Beyond Monotheism — Taking stock

I believe this was a very successful book event — the discussion was consistently great, and as an added bonus, it contributed to August being AUFS’s highest-traffic month ever. I’d like to thank Anthony, Brad, Clayton, Andy, and Dan for contributing their summaries and reflections, as well as everyone who commented.

For the convenience of future category-clickers, here is the table of contents for our event:

  1. Introduction: incarnation… again
  2. Then came the word: the invention of monotheism
  3. “No god but me”: the roots of monotheism in Israel
  4. End of the many: the roots of monotheism in Greek philosophy
  5. “I am because we are”: The roots of multiplicity in Africa
  6. Monotheism, Western Science, and the Theory of Everything
  7. When hell freezes over
  8. Starting the Story Again
  9. Thinking being? Or why we need ontology . . . again
  10. Thinking multiplicity
  11. Divine Multiplicity …
  12. …In a World of Difference
  13. A Turn to Ethics: Beyond Nationalism
  14. A Turn to Ethics: Unity Beyond Monotheism

I may make a PDF of all the summary if there is interest — or someone else could volunteer to do so. [UPDATE: Thanks to Jeremy Ridenour for assembling a PDF of all the posts.]

I’d like to open up this comment thread primarily for everyone to post any comments or reflections that they believe are still outstanding now that we’ve made our way through the entire book. It may also be interesting to discuss questions that you had in early sections that later chapters actually did answer adequately (especially given that this result was so often predicted in those early comment threads), or else questions that only come to you now that you have a view of the work as a whole. (The purpose behind doing this is not just to take inventory, but to give Prof. Schneider a convenient guide to the main questions if she has time to write a response to us — for that reason, I would ask that those who have not read the book refrain from posting questions in this thread.)

Beyond Monotheism — 14. A Turn to Ethics: Unity Beyond Monotheism

Schneider articulates straightaway one of the main concerns of the chapter:  “A logic of multiplicity is not opposed to unity (the inclusive sense of One) or oneness (the exclusive sense of One), which means that divine multiplicity does not exclude either unity or oneness except in their absolute or eternal sense” (198).  The fact that multiplicity opposes the One does not mean that it abandons any account of unity (or to use a more DeleuzoGuattarian term, “consistency”)—it is simply that multiplicity refuses to absolutize unity, to make it something that transcends and pre-exists the flux of existence.  Thus oneness and unity “are proximal and partial aspects of the divine,” but never “the ‘whole’ story of reality” (198).  They are, one might say, the effect rather than the cause of reality.

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Beyond Monotheism — 13. A Turn to Ethics: Beyond Nationalism

Schneider begins this chapter, which signals the book’s final part, with an introductory “snapshot memoir” (185).  This recounts her trip, just after graduating from college, to the German village from which her grandfather emigrated to the USA.  Here she finds, inscribed on an obelisk, the conjunction: “One people, one nation, one God” (185).  It is against this background that she commences discussion of the link between monotheism and nationalism.  The connection that the natives of her ancenstral village saw between monotheism and nationalism is all too common.

We can understand why a theology critical of monotheism will be interested in applying the same criticsm to the logic of nationalism.  Thus Schneider remarks that “it is not difficult to see in nationalist feeling everywhere distinct elements of religious feeling, and in definitions of ‘the nation’ ambiguities similar to those inherent in doctrinal explanations” (186).  Nonetheless, while theologians often observe the duplication of monotheistic sentiment in political ideologies, contemporary social scientists are less likely to return the favor.  This is primarily due to the latter group’s alleigance to objectivity, which makes theological categories (such as “soul” or “spirit”) rather unattractive.  What is necessary is a “more flexible posture” (188) whereby the problematics of religion and nation are understood to be imbricated in one another. 

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Beyond Monotheism — 12. …In a World of Difference.

In many ways this chapter culminates Schneider’s theology of multiplicity, building on the previous three chapters, and then opening onto her final section on ethics. She argues here that the distinct characteristics of divine multiplicity, fluidity, porosity and interconnection, enter into the world in particular places and times as a body. This embodiment or enfleshment is what she means by incarnation. What bodies and divinity both possess are heterogeneity—positive concrete differences. Anything that exists is intrinsically singular, distinct, unique, and it is unique as body. Divinity incarnates itself in and as heterogeneous body: “incarnation is a revelation of divinity-in-flux” (166).

Every body is absolutely different and irreplaceable, in ontological as well as in ethical terms. “Bodies become difference and so create the world” (167), and these bodies cannot be exchanged for each other according to any common standard of evaluation. Jesus represents an incarnation of divinity in a singular body, and his silence before Pilate is understood by Schneider as a refusal to submit his body to the standards of legal categorization, interrogation and justification. Ontology and ethics are encapsulated in stories, and stories are stories of bodies and their relationalities, which is an a-centered relationality (building upon but slightly distinct from Barbara Holmes’s notion of omnicentrality). Schneider draws from Deleuze a good deal in this chapter, including her petition of a logic of rhizomality for thinking about modes of relationality. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Monotheism — 11. Divine Multiplicity …

And so we come to systematic theology. Schneider decided that she has to get down to God-talk, and do some doctrine. So this chapter has a bit of theory, followed by some constructive theology in two parts: firstly on water, and secondly on rock. God is fluid and porous. The notion of linguistic competence is in the background throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Monotheism — 10. Thinking multiplicity

[The following is a guest post by frequent commenter Andy, who regularly blogs at ad absurdum.]

Schneider is really laying her cards on the table in this chapter, which provides a happy philosophical release from the anticipation built up by all the necessary but preliminary historical work in the first part of the book. Here she weighs in with appraisals, assessments, and expressions of solidarity. The basic question of the chapter is: how to think multiplicity and so work our way out of theology’s dead end?

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Beyond Monotheism — 9. Thinking being? Or why we need ontology . . . again

There is not so much an argument in this chapter as there is a strangely defensive assertion that ontology is gravely important. Theologians, Schneider claims, have over the centuries become increasingly wary of making ontological claims about God (and thus, by extension, about reality). This is due in no small part to their inability of their brightest stars, from Aquinas to Schleiermacher, actually to prove the existence of God; but also because of the theologian’s increased cultural sensitivity to contradictory claims about reality, as well the emergence of philosophical theological models where the ontological reality of God is preferred suspended.

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Beyond Monotheism – 8. Starting the Story Again

Schneider’s keen, subtle sense of narrative, of which Clayton made an astute comment a couple of days ago, is especially clear in this chapter devoted to the theological significance of narratives, of narrative’s significance to theology.  Her resistance to the stasis of a frozen theological content, as discussed in last chapter’s reading of Dante, carries over starkly in her resistance to a kind of blinkered theological discourse so self-consumed that it, in effect, brackets out the the very stuff that constitutes its (theology’s) vitality and significance.  “It is,” she writes,

“past time for theologians, storytellers, and poets to listen again to each other and inspire one another.  The disenchantment that the logic of the One now requires along with various estrangements between belief, imagination, story, and credibility in the telling of Christian theology have weakened theology, particularly those theologies that have turned away from poetry, tears, laughter, and deep (or tall) tales.”

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Beyond Monotheism — 7. When hell freezes over

In this chapter Schneider really shows off her writing chops. On one level, the uncharitable reader might argue, this is due to the material. Hell is, after all, as much the writer’s delight as it is the sinner’s. If you cannot write rouge-lipped, florid prose about eternal damnation, you should stick to writing insurance actuarial documents or something. Ah, but that’s the great thing about this chapter. It is as though Schneider realized her crushing vision of science’s ideology of the One was on the verge of crippling her reader, and that we needed a breather. She, in essence, then, breathed in our exasperation at the really shitty hand we as inheritors of Christian ontology have been dealt, and in this chapter exhales fresh air — albeit, fresh air tinged with sulfur. (E.g., a sentence like “He has, one could say, removed the blinders on his mundane life and glimpses, through the porosity of dream, vision, and the poet’s pen a closely abutting world of difference” just kind of sings, no matter the context in which it is used.)

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Beyond Monotheism — 6. Monotheism, Western Science, and the Theory of Everything

[I want to thank Adam for arranging this project, and for inviting me to participate.]

Chapter 6 completes the narrative of the “logic of the One,” showing how it culminates with Western science and its modern and contemporary desire to unify everything in a single, overarching order. Schneider does not spend much time discussing medieval Christianity, but she posits a continuity between traditional European monotheism and modern science: “although the empires of Christendom stumbled and frayed, the logic that had grounded their orthodoxies took on a life of its own, eventually erupting in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the ‘scientific revolution’” (75). Here Thomas Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers both contribute to this fantastic idea of uncovering “a single, unchanging divine order” (77) that underlies the scientific quest for universal laws.

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