Friday, January 09, 2004

Religion Outside The Limits of Religion; or Another Letter to a Young Theologian [Part 1]

What is theology's character, you ask? The polyvalence of the question, identifying where it might begin and end, is as dizzying as its implications. Might we strip it bare, the question and theology, to get beneath their textual, textile surface, and behold them in their natural glory? Might we yet behold the question, the problem of theology, in its truth and origin, in its naked nature, as it strives to understand what it can of God? What, though, would be the character of this undressing? Would it be rape or consent, this theology, violence or foreplay? When surfaces are compound, when theology's flesh is textual and textile -- published, bound, and disseminated -- its undressing cannot go simply skin-deep. Pierced and tattooed, theology bleeds, as it is riddled anew with innumerable cuts beneath the surface that go beyond the quick, to the blood and the bone and the sinew. Unable to escape the ontological and perspectival dilemma, the theologian's attempts at meticulous dissection of theology, be it through systemising, narrating, or even deconstructing, crack open the subject's breast plate and reveal a voluminous blood flow of ink.1

Hegel may best represent the systemically redemptive fetish that, its cries of protest notwithstanding, still grips traditional theology. Through his classic dialectical logic he humbly sought (and, so he believed, achieved) a totalisation of identity-in-difference and thus also the culmination of all philosophical thought. Personal subjectivity, he argues, is 'pure self-recognition in absolute otherness', in which the subject 'relates itself to itself and is determinate, is other-being and being-for-self, and in this determinateness, or in its self-externality, abides within itself; in other words, it is in and for itself? (Phenomenology of Spirit [1977], 14, 18). The subject (or identity), then, is never self-present. Identity becomes itself only in-and-through difference, and difference becomes itself only in-and-through identity. In other words, to affirm itself, identity must negate itself and becomes its opposite, i.e., difference, because 'identity is different from difference'. At the same time, however, because identity is in-difference, 'as difference that is identity with itself', its relation to its other is naturally a subjective relation to itself. (Science of Logic [1969], 413-17).2

It is not a coincidence that in developing the all-encompassing implications of his System, Hegel incorporated the three classical arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological, teleological, and ontological proofs. First, with the cosmological proof, Hegel demonstrated that the finite is not simply identical with itself, but inherently and self-contradictorily, needs the infinite (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion [1987], 2: 254-55). With the teleological proof, he continues, God's purposeful wisdom and activity are demonstrated. Purposefulness, he writes, 'marks the beginning and end of the process . . . hence it is the final end' (ibid. 2:405). Teleological purposiveness demonstrates the consequences of the cosmological argument inasmuch that it is 'fixed', 'exempt from the [dialectical] process', and 'determined by the free self-determining of the subject' (ibid.). Furthermore, the reunion of beginning and ending, of subjectivity and objectivity, Hegel continues, is demonstrated in the ontological proof, which essentially replays the double-negation at work in his System. This unity of subject and object, beginning and ending, in sum, is truth (or the Absolute Idea); and God, in turn, is the realised-eschatological 'essence of all reality' (Science of of Logic, 86).

Though he does not cite Hegel or his philosophical System, Tyler Roberts recognises a similar totalising tendency in the seminal works of two of your favorite contemporary theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and Mark C. Taylor ('Theology and the Ascetic Imperative: Narrative and Renunciation in Taylor and Hauerwas', Modern Theology 9 [April 1993], 181-200). Specifically, he argues persuasively that each fall prey to the metaphysical recalcitrance of narrative. For instance, while Hauerwas claims that self-identity, or, in his suggestive words, 'character', is derivative of one's knowledge of and submission to God, one's knowledge and trust are always already deeply embedded in a preexistent Christian narrative in which humanity recognises itself as 'contingent', 'historical', 'sinful' creatures of God (The Peaceable Kingdom [1983], 27-29, 46-49). According to Roberts, this is the very sort of 'master narrative' of which the postmodern theologian, we who have been made wary by those most incredulous insights by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Frederic Jameson, and Francois Lyotard, ought to be especially mindful ('Theology and the Ascetic Imperative', 188). Nevertheless, even Mark C. Taylor -- who is as suspicious as they come, especially of beginnings and endings, and who is delighted by the notion of a 'nomadic self' who endlessly errs and sempiternally puns in carnivalesque discourses that would make Bakhtin blush and Zarathusa proud, because that is all one does (Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology [1984], 149-65) -- is undermined by an 'internal narrative':

Once there was a pre-modern subject who embraced faith in God. But in its journey to modernity the subject overturned the God-human relationship, making God its own creation as well as dominating others and hoarding possessions in a futile attempt to secure a foundation for itself and escape from death. But, when the subject recognized this futility and embraced the difference at the core of its identity, it emerged into postmodernity, an eternity of play. There the subject threw off lacerated consciousness, entered the divine milieu, and erred happily ever after. ('Theology and the Ascetic Imperative', 186)

What makes Roberts's essay so compelling is not simply that he questions whether Hauerwas adequately addresses the disruptive interplay of 'history and the world' on the 'unity and plot of the Christian narrative' (ibid., 188), nor that he points out Taylor's slippage back into metaphysics; rather, it is the coherence with which he points out the necessary (i.e., structural) and liminal linkage of theology and narrative. The ramifications of this are, like the best of stories, far from obvious.

Unable to free itself fully from a beginning and an ending, the peculiarities of what Gordon Kaufman has described as its 'imaginative construction', cannot be lost on or in theology. As such, who then is the character of this characteristic undressing? Torn apart, theology's heart still pounds. Is it the character of theology to beg the theologian to peek inside and g(r)asp? Does theology whisper to its spectator, 'All this I did for you. Pulled myself apart so that you might see, and touch, and taste the blood, all that blood and pain for you. You didn't know a heart could pump so much blood, did you? It's endless?' Here, violence and foreplay seem to masochistically merge, and the theologian can only pull away a bloody, ink-stained member. Theology, as such, becomes a sacrament, a spectral spectacle, upon and into which the theologian cannot help but attempt to gaze or probe, a violence from which the theologian, like Bataille's bacchant, cannot be fully differentiated.3

1 Cf., 'Although it may be obvious to us that the constructive work of the imagination has in this way always been constitutive of theological activity, theologians have seldom understood themselves to be engaged primarily in imaginatively constructing a theistically-focused worldview; on the contrary, they have largely regarded themselves as attempting to express in human words and concepts what the divine King had objectively and authoritatively given the church or synagogue in revelation. The fact that their work was thoroughly imaginative and constructive in character was simply not recognized' (Gordon D. Kaufmann, 'Theology as Imaginative Construct', Journal of the American Academy of Religion 50 [March 1982], 78).

2 Hegel explains that 'identity is the reflection-into-self that is identity only as internal repulsion, and is this repulsion as reflection-into-self, repulsion, which immediately takes itself back into itself. Thus it is identity as difference as difference that is identity with itself' (413).

3 Cf., Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39 [1985], 238:

'I AM joy before death.'

'The depth of the sky, lost space is joy before death: everything is profoundly cracked.'

'I imagine the earth turning vertiginously in the sky. I imagine the sky itself slipping, turning and losing itself. The sun, comparable to alcohol, turning and bursting breathlessly. The depth of the sky is like an orgy of frozen light, losing itself. Everything that exists destroying itself, consuming itself and dying, each instant producing itself only in the annihilation of the preceding one, and itself existing only as mortally wounded. Ceaselessly destroying and consuming myself in myself in a great festival of blood.'