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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What if the ‘gun debate’ is, fundamentally, a confusion?

Bee_A1-536x409Or, America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a race problem.

Over the last few days, in response to the shooting deaths of a Virginia news team consisting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, a familiar cycle of debate has occupied news media and, if my own feed is any anecdotal indication, social media as well; the ‘gun debate.’ Columnist Nicholas Krystoff, for instance, reminds us that “more Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.” Given such an ‘epidemic’ of gun-related deaths, one more-or-less unique to American society, it seems crucial to determine how, exactly one might reduce this figure. The form this debate has taken in the last several decades of American political theater should familiar enough to readers that I don’t need to rehearse more than the basic arguments here. Either–the story goes–the solution to the ‘gun problem’ lies in some form of increased regulation of access to guns, or it lies in distributing guns broadly enough to dissuade shooters from risking reciprocation. And so, invariably, the question is framed in terms of the appropriate form and level of ‘gun control:’ are there any, and if so what are the correct, limits to be placed on the ability to access guns? Presumably, mental health, the existence of a criminal record, etc. are common indices that such controls could be framed around. I want to suggest, however, that this approach to the question of gun violence in America is fundamentally confused, no matter which ‘side’ of the debate one occupies. It should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of American society that gun violence itself simply indexes other antagonisms that structure American society. And, I want to suggest, it indexes one antagonism particularly directly: white supremacy, or, antiblackness. If this is in fact the case, then it follows that to frame the problem in terms of ‘guns’ is to reify the index at the expense of the antagonisms indexed. Without attempting to offer a comprehensive model or account of the racialization of American gun issues, I want to offer a few brief indicators that any analysis of gun deaths in America that presumes to actually address the problem needs to move away from the question of ‘gun control’ or its inverse ‘gun rights’ and directly address questions of antiblackness.

1. First of all, one cannot forget that the question of race is always tied directly into the history of ‘gun control’ debates. From the explicit framing of the Dred Scott decision in terms of keeping firearms out of black hands,1  to gun control’s place at the forefront of the KKK’s early agenda (culminating, notably, in the institution of the Black Codes), the early history of gun control in the United states is more-or-less explicitly the history of the disarmament of black Americans. One cannot forget, for instance, that the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was viable in large part as a response to the Black Panther party’s open-carry occupation of the California legislature in response to California’s own Mulford Act of 1967, which was explicitly framed to disarm the Panthers in the face of the police. If the history of the ‘gun control’ lobby is tied up with antiblackness however, it is not the case that, conversely, the emergence of an organized ‘gun rights’ lobby has been any less tied to this history of antiblackness. Gun shows, of course, are one of the most consistent places one can go to find far-right, explicitly racist organizations recruiting. Further, even the rhetoric of more mainstream conservative gun advocates relies on a barely concealed specter of racialized criminality for intelligibility. Homeowners should have guns because, after all, the ‘criminals’ will always-already have them, and homeowners should be prepared to defend themselves from criminal (read: black) interlopers.

2. Secondly, there’s the transparent disconnect between the incidents of gun violence that ‘bring up’ the gun control question, and those that make up the sorts of alarming statistics that Krystoff draws attention to. The perpetrators of the sorts of randomized mass shootings that make up the news cycle, after all, overwhelmingly take the form of young, white men. And yet, the faces on both sides of the figures Krystoff cites are overwhelmingly black. The difference in both kind and degree between these subsets of gun violence raises a host of racialized questions. What is it, exactly, that makes white men far more likely than any other group to take life indiscriminately when they feel slighted? Why is it that black Americans die of gun violence at such staggering per capita rates? (Blacks, for instance, accounted for 55% of deaths at the end of a gun in 2010, but only 13% of the overall population) To answer these questions would require asking about the conditions that connect blacks in America overwhelmingly to intractable poverty, poverty to violence, etc. It would require asking questions about white power and entitlement. It would require examining a whole host of questions that have nothing to do with guns per se.

3. Finally, taken together, these two indicators point towards possible explanations for the statistical confusion that underlies both sides of the gun debate. Advocates for both increased controls on gun purchases and for deregulation of gun ownership can smugly point to statistics that seem to indicate that their position, and the narratives that undergird it, more satisfactorily explain and can deal with the realities of American gun violence. Both sides would claim that these massive statistical variances can be explained by flaws in the research methodology of the ‘opposing’ side. But what if there’s a simpler explanation for the wide, almost random-seeming divergences between rates of gun violence and national gun policy? What if the factors effected by gun control legislations are more or less exogenous to the causes of gun violence in America? What if the only way to address ‘gun violence’ in America is not to address guns at all, but to address the ongoing operation of antiblackness in the structure of American society?

1.”For if [the protections of the Bill of Rights] were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police […] It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, […] to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

The Politics of Faith and Theological Politics

The following are some thoughts I’ve been working out as I prepare to give a paper at UC Santa Barbara at the beginning of May on the relationship between theology and law. They’re mostly half formed, so questions and pushback are appreciated.

The recent signing into law of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act by Indiana’s governor to protect the “religious freedom” of individuals who want to deny services to others whose lifestyle offends their religious sensibilities is only one in a litany of examples of conservative Christians attempting to use the state to defend their desire to openly discriminate against people they don’t like. That reading of the case is obvious to most people and is one of the reasons these cases are pure gold for scholars who study religion, politics, and law. Laws like this are masqueraded as non-establishment when they seem to clearly represent an attempt to enshrine some form of religious morality as law.

In other words, what proponents of this legislation are doing is claiming that the legislation itself has no religious content (that would be establishment); it is instead circumscribing the rights of religious adherents to so that they may be “protected” to obey the tenets of their religion. Religion, here, is not explicitly defined as Christianity, even though it is predominately Christians who support and benefit from the bill. Presumably, the law would allow for anyone, on the basis of her religious beliefs and practice, to deny service to anyone else who threatens adherence to those beliefs and practice. Here’s the rub though–when cases come before higher circuit courts whose questions come under these sorts of laws (or are brought under the First Amendment more broadly) it becomes impossible for the court not to create some kind of working definition of religion that looks an awful lot like Christianity. We saw this tension in Oklahoma when Satanists petitioned for a statue of Baphomet to be placed in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Winnie Sullivan’s book The Impossibility of Religious Freedom details a case in Boca Raton, FL in which a judge, in attempting to avoid establishment, inadvertently “defines” religion along Protestant lines in his ruling on a case which had to do with Catholic and Jewish folk mourning practices and ends up excluding those practices as outside “religion.” (Sullivan, by the way, is the keynote speaker at the UCSB conference.) In other words, it is not clear at all that this law would actually protect a person denying service to a Christian because said Christian was offensive to her religious beliefs (e.g. a Muslim or Jew denying a Christian on the basis of her belief that Christians are idolaters–an occurrence quite unlikely to happen anyway.)

Cases like this are indeed worthy of our attention because they seem to expose the language of the secular state as truly inadequate to address complex religious questions and actually in constant violation of its own identity as secular and “neutral” with respect to religion when it attempts to issue rulings on these kinds of questions. They point to the inextricable link between religion and politics, and especially that the religious is always political.

I think we could go a step further though in showing just how deeply religious the secular political-juridical discourse is on questions of religion and religious freedom and how incredibly problematic that is. “Political theology” which first emerged as an explicit line of inquiry in the 1920s aimed to show the Protestant religious structure of Western political systems (albeit with a pretty inadequate and static understanding of theology.) I think that we need to begin to develop a “legal theology”–a discourse which can explain the legal arguments of these sorts of cases in terms of their underlying theological claims. Because they certainly are making theological claims and often very, very, bad ones.

The point is not simply to reinforce the religious character of the secular. That’s been done to death. Rather, I see it as a next step in trying to suss out what religious claims are actually being advanced, what that may reveal about the religious commitments of particular segments of a population, and, in the case of a state advancing an argument, what sorts of people are excluded or rendered illegible. In practice, I don’t think we can judge the merits of a legal argument on the basis of its quality as a theological argument. But casting these sorts of arguments in theological terms does help us to better understand their precise relationship to religion.

Lots of bloggers, Christian or not, have already gestured toward this regarding the Indiana legislation by pointing out that “refusing service” on the grounds of moral objection is not exactly a tenet of Christianity. In fact, it seems to be exactly the opposite. We might ask, “What does it mean theologically to demand the right to refuse service?” As we dig deeper into this question, the language of the law itself reveals to us a particular theological character of a segment of American Christians–namely, the value of moral purity over generosity and hospitality; a clear hierarchy of sins; a devaluing of the humanity of people who participate in the worst of these “sins,” and on and on. Nothing new there. But this reading of the law highlights the fact that the state is not neutrally “protecting” the rights of some Christians to morally object to certain behaviors. The affirmation of these objections, when read theologically, is betrayed by the clear preferences to particular types of not simply religious identification but very specific ways of viewing Christianity.

These types of situations can get even more complex though. In the Indiana case as well as the case Sullivan treats, it is the state that is implicated in this kind of backdoor establishment-as-non-establishment situation. It’s the state’s job to at least try really hard to give the appearance of a secular, neutral stance on religious questions, But there are other instances where groups that are explicitly religious attempt to utilize the language of the secular liberal state in order to protect themselves against lawsuits and other legal action. For example, in 2003 suit was filed against an Evangelical residential rehabilitation program which used funds from the state of Iowa to run their program in an Iowa prison. The suit argued, of course, that this constituted a violation of the First Amendment (establishment of religion) precisely because the methods of the organization (Prison Fellowship Ministries) were explicitly religious and being funded directly by the state (not to mention prisoners who participated in PFM’s program were given preferential treatment while incarcerated.)

The argument PFM made against this claim is rather astounding, particularly from a Christian point of view. They argued to the contrary that their program was secular because their goals aligned with those of the state–namely, the rehabilitation of inmates and their reentry into society as productive citizens. They claimed the lawsuit was yet another attempt on the part of “secularists” to remove religious organizations from the level playing field of public service and block them from providing services to people who volunteer to receive them. Their methods, they claimed, were irrelevant as long as the aims were secular. In other words, conversion was not a requirement to complete the program, and it is on that point specifically that the distinction between secular and religious hinged in PFM’s view. Their methods included Bible study, prayer, and other forms spiritual formation–all terms used by PFM, all claimed to be part of the overall “secular” project of their organization. They did end up losing the case. (Another book by Sullivan, Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution details this case.)

This case gets into what I think is some even more interesting legal-theological territory than the Indiana case. Here, we might ask: What is the significance of the claim that rehabilitation and reentry into society is a “secular” and not a “Christian” goal? What is the relationship between “conversion” and the transformation of the person? In PFM’s view, what is entailed in conversion to Christianity? In other words, the argument advanced by PFM in this case significantly alters the aims of spiritual formation and discipleship from within the Christian tradition itself. But it also raises questions regarding the difficulty of distinguishing between “religious” and “secular” goals within the realm of public service.

How are states supposed to adjudicate these kinds of cases when the most important questions entail a decision about what does and does not constitute “actual” religious practice? I think asking these kinds of theological questions about the legal arguments brings this difficulty into sharper focus.

If anyone is interested, my paper at UCSB is going to deal with a famous European case in which plaintiffs sued the Italian government over crucifixes that were hung in public school classrooms. The state’s defense? That the crucifix is a symbol of democratic values, universal humanism, and human rights. You can find information about the conference here.

Injustice Anxiety: How Progressive Christians Have Become Their Own Worst Enemy

A couple months ago, my wife and I attended a theatrical performance given at Northwestern’s law school, which detailed the history of violence and systemic injustice in Chicago. It was an incredibly moving and powerful performance. Afterward, the director of diversity and inclusion programs for Northwestern moderated a time of response from the audience. One of the comments that struck me the hardest was given by a young white woman. She began by telling everyone she was a social worker and a justice advocate but then complained that whenever she has been involved in justice initiatives whether protests, attending council meetings, etc., her ideas are rarely taken into consideration. She was calling on minorities to be more open to white folks who just want to help. I was fuming in my seat but was amazed by the response of grace and patience that came from those who responded. The common thread was something like this: You have to earn the trust of these communities in order to participate. It doesn’t matter what knowledge or degrees you have. Even your righteous indignation at injustice doesn’t matter. You have been part of something that has systematically destroyed bodies of color in this country, and the first steps are to recognize that, accept the discomfort it is going to bring, and then, just be present. Presence is important, and trust will follow. But it takes time.

That was a huge step for me in learning to let go of my own anxieties over being an advocate for social justice. As a white, cis-gendered male who does not have any of the experiences of oppressed groups in this country, I have often worried about making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, thinking the wrong way. But over the last couple years with the help of voices like the ones I heard that night, I’ve come to realize that my problem was that, like that young woman, I was still making the issues about me–i.e. my fears and anxieties. Being an advocate means letting go of the fact that I’m a white, cis-gendered male, that I’m not going to be fully trusted as an advocate right away, and that my job at first is to just be present.

It seems that this is a message that much of “progressive Christianity” still needs to hear. Last summer, I wrote about my discovery of an ultra-conservative Christian blogger who was using the language of progressive Christianity against progressives themselves to try to argue that progressivism is cold, rigid, ideological, and just plain not fun. This morning, I’ve discovered that a number of progressive Christians have been wringing their hands over the exact same thing: They feel that progressive Christianity has become a purity culture where those who do not match ideologically are rejected much in the way that conservative Christians reject those they consider hedonistic.

This is a particularly attractive point of view especially for those who originally came from conservative backgrounds but now find themselves taking on a more progressive stance on political and theological issues. If you scroll down the comments of the culture of purity blog, you’ll notice Rachel Held Evans praising the author for articulating something she’s felt for a long time: that there’s a problem with the “everything is problematic” point of view. It’s not that surprising that a more conservative progressive like RHE would feel that way. On the one hand, one of the primary reasons that conservatives leave for more progressive pastures is the fact that the former has too many legalistic rules. They’re looking to “get away” from religion in order to find Jesus. So when what they thought was good ol’ free thinking progressivism starts telling them they have to think certain ways about political and social issues, they want to retreat back to somewhere in the middle.

On the other hand, that retreat back to the middle isn’t only about an aversion to rules. It’s also an aversion to the kind of politics that a truly progressive Christianity requires. This political aversion is also multi-faceted. It includes a desire to purify Christianity from politics, claiming that Jesus’ original message was not political in nature or decrying the merger of either Republican or Democratic politics with Christianity. But it’s also a fear that this connection between politics and Christianity will bring to the surface the very thing they’ve tried to repress: Their discomfort with minority groups. That isn’t necessarily their fault. It takes a lot of work to overcome the ways of viewing the world that we’ve been taught from a young age. But progressive Christianity is a demand to overcome those things.

Actually, Christianity is a demand to overcome those things. Therein lies the rub of this rejection of “progressive purity culture.” Forget the fact that “purity” is the wrong word or that neither progressive Christianity nor social justice movements need resemble anarchistic Marxism in order to be progressive and effective. This is about what the author calls complicity in injustice which he characterizes as the “idol” of progressive Christians. The heart of this complaint–like the heart of the ultra-conservative complaint against the same thing–is that progressive politics makes people feel bad about themselves, specifically white, cis-gendered male people. But once you’re a Christian, how you feel no longer matters. That’s why you become a Christian–so you can die to self and take up the cross. If we just did whatever we felt like doing, intentionally becoming part of Christianity (or any religion) wouldn’t mean anything at all. Social justice isn’t about you and your feelings. The demand for inclusive language, for highlighting passive complicity in systems of injustice, for a radical commitment to social justice is not about maintaining an ideologically pure progressive culture.

The commitment to rooting out those things is about standing in solidarity with the victims of systemic injustice who do not have the luxury to ruminate over which of their oppressors they might offend in fighting to tear down those systems.

When this middle group of Christians makes issues of systemic injustice about themselves by pointing out that they feel bad when someone says they’re complicit in systemic injustice, that they’ve made a mistake, are thinking about something in a problematic way, should maybe just shut their mouth and listen for once, they have completely missed the point of the gospel’s call to serve the least of these–i.e. those who are threatened by systemic injustice. Is it going to be difficult to answer that call? Are you going to be faced with all the uncomfortable things I just listed? Yes. But that call is not about you–it’s about helping those under the threat of systemic injustice and listening to what they need.

It is not about you.

Ultimately, I think this is an issue of liberal verses non-liberal (e.g. radical) progressivism. I mean these terms in the political rather than theological sense. In other words, those who see themselves as outside of the walls of both progressivism and conservativism are beholden to a liberal politics which wants to claim a neutral ground on these sorts of contentious political issues. It’s a ground of natural rights, of complete “gospel freedom,” which is really just old fashioned liberal, Enlightenment freedom: “We’re all human beings”; “We’re called to love and care for everyone“; “Everyone has universal human rights,” etc. The problem is that these platitudes generate ways of thinking that tend to perpetuate current systems of oppression. In this case, they’re used as excuses to not go all in on advocacy because we might marginalize the oppressors whom, in the context of this liberal worldview, Jesus also calls us to love, care for, and forgive.

However, that’s not clear at all in the gospels. At no point does Jesus chastise the Pharisees and then turn back to them later and say, “Don’t worry you guys. As I’m radically turning your religio-political world upside down, I’ll make sure you feel cared for.” That doesn’t mean, however, that we can say Jesus likely didn’t care at all about what the Pharisees thought. On the contrary, he’s constantly charging them to change their minds and fix the system! After all, they’re the ones with the ability to do it. Similarly, the critique of liberal human rights discourse and/or middle Christian care for everyone discourse doesn’t mean we’re forced to fundamentally devalue the life of some human beings for the sake of others. That’s a false dichotomy. Honestly, how are the poor and oppressed any threat at all to the lives of those in power as long as the system keeping them there remains in tact? They’re no threat at all.

This complaint is a matter of seeing ourselves as the savior of those in need. It is not on us to solve the problems of minorities, the poor, or oppressed. But it is our responsibility to stand and be present with those who are seeking justice. If you feel excluded by that, then maybe some self-reflection is in order. Begin by understanding that working toward ending systemic injustice is not about you and your feelings.

Conservative Christianity and the Rhetoric of (In)tolerance

I’m taking a quick break in the middle of the series to address something I’ve found very interesting recently. Part 3 should be up tomorrow.

I’m not really in the business of searching the Internet for conservative rhetoric on issues like gay marriage, contraception, etc. I do try to stay abreast of the “opposing side’s” point of view like any engaged citizen should, but in the same way that it’s probably difficult for conservatives, I have a really hard time sorting out legitimate arguments–or arguments from those whom conservatives would consider legitimate figures–and absolute wacko garbage. Thankfully (or unfortunately, as the case may be), Facebook quite often brings the more legitimate articles to my doorstep as it were on a fairly regular basis. One such article caught my eye recently, posted by one of Lucas’s “acquaintances” which garnered over 50 comments, most directed at Lucas who was attempting to bring clarity to the conversation.

The blog post, by someone named Matt Walsh, can be found here. The blog is titled “If you want to prove you don’t hate the gays, all you have to do is worship at their feet,” and in a contemporary world of click-baity Buzzfeed-isms, I found that to be rather refreshing. I knew exactly what I was getting into before I even read the first sentence of the article.

Or I thought I did.

From the very first paragraph, I encountered something I’d not yet seen, at least not at the level of strength and emphasis with which Walsh was writing. Assuming many of our readers wouldn’t waste their time clicking on the link to the article, here’s the first paragraph:

I have never in my life encountered a religion as oppressive, cold, and stiff as Progressivism. I’ve never known a faith more eager to burn heretics at the stake. Even a fundamentalist Iranian Muslim would flinch if he came face to face with a western liberal’s rigid dogmatism. I imagine that even a Saudi Arabian Islamic cleric would take one look at how American left wingers react when anyone deviates ever so slightly from their established orthodoxy, and say to himself, “man, these people REALLY need to chill.”

I’m really not trying to condescend when I say that I was utterly shocked by the diction and tone of this opening paragraph. It honestly read to me like a parody–as if someone were making a joke by parodying the language of progressivism directed toward fundamentalism and reversing the positions.

But no, Matt Walsh is completely serious. I say it’s a parody because while some progressives perhaps have used language like “eager to burn heretics,” “rigid dogmatism,” or “established orthodoxy” to describe conservative Christianity, “progressives” ranging from the more conservative and clearly still Evangelical like Rachel Held Evans to the more Leftist like Adam Kotsko have shifted away from what are now sort of tired and well-worn ways of talking about conservative Christianity.

Here we have a conservative who has caught on to the cultural power of this kind of “fundamentalist bashing” discourse in post- or late-postmodern culture and is attempting to turn the very weapon used against him for a while now back onto “the liberals.” That in and of itself is absolutely fascinating to me, but there’s a much more basic point that I want to make here because unfortunately what could’ve been a very interesting read–what I thought was an actual moment of shift in the language of conservative Christianity–turned out to be the same old boring crap peddled through what is becoming increasingly more and more hostile language. That is, Matt Walsh thinks the liberals are hypocrites for being intolerant of what they see as intolerant opinion.

Progressivism, at least in the Christian context, is not nor has it ever been about the tolerance of all opinion. In some more Leftist strands (e.g. Kotsko), the discussion ends there (i.e. intolerance of bigotry with an ethical imperative in some cases to not forgive), and in others, this understanding of tolerance is carefully balanced with the call to forgive. In other words, the far Left has a problem with the idea forgiveness in all cases being touted as radical and moderates tend to want to find a way to mediate between intolerance of positions like racism and forgiveness for racists who repent.

That’s a ham-fisted representation (sorry) but I really want to just make one thing especially clear: The word tolerance does not imply, nor has it ever implied, the acceptance of all positions. The argument from Walsh and nearly every other conservative is something like: “You claim to be tolerant, but you’re intolerant of what you think is intolerance (i.e. my own opinion)!”

Yeah, no shit!

Tolerance doesn’t have any meaning if it doesn’t have the freedom to not tolerate intolerance when it sees it. By the way–progressives aren’t even interested in tolerance. Tolerance is the lowest form of acceptance of another person or idea. When you say you tolerate your neighbor practicing the accordion terribly at eight in the evening every night, you’re saying that you’re doing everything in your power not to go next door and smash it over his head. Tolerance can coexist with active mental hatred.

So to even apply tolerance to progressive Christians as if it’s their modus operandi is perhaps a misnomer. We’re not asking others to “tolerate” people of color, the LGBT community, women, etc. We’re after full participation, a recognition that folks like myself who are not members of traditionally oppressed communities need to do a lot more listening to those communities and active reflection on the places of power into which we come. And we refuse to even tolerate those who think they have the right to hate speech and bigotry. In other words, if you’re a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, a misogynist, or just a good old fashioned asshole, I’m going to call you that and not feel bad about it–even as a Christian–because I don’t think any of those things have a place in the Kingdom of God.

Regarding Religious Language: Spinoza’s Political Theology

I’d like to reflect on something that I picked up on in reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus a few weeks ago. Right from the beginning I was fascinated by the way in which Spinoza talks about God, consistently anthropomorphizing God in the standard way theology has done in order to speak of a personal God: i.e. “God said,” “God did,” “God demands,” etc.

The problem, of course, is that Spinoza doesn’t think that “God” is a personal God in any way. For Spinoza, as detailed in his Ethics, God is the totality of the universe. God is an infinite, necessary, self-subsisting, uncaused substance with two attributes, extension and thought. That isn’t to say that our physical world is God. Rather, by positing God as Nature, Spinoza means that God is the only substance that there is, and we (and every other physical thing) are modes of that substance. In other words, there are two sides to Nature: Natura naturans (naturing Nature) and Natura naturata (natured Nature.) God is the former, the sustaining activity that causes everything else. The physical world is the latter, sustained and produced by the former. Consequently, we also take part in the mind of God. Therefore, for Spinoza, knowledge of the natural world (what he calls natural knowledge in the TTP) is also, in his special sense, knowledge of God. The more one can stop seeing the world as individual, disconnected substances and events and begin being able to see that world is actually a unity, the more knowledge one is gaining of God.

This way of conceiving of God, though the argument is not worked out until the Ethics, frames Spinoza’s entire discussion of Judaism and Christianity in the TTP which, for me, gives rise to a really interesting phenomenon that I want to explore here briefly regarding Spinoza’s method in the TTP. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge at the outset that one of the likely reasons Spinoza uses the language that he does is his fear of the Dutch government. There’s no getting around the fact that Spinoza’s conception of God would have been (and was posthumously) seriously problematic for church authorities. So in one sense we could say that Spinoza is simply disguising his metaphysic in language that would be palatable to those authorities whom he rightly feared.

But on the other hand, I think I have to agree with Spinoza scholars who argue that Spinoza seems to be obsessed with the idea of God. It would be a mistake, then, to read Spinoza as merely prefiguring scientific material accounts of religion a la the New Atheists, in effect explaining away religion or pulling back the curtain, so to speak, in order to reveal what’s really happening–that behind religious language, ideas, and practice, there is a natural explanation. If that’s all Spinoza were doing, then why insist on retaining all of the religio-theological language? I don’t think fear of persecution is strong enough.

For example, in the first two chapters, Spinoza addresses the ideas of prophecy and prophets, concluding that there should be no sharp distinction between natural knowledge and prophetic knowledge, since all true knowledge simply is knowledge of God. What the prophet brings is a particular imaginative power to knowledge, giving it its peculiar quality. The prophet, then, is someone who has this capacity, who is receptive to the way God “chooses to speak” to him. In other words, Spinoza is content to say that when someone like Joshua sees the sun stop in the sky, we shouldn’t criticize the account on the basis of our knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. Everyone in Joshua’s day, including Joshua, thought the opposite; hence, the sun stopping in the sky would make sense to them. Spinoza suggests that “God speaks” even through what seems like insanity to us today (e.g. the visions of Daniel.)

Note that this prophetic knowledge for Spinoza, even when based upon something that we today understand as scientifically erroneous, is still real knowledge. All real knowledge is knowledge of nature, and Spinoza’s claim is that prophetic knowledge really is natural knowledge. For this reason, it’s a mistake, I think, to read his account as strictly removing the special status from prophetic knowledge, viz. reducing the prophetic to the natural. Because of how Spinoza has defined God, all knowledge in his special sense is “revelatory.” That may be too far for some readers, but I think it’s fair to say that his understanding of the relationship between God and nature allows for that step. I think a better way to read Spinoza here is that instead of demoting or demystifying the prophetic, he’s heightened the status of natural knowledge. This puts Spinoza’s account in this odd place of reading as reductive but not actually being reductive. He is giving a natural account of the supernatural but writing as if supernatural language still retains some meaning and relevance.

The as if I think is what is most important in this text. Spinoza, the arch-atheist of the 18th and 19th centuries, is actually advocating for what he thinks is a politically viable religion such that religion is a necessary component of society. In other words, for all the talk about Spinoza’s God being non-personal, pantheistic, etc., he sure does speak very seriously as if God is not those things. E.g., Spinoza on what his new, politically viable faith requires in chapter 14:

Hence it follows that a catholic or universal faith must not contain any dogmas that good men may regard as controversial; for such dogmas may be to one man pious, to another impious, since their value lies only in the works they inspire. A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible.

Just a few paragraphs later, he details seven tenets of this faith that include God’s existence, omnipresence (both uncontroversial Spinozist was of viewing God), God’s “supreme right and dominion over all,” worship and obedience to God consisting “solely in justice and charity, or love towards one’s neighbour,” etc.

Here, it seems to me that Spinoza is not making a case for how to regard religion (i.e. as a mistaken understanding of nature); rather, he’s making a case for how to regard the political religiously. To take it a step further (but maybe too far), this is a case for how one could and should regard reality religiously–or at least the experience of reality (though the latter is not Spinozist.)

To dial it back for a moment, I think it would be reaching too far to say that Spinoza intended the TTP to be anything more than a rendering of religion as a political theology that could be accepted “universally” and uncontroversially with the shadow of the religious wars of the 17th century looming in the background. But I’m interested in this idea of regarding as a methodology, as it has echoes both in Kant’s account of religion and in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century among neo-Kantians like Heinrich Rickert, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

(I’m planning a post on Rickert for the not-too-distant future.)

The Construction of the Bourgeois Citizen-Subject in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

We haven’t posted for a while, which is mostly my fault since last quarter was absolutely insane for me. This quarter looks to allow for a little more regularity.

I left off on the question of subjectivity in Kant, and though I could spend many more posts exploring the relationship between subjectivity and knowledge, I’d like to move on to something else, which gets us closer to critical theory; namely the relationship between subjectivity and freedom. It’s no surprise that Kant’s account of the subject raises a host of problems but two in particular are of interest here:

1) If all perceptions are mine including time and space, what is it that connects those perceptions together and ensures that it is still me from moment to moment? (In other words, what makes me a unity?)

2) Given this view of knowledge, what must I do and how is that to be accomplished?

The answer to both questions is essentially “the transcendental soul which is absolutely free” in Kant and Kantianism. It is your soul which is a nouminous object and absolutely free that unites your perceptions transcendentally (because nouminous objects are in themselves unities) and it is because of this freedom that you can fulfill your duty to the highest good by binding yourself to the moral law.

The question of freedom is vitally important and hotly contested in Kant’s time. If the universe is mechanistically determined (Newton), how can anyone be held responsible for anything one does? Thus, the commitment to freedom and explaining human action (i.e. history) in terms of freedom is of paramount importance at the turn of the 19th century. Freedom becomes the new foundation of ethical life.

We need to understand this shift in terms of what is new about freedom in the 19th century. In Aristotle, the law is coterminous with justice; that is, lawful acts are just acts and vice versa. The law forces us to behave justly in relation to others. Therefore, individuals have rights (or anything resembling rights as we understand them) only in the context of a just, lawful order. There is a priority of objective law to subjective rights. The law governs through educating and producing virtuous people. This outcome justifies the force of law–not even parents have the authority of this force. Only the political community can produce virtuous, law-abiding citizens. Therefore, the power of the law is internally unlimited. In this sense, the law has authority over both public and private life. There is, in fact, no sharp distinction between public and private (outer and inner) life, since the law has the responsibility and the authority to shape both. Introducing those terms here is already extending beyond the juridical concerns of the ancient world.

Jumping forward quite a bit, this view changes most significantly with Hobbes. In Hobbes, we find that the law cannot reach particular areas of private life (e.g. thoughts.) Law has a natural limitation. This introduction of the natural as it relates to law is vitally important here. In Hobbes (and later Locke, Rousseau, etc.) we find the introduction of the idea of natural rights that belong to the individual. Whereas in Aristotle, the law is what defined the rights of the political subject, in Hobbes, et. al., the authority of the law ends when it reaches natural rights. The law is circumscribed by them. This changes the function of the law. Now the law exists in order to secure the natural rights of the political subject. This is, for Marx, a “natural-normative” dialectic in which natural rights are taken to be pre- or non-normative in the precise sense that they simply are. They exist in nature and the fact of their existence is not a normative claim. That is, it is not that natural rights ought to exist–they simply do exist. The normative element enters when the law secures those rights as inscrutable, when the law protects their naturalness.

I don’t want to jump to Marx just yet, however. First, I want to look at the how Hegel constructs a citizen-subject on the basis of the above political-legal structure in The Philosophy of Right. As mentioned, absolute freedom has become the new foundation of ethical life. The ontological role of freedom in Hegel is far, far more complex than I am covering here. Absolute freedom is an historical process, an unfolding in history (as compared to Kant, who argues that we have absolute freedom already.) The idea of development is vital for what now follows. Freedom is two primary activities for Hegel which unite in a third:

1) Freedom is the capacity to abstract from everything–to not be determined by any specific determination. In other words, certain truths do not have certain necessary consequences, particularly when it comes to choosing how to act. For example, the fact that I am an American does not determine that I act in accordance with whatever that label means to other Americans. I can choose to not be determined by that category.

2) Freedom is also the reverse of this–the capacity to give yourself to a determination as a reason for choosing how to act.

3) Finally, freedom is self-determination. It is the unity of both aspects. It is to abstract from all determinations and posit oneself as determined.

Freedom unfolds through self-determination. These determinations, however, require that there be others in order to differentiate between determinations. This establishes a particular relation to others for Hegel. He writes that the other is actually not an external limitation; it is yourself appearing as something external. What the other wants is part of a social relation, becomes part of your own will. One cannot have freedom as Hegel understands it apart from a social relation. To be a part of a social structure is the condition of the possibility of freedom as self-determination. The social relation precedes the individual.

This includes a special role for education as well. Remember that for Aristotle, education is something external (the law) being imposed upon the subject in order to make it a political subject. In Hegel, education (Bildung) is an internal activity grounded in social relations. Education in Hegel’s sense is not the gaining of specific skills–it is becoming skillful. This “skillfulness” is essentially a learning how to be a social being, learning the relations of one’s will (self-determination) to something it is not. This isn’t simply an inter-subjective understanding, but a way that subjects see themselves as part of a social relation which is prior to their individuality. This includes estimating consequences, determining what is good and bad for the self in order to alter drives, and eventually trying to orient oneself toward happiness, which is a rather utilitarian way of thinking about it. But note that what is chosen is ultimately a self-determination–not something imposed by the external force of the law. The law instead secures the individual’s ability to choose.

Bildung ultimately consists of generalizing oneself so that the will may be transformed into an ethical-social self-determining subject. Generalization is what allows one to participate in the social. In other words, if I want to participate in a community of any size, including my immediate family, I have to give up some of the particularities that constitute me as an individual subject when I enter into a social relation. I can’t force everyone to like the food I like, go to bed and wake up when I do, read philosophy and theology, etc. The highest form of this participation, for Hegel, is ethical participation: the free will that desires free will, that wills itself. Freedom becomes our actual way of life such that we live the good itself.

What we’ve reconstructed here is one version of what Marx will later call the bourgeois subject. In short, Hegel has instrumentalized the state for bourgeois society. The generalization of the individual is not truly general–it is directed at a particular set of social relationships, outside of which an individual cannot participate in the community–especially the economic. In the next few posts that I write, I will focus on the Marxist response which sets the stage for Weber’s analysis of this structure (which is what I’m really interested in.)

Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby’s death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.

The Hermeneutic of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 56

2 63

3 68