Immanent Law, Transcendent Love, and Political Theology

I’m going to attempt to clarify my own position in relation to that of Levi Bryant’s on the issue of the potential role of religion in revolutionary politics. Bryant has toned down the diatribe, offering two substantive posts over at Larval Subjects, as well as several comments to me here at Footnotes. I’ll try to lay out the way he has framed the problem first, then offer my own position. There seem to be areas of overlap, but also of friction.

In his first post, “Some Theses on Religion, But Not Really: A-Theology,” Bryant begins by suggesting that what is at stake in this discussion is not ontological, but logical. That is, the core issue is not whether reality is finally material or divine, natural or supernatural; the issue is whether we employ a logic of immanence or transcendence. This focus on logic follows from Bryant’s distinction between the structure and the content of a worldview. There are plenty of worldviews structurally organized around a logic of transcendence that nonetheless remain secular or naturalistic in content.  Bryant prefers to utilize the abstract notation of the Lacanian matheme when describing the structure of a worldview, since it minimizes the potential for diverse contents to distract us from the underlying logic at work. The independence of structure from content is mirrored by the independence of the intention or belief from the function of a person’s actions. Bryant gives the example of going to a grocery store with the intention of providing food for one’s family: though one’s intention is not to re-enforce the structure of capitalism, that is in fact how one’s intention ends up functioning. The same is true of those who attend church with the best of intentions: from Bryant’s perspective, they only re-enforce the structure of oppression that any institution founded upon a logic of transcendence is fated to create. Why is any social structure founded upon such a logic fated to be violent and oppressive? Because, argues Bryant:

it is formally impossible to generate a totality or a whole, yet this is precisely what such structures aim for. Every attempt to generate a totality or a whole generates a remainder or an accursed share– what Lacan calls an “objet a” –that marks what the structure cannot integrate or the failure of the totality. Participants within these systems see this remainder not as an ineluctable and necessary consequence of attempts to form a social and intellectual totality, but as a contingent accident. The next step is then to eradicate this remainder as that which prevents the social order from being instantiated so that social harmony might be produced. In other words, structures of transcendence, exception, or sovereignty necessarily generate a friend/enemy logic.

The aim of political transformation, then, should be to establish anarchical forms of social organization not premised on the insider/outsider logic of transcendence. Transcendence, according to Bryant, is the first form of violence, since it denigrates the world by claiming it is not enough. Such a logic leaves all worldly things vulnerable to exploitative violence. So far as it goes, I can’t disagree with Bryant’s reasoning here. He goes on to suggest that religion need not necessarily obey the logic of transcendence as he has laid it out. Even some variants of Christianity are able to

see Christ as an ordinary man (not the son of God), who died on the cross showing that God, the patriarch, is literally dead, and who was not resurrected, and where the holy spirit is nothing but a metaphor for the activity of a community based not on law, but love, and not on a label or tribal identification (“Christian”), but where anyone– atheist, Hindu, Jew, pagan, etc. –could participate.

Bryant is here moving a bit closer to the possibility I am trying to argue for, but I must take issue with his dismissal of spiritual metaphor as “nothing but” (see my post last year on Graham Harman’s ontologization of metaphor). The spiritual power of metaphor–that is, the way metaphorical language can function to carry beyond or transfer both its speaker and her listeners into another world–is precisely why I take issue with Bryant’s complete rejection of transcendence. The religious significance of logics of transcendence need not necessarily be predicated upon a rejection of worldliness per say, but rather upon the rejection of the present state of the world in the service of bringing forth another world. In Faith of the Faithless, Critchley contrasts the spiritualities of Paul and Marcion to bring into relief the sense in which Paul’s rejection of the fallen world as it existed under the rule of the Roman Empire was simultaneously a Messianic hope in a future world redeemed by Christ’s love. The future world would be one in which human beings existed in societies of free association, not because they had overcome their fallenness and achieved some transcendent state of guiltless self-mastery. Quite the contrary, the society of love envisioned by Paul was the result of each human being realizing their helplessness before God. The conversion brought about by faith reveals that the transcendent love that Jesus called us to practice is an infinite demand that remains entirely beyond our ability to achieve on our own. It forces a realization upon us: “You are not your own,” as Paul put it (1 Cor. 6:19). Critchley reads Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein as a phenomenological translation of Paul’s religious metanoia, but stops short of Heidegger’s seeming aspiration towards the totalized wholeness and autarchy of the authentic Self. Critchley writes:

The human being is essentially impotentialized in its relation to the Messiah. The decision about who I am is not in my power, but only becomes intelligible through a certain affirmation of weakness. Authenticity is not so much a ‘seizing hold’ as the orientation of the self towards something that exceeds oneself, namely the hetero-affectivity of an infinite demand that calls me. Freedom is not something I can confer upon myself in a virile assertion of autarchy. It is something that can only be received through the acknowledgement of an essential powerlessness, a constitutive impotence. Freedom can only be received back once one has decided to become a slave and attend in the endurance of love–for love endures all things. (p. 182)

The Marcion heresy, on the other hand, must be rejected for precisely the reasons that Bryant lays out. Unlike Paul, who saw how the whole of creation was “groaning in travail” alongside the human community, waiting together with us for redemption, Marcion rejected creation as irrevocably evil. Critchley retells the story of an elderly Marcionite who used his own salvia to wash himself each morning so as not to be contaminated by the evils of the created world (p. 198). As Critchley argues: “[Marcion's] dualism leads to a rejection of the world and a conception of religion as a retreat from creation…[becoming] a theology of alien abduction” (p. 202). Critchley goes on to draw inspiration for his thesis concerning the revolutionary potential of faith from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes the difference between the Old Testament conception of law based on “worldly love,” wherein “you do unto others what others do unto you and no more,” and the New Testament conception of love without law, wherein, as Critchley describes it, one “engages in a kind of transcendental epoche of what others owe to me, and instead [quoting Kierkegaard] ‘makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship'” (p. 248). Kierkegaard continues:

Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term. (WL 112-113).

In this sense, divine transcendence is made to participate in the down to earth ethicality of face to face engagements. When I truly love someone–truly in that I engage them according to the logic of a gift rather than the logic of exchange–it is because I have transcended myself, making room within my soul for the divine to act in the world through me. “Not I, but Christ in me,” as Paul put it (Gal. 2:20). Is this just a metaphor? Perhaps it is metaphorical, but let us not underestimate the power of words to re-imagine worlds.

My own attempts to re-imagine the way religion functions by arguing that 1) there is no neutral ground outside religion from which to critique it (we are all ineluctably mythic creatures, our individual and collective identities being necessary narrative in structure), and 2) faith can and has functioned as the motivating factor underlying revolutionary political action lead Bryant to accuse me of being what Deleuze called a “state thinker,” someone who attempts to both naturalize and sanitize hierarchical religious social structures by (even if unintentionally) justifying the logic through which they operate. Bryant singles out theologians (those for whom the logic of transcendence is operative) as especially guilting of “state thinking,” since they always idealize how faith could operate without paying due attention to how it has actually functioned in the world among lay people. While I think there are plenty of real life examples of faith operating as a tremendously effective weapon in the fight against state violence and oppression (e.g., Gandhi and MLK in the 20th century), I will still admit to idealization. I find it extremely important to defiantly journey beyond the walls of my city of residence, like Socrates in the Republic, not only to critique the obvious injustices of the day, but also to “dream another city in dialogue,” as Critchley puts it (p. 93). Critique of existing structures is not enough. We must also construct a new view of the world. Further, as Plato also discusses in the Republic, I believe the city (the collective) and the soul (the individual) must become transparent one to the other. If we are to become capable of enacting a genuinely anarchic society not ruled by any exceptional sovereign, super-rich class, or miraculously representative body (Madison’s “refined democracy”), we must find a way to relate to one another collectively that is no longer bound by the self-serving capitalist logic of exchange. Perhaps the “logic” of love engendered by faith is such a way.

In his second post, “Transcendence and the Problem of Boundaries: A Confession,” Bryant asks the most pressing and all-important question: “is it possible to form a community of strangers without identity and to still really have a community?” “Without identity,” because if a community names itself, it creates outsiders, reproducing the logic of remainder and leading to the violent elimination of that remainder as discussed above. Bryant suggests that the social form practiced by the historical Jesus may have been such a community. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of Christianity lead it to become “the greatest of conspiracies against Christ (we fetishized his death to obscure the trauma of the socio-political philosophy he proposed).” I couldn’t agree more. But what of the form of transcendence I defended above? I don’t think it is unique to the teachings of Jesus, but like Bryant, this is the tradition I know best: Jesus’ teaching that love supersedes the Mosaic law broke open the closed community of Israel, with its unique relationship to a transcendent deity, such that all peoples, regardless of class, creed, or color, were to be treated as friends, as fellow members of the communal body of Christ. This universalization was so far reaching that Jesus said even those who wish to do us violence should be treated as friends: “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), “Love thy enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus realized that this would be the only way to break the cycle of violence and revenge characterizing human history back to its origins.

But again, a love as transcendent as that taught by Jesus just doesn’t appear to be a realistic possibility for normal human beings. Those who are members of oppressed and colonized communities would seem almost to have a psychological need to seek vengeance upon their oppressors. Is there any other way for them to reclaim their stolen humanity? “It is through violence against the colonist,” writes Critchley, “that colonized subjects can rid themselves of their deformed inferiority and liberate or literally remake themselves” (p. 238). Critchley grants that the case of the colonized makes any sort of a priori pacifism seem entirely inadequate, but he still remains skeptical of the glorification of violence by thinkers like Slavoj Žižek. Critchley examines the meaning of the commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” asking whether it should be interpreted as an absolute prohibition or “impersonal, coercive law.”

The commandment is a more fragile, but insistent, guideline or plumb-line for action, addressed in the second person…[C]rucially, the force of the commandment is non-coercive and requires our assent…[I]t is an ethical demand that requires approval. By virtue of its non-coercive force, the commandment of nonviolence is a guideline for action with which we are obliged to wrestle in solitude, and, in certain exceptional cases, to take responsibility for ignoring. (p. 16)

Following Critchley’s Levinasian analysis of the ethics of violence, I’d want to argue that the transcendent character of divine love is never something that can be easily put into action by finite human beings. It remains beyond our individual power to actually follow Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” in every case. This doesn’t mean we are off the hook, however. Political engagement is messy and requires taking responsibility for the difficult process of negotiation regarding the commandment not to kill. But what of the role of faith in allowing for the possibility of “mystical love,” a faith described by Critchley (p. 20) as “that act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being”? Perhaps this form of transcendence–namely, self-transcendence–remains ineluctably violent. But it is a violence done only to oneself, to one’s selfish ego, such that genuine love for one’s neighbor becomes possible.

[Update: further thoughts...Perhaps holding the immanent and transcendent together requires an imaginative logic, or logic of imagination. As Schelling suggested, it is only through imagination that "we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory" (System of Transcendental Idealism, 1800). Infinity may be the better word than transcendence here, since, as Schelling and Hegel realized, one cannot oppose the infinite to the finite without thereby limiting the infinite. The finite is not other than the infinite, just as the immanent is not other than the transcendent. Better yet, the geologian Thomas Berry coined the term "inscendence" to describe the way the world itself is bathed in noumenal light, its immanence pierced every so often by ecstasies. This raises the question as to whether logic and ontology, thought and reality, can be as neatly separated as Bryant has done. What, exactly, is the relationship between politics and ontology? It is the question with which all of this began earlier in the week. It remains to be answered.]

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2 thoughts on “Immanent Law, Transcendent Love, and Political Theology

  1. Keep it up, Matt. I do like how you’re taking a defensive, parrying and dodging, stance rather than the offensive stance that I often take. I’ve learned that the latter is not effective with certain interlocutors, and this is such a case. By “offensive,” I mean questioning the grounds on which someone proposes a critique, whereas by “defensive” I mean, e.g., reinterpreting the thrust as a poor stroke, as one that misses its target or hits something else.

    I have been criticized for my martial metaphors in the past, but I do think there is more agon to disagreeing intellectual engagement than people wish to admit publicly.

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