The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.)