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.

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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.

The Time of Economy

In his The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates that the key distinction at play in the theological thinking on economy is that between monarchy and economy; between God’s being and activity. To put it another way, the question that necessitates the elaboration of an economy is that of how to account for simultaneous unity and multiplicity in God; a simultaneity that is later worked out in philosophical elaboration on the doctrine of the trinity.

“Oikonomia,” the Greek reader will remember, “means ‘administration of the house.’”[1] And so, the distinction between politics and economy is founded in (pseudo-)Aristotle’s treatise on economy in the distinction between the city and the household:

…it is important not to forget that the oikos is not the modern single-family house or simply the extended family, but a complex organism composed of heterogenous relations, entwined with each other, which Aristotle divides into three groups: ‘despotic’ relations between masters and slaves […]; ‘paternal’ relations between parents and children; ‘gamic’ relations between husband and wife. These ‘economic’ relations are linked by a paradigm we could define as ‘administrative’ and not epistemic: in other words, it is a matter of an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense. This activity rather implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order of the different parts of the oikos.[2]

Once this concept is transposed into theological language it has been generally assumed to acquire the meaning of a ‘divine plan of salvation.’ Agamben argues that this reading is a projection into the ‘sense’ of the word what is in fact simply an extension of the same sense into different denotative fields. It’s not that economy takes on a ‘technical’ theological sense, but instead what occurs is “a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning.”[3]

The bulk of the second book in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics is devoted to a series of anecdotes on the generation of monetary revenue: a sort of catalogue of governmental money-making schemes. Kings, city leaders, and property owners are recorded as engaged in any number of management paradigms wherein they increase their monetary wealth by variously dispensing the productive relations under their power; manipulating taxes, temple offerings, celebrations, etc., in order to encourage increases in production and tax revenue. What is of interest is the improvisational nature of these unscientific tactics: each is undertaken in order to deal with some contingent circumstance that the monarchic ruler wishes to approach. Often, this circumstance is the need to pay soldiers for war, but in any case what is at stake is the acquisition of commodities which embody a use-value for the ruler. That common law of household economics maintains a constant force: “that the expenditure must not exceed the income.”[4] In Marxian language, the classical origins of economy never exceed the strict temporality of the C-M-C relation: a commodity’s exchange-value is alienated by a seller, who gains money for it, money which is then alienated in favor of a new commodity which embodies for the buyer a use-value. And so, at one moment the monarchic economic actor has at his disposal exchange-value; at another, money; at the last, use-value to be expended for the monarch’s aims. The entrance of credit and debt into this equation do nothing to effect the strict linearity of this economic ‘time:’ what the monarch has in his possession at any given moment strictly limits the possibility of his economic action.

The temporality of the divine economy, however, is not constrained by this linearity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the mechanism of recapitulation. According to this logic, what is necessary to cancel the debt that humanity has incurred is a sort of return to the original point of sale: from the point of view of this reenactment, which corrects the original retrospectively, the status of the original act of debt changes, appearing no longer as a theft or removal, but as a step in a chain towards the gratuitous redemption of humanity by God. According to the logic or recapitulation, this earlier ineffectiveness of the divine economy can be transmuted into an effective step into that economy. Anselm conceives of the recapitulation by Christ of Adam’s sin in terms of a two-moment motif borrowed from Irenaeus: if the problem of sin is opened by Eve and then universalized in Adam, then it is fitting that repetition and correction of Adam’s transmission of sin to humanity would be accompanied by a recapitulation of Eve’s original act; and so the pair Mary-Jesus comes to echo that of Eve-Adam.

According to the linearity of a C-M-C economy, however, this presents a paradox: how is it that Mary, who is still under the sin of Adam, can recapitulate Eve? What is required is a certain economic futurity: the future of the economy must be able to meaningfully recondition the present. And so, “that Virgin from whom the man about whom we are speaking was one of those who, before his birth were cleansed of sins through him, and he received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.”[5] In the logic of recapitulation, the temporality of speculation (which, while not absent from Aristotle’s time is clearly delineated from the notion of economy as such) becomes the basic temporality of the divine economy, now freed from the former constraints of linear finitude.


[1] Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 17.
[2] Ibid., 17-18.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Aristotle, Economics, II.1.14-16 (2135)
[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in The Major Works, II:16, 340.

Dave Ramsey and the Spirit of Capitalism

Three blog posts began circulating last week that I think give us the opportunity for some serious reflection on the relationship of Christianity to economy. The first was an article written by Tom Corley that appeared both on his own website and then on Dave Ramsey’s site called 20 Things the Rich Do Everyday. A commentary addendum was tacked on to the end of the list: A response from Ramsey answering all of the negative criticism the post received. In this response, he calls negative respondents “doctrinally shallow” and “spiritually immature,” telling them to “Grow up.” This sparked a host of immediate responses, most notably Rachel Held Evans who wrote this response on CNN’s religion blog in which she points out the obvious fallacy in the list Ramsey defends: Correlation does not equal causation. That is, many of the “habits” of the poor likely stem from their poverty rather than the other way around. This point was emphasized strongly in the most recent blog to circulate: 20 things the poor do everyday.

What’s most interesting to me are the strongly polarized conversations regarding capitalism and Marxism that crop up when stories like this break. Quite the same thing occurred last week in response to Pope Francis’ first major treatise that in part questioned the dominance of global capitalism in the context of the need to care for the poorest among us–an economic position on social justice which the Catholic Church has held for quite some time and is not necessarily Marxist.

A major part of the problem, it seems to me, is that most people don’t have a clear understanding of what capitalism really is to begin with. A view that seems to circulate strongly among Christians (and many others) is that capitalism means “free enterprise” broadly, or variously, defined. That is, what capitalism affords is the freedom to be able to be compensated for labor, for a skill, for an invention, a business of one’s own choosing through the effort of hard work and thus be able to achieve success that will allow one to live and hopefully live comfortably. The problem is that this conception of what it means to work in order to survive is not unique to contemporary capitalism. All sorts of capitalistic endeavors, from speculation to the financing of wars for monetary gain have existed in many places and times. This is one of the early arguments that drive’s Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber, whose aim is to define and then locate the primary originating factor of “the spirit of capitalism,” emphasizes the importance of understanding that modern capitalism is not simply a matter of earning in order to survive. Furthermore, he notes that the existence of an aristocracy, a bourgeois class, is not limited to capitalism either. Capitalism cannot be defined as unlimited greed. That is, greedy rich people have existed in other economic systems as well. Ultimately, the spirit of capitalism, Weber argues, is the rationalization of the accumulation of wealth for the sake of wealth itself.

To illustrate this point and the difference between this definition and the others, he cites a passage from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which Franklin espouses this financial advice:

Remember this saying, The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse. He that is known to pay punctually and exactly to the time he promises, may at any time, and on any occasion, raise all the money his friends can spare. This is sometimes of great use. After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings; therefore never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse forever.

The passage cited is much, much longer. Weber notes that what Franklin advises is not just a way of simply surviving in the world–there is a particular ethic here. This is absolutely crucial: Franklin is not simply giving sound financial advice. Weber describes the ethic thus:

Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues […] In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudœmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.

The telos of this sort of wealth-earning is not to live an absurdly extravagant lifestyle (i.e. hedonism)–which may seem counterintuitive to what we normally think of when we think of the “evils of capitalism.” There is a necessary frugality, a temperance which ensures that money will always be earned and nothing else.

Weber’s central thesis, that it is a particular Reformed Protestant ethic originating from the doctrine of predestination that gives rise to this spirit of capitalism, certainly contains flaws and for a long time has not been taken seriously. Let’s set that aside for a moment and take the fact that Ramsey is a Reformed Protestant as coincidence. Regardless of the origin of the spirit of capitalism, Ramsey’s emphasis on “virtuous choices” is hauntingly similar to Weber’s analysis of Franklin (Weber published this text as an article in 1904-5 and then as a book in 1920.) Note Ramsey’s three factors of poverty:

1. Personal habits, choices and character;
2. Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;
3. The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

He separates out the third as irrelevant to the first two (which is absolutely baffling.) Even more baffling are his next few sentences:

If you are broke or poor in the U.S. or a first-world economy, the only variable in the discussion you can personally control is YOU. You can make better choices and have better results. If you believe that our economy and culture in the U.S. are so broken that making better choices does not produce better results, then you have a problem. At that point your liberal ideology has left the Scriptures and your politics have caused you to become a fatalist.

What happened to the second factor on his list? The spirit of capitalism dictates his dismissal of it. On Ramsey’s account, the second is actually the fault of the poor themselves. The cultivation of character (virtue) is the primary factor in determining one’s financial success, and it is an autonomously willed endeavor. One has the ability to transcend all environmental factors in order to participate in this ethic. If the poor don’t, then they are subjecting themselves to oppression by allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. (The state lottery is Ramsey’s example of this.)

I think understanding capitalism this way is important because it moves the conversation about how best to serve the poor away from a capitalism/Marxism distinction (which is absurd anyway), away from a debate about “hard workers” and “lazy people,” and toward an important conversation about the role of money in the life of a Christian. 

That is, we do need to raise questions about systemic oppression, but we also need to help people see how money functions in their lives. There isn’t anything wrong with Dave Ramsey wanting to help people get out of debt and take control of their finances. I’m sure my wife and I could benefit a lot from what he has to say. That itself is not necessarily a capitalistic or oppressive endeavor. Yet, Ramsey would probably answer the comparison of himself to Franklin (or Weber’s sketch of Franklin) by saying that one earns wealth not for the sake of wealth but in order to “Live like no one else so you can give like no one else.”

Here’s where Weber is important in reading this: Giving generously is all well and good, but unfortunately, one is still earning money for the sake of money–it’s just money one can give away.

Can giving money to charity accomplish some good? Absolutely. But what is vastly more important than that is being able to see the role that money plays in our lives in forming an ethic that drives how we see the world around us. If we firmly believe that one’s situation is solely determined by a particular set of capitalistic virtues that one cultivates, then of course one is going to see everyone in poverty as having failed at or been too lazy to cultivate those virtues.

Contrary to Ramsey’s claim, there is nothing Biblical about earning money for the sake of money. One could more or less make the case that honesty, frugality, punctuality, and industry are virtues that can be found somewhere in the Bible, but, as Weber notes, they are not necessarily connected to the capitalistic spirit–the capitalistic spirit made them that way. Jesus, on the other hand, has some more direct things to say about our relationships to others. They usually have to do with serving the poor, disdaining wealth, allowing yourself to be taken advantage of–all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There’s no such thing as a taker who doesn’t work hard enough–just a division between those who give all to serve the poor and those who oppress them.

Pedagogy and Theology II, Or Sean’s Bullshit.

I

As Luke’s first post alludes, theology is—as an academic discipline—in some pretty serious trouble. The general commodification of university discourse, the fideistic reproduction of confessional identity, and the un-rigorous appropriation of other academic disciplines (especially philosophy and social theory) each threaten the credibility of theological work in an academic setting. This situation is not, I think, a new one; in my (extremely cursory) analysis, theology has been hobbled with just this sort of limp ever since the death of any serious traction held by the ontological argument for the existence of God.⁠1 With the severance of any sort of organic linkage between God and the basis for knowledge as such, theology necessarily turns elsewhere for authority. Because this situation is not new, I don’t think we should mistake this limp for a sign that theology’s days are coming to an end; theology has continued to be studied, and I think will continue to be for the forseeable future.⁠2 Luke, as I said, has offered a pretty coherent introduction to these problems in the way theology is done, and while I could expound further I’ll save that for another time. For now, what seems to me to be the more interesting question is: how does a theological discipline perpetuate itself so thoroughly baselessly? In other words, if we examine theological thinking as a certain sort of production, by what means do the relations of production reproduce themselves? How can theology have continued this long without needing to know what it is thinking for?

II

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci makes a distinction between what he calls “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. Roughly, traditional intellectuals are those cognitive laborers whose professions imply membership in a kind of distinguished class; the intellectual class is like one giant subject-supposed-to-know, imagined to be, in a sense, ‘unaligned,’ outside and objective with regard to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. “The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals.” As one might imagine, the traditional intellectual is, in the last analysis, far from a neutral figure for Gramsci. Because the traditional intellectual is bound to a certain relations of production (the university, etc) that are themselves indebted in feudal Europe to the landed aristocracy and in capitalist societies to the wealth of the urban bourgeois (distributed either directly or by the state), traditional intellectuals are always materially tied to power. That this tie would color the inquiry of the traditional intellectuals is thus, pretty obvious; and we could talk about the rise of economics as a prominent and esteemed discipline as just that sort of obvious effect. What’s less obvious, but also at play, is that it is in the best interest of the hegemonic order to flatter the traditional intellectuals; as subjects supposed to know, they offer an air of legitimacy and necessity to the order that depends on their appearance of freedom and objectivity. If there are no non-functional, or dissenting disciplines and opinions among the traditional intellectuals, the spell of the traditional intellectuals are broken; their freedom to think against an order is, paradoxically, precisely why they never actually do anything to bring down that order.

If Gramsci’s discussion of traditional intellectuals teaches us one thing, it’s that the relations of production (capitalist, marketplace of ideas, etc) have already factored in the fact that many of us attempt to think against them. This is The Matrix Reloaded’s one good idea; (spoilers for a godawful movie) when Neo fulfills the function of the One, it turns out that the function of the One is, in fact, part of the setup of the Matrix; it is a kind of release valve on inevitable dissent. The ‘outside’ of the present set of relations is always already factored into the ‘inside’ or else the system could not have reproduced itself for this fucking long.

What does this have to do with theology specifically? Theology as a discipline depends on material ties to the academic apparatus, on the one hand, and denominational legitimation on the other. Most formal training in theology takes place in institutions (seminaries, divinity schools, etc.) that train pastors alongside researchers, and so, for most students, even work that questions or attacks confessional identities is done in the midst of material practices that are explicitly designed to reproduce those institutions and identities. Note, by the way, how neatly these two institutional demands (academy and denomination) map onto Lucas’ original divide between sets of resources (theoretical and traditional) that students in theology are expected to utilize. Note also that the more comfortably seminarian the learning environment, the less emphasis will be placed on the “theoretical” toolkit, and vice versa. That these two toolsets don’t mesh—don’t come with with a relation that is built into the grounds for theological inquiry itself—is just the kind of inconsistency that should alert us to the presence of ideology. It is precisely these inconsistencies that provide both the tensions and the release valves by which ideology can fully interpellate its subjects.

III

If we want to understand the material pressures to become certain kinds of theology students without need of a recourse to ‘why,’ we will also need to remember Louis Althusser’s treatment of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs). To be wantonly brief, ISAs are those institutions and practices which reproduce ideology by interpellating subjects who recognize themselves in ideology; they act (mostly) invisibly, without any explicit threat to those who don’t conform. Althusser’s prime example is, of course, the school; it’s in school that you learn skills to interact in the world that shape your interactions for the ideological order. RSAs, on the other hand, are things like the police, militaries, etc; the hanging threat of force and consequence by which an order disciplines its subjects. To anyone who’s read my other blog posts here or elsewhere, this might come across as harping, but [1] I think we forget Althusser too often at our own peril, and [2] what I want to highlight here is what seems like it should be most obvious, but seems to go most unnoticed; when the theological academy’s function as an ISA begins to slip, when ideological interpellation doesn’t work quite correctly, the ISA will become an RSA pretty damned fast.

There are any number of repressive pressures that threaten the theology student who would question the basis for theological inquiry. Any student who gives enough of a shit to be studying theology at the graduate level probably has, or has had, some significant level of confessional investment. Thus, there’s a certain amount of threat inherent involved in probing the basis—or lack thereof—of theology; threat of psychological trauma due to loss of faith, loss of identity, altered relationships with friends, family, peers, and colleagues, all of which are heightened by the amount of time and money that has been poured into study; the student simply has a lot to lose. Additionally, success in the theological academy is contingent upon the approval of professors and other figures. There is a real and manifest power over student thought wielded by professors that shapes the bounds of legitimate inquiry for students. It’s frankly much easier to reproduce variations upon existing lines of thought then it is to question the basis upon which professors think, for fear of rejection.

The Theology Studio facebook exchange around Phillip Blond’s proposal of military academies in the UK is, unfortunately for my purposes, no longer accessible⁠3. Among the choice exchanges in that thread was a peculiar attempt at public shaming executed by a more academically, err, powerful, theologian against Craig Keen, one of my academic mentors. This theologian (I’m sure you can figure it out) used me, Craig’s student, as a sort of built-in audience for the shaming, directing his grand pronouncements about the vapidity of Craig’s thought towards me, as if he was showing me, rhetorically, just how out-of-bounds a thinker can get as a kind service. Craig and I actually found this strange encounter sort of hilarious, and I still remind him of the comical extremity of the insults hurled from time to time, but this was a very real attempt at shaming and thought policing, and one clearly directed at a student in order to keep them from following similar lines of thought.⁠4


IV

Obviously, if you’re buying any of this, it’s pretty debbie-downer. I plan to follow this post up in the next few days with another, detailing possible modes of engagement with these institutional relations and pressures, along with my own working answer to Luke’s question: “why theology?” Since this post is already 1600 words, I’ll leave it for another day.

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1 So, probably since about Kant, although it’s certainly not a clean break. I want to be clear, too, that I know there are still people who take the ontological proof seriously; I just think that those people are essentially equivalent to six-day-creationists or flat-earthers; at a certain point, only the most extreme partisans can place any weight on this sort of thinking.

2 By most accounts, affluent Western capitalists are getting less religious, of course, but these numbers aren’t playing out that way much of anywhere else. Why that means academic theology has a long life ahead of it even if it looks patently ridiculous is a long argument I’ll have to make at another time.

3 All those angry posts will be lost in time like tears in rain.

4 “You imagine you are a fallen astral being from the realm of the archons somewhere up in the supernovas. Thus civilisation washes over you from the outside like an earthquake.” Gotta give the guy credit for a robust insult.

 

The Unground of Our Being

Gustav_Klimt_016

 

Nothing is real, if “real” is taken to mean anything beyond a momentary existence. Everything is ambiguous and transitory, unstable. People, which is to say, humans, can only perceive their perceptions. The perceiving of perceptions enables people to be affected. But even this affectedness is not a universal. The perceiver, which is to say the “I,” who is an I by the very nature of her being a perceiver, does not always allow affectedness. In order to enable affectedness, where affectedness means something like what Slavoj Žižek calls being moved to the point of the movements being traumatic (though in a good sense), one views the Other with which one is confronted as a “Thou.” Insofar as one views the Other one encounters as an “It,” she will be incapable of this engagement.

The traumatic affectedness of encountering the Other in all of her Thou-ness does not merely affect one in such a way that one is moved to a greater or lesser degree but remains stable, but moves one in such a manner that the very makeup of her world is altered. Her perceiving of her perceptions change, not because she is nearer the “actual truth” but because the mode of perceiving as well as the Others that she perceives have been fundamentally altered. There is only present, and present is never and will never be static or stable. The past is only existent insofar as it is re-membered and re-présented (that is, [ɹiˈpɹɛzɪntɪd] in IPA, or [ree-prez-int-id] in free form). There is no Kantian “thing-in-itself” that simply cannot be reached or perceived; there is only continual re-ideation of existence.

With this in mind, I think a great linguistic misappropriation has brought confusion and disorientation (vis a vis “faux-stabilized orientation,” as it were) into the “Christian” lexicon. Even this word, “Christian,” has seen stabilizing attempts. Where to travel to “God” through the “Spirit” by “Christ” should be existential and constantly moving, never ceasing to undo and re-ideate, a concerted effort has been made to capture it and ground it, keeping it from its “beyond control-ness.” These other words–“God,” “Spirit,” and “Christ”–are also taken captive by a grounding motive. “God” becomes this being, this entity, this force, moving away from the perplexing “I am who I am/will be.” “Spirit” becomes this force that can be called upon, manipulated. “Christ” becomes this entity that can be asked into one’s heart, understood by one and described.

Instead, these words should be understood as sorts of verbs, or perhaps allowed their own descriptor that is not so limiting. Their ideations are not, I think, either to be understood as grounded in any sense other than their co-temporary grounding as potential affectors and affecteds.

The world is made up of a continual bouncing between the particular “I’s” who are not allowed to remain still, ever, though they cluster together in packs and try to hold on to some groundedness. These clusters try to trap others in their faux-grounding, causing those who “are” otherwise-than-the-faux-grounding to despair in their present. The hope for the future (again, “future” is only ever a part of “present”) is a hope that, though one is trapped by those who would ground the ungrounded, a loosening of the cracks might occur that in turn might affect an irrupting of this faux-grounding, allowing “I” to be affected–traumatized, in a good sense–by the other “I’s” with whom she is confronted.

The Rhythm of Church

Life is rhythmic.  Think about your daily routine, what signals the beginning and endings of the movements of your day?  Perhaps, your day begins with the signal of your alarm clock or the buzz of your cell phone.  What is your day oriented around?  What time do you have to be at work? When do you go home?  Our everyday lives have a certain rhythm to them; the rhythm we most often live to is that of capitalism.  However, our lives are not mono-rhythmic; varieties of different logics and rhythm’s vie for our attention and energies.  For the Christian, the rhythm of life is the church and liturgy.  In this discourse on time and rhythm I’m presenting two ideas: 1.) the rhythm of the church and capitalism are incongruous 2.) the body and rhythm of the church have an intrinsic potential for a movement against capitalism.

In the political left and in Marxist theory capitalism can become a scare tactic or used in an intensely abstract and unhelpful for way.  Due to this, let it be clear what is intended by capitalism here.  Capitalism is an entity, which holds a certain logic at its core and carries out this internal logic through external apparatuses.  There is a dual logic to the entity of capitalism.  The guiding logics of the capitalist body is accumulation and speed.

Marx’s conception of value and production in the capitalist political economy are the basis for the core of the capitalist entity.  Marx says,

“Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour spent on it; the more idle and unskillful the labourer, the more valuable his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production.  The labour, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogenous human labour, expenditure of one uniform labour-power.  The total labour-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society counts there here as one homogeneous mass of human labour-power, composed though it be of innumerable individual units.” (Capital, 442)

What is to be gleaned from Marx’s words is that the labor that produces value is a labor that has been abstracted en masse without differentiating between workers.  Clearly this is different from past modes of labor in which artisans produce a commodity.  Industrial capitalism extracts labor as “one uniform labour power” from workers.  This separates labor power and commodities from workers.

In light of the way industrial capitalism extracts labor, it can be said that the successful capitalist finds ways to extract the most labor from their workers. Industrialized modes of production works toward extracting the greatest amount of labor power in the shortest amount of time.

Though we no longer labor under industrial modes of production in the west, technological revolutions have been made to continue the abstraction and extraction of our labor.  The computer and the Internet are the new means of labor extraction in the United States.  One is no longer signaled to the workday by the whistle of the factory; rather the ding of email or buzz of the cell phone activates the cognitive laborer.  In the 21st century labor has become increasingly cognitive and because of the advancements in technology one can get work orders or assignments from their boss anywhere.  The eight-hour workday has been lost.  One receives work in and out of the physical work place.  Consider the Information Technology technician who is always on call.  Regardless of the time of day, if a crucial system goes down the technician must perform their work duty.

In Paul Virilio’s text Speed and Politics, Virilio explains the effects of speed on territory.  Virilio tells us, “Territory has lost its significance in favor of the projectile…With the supersonic vector (airplane, rocket, airwaves), penetration and destruction become one.” (Speed and Politics, 149.)  However, labor is not shackled even to the supersonic vector, labor is extracted at the speed of light through fiber optic cables.

The essential question of struggles against work is always “what is to be done?”  There are a great many people who do not like their daily work.  To be clear, work is the activity that one sells one’s labor power for with regularity.  This is not true across the board, some love what they do for a living.  However, even if one likes one’s job one has to recognize their precarity.  One could quickly lose one’s job either to the capitalist system or to illness or injury.  How can we take control of our labor?  The classical Marxist answer is solidarity, unions and strikes.  I find a great sympathy in these means of refusal, but Christians have a means of refusal already at their disposal.  Simply, living in a different rhythm of life.

The Christian church has inherited a certain rhythm of life from the two thousand-year tradition that precedes the present day church.  Christians are called to a kind of living that is not governed by accumulation and work, but instead joy, love and community.  These Christian virtues are shown in the liturgy of the church.  Coming together with one’s community in daily prayer is in itself a subversive act.  The liturgy of the church calls to us to a slow start of the day.  Consider a Morning Prayer service, fifteen to twenty of minutes of sitting, standing and prostration.  Why go to work when you can be with those who you love?

Most importantly the Christian liturgy invites a slow pace into our lives.  Church gives us a space of non-work that is slow and intentional.  The logic of living together in community is slow.  Capitalism pushes us into faster modes of life, don’t read, don’t think, just work.  In church we read together, at a slow gait that lets everyone participate.  Simply put, capitalism doesn’t have time for church.  Work wants us to be connected, plugged in and waiting to respond.  The church community wants us to be slow, intentional, joyful and full of love.

Communal prayer and liturgy is a type of refusal to work.  Rather than answering the call of one’s cell phone and going to work, answer the call to prayer.  Listen to the bells of the church ring and take a nice detour.  The Benedictine slogan Ora et Labora can be used to diabolical ends.  If you have to work, work for something you love.  The rhythm of daily prayer and living out the liturgy can open up to a new way of being; a community built on love and joy.  The Christian community ought embrace building a community built out of common love and support.