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.

Basic Transitions Toward Immanence: Small Thoughts on Theodicy

ImageThis past semester I have been participating in a Theology and Science seminar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. The seminar comes at a time of transition for me. I am working, preparing for my new  doctoral programme in Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University, attempting to finish an initial reading list for my first semester of research for my PhD at Nottingham and finishing a paper I am giving at the University of Bielsko-Biala, in Poland at the end of June. With so much going on I have worried that my capacity for attentiveness might be somewhat diminished with regard to the seminar. I have found, rather, that the seminar has coincided well with the material I have been engaging elsewhere, albeit a very critical coincident. 

Some point of obvious contention have included certain statement made by those on the theological end. “Quantum theory says ‘this’ so then we may speak of divine action like ‘that'” etc. There is an entire apologetic posture built into those types of questions that I don’t think I really need to expound but really only need to state in order for its fallacious nature to be obvious. However, I was assigned a brief presentation with another student on John Hick’s book Evil and the God of Love. The point of the assignment, with regard to its relation to the particular variant of the science-theology dialogue that the class engages, is to approach the topic of theodicy in light of what science purportedly has to say or do.

Specifically, I was tasked with responding to Hick’s argument for an “Irenaean approach” to theodicy. Hick argues that contrary to an Augustinian narrative of sin, where there is a historically and ontologically verifiable original state of humanity from which the species falls in sin, that Irenaeus provides a way of thinking humanity, evil and God that both takes evil serious as real, unlike Augustine’s privation, while preserving the transcendent categories for God and Being. What follows is my response that I will present tomorrow, which I have above characterised at a transition toward Immanence. In part this is due to how I take Hick to misrepresent Spinoza, and  the entire idea of monism. However, also see this response as an outworking of a larger transition toward figuring out how the work in my MA on critical pedagogy and personhood relate to a deeper recognition of what it means to think in an immanent frame. 

Here I wish set Hick’s descriptive account of the Irenaean approach into dialogue with an earlier section of the book in which Hick attempts to describe two other approaches, which he deems incompatible with Christian faith. The polar schematic Hick draws pits a monist ontology on the one end of the spectrum, what I will refer to here as an ontology of “immanence,”[1] and dualist ontology on the other end. Our focus for this reflection is upon the monist paradigm.

The purpose for such a move on my part is to provide the context from which to inquire into Hick’s understanding of the goal of theodicy, and by extension, the legitimacy of such an endeavor in itself. In short, I wish to question whether Hick’s nuanced attempt to bring about an eschatological resolution to the problems that plague other projects in theodicy actually accomplishes its goal. This line of questioning serves the larger purpose of getting us to the more basic question at work in Hick’s text, namely, whether or not the sought after goal of his theodicy is legitimate. Toward this end, I wish to argue that what Hick says he wants in the text, set against what his work discloses with regard to his desires, is contradictory.

Hick wants a rejection of an original state of perfection. Yet, he also needs to retain some sense of an incompleteness of the present in order for his interest in constructing a theodicy to remain intelligible. There is a certain type of rhetorical game that Hick plays at this point in recourse to Irenaeus, (i.e. the notion of ‘maturing’ vs. the Augustinian idea of moving from innate damnation to salvation in Christ). Yet, we must press Hick to differentiate further how this rhetorical move functions any differently than the move Augustine makes. I contend, with regard to function, that the logic is the same as the Augustinian. Any form of a redemptive eschatological goal that regards the present as somehow wanting in content, necessitating something other than the immanently real, ultimately devalues the present. Ironically, Hick will proceed to charge Spinoza, one of the great thinkers of immanence, with failing to take the immanent reality of evil seriously, while still making use of the aforementioned model.

I want to assert along these lines that Hick’s desire for an eradication of the perfect original state of humanity conflicts with how he wants to recognise the reality of evil in theological categories. Indeed, I want to so far to ask whether or not, in light of his use of modern theology, he maintains his proposal for dogmatic and not speculatively honest, reasons? Hick’s desires obfuscate the primary value that he highlights in his recovery of an Irenaean theodicy through Schleiermacher, namely, the primacy of an immanently human framework from which to make intelligible statements about evil and suffering.
            Hick couches his basic description of theodicy’s purpose in the form of a critical response to Spinoza’s concept of evil and suffering. Hick describes Spinoza’s monism, writing, “Everything in nature is, not indeed as it ought to be – for ‘ought’ presupposes a cosmic purpose or norm – but as it must be as a necessary part of the universal being tht is God in his aspect of natura naturata (20). Accordingly, evil is not “real” in any ontologically positive sense. To this point, Hick compares Spinoza’s understanding of evil with the Augustinian privation theory, writing of that Spinoza actually participates in the Augustinian paradigm.[2] “Sin, for example, is a state if self-imposed privation of virtue; the sinful act is good in so far as it contains a certain degree of reality, but evil in so far as it lacks a greater degree (20).” Following his description of Spinoza, Hick then gives us a response, in which the stakes of theodicy are laid bear. Hick writes, “the weakness of this way of thinking is not far to seek. In showing that the evils that we human beings experience are the illusory products of confused and inadequate ideas Spinoza has not made those evils any less dreadful and oppressive (23).”

On this basis, Hick thinks he is rejecting the monist ontology, and by extension of his critique of any privation theory of evil, he is able to already cast doubt upon the Augustinian legacy. However, this charge against Spinoza is curious since, in the first instance, the reading is questionable, and in the second instance, any attempt to frame evil outside of the parameters of a sheerly given experience already forces one to condition the experience beyond what is phenomenologically given, creating distance from whatever evil is as experienced. Is it not rather the case that in attempting to look at evil and suffering within the parameters of an immanent frame that one avoids such conditioning?[3] Hick, having dismissed the monist proposal outright, then, misunderstands the ramifications of Spinoza’s ontology for theological discourse, and as a result, fails to incorporate immanence into his own project as a viable way to understand issues of evil and suffering.[4] I find this misreading unfortunate for our current discussion since it seems to expose one of the more basic tensions at play in our discussion of how science and theology can speak to each other. Attempting to take experience as real and describe it accurately without the need to qualify it in any categories outside of itself appears the methodological site of struggle between the scientist and theologian.

Some questions for further consideration: Is the point of theodicy to really make evil less dreadful? What does this sort of statement reveal pedagogically about the difference in posture between the theologian and scientist? Is there room for an honest inquiry on the part of the theologian who seeks to ask questions related to theodicy if, for maintenance of theological identity, one has to condition, or qualify, experiences?


[1] Beistegui, M.d., Immanence: Deleuze and philosophy. Plateaus. 2010, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 35. Here it is important to be precise about what is meant by “immanence.” To begin, we must avoid conflating our meaning with another type of discussion more properly dogmatic in both language and aim. That particular discussion lies strictly within the scope of Christian theology and is dogmatic in concern. Ours is a larger concern, philosophical in nature, and encompasses only aspects of that other theological discussion. “Immanence” is to state the core realisation of an assertion for univocity. This is that the common substance of the universe is purely immanent to itself in cause and effect, such that the distinction between the two is only relative to itself in substance and time. “Pure immanence, on the other hand, requires as a principle the equality of being, or the positing of equal Being: not only is Being equal in itself, but it is equally present in all beings; not only is it said of everything that is, but it is said in the same sense– as ‘expression.’”

[2] This is one of the more directly fallacious associations Hick attributes to Spinoza. While the language appears similar with regard to evil not ‘being’ in a positively ontological sense, the association fails to seriously consider the difference the Augustinian narrative of a necessary salvation makes for framing privation. Privation only makes sense if there is a prescriptive order to the world, in which one can participate either fully or partially. For Spinoza, the statement of necessary order is not in any prescriptive sense but rather a phenomenological reality, the world just is and this includes the spectrum of human desires, feelings, etc. For Spinoza, then, there is no true privation of evil but rather an acknowledgment that evil and suffering function along a definitional horizon that is always in-flux, much the same way we now understand sexual desire to function.

[3] Barber, D.C., On Diaspora: Christianity, religion and secularity. 2011, Eugene, Or. Cascade Books. p. 27. Barber writes, “Immanence, ontologically speaking, names a reality that rejects any transcendent beyond, but it does so from a point prior to the distinction between a beyond and a below. What immanence defends, in other words, must not be defined by a prior relation to the beyond.” (Italics are mine). Hick comes close to realizing this outright when he affirms Schleiermacher’s project of eradicating the original state of perfection. “This is accordingly not a doctrine of the original perfection of the world in the sense of a harmonious primordial condition…The perfection of the world, in virtue of which the God-consciousness can occur within it, still exists; it is ‘original’ in the non-temporal sense of being fundamental and constitutive (221).” Hick appears to favour the use of ‘original’ as merely descriptive in nature of something innately given to human experience. In this regard though, Schleiermacher is much close to Spinoza than any explicitly Christian formulation insofar as such a theological conviction is not need for the affirmation of Schleiermacher’s position. This is not a conditional definition but rather a phenomenological description.

[4] Barber. On Diaspora. pp. 26-27. Barber illustrates my point in relation to understanding Spinoza’s notion of immanence and what this means for theological discourse, including theodicy. Immanence is unitary; it is ‘immanent’ to nothing and contingent upon only itself. In this sense, Hick’s description of monism is only partly wrong, his utilization of ‘harmonious’ to summarises Spinoza’s point being the target of my criticism on this point. Spinoza struggles with naming immanence, calling it dually ‘nature’ and ‘God.’ Barber picks up on this necessary act of naming in such a way that one asserts two difference names at once. He writes, “Spinoza thus serves as an excellent exemplar of the approach I am advancing, one in which the opposition of immanence to transcendence requires not the rejection of theological discourse’s signification, but on the contrary a new expression of it.” Theology, Christian theology included, is not necessarily against the monist but is required for the monist insofar as it expresses something necessary for stating the sheer thereness of the world as one substance.