Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, May 22, 2009

Take Me To The River



Wade with me a moment:

“As long as one supposes, concesso non dato, that religion has the slightest relation to what we thus call God, it could pertain not only to the general history of nomination, but, more strictly here, under its name of religio, to a history of the sacramentum and of the testimonium. It would be this history, it would merge with it. On the boat that brought us from Naples to Capri, I told myself that I would begin by recalling this sort of too luminous evidence, but I did not dare. I also told myself, silently, that one would blind oneself to the phenomenon called 'of religion' or of the 'return of the religious' today if one continued to oppose so naively Reason and Religion, Critique or Society and Religion, technoscientific Modernity and Religion. Supposing that what was at stake was to understand, would one understand anything about 'what's-going-on-today-in-the-world-with-religion'...if one continues to believe in this opposition, even in this incompatibility, which is to say, if one remains within a Enlightenment, one of the many Enlightenments of the past three centuries (not of an Aufklärung, whose critical force is profoundly rooted in the Reformation), but yes, this light of Lights, of the Lumieres, which traverses like a single ray a certain critical and anti-religious vigilance, anti-Judaeo-Christian-Islamic, a certain filiation 'Voltaire-Feuerbach-Marx-Nietzsche-Freud-(and even)-Heidegger'? Beyond this opposition and its determinate heritage (no less represented on the other side, that of religious authority), perhaps we might be able to 'understand' how the imperturbably and interminable development of critical and technoscientific reason, far from opposing religion, bears, supports and supposes it. It would be necessary to demonstrate, which would not be simple, that religion and reason have the same source. (We associate here reason with philosophy and with science as technoscience, as critical history of the production of knowledge, of knowledge as production, know-how and intervention at a distance, teletechnoscience that is always high-performance and performative by essence etc.) Religion and reason develop in tandem, drawing from this common resource: the testimonial pledge of every performative, committing it to respond as much before the other as for the high-performance performativity of technoscience. The same unique source divides itself mechanically, automatically, and sets itself reactively in opposition to itself: whence the two sources in one. This reactivity is a process of sacrificial indemnification, it strives to restore the unscathed (heilig) that it itself threatens.

“In our ‘wars of religion’, violence has two ages. The one…appears ‘contemporary’, in sync or in step with the hypersophistication of military tele-technology—of ‘digital’ and cyberspaced culture. The other is a ‘new archaic violence’, if one can put it that way. It counters the first and everything ir represents. Revenge. Resorting, in fact, to the same sources of mediatic power, it reverts (according to the return, the resource, the repristination and the law of internal and auto-immune reactivity we are trying formalize here) as closely as possible to the body proper and to the premachinal living being. In any case, to its desire and to its phantasm. Revenge is taken against the decorporalizing and expropriating machine by resorting—reverting—to bare hands, to the sexual organs or to primitive tools, often to weapons other than firearms. What is referred to as ‘killings’ and ‘atrocities’—words never used in ‘clean’ or ‘proper’ wars, where, precisely, the dead are no longer counted (guided or ‘intelligent’ missiles directed at entire cities, for instance)—is here supplanted by tortures, beheadings, and mutilations of all sorts. What is involved is always avowed vengeance, often declared as sexual revenge: rapes, mutilated genitals or severed hands, corpses exhibited, heads paraded, as not so long ago in France, impaled on the end of stakes (phallic processions of ‘natural religions’). This is the case, for examples, but it only an example, in Algeria today, in the name of Islam, invoked by both belligerent parties, each in its own way. These are also symptoms of a reactive and negative recourse, the vengeance of the body proper against an expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model, in its double form: secular and religious. When—another figure of double origin—the foreseeable alliance of the worst effects of fanaticism, dogmatism or irrationalist obscurantism with hypercritical acumen and incisive analysis of the hegemonies and the models of the adversary (globalatinization, religion that does not speak its name, ethnocentrism putting on, as always, a show of ‘universalism”, market-driven science and technology, democratic rhetoric, ‘humanitarian’ strategy or ‘keeping the peace’ by means of peace-keeping forces, while never counting the dead of Rwanda, for instance, in the same manner as those of the United States of America or of Europe). This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of ‘religious’ violence claims, in the name of ‘religion’, to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound. Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.”

Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, tr. Samuel Weber (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 27-28; 52-53.

First, I bring this up because the prescience of the second passage is interesting, given events that began 7 years after Derrida delivered those words to a colloquium on the Isle of Capri. “No one could have foreseen,” indeed. Second, I bring it up because I want to mine these two passages both for vocabulary and for ideas relevant to the present day, and to the situation of religion, specifically of Christianity, in the present day and among believers (and, to some extent, non-believers).

There are several things to mention here, all of them relevant to a central theme. One is the idea of the “machine,” an idea much with us since the Industrial Revolution and it’s double rooted, double uprooted, doubly eradicated, twin, Romanticism. Before the Industrial Revolution, the machine was not a metaphor for the human, nor for much of anything else in life. The machine was simply a tool, nothing more. It was as relevant to the position of the human, as the condition of the slave was to the master: i.e., not at all, except as it served the master (the inhumanity of slaver is another issue; but you look in vain for evidence that slavery is inhumane, in writings much before the 19th century. The machine and the slave were, for much of European history, on the same level). When the machine “arose” (and the mysterium tremendum of the Industrial Revolution continues, as evidenced by films as disparate as the first “Alien” movie, through now four “Terminator” films, and “Blade Runner,” on into “The Matrix.” We fear our machines precisely in relation to how much we depend on them. It’s not even an inverse relation. “Double root, double uprootedness, double eradication.”), it quickly became a metaphor for the human condition, and even today we have a hard time speaking of brain or mind or consciousness, without resort to metaphors drawn from computers. The machine long ago stopped being a tool, and became a reflection of who we are. More than occasionally, reflection and reality merge. Derrida says:

As long as one supposes, concesso non dato, that religion has the slightest relation to what we thus call God, it could pertain not only to the general history of nomination, but, more strictly here, under its name of religio, to a history of the sacramentum and of the testimonium. It would be this history, it would merge with it.
He means that religion would, properly considered, be not only a name (“nomination”, to “denominate” is simply to name; but what’s in a name?) but the history of sacrament and testimony itself; would be itself sacrament and testimony, both in time and beyond time, as the theologians understand it. We can comfortably, by now, say the same thing of the machine and our relationship to it It has merged with us, it has become the human. The frisson of the Terminator films is that the machines reflect the demons of our nature, unleashed and sanctified by technoscience, perfect examples indeed ot tele-technoscience, of:

[the] history of the production of knowledge, of knowledge as production, know-how and intervention at a distance, teletechnoscience that is always high-performance and performative by essence etc.)
The “essence” of the machines in the Terminator stories is an essence we recognize, even praise when it is used by “our” side: the “perfect” killing machine. So perfect that in the last two movies, it has taken another machine to defeat it. They embody the “history of the production of knowledge, of knowledge as production,” and most especially “know-how and intervention at a distance,” distance being measured in both time and space; a technology not only from “the future” but one step beyond remote-control: autonomous. It is teletechnoscience that is always high performance (each machine dazzles more than the one before) and performative by essence (its essence is entirely that of the machine: doing the job it was designed to do, without fear or favor or prejudice or any human consideration. The Terminator robots will destroy life with as much indifference as any machine will crush a limb or smash a body. Or a “smart bomb” will level a village, or smash the mud huts of Afghans to rubble and kill civilians and those labeled “Taliban”, together. It is all one, from a distance; and to a machine. Thus does science improve our humanity by increasing, augmenting, amplifying the importance and the power of the performative.

The performative and the concept of the performative is the key that turns the lock in this discussion, and that lock unlocked opens a door into a very interesting world, indeed; or at least an interesting weltanschaaung. Indeed, the performative is the thing:

Religion and reason develop in tandem, drawing from this common resource: the testimonial pledge of every performative, committing it to respond as much before the other as for the high-performance performativity of technoscience.
But before we plunge too far ahead and make the leap of faith to the conclusion that the performative is the root of all evil because it is only visible and efficacious in the material world, because it is only a semeia, a sign, that doesn’t point just one way, that may conceal as much as it reveals, that may leave us thinking we know what the actions of Jesus meant but, if we have to ask, as John’s gospel makes clear, then we will never understand, we will never have the gnosis: if we get, in other words, too far ahead of the double root, and the double uprootedness, we will find ourselves past the point of the double eradication, and fail completely in our understanding. So the root of performativity is not in reason or science alone; it is also in faith:

What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it? Can that faith save him? Suppose a fellow-Christian, whether man or woman, is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says “Goodbye, keep warm, and have a good meal,’ but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing…..As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from action is dead. James 2:14-17, 26 (REB)
It is not the performativity that is evil, then; it is not the expectation of performance that is wrong. A dualism that leads to a denial of the value of this life in this flesh, is a pernicious dualism that elevates form over substance. Faith commits us to respond before the other as much as for our faith. It is not the action that matters; it is the end, the telos, the purpose behind the actions. Just as science that does not serve humanity is the paradigm of peril and even evil in the “mad scientist” and the scientific experiment gone awry which endangers humankind, the staple of special effects movies, so too faith that does not serve humanity is zeal and madness and imperils what it would save, as in “Angels and Demons;” or a former Vice President who, in order to save the national village, must destroy everything it is built on. The blind act of faith and the blind pursuit of reason are simply two conditions that often appear alike. Or, to repeat where we started from:

The same unique source divides itself mechanically, automatically, and sets itself reactively in opposition to itself: whence the two sources in one. This reactivity is a process of sacrificial indemnification, it strives to restore the unscathed (heilig) that it itself threatens.
If there is a consistent, clear and present danger here, it is in acting “mechanically, automatically,” rather than mindfully; rather than heartfully; rather than thoughtfully and compassionately. And we are back to the metaphor provided us by science, by “Enlightenment;” but we are not back to a new idea, one unknown to the dialogues of faith.

If we take “Angels and Demons” as our framework for a moment, we can transition to the second long quote from Derrida. The “hypersophistication of military tele-technology—of ‘digital’ and cyberspaced culture” is represented in the film, but only mildly. Mostly the violence of the film is the “‘new archaic violence’” that counters the first and everything ir represents.” But that latter violence is meant to expose the dangers of the former, a form of violence present not in military technology, but in modernity (although it is technology which provides the threat that drives the plot, and technology that provides the opportunity for both salvation, confession, and justice). It is not too much to say that the heroes of the film represent modern society with its roots deep in history, and the villains of the film represent marginalized forces reacting to the hegemony of society and responding to it with the only means at hand: ‘new archaic violence.’ In other words, it’s a reflection of recent modern history.

The villain of “Angels and Demons” is revealed to be something of a neo-con, trying to use violence to prompt a reformation, a purification, this time not of society or nations, but of the Roman Catholic church. The real goal, of course, is not reformation: that’s why Luther left the church when it wouldn’t accept him, and instead started his own. The lesson of the neo-con is not to accept defeat, but to seek power, to overthrow the institution, society, nation, for the good of the institution, society, nation. The villain of “Angels and Demons” truly is trying “to restore the unscathed (heilig) that it itself threatens.” When Derrida’s words are understood in that light, it’s easy to transfer his example of Algeria to Iraq, and see in words written in 1996 almost a prediction of what would happen in 2003 and beyond, something done in the name of both reason and religion. Revenge has become the model on both sides, and the justification for continuing the battle. Soldiers want to return to war to defend their fellow soldiers. Politicians justify the ongoing slaughter on the grounds that ending now would only mean the deaths so far were pointless, that those deaths would go unavenged without victory. The “expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model” is the justification for continuing the battle, even as it is the reason the battle is waged at all. And the toll is taken on both sides: it is a two edged sword that cuts the assailant as well as the assailed, with every stroke. Battle is always an inhuman and de-humanizing affair. And it works against us as ferociously as it works for us: “It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body….” We are still compelled to endanger, if not absolutely destroy, our society, in order to save it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney would have us abandon everything unique about America in order to insure merely our survival. President Barack Obama, faced with prisoners who cannot be brought to any court, perhaps because no evidence that proves their complicity in killing, and their willingness to kill again, would be admissible in any court, perhaps because of the policies Vice President Cheney still champions. So in the name of defending our values, the President must change our values, although he will do it within the legal and Constitutional system, not in spite of it. We are set to attacking the blood of our own body, whether we want to pursue that assault, or not.

No one could have foreseen…..

Derrida describes more than prescribes, but at Verbis et Operibus the signs of an exit, of an option, of an alternative, begins to appear.

The liberal must “save” the poor from poverty. The conservative must keep the poor from indolence. Both pity the poor as something less desirable. Neither attempts to challenge the basic idea that the poor are ultimately disprivileged.

[...] True Christian charity, therefore, is something more than our common definition of pity. White guilt is pity. Condescension is pity. Even inaction might be pity, for some conservatives. And what pity obscures is the paradoxical realization that the poor are, by certain biblical definition, worthy of higher honor. They own something we do not. And the means by which we might participate in that honor with them is charity.
12.2 Ultimately, Henreckson is arguing that empathy — specific Christian empathy — should replace pity. I agree.
So do I. Empathy is the key; because empathy requires something of us. Empathy is faith bound to works. Empathy is grace incarnated. Empathy is the reason for the incarnation. Empathy is the product of the change of heart that must be accomplished before any salvation is possible. And that change of heart does not spring from either reason or religion. It may be channeled through them, guided through them, explained or exploited through them, but it is not produced by them. The change of heart is what religion supports, succors, and encourages; it is what reason uses, promotes, idealizes: but it is not produced by either of them. And yet it still comes from the heart: from the flesh.

Dom Crossan engages this discussion in the prologue to his study The Birth of Christianity. He notes the distinction between Jewish and Christian traditions, drawing the line along the contours of Platonic dualism, of the person as flesh and the ‘ghost in the machine.’ Paul would argue we are now neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but:

…no rabbinic Jew could do so, because people are bodies, not spirits, and precisely bodies are marked as male or female, and also marked through bodily practices and techniques such as circumcision and food taboos, as Jew or Greek as well. Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel, quoted in Crossan, p. xx.
Which observation leads Crossan to consider that:

The “Word”—Logos, in Greek—is the intelligibility of the world, the rationality of the universe, the meaning of life, as revelation of the Divine Mind. And John says that Word became not just body but flesh, not just the special –effects body of standard Greco-Roman divine visitations, but the one and only flesh and blood of full and normal human existence. The Word became flesh; that is to say, the divine meaning of life is incarnated in a certain human way of living.
But that divine meaning of life must be incarnated in a certain human way of living, and that incarnation requires not just empathy, but precisely what empathy requires: a change of heart.

And where does that come from? That’s the next question.

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