|This is a great music video. It was banned from television– you’ll see why.
Kanye’s an interesting dude. The Yeezus album deserves the attention of media/culture/religious scholars, I think. This isn’t just pop culture; it’s what Christopher Partridge calls “occulture” (pay attention to the end of the video).
It seems, based on interviews, lyrics, and the symbolism employed in his music videos, that Kanye’s giving expression to a sort of “theurgy”, or divinization process, whereby he– with all his wealth and fame– becomes a god, over and above those still enslaved by the white ruling class. In the track “I am a God”, he calls Jesus the most high, only to refer to himself as a “close high”.
Now he, with his own product, his own wealth, can do what he wants– as a god, he can impact culture, create his own world (he repeats, in an interview with Charlamange, that “ain’t nothing real”). It’s a sort of capitalist theurgy.
Kanye’s politics is a strange one: the path to freedom is the path to godhood. It’s by means of a capitalist sort of theurgy that Kanye is able to free himself of the white ruling class’ power over him. For him, rebellion and change are synonymous with having your own product, with being able to create your own world.
On the humanities, blog An und für sich, you can find plenty of talk about radical theology, from lots of different contributors. As for what radical theology encompasses exactly is a matter of debate, with some holding the term rather openly, to include the likes of Peter Rollins and John Caputo, and others calling for more specification, contrasting the emergent theologies of the likes of Rollins and Caputo with the death of God theology of someone like Thomas Altizer, or Slavoj Žižek. In responding to John Caputo’s talk entitled “Can Postmodern Theology Live in the Churches? Perhaps”, presented at the Subverting the Norm II conference, Tony Jones says that “there are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t.” Not everyone agrees though. Over on An und für sich, following up on STN II, Jeremy (I don’t know his last name) proposes that:
“there is only one radical theologian and that is the one who rejects God. I was first introduced to radical theology by reading Altizer. What made Altizer, Hamilton and others radical is that they were Christian atheists.”
The (radical?) theologies of Rollins and Caputo certainly do appear at times to want there to be a God. As Jeremy expresses over at An und für sich, in the comment section of an essay written by Altizer— somewhat hijacked by Rollins and others:
“I worry /…/ that these sort of Christian “Atheists” (coming out of the left-wing of the Emergent Church movement) are ultimately using these sorts of programs and ideas in the service of “saving” God from the evangelicals and the mainliners (both of whom they critique). Although they are opening themselves up to the atheistic critiques of Christianity, isn’t the hope that the participant will rediscover God at the end of the journey?”
Let’s start by looking at Caputo’s theology (what Jeremy calls a “radical theology-lite”). Caputo, rather than wanting to articulate a new kind of Christianity, is interested in what he calls “the event” at the heart of Christianity. While working on and with the Christian tradition, he is responsible to no confessional community.
What Caputo doesn’t like is dogmatic religion— where one group thinks of itself as having privileged access to “the secret”. Caputo hates the idea of absolute certainty. “One important thing we mean by the death of God,” says Caputo, “is the death of the absolute centre, of inhabiting an absolute point of view (Caputo & Vattimo 2007: 117).” For him, religion isn’t about pinning things down. Rather, it has to do with hoping— hoping in the face of our miserable existence, for the possibility of something different, something wholly other. It’s neither an apathetic sort of “I could care less” about God, nor a confessional pronouncement of who God is and what he wants for us. For Caputo, there’s no God whose existence he’s willing to argue over. Rather, what concerns him is an absolute future, a future that insists. “God doesn’t exist, God insists,” as Caputo puts it. The religious person thirsts and is passionate for something more, she refuses to accept that this— this suffering— is all there is. She doesn’t know what more there is, but she still hopes for it, for the possibility of the impossible.
For Caputo, there’s a left and right hand to this sort of “religion without religion”. There’re can be no prayers without tears. On the one hand, the absolute centre is deconstructed. The foundations upon which the modernist framework rests— where man is seen as an autonomous thinking thing— are smashed. Yet Caputo doesn’t want to replace the modernist framework with a mystical one, whereby revelation is understood in terms of contact with something “deeper”. Deconstruction, as Derrida already pointed out before, differs from negative theology. While Caputo appreciates mysticism’s negation of rationalism, the whole point of deconstruction is that no one has direct access to the Secret, not even the mystics. For even mystical experience, Caputo points out, requires interpretation. And this, says Caputo, “has a salutary ethical and political import because it shows us that we’re all in this together (ibid: 117).” Everyone is on the same footing, as he says— no one is “hardwired up to the secret (ibid).” Thus, Caputo espouses no orthodoxy.
Yet, on the other hand, deconstruction is affirmative. This is the right hand of Caputo’s “religion without religion”. For while the idea of a privileged sort of access to the truth is deconstructed, the event contained within them remains “undeconstructible” (ibid: 118). As for what Caputo means by the “event”, he here admits to being an Augustinian. For while all our positive statements about God, or democracy, remain deconstructible— always falling short, erected as mere idols— the affirmative gesture that propels us to make such statements is irreducible. Caputo refers this to Augustine’s notion of the restless heart. The messianic event at the heart of Christianity, the hope for a new world, propels us, despite the contingency of our claims. Caputo’s God is a God thought of in terms of “I know not what”. This relates to Rollins’ theology, whereby God is thought of in terms of the mystery we participate in.
This hoping against all hope, for that which we know not what, for a future that will not come, Caputo associates with democracy. Democracy is a “stand-in”, as Caputo calls it, “for something unforeseeable (ibid: 122).” This sense of uncertainty and restlessness in the face of an absolute future contains the traces of Derrida’s own messianism— Caputo’s mentor and friend. So does this mean that Caputo yearns for God, albeit in a postmodern, deconstructive mode? Is he an iconoclast— wanting to do away with the idol in order to establish a direct line to the mystery? No. For Caputo, the event is indeconstructible for the very reason that it is always “to come”, never to be attained. Instead, Caputo points to a sort of différance at the heart of religion. By différance, Derrida meant a sort of endless play, of deferral and difference. For Caputo, “the event” is an energetic affirmation. Rather than wanting God to exist, Caputo is saying that, captured in the name of God is something that insists. In true Derridean fashion, the event is imagined neither in terms of being nor nonbeing. For Caputo, like Derrida, the either/or of theism and atheism is too simplistic.
So Caputo, in both On Religion and After the Death of God, answers the question of how we move from the secular, post-Christian irrelevance of God to the postmodern return of religion with the claim that the secularization of the West has cleared the slate, so to speak, for the return of God— albeit post-metaphysical style. This is radical theology in the tone of Derrida rather than Hegel. A radical theology that some have criticized as not radical enough. For Caputo, the postmodern becomes the postsecular in so far as the death of God means the death of the secular. That is, postmodernism doesn’t stop at the foundations of belief. Any absolute centre, whether it be God, or Reason, falls at the sword. Postmodernism cuts through not only the Christian tradition, but secular modernity too. As Caputo explains, in On Religion, in a section entitled “How the Secular World Became Post-Secular”:
“Nietzsche was trying to argue that Christianity was crucified on its own Cross: by insisting that God is truth and hence on the need for the faithful to be truthful, Christians ought finally to be brought to the point of honestly and truthfully confessing that Christianity too is another fabrication. But a surprising thing happened on the way to the death of God: Enlightenment secularism also got crucified on the same Cross, and that spelled the death of the death of God…
[R]eductionistic critiques of religion turn out to be, on Nietzsche’s own account, more varieties of what Nietzsche called the “ascetic ideal,” a belief in a rigorous and unbending order of “Objective Truth.” For Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead” had a wide sweep that included Absolute Truth, Physics, and the Laws of Grammar, anything that tries to hold the center firm. The declaration of the “death of God” is aimed at decapitating anything that dares Capitalize itself, which included not just the smoke and incense of the Christian mysteries, but anything that claims to be the Final Word. That had the amazing and unforeseen effect of catching up hard-ball reductionistic and atheistic critiques of religion in its sweep (Caputo 2001: 59-60).”
Caputo’s deconstructive messianism is the sort of theology Slavoj Žižek has made it his task to criticize, as was the case during a panel hosted by the American Academy of Religion, which he shared with Altizer back in 2009. For Žižek, Caputo is moving beyond the old God of Metaphysics (the Big Other), only to reinstate him under the name of the event. Žižek, as anyone who’s read him probably knows, hates the idea of postmodernism and postsecularism. In Less Than Nothing, he states that ‘one of the names of the enemy today is “postsecular thought” (2012: 640).’ It’s the Hegelian, rather than Derridean theological expression, of Žižek and Altizer, that Jeremy over at An und für sich thinks really characterizes radical theology. And it is to their ideas that I now turn before discussing Peter Rollins’ own theology in a bit more depth. For Rollins, like Caputo, is an active voice in the Emergent Church; and yet, the voice he often brings to Church is Žižek’s (and by extension, Lacan’s).
The message of radical theology can be summarized as such: it is only with the death of God that the world can be created anew. Thomas Altizer— one of the movement’s more well known figures— understands this as the reversal of orthodox Christianity’s reversal of the apocalypticism at the heart of Christianity. So while the statement “God is dead” may be heresy in the ears of the orthodox Christians, it is, for Altizer and Žižek, an orthodox heresy. As they see it, it is only through a Christian sort of atheism that the message of Christianity can be restored. Nietzsche becomes the prophet not of an exclusive humanism, but of Christianity. As Altizer says:
“Nietzsche’s The Antichrist may well be the philosophical work in which Jesus is most decisively called forth, and called forth as one whose own way has been totally reversed by Christianity, but reversing that reversal draws forth an actual way of compassion as is impossible in all orthodox theology (McCullough 2013: 171).”
For Altizer, it is perhaps Hegel who best expresses the absolute death of the cross. For with Hegel, God, through Christ, enters into history, and on the cross, dies. And it is here that Altizer aligns with Žižek; for both offer a Hegelian reading of Christianity, centred on the incarnation as the event in which God enters into history, and the cross as the event that makes possible a true resurrection. The Christian resurrection is here thought of as a truly apocalyptic event. This is the creation of a new community, made possible by the absolute death of God on the cross. As he expresses in an essay entitled “Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?”
“When Christ was dying on the cross, earthquake and storm broke out, a sign that the heavenly order itself—the big Other—was disturbed: not only something horrible happened in the world, the very coordinates of the world were shaken. It was as if the sinthom, the knot tying the world together, was unravelled, and the audacity of the Christians was to take this is a good omen, or, as Mao put it much later: ‘there is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent’. Therein resides what Hegel calls the ‘monstrosity’ of Christ: the insertion of Christ between God and man is strictly equivalent to the fact that ‘there is no big Other’—Christ is inserted as the singular contingency on which the universal necessity of the ‘big Other’ itself hinges (Žižek 2011: 218).”
For Žižek, it is in the miserable person of Christ that we see God, and in so far as Christ dies, we see in him the death of God. He urges us to take this point very seriously. And it is here that he remains true to Hegel; for like Hegel, he doesn’t see the miserable man who dies on the cross as some representative of God, but as God himself. For him, it is only by returning to this topic, of God’s death, that we can recover what he calls “the subversive core of Christianity”. Žižek certainly does see, in the postmodern theology of someone like Caputo, a desire to hold onto God. This has to do with Žižek’s understanding of ideology. For Žižek, we hold onto ideology today in a rather cynical way. We say we don’t believe, but really we do. In Žižek’s eyes, though Caputo says the transcendent metaphysical God is dead, he continues to hold onto him. The belief simply persists in an objective sort of way. He believes through the other, as Žižek puts it. That is, in so far as the very mechanisms that enable this belief remain in place, the belief can continue, even if indirectly. It seems to me that what Žižek would prescribe for Caputo is some psychoanalysis. For the goal of psychoanalysis, thinks Žižek, is to bring the patient into “subjective destitution”, whereby they are able to come to terms with the others inexistence. As Žižek expresses in his film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology:
“Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism, which can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution, whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.”
Such a Christianity is, as Altizer says with regard to his own work, “a heterodox or radical Christianity that dissolves all secularism or “atheism,” for it is far more atheistic than “atheism… (McCullough 2013: 172).”
One of Žižek’s favourite means of making the point about ideology functioning in a cynical sort of way is the joke about Niels Bohr. As the joke goes, one of Bohr’s friends inquires about a horseshoe hanging above the door to Bohr’s house. “You don’t really believe that that’ll bring you good luck, do you?” the friend asks. “I mean, you are a scientist.” To this Bohr responds, “of course I don’t believe it works, but I heard it works, whether or not you believe it does.” Rollins, being the Žižekian he is, draws on this point, that people tend to believe through the other. For Rollins, belief in the big Other, of some object that can satisfy us, or heal our brokenness (what Rollins calls “idolatry”), will persist only as long as the ideological structures that enable this belief remain in place. Following Žižek, Christianity is thus seen as a subversive move against idolatry, against the ideological structures that prevent us from coming to terms with our own brokenness (the void at the heart of the subject, as Lacan would say).
For Žižek, the message of Christ is that there’s no bigger picture. This is reflected, he thinks, in one of his favorite books― namely, the book of Job. For Žižek, the book of Job is a perfect expression of the psychoanalytic notion of the inexistence of the Other. After being struck down with immense suffering, Job’s three friends― each playing the role of the Big Other’s representative― try to get Job to locate himself within a meaningful framework. But in the end we find God on the side of Job in proving his friends wrong, in so far as there is no meaningful picture of the sort behind his suffering. For Žižek, a theodicy that thinks of suffering in terms of a tiny brush stroke of a much larger painting is obscene. The Christian message says Žižek, is that there is no ultimate framework within which we can secure ourselves and make sense of this miserable existence. We have to confront suffering for what it is, rather than try to make sense of it.
This is a revolutionary message, as Žižek rightly expresses. For the good news of Christianity― what both Altizer and Žižek think is the good news of the death of God― is a sword that cuts through the ideological, social, hierarchical, institutional, etc., frameworks within which we secure ourselves (Žižek 2009). The message of the death of God, and by extension the death of the Big Other, is that another world is possible. The social structures and mechanisms that we treat as absolute are not. And resurrection― what Žižek thinks of in terms of the Holy Ghost qua egalitarian collective― is not possible unless we die to the structures that have up to this point shaped us. The kingdom is not some abstract universality, but a reality to be organized here and now.
Those few passages that tend to trouble some readers of the New Testament, where Jesus is spoken of as bringing not peace but the sword, and commanding persons to forsake their mother and father, etc., are not troubling for Žižek. Rather, for him, these are clear indications of how extreme the Christian message really is. Žižek reads the command for persons to see the social roles they occupy, whether it be as a father or mother as ultimately meaningless (ibid). If I was to give a queer reading of Žižek’s Christ, it would be a Christ that commands his followers to gender bend. To put it another way, if a person fails to see the ultimate meaninglessness of the framework within which they are recognized as either male or female, they remain an idolater, a non-Christian. For in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” as the apostle Paul says.
Žižek, like Rollins, thinks we should take seriously Jesus’ statement, as recorded in Mathew 18:20, that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Žižek agrees with Altizer that the death of God has to be understood in the Hegelian sense, not as presenting an opportunity for thinking God anew (as with Caputo), but as the reversal of the perverse current running through the Christian tradition, that seeks to establish a Big Other in the wake of Christ’s death. For Žižek and Altizer, the truly Christian approach is an atheistic one― God is understood as having truly died. Yet, we cannot forget, says Žižek, that it is through this final, absolute death of God as Christ that Christ becomes present as the emancipatory collective that is the Holy Ghost. Within the frame of Žižek’s atheist Christianity, we can’t speak about the death of God without at the same time stressing resurrection― that is, the revolutionary collectivization is made possible in the wake of this death. Christianity is apocalyptic; it is the end of the world as we know it (cf. Rollins 2012: Kindle Location 65).
In the questions and answers session of the AAR panel, Žižek expressed a sentiment that I think runs through not only his own work, but that of Caputo and Rollins too― albeit in a different way. He said:
“Why, in [a] secular universe, the need to speak about theology? Precisely this gesture I want to avoid: from the positivity of God to the positivity of man. I want something like a desperate, impotent split in himself, God, relating to no less desperate [a] split in… [the] human being (Žižek 2009).”
In The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, Caputo responds to Žižek’s criticism, that Caputo is letting God back in under the name of the event. Not only that, but Caputo demonstrates that Žižek is more of a postmodernist that he likes to think. For Caputo, Žižek’s attack “reflects his underlying and /…/ unjustified polemic against postmodernism generally (2013: 147).” He therefore suggests that Žižek pay closer attention to his work. Caputo agrees with the assessment of Katherine Moody, that the differences between the two are not as significant as Žižek lets on. As for Žižek’s suggestion that Caputo pay closer attention to the incarnation as the materialization of God, Caputo responds by pointing out the various ways in which he does do. For Caputo, the event is not, as Žižek seems to think, a “wishy washy” spiritualistic “to come”, but a pressure, or call, that issues forth in the present, in the midst of the messiness of life. As I read Caputo, the event is the weight of the world, the weight of the other’s gaze― it is a weight that pushes us outside of ourselves, leaves us unsatisfied, wanting more, praying, hoping against all hope, for the possibility of what seems impossible. It is, Caputo says:
“the infinite pressure exerted on the immediate present by the promise , so that nothing that at present has the audacity to call itself “democracy,” for example, is equal to the call (ibid: 150).”
Then, as for Žižek’s hatred for all things “postmodern”, Caputo rightly points out, I think, that “Žižek’s willingness to play the Christian role is a strictly postmodern ploy (ibid: 154).” Think about it― a theological turn, coming from of a leftist, materialist, intellectual. This would have been unheard of fifty years ago, as Caputo says. This is hardly the reactionary atheism of Richard Dawkins. This is something postmodern, postsecular even. As Caputo explains:
“there is nothing else to call this turn but “postmodern,” if postmodernism means a recognition of hybridity, a weakening of rigid modernist binarities like matter and spirit, faith and reason, objective and subjective, philosophy and theology (ibid).”
But, in a way, Žižek is also not postmodern enough. He shares too much in common, Caputo thinks, with is Radically Orthodox interlocutor, John Milbank. For whether it is the primordial peace spoken of by Milbank, or the primordial trauma of nothingness, as spoken of by Žižek, is this not, Caputo asks, “the search for a transcendental signifier all over again (Caputo 2013: 158)?”
As for Peter Rollins, it’s no secret that he loves Žižek. Žižek’s Lacanianism seeps through the pages of Rollins’ work. Like Žižek, Rollins has taken up the story of our brokenness, of the void at the heart of the subject, and taken it to Church. We’ve already seen that Žižek has, in this postmodern moment, turned to theology, but it is Rollins who takes Lacan to Church, who has imported him into the post-evangelical community. Rollins tells the Lacanian story of the subject, as emerging with a lack. Rollins names this lack “original sin”. It is this nothingness, at the heart of our being, that fuels our desire for something that can make us whole. Lacan therefore distinguished between what he called the “objet a” and the “objet petit a”. The formed is the object-cause of our desire, while the latter is the imagined object that we think will make us whole. As Žižek explains:
“Object a is not what we desire, what we are after, but rather that which sets our desire in motion, the formal frame that confers consistency on our desire. Desire is of course metonymical, it shifts from one object to another; through all its displacements, however, desire nonetheless retains a minimum of formal consistency, a set of fantasmatic features which, when encountered in a positive object, insures that we will come to desire this object. Object a, as the cause of desire, is nothing but this formal frame of consistency (Žižek 1997).”
Rollins is a translator, translating the “Lacanese” of Žižek into the language of Christianity. And he does a good job at it:
“[T]he terms ‘original sin’ and ‘idolatry’ are totally interconnected . The idol is that which we create in order to fill the gap that is original sin; it is that which we think will stop up the void that pierces the heart of our existence (Rollins 2012: Kindle Locations 234-235).”
Despite his academic training, Rollins isn’t writing for an academic audience. Not only does he make accessible the ideas of Žižek and Lacan, but he does so in such a way as to render them relevant. For our era is the era of the idol― of late capitalist consumer culture, where “the ‘Good News’ of Christianity /…/ is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire, rather than as that which evokes a transformation in the very way that we desire (Ibid: Kindle Locations 45-46).” Rollins is writing in the wake of the death of God, on the cusp of a postmodern moment in the life of the Church. He is writing to a community of persons asking God to rid them of God (cf. Caputo 2007: 67; Rollins 2012: Kindle location 815). In The Idolatry of God he asks:
“What if, instead of being the solution (i.e. the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question? To put this another way, what if Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him, but rather smashes it to pieces – bringing freedom , not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but in the very act of embracing them? (Ibid: Kindle Locations 61-64).”
So the Gospel according to Christ becomes the Gospel according to Lacan. Rollins calls us to come to terms with our brokenness, and our unknowing. Rather than turn Christ into an objet petit a, Rollins wants us to accept the harsh reality of what Žižek calls the formal frame of our desire― that we are, ultimately, void, and can never be satisfied. So the mission of the Church and the mission of the analyst converge, in so far as, for Lacan, the end of the psychoanalytic treatment came with what he called a “subjective destitution”, whereby the analysand “assumes the non-existence of the Other and the non-existence of itself as a subject (Verhaeghe 1998: 182).”
Rollins therefore reads the sacrifice of Christ as the sacrifice of the sacrifice itself. In other words: “to speak of Christ paying the debt does not mean that debt is taken seriously, but that the debt itself is abolished (Rollins 2012: Kindle Location 849).” This is― and by now it shouldn’t come as a surprise― a reworking of a Žižekian idea. In Enjoy Your Symptom! Žižek refers to “sacrificing the sacrifice” as “[renouncing] the symbolic alliance which defines the very kernel of our being (Žižek 2001: 191).” This “betrayal”, as Žižek calls it (a word that is not foreign to Rollins’ lips), is the means by which we renounce the object of our desire, or the idol as Rollins would call it. As Rollins explains, in The Idolatry of God:
“[T]o lose the idol means to lose that drive which prevents us from fully embracing our life and taking pleasure in it. It means giving up our desire for ultimate satisfaction and then, in that act, discovering a deeper, more beautiful satisfaction, one that is not constantly deferred but that can be grasped here and now. Not one that promises to make us whole and remove our suffering, but one that promises joy in the midst of our brokenness and depth in the very embrace of our pain (Rollins 2012: Kindle Locations 875-876).”
As pointed out by Caputo, in On Religion, the postmodern moment is, by extension, a postsecular one, in so far as no one has privileged access to “the secret”. Secularism is revealed for what it is. Humanists such as Richard Dawkins, in saying things like religion is “one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus,” reveal the confessional character of their outlook. This story about religion, as something evil, trumps others. Their story is treated as the one story, to be applied in an all-encompassing sort of way, to the world in all its complexity and plurality. That is a working definition of fundamentalism right there— to take as a given, as absolute, and all-encompassing, your own outlook, and force it on the world. So Christian fundamentalists treat their outlook as a given, foundational truth (“because the bible says so”), and squeeze life into it. Dawkins et al. do the same with their anti-theism.
The Christian fundamentalism fails to see that the foundation upon which their outlook rests (their reference to the bible, for example) involves a confession (faith in the bible as the true word of God). But Dawkins et al. do the same thing. They fail to see that the foundation upon which their argument rests (the reference to evolutionary biology and instances of religious violence) entails a confession (believing that transcendence is a silly, childish notion, discredited by our evolutionary history and that religion is inherently harmful). We always look at things with a confessional outlook, with a take on things. Some biologists do biology with an open take on things, one that allows for the possibility of transcendence. Some are able to acknowledge instances of religious violence without closing the door on religion, as a force of good in much of the world. Humanists are no different. They operate within an anti-theist confessional framework. What makes one a fundamentalist or not is how one holds this confession. We can be “self-blind” as Charles Taylor says, and treat our outlook as a given, as foundational, or we can acknowledge the confessional character of our outlook.
This doesn’t mean cultural relativism, though. We can defend our positions, and protest against others. It just means that we do so humbly. We allow for remainder, for that which slips through our fingers. “Truth” is never a universal, ahistorical Truth (with a big “T”), but is always a truth that is becoming, à venir. The “truth” we defend should be a truth written with a small “t”. This entails a willingness to hold one’s views in question, to acknowledge our human finitude.
To be able to claim Christianity as part of one’s heritage, yet navigate it in a creative, open ended way: this is the promise of radical theology. This is to tell Christianity in a different way― as inclusive of the marginalized of society, of other gender identities and sexual orientations. The radical theologian tells a different story, to that of the orthodox authorities and much of secular culture. This is a postmodern relationship to Christianity, where foundations have crumbled― where it is no longer possible to know, to make sense of things through reference to any “Big Other”, whether it be the bible, God, or nature. All we’re left with is stories, plural― stories we can experiment on, think with, and celebrate, but which we can never treated as grand, all-encompassing narratives. So we end up being good Derrideans: scared of the word “theism” and “atheism” alike. So the radical theologian is either a Christian atheist (that’s Žižek), or a/theists (that’s Caputo, and in a way Derrida). With radical theology, it’s no longer possible to give stable form to the forces of life.
This open navigation has to be a materialist one, though. Rollins calls this a material Christianity. It’s not enough to think differently. If radical theology is to be successful, as counter culture, it has to affect us, reorient us― it has to translate into a way of life, where we do things differently. If by liturgy we mean those sorts of practices that habituate a certain kind of being in the world, it’s not hard to understand why the Emergent Church has placed an emphasis on it. For it is only through liturgy that we can expect to challenge an individualistic, self-concerned mode of being in the world (cf. Smith 2009; Clark 2011).
Radical theology is opposed to the idea of a privatized Christianity. For Rollins and Caputo, and even Žižek, Christianity is an alternative mode of being in the world, one that challenges current frameworks. Not only is radical theology postsecular in the sense that it moves beyond foundationalism, but in the way it challenges much of secular culture. It names it as idolatrous (Rollins), as not allowing for remainder, for that which falls outside of the law (Caputo).
For me, the promise of radical theology— and I see hints of this in Rollins and Caputo— is the willingness to navigate our secular age in an open ended sort of way; the willingness to entertain a different story. It is to be able to say: “I’m an atheist, but I may be wrong.” Or even better: “I’m an atheist (I think?), but I hope I’m wrong, I wish there could be something more, something better, some sort of happy ending to all of this.” Yet, it is to never treat any one story as definitive, as all encompassing. And here radical theology is not radical orthodoxy. For Smith, and other radically orthodox theologians, the Christian story is treated as the story. And Žižek appears not that different in so far as for him, the story, that ultimately the world is nothing, is treated as the story. In a way— and Caputo makes this point— Žižek and radical orthodoxy are two sides of the same coin.
I even fear that even Rollins, while taking an open ended approach to the Christian story, fails to do so with the story he tells of our brokenness (a story he inherited from Žižek). Are we to really close the door on the possibility that there could be something more, beyond this life, something better? Why do we have to say, with absolute certainty, that we are broken and there is no answer to these horrors? On the one hand, Rollins rightly challenges the idolatry of our consumerist culture, but I wonder whether he goes too far. He can say, when asked whether he believes in God, that sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t; so why can’t he say, when asked whether he believes in a new heaven and a new earth, that he doesn’t be he wishes it were true.
I recently watched an episode of Louis Theroux’s LA Stories, entitled “Edge of Life”, on patients battling life threatening illnesses. One of them, a young man named Javier, married his partner, from his hospital bed, just days before dying, but was unable even to commemorate the ceremony with a kiss. His body was in to weak of a state from all the chemotherapy (for even a cold, in such a state, is all too serious of a thing). As I watched that episode, as I watched young people fight for their life, and ask the doctors, and themselves, “why?” I couldn’t help but ask the same thing. Why? Why can’t there be something more? Really, am I to just accept that this is it, that there is nothing else, nothing more after this? In her book, When God Talks Back, Tanya Luhrmann asks: “if you could believe in God, why wouldn’t you (2012: xvi)?” Likewise, if you could believe in the eschaton, why wouldn’t you?” As Luhrmann says of belief in God, it’s hard to do; but if you could, why wouldn’t you?
Someone once told me that they rely on a “happy process, rather than a happy ending”. I get this. But when I say “happy ending”, I’m speaking from the point of view that the process has not been happy, for far too many people. There’s no taking it back. There’s been torture, rape, and genocide. The process was not happy, for far too many. So by “ending”, I’m thinking something along the lines of the eschaton, as expressed in the Christian tradition: the idea that in the end there will be peace. Not as a making up for all the tears, for all the suffering for which there can be no excuse, but just as a certain kind of ending, a happy end to what has been an unfortunate process. Of course, this is just a story. A story we can fall in love with, and even hope for, but which can only ever be a story— a hope against all hope, in the possibility of the impossible, as John Caputo says.
For me, there’s two ways out: it’s either darkness, with no hope of light, or darkness with the hope that there may be light. Secular culture is not the answer. Consumer culture, and the city of endless desire, is not the answer. As it stands, there is nothing to make us whole. We are suffering. This world is suffering. All I can do is ask “why”? Here I am, in a sense, Lacanian. I see, in our hearts, a lack. But so did Augustine. Where I part ways with Lacan is with regard to the idea of subjective destitution, of accepting without hope that there is no meaning— just darkness with no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m restless. Here Augustine is my saint, not Lacan (as for Žižek).
There is one thing that prevents me from saying, along with Žižek, that this is all shit. There is one thing that, despite all the suffering, leaves me grateful, leaves me feeling like life should be seen as a gift, a grace. This is love. But the fact that so many have never and will never enter into love, into community, forgiveness, kindness, leaves me restless, leaves me wanting more. I am stubborn. I refuse to sit back and say “it’s all shit”. No. I want for there to be something more. I want to protest against the word “nihil”. I want to proclaim, in the face of this word, another one— that which was spoken of in the gospel of John. According to John’s story, this is a word that was there from the beginning. This is the word that the Christian community came to see in Jesus of Nazareth. This word is none other than that of love, peace, community, and hope. This is the hope that one day, we may all enter into love. It’s like Rust Cohle’s final speech in the last episode of True Detective, season one, where he feels, in the midst of darkness, on the edge of death, something substantial rather than empty. What gave darkness its substance was love, the feeling of his daughter’s love, of his father’s peace.
This was a climactic moment for Rust, seeing that if you’re looking for a pop cultural expression of the nihilistic sentiment of Lacan and Žižek, this is as good as a place to go. Rust is a pessimist, and with the same sort of psychoanalytic twist as Žižek. Throughout the series we see Rust expressing themes such as: 1) at the heart of the subject is a lack, or emptiness, that we are ultimately nothing, our selves an illusion; 2) that this emptiness, at the heart of the human subject fuels its desire; and 3) the impossibility of fulfilment, of being made whole. And this is just to name a few. But in the last scene something happens. Rust comes to find something more than emptiness:
“There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something… whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”
Compare this to the sort of sentiment expressed earlier in the show, according to which “everybody is nobody”, and where the best thing to do is “deny our programming and walk hand in hand into extinction”. This is the sort of sentiment that sees life, not as a gift, but as a “raw deal”, as Rust puts it. Rust thinks the idea of fulfilment is a “life trap” as he calls it. “Why should I live in history he says?…This is a world in which nothing is solved…” This is a view of the world, a feel for things, which sees our sentience as an accident, a mistake even. There is no meaning to it. “Death created time, to grow the things that it will kill,” Rust tells two detectives. This is the “terrible and secret fate of all life: you’re trapped in the nightmare you keep waking up into.”
Radical theology can help us learn to live in what Taylor calls our secular age— where “we are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike,” as Paul Elie (quoted in Smith 2014: 1) says. It is learning to live in a haunted house, where it is impossible to stay in one room for too long, without being unsettled by the ghost of another. It becomes a means of navigating, as restless nomads, a space in which there is no one truth, no one all encompassing story. There are only stories, plural. In a way, by doing radical theology one is learning how to be a pluralist, to be willing to call into question one’s outlook, and test one’s self in relation to others. When our foundations crumble, we realize that stories are all we have. But at the same time, we realize how powerful stories are, and how important it is to think about the kind that we reflect in our practices, the outlooks we reinforce through our celebrations.
For me, the radical theologian is someone who, when faced with the suffering of the other, is able to ask, alongside them, “why?” and hope with them, for the possibility of the impossible. It’s a theology without secure foundations, which can only hope against all hope, because in a secular age, where there is no one truth— no Big Other whom we can make reference to in a grand declaration that “all will be well”— all one can do is hope. The radical theologian is the theologian able to do theology after the death of God, who is able to catch sight of the event captured in the prayers of a mother, praying for her dying son. It is the theologian able to pray with her, to hope with her, in the absence of all hope; it is the theologian willing to entertain the possibility of the impossible. The radical theologian is restless, because there is nowhere to rest her head. She feels the weight of the world, and she has no answers— only hope, prayers and tears.
Caputo, J D 2013 The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, Indiana, Indiana University Press
Caputo, J D & Vattimo, G 2007 After the Death of God, ed. J W Robbins, New York, Columbia University Press
McCullough, L 2013 ‘Interview with Thomas J. J. Altizer’, in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, vol. 12. no. 3:169-185.
Rollins, P 2012 The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, London, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Rollins, P, McKnight, S, Corcoran, K & J Clark Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging, Michigan, Brazos Press
Verhaeghe, P 1998 Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London, Rebus Press
Žižek, S 1997 ‘Desire: Drive = Truth: Knowledge’, Umbr(a), web, http://www.lacan.com/zizek-desire.htm
Žižek, S 2008 Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, New York, Routledge
Žižek, S 2009 ‘Whither the “Death of God”: A Continuing Currency?’ Paper presented at American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Montréal
Žižek, S 2011 ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne, re.press
Žižek, S 2012 Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London, Verso
“To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything…my life, like all lives, mysterious, irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me…How wild it was, to let it be.” Cheryl
Nick Hornby’s movie, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, tells the story of Cheryl’s journey, through the Pacific Crest Trail, to find herself, after having been destroyed by her mother’s death. The movie touched me; it moved me in a number of ways. When I got home, I opened a bottle of wine and began reading through the script. Such is the story behind this essay. I awoke the next morning and began writing almost immediately.
- Passivity, Sensation, and the Other
In phenomenology, one speaks of intentionality. We intend the world, as such, against a meaningful backdrop. We mean. The world appears to us, meaningfully, as bodies—each one different— with a posture, able to navigate the earth’s terrain, in certain ways, unique to us. And the forces we emerge amidst, we give form to these. We make sense of life— as bodies, capable of habit— with the stories that have been handed down to us, that we have internalized, ritualistically, for example. We move through a world that is made sense of.
But there’s something missing here. There’s something that is left unsaid, in speaking of meaning and corporeal competency. For before the ego, before our handling of things—indeed, before all making sense of the world—there is exposure, vulnerability. This is what Emmanuel Levinas saw. And it is for this reason that Levinas, like no other, has spoke to me, to my sense of what it is to be, to live a life in all “its patience and its ageing” (Levinas 2008: 51). Rather than speak first of meaning, of intelligibility, Levinas speaks of:
“The passivity of the “for-another” /…/ the living human corporeality, as a possibility of pain, a sensibility which of itself is the susceptibility to being hurt, a self uncovered, exposed and suffering in its skin. In its skin it is stuck in its skin, not having its skin to itself, a vulnerability…(ibid).”
Levinas speaks of the otherwise that is the condition for being, or what Levinas calls “the same”— that is, the world as made sense of, as grasped consciously, as moved about in bodily. My relation with reality, with the other, is older than “I”, than the ego that makes sense of it. The other marks the condition for my making sense of my “being here”, or Dasein, as Heidegger called it. Before being-in-the-world, there is being-for-another. Before self-sufficiency, before our perceptual and bodily competence— our ability to be at ease, to make ourselves at home in the world— there is grace.
Levinas reverses the order, maintained in the phenomenologies of Husserl and even Merleau-Ponty, according to which perception is privileged, at the expense of that which is other—other than the “I”, than the conscious, embodied meaning maker. Levinas “inverts” intentionality (cf. Levinas 2008: 47); and with this there is, as Levinas says, “an abandon of the sovereign and active subjectivity, of undeclined self-consciousness (ibid).” Prior to intentionality there is materiality— sensation, nourishment, or “alimentation”, as Levinas calls it in Totality and Inifnity (1969: 111). There is “grace”, there is “living from” (ibid: 111; 112). The metaphor employed by Levinas, in describing our material existence is “maternity”; for “it suggests to us,” he says, “the proper sense of the oneself. The oneself cannot form itself; it is already formed with absolute passivity (Levinas 1989: 94).”
For Husserl, a central component of phenomenology was the so called “phenomenological reduction”, whereby the outside world, other than as it appears to consciousness, was bracketed, or “parenthesized” (Husserl 1982: 60-61). Levinas offers a variant of the reduction: it “will once again let the otherwise than being be as an eon (Levinas 2008: 44).” As Bettina Bergo explains, Levinas “[takes] the reduction in a direction different from that of Husserl (Bergo 1999: 43, footnote). For whereas Husserl, in wanting to reveal what was only intentional, made being, beyond conscious grasp, a sort of nothing (ibid), Levinas’ reduction sought to reveal “an unmasterable fullness”, as Bergo (ibid) puts it, beyond intentionality. What is safeguarded, in Levinas’ reduction, is an otherwise than the world as it appears to us—a fullness that exceeds all categories. It is only through such a “reduction” that we, in our philosophizing, can “[maintain] the diachrony in which, holding its breath, the spirit hears the echo of the otherwise (ibid).”
Levinas pushes against the metaphor of light, so common in philosophy and other disciplines that prize the “light of reason”. It is for this reason that Levinas, in Existence and Existents, turns to the metaphor of the “night”, in referring to the “dark side” of existence, beyond the world as we know it. This is done so as to reinforce the point, as made later in Totality and Infinity, that “[c]onsciousness /…/ does not consist in equaling being with representation (Levinas 1969: 27).” In Existence and Existents, Levinas will develop the idea of the il y a, or “there is”. This is the night, the darkness, out of which comes the light. Beyond the world as we construe it, consciously, as grasping bodies, there is the il y a— that anonymous, formless existence, out of which things are hypostasized, and into which they may be dissolved. He writes:
“When the form of things are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riveted to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness /…/ [T]his universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence (2001: 53).”
For Levinas, it is this “night”, this anonymous, rumbling existence, sensed in insomnia, for example, that contains the trace of the “wholly other”. The world— of discrete things, each appearing against a meaningful backdrop —in which we feel at home, bleeds off into the night; and this night extends into the unknown. The night, the il y a, contains the trace of that which is otherwise than “being”—otherwise than the world as illuminated by conscious grasp and bodily know-how. And the “surface” of this anonymous, formless existence, is what Levinas calls the “elemental”— the “wind, earth, sea, sky, air (Levinas 1969: 132),” in which we bathe at all times. We are sustained, materially, at all times, in a substanceless sea of qualities. Before we come to grasp individual things, or make sense of them as such, we “enjoy” them, as Levinas says (cf. 1969: 110). Before there is the object of representation, there is the sensation—of warmth, proximity, satisfaction, etc. As he explains in Totality and Infinity:
‘We live from “good soup”, air, light, spectacles, work, ideas, sleep, etc. . . These are not objects of representations. We live from them. Nor is what we live from a “means of life,” as the pen is a means with respect to the letter it permits us to write—nor a goal of life, as communication is the goal of the letter. The things we live from are not tools, nor even implements, in the Heideggerian sense of the term (ibid).’
In this way, Levinas parts ways with the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Indeed, J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson (2013) call Levinas’ project a “new phenomenology”. However, as they point out, there are roots to be traced back to Heidegger’s idea of an “inapparent” in presentation (Simmons & Benson 2013: Kindle Locations 802-803). Indeed, Levinas is a great commentator of Hediegger.
Graham Harman, a philosopher schooled in the phenomenological tradition, agrees with Levinas, that Husserl was wrong to surrender “in clarity and without immodesty [an object’s] whole being to thought (Levinas, quoted in Harman 2009: 409),” and draws heavily on him in articulating his own brand of “weird realism”. He also turns, however, to Heidegger’s tool analysis— where the distinction is made between objects as “present-to-hand”, or held within one’s consciousness, and those that are “ready-to-hand”, unnoticed, yet upon which we are dependent. He offers an unorthodox of reading of Heidegger’s philosophy, as entailing that there is always an aspect of reality, as “ready-to-hand”, that “withdraws” from conscious and bodily grasp.
The workings of our heart and lungs, for example, rarely occupy our minds, but instead remain “ready-to-hand”, as tools which function from a subterranean position, only to become ‘present-to-hand’ in certain circumstances, such as when we suffer a heart attack, or are diagnosed with lung cancer. As it relates to both theory and practice— whether an object is contemplated or used in such a way that it, for the most part, goes unnoticed— objects are always deeper than our thought or use of them (Harman 2011: 173). Thus, we have a “failure of both theory and praxis to exhaust the things of the world (ibid).” And it is this, “darkness”—this excess, beyond the “light”, or “clarity”, of theory and praxis— that Levinas says marks the possibility for revelation, for that which can shock, or surprise us. For clarity is, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, “the disappearance of what could shock (Levinas 1969: 124).” Thus, before we are at home in the world— that is, before we make sense of it, before everything becomes “clear”— we are strangers in it. And there are those instances that break apart our competency, and make us strangers once again.
I’ve had family members die of cancer. I can’t help but think of it as I go over Levinas’ ideas about vulnerability and sensation. All too often, cancer comes as an unpleasant surprise— oftentimes discovered by accident. We learn, in the movie Wild, that Cheryl’s mother died of cancer, only a month after it was discovered. Cancer can break apart our world, turn it upside down. The diagnosis highlights “the living human corporeality, as a possibility of pain, a sensibility which of itself is the susceptibility to being hurt, a self uncovered, exposed and suffering in its skin (Levinas 2008: 51).” Levinas goes on:
“The painfulness of pain, the malady or malignity of illness, and, in the pure state, the very patience of corporeality, the pain of labor and ageing, are adversity itself, the against oneself that is in the self. The good or bad pleasure of the will presupposes this patience and this adversity, and this primordial lassitude (ibid).”
“I’ve always been somebody’s daughter or mother or wife,” Cheryl’s Mom, Bobbi tells her on the way home from the hospital, having found out that her time has been cut short. “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life. I thought that would come. I thought time was infinite (Hornby 2013: 58).” The outside, the other— what John Caputo says is continental philosophy’s code name for “the real” (Caputo 2013: 181)—can surprise us, shatter our dreams, and order us in new ways. And pain, Levinas tells us, “is not simply a symptom of a frustrated will, its meaning is not adventitious (Levinas 2008: 51). We are affected by the other because we are vulnerable— stuck in our own skin, susceptible to being hurt (Levinas 2008: 51). And it’s not just Bobbi. The day before she dies, Cheryl tells her: “I love you, Mom. You must know…You’re the centre of me. Everything I am (Hornby 2013: 63).” And just like that, over night, Cheryl’s centre is taken from her. And this, Cheryl recounts in another scene, destroys her (Hornby 2013: 73). Before we are at home in the world, we are for-another; and being for-another makes pain an inevitable part of life. “Life is life despite life,” Levinas says (2008: 51).
Levinas, and movies like Wild, provide us with an acute sense of our passivity, of our being for-another. The “I”, along with its joys and sorrows, come from the other. And insofar as the other is older than the “I”, the other is not exhausted by the “I”, by the embodied subject’s scheme of things. “Consciousness is always late for the rendezvous with the neighbour,” as Levinas says (1987: 119). There is always that which withdraws in the midst of contact. We can, of course, think the other solely in terms of our scheme of things, but this is to overlook our own vulnerability, our own finitude. And even then, sensation has the potential to break apart our system, to order us in new ways. The other can always “come like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2).” The “end of mastery,” Levinas tells us, “indicates that we have assumed existing in such a way that an event can happen to us that we no longer assume (Levinas 1989: 43).” And death is exactly such an event.
- Death, Totality, and the Other
For Levinas, death can provide us with a sense of excess, beyond the terms of “the said”. As we have seen, it can turn a world upside down. The evil we face, in death, such as when Bobbi and Cheryl are told Bobbi has little time left, can, as Levinas says, “tear [one] out of the world, as unique and ex-ceptional—as a soul (Levinas 1987: 182)”. Yet Levinas sets himself in opposition to Heidegger, with his rather European idealization of the heroic death—the idea of facing one’s death, courageously, authentically, as a free individual. For Levinas— the Jew who served at a prisoner of war camp, and whose family was murdered by the Nazis— Heidegger’s view, of the individual freed by the thought of his own death, from all relations with others, as he courageously faces his own mortality, is something to be rejected (cf. Levinas 1988: 226). Indeed, for him, it is something that “[appears] only to the beneficiaries of historical evolution and institutions (Levinas 1969: 241).” Indeed, “[e]ven he who has accepted death,” says Levinas, “is not free. The insecurity of the morrow, hunger and thirst scoff at freedom (ibid).”
We mustn’t read Bobbi’s questioning of the time she thought would come, through a Heideggerian lens. We mustn’t read her coming to terms with her cancer as something “heroic”, in the Heideggerian sense of the word. Her solitude is not, as Levinas says, “confirmed by death but broken by it (1989: 43).” And it’s not just the relation to Cheryl, and the time they share together, as she lay on her deathbed; rather, as Levinas explains: “This approach of death indicates that we are in relation with something that is absolutely other, something bearing alterity /…/ something whose very existence is made of alterity (ibid).” Or, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity:
“Death threatens me from beyond. This unknown that frightens, the silence of the infinite spaces that terrify, comes from the other, and this alterity, precisely as absolute, strikes me /…/. The solitude of death does not make the Other vanish, but remains in a consciousness of hostility, and consequently still renders possible an appeal to the Other, to his friendship and his medication (Levinas 1969: 234).”
The notorious French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, once said that “[d]eath belongs to the province of faith (Lacan, quoted in Visker 2006: 101),” thus throwing into question the common assumption, held by many, that the question hinges on whether or not there is life after death, and not the other way round. Why is it that we don’t ask, instead, “is there death after life?” as Rudi Visker (2006: 101) points out? The point here is that what faces us— what weighs down on us—when we are faced with death, as Bobbi and Cheryl were, is an unknown, “something whose very existence is made of alterity,” as Levinas says (1989: 43).
What we are talking about is, as Levinas says,“an abandon of the sovereign and active subjectivity, of undeclined self-consciousness (Levinas 2008: 47).” It is “the end of mastery” (Levinas 1989: 43). And this has methodological implications. What Levinas is taking aim at is totality—whatever form it takes. By “totality”, Levinas means any ontology, system, or frame of reference, that seeks to totalize the other, to reduce the other to one’s own scheme of things. This is why Levinas was weary of Heidegger’s philosophy, which he claims, in Totality and Infinity, “subordinated the relation with the Other to ontology (Levinas, 1969: 89).” Levinas’ point is that the other cannot be totalized, cannot be reduced to “the same” (cf. ibid: 35). In place of totality, Levinas speaks of infinity, transcendence, of an otherwise than being.
Death is, as Levinas says, “the impossibility of having a project (Levinas 1989: 43).” To face one’s own or another’s death— as Bobbi and Cheryl did— is to find the trace of the other, of an unknowable beyond. Death can darken the light of reason. We make sense of the world; we inherit, from others, the stories with which we give form to the forces of life. But death has the potential to break apart a system. Death bears witness to the “anarchy” that predates the totalizing terms of the same. Levinas offers an anarchistic account of transcendence; he sets himself in opposition to totalitarianism, to the idea of any all-encompassing, ultimate frame of reference—what, in Lacanian terms, is referred to as the “Big Other”. When talking about the wholly other, we are talking about that which “cannot enter into the present of consciousness,” that is “non-thematizable /…/ non-contemporaneous, /…/ non-present (Levinas 2008: 52).” It is this non-thematizeable, non-phenomenal otherness that takes hold of us in death, that may put to us the question: “is there death after life?”
With the event of death, something unknowable, something other, can take hold of me (ibid). “Death,” explains Bettina Bergo, “affects the ‘I’ in a way that is analogous to the il y a (Bergo 1999: 97). And insofar as we participate in a reality that ultimately exceeds our grasp, that bleeds off into a darkness, far beyond the play of lights that is consciousness, “[r]ight away this means that existence is pluralist (Levinas 1989: 43).” For it means no one frame of reference is total; there is no “Big Other” in relation to which we can secure ourselves, or by which the world may be rid of mystery. “The relationship with the other,” Levinas tells us, “is a relationship with a Mystery (ibid).”
For Levinas, the idea of transcendence should give way to:
“a foundation for a pluralist philosophy in which the plurality of being would not disappear into the unity of number nor be integrated into a totality. Totality and the embrace of being, or ontology, do not contain the final secret of being. Religion, where relationship subsists between the same and the other despite the impossibility of the Whole /…/ is the ultimate structure (Levinas 1969: 80).”
Thus we arrive at Levinas’ idea of religion— understood as the structure according to which reality, or the other, isn’t reduced to any one framework, isn’t totalized in terms that belong to the same. Such totalizing of the other, or naming of God—to speak in terms of Levinas’ own Jewish heritage— would be a sort of “idolatry”. Drawing on Levinas, I think it’s possible to reconsider the religious heritage of religious studies— a heritage which we have, as Tyler Roberts points out, tended to look at with a sense of 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 (Roberts 2013: 82)”.
It becomes possible, I think, to approach religious studies as a “religious” project, understood in the Levinasian sense of the word. That is, as a project whereby we operate with the sort of “reduction” according to which we remain sensitive to what Levinas refers to as “the echo of the otherwise” (Levinas 2008: 44). Religion is, as Levinas says, “the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality (1969: 40).” And it is this pluralist, religious sensibility that I argue can be found in the voyages of Alphonso Lingis—voyages which both Thomas J. Altizer (2003) and Joff Peter Norman Bradley (2014) have, in commenting on, described in somewhat “spiritual” terms. For what Lingis does, in his philosophy of “travel”, is open himself up to an otherwise—an otherwise than the world as we know it in the West. Lingis opens himself up to, makes contact with, strange worlds, beyond the ordinary, and reflects from there. He offers a philosophical anthropology, whereby philosophical reflection proceeds from the phenomenological description, from the first-person chronicling of a “traveller”— someone who has made it his priority, as a “scholar”, to open himself up to plurality, to reflect philosophically from in the midst of life.
- “Travel”: A Postsecular Methodology
Cheryl, at one point on the trail, meets a fellow hiker, Stacey. As they watch the sunset, Stacey recounts:
“I need to find something in me. I don’t know what yet but… I needed to re-gather. I guess the trail’s a good place for that. For people whose lives have emptied out.” Stacey gestures to the sunset: “I mean look! This has the power to fill you up again if you let it. I’m slowly learning to (Hornby 2013: 72A).”
Cheryl smiles, responding as follows:
‘My mom used to say this thing that drove me nuts: “Every day there’s a sunrise and a sunset and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty (Hornby 2013: 72A).’
Cheryl had set out on the trail in order to find herself, to become the woman her mother had raised her to be (cf. Hornby 2013: 36). She decided to throw herself into the world, amidst others—other persons, animals, and landscapes. She took flight from herself, from the “self” that was destroying herself. She set off, into the world, into the unknown, in order that she could be shaped anew— otherwise than when her mother died and she began using heroin.
Like Cheryl, Lingis too is a traveller; and like her Mom, Bobbi, Lingis puts himself in the way of beauty, among other things. “I have a strong personal need to admire,” Lingis (2012) says in one interview. He is a philosopher, schooled in the phenomenological tradition, and a translator of both Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. However, whereas most philosophers tend to philosophize from within the confines the academy, Lingis throws himself into the world, across borders, beyond boundaries. He has been called an itinerant philosopher (Sparrow & George 2014), his philosophy a philosophy of “travel” (Sparrow 2007). For him, philosophy is understood in terms of having the potential to open us up to different worlds, different realities, beyond the everyday, the taken for granted. His philosophical influences come from Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more. However, above all stands Levinas, especially as it relates to his reflections on alterity, the face-to-face, the elemental, and sensation.
So far, I’ve spoken of Levinas’ account of transcendence; however, of central importance to his philosophy is the ethics which he grounds in it. Ethics, for Levinas, is first philosophy. In a way, Levinas’ ethics can be understood along similar lines to the otherness that can take hold of one’s existence when faced with death. As Bergo explains, “[d]eath, the other human being, the il y a all come from no-where. As such they are all dimensions of an atropos which is transcendent with regard to being (Bergo 1999: 97).” Like death and the il y a, the other person, for Levinas, as it relates to the face-to-face, is understood in terms of a non-phenomenal force, that interrupts the complacency of the ego, weighs down on it as a sort of gravity. Levinas speaks of “the gravity of an animate body (2008: 70),” of an otherness, contained in the face of the other—an otherness that calls me out, that holds me hostage, lays a demand on me. Ethics is the other’s ability to challenge my being at home in the world, to summon me, to move me to open the door and let them in. Ethics is understood in terms of weight, gravity. It is about taking flight from being possessed by one’s self and letting the stranger in (cf. Lingis 1987: xii). The face, like death, contains the trace of the wholly other, of that which can take hold of my existence, order me in new ways. It is for this reason that Levinas, in his writings on Judaism, locates God in the face. It is in the face that we find the origin of the command “thou shalt not kill (Exod: 2013).”
……………………………….This manuscript is unfinished……………………………
But here are some more of my favourite quotes from Hornby’s script:
“Mom, I’m not crying because of you. /…/ I’m not crying because I’m happy or sad. I’m crying because I’m full. /…/ This place. Hundreds of miles. Ninety days on the trail, and all the years before that. I’m full up (Hornby 2013: 109).”
“There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course (Hornby 2013: 110).”
“It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it, without her. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there (Hornby 2013: 110-111).”
Harman, G. 2009 “Levinas and the Triple Critique of Heidegger”, Philosophy Today, winter
Levinas, E. 2001 Existence and Existents, trans. Lingis, A. Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press
“Perhaps 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…” Tyler Roberts
How can I, a religious scholar, approach what I do as a formative project, whereby I can critically reflect on my own practices, and the environment in which I live? This is a concern that I consider worthy of investing time and energy into. What resources can I find in traditions of religious thought?
In religious studies, religion is often reduced to an object of study, to be analyzed historically, sociologically, or psychologically. Religious scholars tend to do a lot of thinking about, but not much thinking with— philosophically, speculatively. I want to open up space for this.
Religious studies, as a sort of “moral inquiry” as Tyler Roberts calls it, can bring us into contact with people and voices that can challenge us, contest our world. It can enable critical reflection on the habitats that we live from, the liturgies we navigate, and that shape us. It can encourage us to experiment with new stories, new practices. Religious studies can force us to rethink the simplest of things. For even the cultural forms we consume, that we live from, nourish certain outlooks, and give form to certain desires. Culture is never just entertainment; it is formative. The question we have to ask ourselves, as religious scholars, is what kind of scholars are we being shaped to be?
Simon Critchley seems to think of continental philosophy as a sort of bastion for philosophy’s emancipatory potential. A radical philosophy would, in his eyes, push up against “the effect of the professionalization of philosophy [which] is the sense that it does not and should not matter to the conduct of one’s life….” In what way can religious studies too be approached as a critical project? Can we, as Roberts thinks, approach religious traditions and theologies as resources for critical thinking and action? Can we approach religious studies from the perspective of liturgical navigation— of engaging with stories and practices, allowing them to impact us, to challenge us, and help us to find our own voices, so that we ourselves may have something to offer?
Before we think of religious studies in such a way, though, we have to show, first of all, that religion isn’t anything special, that secularism is itself, in a sense, a confession. It turns out that we’re always navigating the world liturgically, journeying through life as embodied, desiring beings, whose concerns are reflected in and shaped by story and practice. To be postsecular, in the normative sense of the word (cf. Smith ), is, as I understand it, to protest against the sort of normative consensus that favours disinterested analysis in the academy. It is to protest against the view that there is a secular, autonomous space, where religious/cultural formation does not happen. It is a protest against the idea that secularism is a sort of default outlook on the world, and that religion is something that gets in the way of reason— as if we could strip away all the religious layers of society in order to find the secular.
In phenomenological terms, we are intentional creatures, whose perception is always against a meaningful backdrop. Our imagination is shaped by liturgies, by stories that have been habitually reinforced for us, that sink deep into our bones over time, that are formative of a certain kind of being-in-the-world. We give form to the forces of life and we get those forms from others (Lingis). This is an Augustinian sort of reading of religion, understood as having to do, first and foremost, with our outlook on and feel for the world, with what ultimately matters to us. Religion is not, on this reading, primarily about believing (“belief” in the sense of intellectual assent) in a set of dogmatic propositions. It has more to do with one’s embodied outlook and desires, one’s image of the good life, as shaped by a story that has sunk deep into one’s bones, through hearing it in over and over, via the media or pulpit, or as celebrated, habitually, through ritual, in the church or mall.
In France, the niqab was banned. But, as Jennifer A. Selby and Mayanthi L. Fernando (2014) have pointed out, this ban takes place within a normative framework regarding what constitutes femininity— underlying it is the expectation that all women in the public sphere adopt to secular modes of dress. It is taken for granted that this ban is part of a confessional outlook, that “like forms of religiosity, secularity too includes a range of ethical, social, and physical dispositions (Selby & Mayanthi 2014)”. Thus, “model of femininity is naturalized”, as Selby and Fernando put it. What results is a “secular hegemony”, as Roberts (2008: 303) calls it. As Talal Asad expresses, this “imperializing orthodoxy, this doctrine demands of us a universal way of ‘being human’— which is really a singular way of articulating desire, discourse, and gesture in the body’s economy (Asad 1993: 121).”
In his impressive, thought provoking work, A Secular Age, the philosopher, Charles Taylor, points out how scientific materialism is, today, often seen as a “stance of maturity, or courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.” Or, as Saba Mahmood excellently says, in an essay to which Taylor himself responded to, over at The Immanent Frame, entitled “Is Critique Secular”:
“I think the “feeling good” part of the secular story cannot be belittled. It should in fact be studied in all seriousness so as to apprehend the visceral force secular discourses and practices command in our world today. While it is common to ascribe passion to religion, it would behoove us to pay attention to the thick texture of affinities, prejudices, and attachments that tie us (cosmopolitan intellectuals and critics) to what is loosely described as a secular worldview.”
Underlying our research practices are stories about what we do, assumptions about the kind of creatures we are, and what sort of research is worthy of funding. These are stories that we tell ourselves over and over, that are reflected in our practices, which direct us towards certain ends. Yet in so far as they’re not a given, they’re open to criticism. Like Roberts, I think it’s possible to treat other traditions of religious thought as “methodological resources for the study of religion and for cultural criticism (Roberts 2013: 20).” Of course, as he explains, such a normative project:
“departs from the modern academic ideal of disinterested inquiry. Instead, it involves disciplines of experimentation in which we reflect on what the lives of others have to teach us about ourselves, testing ourselves in terms of their beliefs and imperatives, practices and hopes (ibid).”
I’m looking at things with a different sort of “philosophical anthropology”, as Smith (following Paul Ricœur) calls it, to that of modernity. By “philosophical anthropology” Smith means “a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons— about the kinds of creatures we are (Smith 2009: 27).” I would want to think religious studies in such a way as to challenge some of the assumptions operative within the field, regarding what good research should look like. Thinking with religion in a postsecular frame entails responsiveness, a testing of ourselves, as Roberts says. This is a process whereby we try to find our own voice. Religious studies becomes a sort of moral inquiry, whereby we listen to the other, allow the other to impact us, challenge us, call into question the stories we tell ourselves. This is the kind of criticism Roberts considers the best sort, a form of experimentation in which we “work on ourselves” (Roberts 2013: 82). For Roberts, we have “much to learn from theology, and religion more generally, about questions of location, criticism, and power (Roberts 2013:17).” I agree. As viewed from within a postsecularist frame, traditions of religious thought can be approached as potential methodological and theoretical resources for critical thinking.
The sort of “self-blindness”, as Charles Taylor calls it— whereby it is treated as a given that the disinterested, scientific study of religion, is what constitutes good research— reveals the “confession”, or the formative narrative, of the secular academy.
Hélène Cixous once wrote of women coming to writing that:
“When the “repressed” of their culture and their society returns, it’s an explosive, utterly destructive, staggering return, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions (“The Laugh of the Medussa”, 886).”
I too am talking about a sort of return of the repressed, whose mouths have been gagged, their wind knocked out of them (p. 878) by what Tyler Roberts notes as the “normalizing consensus in the university, one tied up with broader cultural norms that favor technology, method, and quantification, as well as the “excellence” and “accountability” (Roberts 2013: 81).”
As religious scholars, we can find, in our day to day lives, something worth reflecting on. The question is: what tools does religious studies provide us for doing so? First of all, as Tyler Roberts suggests, we have to approach religious traditions a bit differently, as providing theoretical resources and conceptual tools. Even philosophers such as Bruno Latour (2013) and Gilles Deleuze (cf. Ramey 2012) recognized something transformative about belief, of religious thought, as having the potential to engender new lines of flight. What matters, for Latour and Deleuze, isn’t so much the object of belief, or whether or not it’s “true”, but its effect. “What matters in an idea,” Ramey tells us, on behalf of Deleuze, “is /…/ the range of experimental possibility it opens onto (Ramey 2012: 16-17).”
Talking about some forms of popular culture, in an interview with Angie Martinez on Power 105.1, hip-hop artist J. Cole recounts how:
“I don’t really watch much TV —I don’t really get the time to watch much TV— but if it’s on like I will catch myself, like “ohh”, like you know what I mean? Like “ohh”. But at the same time I recognize this is trash, this is corrupting people. And people thinking like, you know what I mean? They don’t even realize. They like, “oh it’s on TV, it’s just entertainment.” It’s like, ok… but where is the balance? Where’s the other ones? You know what I mean? What other shows do you watch, or do they— not even do you watch, because I don’t want to put it on you— what other shows do they show you…that can counter this? You know what I mean? Or is this all that you get? Is this the majority? It’s like the music. What other music can counter this right now (Martinez & Cole 2014)?”
In the same interview, Angie Martinez, in talking to J. Cole about his recent performance on David Letterman, remarks how powerful music can be when used in that way. J. Cole responded by pointing out that, “it’s even just as powerful when they don’t use it. It’s just the wrong type of power.” Angie asks Cole if that scares him. “Absolutely,” he says. “I’m sick”. We live from culture, as J. Cole expresses; yet some forms of culture can make us “sick”. We need a counter to this. Likewise, Lord Jamar, another member of the hip-hop community, when asked about Chief Keef’s prison sentence, and the gang culture associated with his music, comments:
“[A]ll that shit that’s going on /…/ there has to be that contrast. You see what I’m saying? If he represents that and all the wild shit that’s going on in Chicago, well I know damn well there’s youth that’s trying to counteract what’s going on in Chicago. But we’re not hearing people like that (Lord Jamar 2013).”
On Smith’s account, worship— much like the hip-hop that Lord Jamar refers to, as being able to counter act the gang culture of Chicago— can be understood as a form of counter-culture. Even the liturgical calendar, Smith tells us, “already constitutes a formative matrix that functions as counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture (Smith 2009: Kindle location 2655 of 5490).” Christianity, with its stories and practices, orients us towards an impossible future, pushes us beyond ourselves, beyond the present. It reinforces, in us, a sense of the world’s brokenness (ibid: Kindle location 2676), and makes us hopeful, impatient, for the end of the world as we know it. The Christian liturgy habituates a “waiting, a longing, hoping, calling, praying for /…/ the advent of justice, and the in-breaking of shalom (ibid: Kindle location 2666).”
This hope— that “thy kingdom come”— need not be equated with an overlooking of the present. Eschatology doesn’t necessarily mean complacency. Such a criticism has, of course, been made before— and for good reasons. But we can’t overlook the extent to which it has been this prayer, this restlessness— for the in-breaking of peace, for the coming of God’s kingdom— that has inspired persons, throughout history, to action. Indeed, as Smith expresses, it is a “presentist complacency” that the Christian liturgy seeks to shake us out of (ibid: Kindle location 2669). The real complacency comes, not from looking to the future, but from failing to do so.
And it’s not just worship— prayer too deserves more phenomenological consideration. As Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, explains, in a dialogue with Charles Taylor, the Hebrew word for prayer means “to judge yourself”. Prayer has more to do, Sacks tells us, “with openness to otherness”. Drawing on Iris Murdoch, he refers to it as “a sustained act of un-selfing (Sacks 2012).” It is “opening our eyes to wonder.” The French phenomenologist, Jean-Louis Chrétien refers to prayers as “dispossessing us of our egocentrism (Chrétien, quoted in Simmons & Benson 2013: Kindle location 1270).” Prayer is, for Chrétien a “wounded word”. In prayer are unhinged, opened up to the weight of the world.
We have to ask ourselves: are our practices, our habits, making us complacent? Have we isolated ourselves from the weight of the world, created our own little comfort zones? The television we watch, the parties we attend, the magazines we read… how are they shaping us? How are our practices organizing time? Are they pushing us beyond ourselves, enabling us to understand and feel what others are going through? Is our ignorance our bliss? Are we restless, for something more, for the end of the world as we know it? Or are we happy for it to continue as it is? These are questions worth asking ourselves.
Related to our daily habits is the question of responsibility, of what vision of human flourishing, what happiness or suffering, do our practices give rise to, or implicate us in.
There’s a moral impetus behind wanting to move beyond secularism. This has to do with the effects of secular culture, as a socially atomized culture, where the image of the “good life” is one of consumption, self-fulfillment. It’s the religion of “I”, the market’s the new god. Late capitalist, consumer culture isn’t— and I here paraphrase Žižek’s lighthearted way of putting it— just the eating of hamburgers. As Graham Ward expresses, in The Politics of Discipleship, the global city contains “a new class of somnambulist, surfeited by shopping and anesthetized with entertainment, cultivating their own lifestyles, and profoundly forgetful of civic responsibilities and the proliferating needs of the disadvantaged (Ward 2009: 220).”
It is exactly this that Ward sought to address in Cities of God. Here, Ward offers an in-depth analysis of the secular city, as the city of “endless desire” and “eternal aspiration”. Secular desire feeds, says Ward, like a vampire. “The babylon system is the vampire,” as Bob Marley once sung, “suckin’ the blood of the sufferers.” Indeed, secular desire “preys on others for its own satisfaction,” as Ward (2000: 77) says. He manages to bring out, in a lucid manner, the destructive impact of a socially atomized, secular culture, where superficiality— or what he, following Jean Baudrillard, refers to as the “simulacra effect” (Ward 2000: 54)— reigns. Culture imitates culture, endlessly. The new industries are, as Ward tells us:
“the leisure industries thriving in and fostering a culture of seduction, a culture of euphoric grasping of the present in order to forget the present, submerging in a wet dream or a massive surge of adrenaline (ibid: 68).”
However, whereas Smith prescribes, for our cultural sickness, the formative practices of Christianity, Alphonso Lingis also encourages us to travel, to venture outside of the familiar— to open ourselves up to what is other, what is strange— so that we may be shaken up, out of our complacency. “Lingis’s is a work,” David Farrell Krell tells us, “that gently encourages us to go farther, to head elsewhere, to take a risk (Krell 2003: Kindle location 608 of 4890).” For as Lingis explains, with regard to Levinas’ philosophy: the other is experienced as “a contestation of my appropriation of the world, as a disturbance in the play of the world, a break in its cohesion (Lingis 2008: xxix).” Lingis follows Levinas on this point—indeed, he goes further than him. So while Graham Ward’s point, regarding secular culture and the spectacle, remains valid, it must be remembered that the spectacle is not only, “a popular and social event that somehow overstimulates one or more of the senses,” as Krell makes clear:
It also stimulates one’s own beliefs and attitudes. Many spectacles invite or challenge one to a kind of transformation. This transformation, however, is full of uncertainty, surprise, and chance (Krell 2003: Kindle Locations 98-100).”
With Lingis, it becomes possible to think of another way of being unhinged, of opening ourselves up, out of our egos, and out of our worlds— namely, “travel”.
Terrence Mckenna, in Food of the Gods, reflects on the failure of anthropologists and other academics, to open themselves up to such experimentation, and first-hand reflection, referring to it as the “queasy illogic that overtakes the academic mentality in the presence of questions revolving around self-induced changes in consciousness (McKenna 1992: 109)”. Having moved beyond secularism, on what grounds are we to discourage experimental research, whereby persons investigate, first-hand, what McKenna calls “the Wholly Other rupture of the mundane plane (McKenna 1992: 61)”?
There are scholars who want to move beyond the “immanent frame” of this secular age, as Taylor calls it. They have come to contest the closing off of ourselves from transcendence. A purely immanent frame, to them, is, in the end, existentially unsatisfying. Questions such as “why are we here?” and “how are we to live?” are more satisfactorily answered when asked within a transcendent frame of reference. Religion won’t go away because it provides what a purely immanent frame cannot. So the move is to open ourselves up to something more.
I’d concede, up to a point. For me, a purely immanent frame is unsatisfying. However, while it can certainly be argued to be unsatisfying on existential grounds, I would want to do so on ontological ones. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas, I would want to rethink immanence as already participating in, and constituted by, transcendence. We have to admit to levels of reality that bleed off into infinity, into a darkness beyond the light of reason. Beyond the coherency of the world as we experience it, as illuminated by conscious grasp, there is darkness, mystery. There are levels of reality that transcend normal sense awareness. Even theoretical physicists today speak of deeper, subatomic levels, in terms of strangeness and paradox.
In Katherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible, she reconsiders Moses’ assent up the mountain, in light of what we know today, thanks to a new breed of physics, making any crude materialism or notion of separate, autonomous individuals impossible. The mystical move, up the mountain, isn’t a move away from the material universe; rather, it is immanent to it. “The physicists are the new mystics”, as James Oroc says. Reality is far stranger than we could ever imagine. The ascent up the mountain is a move away from the disenchanted, mechanical Newtonian universe, with its separate, machine like bodies. We emerge within this world, and it is in this world, atop the mountain, that we find a cloud of unknowing, something mysterious. Disenchantment was a betrayal of this world, rather than a clearer picture of it.
We find ourselves in God in our relations with others. It is in relation to the other that we are constituted, and it is this entanglement, this being-for the other, that we find something more, something transcendently immanent or immanently transcendent—something that exceeds our grasp, slips through the cracks in our schemes of things. Standing on the mountain, looking up at this cloud, our schemes of things break down. Totalizing discourses, stable identities, egocentrism—these things crumble. We realize we are one small part of an infinitely monstrous entanglement.
There’s always going to be that which exceeds conscious grasp. Despite what various “philosophers of the light” would have us think, about the autonomy of reason, for example, there’s always going to be a darkness, as Levinas reminds us— an otherness that can never be reduced to the same. Mystery won’t go away. Indeed, as persons such as Catherine Keller (2015) or Timothy Morton (2013) have shown, quantum physics seems to confirm this. “Right in the midst of the unsurpassed success of quantum calculations,” Keller tells us:
“physicists variously emit a language of apophatic affect: darkness, cloud, weirdness, impossibility, spookiness, mystery, unknowability. Indeed, as we shall see, the varieties of apophasis /…/ come into play: epistemic uncertainty, ontological indeterminacy, rational contradiction, repressive unspeakability, unknowable infinity (Keller 2015: 133).”
Knowledge is not, as Bruno Latour says, a matter of “double-click” communication. This idea, of “immediate and costless access, this conveyance that appears to demand no transformation,” has, Latour says, “itself become, for our contemporaries, the model of all possible communication, the ideal, the metric standard of all movement, the judge of all faithfulness, the guarantee of all truth (Latour 2013: 22).” There’s no truth without distortion, without translation. As a species, we occupy no privileged position among others; our knowledge doesn’t come from a place of transcendence, our view isn’t a view from nowhere. This is the point of phenomenology, as articulated by Merleau-Ponty— namely, that the world is always intended as such, against a meaningful backdrop, and as mediated by a bodily schema. What Latour is trying to do, in his book Rejoicing, is to undermine the view of science as distinguished from religion in its ability to access the truth. Persons tend to think of science as objective in the sense of it being a “double click” communication; but empirical science isn’t purely descriptive. There’s a performative dimension to it. Likewise, contrary to the religious fundamentalist, Latour is saying religion offers no immediate access to what Caputo calls “the secret”. This “double-click” assumption is common to both atheists and Christians alike.
So I want to rethink what it is to inhabit an immanent frame. It’s not to close ourselves off from transcendence, but to come to the realization that what we are learning, more and more each day, is how little we actually understand about the universe. The universe is a very strange place. Darkness is an apt metaphor, not only for those aspects of physical existence that remain a mystery to us, such as “dark energy” and dark matter”, but for the way in which reality remains irreducible to our scheme of things, to the light of reason. There’s always an excess beyond conscious grasp, a darkness that escapes us. Like Deleuze and Levinas— each in their own way— I think we can “break-through”, beyond the world as we have come to know it, in accordance with certain taken for granted presuppositions.
The problem with some “post-secularists” is that they read the Weberian narrative that traces secularization’s beginnings back to Judaism and Christianity as a good thing—as though religion is better off without magic, without enchantment. This is a postseculasism that remains bound to secular logic. The Jew who reads the prohibition against sorcery in such a way as to praise the disenchantment process, overlooks a whole component of his or her own tradition— namely, as it relates to Jewish magic and mysticism. Of course, they overlook it because they think Judaism is better off without it. But this betrays the secular-rationalist, enlightenment logic with which they are operating.
The idea of the infinite is, as Joshua Ramey says, “a limit of sensation or cognition, /…/ a force that disrupts the faculties, defies categories, and destroys the framework of representation (ibid: Kindle location 252).” Deleuze, Ramey explains, “challenged to construe that which cannot be comprehended (Ramey 2012: Kindle location 256).” And Levinas’ Otherwise than Being, Graham Harman explains, “is an attempt to escape the world, to allow for extraworldly communication between different segments of reality (Harman 2012: para. 19).” This idea of escape, of exodus out of the world as we know it, is something that interests me. Exit secular reason, exit secular culture.
Deleuze, above all others, in the whole western philosophical tradition, I think, knew the value of occult philosophy and practice (cf. Ramey 2012). For here we had a genuinely experimental tradition of philosophy, of persons willing to test the body, to open themselves up to new “lines of flight”.
For Deleuze, philosophy was supposed to be something productive, something that can generate new ways of thinking. And it is for this reason that he says, in What is Philosophy? that “[to] think is always to follow the witch’s flight.” The immanent plane presents us with a challenge insofar as life is, in a certain sense, unthinkable. Life, in all its potentiality and vitality, exceeds conceptual thinking. Lingis, in his book The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, speaks of what he calls the “rational community”. This is the sort of community where persons share in common a language, laws, norms, contractual agreements, and where they work on common projects, towards common goals. We give form to the forces of life, as Lingis says in Sensation, and we get the forms from others. We try to make sense of life, we order it according to rational systems, concepts and norms. Now, for Deleuze— and Lingis is himself very inspired by Deleuze’s work— that is not it. There is excess, beyond the rational community. Lingis, in his travels— to the far reaches of the globe, to those places global tourism wants to know nothing of— finds what he has referred to as “the limit situation”.
“Our most important conversations,” Lingis tells us in Dangerous Emotions, “are with prostitutes, criminals, gravediggers. We seek to be freed from the carapace of ourselves.” At the limit situation, at the outer-zone, one is able to experience a different kind of humanity, a different kind of contact, beneath the contractual community. This is what Lingis refers to as the other community, the community of those who share nothing in common. Here Lingis finds real communication, beyond common language. Here he finds real trust, between two persons who share nothing in common. Here Lingis finds lust, violations, and splendour. Here Lingis finds “lines of flight”. Here he is able to explore the plane of immanence in new ways, test the body, experience life anew. And this is only possible, both Deleuze and Lingis teach us, by taking risks. Indeed, Lingis has wrote before that Deleuze’s own suicide by defenestration, by hurling himself out of his window, can teach us something about the philosophical method. To philosophize in the way Deleuze calls for, Lingis says, is to throw one’s self into the world, into the limit situation. It is to take risks, to test one’s self. It is to philosophize with bloodshot eyes. In a sense, Lingis does what Deleuze did not. For Lingis throws himself into the world in a way Deleuze never did. Lingis’ philosophical method is one of “travel”. (And isn’t this something that the witch, the psychonaut, and the shaman is already doing?)
The immanent plane is so much more than what the rational community makes of it. There is so much more to the world, to the body, than as it has come to be “territorialized” to be, within the contractual society. Deleuze explains, in What is Philosophy?:
“Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable, rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes, esoteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess. We head for the horizon, on the plane of immanence, and we return with bloodshot eyes, yet they are the eyes of the mind. Even Descartes had his dream.”
So this idea, of an outside, of an excess, far beyond the world as we experience it within the rational community, as “territorialized” by it; and of the possibility of “deterritorialization”, of the in-breaking of otherness, of the shattering of the horizon, and of a thinking with bloodshot eyes, is, for me, an important one. That there is an outside opens up space, in philosophy, in religious studies, for speculation, for experimentation. It is, for me, reason enough to want to embark on an unorthodox sort of “philosophical autoethnography”.
I want to explore different ways of “mapping” the body’s— my body’s— immersion in other, strange, environments; different ways of sharing the subject matter of my experiences. Like Lingis, I want to map reality otherwise, having opened myself up to it otherwise (cf. Casey 2003). Religious concepts and art (music, drawings, and poetry, for example) are some of the tools with which I can map my own bodily immersions, and reflect philosophically from them.
Bibliography (haven’t got around to this yet! Sorry)
Were you horrified by the dog meat festival in China? Why? Why does the thought of eating a dog seem so sick to you? Maybe it’s because you have a dog; over time you’ve come to realize that each dog has its own personality, its own life. You’ve come to realize that dogs, like us, want to live happy lives and avoid pain. I agree. But I also know that cows, pigs, and chickens all want the same. No animal with a nervous system wants to feel pain. No animal wants to be denied its needs. Yet this happens everyday in the factory farms where your meat comes from.
So yea, the thought of those dogs being killed made me feel sick, just like you. But so does the thought of a chick’s beak being removed with a hot knife; so does the thought of pigs squealing in fear as they are about to be killed; so does the though of a cow’s distress as her calf is taken from her. We do what is going to be done to dogs in China on a mass and more brutal level, every single day. So why don’t we sign a petition to end factory farming too?
In our culture, it’s ok to kill and eat cows, but not dogs. But to think it’s wrong simply because dogs are our pets and cows are not overlooks the real reason: namely, we are denying the needs of, inflicting pain on, and ultimately killing another animal. It gets dangerous when our sense of right and wrong operates within the framework of a distinction between the lives we recognize vs. the ones we don’t. The Nazi’s sense of the wrongness of murder didn’t extend to the Jew. The slave master’s didn’t extend to the slave. Today, our sense of the wrongness of murdering a non-human animal doesn’t extend to cows and pigs.
But here’s the other thing, to make such a big deal about the dog festival, as people did, without criticizing our own awful treatment and murder of animals in factory farms every day is racist. It is to other China as the “bad guy”, based on little more than the fact that in our culture dogs are off limits. But we are equally as cruel in our treatment of non-dog animals. Stop using China as the target to distract yourself from what your own countries are guilty of.
It may be easy to understand why it seems so abhorrent when it’s dogs being skinned alive (this happens in fur farms, which our western countries allow) or boiled alive (chickens and pigs are often not fully killed before they are subjected to the next stages of the meat production process such as boiling for the chickens to rid them of the feathers). But we can’t base our ethics on that. As you said, some people have the same relationship with horses. And there are those who have the same with cows and chickens and pigs.
When it comes to the rights of humans to live fulfilled lives, to not be subjected to abuse, and to not be murdered, we are often absolutist in our stance. We say no human, no matter what the colour of their skin, no matter where they come from, etc. should suffer such. And we are horrified when we hear about the racist, for example, who believes such rights belong only to those of a certain skin colour. The problem is not, we say, white suffering, but HUMAN SUFFERING. Now the definition of speciesism is that we do the same thing the racist does, but with regard to those of another species. We say this right, to live a fulfilled life, only belongs to those of a certain species.
This was a good article. For me though, certain acts of dehumanization also reveal something else that comes very natural to us: the de-subjectifying of other creatures. Even the word we use, “de-HUMANIZE” contains the trace of an anthropocentrism that comes so naturally to us, and which causes so much suffering in the world. I mean, the de-humanizers often refer, as Smith points out, to those they de-humanize as animals: beasts, snakes, etc.
For Smith, “We dehumanise other people when we conceive of them as subhuman creatures.” But I want to ask, what of those creatures? What of the problem here that is that we de-subjectify (in the sense of taking a life-world away from) other non-human animals. Some people have a really hard time conceiving of the non-human animals they capture and kill as having a life that is their own, that is lived, felt, and that matters. And we know they do. Subjectivity isn’t something human, neither is meaning (in a way, this is what bio-semiotics is all about).
So what do we do about this? How do we combat our tendency to dehumanize the other, or de-subjectify the non-human other? For me it’s more so the question: “how do we foster a certain kind of openness?” Levinas has the idea of the Other as she who can weigh down on me, contest my horizon. There’s the othering of an other that is de-humanizing, or de-subjectifying, like what the US does with those whom they bomb, or what the factory farmers do with those whom they torture and kill. But the antidote to this othering, it seems to me, cannot be a reduction of the other to the same– to say they have rights because they are just like us. Why does our ethics have to operate within the confines of the same? And we know that amongst other humans, this sort of “ethics” oftentimes plays out as racist: we start to humanize them the more they begin to integrate into our culture, the more they begin to look like us, etc.
This is not what we need. For Levinas, what is needed in order to combat this kind of othering is (paradoxically?) an openness to the other as Other. Both the dehumanizing act of othering and the vulgar ethics spoken of above share a common feature: they essentialize in a dangerous way. The former essentializes in their reduction of the other to the subhuman, as Smith says; and the latter essentializes in their reduction of the other to the same. The question then is, for me, how do we foster an openness to the other as Other, as unique, as a subject with their own life-world, their own history and experiences, their own struggles.
Philosophers like Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Alphonso Lingis all have this idea of true community, true communitarianism, as being possible only within a community that shares nothing in common– that is, a community that doesn’t other others in a dehumanizing way, but which doesn’t predicate that communitarianism on shared qualities either.
The question is how to foster such an openness to others as Other? Religion can do this for some people, but it can also do the opposite for others.
So often when I see people criticizing Christianity or Islam in relation to certain statements in the bible or the qur’an, I can’t help but feel they suffer a sort of shortsightedness.
A lot of people have a problem with the way some persons read the bible/qur’an and practice christianity/islam. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into a critique of Christianity or Islam, or religion in general.
There is, empirically speaking, no such thing as Christianity or Islam, in the sense many assume. It’s ironic that the ones critiquing Christianity oftentimes share the same belief as many Christians, in an essence of Christianity. There are Christianities and Islams. Religion is something that is done, in diverse ways across time and space. The question isn’t “what is Christianity?”, but “how was/is it done in a certain context?”
And here’s where a lot of the critiques are shortsighted: one’s experience of Christianity or Islam, say where the bible or qur’an is taught as the verbatim word of god to be conformed to, is not the only way of teaching and doing Christianity or Islam. True, this is the way these religions are performed by many; but we can’t overlook the fact that, as a text, the bible or the qur’an is what it is as it is read by Christians or Muslims.
People have to stop essentialzing Islam or Christianity, or Muslims and Christians. This just perpetuates discrimination. Islamophobia is a problem in the West today.
Believers continue to develop new attitudes towards their religious texts– and secularists need to mature and gain new attitudes towards them too.
When Christians enroll in theological seminary what do you think they are taught in old and new testament studies? They are taught the various forms of criticism that analyse the bible as a text, written by human beings living in a particular historical and sociocultural context (and this is not incompatible with the idea of divine revelation, it just entails a more nuanced understanding of it).
Also, to treat Christianity as though all Christians believe a snake literally talked once, or think there’s nothing wrong with the story of a god who orders the mass slaughter of another people, or that the story of women’s origin as coming from the rib of man is a contender with evolutionary biology, is shortsighted. Christianity is global and diverse. Many Christians today have no problem calling the bible out where it needs to be called out.
And it’s not just Christians. There is a growing body of modern Islamic scholars who are bi-lingual and “bi-educated” in Arabic and English/French and Islamic and Western philosophy. Hasan Hanafi and Mohammed Arkoun, for example, were both educated at the Sorbonne, and both were Muslim intellectuals. Nasr Abu Zayd developed what he called a “humanist hermeneutics” of the qur’an, where he analysed the text in relation to its historical and sociocultural context and criticized certain passages. And these are just intellectuals. But many of them, such as those associated with the post-traditionalists in Indonesia, are public intellectuals. They have a following. And then there’s queer Muslims, for example. Remember, islam is done by Muslims. It isn’t a platonic form floating around somewhere.
I was recently as a religious studies conference and was talking to a scholar who made a good point: a lot of secularists are, quite frankly, religiously illiterate. We suffer a lack of information about religions. Too often persons are unable to develop a sense of the diversity among persons who identify as Christian or Muslim. Persons just label them and assume certain essential characteristics.