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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)

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Ricoeur on Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics or the interpretive problems anyone faces when dealing with a text was common-coinage when Ricoeur wrote The Conflict of Interpretations. What he offered though was an original and rigorous analysis of the full consequences of hermeneutics extended into other fields such as psychoanalysis and religion. However, we would do well reviewing the basics of hermeneutics before preceding into how this enriches other fields. In a word, interpretation is the work of deciphering the many hidden layers of meaning immanent to a single text. This process of discovering analogous meanings contained in symbols has a long history in biblical exegesis but it was only relatively recent that this was appropriated by philospohy to apply towards more general problems. The idea is that every text has a surface meaning conditioned by an immediate and simplistic understanding. Concealed within this literal interpretation though are unsuspected stratums of significance. We might say that every text has a hidden depth of meaning. Ricoeur expresses this layering of multiple significance as polysemic, meaning, every word possesses a certain opacity and richness. Language has a surplus of meaning, overlapping interpretations that make meaning overdetermined and equivocal or polyvocal. Confusing to be sure, but the more arduous and roundabout path of unlayering a plurality of meaning is better than sticking with the narrowness of a single interpretation in Ricoeur’s estimation. The work of the hermeneut then is to explicate the multiple determination of symbols and tease out different interpretations by using a variety of frames of reference or considering the text in different contexts. For the hermeneut the real sin is to only see or promote one dimension of meaning in a reductionistic and confined way.

This mode of suspicion bears real fruits when applied to psychoanalysis. If we think of the self as a text then it follows that the subject shows and conceals layers of meaning. This was Freud’s radical vision of interpreting the dreams of his patients. (For those unfamiliar with Freud his idea was that dreams were wish fulfillments that had been censored and distorted by our consciousness to hide our true unconscious thoughts. Our most shocking wish according to him was the male’s desire to sleep with his mother and kill his father). He mistrusted the manifest content of the dream (it was distorted) and worked to uncover the real motives and latent meaning behind it all. He arrived at this hidden meaning by working backwards from the confusing dreams of his patients (the analysands) would recall. Like the hermeneutics of a text, the concealed truth was revealed by transcending the simple previous meaning therefore following a progressive interpretation of the analysand. The upshot of the abandonment of an ideal, univocal ego profoundly transformed the cogito and sparked the ongoing discipline of psychoanalysis. Because of Freud we now know to be suspicious of our consciousness. But its tricks have been unmasked and we are better because of it.

The same applies to the phenomenology of religion (Ricoeur is speaking of Christianity here). It’s not difficult to think of faith as having lower and higher dimensions. What is more disturbing for many though is the threat that once we apply a suspicious hermeneutic to faith there is no recovery of simple faith. Of course if faith does survive this chastisement it would be more informed and critical sans superstitious and pretentious ideas. Ricouer’s idea here is that by undercutting many of our “taken-for-granted presuppositions” a higher dimension of faith, one grounded more in hope than certainty, would emerge from the ashes of a fallen faith, much like a phoenix. The death of God therefore is interpreted by Ricoeur as the death of an idol. What displaces our old sedimentary conceptions of God is the God who is to come, more an icon this time than an idol. Through this progressive hermeneutic Ricoeur understands a mature faith to be open and ongoing rather than stifilingly enclosed. And rather than faith existing in spite of doubt and criticism they are strongly alloyed.

This plurality and confusion of meanings simultaneously benefits and haunts the whole of philosophy as has been briefly shown. If we read philosophy as a text (or the world for that matter) it appears that meaning is in motion. In Hegelian terms the spirit is realized in the dialectic process of history; surpassing and overcoming previous meanings but retaining traces of their existence through every stage. In this way philosophy draws us out of our infancy in the same way psychoanalysis does for the subject and phenomenology does for religion. Philosophy just happens to be more meta-critical, viewing a wide range of problems rather than narrowly focusing in on the small details. In Ricoeur’s terms “philosophy itself becomes the interpretation of interpretations.” In other words, philosophy reflects on the reflections that other disciplines have made and attempts to see larger trends, what we might name the spirit of the day.

Telos or Eschaton?

Any attempt by our consciousness to grasp the telos as a fixed or complete object fails, for the goal of meaning is forever escaping us, immer wieder. The telos is always beyond us (God Who May Be, 85)

Christianity is interminably after its own telos. Otherwise said, we seek to richard-kearney1know what is true and good. We desire to know how to live and pursue God in all we do. Yet even if the Christian rightly insists God’s truth is absolute, it is questionable how adequate the Christian can represent God. Truth is not so neatly packaged after all. One’s theology is always contingent upon one’s socio-historical location. This has been the emphasis of liberation theology for so long now. Richard Kearney’s point in differentiating telos from eschaton is that telos presupposes we’ve got it right; that we’re on the right path headed for the right destination. Eschaton, on the other hand, disturbs our ideologies and suprises us like a thief in the night. The best we can do is wait passively and patiently for God to break into our world and reveal himself on his own terms. To do so is to renounce our own mastery and control on the issue.

What characterizes the exhatological notion of persona, by contrast, is that it vouchsafes the irreducible finality of the other as eschaton. I stress, as eschaton not as telos (i.e., a fulfillable, predictable, foreseeable goal) (12)

Derrida on Justice

jacques-derridaWhen it comes to justice, Derrida takes it as is. Justice cannot refer to something beyond itself without instantiating a senseless double (the dilemma of Euthaphro). Thus, it is a category by itself. The problem allegedly begins when we start talking specifics because any interpretation of justice is defined in relation to the person defining and applying it. Therefore, for Derrida, any hermeneutic of justice is not justice itself but performs violence to it. The aporia of justice is laid bare here: every instance of enacting justice on earth both honors it and distorts it simultaneously. In other words, every instance of justice is an injustice to itself. But the demands of justice are far too great to be left undecided upon. The risks of inaction are just as great, if not greater, than taking action. Therefore, we must expediently decide on practical matters of justice  using our best judgment knowing full well that our rigorous analytic will always fall short. Even for the Christian who insists that God is justice, the interpretive danger still lurks. Who’s particular conception of God’s justice is right after all? On Derrida’s read this does not imply we should give up being moral but rather must be vigilant in questioning ourselves and others.

(The content and organization of this post is derivative of Bruce Benson’s Graven Ideologies, 139-44)

Graven Ideologies

In Bruce Benson’s book Graven Ideologies the topic of idols, all that takes the place of God and separates us from true faith, is extended beyond material objects to include images and concepts. We create idols. We project our aspirations and ideas onto a divine plane believing we have represented God but in fact have only represented ourselves. The outcome is we create a god we can possess and master.  Benson’s point here is that theologies can become idols just as much, if not more so, than their material counterparts. On this path theology and philosophy alike are vain attempts of gaining a God’s eye perspective of the world. But since idols reflect us, we end up worshiping ourselves. The obvious alternative sought after by Christianity is to worship the God who breaks into our world and disturbs our ideologies. This is precisely the observation made by apophatic theology: we cannot speak about God adequately. But such caution perhaps is too cautious.

There is a strange logic at work in both positive and negative theology. One affirms something but denies it, because to affirm it too strongly would be heretical and to deny it completely would also be heretical (153)

Hence at the very least there is, or should be, proper tension between dogma and interrogation. And this properly belongs to everyone, recognized or not, because we all stand in a multitude of traditions. In other words, everyone has a dogma. Perhaps the most helpful Benson gives us is the distinction between the icon and the idol. With the icon we look through the image or concept to something beyond but with the idol we look directly at it and mistake it for the object of intention.

The problem with all icons is that they have a tendency to morph into idols. Properly speaking, of course, it is not their tendency so much as our tendency to take icons and turn them into idols (193)

The danger is that icons can easily turn into idols, but the reverse holds true as well. The point of clarity for avoiding this transgression lies in our letting go of a ‘masterable’ God. In other words, receiving the overwhelming experience of God in praise and knowing that his disclosure is always partial; never a full presence.

Faith, Reason and Imagination

In ‘Faith, Reason and Imagination’ John Milbank outlines the impetus for John MilbankNottingham’s up and coming Theology, Philosophy and Literature program to begin in the academic calendar year 09/10. According to Allison Milbank, via email correspondence, the inchoate program has emerged from John’s visits to the States and his encounter with more holistic grad programs. Not unlike his stance in Theology and Social Theory, Milbank argues that theology, through modernity, became a discipline that was separated form secular studies with the presumption that reason and revelation should remain in autonomous fields in western academia. This has slowly undergone change as education has increasingly become eclectic with the inclusion of art and literature; i.e., liberal arts degrees. This, in Milbank’s estimation, is a well needed correction since Christianity had previously integrated philosophic reflection with biblical studies (we can affirm humanities/humanity because God has been incarnate). The specific goal of the program is therefore to elucidate the ways in whihc theology and philosophy within literature avoided a lot of the hang-ups of the Enlightenment.

As to ‘philosophical theology’, it is a wholly redundant term: all Christian doctrina is involved in discursive reflection which appeals to traditions of philosophical reflection

His point being that philosophy is an integral and inherent part of theology and a supplement or additive. More specifically, it moves beyond classic philosophical theology which presumed that philosophy was superior to theology because natural reason is prioritized over revelation – representative of German idealism. What Milbank is arguing for is no more autonomy in the modern sense; the legacy given to us from Scotus to Banez who ceded philosophy a neutral sphere by assuming that human beings are sufficient reasoning beings without grace. Milbank argues that philosophy has always been theological, at times atheological, so we are simply reasserting the voice we have withheld.

The confluence of philosophy and theology is sparked by the admittance that it is erroneous to think that we have access to divine intellect which bypasses all need for philosophy.

Instead theology, whenever it intimates the heights, must humbly return to the depths and forever in time start all over again with relatively prosaic problems posed by philosophy

Our intellect is God given and theology enhances it – makes the world cohere. We need cultural mediation to the divine/metaphysical. We recognize the divine in the flux of creation, rather than in spite of it. As a typological strategy for this integration Milbank proposes imagination as the bridge between spirit and matter: (1) imagination as that which interprets (understands and explains) reality and (2) imagination as that which modifies. In summary, Milbank’s proposal for a ‘Theology, Philosophy and Literature’ program is to reveal the importance of reintegrating philosophy and theology by showing the problems with modern philosophy derivative of the separation briefly describe above. Ultimately to realize that literature and history and both part of faith; both are imaginative: Milbanks catch-all world for faith and reason.