The Principle of Sufficient Theology: Some Remarks on “Theology and Non-Philosophy”

My copy of The Non-Philosophy:Project: Essays by François Laruelle arrived in the mail yesterday. Up front I will admit that I have been nervous about this volume, since generally I think it is safe to say I’m part of the inner-circle of some kind of non-philosophy cabal and so tend to hear about projects related to non-philosophy. But, I knew basically nothing about this volume other than one of the editors is a theologian and that it was coming out with Telos Press Publishing and this made me very nervous since I consider Telos essentially a right-wing press, often publishing or supporting right-wing Christian political theologians work.  But that said, I was happy to see that Ray Brassier, nowhere near a right-wing Christian and often quite critical of Laruelle’s work, appears to have had a heavy hand in the volume. That suggests to me that the translations are at least excellent and though many of the essays were previously available on-line or in journals, it is nice to have a set of the occasional essays that have been floating around for a bit now. Some readers will be especially happy to see that a chapter from Introduction au non-marxisme is also included, so that will be a preview of the larger book that I’m translating and which should be out in early 2013.

But then I turned to the afterword, written by the editors Gabriel Alkon and Boris Gunjevic, and saw the title “Theology and Non-Philosophy”. It’s rather thin on citations and footnotes, but when you’re writing about Laruelle, who believes that living philosophy doesn’t require the same apparatus as history of philosophy, I think this is forgivable even when it is a piece ostensibly concerned with introducting Laruelle. The point with non-philosophy just isn’t scholarship, but the construction of theory, and while we could have a conversation about the proper role of scholarship in theory it seems fair to at least concede that rigorous theories like non-philosophy at least count as an a reasonable option. So, even though I found myself reading Alkon and Gunjevic’s afterword and thinking many of their claims factually incorrect, I don’t think this is really the level that my criticism should operate. (As an aside – because I simply can’t resist – one claim they make that I don’t think is supported by Laruelle’s work at all is found when they write, “The life of the subject is, according to Laruelle, a faithful adherence to generic scientific or theoretical procedures”. The emphasis is theirs, but nowhere in Laruelle’s writing that I know of does he emphasize faith in this way. For him it’s always about gnosis, knowledge, and so the subject doesn’t have to be faithful, the subject simply is identical-in-the-last-instance with generic or radical immanence. This is important because it is a major difference between Laruelle’s theory of the subject and Badiou’s.)

No, for me the proper place for any critique of this kind of writing has to take place at the science of theology, what I’ve termed in published writing as “non-theology”. Again, interested parties should consult my essay in After the Postsecular and the Postmodern, but in general what the editors miss in their advocacy of the centrality of Christianity is precisely the way this would inscribe a principle of sufficient (Christian) theology in the place of the principle of sufficient philosophy. The authors at one point write, “But why, if faith is the life adhering to generic non-philosophical procedure [it's not, that would be, again, gnosis], does Laruelle focus on the figure of Christ? Why does Laruelle invoke this name? The answer cannot be, as Laruelle sometimes suggests, that he is simply making non-religious use of given religious and theological material.” The answer cannot be? Wait… why not?! The authors go on to say the reason being that Laruelle connects his most recent work very strongly to the figure of Christ, which is true, but that does not mean there is any necessity there either! What we see the editors doing here is something akin to when Pope Benedict XVI said that there was a certain providence in Christianity, originally a Jewish religious movement, merging with Greek philosophy and European culture. It turns something completely contingent, ultimately insufficient, into something necessary, and absolutely sufficient unto itself. What the editors essentially are saying in this sort afterword is that Christianity has no need of non-philosophy, but non-philosophy secretly does need Christianity. This is perhaps Christianity’s oldest trick, at least as it plays out in philosophy, for Christianity is necessary because it, like capitalism, can always overcode anything that comes before it.

At one point the editors try to argue that Christian theology already has put forward some of the central ideas of non-philosophy, like the “given-without-givenness” of things since the pure transcendence of God is immanent in creation as gift. And here they point towards, though do not develop, a more interesting theme concerning the role of transcendence and immanence in non-philosophy. For Laruelle transcendence isn’t rejected, but instead is made relative. Which means, of course, that transcendence is no longer transcendence as the boosters of transcendence would like to present it. But Alkon and Gunjevic gesture towards the notion that transcendence theologically understood isn’t really like this. Instead, they write,

“Transcendence is internal to the structure of things that exist in mutual determining relation to each other, a relation that is positive and not just differential or dialectical; and so transcendence cannot, even in-the-last-instance, be foreclosed from any form of worldly knowledge. Transcendence as such is foreclosed: that which gives the world as a whole is as unknowable for theology as it is for non-philosophy; the doctrine of creation insists that the world is given without a philosophically recoverable givenness.”

This is what I have identified in a forthcoming essay as “weaponized apophaticism”. That is, transcendence here is said to be positive, but in such a way that it’s positivity cannot be confronted like the positivity of all other things, thereby making any rebellion against transcendence, against the underlying structure of the World, impossible. For what you would be rebelling against is simply an appearance, while the truth underlying the appearance always slips away. It is an unsaying, but this time it is the unsaying of creatures always in the name of the creator.

What bothers me about this essay is that the authors are deploying old theological tricks, analogous to the philosophical ones Laruelle rejects, that require the humiliation of human beings in the face of transcendence. And why? For Laruelle the point of emphasising Christ over God the Father is that Christ is human, Christ is in-person, whereas God the Father, for Laruelle, has the same structure as Hell and the World. Non-philosophy is a gnosis and as such it is a radical rejection of this World, not in the name of some Michel Henry-esque transcendence-in-immanence, as the editors suggests, but in the Name-of-the-Human (or for me Name-of-the-Creature), as advocated in Struggle and Utopia. What the editors want to do by insisting that Laruelle has a faith in the Christian version of Christ is to make non-philosophy submit, not to the Name-of-the-Creature, but to tradition, all the while realizing that what fascinates Laruelle about Christ is that he refused to submit to tradition as such. For, it isn’t Jesus Christ of Christianity, which Gilles Grelet describes as the marshmallow Christ (since there is nothing about marsh mallow in the candy and there is nothing Christ-like about Christianity), but the Christ of victimised gnosis. Christ in this sense is much more akin to the heresy (to Christianity) of Docetism. In this way one could develop a non-theology out of Laruelle without any of the primacy the editors think belong to the Christian version of Christ. One could look to Shi’a Islam and the Hidden Imam, or to Hinduism and its avatars, or any number of religious materials that are not Christianity. But in each case it wouldn’t be enough simply to inscribe non-philosophy into those systems, as if it were the occasion of their thought, but, just as he does with Christianity, those systems have to be inscribed as occasions of human thought and practice.

So when the editors end their afterword writing, “Could Laruelle have articulated his non-religious faith without the direction provided by his personal belief [!?!] in – his inclination towards, his attention to, his imagination of – Jesus Christ?”, the only answer that rigorously holds to the principles of non-philosophy is, “No, but that doesn’t make it sufficient.”

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7 Responses to “The Principle of Sufficient Theology: Some Remarks on “Theology and Non-Philosophy””

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    I obviously can’t comment substantively, but that “personal belief” throwaway line . . . wow.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Why would you go to all the trouble of reading a difficult author like Laruelle, only to come out with what you already knew before?

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Although I’ve read little on Laruelle the whole notion of sneaking Christianity in the backdoor as somehow necessary is obnoxious. The ways Christians theologians react when philosophers address Christianity (e.g. Zizek, Badious, Derrida, Laruelle, etc) never ceases to frustrate me. To me, it’s a sign of theology’s impotence and irrelevance.

  4. dbarber Says:

    Colonialism is what it is.

  5. christopher Says:

    As a semi-reply to Adam: isn’t that what many conservative theologians do? They find the same thing everywhere. When Europeans began to colonise India, they saw a ‘trinity’ in the form of Brahman-Visnu-Siva despite the fact that the majority (if not all) Hindus do not see them as co-equal forms of some hidden substance and they also worship and prioritise other divinities as well (Devi, Ganesha, etc). This might be the fundamental critique of the popular book series ‘Finding God in…’ where, amazingly, God and ‘traditional’ theology can be found everywhere. What most theologians of this sort fail to realise that such success is primarily through that process of colonisation of overcoding in which everything must be Christianised despite the apparent contradiction of critiques (e.g. Harry Potter and the Bible, which finds the Potter series to be the first, second, and third step towards paganism and witchcraft, is supplemented by Finding God in Harry Potter which sees everything as Christian allegory).

    Secondly, APS, ‘Christianity is necessary because it, like capitalism, can always overcode anything that comes before it’. This got me thinking (sorry, tangentially here) — couldn’t an argument be made (if it hasn’t already) that capitalism really is just an overcoding of Christianity over something like ‘market economies’?

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m sure that capitalism has overcoded Christianity, yes. I would resist moving from there to a “true kernel” of Christianity, but certainly there are radical elements in Christianity (it is a complex object, after all) that can be marshaled against this.

  7. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Two nibbles come to mind here. One is that, as we all well sense, what Alkon and Gunjevic seem to have done here is an apologetics for evangelicals (and their more traditionalist cohorts) who like to read Continental philosophy. Such readers are not, of course, the addressees of the apologetics, but the putative BENEFICIARIES thereof. In other words, no one is imagining that non-Christian Continental philosophers will be convinced or converted by their arguments. So the “value” of such theological contortions in critical habit is the confidence that posty evangelicals and other volunteer guardians of orthodoxy might feel from the reassurance that no philosophy can upturn their theology, but that the latter can always HEGELATE (how’s that for a farcical coinage?) all other thought at will. It’s theological fire insurance, really. Sometimes I think they’d get rather farther if they went for a fire sale instead, that is, ditch “fides quaerens intellectum” for Tertullian’s “credo quia absurdum.” The absurd, at any rate, is undervalued and –explored (Camus notwithstanding).

    The second is the image of the game of (i)go (weiqi in Mandarin Chinese), in which each player tries, by strategically placing new pieces on the board, to encompass the pieces of the other and thus annihilate them. At the end, whoever has devoured more pieces, which doubly represent territory and troops, is reckoned the victor. Two problems precipitate from this analogy. One is that the military strategy here is much outdated, and, worse, it assumes a flat-footed Aristotelian (or Confucian for that matter) ontology that compels a univocal quantification of the world (what Deleuze/Guattari termed striated space, already terrifyingly symbolized in Lord of the Flies). The other is the assumption that there IS an end to the game, marked by the conclusion of each apologetic engagement. In other words, there is a rhetorical eschaton that subtends the immediate claim to victory. The truth is, however, these “victories” are more like the tactical wins (or more accurately, near wins and losses) during the game of go, and keep flipping back and forth between the sides – and thus only illusory. Normally Christian apologists and their adversaries operate much like that, each side believing to be engulfing the other when in fact the arena of war just keeps shifting round and round. In the case of Laruelle and non-philosophy, however, the matter is not symmetrical, because the philosophical purport here is that there IS no outside from which to engulf anything or everything, because there is no “all” – but just the “one” (what I call the omniporosity of affect – in the sense of affecting and being affected, or pathopoesis for short). Hence there is in Laruelle no frontal attack on Christianity that should even excite an apology, only a meta-critique of all pantologies, which, in political terms, is also anti-panoptic. On a philosophical level, this is also the lesson of go.


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