Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan

In Sophocles’ Antigone our tragic heroine demonstrates to us what is regarded as one of the greatest moral principles of the Western world:  when the laws of the state require one to do something against one’s own religion, or when following one’s own religious beliefs become categorized as against the law, the right thing to do is to follow your religious practices above the laws of the state.  The legends of Socrates and Jesus, and their traditions, confirm and validate this virtue in the ancient world.

But what to do when religion causes one to break religious laws?  Christianity has always worked through the tensions of what happens when doctrine become dogma, and when either become enforced—sometimes enforced despite of or in spite of contradictory doctrine or flying in the face of tradition.

This is what is being played out in the church trial of a United Methodist pastor from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Rev. Frank Schaefer.  Read the rest of this entry »

Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.

“I like to think (right now, please!)”

Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (part 1, part 2, part 3) is pretty excellent. It puts forward an ambitious and interesting thesis, which I think deserves more engagement from the anti-authoritarian left than this rather defensive response at New Left Project. To try and compress Curtis’s already over compressed argument into one thesis, he identifies the idea of a self-regulating homeostasis as a widely accepted common sense of our times, and one which makes it difficult for us to think about changing the world, either about what such a change would mean or what the role of power would be in accomplishing such a change. That New Left Project response is right to point out other traditions which influence the anti-authoritarian left and have more to say about power and radical change, but this doesn’t negate what I think Curtis is trying to do. The ideological assemblage he puts together has a certain coherence, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be exhaustive, I don’t think he’s denying that there are other elements which could be assembled in other ways.

This does, though, raise a problem with the documentary, and indeed with Curtis’s work more generally. I think he’s doing this kind of Foucaldian tracing of discourses, but I’m basically guessing, because he’s not very explicit about what he is doing. There are various things about the way the program is put together that imply certain things about the epistemology, although they’re also rather contradictory. Curtis’s signature method, the construction of a documentary largely from archive footage some distantly, some closely related to the point being made, emphasizes the intellectual configuration being constructed is partial. In particular, building the program around juxtaposition tends to push against interpreting the relationships between the elements as causal, which of course is emphasized by the jumps in time throughout the program. Read the rest of this entry »

An example of a poorly-considered web design

In searching through the websites of Chicago-area universities, I came across the following navigation panel:

Out of mercy, I have removed all direct evidence of the university’s name — but I think it’s clear someone needs to fire their web designer immediately.

Entrepreneurial Academics

When I was in elementary school, I was part of a group of students who were tested to see if they qualified for the “gifted” program. Reportedly, my results were borderline, with the guidance counselor telling my mom — and her subsequently telling me — that I was ultimately not “gifted” but made up for it with hard work. Then, for the rest of my life, I heard a clear narrative of decline over and over: there was a time not so long ago, the story goes, when someone could graduate high school in Flint, then step into a job at “the shop” (GM) and be essentially set for life, with a virtually guaranteed job, generous benefits, and a pension. I watched as people tried to convince themselves that Flint could reinvent itself — by finding another institution that would provide them with the lifestyle that GM had taken from them.

This brings me to this guy. (Incidentally, I’ve shared several posts from The Last Psychiatrist, a blog I discovered yesterday and subsequently devoured — very much worth adding to your Google Reader.) Read the rest of this entry »

The “Apocalyptic Theses” and the preferential option

Via a pingback from Todd Walatka — which highlights a concern Brad once raised about the need for low-church ecclesiology to be taken seriously — I find this interesting insight on Nate Kerr et al.’s “theses”: namely, the liberation theology language feels tacked on. They quote Sobrino to the effect that the church’s mission to the poor preceeds the church itself, but as Todd says:

Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.

He then goes on to point out the specific lack of continuity in terms of liturgy:

Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace. Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy.

Thinking in more specifically theological terms, I wonder if what is at stake is a different concept of God’s freedom in Barth and in liberation theology. Where Barth’s concept of divine freedom is always thought in terms of divine transcendence, it seems to me that the liberation theologians — as represented by Gutierrez’s brilliant On Job — see God’s freedom as a kind of contagious freedom, one that drives us to take responsibility for our actions.

The freedom of transcendence is perhaps always a hierarchical mode of freedom, where God is free to be God and we’re free to acknowledge how unworthy we are of God (which then is supposed to have good effects, though the logic here seems reminiscent of the South Park “underwear gnomes”) — by contrast, the liberating freedom is a “flattening” freedom that empowers human action instead of just inexplicably forgiving it.

The problem of narrating a Fall

In my course on the devil, I have emphasized the contrast between patristic accounts of the fall of the devil (whereby he generally gets jealous of humanity) and Anselm’s radically ahistorical account in De casu diaboli. On the one hand, the more “mythological” patristic account makes more narrative sense, while Anselm’s represents more of an attempt to think through free will at its most radical and abstract. On this scale, Milton’s account in Paradise Lost is basically in the patristic vein, albeit altered by Milton’s Arian theology — Satan becomes jealous, not of humanity, but of the revelation of the Son, who seems to interpose another “layer” between God and angels, implicitly demoting them all.

In class today, however, I argued that the real action is not in the fall of the devil — which Milton never “directly” narrates, putting it in the mouth of an angel who himself was not present for the event — but rather the fall of Eve. What is interesting to me is the way Milton’s account of the fall of Eve reveals an inherent limit to “mythological” narratives of the fall, namely that the pressure of creating a comprehensible narrative creates a tendency to insert some kind of fundamental imbalance into the situation such that, in this case, Eve was bound to fall long before the devil entered the scene. The fact that Milton was such a clearly devout man who wanted to “justify the ways of God” shows just how irresistible this logic is (and shows Milton’s own integrity as a thinker, as well).

Read the rest of this entry »

Hierarchy and infinite regress

I’ve written before on the Christian tradition’s fear of infinite regress. Now for various reasons, I’m thinking about the ontological hierarchy so prized by our Radical Orthodox friends and wonder if that, too, is in part motivated by a fear of infinite regress, in the form of a vicious circle.

As readers of Pseudo-Dionysius will recall, in the hierarchy appointed by God, the “higher” members minister to the “lower” members, mediating God’s goodness to them and thereby bringing them to the highest level they are able to attain. To a certain extent, then, the higher beings are “for” the lower, but at the same time they can’t receive anything from those lower beings — that is to say, the lower beings’ relationship to God is determined by its mediation through the higher beings, but not vice versa, or at least not in the same way. Thus while beings in a hierarchical ontology as opposed to a monadic or individualistic ontology are determined by relation, there is no real possibility of mutual determination. Relationships are unidirectional, all stemming ultimately from God as the “master signifier” of the chain. No infinite regress occurs because everything flows from God down the chain, with no “circles” of mutual determination anywhere along the line.

It would be easy to collapse this hierarchical scheme into a monadic one where everything stands in unmediated relationship to God, and I for one can’t think of a reason why the hierarchical approach would be obviously preferable to the monadic. A relational ontology, including mutual determination, seems to me to be obviously preferable to both — from the perspective of such an ontology, both would indeed fall into the same category. Of course, a thorough-going relational ontology would ultimately have to displace God as “master signifier” as well, allowing God and creation to be mutually determined — a move that in Christian theology shouldn’t be too much of a stretch given that God’s own “internal” life is supposed to be one of mutual determination among the trinitarian persons. (Moltmann’s later work moves in this direction.)

Of course, this whole line of thinking only works if hierarchy really does exclude mutual determination. It seems to me that if hierarchy was thought in terms of mutual determination, it would fail to be hierarchy at all — it’s not like a general has to take a vote among his troops before making a decision, for instance. But maybe I’m wrong.

Theses on The Dark Knight

The following post was co-authored with Kelsey Craven, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.

  1. The Dark Knight is a critique of Batman, and precisely because of this, a critique of the neoliberal order. Here neoliberalism is understood as the combination of authoritarian politics, either the rather clumsy Republican version or the slick managerialism of the Democrats, in the service of the ever-greater concentration of capital by means of primitive accumulation (“privatization”) and financialization.

  2. Batman and Harvey Dent are the two sides of neoliberal politics. Both depend on the wealth of Bruce Wayne in order to operate. That wealth is of course inherited, but it is greatly augmented by a stock issue in Batman Begins—surely a strange plot point for a comic book movie. Under Bruce’s father, the Wayne fortune underwrote both the water and transit systems of Gotham, effectively privatizing central government functions. Bruce simply continues this trend by privatizing law-enforcement, driven initially by his thirst for vengeance against the ungrateful “criminal” class.
  3. Batman’s alleged project, to wage a war against “criminality,” must necessarily be a war against Gotham’s citizenry within the context of Gotham. This too is a major theme in Batman Begins, wherein the League of Shadows boasts of their capacity to infiltrate every level of government and considers this fact a legitimation of their intent to drug Gotham’s inhabitants, inciting them to destroy their city from within. Gotham is decadent. This theme re-emerges with the Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline; when the female cop, who seemingly works directly under Commissioner Gordon, is confronted by Two-Face as to her role in the murder of Rachel Dawes, her response is: “They [the mob] got to me early, my mother’s hospital bills!”
  4. It follows that:
    • Batman’s fight against “criminals” is a fight against the working class.
    • Within Gotham, a civil servant is incapable of supporting herself and her family without outside financial assistance.
    • All wealth within Gotham is concentrated within one of the following two organizations: the mob or the Wayne Estate. It follows that the citizens must then serve one, the other, or both so as to survive within the existing social structure of Gotham.
    • Should the mob be defeated (criminality), Bruce Wayne will quite literally own Gotham.
    • With regards to this power structure, the citizenry are seemingly complicit.
  5. Batman’s elaborate show of keeping his hands clean by refusing to use guns is accompanied by tremendous “collateral damage”—in Batman Begins, the emphasis is on direct property damage, particularly the very water/transit system his father built, while in The Dark Knight, the focus is on “social chaos,” which in practice amounts to the refusal to submit to Batman’s sole authority. In response to the chaos he himself generated, Batman shows a decided willingness to torture, while still maintaining the pose of holier-than-thou pacifism. The most extreme example is when he pushes a mob boss off a roof—when the mob boss points out the fall will not kill him, Batman responds, “I’m counting on it.”
  6. Batman’s main tactic in his pet crusade is the inspiration of fear, hence the bat, the animal that frightened him as a child. He learns this tactic from the League of Shadows in Batman Begins and, as an aside, it makes his lamentation to Alfred in The Dark Knight—“This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people”—that much more ironic. Bruce Wayne is truly delusional. Insofar as fear is what he seeks to inspire, he is something of a counterpart to Scarecrow, and both must be considered at once psychopaths and terrorists, with the latter being only more honest with himself concerning his desire for power by way of fear.
  7. That “reducing crime” is not Batman’s true goal is clear: the “criminals” he fights early in the film are in fact imitators. One would think that people standing up and defending themselves and others in a situation of social chaos would be positive, but Batman derides their efforts: not only do they forfeit their ethical purity by using guns, but they’re also poor and tacky, running around in hockey pants.
  8. The Joker is the protagonist and hero of The Dark Knight. He is the only truly ethical character in the film. As he repeats three times, he is “a man of his word.”
  9. The Joker’s response to the neoliberal order of Gotham City is the only human one: he wishes for its destruction, initially symbolized by Batman. He enacts that destruction with joy, taking full responsibility for his actions in a way that Batman never can.
  10. In Gotham, just as in our present socio-political context, mental illness might be seen as a legitimate, individual rebellion against patriarchal law and its resulting hierarchy. (What better response to capitalist multi-tasking than autism?) It is thus only fitting that the Joker should seek allies in the mental instituion, that is, the one instiution that effectively falls outside of the mob/Wayne axis.
  11. “Terrorism” is not the appropriate description for the Joker’s actions, because terrorism is a strategy used by weak political actors (like the pitiable Batman) to advance their ends. The Joker wants to destroy the entire framework within which ends can be pursued, as shown by the following quote:

    I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drops of gas and a couple bullets. You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because that’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.

  12. Yet it’s not a sheer negativity—or better, it’s a negation so thorough-going that it becomes its own kind of positivity. The Joker’s plots require huge amounts of labor and creativity, and he calls forth a community characterized by loyalty and fearlessness. Already in the very attempt to destroy the neoliberal order, an alternative spontaneously begins to take form.
  13. Aside from the Joker, Harvey Dent is the only other character who escapes sheer bad faith: he is the “good liberal.” Dent actually believes in the spectacle, as is clear in his participation in and enjoyment of the theatricality of the courtroom scene—and this despite the fact that this very theatricality points up the bankruptcy of the judicial system, including a corruption that extends to allowing a witness to carry a gun into the courtroom. His betrayal by the system he sought to reform was arguably even more painful to Dent than the loss of Rachel.
  14. In the end, the Joker succeeds only in forcing a slight reorganization of the power structure—Dent’s murders are covered up and Batman is scapegoated. The symbol of the brave vigilante watching over everyone is replaced by the symbol of the brave martyr to whom society will be forever indebted. In both cases, the people remain passive spectators. However, were the Joker’s project to be comprehended by the populace, a more thoroughgoing destabilization would be achieved by default—for it is the Joker who consistently addresses the populace at large, demanding action and above all the assumption of responsibility. In sharp contrast with the practitioners of the “noble lie,” the Joker is not only a “man of his word” but attempts to drive others to be the same.
  15. To allay any suspicion that this interpretation is motivated by a contrarian’s willfulness, we conclude with some words of wisdom from the loyal Alfred. We are referring here not to his oft-quoted characterization of the Joker as a man who “just wants to watch the world burn,” but to his final solution to men who “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.” The famous quote occurs in the context of an analogy between the Joker and a Burman jewel thief who steals from the British colonialists and throws his spoils away—a situation that is only revealed when soldiers find a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. Much later in the film, when Bruce Wayne asks how the soldiers finally defeated their foe, Alfred replies: “We burned down the forest.” Who, then, wants to watch the world burn? Alfred himself says it: the lawmen, the money men, the punishers.

Ontology as Morality

Radical Orthodoxy is the most intellectually sophisticated version of postmodern Christianity — a class that for me includes Hauerwasianism, the Emergent Church, the evangelical development of “worldviews,” and creationism, to name just a few examples. The postmodern versions of Christianity are all helpful in understanding what postmodernism was all along: a moralizing discourse that approves or rejects various ontologies based on their putative moral effects. Modern subjectivity? Immoral — it caused the holocaust, environmental degradation, etc. The disseminatory play of difference? Moral — it helps us to be open toward the other. Though postmodern Christianity does sometimes deploy what purport to be factual critiques of its target ontologies, the emotional charge is ultimately on the moral effects: evolutionary theory, for instance, is immoral because it undercuts belief in God and in human dignity.

In the case of Radical Orthodoxy, a particular version of Neoplatonism is put forward as the only “robust” ontology, the only ontology that can ground a peaceful, presumably socialist polity. Such an ontology is supposed to have prevailed during the High Middle Ages. There are occasional gestures toward demonstrating how much better things were back then, but it all takes place on a very formal level — and when push comes to shove, it is claimed that the goal is to rejoin an alternate future (because apparently “progress” occurs in this ontology).

More generally, in clear defiance of the etymology of “ontology,” there is very little serious effort to base their robust ontology on how things actually are. Analytic philosophers studying brain sciences presumably have the “metaphysics of a serial killer”: alright, but does Radical Orthodoxy have a better way to account for the results of brain science? I suspect that any such attempt would amount to yet another reassertion of the ontology that they know is true because, in some imagined alternate future, it produces beneficial moral effects.

The only credible way forward for a genuinely robust ontology — i.e., one that would be persuasive to those for whom actual reality is a more decisive factor than purported moral consequences — is Pannenberg’s. In my view, his method in Anthropology in Theological Perspective charts the course for any attempt to hold speculative thought — and here I would count non-vuglar-materialist philosophy and psychoanalytic theory along with theology — accountable to empirical evidence.
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