Writing on Religion After the Death of God (unfinished manuscript)

Not too long ago I attended a conference. During the Q&A, I raised a question, relating to power. At the end of the session, I overheard two professors (internationally respected professors, white men in suits): “it seems we can’t have a conference where the word “power” doesn’t come up”, they laughed. Sara Ahmed (2014: para. 4) instructs us to see “white men” as an institution— a normative framework, within which one is recognized as such. As an “academic”, for example— one looks the part, knows what conversation to contribute to. The participants assemble. The first speaker steps up. And the crowd— they “are seeing what they expect to see,” says Ahmed; “they are seeing one person and not another as professor because “white men” have already been assembled. Here come the professors, here is the professor; hello professor (Ahmed 2014: para. 15).” Such is the homogeneity of many an academic conference. When Ahmed posted her reflections on her blog, Adam Kotsko (2014) joined in the conversation. His post speaks to my own experience that day, where I overheard two white men— published, suited, respected— laugh at my concerns:

“The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives…(Kotsko 2014: para. 2).”

The problem in academia, I want to argue, is that it is too “theistic”. The solution, then, is a certain kind of “atheism”, a break from authority, as symbolized by the broken trident. Note, this has little to do with an attack on the supernatural, or the sort of scientism espoused by the likes of Dawkins.

The scholarly enterprise is, as Morny Joy (2005:36) says, “always already compromised”. We find ourselves in an enterprise where one becomes recognizable as a scholar by conforming to a certain matrix of intelligibility. The reproduction of knowledge happens, in the academy, within the confines of a discourse that is, for the most part, taken for granted. This is a discourse that stipulates that to be a scholar one must do X. X entails many things. Some of these are: be a man (just kidding…not really); adopt an informal mode of writing; be objective, impersonal; avoid the first-person, don’t use too much I’s and we’s; submit your papers to certain journals, the review boards of which uphold a hegemony of knowledge, and foster the sorts of attitudes that lead to a combative environment. These are just some of the things. The discourse is phallic. The rationalist epistemological assumptions underlying the reproduction of knowledge in the academia, as well as ideals such as scholarly disinterest and objectivity are, as feminists have been saying (cf. Joy 2005; Hawthorne 2005), androcentric, western (and, I would also add, bullshit).

On Lacan’s model, the child submits not to the literal father, but to the Name of the Father— the Big Other, the symbolic framework, or matrix of intelligibility, in relation to which the child becomes recognizable as such, becomes a subject, like the (m)other. The child learns this act of submission from the (m)other. The child can’t have the (m)other, can’t be the (m)other’s centre of attention. The Big Other has the (m)other, like a puppet on a string.  We enter the academy as children, and we learn from our peers/(m)others the way to submit to the Big Other. We learn that “academic writing” means leaving out the “I”, being objective, impersonal. No contractions, no “I’m”, or “that’s”, or “we’ve”. No informal language. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this. Indeed, it is perfectly correct. It’s just not right in the academy. Because the Big Other says so. God bless the student who asks “why can’t I write informally?”. But God strengthen her soul when she’s told “that’s just the way it is” (whether explicitly or implicitly, either way, that’s what it boils down to at the end of the day). X is scholarly because X is X. That is the violence Zizek sees as characteristic of the law. The law is the law because the law is the law. No questions!

Here in Finland, persons like to think of things as being equal. Indeed, in many university departments there are as much, or even more, women as there are men. So it’s equal… or so we like to tell ourselves. Let’s drop the word “equality” and instead start talking about inclusivity, plurality, and the celebration of difference. Do our departments celebrate difference? If it’s easier for someone to get a job in a university if they write in an objective, “scholarly” style, as opposed to say an autoethnographer, who combines autobiography, self-reflection, and ethnography, do we have plurality? And if one doesn’t think autoethnographers have a hard time getting their work published, just read Nicholas Holt’s (2003) essay “Representation, Legitimation, and Autoethnography: An Autoethnographic Writing Story”. The fact is, for those of us who don’t conform to the matrix of intelligibility that reigns in academia today, according to which a scholar becomes recognizable as such, they have to convince their colleagues that they too are scholars.

When talking about the supposed choice between subjectification or rejection of the Oedipal structure, Lacan said it’s like being held up by a robber who proclaims “your money or your life!” In other words, it’s a forced choice. Either you submit to the Name of the Father, or be a no-body in the eyes of the (big) other. She who rejects the Name of the Father of academia is reduced to a “non-scholar”; she is in the academy, yet unrecognizable as an “academic”. “It is an interesting article but that is not scholarship,” one scholar once remarked in response to a piece written by Rita M. Gross (2005: 23). That feminist stuff…it’s too subjective, too normative. That’s the idea of many “scientific” scholars of religion. Indeed, “employment can be difficult” for those engaging in more personal, interested modes of research (Gross 2005: 24). Just as there is the abject of political life, there is the abject of scholarly life. To include more women, black, indigenous, and LGBTQ persons in the academy has been on the agenda for some time now, and has, in many ways, been successful (Gross 2005: 18). But we still have a long way to go. You see, while it’s on the agenda now to include female, black, indigenous, lesbian, and gay persons in our departments, and anthologies, this is often done insofar as these persons conform to a certain matrix of intelligibility. That is, that they are female, black, indigenous, lesbian, and gay “scholars”— “scholars” in the sense that they write and act as a “scholar” is expected to do. Things get a bit messy when a woman scholar, for instance, decides to make use of poetry in her research project (Fontana & Frey 2000: 659). “If I want to read a good poem, David Silverman asks, “why on earth should I turn to a social science journal (Silverman 2000: 665)?” Once again, the man has to step in and steer the “non-scholar” back on the right course, towards the Name of the Father that she should be submitting to.

Our western, androcentric “theology” is, by definition, a discourse on the One of (the white) Man; it is any discourse that raises our own, western, patriarchal, rationalistic, secular ways above all others; that invests in the One of Man in such a way as to grant in territorial hegemony. Atheism is the profession that the One of Man does not exist; that it is an illusion, a fantasy to be traversed. That the cross and crown were, as Caribbean theologian Kortright Davis (2011) observed, entangled in colonial Barbados has not only to do with politics, on the superficial level, but with the very “theism” implicit in a colonial politics. For colonialism is perhaps the discourse par excellence of the One of (the white) Man. It is to treat as axiomatic the western, “civilized” world, with its norms and laws, as well as invest in it in such a way as to give rise to a “territorial Unitarianism” as William Connolly (2005) calls it. In the Caribbean, persons were made to invest in the crown in this way. It was forced upon them; they were told to disregard their own ways, to see the way of the crown as the way. Africans were taken from their homeland, stripped of their culture. The One of (western) Man was and is still imposed upon coloured persons. Colonialism, like any form of authoritarianism, is a proclamation of the One over the many.

Insofar as it is a discourse of the master, a socio-political structure of the One over the many, it can be called a theism. And the anti-imperialistic efforts of Algeria’s FLN, South Africa’s ANC, Guinea-Bissau’s PAIGC, Mozambique’s FRELIMO, or Angola’s MPLA are, in a sense, a-theistic. Anti-imperialism is anti-authoritarianism; it is the struggle against the theistic impulse to raise the One above the many. Colonialism is the western attempt to reduce the plurality of life to the One of (the white) Man. It is the west’s own investment, as well as that of pressured others, in the west, as the One. Civilization, progress, technology, reason— the west has taken it upon itself to be a light to the world. The light of the world is a white Jesus, who proclaims “come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden (Mathew 11:28).” But this is an imposter-Jesus, a trickster. For he offers no rest. He is a devil hiding behind a veneer of “concern”, of “human rights”; claiming to bring light to the world by taking the oil out of others’ lamps. His promise to bring light to the world is little more than a desire to keep his own lamp burning, his own belly full, and his own pockets fat. This is a greedy Jesus. This is a Jesus proclaimed as much by Dawkins as he is by evangelical Christians. The only gospel that this white, western Jesus brings is the gospel of the west— of “civilization”.

Caribbean and feminist theologians rebuked this western, capitalistic, and patriarchal demon purporting to be the Christ, or the anointed One, in the name of a radical, black, queer Jesus. This is an “atheistic” Jesus, one that doubts authority, and whose gospel is the sword that rends the curtain, revealing this perverse, colonial fantasy for what it is. This is a Jesus who says to the religious authorities, “you have heard it was said, but I say unto you…” This is a Jesus who offers the promise of rest to the labourers and heavy laden by encouraging them to take it for themselves, to mobilize outside the bounds of a seemingly axiomatic socio-political order. This is a Jesus who comes with the sword, who warns us of what carrying the cross really entails: being made unrecognizable within the matrix of intelligibility that acts as the glue holding together many a relationship, between man and father, daughter and mother. To the daughter recognized as such only insofar as she conforms to the hetero-normative paradigm that the (m)other submits too, Jesus says: “I did not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set a daughter against her mother…(Mathew 10:35).” The promise of rest for the weary, for those subjected to western imperialism, comes with revolution, with a willingness to challenge the principalities and powers that be (cf. Fanon 1963: 61). The early Christians were called “atheist” because they unplugged from the matrix of intelligibility in relation to which persons became recognizable as citizens within a Roman ruled Palestine.

Of course, I am playing with Christianity, as a story that is a part of my own heritage as well as privilege. I want to find ways of reading the Christian story that flies in the face of this privilege. To the white sky-god-jeezus, I say “three pronged trident in yuh rass!”

This way of writing, of turning to the language and concepts of Christianity, is itself  transgressive of what Tyler Roberts calls “the modern academic ideal of disinterested inquiry (Roberts 2013: 20).” In thinking through the potential of religious studies beyond secularism, Roberts encourages us to deconstruct the normative framework in relation to which it is deemed appropriate for the religious scholar to think about the other, but never with them. “Perhaps,” says Roberts:

“if we scholars of religion stopped viewing theology and the religious heritage of the study of religion with embarrassment, as the relic of a past we must overcome so that we can start doing what we think our colleagues in other fields are doing, we might in the spirit of such experimentation come to see this heritage as a resource that can help us think differently and creatively (ibid: )…”

Like Roberts, I think we can find, in traditions of religious thought, conceptual resources for critical self-reflection and cultural criticism (cf. ibid: 20).

The “larger Jesus” that Althaus-Reid speaks of is the enemy of theology, of the One of (the white) Man, and the idolatry that is His authority. The gospel of Christ crucified is a stumbling block, an interruption in the conversation. The gospel of Christ crucified is the end of the law, a turning of one’s back on the authority of (the white) Man. The Christians were called “atheists” by the Romans. For they recognized as contingent the laws and norms of Roman authority. They unplugged from it, did things differently.

The anarchist is, above all, as Daniel Guérin explains, someone in revolt (cf. Guérin 1970: 10). The actions of the anti-colonialist or the queer activist contain the trace of the anarchist spirit. For anarchism is anti-authority; it is revolt, direct action against the One ruling over the many. The anarchist stands in opposition to the idea of the “official” (ibid: ). And it is for this reason that the anarchist, like the Jesus who broke bread and drank wine with the wretched of the earth, is sympathetic to the outlaw and outcast (cf. ibid.). For it is in relation to matrixes of power/intelligibility that persons are made outcasts. Subjugation is, as Butler expresses, predicated on abjection. Indeed, Althaus-Reid, the queer theologian who reads Christianity indecently— her eyes on a larger Jesus, who occupied the margins of society— finds insight in the marginal cults of Santa Librada and Santa Muerte, both of whom are worshipped by the marginalized of society, whom “official” hierarchical Christianity has not welcomed. Santa Librada, a feminine Jesus, occupying the gap between Mary and Jesus, is popular among transvestites in Latin America, as is Santa Muerte (cf. Althaus-Reid 2000: 80-81). These female saints are also popular among criminals, such as petit thieves and drug dealers. As Althaus-Reid explains, her worship has “originated around legal and social transgression (ibid: 81).” Althaus-Reid associates this with what she calls a “transvestite epistemology”. Such an epistemology, she explains, doubts the binary structures handed down and enforced by authority. The action of the anarchist, like the outlaw or transvestite making an offering to their Saint, “repudiates [the] acceptance of the existing order and suggests that we have both the right and the power to change the world (Sparrow 1997: 6).” That is, a “transvestite epistemology” does not treat as axiomatic any normative or legal framework, and allows for space to do things differently.

The methodology of the anarchist, or queer theologian, then, is as Guérin explains, one of direct action. It is a methodology that disregards authority, that refuses to treat as “rightful” the hegemony of the One over the many. Underlying it is a “transvestite epistemology”.  Direct action isn’t, as Guérin clarifies, mere protest; rather, it rejects entirely the framework established by One of Man. In the academy, we’ve come to treat as axiomatic the stories we’ve inherited about what academic writing should look like, and how a “scholar” should behave. That a “scholar” is X and not Y is a story, without foundations. It isn’t natural, it isn’t a given. It involves an act of imagination. And it is this act of the imagination that feminists have sought to challenge. “Says who?” is the question.

What we need then is an “atheist”, or “anarchist” move, one that does not enact the fantastical existence of any Big Other, that does not treat as a given the Name of the Father we are encouraged to internalize, to conform to.  And this is the “atheist” kernel of Christianity. Zizek reads Christianity through Lacan and Hegel. Hegel’s reading of the incarnation was God entering into history, literally; and his reading of Christ’s death on the cross was God dying, literally. But God is resurrected, as Spirit, literally, in the community. Zizek reads this Hegelian historisization of God through Lacan’s psychoanalytic frame, as the death of the “Big Other”. For Lacan, the goal of the psychoanalytic treatment was what he termed “subjective destitution”. This was a coming to terms with the fact that ‘the other does not exist’. So the big other, the symbolic framework within which persons securely locate themselves, and find meaning, is rendered, according to Zizek, non-existent on the cross. Jesus cries “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Zizek just loves Chesterton’s statement that “on the cross, even God became an atheist.” So for Zizek, the story of Christianity is a revolutionary one. It is the story that there is no ultimate meaning, no answer to make everything right. It’s up to us. The death of God, in Christ, on the cross rendered the political framework for what is it: contingent, without absolute foundations. So this makes possible a new mode of being in the world, it makes possible an emancipatory collective set apart from the old way of doing things. This is how Zizek reads Paul too then, as delivering a message of dying to the world in order to be born again, as something new. In short, Christianity, as Zizek reads it, is a means of undermining the discourse of the Master, so as to strip the law of its mystical hold over us. This makes possible for the event that is the mobilization of a radical collective, set apart from “the world”.

Lacan conceives of the subject as split— represented with the symbol “$”— alienated under being and in language. For Lacan, the subject is literally a “lack”. At the heart of the subject is a void. We are ultimately nothing. We are libidinal beings, born amidst forces that we did not contrive (Lingis). They weigh down upon us, shape us; we are alienated under Being. And we try to make sense of life, to capture it with language; we submit to the Name of the Father (S1) and our identities are constantly shifting as we navigate an endless chain of signifiers (S2). But there’s always excess. Fulfillment— represented in terms of the “objet petit a”— is impossible. We are barred (//) from the object of our desire, it is unattainable. There can never be true fulfillment. We are forever alienated from the object of our desire, it being, as Zizek puts it, an “impossible-unattainable”. True jouissance, true satisfaction, is a Real that can never be integrated within our Symbolic reality. The experience of a fundamental gap between “jouissance expected” and “jouissance obtained (Johnston)”, is a consequence of the lack inherent to the ontological status of the subject, hinted at by Freud in his notion of an initial state of complete satisfaction— before subjugation, before alienation under Being and in language— which the drives are forever geared towards.

Because of our emergence and constitution as subjects before the Other, who have internalized the Name of the Father, and on account of the differential gap between signifiers, this return to a pre-Symbolic, non alienated Being is impossible. We can never fully articulate (due to the very differential nature of language) let alone attain the object of desire. In contrast to many of the post-Freudian psychoanalysts of his day, with their views on sublimation and compensatory objects of satisfaction, Lacan interpreted the nature of the drives as oscillating around an irreparable lack. Subjective destitution then— the movement of the cross— is a traversal of the fantasy of fulfilment, of the existence of any Big Other whom we can secure ourselves in relation to. It is a coming to terms with the ultimate meaninglessness of the law, of the normative frameworks in relation to which we give form to and make sense of life. The law becomes, after the cross, after the psychoanalytic cure, something to be played with, as Agamben says. Authority is stripped of its fantastical pull over us, is recognized as anything but foundational or rightful. To be an atheist, to be an anarchist, is to no longer “bow before power like church wardens before the sacrament,” as Proudhon says. It is to traverse the discourse of the master.


Bibliography (haven’t got around to this yet! Sorry)



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