The theodicy of ethical consumerism

I wrote a few weeks ago about the ideological function of free will: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them. In the theological realm, the goal of granting us free will isn’t to enhance our dignity or the meaningfulness of our life, but to make sure God has someone to blame for all the bad things that happen — and I believe we can apply the principle of a homology between the theological and the political realm here as well.

A perfect example of this is dynamic is ethical consumerism. It often strikes me as bizarre that we’re even given a choice between the gross processed food and the healthy organic food, or between the hideously wasteful product and the ecologically conscious product — much less that the “price signals” are invariably tilted toward the bad option. Wouldn’t it be better to remove the bad option in the first place? Why is something so important left to arbitrary individual choice?

Here I think the fact that we know consumers will generally make the wrong choice is not a bug, but a feature of ethical consumerism. The political class and business elites have already collectively decided that ethical farming and environmental sustainability are not important goals — and so they have left them up to individual consumer choices so that they can disavow responsibility and blame all of us for not choosing correctly.

Whenever we’re offered a free choice, we’re being set up.

A Unified Theory (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature book event)

A unified theory — though not a theory of everything. Not philosophy of, with all its implications of dominance and omnicompetence (a philosophy of religion, of law, of fashion are all equally plausible), nor even simply philosophy and — but a unified theory of philosophy and some science. What is the status of this “theory,” this strangely undefined entity that is not a philosophy (or is it a non-philosophy?) and that seems strangely comfortable asserting the dread philosophical omnicompetence, indeed in an exaggerated form that claims not simply to account for the facts adduced by some other discipline but to provide the means precisely of unifying them?

Anthony’s book gives us a unified theory of philosophical theology (a pre-packaged combination that I won’t quibble with, given that I live it every day) and ecology. It adopts the “stance” of ecology, which is a thinking from the Real guided by the ecosystem concept. Within this unified theory, we learn that philosophies have varying degrees of biodiversity. Badiou’s particular ecosystem, for example, has room for four primary species of truth-procedures, but is dominated by mathematics. Thoughts occupy niches and respond to their environment. Sometimes the claims are very concrete and empirical, and sometimes they seem more or less metaphorical. Sometimes we are at the very physical level of needing to eat in order to think — and sometimes it turns out that the scholarly literature on given figures represent narrow niches. Yet none of these claims, we are assured, are mere metaphors. It is not a metaphor to say that books of philosophy are dead thoughts that need to be consumed to produce living thoughts, any more than it’s a metaphor to say that human thought is situated within a wider ecosystem or that the academic publishing industry produces certain over-specialized populations with narrow niches.

In a unified theory, then, we are not dealing with mere metaphor. I grant this. What I would like to ask, however, is precisely what we’re saying when we say it’s not a mere metaphor. Read the rest of this entry »

The Glory of the Lord

In the devil class, we noted out a strange feature of the New Jerusalem as portrayed in Revelation: the kings of all nations come to pay tribute there. It seems that we are to envision the continued existence of the system of “the nations” in the Kingdom of God — and that God’s glory somehow requires glorification, not just in general as Agamben points out, but specifically from the rulers of this world. This trope has deep roots in the prophetic expansion of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, an expansion that made YHWH an actor on the world stage. Even when God is using a pagan ruler as a mere tool, the glory of that ruler seems to contribute to God’s prestige — all the moreso when God ultimately rejects and punishes that ruler, showing himself to be the true sovereign.

It is in this context that we must understand Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. This might seem surprising, because in many ways the text renders the Last Judgment an awkward afterthought, instead emphasizing very this-worldly concerns — Christ’s victory over idols, over pagan oracles, over the fear of death, over sensuality, over violence…. These strangely “empirical” proofs of the reality of the resurrection take priority over Athanasius’s metaphysical musings about the corruptibility of the flesh, and indeed, one almost gets the impression that God sets himself a hard problem (how to fix human corruption while nonetheless remaining true to his word that humans must suffer death for their disobedience?) so that it will be all the more awesome when he solves it. At every step, Athanasius emphasizes that God in Christ is as strong as possible, as glorious as possible, an insistence that is all the more striking when he tries to “spin” his death on the cross as the greatest possibly glory rather than as a mark of the deepest shame.

The text was most likely written before Constantine’s conversion, but it seems that such an event is a logical outgrowth of the general scheme Athanasius lays out — after all, what could be more glorious than for the ruler of the unprecedentedly large and powerful Roman empire to testify to Christ’s divinity and victory? The development of Christianity into an imperial religion was not the only way it could have played out, perhaps, but it was also not arbitrary. Desire for recognition on the world political scene is built into the apocalyptic paradigm within which Christian theology traces its idiosyncratic path.

History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

The birth pangs of apocalyptic

Several years ago, Bruce Rosenstock recommended that I look at 2 Maccabees as a way of contextualizing Paul’s discussion of God’s “adaptive” approach to historical events in Romans 9-11. His general thought was that the Jews had gone “off-script” in actually rebelling against the oppressive rulers, because they could no longer sustain the traditional idea that their political misfortunes were the result of disobedience. It was difficult for me to see what he was getting at initially, as 2 Maccabees at first seems to be little more than a poorly organized and highly editorialized version of 1 Maccabees, but as I’ve digested over the years and especially as I’ve returned to the text for my devil course, I’ve come to believe that the whole problem of political theology and apocalyptic is somehow “all there.”

I recommend homing in on the section on Antiochus Epiphanes’ storied career (5:11-10:9), where the most contradictory elements are simply juxtaposed — most jarringly, graphic accounts of martyrs submitting to torture rather than betray God’s law are placed alongside the emergence of a violent insurgency led by Judas Maccabeus. Both come in for approval, and the editorial voice makes heroic efforts to shoehorn it in to the old Deuteronomistic framework, but that only increases the contradictions. And to top it off, we see the emergence of the apocalyptic theme of the resurrection of the dead, which is only hinted at in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s as though we’re watching the breakdown of the Deuteronomistic paradigm and the first seeds of apocalyptic emerging, all in real time — and it’s all the more striking in that the editor clearly doesn’t understand that that’s what’s happening.

In short: take and read.

A brief review of a brief book: Taubes, To Carl Schmitt

Only a Christian would make a deal with the devil. That’s what’s so disturbing about the gesture of selling your soul — it only makes sense if you know what’s at stake, yet it’s precisely because you know what’s at stake that it doesn’t make sense. It seems to me that this is a possible lens through which to view Jacob Taubes’s complex relationship with Carl Schmitt, as expressed in the brief collection To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, which the introducer of the volume, Mike Grimshaw, has already announced and discussed here on AUFS.

What makes Schmitt a great thinker in Taubes’s eyes is that he really did understand what was at stake in his historical moment. He just chose the wrong side in the decisive conflict that was unfolding. Taubes grapples with this gap between the diagnosis and the course of treatment throughout the fragments collected here, and he never comes to any firm conclusion on Schmitt the man. On Schmitt the thinker, though, he is unequivocal in asserting his brilliance and signal importance — an assertion for which he can draw on the authority of Walter Benjamin. In what for me is one of the most interesting passages in the collection, Taubes makes his point by means of the passage from “On the Concept of History” about the “tradition of the oppressed” and the “real state of exception”:

Schmitt’s fundamental vocabulary is here introduced by Benjamin, made use of, and so transformed into its opposite. Carl Schmitt’s conception of the ‘state of exception’ is dictatorial, dictated from above; in Benjamin it becomes a doctrine in the tradition of the oppressed. ‘Contemporaneity,’ a monstrous abbreviation of a messianic period, defines the experience of history on the part of both Benjamin and Schmitt; both involve a mystic conception of history whose principal teaching relates the sacred order to the profane. But the profane cannot be constructed upon the idea of God’s empire. This is why theocracy did not, for Benjamin, Schmitt, and Bloch, have a political meaning, but solely a religious significance. (17)

Sandwiched in between Benjamin and Bloch! All of them understand that this world is permanent, that no worldly structure can claim God’s allegiance or legitimation, but that they are all ways of heading off the apocalypse. Yet Schmitt can see in the apocalypse nothing but destruction. He sees the horizon of this world, yet cannot see anything of value beyond it — and so throws his weight behind a katechon who turns out to be the Antichrist. Taubes continues in an enigmatic paragraph that follows up on the implicit reference to the “Theological-Political Fragment” that the mention of Bloch evokes:

If I understand anything at all of the mystical historical construction that Benjamin here constructs with one eye on Schmitt’s theses, then this: what is superficially a process of secularization, of desacralization, the dedeification of public life, a process of step-by-step neutralization right up to the “value freedom” of science as an index of a techno-industrial form of life; this process also has an inner face that testifies to the freedom of God’s children (as in the letters of St. Paul), hence an expression of a reformation that is nearing its completion. (17-18)

The alternative that Taubes, with Benjamin, is gesturing toward here remains unclear to me, but the reflections in this slim volume convince me of the value of reading Schmitt against the grain in order to think toward it.

Posted in political theology, Schmitt, Taubes. Comments Off

A Brief History of Latin American Liberation Theology

This post is my transcription of a recent lecture by Ted Jennings, with some minor additions, posted with his permission.

Latin America has a unique situation that distinguishes the theology that is done there from the theology that is done elsewhere. In fact, very early on in the development of Latin American liberation theology, there was a book by the Protestant theologian José Míguez Bonino, translated in English as Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation. It’s a wonderful book that was published before Gutiérrez. Bonino was involved in the human rights movement in Argentina. He pointed out that what was happening and needed to happen in Latin America, including the kinds of questions that had to be addressed, were fundamentally different from the questions in European theology, even among the political theology of figures like Moltmann, Metz, and Söelle.

The distinctive character of Latin America theology is the hegemony of Catholicism. Until quite recently, the Catholicism of Latin America could be characterized as Pre-Tridentine, that is, the kind of Catholicism that was characteristic of the Late Middle Ages prior to the council of Trent. Read the rest of this entry »

Time to reboot?

This semester, we’ve been discussing documents relating to the American Founding in my Social Sciences 2 class, and I asked both my classes: “Should we tear out and start fresh?” There was widespread discomfort with the idea, mostly based in the fear of who would be tasked with writing the new Constitution. I understand that fear, but I think that a lot of the pitfalls could be avoided by means of a ratification process — if the New Founders knew that a two-thirds majority of all American citizens had to approve it, that would presumably keep them from enshrining fetal personhood as a Constitutional principle, for instance. Even in the worst case where the CEO of Goldman Sachs simply dictates the form of the document, I assume the most crazy and unworkable aspects of our system — the recognition of a weird form of quasi-sovereignty for the states and the anti-democratic Senate — would be eliminated just for the sake of simplicity. (I would note that as difficult as amending the Constitution is in any case, state sovereignty and the Senate are two aspects of the Constitution that are nearly impossible to effectively amend away because of clauses stipulating that no state can be involuntarily deprived of equal representation in the Senate. Hence any state that held out and didn’t ratify an amendment to introduce equal representation would still get as many senators as California — and I can’t even imagine the logical paradoxes that would arise with any amendment proposing to do away with the Senate altogether.)

At the same time, I’m reminded of what Bruce Rosenstock has told me on more than one occasion when this topic has come up: the saving grace of the American political system is that the founding document has the status of Scripture, and one should never throw that away. If you attempt a reboot, all bets are off. (I’m paraphrasing — if I’m misconstruing, hopefully he will show up in comments to more accurately portray his views.)

What do you think, dear readers?

Announcement: English translation of Taubes-Schmitt correspondence

[The following is a guest post from Mike Grimshaw, Associate Professor in the School of Social & Political Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.]

How can we rethink political theology? One way is though a fascinating collection of the letters between Jacob Taubes and Carl Schmitt that has been translated by Keith Tribe and- with an introductory chapter I have written- been published by Columbia University Press: To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, by Jacob Taubes; Translated by Keith Tribe and with an introduction by Mike Grimshaw. (By the way: Anyone who uses the promo code “TOCTAU” to buy the book from this site will receive a 30% discount off the price of the book).

This collection of letters not only increases our knowledge of
Taubes, it also demands a rethinking of the role of Schmitt in 20th century thought, theology and philosophy. Part of it takes the form of an intellectual confession from Taubes that provides the background, for the first time really in English, of how a Jewish scholar became a ‘friend’ (Taubes’ term) of a Nazi jurist. Read the rest of this entry »

Political theology and money

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. The project provides an interesting lens for thinking through American political institutions, but I have one major reservation that might be at the root of the other reservations I have about the book. The problem arises in his discussion of Schmitt’s idea of a sociology of concepts. The reading he offers of Schmitt’s own usage is similar to what I arrive at in the linked post, but he concludes that Schmitt was wrong to assume that every epoch will have its own correspondence between political and metaphysical outlooks, because our age doesn’t even have a metaphysical outlook:

In the postmodern world, the sources of fundamental belief, the diversity of metaphysical approaches, the conflicts between religious and secular outlooks, and even the conflicts between the biological and physical sciences are just too many and too deep to think that we can offer a single theoretical model to characterize the epoch. Perhaps we should say that we live in a “postepochal” age. We find that people operate with diverse systems of belief, which do not fall into any coherent order. We have discovered that we can live with this incoherence. The center does not hold, but things do not fall apart. (118)

I suppose this is true as far as it goes, but I’m not sure Schmitt is really thinking about explicit metaphysical systems — he’s thinking about the deep assumptions about the order of the world, which will often surface in the most representative metaphysical systems. And in our contemporary postmodern era, that role is filled by economic reasoning. Yes, any particular school of thought has trouble gaining hegemony, but that’s just the nature of our contemporary “marketplace of ideas” (for example).

Kahn can’t see this because he, like Schmitt, has already dismissed economic rationality as a kind of anti-idea. “Follow the money” is his chief example of the kind of reductionism that he and, by his account, Schmitt are trying to avoid — yet isn’t it reductionistic not to think of economic rationality as a form of rationality, one with its own assumptions and values? At the risk of being pedantic: don’t you at least need to concede that the accumulation of money is valuable in itself before you would act in a way that is explicable by means of “following the money”?

Hence I propose that Kahn’s account needs to be supplemented by Goodchild’s Theology of Money.


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