Sauf Le Nom: A Postmodern Intervention for Heretics and Addicts of Orthodoxy (Part 1 of 3)

“I am following the traces of a well-known rogue, a famous outlaw who was turned into the Law itself by palace theologians, even though my guess is that he would have made them blush with shame, thrown them into rage, had they met him in the flesh, in his flesh. They say his flesh was assumed by an Über-Being come down to earth for a bit of heavenly business on earth, but I can imagine what they would have called him had they met him in the flesh—a ‘homosexual,’ out to destroy ‘family values,’ a flag-burner, a libertine, a ‘socialist,’ out to raise our taxes—in short, a ‘curse and an affliction upon the church.’ So I gladly take my stand with the outlaw and ask what theology would look like were it written by the outlaws, the outliers, the out of power, the troublemakers, the poor, the rogues.”
—John D. Caputo[1]

Theology has a dirty, dirty history, and no, it is not simply “justified by the blood of Jesus” in such a manner that we can just brush it off. Here, I am not only talking about the Crusades or the Holocaust; in addition, I am speaking of every instance of violence that the privileged nature of orthodoxy has inspired—Emperor Constantine’s mobilization of an army against the Donatists, Nicholas of Myra’s assault on Arius (despite his subsequent deposition, an action which the orthodox later justified), the massive killings between Protestants and Catholics circa the Reformation, the parental abandonment of LGBTQIA[2] kids and teens in America, and some Protestant tendencies to equate “the Gospel” to heresy-hunting.

In lieu of expounding ad infinitum upon these instances of violence and neglect, I think there is a more fundamental problem that has gone unnoticed except by thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche who articulated the problem in writing “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers!”[3] But, contrary to mainstream understanding, this problem is not one of theism, exclusively; rather, it is a problem of privileged metaphysical claims, which even atheists[4] can make in their polemics.

Here I am drawing a rough outline for an “edifying theology,” drawing from Richard Rorty’s distinction between systematic and edifying philosopher. Systematic theology is thus a sort of system-building theology, whereas edifying theology is entirely deconstructive and reactive to systematic theology. As Nietzsche puts it, it is “a ‘Nay’ uttered against everything that [is] tinctured with the blood of priests and theologians.”[5]

 “But Rorty Is An Atheist…”

            After reading and discussing the text, one may be left wondering where theology fits into Rorty’s vision. Central to his claim is rejection of the idea of privileged representations and, since theology, like philosophy, makes claims of privileged representation, it is easy to see how a reader might deduce that Rorty dismisses theology as a legitimate pursuit altogether. Or, a Christian might make the non-sequitur accusation that if a philosopher is an atheist, then their theories “directly threaten the truths of the faith.”[6] On the contrary, I contend that theology can fit snugly into Rorty’s pragmatic view—it merely requires a rearticulation of theology.

Rorty accuses intellectuals circa the Enlightenment of substituting philosophy for religion, essentially to play the same role as religion in terms of providing a grounding on which one could explain and justify one’s own intellectual activity.[7] In this sense, Rorty’s critique is for theological disciplines as much it is for philosophy. Rorty writes immediately in the introduction, “Philosophy as a discipline thus sees itself as the attempt to underwrite or debunk claims to knowledge made by science, morality, art, or religion. It purports to do this on the basis of its special understanding of the nature of knowledge and of mind.”[8] Orthodox theology as well is guilty of perceiving itself as supreme overlord of all theological discourse when it really has no legitimate grounding to substantiate such a privilege.

To be clear, I am not arguing against specific doctrines (like trinitarianism or the hypostatic union), but more so critiquing what I have seen as the orthopraxis and pedagogy of orthodoxy because of its self-awarded privileging, which may incidentally have implications to some of the doctrines themselves. We seem to be under the impression that the winners of the ongoing battles over orthodoxy were kind yet cursed, prevailers yet persecuted, benevolent yet beaten—which in many cases they were. Other times, these winners, the orthodox, were repeating the same heinous acts that dissenters (e.g. certain Jewish sects, the Roman Empire, and pagan groups) committed on them and their predecessors by virtue of its own hegemonic locus—shutting off the dialogue between parties and viewing itself as an impervious, superior structure, beleaguering and stifling the “heretics.”

Thus, I propose that we view orthodoxy not as a set of beliefs that is the most accurate representation of reality, but instead as entering a narrative conversation—the orthodox must recognize and embrace the idea that “getting the facts right…is merely propaedeutic to finding a new and more interesting way of expressing ourselves, and thus coping with the world.”[9] In other words, a search for a representative system of reality whereby the propositions are coherent and “accurate”—the endeavor of privileged system-building in orthodoxy—serves as a preliminary instruction to further study. Therefore, orthodoxy is the result of successful normal discourse. In this way, it remains open to the edification of the radical theologians, like Friedrich Nietzsche, John Caputo, and Gianni Vattimo who seek to deconstruct such systems, but often accompanied with a cynosure.

[You can read the next installment here]

[1] John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013), 25-26.

[2] LGBTQIA is an acronym representing Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgendered individuals, genderQueer/Queer/Questioning people, Intersex individuals, and Asexuals, but my intended function is to include any non-heterosexual and any non-cisgendered individual and recognize their existence and decry the marginalization and oppression of said individuals (which include myself).

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science. Ed. Bernard Arthur Owen. Williams. Trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 120.

[4] See, for examples of arguments from nu-atheism: Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), or Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2008).

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity Trans. Anthony M. Ludovici. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2006), 28.

[6] Joseph C. Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith: Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology Of Liberation”, Vatican, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013.

[7] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 4.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 359.


Posted on January 25, 2014, in Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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