The spectacle of hell in Augustine

Modern critics of Christianity have repeatedly drawn attention to the recurring trope of the blessed watching the damned being tortured in hell. It appears most forcefully in the famous passage from Tertullian’s De spectaculis that was quoted by both Gibbon and Nietzsche, as well as in later theologians like Bonaventure and Aquinas (who didn’t have the excuse of being persecuted).

This theme appears to be mostly absent in City of God, where Augustine nonetheless insists on the reality and the appropriateness of eternal damnation for the majority of human beings. There is a strange element of his treatment of eternal punishment in Book XXI, however, in that he responds to critics who don’t believe that a physical body could endure endless suffering by pointing to all the many natural wonders he had experienced or heard of. He mentions the salamander, which supposely lived in fire, as well as more obscure examples such as the imperishability of cooked peacock flesh (something McDonald’s should look into). There’s even a passage in which he anticipates the Insane Clown Posse’s immortal line: “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” The ostensible message is clear — if God can do all this amazing stuff, how can you doubt that he could make a body that was able to endure eternal torture? Yet the subtext is disturbing: by insistently associating eternal torture with all these cool things, he is implicitly counting it among God’s marvellous wonders.

Hence the theme of enjoyment of and fascination with the tortures of the damned appears even here, in submerged form.

The definitive interpretation of Revelation

In my devil class, we read Daniel and Revelation in a short period, attempting to get at the apocalyptic mindset that produced our familiar figure of the devil. I’ve written previously about my theory that Antiochus Epiphanes’ brief but horrifying reign provided a key impetus for the development of the idea of a spiritual/political power that was not simply God’s unwitting tool (though he also remained that), but consciously fought against God’s purposes. The emergence of such a figure, who broke the Deuteronomistic pattern by punishing the Jews precisely for being righteous and faithful to the Law, could only mean the impending end of the world order that the Deuteronomistic paradigm had rendered intelligible — and produced the demand for a radically new world order in which the problem of evil would no longer be a problem.

Daniel’s strategy for presenting his view (for the sake of economy, let’s not get into the weeds of parsing out sources, etc.) consists in giving an account of world history up to his time (the Maccabean period), an account that is symbolic but more or less transparent when you know what he’s talking about — for instance, the various beasts are empires, the “little horn” is Antiochus, etc. The author brings us up to the situation in which he’s writing/redacting/whatever, but then in chapter 11, he gives us a prediction that didn’t come true (Antiochus is supposed to mount one last offensive against Northern Africa before ushering in the Last Judgment).

The visions in Revelation are much more difficult to “map onto” any particular history and seem to generate a kind of collage effect. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the core prediction is the ignominous fall of Rome, centered around Nero as an Antiochus-like figure. But the stakes have been decisively raised. Read the rest of this entry »

History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

The birth pangs of apocalyptic

Several years ago, Bruce Rosenstock recommended that I look at 2 Maccabees as a way of contextualizing Paul’s discussion of God’s “adaptive” approach to historical events in Romans 9-11. His general thought was that the Jews had gone “off-script” in actually rebelling against the oppressive rulers, because they could no longer sustain the traditional idea that their political misfortunes were the result of disobedience. It was difficult for me to see what he was getting at initially, as 2 Maccabees at first seems to be little more than a poorly organized and highly editorialized version of 1 Maccabees, but as I’ve digested over the years and especially as I’ve returned to the text for my devil course, I’ve come to believe that the whole problem of political theology and apocalyptic is somehow “all there.”

I recommend homing in on the section on Antiochus Epiphanes’ storied career (5:11-10:9), where the most contradictory elements are simply juxtaposed — most jarringly, graphic accounts of martyrs submitting to torture rather than betray God’s law are placed alongside the emergence of a violent insurgency led by Judas Maccabeus. Both come in for approval, and the editorial voice makes heroic efforts to shoehorn it in to the old Deuteronomistic framework, but that only increases the contradictions. And to top it off, we see the emergence of the apocalyptic theme of the resurrection of the dead, which is only hinted at in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s as though we’re watching the breakdown of the Deuteronomistic paradigm and the first seeds of apocalyptic emerging, all in real time — and it’s all the more striking in that the editor clearly doesn’t understand that that’s what’s happening.

In short: take and read.

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Read the rest of this entry »

What is Creaturely Theology?

First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.

Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however, Read the rest of this entry »

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