What sort of atheist would I be?

[Above is the image for Loyola University Chicago’s 2016 conference, “The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Heritage.” All credit goes to Jacob Torbeck

Christ is in the grave. From Good Friday through Holy Saturday, Christians often imagine the world waiting with bated breath for the Son of God to burst forth in glory on Easter Sunday, but the Gospel accounts suggest otherwise: the disciples — before Holy Saturday was ever Holy — were coming to grips with the fact that their Messiah had failed. Perhaps more traumatic, their friend was dead. Anastasios is far from anyone’s lips.

What would it be like to live in that space — perpetually?

I’ve lived on both sides of the A/theist binary and still straddle it more than is comfortable most of the time in an expression of what Colby Dickinson likes to call my “Protestant intensity.” Philosopher Jacques Derrida once said that he “rightly passe[d] for an atheist,” a statement which provoked all sorts of mental gymnastics from his interpreters. In her book on the subject, professor Pamela Caughie defines “passing” as closely related to theories of “performativity,” including the notion that “any ‘I’ comes to be a subject only through a matrix of differential relations that make certain kinds of being possible.” Identity, in other words, is “something we do, not something we are,” and these doings tend to be “ethically and politically motivated” by a desire to respond to our various situations (4, 14). Thus, Derrida “rightly passed for an atheist” because it was the cultural category which he could inhabit most comfortably, even if it didn’t define him all that well.

Under that rubric, it could be said that I “rightly passed for a Christian” throughout my later high school and college years. “Christian” was a language and a set of habits I had learned; I knew how to Christian, as Gilles Deleuze might put it, placing the emphasis on the verb, identity being something we do rather than something we are, after all. “Faith” is a bad word for whatever I had then; it was theatrical rather than dramatic, a pure form without content. In fact, it was probably something more intense: I was an ironist, with deep contempt for the role I played.

In my actual thought-life, the Christian narrative had become a sort of mythical appendix to a different reality. I never fully fleshed it out to myself, but for me Jesus was a kind of blip on a cosmic radar; it was an event, maybe one that even had real effects, but none that pertained to me or even the vast majority of people I knew. St. Paul provided the rubric — “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) — and personal experience taught me that I didn’t fit. The Christian narrative didn’t include me, so I needed to know where I stood, and ultimately I settled into a few basic premises: Matter was (probably) conscious; the cosmos was (therefore) conscious; and the consciousness of the cosmos appeared to be beyond good and evil in a way that could easily be either alien or infantile. I coped with that the best I could and suspected that I would continue to do so eternally, through various forms of (non-) embodied existence.

Then the change came, and any account of that invites judgment. I had been, up to a certain point, what William Lynch calls a “facer of facts,” for whom “the beautiful thing… is to accept the absurdity and limitations of reality with nerve, sincerity, courage and authenticity” (20). Under another rubric: my courage failed; I fell back on religion, “escap[ing] into a tenuous world of infinite bliss,” and the rest is history. This is not how I would tell my story, but it is a hard story to tell without falling back on categories which, as Adam Kotsko says, appear regressive and naive in the modern world:

In debates over divine transcendence, the burden of proof is most often on the person who wants to reject it — and that position does make sense, as the Christian tradition has mostly embraced divine transcendence. That said, the cultures in which Christianity has mostly moved have also mostly embraced divine transcendence as a kind of cultural common sense. That is no longer the case in the Western world, however. In making sense of the world around us, the “God hypothesis” is obviously no longer necessary. Insisting on divine transcendence, therefore, means pushing up against an amazingly successful explanatory system that virtually no one questions in any serious or thorough-going way. There had better be a damn good reason to take that on! In short, I think that in the contemporary world, the burden of proof is on those who want to maintain divine transcendence.

I have to admit that Kotsko’s assessment feels right to a certain extent; there are certain “amazingly successful explanatory systems” within which God need play no role. I’m not talking about the typical positivist drivel which comes from the likes of Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne, but Deleuze’s account of purely material “becomings” along a “plane of immanence” is deeply compelling to me. This purely univocal account of being and experience seems to match up with my reality quite well, but metaphysically it also tends toward a sort of pantheism which is indistinguishable from atheism. As political theologian Clayton Crockett puts it, “I would see Christ more as a singular entity who expressed a powerful vision of life and then died, but that death is itself the resurrection into a repetition of difference that is both absolutely unique and completely inter-related to all other forms of life. There is a Christ-event, but also a Confucius-event, a Spinoza-event, etc.” Frankly, this sounds a lot like my old way of looking at things. I don’t know — maybe I could still find a form of life for myself in there somewhere.

… And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that this is too simple. In many ways, I find that my mental dilemma has reversed: whereas a few years ago I felt that Christianity filled in the holes of the world I’d made for myself, now I feel that same conviction clinging to me despite a wealth of alternative explanations. It may, perhaps, be an act of bad faith to cling to such convictions — and yet I know that to abandon those convictions would be an act of bad faith, totally and absolutely.

Maybe this is what leads me back to “Atheism for Lent” — belatedly, of course, since Lent has already passed us by. In this instance, “Atheism for Lent” means using the Lenten season to engage with historical criticisms of Christianity, allowing such criticisms to refine away the idolatries which so often accrete around our faith and allowing us to repent of them. However, such a process falls under heavy criticism from Kotsko and others who believe that such attempts to “resuscitate” Christianity in order to leave its “core” free from criticism are (what else?) acts of intellectual bad faith.

I don’t agree with this claim. I see many, many problems with it — but I also find it intimidating, and feel compelled to engage with it. I feel that this type of performance-art atheism — the sort which empties Christian forms of their spiritual content and repurposes them for more material, social uses — is the type of atheist I might be if I could manage to be one.

So by way of engaging the question “What sort of atheist would I be?”, I am working through Katharine Sarah Moody’s book, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity (Ashgate, 2015) over the coming weeks. I’ll be posting part-reviews, part-meditation as I work through each chapter of the book and think about what I believe, what I don’t, and why. Should anyone want to come along for the ride, I hope you will find something helpful regarding the strange field of “radical theology,” but at minimum I hope that your imagination will be sparked; after all, I hardly think that any theology can live without such a spark.

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Hay, Horses, and (What Sort of) Dogmatics (?)

I have a long-standing tacit debate going with my mother and my mother-in-law. It involves the reach of Church doctrine — because why wouldn’t it? My mom-in-law puts it in more immediate, community-minded terms; namely, how essential do we want to make something like, say, the Trinity, if the general population of the Church “doesn’t get it”? My own mother’s terms are a bit more pastoral: “Put the hay down where the horses can get to it.”

My general response cites a failure of Christian education and that we don’t think highly enough of the laity, and in large degree I still think this is true. Amos, after all, was an Ancient Near-Eastern farmer who levied a socio-economic critique so scathing that it would have bowled over Marx himself. Radical critiques of Church history typically read modern systems of power/knowledge onto early doctrinal developments and presume that one-tenth of one percent has always dictated the terms of knowledge. But I think it’s reductive to say that the Trinity (might as well stay consistent) emerged from these same sorts of power dynamics. It wasn’t some mystifying element held over the heads of the faithful in order to create a divide between them and the reigning hierarchy. Yes, at the Council of Nicaea the Church was represented by a fairly small number of men, but by many accounts only an astonishing half of one percent dissented from the view which would then under-gird the doctrine of the Trinity and become “orthodox.” To me, this indicates that the doctrine was far from incomprehensible to the people whom these men represented at the council — So why should our thoughts on that change now?

Perhaps they shouldn’t. But that doesn’t render the question unproblematic; in fact, the problem may well lie elsewhere, in the question my mom-in-law consistently poses: what happens if you can’t “grasp” something so essential?

In Radical Hermeneutics (1987), John D. Caputo attempts to re-think the entire foundation of knowledge, reason, and the roles they play in our lives. Extending the legacy of philosopher Jacques Derrida and his theory of deconstruction, Caputo advocates a kind of thinking which “exposes itself to the twilight world of ambiguous and undecidable figures”:

Its role is not so much to “come to grips” with [mystery]–that is the metaphorics of grasping, and we have insisted on [mystery’s] ability to elude our grip–as it is to cope with or, best of all, to stay in play with it. (271)

Here, Caputo suggests that “grasping” is the wrong way to go about learning. Throughout his study, Caputo makes a number of adjustments in how he discusses knowledge: the Latin veritas, an object of conquest and loaded with certainties, gives way to an older notion, the Greek aletheia which discloses itself, generously opening itself to inquiry without giving everything away. Heidegger resources aletheia in his thought, but Caputo wants to radicalize such disclosure into a-letheia. What is disclosed, for Caputo, is the lethe at the heart of all thinking; not a foundational reality which coquettishly gives us peaks of itself but one which opens itself up completely to reveal that, underneath, there is nothing but flux, change, and chaos. This flux, Caputo believes, is what the German mystic Meister Eckhart has in mind when he described “Godhead,” as resourced in Heidegger:

Heidegger’s first, last, and constant thought, in my view, is that thinking is in the end directed at that lethic dimension, that the de-limitation of conceptual thinking issues in a Gelassenheit toward the lethe, the concealed heart of a-letheia, the mystery which withdraws, which never hands itself over in a form we can trust. (271)

So much for “putting the hay where the horses can get at it” …

Caputo dances beautifully across the mystical sublime, the “abyss” which accompanies the overwhelming reality of what we call God. But there are other interventions to be made here. I will leave it to Luke Ferretter to describe Caputo’s misreadings of Eckhart and the tradition to which he belonged; more imminently, one must consider what to make of Caputo’s claim that the lethe, or what Eckhart called “Godhead,” “never hands itself over in a form we can trust.”

Christianity, of course, is proceeds from a different wager: it believes that, in fact, Godhead handed itself over in a form that we can trust; the person of Jesus Christ and, secondarily, in the plural testimonies contained in what we call Scripture and the interpretive traditions of the Church (however fragile that canon may be; you can consult Colby Dickinson on that one). The core of Christianity is the belief that the “abyss” beneath the name of God has conceded to name itself God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. God puts Godself in play with us materially, historically, making a wager of trust something like possible.

So while I do not believe that Caputo’s “religion without religion” is representative of historic Christianity (nor can it be in any real way), I do want to retain a part of his critique; in this case, his critique of “the metaphorics of grasping.” With Caputo, I agree that language, always the first ingress into our Being, often constitutes the realities in which we live. Insofar as the “metaphorics of grasping” are operative within our discussions of doctrine, there is a constitutive project at work which places us in active relationship to the passivity of God and his nature. Under such dynamics, the privilege will indeed belong to those who are able to “grasp” God, who “get it,” and it will fall to those who cannot to fall in line behind those who can. This creates an economy of power in which those who “get it” merely have to accuse a dissenter of not getting it, an accusation which has no hope of being rebutted because those who “get it” already control the terms of the debate. Practically, this produces situations like our current crisis in Christian education, where doctrine is merely repeated ad nauseum in terms which no one understands anymore, the bludgeon by which the powerful mark themselves off from those who “just don’t get it.”

So what can we do about this? How can we change it, and avoid this sort of toxicity? For one, I am more than satisfied exchanging veritas for Heidegger’s aletheia without making Caputo’s enormous leap into the lethe. This is a conservatism for which he would fault me mightily, but so be it; I see no need to make such a leap. What I do see, however, is that this move returns God to the active position, free to place Godself under disclosure. We take an active role in this as well, watching for events of such self-disclosure and communication by which this God would make itself known, and not to a privileged few but to all people (Isaiah 65:1).

Where, then, heresy? This is something that I will need a long time to sort out, but by way of a preliminary answer, I would argue that, under the “metaphorics of grasping,”accusations of heresy become a means by which to marginalize and manage those who are unable to “grasp” and yet continue to speak as though they do. Privilege of interpretation belongs to those who “get it,” while others are kept in line, warned not to speak beyond their place and unable to defend their dissents against the tribunal. But in accounts of the early Church, unless we read them with the most uncharitable of suspicion (a popular and academically “sexy” move to be sure), this isn’t how we see “heresy” at work. Rather, “heresy” tends to be a pretty active project; rather than being the mere failure to apprehend part of what power has decreed to be knowledge, heresy involves a deliberate rejection, an active misreading, or an over-emphasis of something else. In his feud with Athanasius, Arias did not merely “fail to grasp” the teaching that Christ was both human and divine, rather he insisted on emphasizing the humanness of Christ such that his divinity was effaced. In this case Arias could be accused of “grasping” — veritas — where it was not right to grasp, reaching beyond what God had seen fit to disclose about himself — aletheia.

If we excise or invert the metaphorics of grasping, there is, I think, an opportunity to reconsider the terms. Church dogmatics is not a veritas, a confident “grasping” of what has attempted to stay hidden from us. But neither should dogma be a merely provisional, skittish “construal” of that which “never hands itself over in a form we can trust.” Rather, dogma emerges from a desire to respond to aletheia, to that which God has seen fit to reveal about himself. Aletheia is democratic, and so dogma at its best is the communal response to God’s self disclosure. It says, “Yes, we have all seen the same thing, and though we may not understand it we trust the One who has shown it, and those who have seen the same things before us. It is enough, for now.” Dogma, when it finds its foundation in the community, is democratic because it finds its expression in response to aletheia, and because it is democratic it is also sparse, humble, and yet deadly serious, “valuable for teaching the truth, convicting of sin, correcting faults and training in right living” (c.f. 2 Timothy 3:16). Orthodoxy is orthodoxy precisely because it “sets the hay down where the horses can get to it.” Under this rubric, it is what we call heresy, and not orthodoxy, which repeats the violence of the “metaphorics of grasping” in its dissatisfaction with aletheia and instead reaches for novelty and power, either in the certainty of veritas or the gnosticism of pure lethe. It denies God’s freedom to be responsible for Godself, and denies that Christ is trustworthy enough to reveal himself in a self-consistent way which creates a humbly normative framework by which the entire community can understand itself. A proper dogmatics, responding to revelation, should be assure along with Czeslaw Milosz that, “The errors and childish imaginings of the explorers / Of mysteries should be forgiven.”

Under this reading, heresy rather than orthodoxy is an exercise in the illiberal and undemocratic; dogma is liberated, freed to be the curation of a communal voice. But the believed-in self-consistency of God as communicated by that dogma does not (indeed must not) close down the play, the messianic possibilities of the Spirit. Whereas Caputo sees all as play, as lethe, the Christian sees this as a play with purpose, the play of a person, a divine person in communication with (all) human persons, and this divine person is absolutely free. But this person is also good and trustworthy, and it is ultimately that belief which guards against what I have described above becoming a simple reversal, an inversion of terms which ultimately maintains the same power structure. Caputo himself admits that all such “displacements” are dangerous in precisely this way, no matter who is performing them. Lest we fall prey to this danger, we must remain open to that same messianic “play” by which God-in-Christ overturned the Law of Moses and undermined the theology of the Jews. The free play of the Holy Spirit may, indeed, leave our own conceptualizations and construals undermined at times, but that freedom does not bespeak of a lethe which leaves us cast adrift. We and our ever-fragile dogmatics are, rather, left with a single consolation: ADONAI, God of the spirits of the prophets, is true and trustworthy (c.f. Revelation 22:6).