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The Parallax of Belief

I think it is pretty clear that the opposed movements of belief and unbelief are always-already a minimal difference inherent to one of the terms….which term that is happens to be a parallax view, to my mind. On the one hand, theology considers atheism to always be parasitic on some form of theism. The argument goes, according to continental philosophy of religion mostly, that there is no such thing as an unbiased, universal vantage point. Moreover, one is always-already socially interpellated to view the world from a particular perspective. As such, all interpretations of reality are situated within a horizon of taken-for-granted epistemological assumptions. In other words, every position depends on act of faith. Or, in less religious terms, every positions is contingent upon an absolute presupposition. Thus, nihilism–more popularly known as atheism outside of France–is somewhat of a theology; albeit an a-theology.

On the other hand, the tension between immanence and transcendence is considered to be a minimal difference/gap in immanence itself, according to various forms of materialist discourse. Theism and atheism, in other words, are not externally opposed but are rather characterized by internal overlapping; they are both inherent to a larger whole that encompasses them both. Žižek describes this minimal difference spectacularly:

The tension between immanence and transcendence is thus also secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself: “transcendence” is a kind of perspective illusion, the way we (mis)perceive the gap/discord that inheres to immanence itself (The Parallax View, p. 36)

The split between the theism and atheism is merely the noncoincidence with finitude itself; so says Žižek. Accordingly, there is no rapport between one and the other; no synthesis or mediation is possible between the two. Instead, with this parallax view, one must constantly shift perspectives between the two points. Given this insurmountable gap, no neutral common ground is possible. They are two sides of the same coin, but can never touch.

A good example of this incommensurable dialectic is Jastrow’s Duck-Rabbit. Cunningham describes the deadlock of viewing the picture as follows:

One either sees the duck or the rabbit – never both at the same time. The mind oscillates between the two. But what must be remembered is that the appearance of two (God or Nature, duck or rabbit) disguises the one picture upon which they are made manifest. In this way there is only ever one, but this one picture is able to provide the appearance of two despite their actual alternating absences: nothing as something; the completely absent rabbit as duck, which is yet equally the completely absent duck as rabbit (Genealogy of Nihilism, p. xiv)

For another clarifying example, see the Moebius strip. We are dealing here, according to Žižek, with two levels that never touch yet are excruciatingly close.

…the paradox consists in the fact that these two series never overlap: we always encounter an entity that is simultaneously—with regard to the structure—an empty, unoccupied place and—with regard to the elements—a rapidly moving, elusive object, an occupant without a place….they are not two different entities, but the front and the back of one and the same entity, that is, one and the same entity inscribed onto the two surfaces of a Moebius strip (The Parallax View, p. 122)

This comes very close to the apophatic strand of Christian theology. While some people are more comfortable with rigidly classifying people along hard lines and lumping them into oversimplified categories–especially when it comes to religion and politics–the contemporary discourse scene is much more ambivalent. Jon Stanley has an excellent essay in the recently published “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself entitled “Why Every Christian Should ‘Quite Rightly Pass for an Atheist'”. He begins with some apropos quotes:

Only an atheist can be a good Christian — Ernst Bloch

Only a Christian can be a good atheist — Jürgen Moltmann

I quite rightly pass for an atheist — Jacques Derrida

His best material emerges when he speaks to the fact that the early Christians were accused of being an atheistic cult because they did not worship Caesar. That is, a Christian would “pass for an atheist” by denouncing the official religion of the Roman Empire and all that it entailed; particularly its violence. Today there is very little tolerance for “blurring the boundaries” between belief and unbelief, but this was clearly an ambiguous category for the early Christians. For Stanley, Derrida is an unlikely (or is it likely?) ally in acknowledging this tension.

Derrida has also continually drawn attention to the “porous boundaries” between atheism and theism. Leaning on the apophatic tradition of negative theology, he speaks of a certain type of atheism that “at times so resembles a profession of atheism as to be mistaken for it,”… (p. 13)

Overcoming Ontological Shit

The neat world which we have constructed through linguistic division, in our effort to decompress being, hides the reality which it seeks to cover up; but from underneath the blanket comes the indelible stench. And we can catch sight of this reality – the what is not, that lies beneath the what is (Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, p. 256)

Society makes distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate desires and, in doing so, hides the undifferentiated, indivisible reality beneath our random life meanings. However, despite our attempts to ignore and clean up the Real it remains always slipping through the fissures of existence through remainders and traces. It was the great masters of suspicion that denuded the façade of culture and pointed to the “pulsating reality that lay behind the accepted account”. This reality that lays beneath is the Lacanian Real, the “really real” (ontos onta): “pure reality, absolute shit, devoid of shape and distinction” (p. 257). Rather than being a relativism, the Real—ontological shit—is the epitome of idealism; a new objectivism. The objective horror and shit that flows in, with and under us is “the kernel of reality” that we seek to domesticate, or at least jettison. To a certain degree, there is a good deal of truth in nihilism. Every idealization, such as “friendship, family, employment, money and so on” distracts us from this kernel of reality and acts as an “insidious opiate”. “We are indeed sedated by the mindless chatter of gossip; call it politics, sport, economics, romance or whatever…” (p. 256). This domestication is nothing other than a colonization of the world by holding captive the desires and thoughts that do not conform to the established symbolic system. Meillassoux correctly categorizes this in anthropological terms, the symbolic is merely a projection of what humanity apprehends.

The difference of theology is that it does not interpret the void as an ugly excremental horror but the excess which life is. “Hamann would surely have disagreed with Žižek’s pejorative interpretation of the Real, because for Hamann all that is made is clean, in so far as what God makes is clean, so we must not call it profane” (p. 258). To put it in other words, the idealism of radical finitude discerns the Real inappropriately and lacks a charity of hermeneutics. According to Merleau-Ponty, the world carries an “inexhaustible richness” and this excess or plenitude can never be domesticated in the way vain metaphysics would like. In this way anthropomorphism is avoided because every object is phenomenologically resistant to totalization. We merely get a glimpse of the gift of creation through our perception.

There is certainly some similarity between theology and nihilism and this similarity lies in their mutual agnosticism towards perception. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a victory march of self-certainty. In contrast to the implicit agnosticism of theism and atheism, liberalism naively believes it can adequately describe objects and deal with them by a reductive logic. But language is always ecstatic which means that objects exceed language. As such, there is always a trace of an object’s excess in language, and while it may violate an object to some degree in its representation, it “carries the evidence of the crime with it” (p. 262). Cunningham however is clear in maintaining that the correlation between object and subject is indeterminate, but not “the indeterminate”. In other words, we are bereft of comprehension because our categories are exhausted by plenitude, not because of an infinite indetermination. Although Cunningham is not directly addressing Meillassoux here, his comments could apply towards surpassing the imbalanced relativistic/fideistic double-bind:

Theology cannot have a pure reason or a pure faith, because following de Lubac, it can be understood that there is no pure nature; conversely there is no pure unmediated supernatural. This means that there can be neither a natural theology nor a fideism. It is easier to see why when we realize that each contains an element of the other. Natural theology must have faith in its reason. That is, it must supplement rationality with a mode of faith (as an analogy, Gode’s ‘Incompleteness’ theorem comes to mind here). Furthermore, faith in retreating into its own ghetto does so for its own reasons (p. 274)