New interestign interview with Caputo on the Times’ The Stone.
But it does beg the question, why does Gutting seem so intensely focused on neatly packing Derrida into the “atheist” box? What is to be gained by such a neat definition?
A/theism: Where Theism and Atheism Collide
Edifying theologians, like edifying philosophers, “refuse to present themselves as having found out any objective truth,” and instead cast themselves as engaging in something largely different from and more important than making propositions of accurate representations of how things really are. By this token, edifying theologians are not interested in proposing a new orthodoxy, but instead deconstructing the enterprise of orthodoxy altogether. There have been a few theological movements that cast themselves as “postmodern” and ultimately turned up insignificant because they made the mistake of complying with the system of orthodoxy and began making hard claims to accurate representations.
Edifying theology opposes systematic theology by making the same hermeneutical turn Rorty makes. It finds itself in juxtaposition to systematic theology simply by not being systematic and refusing to engage with the strong epistemological claims of orthodoxy. “As a matter of brute fact rather than of metaphysical necessity, there is no such thing as the ‘language of unified science.’ We have not got a language which will serve as a permanent neutral matrix for formulating all good explanatory hypotheses, and we have not the foggiest notion how to get one,” for either scientific hypotheses or for religious dogma. Read the rest of this entry
“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—
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 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!” 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 can make in their polemics. Read the rest of this entry
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.
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Already in much of the New Testament, the conception of the Church as a hierarchical dogmatic institution is apparent. In the development of the Pauline tradition within the Pastoral epistles, for example, one finds the elevation of dogmatic rigor (one must “hold firmly to the sure word as it was taught” Titus 1.9) and dissonance or difference must be eradicated from the community; dissenters “must be silenced, for they are disrupting the whole households by teaching for dishonest profit what they have no right to preach” (Titus 1.11). This “deposit of faith” (II Timothy 1.14) is conceived in absolute terms; it is Truth, it is the foundation upon which the community is constructed. In order to maintain control over this deposit, the church structure of the Pastorals is rigid. If I might quote a longer passage, II Timothy 3.1-9 reads:
You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone.
The vitriol of this overly drawn image is palpable. Having centered their conception of the church upon the maintenance of dogmatic content, it is not only alternate content which must be feared and hated, but the purveyors of such content. Simply, in order to maintain the credibility of its own presbyter-bishops, the author(s) of the Pastorals must posit a category of corrupt teachers, whose “counterfeit faith” directs them to poison the faith of the truly faithful remnant. Their dogmatic rigidity necessitates the creation of an absolutely corrupt “other.”
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In distinction to this rigorous dogmatism, the Johannine church represents a charismatic alternative. Where the pastorals posit a “deposit of faith,” John posits a living Word—not only in the form of the incarnated logos (Christ), but also in the Christian community itself. The static dogmatism of true teaching is overturned by the mobile generative power of the “living water,” and here emerges the possibility of a truly radical egalitarianism. For, “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38). Where the pastorals ground their community within the content of a dogmatic truth, a determinable fact, whose clear center makes variance easily identifiable, the Johannine community founds itself in a Spirit. This Spirit is certainly felt, it is present, it speaks, but it does not speak in the univocal voice of rigid dogmatism. Rather, this Paraclete-Spirit nudges and suggests, it is a weak force (as John Caputo might call it), it is not itself a determined fact or set of facts, but rather an event which creates without precedence, an unexpected voice which calls for a response, in no way predetermining the form or content of that response. In the language of Gilles Deleuze, the Paraclete-Spirit is an Idea. But not an Idea in the naïve platonic sense—an original which must be merely copied—but an Idea which inaugurates a creative space, which determines a problem for which there is no clear solution.
This centering of the Johannine community upon the mobility and plasticity of Spirit, rather than the rigidity of static doctrine can be immediately felt in the non-hierarchical egalitarian character of the fourth gospel. To once again borrow a phrase from Deleuze, the Johannine community offers a “crowned anarchy” where the pastorals offer a hierarchical rigidity. This non- (if not anti-) hierarchical perspective can be highlighted in a few different repects. First, as Raymond Brown emphasizes, one finds the language of the kingdom or rule (basileia) of God significantly diminished in the fourth gospel, “if Jesus and the Father are one, the rule of God is most perfectly made a reality in Jesus. Instead of entering the kingdom of God as a place, one needs to inhere in Jesus to be part of the community” (Brown, 87). Second, the fourth gospel tends to downplay the institution of the sacraments. In the last supper, for instance, there is no institution of the Eucharist, rather, there the washing of the disciples feet is instead emphasized. Third, the role or prominence of the twelve is severely downplayed, in their place, John leaves the “beloved disciple,” who reclines on Jesus’ breast during the last supper, and who is given Jesus’ mother to watch at the cross (see: Jn 13.23-25, 19.26-27, 20.1-10, 21.20-25). This ambiguous character appears, on the one hand, to describe an actual historical figure (likely John), and on the other, a model of authentic discipleship. The beloved disciple is a Johannine “every(wo)man.” Forth, and this is quite remarkable, the Johannine community appears radically egalitarian regarding gender roles. Contrary to above, where women are portrayed as “silly” and gullible, John portrays women in pivotal roles throughout Jesus’ ministry and the early church. Again citing Brown, “The Samaritan woman, Martha, and Mary are characters absolutely equal in importance to the blind man and Lazarus. In the portrayal of major male and female believers there is no difference of intelligence, vividness, or response” (Brown, 94). More radically, it is Martha who offers the first full affirmation of Jesus’ identity (“You are the Christ, the Son of God,” John 11.27), following the incomplete titles of the other disciples, (e.g. “prophet”). It is also worth noting that this affirmation is attributed to Peter in the synoptics.
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The political ramifications of this alternative construal of a radically egalitarian community are essential to the construction of a democratic society. What the comparison of the Pastoral and the Johannine communities show us, is that the ideological center of a community and its functional structure cannot be isolate from each other. Where a society is grounded upon rigid affirmation of dogmatic truths, be those religious, philosophical, or political, the social structure will necessarily take on a repressive form. Difference, creativity, and exploration are all facets of a community which threaten the stability of a hierarchical-dogmatic structure, and must therefore be branded as “counterfeit” and eradicated. Simply, where ideological conformity is demanded, repression will be necessitated. Against this dogmatism, the Johannine community offers the model of a community which forgoes concrete dogmatisms for the fluidity of the Spirit and emphasis upon the plasticity of relation. This movement from a concrete to a fluid center is mirrored by a parallel reduction in repression. Egalitarianism presupposes fluidity. Where emphasis is taken off of abstract dogmatism and placed on the living community, the structural hierarchy withers (the kingdom language wanes, the twelve are de-emphasized and replaced with an “every(wo)man”), priority is granted to ethics over ritual (the washing of feet, over Eucharist), and oppressive social structures (e.g. gender norms) are set aside. It is these factors which constitutes the truly radical egalitarian political potential of the Johannine community.
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*Raymond Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).
(Notes and disclaimers: First, I am relying upon Raymond Brown’s reconstruction of early church communities. I recognize that these are highly hypothetical and often suspect. But, that being said, even a hypothetical community is a ripe source for imaginative examination. Second, I do not hate the pastorals, I am simply using them as an example in this instance. Please do not barrage me with “why do you hate the Bible” messages. Third, to argue, for instance, that the Johannine community rightly emphasizes ethics of sacrament, is not to belittle sacrament. I think that the Eucharist is an invaluable core of Christian practice. But, it cannot be allowed to overshadow concern for the oppressed or needy.)
Influenced by the recent surge of interest in the political ramifications of Paul’s thought (see: Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism; Zizek, Milbank, & Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; etc.) as well as the work of Raymond E. Brown I have decided to put together a short series of posts examining an alternate biblical source of political thought, imagining the possible shape of a Johannine politics.
In The Churches the Apostles Left Us, Brown writes, “Johannine ecclesiology is the most attractive and exciting in the NT. Alas, it is also the least stable” (pg. 123). In the vein of this thought, and following the Paul-enthusiasts tendency to adapt ecclesiological insights as political ideas, these investigations will begin with a consideration of some of the enticing and powerful characteristics of a Johannine politics, before moving into some of the instabilities and risks inherent to such a philosophy. Although by no means firm, the tentative outline of the subjects of these posts will be as follows:
- The Spirit
As always, some deep resonances between this philosophy and the work of prominent continental philosophers can be expected. So far, I anticipate engagement with my standard cast-of-characters–Derrida, Caputo, Henry, Marx, Zizek–as well as some Deleuzian insights as I have recently begun my foray into Difference and Repetition in conjunction with some of Caputo’s lectures on Deleuze.
In After the Death of God, John D. Caputo writes that:
“Were a democracy to come–and it cannot came, that would not be possible for it to actually come–it would not be a place in which there is pure harmony or perfect “peace.” It would be a place in which there would be endless and irreconcilable differences, a profusion of differences that would be adjudicated without killing one another. “
Though an intriguing and compelling presentation of political messianism, this post will not be about democracy, nor about politics. Instead, I am here interested in the relationship between the different and the same. Caputo’s thought, and really deconstruction in general (if not all thought that takes Levinas’s philosophy of alterity as one of its founding intuitions) resists totalization, looks forward to the incoming of the other, seeks to break with the ontology of presence: simply, deconstruction is a philosophy of difference (or, perhaps better, différance). The Same is a questionable enemy, a source of oppression, violence waiting to happen. The same exludes the different, or worse, absorbs the different, destroying its alterity in a burst of assimilating power. But, it must be asked, to what extent, does this “binarity” (to use one of Caputo’s terms), re-inscribe deconstruction within the very paradigm it is trying to escape? For, deconstruction places itself in opposition to simple binary schemas of this or that, being and nothing, male and female, writing and speaking, etc, etc… . Consistency, it seems, would require that this same resistance be brought to bear on the same and the different. In Deconstruction in a Nutshell, Caputo writes:
“When presented with a neat distinction or opposition of this sort … [Derrida/deconstruction] will look around–in the text itself–for some third thing which the distinction omits, some untruth, or barely true remnant, which falls outside the famous distinction, which the truth of either separately or both together fails to capture, which is neither and both of the two.”
It must be asked, then, is the opposition between the same and the different too “neat”? How is the eternal struggle of the same and the different not precisely the sort of meta-narrative that deconstruction seeks to expose the limits of? For, as Caputo vigorously argues, every binarity can be clearly identified by its hierarchical structure, because ever binary inevitably develops into an us/them, good/bad, pure/impure, that is to say, every seemingly descriptive schema, hides an implicit normative schema. Yet, we see, in the elevation of absolute difference over the “violent” totality of the same, exactly such a hierarchy.
Should we, then, “look around–in the text itself–for some third thing which the distinction omits”?
Should deconstruction itself be deconstructed?
The contemporary “return to religion” has resulted in some seriously fecund food for thought, particularly among the philosophically-inclined theologians (of which I would count myself). Of central importance to this turn, at least in the deconstruction camp, has been the work of Jacques Derrida (on one side of the aisle) and John Caputo (on the other). Yet, I nonetheless hold considerable reservations regarding some of their postmodern variation of the themes of religion, most notably their “religion without religion.”
This structure–of the “X without X”– is a particularly common Derridean formulation . We find (in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism), for instance, a reinterpretation of Marion’s “Dieu sans l’etre” as “being God without being God.” Elsewhere, Derrida proposes a designation of Justice as a “messianicity without messianism.” This latter formulation is particularly helpful in unraveling the intention underlying Derrida’s playful disruption of the law of identity. There, Derrida wishes to maintain the forward-facing posture of messianism–understood in the modalities of hope, openness, and responsibility for the incoming other. Yet, at the same time, Derrida wishes to distance himself from the concrete messianisms of the various world religions. As Gschwandtner writes, “he refers to the messianic as a ‘general structure of experience’ concerned with the coming of the other and justice, which does not refer to any particular religion or ‘determinate revelation’.”
What we find, therefore, is a return to the pseudo-transcendentals of Heidegger. Just as the essence of truth is found in a-lethia, the uncovering or manifestation of Being, and the essence of modern technology in technicity, the reduction of all beings to “standing reserve,” Derrida here reduces the essence of messianism to the incoming of “the other and justice.” But (and I have chosen the language of “reduces” intentionally), it must be asked, what is reduced in this reduction, what is lost in the transition from the concrete messianism to the transcendental messianism? Or, returning to my initial concern, what is lost in the reduction of concrete religion to the transcendental “religion without religion.”
The answer, I might suggest, is concrete historicity. The reduction of religion to “religion without religion” seems to be an underhanded attempt to exempt oneself from the historical contingency of one’s religious traditions. For Derrida, the problem with such a move is attenuated by his own pseudo-atheism, as he writes, “I rightly pass for an atheist.” But the same can certainly not be said for Caputo, whose works are unambiguously situated in the Christian tradition. It is true that this move is situated within the context of “radical theology” and its abandonment of ontotheology, and it should certainly be applauded for that. But, by publicly distancing himself from the concrete historicity of the tradition, by advocating a “religion without religion,” Caputo is not merely abandoning a literalist or ontotheological interpretation of that tradition, but rather, seeking to whitewash his own theology, to extract his own thought from the turbulent and violent history of the tradition, while also seeking to maintain access to its riches and insights. Can we really have it both ways? Can we get the good without the bad (have our cake and eat it too)? Is it even possible to extract the good from the bad, the transcendental from the concrete, or is Caputo merely falling into the old Husserlian trap of the pure eidos?
In the end, I wonder if the deconstructed “religion without religion” might merely be the academic version of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” An academic incarnation of a Neoliberal cafeteria-style religiosity, with all of its faux-decontextualized and colonialist baggage.