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Univocal ontology, part II

How should we balance the dualism between the natural and the supernatural, reason and faith, or philosophy and theology? Or from the metaphysicians standpoint, how is being different from Being, yet shares in it at the same time. Some, such as Ockham and Scotus, explicitly argue that Being and beings must be on one and the same plane. Others, such as Augustine and Aquinas in the theological tradition, defend the analogical-participatory world-view in which beings participate in Being, the position that John Milbank in Theology and Social Theory and the corresponding Radical Orthodoxy tradition take.

Taking to task Duns Scotus in particular, Milbank argues that a univocal ontology in which being is conflated with Being, or the finite with the infinite, is fundamentally or ontologically violent. Given that finite and infinite being is univocal under the Scotist tradition, one looks to God by looking at nature. In other words, since the origins of society rest in God, then one must merely study society in order to know God, according to Milbank’s hermeneutic of univocal ontology. Or again, by studying society (such as literature, art, families, politics, economics, etc.) we in effect know God. When society is read as a natural occurrence in this way, revelation is conflated with science and a form of natural law theory emerges. With the integration of natural and revealed theology, an ontology grounded in violence quickly appears.

What do we discover, after all, when we inquire into the nature of society? Individuals are primarily self-interested and self-conservative, even in purportedly altruistic gestures. Society on a whole exhibits this character as well: nations war with each other over scarce resources and so on. In order to mediate between the disagreements of differing individuals, therefore, a supervening or sovereign arbitrary power must be established to preserve society from tumbling towards its dissolution. More interesting still, it is unmistakable that capitalism takes full advantage of and promotes such an ontology of conflict (for an exceptionally well-written articulation of this notion see here).

This sort of positivism which conflates being with the Good, according to Milbank, is a distortion of Christianity. More specifically, it is a refusal to see beyond the material with clarity. As an alternative, Christianity can replace the genealogy of violence and fictional power with a story that shows the “perfect infinite peaceful power’ of the Good interrupting the archeology of violence, what Milbank refers to as “an improved genealogy”. The alternative Milbank has in mind is a mythos or narrative more fundamental than reason itself which sees creation as an analogy of the Creator. In this precise sense, art, labor, sexuality, and language are all acts of participating in creation. More significantly still, Milbank’s analogical ontology is one of peace wherein it is possible for a community to share a common good, an ontology of relation and mutuality rather than a working out of partisan interests through violence. For as Milbank notes, the expressively ‘open’ and ‘accepting’ ethos of neoliberalism is one played with money and guns.

In Milbank’s more recent work, The Future of Love, the same theme is held. Again citing Duns Scouts for the failure, Milbank notes that “around 1300 or so, theology itself perversely invented the possibility of an entirely non-theological mode of knowledge. Duns Scotus and his successors through Suarez and Descartes to Kant elaborated the notion that it was possible adequately to think of Being as such apart from its instantiation as the infinite actuality of God” (p. 307). Indeed, following Scotus, it was perfectly legitimate to accept the earthly exercise of power as divinely ordered. It was the way of the world, after all, that which was created and sanctioned by God.

Theology responded in the course of the nineteenth century to this newfound univocal ontology through its multifarious attempts at gaining respectability in terms of enlightenment neutrality. That is, it too desired to objectively show its own truth. Thus, according to Milbank, theology “acquired wholly questionable sub-disciplines which were no longer expected to participate in God’s self-knowledge, but were instead expected simply to establish the foundational facts with pure historical neutrality (on which the Church as department of state depends): biblical criticism, Church history (as no longer a reflection on divine providence), historical theology, and so forth” (p. 312). The crucial point for Milbank is that theology at this time assumed an implicitly violent and meaningless ontology that conflated the way things are with the will of God. And again, the improved alternative that Milbank finds in theology, specifically with Augustine and Aquinas, is the recovery of analogy and participation in God’s self-knowledge.

Rather than view finite reality as “nature”, Milbank hopes to reinstate the Christian tradition’s understanding of reality as “creation”. As such, all created things participate in the divine creative power that generates human culture and human history in a way that is mutually beneficial for all, rather than a select few. This is a far stretch from the ontology of Milbank’s Duns Scotus, who he considers to treat Being as adequately grasped prior to theology and participation in the othewordly.

I do not think, however, that Milbank’s critical account of univocal ontology adequately applies to that of Deleuze’s. More profoundly still, I do think that Milbank’s Duns Scotus is equally matched to Deleuze’s Duns Scotus. For as Deleuze says, “There has only ever been one ontological position: Being is univocal. There has only ever been one ontology, that of Duns Scotus, which gave being a single voice… A single voice raises the clamour of being” (Difference and Repetition, p. 35).

In the present section it will be argued that the particular unfailing presumption cutting through Deleuze’s supporting project is that “being is creativity” (Peter Hallward, Out of This World, p. 1). Situated behind all particular manifestations or beings, fundamental to all existing things, there is a deep unlimited creativity: a power or force that creates all that there is or can be. Moreover, an actual individual entity is only insofar as it is sustained by this dynamic creativity. As such, this primordial dynamic activity of creating is, for Deleuze, primary. That is to say, no contingent creature exists prior to or independent of this infinite creative force. In short, all entities are acts or events of creation, created by a limitless pure creativity. All individuating identities, in fact, are produced and limited things arising from this absolute power. By the same token, as will become evident, created entities must loosen their bounded limits in order to be inundated and animated by this virtual process.    

This fundamental creative activity is precisely, as specified, an altogether virtual dimension. As a general rule, this ‘spiritual’ sphere mediates all actual things, but the virtual dimension as such is unrepresentable itself. It remains indiscernible. Although the point of reference of virtual creating is “out of this world” or “extra-worldly”, it is not, as Peter Hallward argues, “other-worldly” or transcendent per se. Or rather, Deleuze is engaged with subtractive thought, that is, oriented towards “dis-embodiment and de-materialization” (p. 2). An actual individual, accordingly, participates in being or creativity by forfeiting one’s identity, disappearing, becoming unknown or, as Deleuze puts it, “becoming imperceptible”, which is not annihilation by and of itself, but rather an opening to the dynamic activity of radical creativity. More specifically, the peculiar charge of every creature is to render oneself a passable repository for the creative force immanent and vital to it.

Such self-suppressing or self-overcoming logic is continuous with, as Hallward maintains and correct in my estimation, ascetic or mystic traditions, which are characterized by methods of self-denial for the purpose of expressing or manifesting the radical power of God more fully. However, with Deleuze’s Spinoza, for instance, this is a wholly panentheistic conception: God is manifested in the various multiplicities of creation, but is nonetheless indistinct from them—that is to say, the creator is the creatings, albeit in varying degrees. In other words, in Deleuze’s secularized or immanent approach, the single creative force is in no way distanced, indifferent or detached from its distinct expressions. The creator is not beyond creation but saturated within it. Or, what is the same, the virtual is integral to the actual. As we have already seen, Deleuze’s ontology is specifically univocal.

Significantly central to Deleuze’s ontology or cosmology is the fact that singular identities are in no way dependent upon mediation to subsist as individuals in their own right. Differentiation does not occur as a result of dialectic or representational styles of individuation, as though some underlying unity or identity supported the sheer multiplicity of being. On the contrary, “An individual is only truly unique, according to this conception of things, if its individuation is the manifestation of an unlimited individuating power” (p. 5). Although all singular and unique individuals are animated and sustained in this fashion, it is not always the case that such recognition is affirmed in quotidian or even philosophical thought. The dominant image of thought, rather, is preoccupied with representing the things of the world through categorization, conceptualization and so forth, as though reality was simply given and merely required the discovery of more or less accurate mental counterparts. All of this suggests, as Deleuze makes strikingly clear in his overall project, that the exigent task accorded to philosophy is not to represent reality, but to participate in it (emblematically performed by the schizophrenic, as it were).

Ontology or being, to recap briefly, is an unlimited productive energy and, as such, all differentiated beings or actual creatings are distinct yet diverse expressions of this infinitely creative force. The most significant and extensive conclusion according to this notion is a univocal ontology in which being is flat. Traditional metaphysics, for its part, has generally presumed the inverse: a fundamental gulf separates Being from beings, most profoundly exhibited in the great divide between immanence and transcendence or God and the world. For Deleuze, on the other hand, creatings are precisely the creator in numerous facets. What is more, there is irreducible only one reality: all particular entities are simply a mode of this singular substance. In principle, therefore, the more a being opens itself up to this “infinitely powerful or creative being”, the more intense that being becomes (p. 10).

This univocal ontology, as Hallward points out, has further implications regarding our knowledgeable access of being.  As with Kant, critical modern philosophy has conventionally limited knowledge to the representational apprehension of the world, that is, by way of the mind’s constitution of the phenomenal domain. Stated differently, we experience objects through the arrangement of those very objects. Given this paradigmatic metaphysical gesture, all noumenal objects—things-in-themselves—are exiled beyond the pale to the no man’s land of faith. As such, ontological questions are severally narrowed to what is immediately intuited. Even with Heidegger, although the question of being is revalorized and subsequently privileged as an insightful performance of though, Being continues to remain veiled in a certain sense. But with Deleuze, it is noteworthy, this exact sort of absolute knowledge is immediately intelligible once again: to say that being is univocal is to imply that all particular entities directly and effectively know the infinite creative power that upholds them. With Hallward the case is stated in this way—“What we know or think, we know as it is in itself” (p. 12). The virtual activity of pure creativity is not, on this basis, an enigmatic puzzle aloof from the things of the world, but immediately grasped in the plain nature of things.

When Deleuze says that ontology is univocal, by that he does not mean that it is homogenous. Univocity, by contrast, is difference in itself, an unlimited, inventive and differentiated dynamism. In this precise sense Deleuze makes difference or self-differing absolute: every distinct creature is a creative flight or trajectory from the primordial process of creative difference. In the same way, given that being is above all univocal, it necessarily follows that the production of difference is its own self-cause, without any separation of the creator from the creating. As such, the unlimited self-creative force underlying and animating all actual individuals is wholly immanent to those very entities, thereby eliminating all notions of transcendence.

Deleuze’s univocity of being, as a result, implies that the self-enabling activity of creation belongs entirely to the creatings it produces, even if it nevertheless exceeds the infinite diversity of its creatings. Self-causing creation, in this respect, is completely unlike the criteria of difference for Aristotle, for example. With Aristotle difference is stated in this way: two terms differ only insofar as they share some underlying unity or identity in common. Consequently, Aristotle and the legacy inherited from him by metaphysics have for the most part rendered difference secondary to sameness—that is, difference depends on and proceeds from something beside itself. Or again, which amounts to the same thing, difference is a relative concept. For Deleuze, on the other hand, being or difference itself is not mediated externally but differs internally only with itself. In a word, being is continuous self-generating difference or infinite self-differentiation.

To state briefly what was argued earlier, being is uninterupted creativity and, as such, an immense immaterial, imperceptible surge that is always in a process of becoming, neither static nor inert. And, as we know, every actual individual is an aspect or mode of this unqualified and boundless energy. All of this suggests that the producing impulse that generates, sustains and transforms distinct producings is itself unrepresentable. To put it more generally, an actualization is merely an event or facet of the primordial unlimited creative flux, which is why in the present case it is utterly virtual. But Deleuze goes further when he argues that it is to the virtual ‘plane of immanence’ or ‘plane of consistency’ that every actual multiplicity of being will eventually return.  It should be noted at this point, however, that Deleuze does not mean by this that the One or singular is thereby privileged above the multiple. It remains the case that neither unity nor multiplicity is displaced in favor of the other, for both are equally privileged in what Deleuze refers to as the ‘one-all’. In this respect, the one is internal multiplicity or absolute difference itself.

Concrete particulars in the world are, nevertheless, expressed as divisible, measurable and isolated things, ostensibly represented by distinct identities in fidelity to reality. The practical motive for pursuing this reduction or division of continuous change into quantifiable segments, Deleuze tells us, is for the purpose of controlling reality. More specifically, the indivisible flow of creation is rendered calculable and therefore predictable in some sense in order to better manage the things of the world. But as Deleuze emphatically argues, such perception or representation of distinct objects is in no way reality itself. By treating indivisible movements as though they were divisible moments doubtless permits us to handle nature in calculable ways, but it simultaneously prevents us from fully understanding or participating in being. It is for this very reason that theorists of science have amiably embraced the differential ontology of Deleuze in their attempts to theorize domains or events of great unpredictability, complexity and instability. This, however, bypasses Deleuze’s real preoccupation, ontology and cosmology, in which all of reality is understood to be in continuous movement and all seemingly settled things are mere events of this indivisible continuity.

Although, as we have seen, every particular entity is a moment of the absolute creative force, this does not mean that all creatings are in equal proximity to this pure intensity. Rather, all beings approach or participate in the infinite creative power to certain degrees; thereby expressing the virtual to differing impoverished extents. Or again, given that this single virtual being is difference, all existent things are necessarily varying scales of difference itself. On this basis, for instance, all subsisting individuals are produced on a sliding scale of creativity, the more complex forms requiring a greater degree of creative energy to be produced. All of this suggests, the further a given mode of life is overwhelmed by this univocal creativity, the better it is capable of conveying the intensive power vital to it. Consequently, if every existent individual is a particular facet of the creative becoming, then every individual also provides a distinct vantage point of the virtual as a whole. That is to say, all particular entities offer some scale of clarity on the real. These differing perspectives of being on the whole, however, can stubbornly be denied. Taken in a general sense, this means closing oneself off from the imperceptible creativity underlying all actual entities and focusing solely on material being instead. Despite this being an illusory mistake, it is a legitimate misunderstanding nonetheless. It goes without saying, the exigent task of philosophy is to traverse this tendency by introducing a little anarchy to thought.


Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

Xenophanes: ancient negative theologian?

As a general overview, Xenophanes of Colophon contributed predominately to the areas of theology and epistemology. Most significant of all, he observed that the depictions of gods varied from culture to culture. However, given this descriptive performance of comparative cultures, Xenophanes is in no way a relativist. Although he agrees that gods are a product or projection of culture he is in no way skeptical about the existence of gods. Or, what amounts to the same, he assumes that they exist and proceeds to consider what they are like. The disagreement is simply in the details, not in the existence. Rejecting a potential relativist move, Xenophanes offers a solution to what god or the gods are like. In this sense, he is looking for the most accurate depiction of god; and only one can and must be true.

To begin with, Xenophanes posits that it would be ridiculous to assert that one single culture’s conception of the divine is correct and that all other gods are in toto inferior. This, after all, was the position of most Greek contemporaries of Xenophanes. Rather, the reasonable path, according to Xenophanes, is one in which we recognize that no prior view is absolutely correct. Moreover, we should enquire “into the nature of gods, this time trying to avoid letting [our] view be colored by the peculiarities of [our] own particular cultural circumstances” (James Warren, Presocratics, p. 45). We can, in short, curtain our anthropomorphic tendencies.

Doubtless, this paves the way for skepticism and indeed skeptics begin much as Xenophanes did by pointing out disagreements and contradictions inherent to beliefs, ultimately concluding that there is no more reason to prefer one side of a conflict to another. In other words, according to skepticism, we should suspend judgment and keep the matter unresolved. Xenophanes, on the other hand, proposes that we continue to search rather than merely lead a life of inner tranquility in response to unsettled opinions. As will be shown, he utilizes a positive and rational theology, even if that means we must accept conclusions that are inconclusive and provisional.

The poets Homer and Hesiod were “generally considered to be authorities” on religious matters in ancient Greek society (p. 46). According to them, the gods act in egregious ways much as humans do and, incidentally, to even greater extents (e.g., quarreling, jealousy, murder, incest, lust, ambitions, etc.). Xenophanes observes this and turns this into an argument concerning what gods should be like. As Xenophanes reasons, the gods should not resemble us in appearance or thought but are superior to human beings. Surely the gods do not think or behave in the same way mortals do. On the other hand, they are not wholly unlike mortals either because the gods still think in some fashion.

In other places Xenophanes seems to suggest that there is one god superior to other gods. However, he stands in contradistinction to Western theology because he never considers god to be omniscient, omnipresent, or benevolent. “The overall picture of Xenophanes’ god reveals what Xenophanes takes to be the essential attributes of any divinity: effortless power and superior cognitive and causal abilities” (p. 49). What is worth mentioning is that Xenophanes is chiefly interested in highlighting the differences between gods and humans. In extension, he shows the limit of humanity’s understanding and knowledge (epistemology). Likewise, we are always embedded in a particular cultural context and individual circumstances that distort our perspective of the divine.

There exists, most of all, a vast gulf between human and divine understanding. Although we must settle with faith given our mortal limitations, Xenophanes argues we can approximate towards clear and true knowledge. As anticipated above, we can therefore have better and worse beliefs. But, then again, how are we to classify “better or worse likeness to truth”? (p. 52). While Xenophanes carries with him a notion that progress is possible, he does not “specify how we go about this enquiry” (p. 53). As he seems to suggest in particular fragments, we will never know if we hit on the right answer. What we might ask of Xenopahnes is: is internal consistency or correspondence with data considered steps in the right direction? We know that Xenophanes attempted to explain natural phenomena by meterological and cosmological reasoning elsewhere without recourse to divine agency, which might suggest an affinity with our aforementioned question. But in all things, “our beliefs are affected by surrounding circumstances” (p. 56).

If atheism is an enemy, who needs friends?

In my undergraduate studies as a theology student I had a professor recount an experience he had on an Ash Wednesday while he was attending Oxford for his Doctorate in philosophical theology. As the story roughly goes, one of his classmates approached him inquiring what he was giving up for Lent. Being the bold Lutheran that he was, my professor responded: “My piety!” This strategy of internal interrogation in Christianity seems to be similar to the effort made by Merold Westphal in “Atheism for Lent” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.

Christians understand that there are leaps of faith involved in their beliefs, otherwise it wouldn’t be a walk of faith, but they don’t consider that faith to be arbitrary or irrational. Thus the task of apologetics is to articulate the arguments of the faith that makes sense of belief. Moreover, atheists seem to make the same effort to prove their own disbelief in the existence of God. On both sides, then, we have strategies employed to convince supporters of the internal rationale for the respective positions. However, and I believe Westphal is correct in this suggestion, “psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions” (p. 67). In other words, personal experience counts much more than rational arguments when it comes down to choosing sides. Apologetics are merely a tool to shore up some lingering doubts after the decision has already been made.

With that said, Westphal takes an interesting direction in revisiting apologetics from a perspective that deals more with praxis than doxa. For Randal Rauser, another contributing author to the work, there are factors beyond persuasive theological arguments that “make Christians look comical, dangerous, innocuous, irrelevant, and generally unpleasant” (p. 135). Some prime factors that make Christians appear ridiculous include the following: church roadside signs with trite captions, pedophile priests, white-suited televangelists, Christian bumper stickers, disinterest in social justice, life coach pastors offering motivational messages, blind nationalism, kitsch art, and Bible action figures. What Christianity needs then is not more reason giving but more skepticism.

A good place to start this pruning process is with the masters of suspicion. According to these figures, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we should be more suspicious of theistic belief because there is always something more basic to the motives and reasons than we externally give credence to. As we will see, the manifest meaning of faith can be a “lofty disguise” in which we deceive ourselves from the “actual operative motives” determining our actions (p. 70). Starting with Freud, religious beliefs work as disguised wish fulfillments. “What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who will take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including both death and the rigid demands of society and culture” (p. 72). Therefore, according to Freud, we project our own desires onto an idol in order to justify and legitimatize our behavior. For Marx, on the other hand, it is ideology that provides this legitimizing role for society. “So moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system” (pp. 73-4). In brief, Marx suspects that the true function of the will of God is merely to justify the beneficiaries of exploitation and consol its victims. This ideology, after all, weakens the impetus of those exploited to rebel. Nietzsche’s suspicion of religion is different still. According to his popular “slave morality”, “slaves have no power, physical or social, with which to punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters ‘evil’” (p. 76). Therefore, when believers speak of love and justice it is merely the “dark underside” of “resentment and revenge” (p. 76). In all three of these masters of suspicion we see the unmasking of religions that use self-deception to hide from others and themselves the true motivations of their beliefs and actions.

Where Westphal gets interesting is that he applies these hermeneutics of suspicion to Christianity itself. As moderns, we are really good at practicing critique on others, but “its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination” (p. 71). This is, however, not original with Westphal. Of course theologians have always been cross-examining their own tradition, but the prophets, Jesus and the apostles practiced internal investigation of their faith. To read the masters of suspicion, or atheism for that matter, for Lent is “to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety” (p. 75). In the story I opened with, it seems that my professor was undertaking this precise task.

However, and Westphal ends with this caution, suspicion can easily become an end-in-itself which leads to cynicism, despair, and hate. Doubtless, religiosity has had a historical knack for putting divine stamps of approval on atrocities, but it has also played a significant role in resisting injustice. “Religion, it would appear, is Janus-faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin” (p. 74).

Luther's Six Great Paradoxes

1. Saint and Sinner (simul justus et peccator)

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner (Vol. 48, pp. 281-3)

[see also my posts “Simultaneously Saint & Sinner“, “Frail Identity” and “Frail Identity, Part II“]

2. Law and Gospel

It’s the supreme art of the devil tha the can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold on to the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. Even if I sinned I would say, ‘Should I deny the gospel on this account?’ It hasn’t come to that yet. Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, ‘The forgiveness of sins covers ti all,’ I have won. On the other hand, if the devil gets me involved in what I have done and left undone, he has won, unless God helps and says, ‘Indeed! Even if you had not done anything, you would still have to be saved by forgiveness, for you have been baptized, communicated, etc.

…The distinction between law and gospel will do it. The devil turns the Word upside down. If one sticks to the law, on is lost. A good conscience won’t set one free, but the distinction [between law and gospel] will. So you should say, ‘The Word is twofold, on the one hand terrifying and on the other hand comforting.’ Here Satan objects, ‘But God says you are damned because you don’t keep the law.’ I respond, ‘God also says that I shall live.’ His mercy is greater than sin, and life is stronger than death. Hence if I have left this or that undone, our Lord God will tread it under foot with his grace (Vol. 54, pp. 105-7)

3. Perfectly Just and Perfectly Merciful

Our Lord God is always in the wrong, no matter what he does. He condemned Adam for disobedience when he ate of the fruit of the tree. Reason considers only the object of obedience, and so God is said to have gone too far. On the other hand, God freely forgives all sins, even the crucifixion of his Son, provided men believe, and this is also regarded as going too far. Who can bring these two into harmony—the greatest severity and the greatest liberty and indulgence (as it seems to reason)? Therefore it is said, ‘Become like children’ (Vol. 54, p. 105)

4. Lord of All and Servant of All

A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully (Vol. 31, p. 344)

5. Already and Not Yet

Consequently, even if we are not perfectly holy, Christ will wash away our sins with his blood and, when we depart from this life, will make us altogether pure in the life to come. In the meantime we are content with that righteousness which exists in hope through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen (Vol. 54, p. 375)

6. Scripture Interprets Scripture and Read It As It Stands

Occam did not want the term to be univocal but equivocal, so that humanity is one thing in Peter, another thing in Christ. In philosophy man, according to his nature, does not signify a son of God or a divine person. This is the very thing which we say by the term “communication of properties.” A syllogism is not allowed with regard to the mysteries of the faith and of theology. philosophy constitutes an aberration in the realm of theology (Vol. 38, p. 272)

Christ gives himself to us in many ways: first, in preaching; second, in baptism; [third,] in brotherly consolation; fourth, in the sacrament, as often as the body of Christ is eaten, because he himself commands us to do so. If he should command me to eat dung, I would do it. The servant should not inquire about the will of his lord (Vol. 38, p. 19)

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)

The Speech and Practice of Christianity, Part II

E-mail Correspondence with Catherine Keller (April 1, 2009)

Cullen-Meyer: I recently finished your book Face of the Deep and appreciated it greatly. I was wondering if you might elucidate for me your approach to ecclesiology and theodicy. As for the first, even though the book is of a different topic, I had trouble mustering a reason to go to church. The church in my experience is rarely politically provocative or creative but conservative and patriarchal. Do you believe the church holds the possibility to begin again in a tehomic plethora of possibilities and transgress dominant discourses as well as Western social orders? Secondly, I sense that a theology of becoming is pregnant with an alternative response to suffering and evil that goes beyond the common responses given by standard philosophy of religion courses that explain evil away and make us indifferent to material suffering. For one, process theology ostensibly does not fix a binary oppositionalism between Creator and created. The point being,  individual agency is therefore not in competition with God. Furthermore, suffering caused by nature and suffering caused by civilization do not seem to be as isolated as typically viewed. Our world can also not be said to be the best of all possible worlds within a tehomic framework it seems to me. From my perspective a theology of becoming at the very least does not get God or ourselves off the hook in wrestling with particular horrendous evils. That is about as far as I get. I would love your help in wrestling with some of these questions or point me in a good direction. Since this is the only book of yours I have read, and granting that I may have missed things in Face of the Deep, forgive me if my questions have already been answered by you here or elsewhere.

Keller: Thank you for such an intelligent response. And of course a searching one—as the churches are pretty much as you say. But I find many exceptional congregations (often Episcopalian or UCC, occasionally even my denom of UMC), and they are real centers of community and activism. As to the questions of suffering, evil and what is called theodicy—I draw deeply from process theology. On this matter  (and a bit on the church) I think you will find my more readable recent book On the Mystery quite germane. And the references in it to process theologians  (Cobb, Griffin, their joint book; also Griffin’s God, Power, and Evil, technical but thorough; both drawing on AN Whitehead) may also be key.
Blessings of the Deep in your search!

Cullen-Meyer: Thank you for the help. I will definitely check out the references you mentioned. I had not yet read your chapter on Job when I sent the email but finished it today. That was helpful in itself. Would you say a good ‘pastoral’ response to particular sufferings would be to ‘change the subject’ due to the limits of answering theodicy theologically? In other words, would a good response be to expose our theologies of control in favor of a doxological respect for creation? As you put it, the answer to Job’s question still seems to be blowin’ in the wind.

Keller: A doxological respect, amen! Inasmuch as it inspires action on behalf of the earth and its vulnearble critters!
I do think On Mystery will be friendly for you.