I want to put forth the argument here that the Christian cross, understood radically, constitutes a strange and unusual offense. This offense is not merely an offense to a particular culture or subculture of humanity. The offense is offensive to culture as such, reflected in the image of a naked body on a naked cross on Golgotha (or ‘place of the skull’), a place symbolically naked of all cultural identities, marking the radical apriority of the nakedness of being anterior to the entire socio-cultural technology of human existence. That naked cross and naked crucifixion as an abyss of human meaning and fullness of darkness paradoxically signifies the nonbeing that haunts the being of God—a nonbeing that is the difference always-already within the life of God, and a Life whose structure is the trinitarian ground of being. Thus the trinitarian God appears in the cross as the primordial One (1) whose Life is always-already a Multiplicity (2) in Excess (3) of itself (to use Badiou’s terminology). Hence the structuring of God as a One whose eternal self-emptying is a multiplicity always in excess of itself constitutes a more deeply abstract and ontological elucidation of the trinitarian technology of divine spirit. I will return to this trinitarian structuring shortly, but first I want to elaborate this offense of the cross where it appears 2,000 years ago as well as where it appears now.
II. The Gospel of Christ-Crucified
Saint Paul sought to preach ‘nothing but Christ crucified’—strange terminology for what he called his ‘gospel’ or ‘good news.’ What is so good about God’s divine and messianic representative being crucified? Yet for Paul, the crucifixion of Christ is absolutely imperative for any positive meaning to resurrection (but not in the sense of dialectical necessity, for conversely, it images the very anti-dialectical foundation of what is called ‘grace’). For Paul, as noted above, the cross was the place where every former identity perishes—the entire self and ego. A new identity is born ‘in Christ,’ where one is now self-identified as a member of the ‘body of Christ,’ which is the incarnate body of God that appears as an abyss to every contingent meaning. One (as both oneself and Primordial One) is self-realized in the incarnate body of God when the divisive illusions of culture are thrown off, which is how Paul images Christ as the naked divine hanging from a cross—a cross which the Gospel traditions place on Golgotha, bordering the valley of Hinnom (translated by modern Bibles as ‘hell’) where—in Jewish consciousness—human identity is placed under a Curse and forgotten. For Paul, Christ enters this darkness of forgotten-ness, abandonment, oppression, and erasure in order to open up a new subjectivity indistinguishable from the naked spirit of God itself manifest in humanity. Thus Paul’s offense is the naked immediacy of God in its unconditional access to all beings (and, in Paul’s radical terminology, nonbeings!), an immediacy constituted by the radical self-abandonment and self-emptying (kenosis) of God in the absolute self-outpouring of divine spirit into the world.
III. A Stumbling Block and Broken Word
This offense offended both Jews and Greeks, which in Paul’s cultural consciousness are symbols for the religious and the philosophers. The religious are offended because they look for signs and wonders—magic and power—traumatically encountering in the cruciform image of God an impotent and defeated God unable to intervene to rescue us from existential vicissitude. The philosophers are offended because they seek wisdom, and a wisdom that can center all existence in an unbroken (and thus un-crucified) Absolute whose Oneness remains intact and whose static Logos maintains harmony and balance in the world. But Paul’s God is the crucified One whose divine elements are scattered and emptied throughout existence, a divine multiplicity always-already in excess of itself, always-already exceeding every identity and rule with novelty and evolution. New things are perpetually conceived and born from the divine Womb, which is why Paul loves baptism. For Paul, this image of new birth is what the cross is actually about, where Resurrection—as a surprising, unconditional, and graceful appearing—is the novel creation that arises from the floodwaters of catastrophic history and spaces of nonbeing, opening new worlds through the naked divine itself that trickles through open cracks and continually forms new essences.
IV. The Trinitarian Ground of Being
Here I return to the trinitarian ground of being as the orthodox symbol that harbors a secret heterodoxy against the omnipotent One who reigns atop the hierarchy of Orthodoxy. The radically trinitarian God—understood as the Primordial Being who is simultaneously Multiple and One—is structurally the same as Paul’s crucified God. That is, Paul’s crucified God is the crucified One whose kenosis splits it into 2, then 3, ad infinitum. In the trinitarian hermeneutic, Father [or Mother] is Primordial Being. The second element, Son [or Daughter], signifies the doubling of the divine One through incarnation (spirit<–(-/+)–>flesh/matter). The third element, Holy Spirit, is the Multiple that dynamically exceeds all static identities by always exceeding what was via ongoing evolutive novelty.
V. The Naked Offense
Unfortunately, today’s most deeply conservative philosophical theologians—entrenched in a Calvinism that continues to dominate a large portion of American religion—still define the offense of the cross according to the cross’s mediation of the disapproval and condemnation of sin by a ‘Big Other,’ which in psychoanalytic terminology means the authoritarian phantom of cultural ideology that remains in the aftermath of childhood parenting (and more specifically, distorted family systems). Such theologians claim that the cross is the place where a controlling Father (dwelling in a separate abode of existence) murders His innocent Son so as to both testify and satisfy his Wrath against us, boldly proclaiming that the logical and ethical paradoxes inherent in this image constitute the true scandal and offense of the cross. Is it possible that the offense is on them—a nonjudgmental offense that simply unveils their inability or unwillingness to accept the cross in its absolute nakedness, darkness, and trauma? Or more specifically, is their authoritarian monotheism offended by an unpolished cross where the transcendent One of judgment and imperial legitimation unexpectedly transfigures into a broken Absolute, and a broken One whose divine elements are incarnately spilled and disseminated in the birthing of new Life? Such an evolutive portrait of reality, structured by a trinitarian and kenotic ground, cannot legitimate a static view of existence or life. Rather the dynamic paradigm of trinitarian and evolutive divinity suggests that any good posture toward Life is one of openness and self-transformation. The good news—as seen in the cross and its evolutive outpouring of Life—is that the naked event of new birth remains a possibility within our grasp yesterday, today, and tomorrow, constitutive of an Unconditioned Real that cannot be cornered, owned, or defeated, always luring things forward into creative self-transcendence without end. Consequently, the naked offense neither caters to the image of Christ as merely an apocalyptic prophet nor a traditional mystic/sage. Rather this Christ proclaims an immediate and eternal apocalypse that perpetually contaminates all Presence, destabilizing and exceeding every order that it births through its own chaordic ground of eternal flux and creativity.
In The Fragile Absolute (Chapter 9 The Structure and Its Event), Žižek writes:
Is not the status of this Event itself (the mythical narrative of the primordial violent founding gesture) ultimately fantasmatic; is it not a fantasy-construction destined to account for the unaccountable (the origins of the Order) by concealing, rendering invisible, the Real of the structural antagonism (deadlock, impossibility) that prevents the structural synchronous Order from achieving its balance? In short, is not the Event of the primordial crime secondary, a retroactive ‘projection’ destined to translate/transpose the synchronous antagonism/deadlock into the diachronous narrative succession? (92-93)
I wonder if this analysis of the projection of structural dissonance into a primordial diachronic narrative might be transposed onto radical theology of the Altizer-ian vein. For, is this not precisely how the transition from “Revealed Religion” to “Absolute Knowing” in Hegel’s phenomenology plays out? What appears, under the guise of revealed religion, as a mere mythical temporal sequence (the incarnation and death of God), becomes recognized, within Absolute knowing, as mere “picture-thinking” (Verstellung). This picture-think or diachronous narrative is revealed, at the end of the day, to be a transposition of the deep, one might even say “structural,” truth of Absolute Knowing; revealed religion becomes recognized as a narrative construction built upon the more essential truth of philosophical science–certainly valuable in its own right, but nonetheless derivative or secondary.
Should the more literal-minded interpretations of radical theology, therefore, be situated within the broader context of a structural death of God? Rather than constituting a historical/narrative account, should the movement of the death of God be understood as the diachronous presentation of a primordially synchronous reality, viz. the paradox of the transcendence/immanence of God, the paradox of the presence/absence of God? Perhaps, this account could be taken even further, for John Caputo’s critique of Altizer amounts, substantially, to an accusation that Altizer is too “modern” (insufficiently postmodern), that Altizer has merely substituted one metanarrative with yet another metanarrative, rather than challenging metanarrativity as such. It is possible that such an accusation might be framed in this Žižekian language. Perhaps, even, although Žižek firmly places himself in the Altizer-ian camp and against the postmodernism of Caputo (in The Monstrosity of Christ), that the two thinkers are more closely aligned on this question than either might wish to admit.
A Few weeks ago I was introduced to a fascinating documentary, directed by and starring Vikram Gandhi, entitled Kumaré. Adopting the persona Sri Kumaré (and appropriately thick accent), Gandhi modeled himself upon the plethora of Yogis he had discovered while filming a documentary of their lives, philosophies, and followers. Simply, Gandhi was convinced that there was something artificial to these Gurus, something that could be imitated to the same success by himself, with no formal training. Gandhi hoped that, by attaining a small group of loyal followers, leading them through a set of contrived practices, chants, and meditations, and finally revealing himself as a “false prophet,” he could reveal that the truth that they were seeking wasn’t to be found in any Guru or Yogi, but rather, that this truth was, in some sense, within themselves. [Read more]
Setting aside the (perhaps questionable) individualistic bent of the documentary, I was struck by the beauty of the film, the authenticity of the relationships, and the depth of the spirituality among Kumaré’s followers and Kumaré himself. I also could not help but wonder if there was not a more profound and unexplored theological depth underlying the film in general, but perhaps more specifically, the climactic “unveiling” scene (where Kumaré reveals himself as an American from Brooklyn, rather than an Eastern Guru). I wonder if this unveiling scene might perhaps offer a glimpse into the theological fecundity of Death of God theology.
In the early 1960’s, a theological movement, Death of God theology, emerged on the american scene with unprecedented speed and vigor, only to fall out of academic favor with nearly the same speed; “falling” so far that Adam Kotsko describes Thomas Altizer, one of the prime catalysts of this movement, as “the third rail of academic theology.” This movement, drawing upon the insights of Christian Mysticism, the dialectic of Hegel, and the atheism of Nietzsche, sought to articulate a theology built upon the primary intuition that “God is Dead.” While the precise understanding of what is meant by this “death of God” has been heavily debated–ranging from the metaphorical, through the performative, all the way to a quite literal understanding (of which Altizer appears to be a case)–there remains a consistent sense among Death of God theologians that, to a great extent, we are “on our own.” We can no longer rely upon a theological Big Other to guide our actions, declare right from wrong, and provide the Archimedean point of theological and philosophical reasoning.
Is it possible that the experience of the Death of God, the death of the Big Other, is precisely what Gandhi sought to offer his students at the momentous unveiling of his “true identity” at the conclusion of Kumaré?
For Gandhi, the essence of his teaching, both as Kumaré and at a meta-level through the unveiling, was “asking questions, breaking down icons and idols, and destroying the illusions our society is built on,” and presenting these deconstructive gestures as “highly ‘spiritual’ acts.” This reorientation of deconstruction as a spiritual act, perhaps even as the spiritual act par excellence, is precisely the motivation that underlies the reemergence of Radical (Death of God) theology in contemporary discourse. Caputo, Rollins, Zizek, Marion–these thinkers of the death of God, of the God who is not, who is “beyond being,” are not seeking to end religion, spirituality, or theology, but on the contrary, to revitalize it. Like Gandhi, they desire to break down the “idols” of thought. It is not coincidental that Marion’s God Without Being opens with a sustained treatment of the phenomenology of the idol. Anyone who wishes to follow the movement of the death of God, must first walk the path the includes a decisively critical/deconstructive gesture. The radical theologian, or any religious person who wishes to follow this path, must face the authentic trauma of the death of the idol, whether this idol be a clear conception of the “greatest possible being,” the moral big Other who guides moral reasoning, or the unveiling of the spiritual Guru as a mere brooklynite.
Of course, such a path has its risks. As Kumaré illustrates, anytime that one challenges these idols, idols that may be fundamentally orienting in ones life, there is a chance that this trauma will be unbearable. There are those who simply refused to speak to Gandhi after the unveiling, who stormed out of the room and never returned his calls. But there were also those who understood, who felt the freedom of his message, who recognized that there was no other way that his teachings could have concluded. And this is the risk of the the Death of God–it can be freeing, opening, empowering, and it can be devastating and destructive. This freedom, as Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra so beautifully illustrates, can inspire terror as easily as dancing. When one gazes into the abyss of the Death of God, or the Death of Kumaré, one does not know what one will find.