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?

Agamben, theology, and me

The other day, Stephen Keating asked me what attracted me to Agamben initially, and I had to confess that at first it was simply a desire to see what the big deal was about Homo Sacer. I found the book pretty baffling, and out of stubbornness (and with some nudging from Ted Jennings), I read further to see if I could make sense of things — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that it isn’t actually that simple. I’ve found many books baffling, and I didn’t wind up learning to read in a foreign language in order to keep up with their authors’ work, nor have I translated them, etc. The key, I think, is my strange disciplinary position. I do a lot with philosophy and really enjoy it — and yet I very often feel like I’m stuck in an “expositional” mode, as though I can’t fully inhabit the discourse in the way necessary to do creative work with it. It’s different with theology. There I feel like a genuine internal critic, and I feel confident that I can make creative contributions to the discourse.

From this perspective, Agamben is appealling to me because he occupies a similar position with regard to the Christian tradition. His readings of the theological tradition are much more interesting and daring than the majority of confessional theologians’ — particularly in the Paul book and in his bold rewriting of the entire history of Christian thought in The Kingdom and the Glory. Despite his immersion, he is still able to approach the tradition with genuine freedom, and despite his critical stance, he is able to approach the tradition with the initial sympathy needed to detect what is at stake in theologians’ often recondite debates. Agamben can make the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem as though it has urgent contemporary consequences, and yet that importance emphatically does not at all imply that we should become Christians.

This basic resonance makes Agamben at once a deep influence on my way of thinking and the philosopher that I feel most able to critique. And this weird stance toward philosophy and theology may explain my position on other philosophers. For instance, I have long had a gut feeling that delving deeper into Badiou’s work would not be the best use of my time, despite his obvious relevance for my work on Zizek — and I suspect that may finally be because his reading of Paul is deeply reactionary and anti-Jewish. Similarly, my interest in Zizek has waned as his theological work has reached a kind of dead end, where he can keep repeating the same basic point but seems unable to develop it further or fully integrate it into his system.

The Dionysian in Christian art, part 2

Leonardo da Vinci - John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci – John the Baptist

What are we to make of the fact that Leonardo da Vinci and his students detected a certain kinship between John the Baptist and Dionysus? The two figures seemingly could not be more different — the grim ascetic preaching repentance and the god of revelry. One could perhaps forgive Donatello his “fabulous,” sassy David, given that David was, after all, a young man whose appearance had drawn God’s eye. (In this case, the stranger choice is Bernini’s older David, captured mid-throw.) How could John the Baptist be portrayed as an androgynous, sensual figure? Did Leonardo simply mix him up with John the Beloved Disciple?

We see this strange sexuality of John the Baptist emerge again in Strauss’s Salome. Here, though, it is a mark of perversion and decadence as Salome incomprehensibly takes John as a sexual object and, after being rejected, willingly collaborates with her mother in his beheading out of vengeance. This strange attraction culminates in a disturbing scene where Salome kisses and carresses the Baptist’s disembodied head. This is very different from Leonardo’s straightforward presentation — where Strauss plays on the very unthinkability of John’s sexuality, Leonardo is able to present it as a simple fact, as almost self-evident.

Nietzsche might see here an acknowledgment of the inherent sensuality of asceticism, the erotic charge of denial. How much greater, how much more durable and even unlimited is the jouissance derived directly from the refusal of jouissance — excessive piety is the greatest of festivals, the carnival that never has to end because it has finally become life rather than the exception or relief from life. If only the ascetic has truly experienced jouissance, then what better figure to serve as the Christian answer to Dionysus than John the Baptist, who is in fact the very threshold of the Christian dispensation itself?

Posted in art, Christian theology, Nietzsche. Comments Off

Divine Racism and the Theological Imaginary

I recently finished reading through William R. Jones Is God a White Racist?  and it was a good read. More than that it felt good. I say it felt good because in Jones I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. His methodology and commitments in particular dovetail nicely with my own. While much of my methodology comes out of my reading of Laruelle (a dualistic theory of religion, cloning or modelling forms of thought, an attempt to speak of the generic, a central focus on what both Laruelle and Jones refer to as a modified humanism but which I think of as creature-oriented), Jones likely wasn’t engaging with any of that when he originally wrote IGWR and yet refers to his work as “a generic clone of liberation theology’s mission and models” that he then uses to evaluate black theology’s fittingness with that mission and model. His ability to critique black theology while also affirming it (performing a kind of negative dialectic throughout his analysis) is part of his own dualistic theory of religion which sees within black theology a mainstream that he will confront with all the tools afforded him by theory and polemic, while also allowing room for a certain minoritarian tradition that he will valorize and attempt to amplify. Then, of course, there is his emphasis on theodicy and suffering as the matrix through which theology must be evaluated, rather than evaluating suffering on the basis of already-existing theologies.

I am curious why so few theologies of hope deal with the arguments Jones presents in his text. One of the targets of his criticism are theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and his eschatological theodicy, where God’s future justice somehow erases the suffering of the present. While Moltmann isn’t the explicit focus of Jones’ text, this eschatological theodicy is subjected to the criteria of ethnic suffering. How can a people, like black people in America, stake a claim on a future event without any significant economic, social, or political liberatory event? Jones here refuses the usual separation of the empirical or lived with the transcendental or ontological. Theo-poetic claims are subject to what is actually lived, regardless of their beauty as fiction.

So I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find that my excitement over Jones raising that question of divine racism (“Is God a white racist?”) upset some Christian friends on Facebook. The conception of God, it seems to many Christians, precludes racism or racist acts. This concept does so ontologically. And yet the theological imaginary seems to almost always present God as white. I asked my students the other day, while reading a work of Latino theology, what color Jesus was in their head. Not what color they thought he was if they took a few minutes, but immediately what skin color presents itself to them without thinking. 25 of the 31 students said white. Many of those students were themselves black, hispanic, and mixed-race.

It reminded me once of an icon a friend had. He was and I assume still is a very sensitive, caring Christian. Yet this icon showed a scene where Satan was bound and submitted to Christ. Christ was white, as you would expect from Eastern Orthodox iconography, and Satan? Well, Satan was black with kinky hair. George Yancy reports on the discursive theological tradition of this anti-blackness:

The normative construction of the Black body as evil had already begun as early as the fifth century. Gustav Jahoda writes about John Cassian, a monk who wrote a series of spiritual Conferences. Some of these portrayed the devil “in the shape of a hideous Negro,” or a demon “like a Negro woman, ill-smelling and ugly.” Saint Benedict [whom MacIntyre claimed we needed a new version of and from whom Pope Benedict XVI took his name], an admirer of Cassian, made sure that the Conference were read in the monasteries and thus these images would have had a wide circulation. An axiological frame of reference where blackness is identified with demons presupposed the identification of whiteness with “light,” “divinity,” and “goodness.”

Christian racism and anti-blackness isn’t a recent phenomenon, the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of fundamentalism. What I admire about Jones book is the call for a new theology whose focus is not continuity with the Christian tradition, but a response to suffering.

The Christian Engine of Badiou’s Philosophy: Some Comments on Hollis Phelps’ Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology

During my recent trips I took along Hollis Phelps’ relatively new book Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology. Phelps’ thesis is that “Badiou’s philosophy contains an anti-philosophical core that coincides with theology (85).” Phelps’ book enters into a debate between those who, like Badiou himself, see Badiou’s philosophy as one of radical secularization and those who think that religion, specifically Christianity, is an important part of his philosophy. These groups could be grouped into two distinct camps: those like Žižek who argue for the importance of this religion from a largely outsider perspective and those like Paul J Griffths who argue from a Christian supremacist position that “the recent interest in Christianity, particularly Paul, among certain critical theorists and philosophers is best understood as ‘a pagan yearning for Christian intellectual gold [since...] our intellectual tradition is long-lived, rich, and subtle, and any attempt by European thinkers to do without it is not likely to last” (125).’ Phelps’ contribution engages with the arguments of each of these respective interpretations but deftly avoids the pitfalls of each, arguing for a much more subtle understanding of the theological aspect of Badiou’s philosophy. Phelps clearly has very little sympathy for positions such as Giffths or the crocodile tears for Judaism deployed by Daniel W. Bell Jr. in his criticism of Badiou’s St. Paul book as Marcionite (a criticism made in a far more convincing and less supremacist way by Adam Kotsko as Phelps notes) and so his reading cannot easily be tossed aside by those, like Hallward, who want to see in Badiou a kind of secular purity. His reading instead moves forward by creating a link between Badiou’s conception of anti-philosophy and theology. As anti-philosophy is part of the dialectical construction of philosophy it is necessary and acts like an engine for Badiou’s thought. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Badiou, Christian theology. Comments Off

Communion and commodity

Lately I have been pondering the direction Agamben’s Homo Sacer project might take as it approaches completion. In The Highest Poverty, he promises us a theory of “use,” the problem that the Franciscans open up but never adequately develop. Agamben argues that the Franciscans were so caught up in defining their practice negatively against legal ownership and property rights that they never got around to asking: “Okay, so if we’re neither owning nor possessing these things, what exactly is it that we’re doing with them?” He finds Franciscan preaching to be potentially more fruitful in this regard insofar as it stages a more thorough-going critique of the regime of ownership. Though Agamben doesn’t put it this way, it seems that the way the sermons he cites approach the question is by asking what ownership or possession does to the owner — and it doesn’t look good, as we know.

Now it seems to me that one common way a Christian theologian might approach the problem Agamben is trying to set up is by referring to the sacraments as an alternative to possession. Yet in Agamben’s terms — and, if I may be so bold, also objectively — this would not work. That is to say, it seems to me that just as the Christian liturgy clears the ground for modern nihilistic duty for its own sake (e.g., “professionalism”), one can see the same dynamic at work with the theory of the sacraments. One often hears the old trope that when you eat something, normally it becomes you (becomes assimilated to your body), whereas when you take communion, you become it (become assimilated to Christ, who is present in the sacrament). This isn’t counter to the realm of commodities, however — it’s precisely parallel to what happens with a commodity. When I consume a commodity, it assimilates me into the realm of commodities, ultimately turning the deepest expression of my self, my labor power, into a commodity as well. In both commodity and sacrament, the objective use-value of the item in question (bread, wine, water) is bracketed in favor of the “theological niceties” — and in both cases, the true spiritual meaning behind the merely physical object is figured in terms of debt (and if we take Anselm’s account as definitive, the grace that the sacrament allows us to participate in is quite literally “surplus-value,” i.e., the superabundance of Christ’s merit).

One might object that these are only superficial parallels, but one might also object that it’s weird for such parallels to exist when the liturgy and sacramental practice is so often trotted out as a counter-practice that forms people in ways completely contrary to capitalism. If my theory is correct, it might help to account for the fact that — at the risk of being overly blunt — Christian liturgical formation essentially never produces subjects who resist capital (see also). For that, you need quasi-monastic communities like Catholic Workers or base communities, which the mainstream church institution legitimated by the liturgy and sacraments always views with suspicion or even tries to shut down.

Providence shut-down

With the Son and the Holy Spirit still deadlocked on key issues, God the Father announced today that divine providence would be shutting down, effective immediately. This is the first providence shutdown since the Filioque controversy that famously led to the East-West schism in 1054, nearly a milennium ago.

Angelic messengers emphasized that certain essential services would continue uninterrupted. Most importantly, the Holy Trinity has measures in place to make sure that the creation is sustained in its existence even in the absence of an annual providential plan, and most laws of physics will continue to be enforced. Satan and his fallen angels will also continue to torture the damned in hell, which is technically not a providential agency, but an independently funded providence-sponsored enterprise.

However, non-essential services such as coincidences that are too perfect to be mere coincidences will be suspended. Guardian angel services will be continued, but due to reduced staffing, parents were urged to keep a close eye on their children until providence is fully restored. The Virgin Mary and a limited number of other important saints will continue to hear intercessions, but the majority of the heavenly host has been furloughed pending a providential plan. Prayers will of course continue to go unanswered in any case, as agreed in the providence sequester measure passed in 1754.


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