I want, first of all, to thank all of those who have taken the time and effort to post on this book. Dan Whistler, Ry, Adam, Bruce, and Beatrice have all written really fascinating, intelligent responses, all of which I’m continuing to think about and learn from. This was very generous of them. And the comments, as well, have been provocative and helpful. I’m appreciative, very much so, that my book has received such attention.
In the “Broader Questions” post, one of the issues that came up was the relation of this book to theology, and I suppose I can begin by talking about why I want to resist any “theologization” of my argument. The book, as I see it, is not primarily theological. Let’s say instead that the book is about religion.
Religion seems to function, today, as a strange coefficient that can be multiplied through other discourses without ever being thought of as in-itself. Or, when it is thought of in-itself, rarely addressed is its implication in, or even constitution of and by, these discourses. My book, as I see it, is trying to deal with this problematic. Why is this the case? And what would happen if we did address religion in such a way? We do need to deal with this problematic, but one the problematic is shown, what then? Should we keep religion? And if we don’t keep it, do we have to get rid of everything else with which it is co-implicated?
So, for instance, we have philosophy as it intersects with religion in Chapter 1. Or at least as it intersects with the question of God. What I’ve tried to do there, I hope is clear, is nothing like “philosophy of religion,” rather I’ve sought to get beneath these discourses and to trouble the very notion that one could separate these discourses (philosophy and religion, or philosophy and speech of/about God) in the first place. The pretense of separation between philosophy and theology (speech of/about God) is a way of avoiding the question of religion.
This emphasis on the “avoidance” of the question of religion might be a useful one to think about, in the wake of the book event, which has tended to focus on philosophical or theological issues. By avoidance, let me say, I don’t mean only that religion is denied mention. This is one kind of avoidance, but another kind of avoidance, we know, comes from talking about religion a lot, or maybe, purloined-letter style, treating religion as matter of fact, an ordinary given.
Following this thread of the avoidance of religion: we see it not only in philosophy of religion, but also in theology, which wants to separate itself from “religion” … as if theology were just an already legitimated discourse, self-confirming, and religion showed up from without. Whereas what I’m trying to say is that religion is internal to theology, in fact religion is the product of theology (or at least the two are co-constitutive). And of course the question of the avoidance of religion is at issue in my genealogy of religion and secularism. The thesis there, it could be said, is that religion functions to produce transcendence (i.e., the denial of immanent encounters and compositions with others, i.e., the denial of diaspora) in collusion with Christianity, and that later religion functions to produce the transcendence of secularism. So in this sense, the book is about the heterogeneous yet resonant avoidance of religion across the apparently distinct domains of philosophy, religious studies, theology, and anthropology (or social sciences more generally).
I think the politics of this avoidance, or the politics of working to unveil this avoidance and think otherwise, are important to me in a way that has not always come through in this event. By this, I mean that the book was motivated by a sense that what was going on in social science and decolonial discourse about secularism was deeply connected to what happens in philosophy of religion, which cannot be separated from theology, which cannot be separated from the history of Christianity, which produced theological discourse, which in doing so produced the concept of religion, which was the historical and conceptual condition of possibility—to bring it back home—for the secularism that was being called into critique in social science and decolonial discourse.
This is the set of issues, and the order of approach, that led me to this book, and particularly to the concept of diaspora, which is motivated by all of the just-mentioned discourses yet reducible to none of them. Diaspora can thus be seen as an attempt to leave behind these discourses, but in a critical way—a way that both challenges and antagonizes their assumptions, but that also repeats them, in the hope that such mimesis, twisted the right way, put into different relations, might give us a chance for better politics, or for a better sort of existence in this world, an existence that might give us a better way of (politically) constructing it.
Some issues that follow from this concern, which I think it’s worth taking the time to emphasize …
(1) It is important to me, especially through my account of Paul and through my genealogy in Chapter 4, to show the dead end of universalism. We’ve talked some about this, but I want to stress that my concern, here especially, is close to deconstructive. In other words, I want to stress that the name of universalism is what holds together a number of unappealing (and inconsistent) moves: the supersession of “Judaism” by Christianity, the contemporary notion of Judaeo-Christianity, the idea that religion (including Christianity) is bad because it divides, the idea that everyone needs to become Christian (because Christianity provides universality), the idea that everyone needs to become secular (because secularism provides universality), the idea that all religions are equally bad because they are religious, the idea that Christianity (unlike other religions) prepares you to leave behind religion, the return to Paul in the name of secularism and/or Christianity, and so on.
What I’m trying to get at is that the claim, “yes, I get all these problems, but a true universalism wouldn’t be like that,” refuses to take the affliction seriously, it attempts to transcend the actual limitations of the problem, and in doing so it repeats the source of the problem. What I want to stress is that this error (for lack of a better term) is present not just in Christianity (let’s get it right this time!) but also in philosophy. There is a critique of philosophy that I am developing here, which would be that it shares the desire to transcend, even if what it is telling us is that there is no transcendence. For philosophy tends to orient us towards universality and to see the flaws in such universality as contingent rather than intrinsic to its own behavior. (Hence the similarity with Christianity.) And it’s worth noting here the appeal of Laruelle, namely that he, at least in one key moment of his writing, insists that philosophy’s flaw is not contingent but necessitated by its own practice. I would say that such a situation holds for thought about the universal.
In the comments Ahab pressed about my relation to Marx, and this is something to be thought about, as is Bruce’s concern (along a converging line, I think) for a kind of fabulative humanity. This is something for which I need to take responsibility (more below on that). Alain, as well, has pushed me on the practical political implications of this (as have some on the ecclesial implications), and Beatrice brilliantly pushed me on the question of the divine creature, which would be a god that is neither transcendent nor universal (indeed would be much less universal than Spinoza’s God, or Nature). All of these are ways of developing diaspora so that not just conceptually but also performatively, and in virtue of its content, it opposes universalism. But I would say that in all of these what we get are figures, experiments, even fakes, that enable connections—but never the idea of universalism, and never the idea that something “like” universalism would be needed.
(2) This is to say that thought must become more and more a conduit, a transversal, rather that something done from the position of the philosopher, or the theologian, or the social scientist. This may sound like I’m advocating that strange thing called “theory”—but only recently has theory turned toward the last of these three, and in general it tends not to take seriously the first, and almost never the second. So the book, in its performance, is meant to be a provocation to all of these positions.
(3) Also, one thing I am claiming is that secularism and Christianity are more or less in tandem with one another. (Which is also to say that critiques of the secular must delve back into Christian origins, Paul, questions of supersessionism, etc., which they almost never do.) I have not heard much in response to this. Is such a claim really that uncontroversial? Note that this would mean not just that somehow secularism belongs to Christianity, but also that Christianity belongs to secularism. This would mean that opposition to one would include opposition to the other, as well as to the secular interpellation of most of the globe (except itself of course!) as belonging to religion. Meaning that the possibilities of life cannot be articulated in terms of Christianity, secularism, or religion. I argue that they can and should be articulated in terms of diaspora. This, in a broader sense, is the thesis of the book. Is such a thesis correct?
(4) I think my critique of theology, and of Christianity more generally, is more serious than it has come across / been received. I really am not trying to improve theology, or to offer a new theology. Rather I am trying to show how theology is impossible, or how it requires a massive repression or willed misrecognition of material. Thus to take this material seriously would be to call into question the very enterprise of theology.
To be a bit polemical, I’m suggesting that we’re now seeing theological moves that try to take into account the instability and questionability of theology, but in such a way as to conserve theology, like a bad version of Hegel. One example of this is the “new apocalyptic” position, which deals with theology’s questionability on a conceptual-abstract level, but another example, which has been undiscussed, is Carter’s theology, which deals with theology’s questionability on more concrete levels, such as with regard to race. My suggestion, which I think my argument supports quite well, is that Carter needs to provide an account either of what his basis for a better/redeemed theology would be, or of how what he is doing requires a complete repudiation of theology.
(5) What bothers me in these cases, and in theology more generally—and of course secularism more generally, as I cannot stress too much that my critique of Christianity does not proceed in the name of a secular alternative—is the refusal of responsibility. This issue, as well as some of the concerns I mentioned under (1), above, are being developed in my current research and writing, which revolve around the theme of “conversion.”
Responsibility is a tricky term, but let’s say that what I have in mind here is not the importance of conforming to some set of expectations and norms. That’s not what I mean by responsibility. What I mean, more precisely, is understanding and affirming one’s desire, behavior, thought patterns, etc., with all of the implications they have. And this includes, I would say, grasping that one’s own desire, behavior, thought patterns, etc., while ultimately one’s own, are inseparable from encounters with others and theirs.
What I am concerned with, then, is the way such responsibility has been massively avoided by Christianity and secularism. (Perhaps my main point of interest in Gnosticism is that it gets that an illusion can become total, and this sort of avoidance of responsibility needs to be thought of in terms of a total illusion.) This massive avoidance of responsibility, by Christianity and secularism, cannot be separated from the “avoidance of religion.” What I am trying to do in this book—or really just beginning to do in this book—is take responsibility for this avoidance (or these avoidances). That, I believe, is what this book is about implicitly and all the time, even as it is explicitly concerned with different discourses at different times.