objective commodity. Lukács’ primary example is Marx’s reading of the commodification of labor as the commodification and thus objectification of a social relationship—something that, prior to capitalism, would have been irrational. All subjectivity is removed from labor in order that it might be quantifiable, calculable, and exchangeable. However, Lukács’ rendering of the term extends beyond Marx’s reading in positing this phenomenon as the universal structure of modern capitalist society. In other words, not only are social relations reified, but everything is subject to reification via the objective, calculative logic of the capitalist system. In “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács writes that the commodity itself “can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole. Only in this context does the reification produced by commodity relations assume decisive importance both for the objective evolution of society and for the stance adopted by men towards it.” In other words, via reification, commodity has become “the form of objectivity” itself, the “natural” logic of existence within the capitalist system, subsuming all spheres of life to itself.

The “logic” of reification in Lukács and Weber’s rationalization run parallel to one another in their rejection of that which falls outside their scope as irrational. For Lukács, the reason reification has become so successfully dominant in modern capitalist society is its ideological dominance over all other ways of being in the world. That is, all activity and ways of viewing the world which do not cohere with the “rational calculative” practices from within the closed logic of the rational-reified system, are rejected. Weber’s concept, as we shall see, does contain a very similar aspect; however, at the outset, it is important to note a few crucial differences between these two accounts. First, unlike Lukács who is very clearly drawing from both Marx and Weber (as well as Georg Simmel) in synthesizing a precise definition of reification, Weber himself is not entirely clear on what he means by rationalization. Indeed, interpreters of Weber, perhaps most famously Talcott Parsons and Anthony Giddens, have noted the inconceivability of any attempt to systematize Weber’s methodology across his corpus. Thus, my claims in this second part are not an attempt at a systematization of Weber’s thought, even regarding this one concept.

It is clear that one can always use the word “calculation” in describing Weberian rationalization. It is a psychological calculation aimed at bringing seemingly disparate parts from the various spheres of life into coherence with one another. Furthermore, we must also note that these types need not be mutually exclusive. Especially in The Protestant Ethic, they appear to work in concert with one another, which perhaps adds to the difficulty of distinguishing them in this text. Though Weber does define rationalization in The Protestant Ethic, our best definition of rationalization comes from Weber’s essay “The Social Psychology of the World’s Religions.” Weber writes,

We have to remind ourselves in advance that “rationalism” may mean very different things. It means one thing if we think of the kind of rationalization the systematic thinker performs on the image of the world: an increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Rationalism means another thing if we think of the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means. These types of rationalism are very different, in spite of the fact that ultimately they belong inseperately together. […] The rationalization of life conduct with which we have to deal here can assume unusually varied forms.

We should first note that Weber’s concept has a different type of universal character than Lukács’. While reification is an ideological universal calculative process, which subsumes all spheres of life, rationalization as Weber describes it here seems to be a calculative feature which, as Weber writes in the Protestant ethic, has “existed in various departments of life and in all areas of culture.” In other words, the type of rationalization implemented is not necessarily dependent upon the cultural sphere in which it appears; the aesthetic, religious, or political spheres, for example, do not require their own specific types of rationalization. Rather, each type may take a different form if implemented in a particular sphere.

Weber’s first “type” is instrumental rationalization, which he describes as theoretical mastery of reality. This is the type with which we should be the most familiar at this point: the instrumentalization of nature in order to meet needs, the justification of belief in the untrammeled and inevitable progress of science, or even the objectification of subjective social relations into commodities. While there is nothing inherently religious about this first type of rationalization, the next has explicitly religious origins. Teleological rationalization is oriented toward ultimate values and ends but as they are explicitly salvific and thus ultimate in a religious sense and is what Weber means by “the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end.” It is the reorientation of the world toward this practical end, viz. salvation, and involves the working out of a theodicy such that the promises of the savior (the ultimate values) cohere with the evil that the believer encounters. One must be able to know one is saved despite the apparent evil of the world.

Weber sees this developing in Calvinism first from a revised conception of God, writing that, for the Calvinist, God is “[A] transcendental being, beyond the reach of human understanding, who with His quite incomprehensible decrees has decided the fate of every individual and regulated the tiniest details of the cosmos from eternity.” This totally irrational conception of God, in the sense that human rationality can never approach the will of God, demands the teleological rationalization that Weber describes. Therefore, though salvation itself is a gift of grace from God, assurance of salvation is a thoroughly rationalistic endeavor with specific practical consequences. Weber still has one more mode of rationalization in mind however because the teleological type neither prescribes nor proscribes the proper behaviors necessary in order to secure this assurance.

This third type, ethical, can “assume unusually varied forms” for Weber it is simply the organization of life around the particular values one holds; a behavior is rationalized as ethical if it coheres with the values present in one’s life. These values are derived from all spheres of life and from both instrumental and teleological rationalization. This is perhaps a frustratingly nebulous way of defining “ethical rationalization;” however, reading this definition into Lukács’ account brings to light a deficiency in the latter. For Weber, it is ultimately the ethical rationalization of particular patterns of behavior in Calvinism on the basis of a previous teleological rationalization that is the driving force behind the development of the Protestant ethic that creates the spirit of capitalism. Calvinist teleology demands that all activity in the world be rationalized such that it can point one to the assurance of salvation. In light of the absence of sacrament, this must be done through moral behavior, a recasting of Christian activity as “solely activity ad majorem Dei gloriam.” This final move necessitates ethical rationalization in order to have psychological certainty that all one does brings glory to God. One’s activity must be constantly morally justified in order to cast oneself as a “tool of the divine will.”

The assurance of salvation is demanded at all times since, for Weber, one is from eternity either elected or damned. Thus this creation of assurance “cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one’s credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen of damned. […] The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system.” This system is ultimately what Weber is attempting to explicate through the employment of rationalization as a conceptual tool. Teleological rationalization gives Calvinism the form for the relationship between believer, God, and salvation while ethical rationalization provides the specific content that helps the believer cohere his personal relationship to this structure. Weber calls this system “inner-worldly asceticism.” This is a double asceticism in the sense that one is simultaneously rejecting and remaking the world in order to rationalize one’s being-in-the-world as worthy of God’s glory. Once the teleological concern drops away from Weber’s structure (as in his example of Benjamin Franklin in The Protestant Ethic) we are left with an ethical “spirit of capitalism.” Weber defines this as the accumulation of money for the sake of money itself. This occurs via a set of rational, ethical calculations, which include the rejection of greed coupled with value of hard work reflected in how much one is able to earn. This brings into a unity all economic activity operating according to this spirit regardless of religious belief.

We can now see the relationship between these two structures and the difficulty of drawing a straight trajectory from Weber’s concept through Lukács and into the analysis of later figures such as Horkheimer and Adorno. The primary difference between our two structures, of course, is that the center of the structure for Lukács is the commodity form under the logic of reification rather than money itself. The dominance of instrumental rationalization in Lukács’ structure, is intended to highlight a problem which Marx had already explicated with regard to liberal democracy in “A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” namely the illusory non-normativity of the structure of contemporary capitalism. In other words the reification of subjectivity into the commodity form introduces a kind of non-normative (i.e. non-ethical) relation between subject and commodity, commodity and other commodities, subjects and other subjects, and subjects and the structure of society as a whole. This calculative move serves the function of concealing the true, exploitative relationship between subjects and subjects-become-commodities. If labor is merely another commodity with exchange value, there is no necessary ethical imperative—except to protect the rights of subjects to reify other subjects into commodities, rights that are themselves taken to be “natural.”

It is in this moment that Weber’s analysis provides an interesting compliment to Lukács. Weber introduces a different imperative, another rationalized calculative move that is not a non-normative operation, but a radically ethical one—the cultivation of particular virtues whose sole end is the accumulation of money for money’s own sake. If we read Weber’s analysis of this ethic back into Lukács, then we achieve a much more complex picture of the motivations behind ways of being in contemporary capitalist economy. Not only are laborers trapped by their reification into commodities, but they perhaps willingly accept this reification on the basis of an ethical belief in hard work, frugality, honesty, punctuality, etc. strictly as a means of accumulating money. In other words, what Weber’s account gives us is a much more textured analysis of the functional attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of capitalist economy. It is a starting point for understanding how capitalism has been so resilient in the face of impending collapse: strong ethical attitudes that tie together money and morality.

Atonement and Economy

First, a bit of a meta-comment: faithful readers will note that some promised posts (notably on mysticism) have failed to materialize. Sorry. I’ve been a little terrible at keeping up on blog stuff this summer, what with conferences, trips, and my independent study. I’ll try to get something out here in reference to my work on Marguerite Porete soon, but this is still not that post.

I’ve been working on a study of patristic and medieval atonement theories this summer, exploring connections between the concepts of atonement and economy in hopes that this connection might yield a thesis topic. I’m happy to say that this study has been massively ‘paying off,’ and that I’ll probably be proposing a thesis related to the topic this fall. In the meantime, as I begin synthesizing some of this work for a paper on Anselm, I thought that readers might be interested in some of my preliminary thinking, since it combines several of the native interests of the blog:

…two broadly speaking political paradigms, antinomical but functionally related to one another, derive from Christian theology: political theology, which founds the transcendence of sovereign power on the single God, and economic theology, which replaces this transcendence with the idea of an oikonomia, concieved as an immanent ordering—domestic and not political in a strict sense—of both divine and human life. Political philosophy and the modern theory of sovereignty derive from the first paradigm; modern biopolitics up to the current triumph of economy and government over every other aspect of social life derive from the second paradigm.[1]

In the sixteenth chapter of the first book of his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury begins a lengthy diversion from his otherwise meticulously [streamlined?] treatment of the necessity of Christ’s incarnation and atonement. Anselm’s digression picks up a prior Augustinian notion: the numbering and replacement by humans of fallen angels.

It should not be doubted that reasoning beings […] exist in a rationally calculated and perfect number known in advance by God, and thus it would not be fitting for it to be greater or less. For either God does not know what number would be best for reasoning beings to exist—a false supposition, or, if he does know, he will bring it about that they exist in the number which he will recognize to be most fitting for this purpose.[2]

The paradox is that either the angels were created in the correct number in the beginning (and thus there are now ‘gaps’ in that number) or God made ‘extra’ angels, and thus in some sense created the necessity that some would fall, since for there to be more angels than needed would contravene the perfection of God’s ordering of the angels.[3] It may come as no surprise, then, that the question concerning angels is a question of God’s economy.[4] How is it that this aporia is to be reconciled with God’s administration of the world? Indeed, it will also come as no surprise that the history of atonement is one of the privileged places where economic theology is worked out in explicit detail: after all, where is God’s administration of the world more evident than in God’s active intervention as the God/man? And so economic theology has always been concerned first of all with an economy of salvation, of a certain administrative dispensation according to which the world is reconciled to God’s order and purpose.

What this digression into angelology reveals, in addition to the connection between atonement and economy, is a certain relation between economy and theodicy. After all, the reason the problem of fallen angels appears as a scandal is that the choice isn’t simply between two versions of the ineffectuality of the divine economy, but between ineffectuality and something more sinister; between ‘gaps’ in God’s economy created by the fallen, and a God whose economy in some sense presupposes evil as integral to its effect.

The question that motivates me here is, in a sense, Anselm’s own: “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death […] restore life to the world[?]”[5] My intent, however, is to shift the emphasis of this question ‘by what logic?’ What sort of logical machinery has to be in place to render intelligible the death of the god/man in terms of a redemption; an economy that exchanges a murder for a reconciliation. “Given a certain effect,” we might ask, “what machine is capable of producing it? And given a certain machine, what can it be used for?”[6] Further, my wager is that in posing this connection between atonement and economy, what becomes clear is a concomitant connection between economy and theodicy—a connection that continues to condition the secularized governmental paradigm of economy.

A common objection to ‘economic’ treatments of atonement—and Anselmian atonement in particular—is that these treatments flatten a mysterious and gratuitous theological motif into simple exchange and bookkeeping. What these objections miss is that the economic field already exceeds the delimitation of a field of the calculus of exchange; a field of markets and commodities. The economic field concerns a government, or a dispensation, not only of the exchange of commodities but of the allocation of bodies, of production in the broadest possible sense. Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory already in some sense explores the theological development of this paradigm, but I think there’s something important that’s missed in his zeal to separate economic theology from its traditional locus in ‘redemption:’ certainly, it is necessary to challenge the thesis according to which economy and salvation are merely synonyms of each other; in other words, the thesis that the term ‘economy’ as it appears in patristic and medieval Christian thinking refers more or less to the general notion of a ‘divine plan of salvation,’ in contradistinction to non-theological usage of the term. But by focusing on the question of economy in relation to the paradox of a unified will that directs a diverse governmental dispensation, what’s left unthought is the relation between this development and its connection with theodicy and temporality. What makes the specifically Christian form of economy effectively governmental is that it brings along with it an economic theodicy and an economic time: a time that will render thinkable new formations of credit and debt. Further, the relations between these terms necessitate the ability to think economy in terms of modes of transmission and circulation: and so the history of blood and the history of economy begin to intertwine.

I plan to post two more blog entries on this before I start writing the proper thesis: the next one will be on the question of time and economy in Anselm, and the one after that will be on blood, economy, and theodicy.


[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 1.
[2] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, in The Major Works, 290.
[3] Anselm notes that one of the obvious solutions to this dilemma would be the restoration of each of the fallen angels to their original place. Such a reinstatement, however, is impossible for Anselm because of the terms under which any redemption must be effected. We will return to this point in a later section. For now, it is the concerns that animate the dilemma—rather than Anselm’s solution—that is of interest.
[4] While he does not deal specifically with Anselm, Giorgio Agamben has mapped the significance of this relation between angelology and economy—which Anselm inherits from Augustine, and which Aquinas will inherit from both—in his The Kingdom and the Glory. See especially the sixth chapter, “Angelology and Bureaucracy.”
[5] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 265.
[6] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 4)

I concluded Part 3 by pointing out that Troeltsch departs from Rickert on the question of “value neutrality.” It’s worth noting that this is also a departure from Troeltsch’s friend and colleague at Heidelberg, Max Weber, who is really the father of the idea of ethical neutrality in social science scholarship.

This first departure is arguably both Troeltsch’s most subtle and his most important. His case against value free judgment is primarily built upon the fact that without something recognizable in ourselves, we would never be able to make a judgment in the first place. This does not open the door, however, for unscientific polemic against cultures and histories as objects of study; rather, it is precisely what allows for empathy, for an even handed and rigorous study of unfamiliar times and places. This is also not say that such studies become automatically subsumed under the normative value judgments of the scholar. Rather, as we shall see, Troeltsch argues along Rickertian lines that value relations constitute the organizing principle of historical study.

Troeltsch agrees with Rickert that in the course of human history thus far, there are actually very few values which we can claim as relevant to history. This fact immediately eliminates the concern of an insurmountable and overwhelming relativism which had assumed that there was no means of establishing any sort of non-arbitrary way of approaching the infinite manifold. Thus a hopeless relativism (or irrationalism) is no longer an issue. This first step is important for Troeltsch particularly in rejecting the claim of the orthodox apologetic that the materials of history are dangerously relative, offering no means of discerning values in a normative way. On the contrary, history provides us with precisely the most salient normative developments. Troeltsch writes:

The important thing is to compare these developments in such a way as to take in the widest possible historical horizon in the hope of discerning not a universal principle of law like that at work in concepts employed in the natural sciences but a principle suggestive of tendencies toward a common goal. […] We will draw together the most outstanding results of man’s spiritual development that are known and accessible to us, basing this procedure on the supposition that their being known to us is not a mere accident but is due to the fact that they are the only significant developments which spring from an elemental matrix.

Among the world’s major religions, Troeltsch argues that there are really only “three or four basic orientations in which the power of religion is disclosed, orientations that have their counterpart in, and give support to, entire spheres of culture.” On the surface, this claim sounds reductive; however, these orientations serve as value concepts in precisely the same way that Rickert’s understanding of values functions–with the vital difference that they are not universal. In other words, these concepts only function in historical study insofar as they hold validity for reality. They are ideal, not real. They do not presuppose a correspondence to reality. And they are permeable, malleable, and non-permanent. Troeltsch tempers this assertion with the following:

There is nothing to prevent us from regarding the significant results of scientific, political, artistic, social, and religious life as enduring. It must be remembered, however, that just as these results took shape within definite contexts, so too they always assume individual forms. The doctrine of endless progress, or rather the theory of endless change, is a groundless prejudgment that seems plausible only to people who have consigned all metaphysical ideas regarding a transcendent background of history to the status of illusion—and with such ideas the religious belief in the unity and meaningfulness of reality.

We may take this as yet another illustration of his attempt to temper the relative with the absolute and vice versa. He is not content to take either on their own as a ground from which to approach history—only the two together.

In broad strokes, the same can be said of Troeltsch’s ambiguous gesture toward a “common goal;” however, more unpacking is necessary to see what he is getting at there. He acknowledges that this idea is at least vaguely reminiscent of the absolute which he has already rejected. Indeed, he means the concept of the common goal to replace the absolute altogether. This common goal, as a concept, has no content but serves as a general telos, as a criterion for judgment and is in this respect at least related to the previous idea of the absolute. The vital distinction between the common goal and the absolute, however, is found in the former’s origin. Troeltsch writes:

In the same way that we today think of the ultimate primarily as an inexhaustible movement of life, we may likewise understand the criterion of evaluation as something that merges within this movement of life as a result of a universal perspective on the one hand, and involvement in this movement on the other. It can be characterized as the determining of a direction, the setting of a course among the great, dominant tendencies of history. The criterion itself is both the product of a particular historical situation and a means for its further development; it is not a static and completed principle that determines how the process will take place (my emphasis).

In other words, Troeltsch is attempting a new understanding of what it means for a concept to be essential or a priori; namely, that all such concepts have a history of development, are currently in development, and have an unknowable historical trajectory.

We can see here Troeltsch’s explicit rejection of an absolute principle outside of history as the criterion for normative judgments. In effect, Troeltsch’s argument leads to the conclusion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions–with the important difference from Ritschl that it not have an ahistorical organizing principle driving it. That is, whether the common goal takes the form of the overcoming of suffering, perfect moral and spiritual development, or the establishment of a kingdom of God, Christianity must always be understood in the context of the basic orientations of the history of religion so that a proper comparison may be made, and thus an evaluation. This comparison is not a means of establishing Christianity as the absolute religion above all others; rather, it is a means of clarifying the internal, subjective commitments of the individual Christian or Christian community. In other words, the criterion that serves as the principle of judgment is always ultimately a matter of personal conviction–the conviction of the historical church.

The history of theology and the church move forward when emerging ideas, those beyond the historical horizon of the current epoch, flood into the mainstream by fusing with current ideas/social-historical-material conditions. And this isn’t only true for theological history, obviously. Troeltsch thinks this is how history moves–not “forward” necessarily, but it moves. Troeltsch also thinks this process is much more rational and “clean” than either Weber or the historical theologian Karl Holl do, which itself could be a whole different series. In the final post, I’ll finally give me own commentary on Troeltsch and Rickert and how I think they can contribute to the articulation of a materialist theology.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 3)

We finally arrive at Ernst Troeltsch and his engagement with a multifaceted and problematic relationship between theology and social science. In parts 1 and 2, I laid out the problems he is grappling with as I understand them. On the one hand, we have the dual problems of “value neutrality” and the “objectivity of values” in historical and social scientific study and on the other, we have the problem of theology as a discipline centered around an organizing principle, attempting to take into consideration the development of Christianity as one world religion alongside others, while also utilizing its organizing principle to assert its own absoluteness.

In the foreword to the first edition of The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, Troeltsch remarks that the aim of the text is to clarify the relationship between the “theological faculties” and those utilized in the study of the history of religion. Systematic theology, traditionally a discipline of describing absolutes in the form of law-like doctrines, seems to shake itself free of historical contingency through its appeal to the absolute, universal truth claimed to be central to and revealed through Christianity. Its sister discipline, historical theology, does not carry the same normative tone, but instead examines the ways in which doctrine has attempted a normative approximation of the absolute. Theology, Troeltsch says, is primarily concerned with normative knowledge, which it derives, he argues, “from the history of religion instead of from scholastic theories of revelation or apologetics against philosophical systems,” in order to “give to the Christian world of thought a form that will correspond to the present religious and intellectual situation.” In other words, Troeltsch here accepts Ritschl’s claims about historicism but rejects his Hegelianism in the form of an absolute principle toward which Christianity is unfolding. What Troeltsch is after, then, is adescription of a theology that is able to maintain both intellectual and normative rigor while delimiting the two extremes of absolutism and relativism along non-universalizing lines through a unification of the two. He argues throughout the text that the absolute and the relative are inextricably linked, that both history and theology find their deepest meaning in their connection to the universal and the absolute as he now understands those terms. Troeltsch is arguing for a different understanding the absolute here, one that escapes both the problems he finds in the Hegelian understanding of history and those of traditional apologetics.

itroelt001p1This relationship, as Troeltsch understands it, raises interesting questions about the nature of theology as a discipline, and especially (as I mentioned in the first post) it’s relationship to the natural sciences and its place within the academy more broadly. As Troeltsch himself and later Troeltschian scholars note in detail, this question is central to The Absoluteness of Christianity: What are the constructive possibilities for a systematic theology that is necessarily bound to its own time and place with no appeal to be made to an absolute telos as its anchor?

The consensus among much of the theological community has long been that Troeltsch’s project ultimately failed, primarily because it could not adequately reconcile the poles of absolutism and relativism; hence, theology snapped back toward the former in the theology of Karl Barth. But I think a re-examination of Troeltsch’s theology by paying particular attention to his articulation of a properly scientific theology in light of Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history, especially the ways in which the latter outlines the process of concept formation in both the natural and historical sciences, could be fruitful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies/sociology of religion and even theology and the hard sciences. Furthermore, it seems to me that one of the primary faults in traditional criticism of Troeltsch has been to read his project as attempting to reconcile two sides of a binary, that is, find some sort of “third way” between them, rather than as an attempt to articulate a means of doing away with that binary all together.

A constructive Neo-Kantian Troeltschian theology can probably best be understood as a normative-historical science which develops concepts of historical individuals out of a non-essential value and general concept apparatus that constitutes the “core” of Christianity itself. In Rickertian terms, constructive theology for Troeltsch proceeds in the development of historical concepts in relation to a set of values taken as ahistorical but always manifested historically as well as a set of general concepts that establish a permeable boundary for theological discourse. The important Rickertian resource in this move is the way in which concepts are related to reality itself: historical concepts more closely reflect our actual experience of reality than any other type of concept, whereas general concepts are empty of all empirical content and instead hold validity for reality (see Part 1.) Neither concept type has any ontological content; they are only two different ways of regarding our experience of reality. I read Troeltsch, therefore, as advancing a viable material-ideational strategy (not in a binary sense) for systematic theology, one that is necessarily dependent upon the historical and social situation in which it is produced yet is still able to secure the normative authority necessary to still be called a properly constructive theology.

Troeltsch sets up the historical problem as it exists in the study of religion in particular, although it is clear he thinks that the problematic exists in historical study more generally as well. Troeltsch’s terminology, relativity and absoluteness, roughly parallels Rickert’s distinction between the individual and the general when referring to concepts. Troeltsch writes, “Relativity simply means that all historical phenomena are unique, individual configurations acted on by influences from a universal context that comes to bear on them in varying degrees of immediacy.” Both are concerned with the potential meaninglessness that the infinite manifold of experience presents us with. However, Troeltsch brings to bear the normativity which theology and religion more generally demand out of the manifold—to transcend the manifold—on his formation of the problem. In other words, the problem is not simply that the selection of historical individuals has the potential to be arbitrary given the nature of empirical experience but more importantly in the theological context such selection has the seemingly obvious potential of lacking any authoritatively normative content at all thereby rendering such selection non-theological by definition.

The result of this tension between theology and history has been recourse to the absolute. The parallel between this term and the function of general concepts and universal laws is not quite as clear nor is it as strong. Troeltsch identifies two ways in which the same absolute has been regarded in the history of the church. The first, Troeltsch refers to as “the apologetic of supernatural, orthodox theology”—namely, the primary tradition of the Church writ large—which, though it may admit the historical contingency of human institutions (i.e. the Church), still holds that these institutions have access to a universal, absolute truth that is outside of history. The second and Troeltsch’s primary target he refers to as the “evolutionary apologetic.” This is the absolute according to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which similarly posits an absolute of which all of history partakes and toward which all history is unfolding. Under both methods, however, the absolute is more or less the same thing: an ahistorical, universal guiding principle. It is the absolute telos under which all historical individuals are subsumed. It is in this way that doctrines can achieve the status of “divine law” if they are posited as universal and outside of the scope of history.

Troeltsch’s aim, then, is to resolve the tension between history and theology—between the relative and the absolute. Troeltsch writes that the problem of resolving this tension is “the problem of how to discern, in the relative, tendencies toward the absolute goal. Or, to state the problem more accurately: How does one work out a fresh, durable, and creative synthesis that will give the absolute the form possible to it at a particular moment and yet remain true to its inherent limitation as a mere approximation of true, ultimate, and universally valid values? That is the nub of the problem, and it cannot be set aside either by the naturalization of history or by skeptically oriented specialization. It arises directly out of the material of history itself.” As we saw with Rickert, the material of history is a selected material according to specific value relations, and it is in the process of selection that Troeltsch most radically departs from Rickert, particularly in his understanding of value relations and valuation. In short, Troeltsch does not think that value neutrality is actually possible or even desirable in historical study broadly conceived. In Part 4, we’ll turn to an examination of Troeltsch’s proposal for a solution.