Calvin’s Big Other

A common misconception in the early stages of learning Lacanian theory is to assume that “the big Other” is God. In point of fact, this is not the case. The big Other refers to the realm of officiality and quasi-officiality, and the use of the word “big” rather than, say, “grand” in translating this concept testifies to a fundamental silliness. We all know objectively that the social order is impersonal, but we act like there’s a person out there — not like all the other others, but a really big Other — whose recognition we need and who, in some cases, must be kept in the dark.

For instance, we all know that marriage is really about commitment and love and that a piece of paper doesn’t determine that, but people obviously still want to go through the proper channels in order to be “really” married, and sometimes there is anxiety on the part of one or both partners if the wedding has occurred but the paperwork seems to be out of order, etc. The commitment is between the two people, but the big Other is party to it. On the other side, the phenomenon of “open secrets” or what people will say “off the record” show that sometimes the big Other needs to be kept in the dark — it’s one thing for a Bush administration official to privately confide in a reporter that the Iraq War is lost, but it would be completely different for one to say so in testimony to Congress. The indisputable, objective underlying reality — that the Iraq War is lost — remains the same in both cases, but it still matters whether it’s official, that is, whether the big Other has heard about it.

The theology of John Calvin seems to me to provide a great way to illustrate this disjuncture between God and the big Other. On the one hand, God is controlling everything behind our backs, acting according to a purpose that is known only to him and that does not correspond to our own ideas of morality and logic. (Thus God is more properly aligned with the Lacanian Real.) But on the other hand, Calvin — perhaps because of his legal training — places a huge emphasis on the realm of officiality. For instance, in his exposition of the line “crucified under Pontius Pilate” from the creed, Calvin argues that the death of Jesus couldn’t be a suicide or any kind of “private” death — it had to be public, and to be properly public, it had to be an official death sentence handed down by the official representative of the state. This officiality holds even though Calvin thinks that Pilate as a private individual believed Jesus to be innocent. Similarly, in his discussion of church discipline, he repeatedly emphasizes that a person is to be officially considered a member of the church or a minister (as appropriate) as long as that person has not been officially removed from that position by the proper authorities. This has nothing to do with salvation — God can do what he wants, and it is already known that there will be “chaff” (reprobate) among the members of the church. So if Calvin isn’t doing this for the sake of God, what’s the purpose? Clearly, he wants to satisfy the big Other.

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16 Responses to “Calvin’s Big Other”

  1. parodycenter Says:

    Good point Adam and I am especially interested in this alignment with the Lacanian Real, so could you enlighten us more about it?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Not at this time. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

  3. Joseph Kugelmass Says:

    Maybe Calvin just wants people to avoid confusing their own subjective judgments of each other, which would be damaging to the solidarity of the church, with the authority reserved for the Big Other. In other words, he wants to ban private hierarchies of righteousness.

    The Man working behind our backs, the surreptitious Real: it’s the way you’d describe an arch-nemesis! From now on, the Real is my enemy.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Joseph, It seems like you might be confusing God with the big Other. (His emphasis on proper procedure, etc., is definitely a guard against individual willfulness.)

  5. Joseph Kugelmass Says:

    You did a good job, in your post, distinguishing between God and the big Other. When I wrote, “with the authority reserved for the big Other,” I meant “reserved for the official church hierarchy.”

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s official: I’m dumb.

  7. Craig Says:

    The “social” only rises after “the death of god.” Of course, Lacan may not care about that. Or, perhaps, the rise of the social coincides with the decision to take god off life support.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There are some theologians now who are arguing that God isn’t dead — he’s just very, very weak. The life-support metaphor brought this to mind. Perhaps from Nietzsche’s perspective, God would be dead if only a “vegetable” on life-support — and at the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised that in heaven in the mid-1800’s, they had superior technology that wasn’t available on earth. Ultimately, I think we need to call in Agamben to adjudicate this one.

  9. Craig Says:

    I don’t think Agamben (or Schmitt) are theoretically equipped to account for the form of sovereignty involved in checking God’s pulse or heart-rate monitor. What model of life would be used? Clearly, brain-death doesn’t apply.

  10. pdxstudent Says:

    “…people obviously still want to go through the proper channels in order to be “really” married, and sometimes there is anxiety on the part of one or both partners if the wedding has occurred but the paperwork seems to be out of order, etc.”

    An excellent example is Hitchcock’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

  11. esienkowski Says:

    As is often the case with Calvin, I can’t help but think that there is a not-entirely-honest reason for the two Others.
    Perhaps even after having officially painted a picture of a God whose will is in some sense unknowable, Calvin still believes, unconsciously, in the Big Other God – perhaps an emphasis on ‘officiality’ is the return of this disavowed belief.
    Perhaps the unknowable God is simply a theoretical feint.

  12. Gabe Says:

    Adam,
    which theologians besides Caputo are arguing for the “weak God”?

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Um…. Caputo’s grad students?

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Um, Brian McLaren? The hundreds of lay theological emergent church blogs?

  15. Brad Johnson Says:

    Yes…. Caputo is HUGE in emergent church circles. Even recently was the keynote speaker at one of their big conferences.

  16. parodycenter Says:

    Adam, Anthony, I put you on my blogroll under ”Eternal Theology Students”.


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