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The Radical Theology Lectionary: Good Friday

Text: John 18:1-19:42


The true “nature” of man [sic] appears in Hegel, at the twilight of history, when man consents to his salvation and recognizes all the consequences this entails. It is most certainly Hegel’s doctrine of salvation–of a reconciliation, whose entire reality can be manifested in the world on this side of death–that accounts for the discreteness of his eschatology. Man’s final self-identity is not the product of forces immanent in history, but is finite spirit objectively reconciled with absolute Spirit on the Cross of Christ.

-Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Hegel and the Eschaton This Side of Death” in Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man, 121

The “Structure and Event” of the Death of God

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.

On Ambiguity and Dogmatism

I recently tasked myself, in the context of an argument “discussion” with drawing up a notion of “dogmatism.” Like one of Socrates interlocutors, I feel that I see dogmatism everywhere, but possess no grasp on what it is that I am seeing.

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I knew, from the start, that a definition of dogmatism should side-step the traditional “faith/reason” dichotomy in which it is often couched. For many, dogmatism is simply any proposition which is taken on faith, often to the detriment of so-called reason. A thoroughly modernist (read: Kantian) conception of dogmatism, this perspective is hugely problematized by the abandonment of traditional notions of faith, or more precisely, the recognition that the relegation of faith to “belief in what cannot be seen” is essentially vacuous. Not only, from a Christian perspective, does such a definition fail to account for the complexity of the Greek πιστις, but it is also severely limited from a philosophical perspective.

In his 1802 Faith & Knowledge, Hegel challenged this notion of faith, which for him was epitomized in the philosophies of Kant, Jacobi, and Fichte. For them, Hegel writes, “knowledge knows nothing save that it knows nothing; it must take refuge in faith.” Against this subjugation of reason by faith, Hegel argued for a more dialectical approach which might avoid this fideist hierarchy. Simply, rather than a rejection of reason in the Absolute, and subsequent necessitation of faith, Hegel argued for the Absolute as that wherein faith and reason find themselves reconciled.

“Above this absolute finitude and absolute infinity there remains the Absolute as an emptiness of Reason, a fixed realm of the incomprehensible, of a faith which is in itself non-rational (vernunftlos), but which is called rational because the Reason that is restricted to its absolute opposite recognizes something higher above itself from which it is self-excluded” (emphasis original).

Here, the “but” is essential. For Hegel, the absolute is certainly incomprehensible, but it is nonetheless “called rational.” At the apex, the distinction between faith and reason breaks down, or rather, is dialectically synthesized.

A similar disruption of the clear demarcation between faith and reason can be found in hermeneutic philosophy. In Being and Time, Heidegger writes:

An interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us. If, when one is engaged in a particular concrete kind of interpretation, in the sense of exact textual Interpretation, one likes to appeal to what ‘stands there’, then one finds that what ‘stands there’ in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting (Being and Time, 191-192).

For hermeneutic thought, there is no purity of reason; knowledge is always contexualized by its recipient. Or, put more challengingly, every reason is grounded in a prior faith (assumption), though of course, conversely, every faith is also grounded in a prior reason (philosophical presuppositions). These two do not stand as far apart as some might hope, but rather, are uncomfortably interpenetrating. This interpenetration is clearly marked in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where it is shown that the emergence of scientific epochs is not simply (or principally) an outgrowth of reason-proper, but more clearly the reorientation of pre-rational worldviews, such that new evidence can be exposed and old evidence reinterpreted (and of course, some old evidence discarded).

Lastly, from a theological/phenomenological perspective, Jean-Luc Marion has taken this modernist reading to task in They recognized Him; and He Became Invisible to Them.

“This argument nevertheless results in a blasphemy: first of all because it makes me, and only me, a “knight of the faith”—the singular actor, within the supposed “night” of the intelligence, of a faith without reason, who decides, by himself, on the existence of God and the truth of Christ, like a god deciding on God. Secondly, it is blasphemous because God and Christ become in this context either impotent (incapable in fact of fulfilling the Revelation that they promise), or perverse judges (who, in masking themselves, expose me to unbelief by condemning me to a faith without reason). These consequences alone should suffice to convince us of the inanity of such a definition of faith.”

Instead of the traditional distinction between faith and knowledge, as a distinction between the blind (faith lacking intuition) and seeing (reason intuiting the Truth), Marion argues for a displacement of the “lack” in faith. Faith does not lack intuition, it is not blind, it lacks concepts. The intuition of faith is a saturated phenomenon, it overwhelms any possible conceptual schema in which one might seek to place it.

“It might be that faith does not consist in the compensation of a shortage—or, perhaps, that the shortage is an entirely different one from that of the intuition, one that would instead locate deficiency in the conceptual statements. It might be that we should believe not in order to recapture a lack in intuition, but rather to confront its excess in relation to a deficiency of statements and a dearth of concepts.”

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Having thrown out the clear faith/reason distinction, the very notion of “dogmatism” becomes considerably more difficult to navigate. If it cannot be understood as the blind reliance upon faith in the face of reason (as the relation between these two is significantly more complex), than how can dogmatism be understood. Particularly, what conception of dogmatism would be sufficient to recognize not only the dogmatism of faith, but equally, the dogmatisms of “reason.” Not only do we find dogmatism in religion—fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, for example—but also dogmatic liberals, dogmatic atheists, dogmatic capitalists, and dogmatic Marxists. The tendency toward dogmatism appears to surpass every possible socio-cultural-ethnic-economic divide; dogmatism is everywhere.

Perhaps, I would like to suggest here, dogmatism is not opposed primarily to a “knowledge” or to a “seeing,” but to a recognition of an ambiguity. Dogmatism is not an absolutism despite the nothingness or lack inherent to “faith,” but an absolutism despite the irreconcilablity of ambiguity, of the antimony. Dogmatism is the tendency, not only to “take sides” in an ambiguous debate, but to fail to recognize that one is taking sides, that the debate is itself ambiguous, that one simply does not know. Dogmatism is opposed, not to reason, but to epistemic humility.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that those who attempt to articulate this ambiguity, who attempt to hold up the antimony, are attacked from both sides. Jacques Derrida, for instance, whose very philosophy of Différance sought to maintain the ambiguity and tension at the core of every identity, was targeted with astounding vitriol. As John D. Caputo writes in Deconstruction in a Nutshell:

“It is not uncommon to portray Derrida as the Devil himself, a street-corner anarchist, a relativist, or subjectivist, or nihilist, out to destroy our traditions and institutions, our beliefs and values, to mock philosophy and truth itself, to undo everything the enlightenment has done—and to replace all this with wild nonsense and irresponsible play” (Caputo, 36).

What is astounding about these condemnations is not merely their bizarre strength, but their origin. From the most rigorous analytic philosophers, to the most fundamentalist Christians, to Richard Dawkins and his cohorts. Groups which, in general, share remarkably little in common, joined together in condemnation of this lone philosopher. Cambridge philosophers sought to block Derrida’s honorary degree, Sokal sought to reveal all postmoderm thinkers as charlatans in the infamous “Sokal affair,” and Dawkins wrote his scathing (and misguided) Postmodernism Disrobed.

The strength of this condemnation reveals not simply a scholarly disagreement, but more tellingly, a great fear. What binds Richard Dawkins and the most Fundamentalist Christian? An absolute self-assurance, a rejection of ambiguity. What makes Jacques Derrida and the like so frightening, is that they refuse to close the book on these ambiguous issues. While they certainly take a side, they refuse to deny that they have taken a side. Dogmatics must anchor their thought in a Archimedean point (The Bible, the Koran, “reason,” Marx, the Free-Market), for fear of drifting eternally. When one challenges this point, the entire system begins to shake, the entire edifice begins to crumble. This is the most frightening possibility for a dogmatist, the erosion of the unifying factor, the free-fall into an ambiguous abyss.

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One reads, in the context of the abortion debate, for instance, of the “baby-killing-liberals” or of the “women-hating-conservatives.” Yet, what the extremes of both sides fail to recognize is that they are merely mirroring each others dogmatism. At the core of the question of abortion is the notion of human life, simply, “when does a fetus become a person?”. For some, the answer is found at conception, for others the third trimester, perhaps earlier, perhaps later. What both sides fail to recognize is that they are taking a side in an issue that is, at its core, essentially ambiguous. What does it mean to be a person? to be alive? Just as in the euthanasia debate, what seems like a clear cut issue, is actually quite ambiguous. Is life/personhood defined by heartbeat, viability, brain activity? It is ambiguous, yet, the choice that one makes regarding this ambiguous question makes all the difference.

I am not here advocating a quietism, the decision must be made, because these decisions are fundamentally ethical, doing nothing is not an option. Yet, I am advocating a caution, a humility. The world, particularly the ethical world, is complex and ambiguous. If we are to avoid dogmatism, then we must recognize this point and we must live in it, not in denial of it. We must attempt to walk the middle ground between a refusal to answer and an absolutist dogmatism, but this ground is fundamentally ambiguous. But perhaps, that is the point.

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The Crucifixion as Revelation of the Kenotic Core of Reality

Yet another intriguing post,  The Lamb Slain From the Foundation of the World: The Crucifixion as Revelation of the Kenotic Core of Reality, from Michael Dise over at Theopoetry. Check it out for a vaguely Hegelian take on the New Testament’s Lamb metaphor.

Dog Dialectics

I laugh everytime.


Motivated by a post over at Amtheomusings, I wrote the following analysis of “wage-slavery,” and thought I would share it here.  Please visit the original posting here.

If I might offer an alternative perspective, it seems that your critical analysis of this hotly disputed term, “wage slavery,” fails to encompass the specificity of this complex notion. That is to say, it is specifically the *wage-based* economic/productive system, understood as normative, that critics of “wage-labor” intend to overturn. Specifically, at one point you seem to mark the definition of “wage-slavery” as “working for a living amounts to slavery.” In this form, I would tend to agree with you, but I believe that the emphasis must be moved from where I read it in your essay. For, on a separate occasion, you mark the definition of wage-slavery as “they shouldn’t have to work in order to live,” here I must challenge, for it must be recognized that the first and second forms are distinct, precisely as regards wage.

It is not the “work” that is challenged by these critics, but the “for a living.” Advocates of a non-wage based system are not lazy, as naive commentators might lead one to believe, but more specifically are concerned with the “alienation” (to borrow a term from Marx [also, this should not be confused with Hegel’s distinct usage of the term]) of individuals from their work. That is to say, the separation of worker and product. Why, asks the critic, must work be mediated through a irreal system before it might be of value, not economic value, but real, human, everyday value.

In this sense, the model of a non-wage based economics is not the welfare state, the many living off the few, but instead, perhaps, the artisan, the craftsman, for whom a “wage” is irrelevant. The “freeing” of factory workers would not take the form of a burning of the factory, ending production, but on the contrary, a coop model in which the individual factory workers would be shareholders in the company, in which the success or failure of the company would directly (not mediately) relate to the workers.

Marx’s “Theses on Feurerbach” #11

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx’s final thesis on Feurerbach constitute one of the most quoted portions of his oeuvre (along with the opening words of the manifest and his, generally misunderstood, “opiate” assertion). In his eleventh, Marx builds upon the distinction laid out in the tenth thesis.  Yet, here his distinction between traditional materialism and his “new” materialism has been broadened; it is no longer merely Feuerbach who is the recipient of his critique, but philosophy in its totality.

But, what is the essence of this critique?  simple quietism?  Is it merely the passivity of philosophy?  Perhaps.  But let us consider the historical situation of Marx.  Having been brought up under the shadow of Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Marx abandoned Hegel for Feuerbach.  Yet, following this detour into “traditional” materialism, Marx became disenfranchized with the couter-idealistic (i.e. post-Hegelian) movement of his contemporaries.  Citing the reification of abstract concepts and similar critiques, Marx similarly abandoned this group, setting out to establish his own “dialectical materialism.”

Yet, contrary to those who misinterpret his rejection of Feuerbach as a return to Hegel, Marx did not fully abandon this post-Hegelian culture. Instead, his critique of philosophy’s tendency to describe–its failure to change reality–may be seen as a direct critique of Hegelian conservativism.

Although leftist readings of Hegel’s philosophy have been popularized since the beginning, an honest reading of Hegel cannot fail to recognize a deep Prussian conservativism.  In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the state is presented as the objectified manifestation of the Absolute Spirit (i.e. God).  Such an assertion smacks of the radically conservative “divine right” political theories of the early enlightenment.

Against this Marx posits a new philosophical possibility: philosophy as a radically progressive movement.  Philosophy must not merely record reality, implicitly condoning its structure, but much seek to rearrange this structure through its own activity.  Philosophy itself must become a force of revolutionary reconstruction.  In this way, Marx completes the work begun in his tenth thesis and fully unites his philosophical and political projects under a single banner of revolutionary, social, living, sensuous, practical, reality.

(Thank you to those who followed me through this short project.  I ♥ my wordpress followers.)

Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” #10

“The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.”

In his penultimate thesis, Marx offers a resounding hammer-blow against Feuerbach, if not mid-19th-century materialism in toto.  Having mapped out a new materialism, one based upon “sensuous human activity, practice,” one which does not reduce human reality to an abstract “man,” Marx here attempts a clarification of the distinction between his new materialism and that former.

In the “old materialism,” the philosophical foundation remained “civil society,” that is, the political product of human activity and praxis.  Yet, this grounding of materialism in civil society is inescapably a grounding in irreality, in an abstract concept.  For Marx, civil society does not possess true reality, for reality is found only in the practical enactment of human life.

In order to overturn this “old materialism,” Marx seeks a new foundation of philosophy, a grounding in “human society, or social humanity.”  While certainly, at its face, “human society” appears to be a mere repetition of  “civil society,” this thesis must be read in the context of the prior theses.  For Marx, this distinction is essentially a question of source and product.  “Human society” and “civil society” cannot be identical because the latter ideality is grounded in the former reality.  It is true that, for Marx, human reality is essentially social, that is, communal; yet, this sociality is not “civil”: it is not institutionalized.

Grounding his philosophy in the reality of social humanity, Marx is therefore able to bypass institutionalized politics and found a new materialism upon the true essence of human value: sensuous practical activity, human life.  Through this bypassing, Marx is no longer tied to the particularities of an historical civil or political instituition; he is not bound, as Hegel* and Feuerbach before him, to cauterize this political institution into a philosophical necessity.  Rather, radical or revolutionary politics is now a possibility.  In this way, the link between Marx’s philosophical and political thought manifests itself; a link which will be further clarified in his final, 11th thesis.

*(Hegel is notorious for his idealization of the Prussian state, which provided the grounding of the conservative “right Hegelianism”)

Idealism vs. Materialism

Thanks to Sticky Embraces

Lacan on Negation

Speaking in terms which seem to betray a strong Hegelian (i.e. dialectical) influence, Lacan writes:

“In the symbolic order nothing exists except upon an assumed foundation of absence. Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”