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The Gift, Christ(mas), and the Claus(e) of Prohibition: Re-membering the Divine Economy of Mary and her Infant King

Forewarning: I do not intend to use this post to propagate some sort of worthless “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Let’s end the war on Christmas” folly. This is a hermeneutical discourse on the internal paradoxes of the language employed around this holiday and how they present an ethical aporia for, most of all, Christians.

Jesus was born in a feeding trough. What that means is that pigs ate from it. Jesus’s newborn, fragile body was birthed and first laid in a structure made for pig food…as the story goes.

Whether you interpret the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives as literal or symbolic, the symbolic point of reference here is the beginnings of Jesus in poverty. The historical man who came to be propped up as the very incarnation of God in flesh–he dwelt among the lowest and basest of created things. Furthermore, he lived his life touching lepers and hanging out with prostitutes, teaching unconditional love and giving.

That’s right. Jesus taught unconditional love. This means that the Gift, when unconditional, is given without expect of return or reward. There was no prohibition given by Jesus in terms of the Gift. No exception. This is the divine economy: to give on the basis of love for the other alone–worthy in his/her own being as such–without any exceptions or conditions. An impossible and difficult thing to do, but something to be strived for anyway.

Christmas has been proclaimed to be, by many Evangelical Christians, a season for honoring and remembering the humbly-born Christ. But they quickly forget that this humble Christ taught us to practice a divine economy. They claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but they do not celebrate the radical generosity he taught. Sure, they will give nice gifts to family and friends. But only on this occasion, and it is no Evangelical imperative that one should make a regular effort to give gifts of sustenance to the poor.

Evangelicals may claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but it would seem that they believe more strongly in a Santa-figure (as representative of the Divine). Santa’s economy can be summed up by the following lyric: He’s making a list and checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. 

Santa’s economy is one of prohibition. Santa’s gift is not unconditional but depends upon whether one obeys the prohibitions given by the Big Other. But Christ’s God, unlike the Big Other, does not give this way. Rather, Christ’s God makes the same rain fall and the same sun shine on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mat. 5:45). Evangelicals tend to see God as the Big Other, rewarding and punishing according to proper faith or deeds.

But this is not what Christ taught. If Evangelicals want to truly proclaim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the solution is not billboards or media annoyance. Rather, they ought to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus and the divine economy he taught. For to remember Christ is to re-member the divine economy that has been broken and obscured by Christendom.

(Then again, when did you ever get coals in your stocking when you were bad? We all know the big secret: Santa doesn’t actually follow his own rules…he gives unconditionally to all. He just says those things to get you to be nice to your brothers and sisters!)

Saint Paul and the Donation of Being: The Body of Christ as Holistic Interbeing

“Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it’s caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But, because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.”

 

“We must therefore rediscover, after the natural world, the social world, not as an object or sum of objects, but as a permanent field or dimension of existence.”

 

-Maurice Merleau-Ponty

 

Continental philosophers of religion from Marion to Caputo to Zizek have frequently recognized and praised Saint Paul for his subversive discourse on being and nonbeing in his first canonical letter to Corinth: “God has chosen the lowly things of this world and the despised things—the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.” For Paul this is the direct consequence of his faith being grounded upon nothing but “Christ crucified.”

In my previous post I argued that Christ, in his self-emptying as a human being (especially in his crucifixion in Golgotha), makes himself an open space between being where the divine and human can come together. This happens when he abandons his own identity and self-enclosure in order to unconditionally embrace the other—the human outside cultural and tribal systems—thus bringing forth a new holistic form of Being in differentiated unity. This new unity becomes the actualization of the divine in human life. In this way he becomes fully human and fully divine, inviting everyone else to do the same through participation in crucifixion—“take up your cross”.

So Paul, building off of this scandalous truth, wanted to argue that God in Christ had changed up the worldly game of being by undermining its order through the cross. All those outside of tribal and cultural boundaries had been stripped of identity (especially lepers). Culturally this meant that they were abandoned to the realm of nonbeing. But “in Christ,” such persons could gain a new, universal identity as the very dwelling place of the divine by virtue of simply being human. Paul embraces this new kind of identity, recognizing that because it is apart from all exclusive and tribal systems, these persons “in Christ” would be regarded as “the trash of the world” by those on the side of worldly being.

This serves as the ground for what Paul calls “the body of Christ,” something that the aforementioned philosophers have failed to grasp in unity with Paul’s undermining of the worldly order of being.

The Body of Christ is the new body that appears in resurrection after the old body of the crucified one dies. In this new body, no one’s body is meant to exist in isolation. When I enter, I donate my own being and no longer possess myself. When I use the term “donation,” I am not only hearkening back to Jean-Luc Marion’s language of the Gift—an unconditional giving with no return expected—but I am thinking of the very carnal reality of organ donation. If I donate my organ to a dying patient, I lose part of my life that they may gain their own life. In a similar way, when I donate my being to the Body of Christ—a holistic community of differentiated beings in mutual support—I give something unconditionally for the life of the other. Christ, on the cross, donates his entire being. But resurrection means that all benefit. All members of the Body donate their own being, and as a result, all gain life-support. It is a double-experience of crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus said that anyone who loses her life for the sake of Christ will find it, but anyone who holds onto it will lose it. Christ is the new holistic reality wherein the Body of Christ emerges. Everyone loses so that everyone gains.

Ecosystems are a good picture of this. In an ecosystem, every individual part exists in unity with the other parts through the mutual exchange of energy. This exchange of energy empowers each organism to thrive, and any organism outside of an ecosystem will die.

The Body of Christ, for Paul, is a divine-human ecosystem. The whole of the ecosystem is the “divine” dimension, and the individual parts are the “human” or “animal” dimension. The two dimensions are inseparable as are all the individual parts. Just as in an ecosystem the individual being of an organism is not lost in unity but supported by it, in the Body of Christ, each being—each body—is a “whole within a whole,” a unique and differentiated individual in unity with others, supported by them and supporting them. Paul says that we retain our individuality in the Body—analogized as hands, feet, tongue, eye—working together for each other’s good. He says that if one member suffers, all members suffer. This holistic unity involves the emergence of new Being from the coming together of individual beings as a fuller realization of the divine, for “God is love” as the Johannine proclamation affirms.

This unity is one of love, not forced conformity. It is a unity that upholds and supports differentiation. It is a unity achieved by the crucifixion of tribal identity for the realization of a universal identity as simultaneously creaturely and divine.

To be concise, the new identity that arises is individual membership in an emerging universality of creaturely unity toward the deepening of the “divine” dimension of life itself, every individual creature a “temple” or “body” of the divine.

This crucifixion involves the mutual donation of being for the very purpose of the flourishing of each being together toward new and fuller Being. Even as this new Being/Body is upheld and supported by individual beings/bodies, it strengthens and divinizes each individual body and being.

Thus, the Body of Christ is a new form of interbeing as natural and original as an ecosystem but as novel as each new page in the ongoing book of evolution.

Micro-Reviews #4: Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank’s “The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?”

Overall Rating: 8/10

I must begin this review by noting that The Monstrosity of Christ is not for the faint-of-heart. This dense tome expects considerable prior experience across the spectrum of both philosophy and theology, specifically: German Idealism (Kant, Schelling, and Hegel), Lacanian psychoanalysis, Christian mysticism (Eckhart and Cusa), Catholic orthodoxy (Chesterton), neo-realism (Badiou and Deleuze), and deconstruction (Caputo); not to mention comfort with a wide variety of cultural references derived from literature, film, and theater. Nonetheless, for those who traverse this difficult way, the rewards are valuable.

This book is formatted as a philosophically/theologically literate counter to “the popularized atheist/theist point/counterpoint of books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others” (from book jacket). Here Žižek, proposing a dialectical-materialist/radically-protestant/Hegelian/Atheist reading of Christianity, contends with Milbank, representing Catholic orthodoxy. Yet, these simple designations pale in comparison to the rich conceptions of Christianity which emerge from these two thinkers. Unfortunately, the density of this text, partnered with both Žižek and Milbank’s tendency toward the tangential, makes a systematic analysis exceptionally difficult. Instead, I will merely attempt to discuss the fundamental disagreement at the core of this dialogue, the nature of contradiction: dialectic or paradox.

Žižek, through his proposal of a Hegelian reading of Christianity, attempts to overcome its internal tensions (God/Christ, God/world, infinite/finite, concrete/universal) through the use of the Hegelian dialectic. In the Hegelian perspective, the question of Christ is posited in the terms of negation and overcoming; God (universal) is overcome by Christ (concrete), who himself is overcome on the cross and succeeded by the Spirit (Synthesis). In this sense, the tensions of Christianity may be understood simply as temporal/perspectival tensions. In true Hegelian fashion, this dialectical model of Christianity can be seen as operative on multiple levels of existence, not simply the theological, but also the historical. Here, Žižek attempts to model a dialectical motion, analogous to the prior, within Christian ecclesiological structures, specifically: Orthodoxy-Catholicism-Protestantism. This model is highly problematic, as Milbank is sure to point out, for the simple reason that it does not accurately fit the historical stage: simply put, both orthodoxy and Catholicism are still alive and kicking. Instead, this pro-protestant bias (i.e. the positing of protestantism as the end/goal of both orthodoxy and Catholicism) simply reveals Žižek’s own protestant influences, which, to his credit, he does not deny.

In response to Žižek’s perspective, Milbank offers a resolution of Christianity’s tensions through the concept of paradox. Drawing heavily upon Nicholas of Cusa’s “coincidence of opposites” or “coincidence of contradictories,” Milbank argues that the Christological/trinitarian difficulties of Christianity cannot be overcome by dialectical negation, but instead that these contradictory realities must be held in tension, in paradox. Driving towards a notion of “Christian love” which unites contradictions without destroying or negating either, Milbank writes, “the authentic love between two is never an exclusive love, but an encountering or generating ecstasy beyond duality and beyond what is dialectically at play between two poles,” or more directly, “I am trying to suggest how Christian Trinitarian logic has a mediating structure which is not dialectical” (p.145). Furthermore, Milbank argues that this paradoxical union of contradictory material is not relegated to the spiritual or supernatural, but instead, that paradox frames even the most banal of human experiences. In this sense, Milbank reformulates the “spiritualized” Catholic world-view within the language of paradox, placing himself in start distinction to the modern positivistic conceptions of reality.

For those who are seeking a transparent analysis, a clearly demarcated field, or well-defined conclusions, this work may appear as a schizophrenic nightmare. But for those who are interested in an interdisciplinary engagement with the principal questions of Christianity, theism, and atheism, this work provides an opportunity to view two masters of continental philosophy/theology debate the issues respectfully, but with no punches withheld.