Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.

The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology

I’m getting ready to write a couple pieces for a reference volume on atonement, and that has got me thinking once again about how profoundly strange Aulen’s Christus Victor is. On the one hand, it was an absolutely decisive intervention insofar as it demonstrated the variety of approaches to making sense of Christ’s saving work through history and drew much-needed attention to the patristic “ransom theory.” On the other hand, his argument is at times tendentious and willful. This is clearest above all in his insistence that the patristic view is to be recommended because its narrative is a completely one-sided exercise of divine sovereignty from beginning to end. In reality, the whole point of the theory according to basically all the patristic authors is that God doesn’t use unilateral violent means to save us but intervenes non-violently in order to undermine Satan’s rule from within — and when people start objecting to the theory, it’s precisely because it’s not unilateral enough and grants too much legitimacy to Satan.

There are other odd points as well, though. For instance, he faults Anselm for overemphasizing Christ’s humanity, hence undermining the axiomatically desirable divine unilaterality — when it seems to me that Anselm and the patristic theory are at one in equally emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is on the face of it the most “orthodox” way of going about it. Further, he credits Abelard with inventing the “moral influence” theory, when I show in Politics of Redemption that Abelard does no such thing.

What is going on here? I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is the Barthian framework that Aulen is working with. He finds the ransom theory in Luther and in the New Testament, and hence it must be Protestant in the full Barthian sense — which means divine unilateralism, etc. The moral influence theory is obviously much more associated with Liberal Protestantism, but it’s not enough for it to be a modern innovation. Instead, his strategy on both Anselm and Abelard is to show that Roman Catholicism was secretly Liberal Protestantism the whole time. With Anselm, this works because he turns redemption into too much of a human achievement, and with Abelard it’s a matter of finding some Roman Catholic root for the modern Liberal Protestant theory.

Overall, I’d say Aulen’s book is a huge net gain for theology — his Barthian-Protestant bias was probably necessary to give him “eyes to see” the ransom theory to begin with, and he gathers a lot of helpful material that would be hard to track down otherwise. The only problem is that the very bias that allowed him to see the variety in the tradition also led him to misread his own evidence.

On belief

The standard liberal objection to religious motivations for political action is that they are unquestionable and not susceptible of disproof, so that they cannot form a part of the ongoing rational dialogue that should ideally characterize the political process. Indeed, the “special relationship” that secular liberalism posits between religion and violence is based precisely on the fact that religiously-motivated actions are not motivated by reason and hence are arbitrary and unpredictable — i.e., violent.

In one of Zizek’s weakest books, On Belief, he claims that liberals are actually the “believers” in this sense. He doesn’t back up this claim very effectively, choosing instead to indulge in misleading, “provocative” violations of liberal pieties, yet I think we can see that the core insight is there when we notice that the signature gesture of our ruling classes is to present themselves as the mere vessel of impersonal, ineluctable forces. Powerful, impossibly wealthy businessmen have no freedom of choice, as the market determines everything they do. Politicians are similarly guided by what is “politically possible,” irrespective of the range of options their office should theoretically give them.

Obviously it is human to try to beg off responsibility by pointing to forces beyond one’s control — but surely never before in history has a ruling class so thoroughly legitimated itself as constrained by forces beyond its control. It’s as though the one qualification for political or economic power is the ability to divine the messages coming from these powerful occult forces that guide our lives. Any actual deliberation about what should happen is radically foreclosed by this stance: indeed, proposing to debate openly about the shape of our shared life is painted with the same brush of fanaticism as in the liberal critique of religion, except this time the label is “populism” (a catch-all term that completely ignores the unmistakable differences between right- and left-wing principles and priorities).

I would venture to say that back when societies were structured according to religious principles and everyone basically believed in God, a political or business leader who claimed to be a direct channel for God’s will would’ve been regarded as either insane or dangerously disingenuous. Re-label “God’s will” as “the market” or “the politically feasible,” however, and no one bats an eye.

I’d further claim that in settings where religious authority factored significantly in the political process, debate was actually much more vigorous — just compare the Talmud to the editorial pages in a mainstream newspaper, for example. That’s because everyone recognized that the sources of religious authority, as was fitting for something from a divine source, were difficult for us mere humans to understand, so that our conclusions about God’s intent were almost always subject to error and reinterpretation.

Not so with the contemporary impersonal deity who inspires our ruling elites! It’s always right there in the numbers, in black and white. There’s no room for interpretation or debate, unless that means using more sophisticated (and hence reliable!) mathematical tools — at the end of the day, all you need is a literal interpretation and you’re good to go. No religious fundamentalist can possibly be as closed off to alternatives as the secular liberal fundamentalist armed with absolute mathematical necessity.

All we are saying is give hell a chance.

Eternal damnation is an embarrassment to contemporary Christianity. Liberals tend to be universalists, to the extent that they articulate a position at all, and even conservatives generally downplay it, particularly given the hegemony of “seeker-sensitive” worship formats. Today, though, I saw a picture on Twitter of an 8-year-old girl who was shot in the face with rubber bullets by Israeli Defense Forces. As far as I can tell, she’ll be fine, but she easily could have been killed. And my thought was: the person who did that deserves to go to hell. I don’t care if they were following orders or responding to broader systemic forces or what — you have to be pretty far gone and irredeemable if you’re willing to shoot an 8-year-old girl in the face.

I’ve had similar thoughts in the past. Remember when a retail CEO was willing to go to the Supreme Court to keep from paying for his employees’ birth control, and remember when some smug little asshole wrote an opinion supporting him? Remember the cop who was indiscriminately spraying pepper spray on Occupy protesters like it was bug spray? Remember when Dick Cheney went on his media blitz to defend torture? Remember how Roger Smith destroyed the community that I was born into by dismantling GM in the pursuit of profit? Remember how Jamie Dimon once said smugly that financial crises are a natural occurence that we should expect every five years? I remember things like that, and each time, I think: damn you. Literally, damn you.

Perhaps the problem with the traditional doctrine of hell was that it was focused on the wrong types of sins. I’d be up for a circle of hell solely for shareholder-oriented management teams or deficit hawks. I’d certainly love to see an entire series of circles for those who defend national security, who secure our borders, who do the ugly but necessary thing. Every head of state should go to hell, and every urban cop who has ever donned riot gear to protect the public from a bunch of idealistic college kids. Every payday lender, every sheriff’s deputy enforcing eviction orders, every Master of the Universe who’s really counting on his bonus this year, every university president who covers for rapists and diverts money from the academic budget into another building — straight to hell.

Surely no one can believe there’s a heaven any longer, but we can at least cling to the hope that there’s still a hell. We need to believe that the powerful can suffer, that they can be humiliated, that they can be made to feel there is no way out. We need to believe that they won’t be able to pay anyone off, that they won’t be able to call in any favors. If there can’t be any hope for us, we can at least hope that one day there will be hopelessness for the destroyers of our hope.

The imitation of Muhammad

Yesterday I remarked on Twitter that the imitation of Muhammad seems to be much more important for Muslims than the imitation of Christ is for Christians. My wording was exaggerated, suggesting that Christians are opposed to imitating Christ — though I would maintain that for many conservative Christians, that is obviously the case (theologically, not because they’re bad people, etc.) — and so I thought I’d write the blog post I should have written in the first place.

In my study of Islam so far, it’s striking how much people try to model their lives after Muhammad. There are thousands upon thousands of anecdotes and quotations, called hadith, that ostensibly give insight into these topics (and Muslims are well aware that they are of varying levels of reliability). In the early centuries, people would travel hundreds of miles to find new hadith, and collecting and assessing them became a fine art — which then became the basis for the development of Shari’a law.

Even if some of the hadith are not authentic or fully accurate, it remains the case that there is a lot more you can know about Muhammad’s life than about Jesus’. We have reliable information about Muhammad’s appearance, his dress, the way he cut his facial hair, his daily habits (such as using a toothpick), etc. In part, this is simply because Muhammad was much more “important” in a straightforward sense during his lifetime — he was the leader of a powerful community that was on its way to taking over much of the known world by the time he died.

Yet there’s a theological reason as well. It is important to Christian theology that Jesus became “really human,” but the emphasis there was on confirming his functional role in enabling humanity to be saved. His moral example was always secondary, and when it is emphasized, it’s incredibly vague: “love one another,” “be humble,” “sacrifice for one another,” “be willing to die for your faith.”

This is simply not at the level of concreteness of Muhammad’s toothpick. It’s not the same kind of thing. In fact, I would claim that you don’t need Jesus to know the moral principles that his example supposedly provides. We already knew that love was a good thing before Jesus came around. Judaism had already developed the concept of martyrdom.

I would even go a step further and say that there’s a theological reason that we don’t have the same kind of concrete information about Jesus that we do about Muhammad. It’s not simply a contingent fact that the earliest Christian writings, the epistles of Paul, are devoid of any information about Christ except for his death and resurrection — and that the gospels devote most of their time to those topics, while providing very little in the way of imitatable detail. (It’s not like we’re going to make it a general principle to miraculously multiply a small amount of food when confronted with a huge crowd, for instance.) Even in places where Jesus isn’t clearly divine, he’s still an exceptional person with a unique mission. All the Gospels are at pains to show that no one really understood his importance when he was alive, even his closest associates. Those same apostles, who presumably observed Jesus very closely when traveling with him (and again, are we going to make it a norm that everyone has to be a celibate itinerant preacher?), only become truly effective as part of his mission once they receive a share of the divine power in the form of the Holy Spirit.

It can’t be a matter of reading off a pattern of life from a flesh-and-blood human being in the case of Jesus. That’s just not how it works. That’s not the kind of figure he is in Christian theological terms, and what little we know about his lifestyle does not seem to provide a formula for an enduring, large-scale society like Islam became. And to be clear, I’m not accusing Christians of hypocrisy or implying that things would be better if only they’d followed Jesus’ example. There’s just not much usable material in the concrete facts of Jesus’ example. Indeed, once serious research into the “historical Jesus” began, it was only a short time before the most rigorous scholars concluded that the life of Jesus was basically irrelevant to contemporary concerns, particularly the liberal project that his example is most often invoked to support.

So yes, I am aware that there’s a book called The Imitation of Christ and that people throw that phrase around — but that’s about super-charging general moral principles with religious significance, not about figuring out how to model every aspect of your daily life around the habits of a guy named Jesus of Nazareth. The Islamic stance toward the figure of Muhammad is fundamentally different and is more accurately called “imitation” than the devotional practices that go under the title of “imitation of Christ” in Christian circles.

To repeat again, though — I’m not trying to deride Christianity or claim that Islam lives up to a Christian principle better than Christians. They’re two different approaches to two very different founding figures, and it’s not clear to me that either has delivered uniformly positive or uniformly negative concrete results.

Non-Theology in the Pigsty (A Non-Philosophcal Theory of Nature Book Event)

As surprising as it may seem to those of us who consider ourselves, despite it all, theologians, Anthony Paul Smith comes in peace. ‘Ultimately’, he writes, ‘this non-philosophical and non-theological practice, with all its constitutive parts, declares peace to all – the philosophers, the theologians, and the ecologists’ (p62). What sort of peace does he offer? Not the colonial peace of the Radically Orthodox, for whom reconciliation is possible only on condition of the unconditional surrender of all things to Christ the king and theology his queen; nor the hippy peace of certain sorts of green thinking for which we join hands around the world to live in harmony with Nature; nor even (not quite, not exactly) the democratic peace of weak theology, in which we are all as wrong as each other and the real task to cultivate a multiculturalism within which the only thing which will not be tolerated is intolerance. Rather, this is the peace of ecology, a nature red in tooth and claw, the circle of life within which all things interact with one another, a peace which is a matter of indifference to the grass, joy for the lion, but not quite so much fun for the antelope.

The problem with theology, Anthony says, is its incorrigible bossiness. It can’t stop telling nature what it ought to be like, and insofar as it engages with scientific accounts of nature it does so only to demonstrate that they have failed to wash behind their ears, or to hold them up, squirming with embarrassment, as a shining example for everybody else. Theology knows that cleanliness is next to godliness, that good girls wouldn’t ever; theology will take over your country because the poor savages need somebodyto tell them what to do, and it will drag you up kicking and screaming into some semblance of a civilised human being, just as long as it doesn’t murder you first. Read the rest of this entry »

Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

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