What follows below is the latest draft of my AAR paper. I’m planning on sending a similar version to the respondent, but reserve the right to make revisions and may possible expand it, with some more Schmitt and a longer ecology section, for consideration at a journal or two. So I’m posting it in this form to see if anyone has suggestions. Do let me know in the comments (though don’t worry about typos – I don’t care about those at this stage and will likely catch them on the next read through – just far too lazy to do that tonight – fuck writing for an audience, this is a blog of cruelty).
When young intellectuals today begin to think the relationship between the political and the religious they must think about hierarchy. The spectre of hierarchy haunts the work of those, like myself, who think about this relationship from within a radical tradition of critique and constructive conceptualizing. This spectre of thought is taken up in two of this generations most radical and creative movements – deconstructive theology (also known as secular theology and weak theology) and Radical Orthodoxy (in all its varied forms, and it is very varied). Because these two movements are both so influential when attempting to think anew the relationship between the political and the religious and so haunted by the spectre of hierarchy we must first locate where these movements position us.
Let’s begin, admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, with deconstructive theology and its most influential proponent – John Caputo and his weak theology. For Caputo the history of theology and religion has been one of “rouged theology”, by which he is not all that subtlety intimating that theology has been a whore to power. Caputo’s weak theology of the event attempts to outdo Luther with his own grievances against not just the Catholic church, but all religious organizations. For religious organizations, in Caputo’s view, set themselves up hierarchically with people claiming power over others in such a way that they commit violence against others and to the very spirit of their religion. Caputo’s negative view of hierarchy is thus a critique of power itself. Not much more needs to be said on this manner – anyone who does not see some truth to critique of hierarchy as a critique of power is invited to read some history, or at least the papers, where the abuses of power throughout the history of the Church are evident (Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, saying nothing of the other world religions).
But we need not to go as far as Caputo does, at least not yet. From a reserved position we can take from Caputo’s critique the sense that hierarchy is another name for organizations of power. Contemporary hierarchies posit that there is a God above us all from which we gain our own power via participation and gift. This need not be the god of anything we recognize as religion, for anything can come to take this place of the highest become the principle of organization. [Indeed Philip has shown masterly how this is the case in contemporary culture with regard to money.]
But it is often this highest that is the object of contestation. For Caputo the bestowing upon the name of God all glory and power makes the highest ultimately a tool yielded as a weapon in the hand of the oppressor. Caputo, rightly in our view, brings attention to bear upon how the highest name – God – can be used in the service of great violence that destroys not only others but the worthiness of the highest itself, but others argue for the necessity of this name. John Milbank, one of the founders of Radical Orthodoxy, is one such proponent. He makes the cogent point that hierarchy not only serves the abuse of power, but the highest principle – God – limits and measures violence. In Milbank’s view the need for hierarchy is based on the need to reject “secular immanence” ‘which is totalizing and terroristic because it acknowledges no supra-human power beyond itself by which it might be measured and limited’. And I can only appeal to the history books as well as the papers for evidence of this. God’s name has become so deterritorialized that the death of God has truly opened not to liberation, but to more and more cultural scientism and blindness to the limits of consumption (and thus to capitalism itself).
But this deterritorialization of the name of God has lead equally to the name of God being invoked as the cause of everything from who wins sporting championships to the imperial crusades of super powers and reactionary terrorism of fringe and heretical religious sects. And though Milbank and others in the movement of Radical Orthodoxy recognize and have criticisms of resurgent fundamentalisms, is their answer really sufficient to respond to these reactionary movements. Will more Thomism, and Thomism of a strange stripe, really free Christianity from its most deterritorialized form (the American civil religion) or firm up the backbone of the Vatican to emphasize their opposition to capitalism rather than their current focus on the far less important questions revolving around sex? And, facing the brutality and stupidity of what Thomas wrote about Jews, Muslims, pagans, and what should be allowed to be done to them, what would such a strange Thomism really offer to the question of religious pluralism? Not to say they won’t, but it thus far no real answer has been given aside from some vague hang waving about particpation and the analogia entis.
These issues are at the core of charges of nostalgia levelled against Radical Orthodoxy. A charge that has not gone without response – Milbank writes‘[it] is not at all to say that we should have remained forever in the culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. No, it is an unknown future that we have missed and must seek to rejoin.’ It seems to me that Milbank does show that his thought is not reactionary, in so far that he argues for a future different from the merely calculable quotidian future of capitalism, but this does not mean he has avoided nostalgia. For though he wants us to return to the future that could have been, and this is a future that Milbank believes would have been better, this is done through a return to the conditions of that future – the pre-1300’s Middle Ages. Setting aside the historical question of whether or not these were truly better, more hospitable times where ‘contrary to all the assumptions of secular sovereignty, [society was] all the more democratic the more it is genuinely hierarchical’ , this proscription offers us nothing but a mythology or fabulaton which remains unconnected to any real radical political movements – though some influence on the Vatican via the current Pope does seem apparent.
It seems that we cannot truly go along with Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy with regard to hierarchy – at least not as it currently stands. Though Milbank rightly shows that hierarchies spring up regardless of whether or not people believe God to be dead. Further holds that the political hierarchy is dependent on the mystical hierarchy of the corupus mysticum in such a way that it can limit the abuse of power if the political hierarchy would only realize what it should be directed towards. But the shortcomings remain and suggest that rather than the position of Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy deconstructive weak theology is to be preferred.
This is not my view. For ultimately Caputo’s theology brings us to conclusion that only liberalism can open the path to true religiosity – remaining open, thus faithful, to the weak call of God. In a 2005 key note address in Knoxville, Tennessee Caputo presented the political import of his weak theology by stating that if his weak theology called for any global politics it would be closely akin to three branches of government, balanced against one another by various checks, with a strong tradition of rights stemming from the indeconstruablity of justice. That is to say, the political import of weak theology is an idealized version of the American liberal system writ global. Thus Caputo’s Kingdom of God is always deferred in its fullness and never is on earth as it is in heaven.
This sort of infinite deferral forms the negative eschatology of classical liberalism in that here positive liberty is infinitely deferred via the apparatus of negative liberty. But we now live in a neo-liberal world, of which American neo-conservatives form but a sect. Now negative liberty has taken the place of positive liberty. Violence is used to bring to the peoples of the world, as if a gift from God, this freedom not to be anything except what they want. I recognize the liberation that comes from being free of identities hierarchies bestow or force on people, but this is all illusion. For any attempt to think the political or the religious must think the non-representative political of capitalism. Caputo’s critique of hierarchy as power is incomplete because it only offers negative liberty, an offer that neither avoids joining with the burden of “sharing” this negative liberty or responding to the hierarchy of capitalism that thrives on such infinite deferral. Thus when Caputo says that he does not support radical revolution, but rather piecemeal reform, it is because he has lacked the vision to see that all capitalist economics has taken on political powers outside any influence from representation and thus can only be overcome by way of sufficient strength – which is not to say violence, for any response to this present crisis calls for something even more cunning and cruel than an atom bomb.
Let’s step back for a moment and locate ourselves within the wider world. Carl Schmitt famously said that all modern theories of the state, and thus all theories of the political, were secularized theological concepts. This echoes Michael Hardt who said in a recent interview that he and Antonio Negri write about the history of theology and employ theological concepts because the history of politics has been tied up with the history of theology. Is it unsurprising then that in the history of ideas “hierarchy” comes to us first as a theological concept and not a political one?
The first instance of the concept of hierarchy we’re familiar with today, as an abstract nouns, comes from the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius. In Dionysius’ formulation a hierarchy is ‘a scared order, a state of understanding and an activity approximating as closely as possible to the divine’ receiving all power from God to move toward that for which it is given. The goal of a hierarchy is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and at one with God. In Dionysius’ thinking this is essentially a good thing. The more we are like God the more we are good and humble, holy and just, loving and creative.
This short mapping of our two Johns – Jack and Johnny – suggests that they represent two starkly opposed position. But we find ourselves not hopelessly torn between two sets of coordinates, but focused on what could be a coordinated attempt to bring about a thought of all good, all justice, love, and peace, as being gifts from a loving, creative God that yearns for creation to be free – that is our map is clearly the same Pseudo-Dionysian territory. Caputo, the one who hates hierarchy and all power, also says ‘“kingdom” is not, in itself, altogether a “bad name” […] Just so long as what reigns in this kingdom is justice and not terror, and no one enjoys special royal privileges or privileged access in the corridors of power, and there is not a purple or royal robe anywhere to be found, then I will be the first to step forward and declare myself a royalist who is dreaming of a kingdom to come.’ Milbank, the nostalgic one, hoping for a return to the hierarchy of the Middle Ages with its serfs and lords, is caught with his own ‘viens! viens!’ on his lips: ‘‘By contrast, transcendence appears hierarchic and fixed, but its ontological height resides beyond all immanent heights, and therefore is as close to ontic depths as to ontic elevations. For this reason, its truth can be mediated to us and we can, one day, be liberated.’ The true difference between their thinking of hierarchy is properly theological – they differ precisely on who God is, but share in their God-drunkenness – though each has their own favourite drink. In thinking hierarchy everything depends on who their God is.
Then should we not all be doing theology? Attempting to formulate exactly who God is? What our end is? What our highest is? Whether these are even coherent conceptions of God? Perhaps; obviously in this day and age there is more need for theology than ever. But is this really the problem for our age? It would seem that there are plenty of competing claims about God and our life with God – some would say we live after the death of God, others that the religious is returning and with that the return of all sorts of gods (though surely these gods are not that much different than before), still others say there is one, true God who will judge the living and the dead. Surely all these claims suggest that our problem remains theological, but I want to suggest that the reality of our crisis is not so simple precisely because of the spectre of hierarchy.
As humanity is made more and more aware of the real, ecological limits to capitalism – that is to the very liturgy common in global society – ecological reason becomes more important. Philip expresses this forcefully in Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety: ‘For to be rational today is to pay attention to the universal limits of human experience. The truth of common experience is the ecological limit, the suffering of the planet.’ With this in mind we have to recognize that the problem can no longer be theological in the old style. Here I echo the words of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: ‘It may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of immanence today. This is the empiricist conversion (we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world; we have lost the word, worse than a fiancée or a god). The problem has indeed changed.”
Hierarchy is still a concept in ecological reason, but it has undergone significant changes. The clearest example I can think of, and very helpful as an image for all of us who are not pure ecologists, is the change from food chains to food webs in ecosystem ecology. A brief explanation will make the importance of this clear. The history of the concept of ecosystem demands that we accept relationality beyond just the living organisms, the biotic community, but extend it to that of the dead and the inorganic or “never-living”. An ecosystem captures the dynamics of communities of the living and the dead as they interact with the never-living so that when energy animates the system there is an exchange of material between the living and the dead. One such interaction is the exchange of energy that takes place in eating amongst organisms in the ecosystem. The old model was that of a food chain which was basically a static hierarchy – this is the same model that people appeal to when chiding their vegetarian friends for not eating meat even though humans, they say, are on the top of the food chain. This model was not sufficient to truly model the complex relationships and exchanges between organisms and so the food web was introduced. In this model the hierarchy is not top-down, but rather flattens out, graphically, the relationships to show the relative interconnectedness of each organism to one another. I’m tempted to call this an immanent hierarchy, but perhaps a better understanding is that it intimates the potencies of each organism – what appears to be the lowest may be truly irreplaceable or it may be very replaceable – regardless it has a place in the hierarchy that is not so naively assumed.
Does this ecological reasoning help modify the coordinates deconstructive theology and Radical Orthodoxy locate us within? Does it help us to respond to our contemporary problem? Does it foster belief in this world? I want to suggest that it does or at least can offer a way forward from the seeming aporia of deciding whether we believe in a weak God or a God who is all being. We recognize that God must be thought about – theology must be performed. But this theology needs to be couched in ecological reason, it must recognize that our thinking of God cannot locate God at the heights and the lowly earthworm at the bottom, but must move beyond transcendence and immanence and recognize that all conceptions of God can only give express a potency for thought and life. Irregardless of whether or not we are only in so far as we participate in God or we are in the same way God is, our being is more hierarchically complex than weakness or nostalgia can account for. Hierarchy is the conceptual name for an actual organization and if we think more creatively about what is highest we may be able to short-circuit what appears to be the inevitable self-destruction and entropy of every organization. This paper has been an attempt to think towards that end.