ēthikē dramatikos

Be beautiful, therefore…

I want to expand a bit on something I only mentioned in passing in my last post: the idea of a dramatic ethics.

Hans Urs von Balthasar argues, in The Glory of the Lord, that aesthetics, when properly understood, should have ethical implications and aftershocks. In other words, morality is an effect of beauty. This is an instance of, as I mentioned before, “the beautiful” having a reciprocal and interdependent relationship with the true and the good.

This, certainly, is not typically the way we think about ethics or morality. The Old Testament, for instance, we boil down to a long litany of “do this” or “don’t do that.” Morality, in our public consciousness, is a set of black-and-white prohibitions which are either tyrannically repressive, or just enough to keep us from killing each other. In order to ensure social order, we codify our morality and yield it up to the jurisdiction of the State so as to ensure that everyone keeps the bare minimum code of behavior to get along, but not enough to infringe on our individual rights to do whatever the hell we want. In fact, this is even how we diet.

This, certainly, is the only outcome when morality is understood in purely juridical terms; when aesthetics has been evicted from our set of concerns.

Perhaps the most well-known and gag-inducing example of this attitude is the pithy phrase “What would Jesus do?”, made popular by evangelicals in the 1990s. Self-contained in this phrase is the assumption that the key to a moral life lies in taking every single action and decision, running it through the heuristic of Christ’s own behavior in the Gospels, doing a quick cross-reference and then acting accordingly.

The problem is, in my Bible at least, I’ve got about a hundred-ish pages of Jesus actually doing anything, most of it is repeat material and, as if this were the least of my concerns, Rabboni didn’t exactly make the clarity of his words or behavior a top priority (Matthew 13:10ff).

So what does this mean for the Imitatio Christi?

I truly think the answer lies in drama.

For Balthasar, drama is ultimately the very form of Being itself, and the dramatic action of the Gospel narrative is the definitive disclosure of the way in which the world works. The self-emptying, saving God-in-Christ reveals himself to be the form of all creation, and so morality becomes a matter of participating in that form in a way that gestures to it, does justice to it, calls attention to it.

But how does this interface with ethics? If morality is fundamentally dramatic, then dramatic logic should apply to our ethics, including one of the oldest forms of drama: tragedy. Tragedy, it seems, throws a wrench into even the most confident ethical systems. I’ve been preoccupied with this question ever since an old highschool teacher of mine told the story of his wife going into labor, with severe complications. Ultimately, the doctors approached him with the decision to save either his wife, or his unborn son. He chose the former.

In fact, this scenario is very similar to that encountered by the Jesuit priest Rodriguez in Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence (1966). Forced by the Japanese shogunate to either publicly apostatize or thus be responsible for the murder of hundreds of villagers. Meanwhile, the aged and enfeebled Alice Bell in Pat Barker’s Union Street (1987) wanders out of her room and into the freezing cold, not because of any overwhelming desire to die but because the people on whose care she depends have institutionalized her, abdicating their responsibility so thoroughly that she is left with the choice of either dying on her own terms or dying slowly of neglect.

Modern Christian morality is going to immediately pose the question, did they do something wrong? There will be the ardent stance that unproblematically says, yes, your teacher should have saved the unborn child. That, or he should have made no decision and left it in God’s hands. Or, yes, Rodriguez should have given the people over to death and left the rest up to God, if he truly believed in him. Similarly, Alice had no right to seek death on her own terms. Perhaps something in these claims is true. But I think that tragedy ruins us for decisions like this, forces the reminder that our easy groupings of “do this, not that” fail to do any kind of justice to the reality of what Martin Heidegger calls the fallenness of being-in-the-world, or Paul Ricoeur’s fundamental view of the human being as the acting and suffering person.

Tragedy produces situations in which the only appropriate ethical response is to find a way to participate in the dramatic life which weeps despite knowing itself to be the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:21-35). Whatever the outcome, whatever the “right” answer, I feel the really important thing here is that we are forced to account for something lying far afield of our moral systems. We are forced to imagine, as Philip Yancey does, “the Jesus who speaks from the fumie, whose love extends to apostasy and beyond,” held in impossible tension with the Jesus who makes it very clear that he will disown those who disown him (Matthew 10).

“Be perfect, therefore, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. I feel it becomes even harder, not easier, when we divest ourselves of our expectations of moral perfection and instead read, “Be beautiful, therefore, just as your Father in Heaven is beautiful.”

“Seeing the form.”

While the “true” and the “good” may not change, the “beautiful” is precisely the capacity for the “true” and the “good” to adapt to the changing needs of history.

I’m about three days into my dedicated time of reading for comprehensive exams, and my track record is abysmal.

Doing the math, I should be reading about 10 books a month to stay ahead of the curve. That’s a book every three days.

Three days in, I am on page 125 of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord.

That is, page 125 out of 663.

Of Volume I.

Of 7.

Not that I need to read all seven volumes, but still. I could be doing better.

At the same time, the slow grind has been useful, especially since Balthasar is so dense. In his introductory chapter to The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar provides a history lesson on the fall of “beauty” from the world of theology. He begins with Romanticism (the philosophical movement of the long 19th Century) and demonstrates the ways in which art has been divorced from the other transcendentals, the “good” and the “true.”

The main effects have been this: first, there is the privatization of religion into what theologian David Tracy calls “a private consumer product that some people seem to need.” Following closely, art, or “the beautiful,” becomes similarly privatized as (Tracy here, again), “a now attractive, now repulsive expression of another’s private self.”

For Balthasar, this privatization began when “beauty” came to be understood as something intensely personal and subjective, no longer understood as the “form” of the world, as is the case in Catholic sacramentalism. From there, the historicity which has under-girded traditional Christian religious belief ceases to be necessary and give way to the existentialism of modern religion, in which God is not a person to be engaged by a concept to be orbited. For Balthasar, when aesthetic form disappears from our understanding of the Gospel, that form being rooted in God’s self-disclosure throughout history, then we are indeed left only with sterile concepts; “Resurrection,” for instance, no longer figures Christ’s victory over death, but rather a figurative “resurrection” into the memory of the church and the potentials of new life here on earth and among other people.

This, I think, is precisely what Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo encountered in trying to translate his Christianity into something intelligible to his native Japan:

‘When the [Jesus] was killed,’ Otsu muttered, staring at the ground, as though speaking only to himself, ‘the disciples who remained finally understood his love and what it meant. Every one of them had stayed alive by abandoning him and running away. He continued to love them even though they had betrayed him. As a result, he was etched into each of their guilty hearts, and they were never able to forget him. The disciples set out for distant lands to tell others the story of his life.’ Otsu spoke as though he had opened up a picture-book and was reading a story to the impoverished children of India. ‘After that, he continued to live in the hearts of his disciples. He died, but he was restored to life in their hearts.’

This passage, from Endo’s final novel Deep River (1994), has less to do, I think, with the modern refusal to accept anything as miraculous as the bodily resurrection of Christ. More so, I think that it is also an aesthetic problem, one which arises when beauty is no longer a priority for theology — when “seeing the form” becomes clouded and problematic, especially when making the jump into a deeply aesthetic yet modernized culture such as Japan for which “form” means something very different. It is one thing when the “form” requires, as Tracy and Balthasar both argue, an inexhaustible plurality of expressions. It’s a wholly other thing when “form” ceases to be the means by which faith might be expressed.

This, certainly, is the case for a post-structuralist culture for which “form” is a four-letter word, another attempt at dominating reality and rendering it up to our disposal. Living in the world, today, means finding a way to live without form altogether. This is made evident enough by the fact that those who manage to do so insist on praising their achievement.

But this vantage is itself historically grounded, is the product of over a hundred years of history. Modern philosophy is, in many ways, the child who grew up in the middle of the messy divorce between theology and aesthetics. But, I think, it is possible to imagine things being otherwise: that perhaps “beauty” is not merely an after-effect of numerous subjective cross-sections of the “true” and the “good,” themselves as subjective as anything else, but that “beauty” may well be part of what determines what is “good” and “true” in the first place. Maybe it is possible, for instance, to think of ethics not as dogma, but as drama. Such imagining is, I think, precisely the work of literature, the potential role of religious literature in the 21st Century, but it is only effective if history is given central importance to the journey, not only because it tells us where we come from but because, according to Balthasar, history dictates the very needs and means (i.e. “style”) by which the form of the beautiful must be expressed. History explains where we come from, and so clarifies what we need in the present, so while the “true” and the “good” may not change, the “beautiful” is precisely the capacity for the “true” and the “good” to adapt to the changing needs of history.

But, as one fellow in the faith told me recently, and very bluntly, “Oh, I don’t care about history.” Specifically, what use is history to the immediate needs of ministry?

Oh. I wonder.

On being part of the problem

In which I attempt a renegotiation with what it means for me to be a writer.

I recently found out, through Evanston Now, that I am a blight on my neighborhood. I do love the moniker which has been handed to me, authorizing me to identify as a “transient academic.” And it’s terribly exciting, because I hate responding to the question, “So, what do you do?” I often feel the impulse to give a two-minute dissertation defense in order to justify my life, and as soon as I see eyes glaze over I retract and just say, “I teach.” Of course, those who aren’t interested in the ways in which contemporary literature re-imagines the credal and liturgical possibilities of Christianity in light of continental philosophy, postmodern to contemporary, are also unlikely to assess me favorably based on the fact that I teach freshman writing.

In fact, one commentator on the Evanston Now article, going (appropriately) by the name of “Jacques,” astutely demonstrates everything that is wrong with me and what I do:

For the time being setting aside — for the sake of my readers’ patience and with a certain respect for the limits imposed on my discourse by the conventions of the “internet comment thread” — the crucially important problematic of transience which threatens to undermine, even as it makes possible, the very discussion on which we have embarked, as well as the difficulty that besets any attempt to delimit a “right sort” of academics, that is, that the category’s own purity can only be established by certain exclusion that inscribes it necessarily and from the very beginning with its other, the group which provokes such anxiety within a certain discourse that claims the authority of the Southeast Evanston Association, even as said Association attempts to disown that discourse, is almost certainly (within the horizons of the present discussion, respecting the form in which it was initially proposed, with all the presuppositions and limitations it entailed) those philosophers (still so numerous, alas, and who enjoy an especial prominence in this country) who are still attempting to shore up various forms of positivism and logocentrism.

RE: As an academic, I am trained in and excel at — as does Jacques here, apparently — being insufferably obtuse on purpose.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Let me demonstrate:

The SEA’s denunciation of “transient academics” is only possible because of the ways in which it assumes and tries to preserve an idea of what the “right sort” of academics looks like, which is itself only meaningful when you have the idea of crappy “transient academics” (whatever that means) juxtaposed against it. In short, the SEA needs “transient academics” in order to maintain its own superiority complex.

That’s my translation, anyway, of Jacques’s comment, which is an example of what we in the academy (and by now everyone else) call deconstruction. In my little note, I’ve tried to give an example of what deconstruction does. But Jacques, facetiously, has zeroed in on how it sounds.

It’s the sound of deconstruction which has achieved its own sort of social life, a kind of ironic social capital. Nobody knows what deconstruction actually means or does, what it’s about, but speaking in deconstructive registers essentially makes the same point, no matter the content: “I am smart enough to sound smart enough to know that what I’m saying is complete rubbish.”

Which is complicated for me, because I don’t believe that deconstruction is complete rubbish, though I think it’s an incomplete and in some ways misguided approach to the world and larger questions of Being. I have problems with deconstruction, but for different reasons than most people have problems with it.

And yet, despite this rupture in understanding between vox populi and the Ivory Tower, we have emerged into a moment in which “deconstruction is the case,” as Penn State professor Jeffrey T. Nealon puts it in his recent work, Post-Postmodernism (2012). As evidenced not merely by the comments section of the Evanston Now article but by culture at large, academic rhetoric is becoming more and more the furniture of everyday discourse, getting reinterpreted along the way. And what gets lost in translation is part of the problem, as Nealon continues:

For interruption to function plausibly as a mode of resistance to truth, the primary social and theoretical ‘problem’ logically has to rest in a social system that does whatever sinister work it does through the desire for totalization. 

Nealon is arguing that there was once a time, not even that long ago (think up to about the mid-20th Century) when “truth” was written in broad strokes, inscribed by the status quo as an act of domination: truth means one thing and one thing only and that happens to be what I say it means. Under such circumstances, according to Nealon, interpretation (or, what we in the academy call “hermeneutics” in bids to test the theoretical allergens of others) was a major mode of social resistance because it “interrupted” authoritarian claims to truth: if I can demonstrate that your “truth” is a self-reliant product of history, of social forces, that it can just as easily be reconstrued and reinterpreted to serve another agenda of “truth,” then I have stopped your totalitarian effort in its tracks. That is precisely what deconstruction does, it takes the piss out of the “Word of God,” in whatever form that takes, by reading it against itself — like a chump.

So what’s changed? Well, frankly, despite its ironic redeployment even from the mouths of babes, deconstruction has, in fact, done its work: we are so thoroughly aware that truth claims are specious, so many castles built on sand, that pointing this out has ceased to be an act of social resistance and has instead become a tiresome exercise in stating the obvious. Our entire culture, down to our economics and politics, now takes plurality and indeterminacy as its starting point.

This would be great if it did, in fact, result in a democratic meritocracy of ideas freed from the controlling hegemony of a dominant ideology, but this hasn’t happened, not remotely, in fact we now have a bunch of splintered ideologies all self-authorized in going to war with one another inside the public sphere of cooperative tolerance we pretend we live in. But that’s a rant for another time.

So before I ramble irretrievably away from the point, I’ll say it plainly: we have no faith in discourse anymore. Deconstruction did not teach us how to be hospitable to one another, as Derrida arguably intended, but rather it taught us that we are factories of violence precisely insofar as we are linguistic animals. We are so sure that every utterance is a power-play in disguise, designed to interrupt us and lock us down, that obfuscation becomes an act of self-defense or, at worst, an act of preemptive intellectual terrorism, to the point where even sounding academic signals that you’re not interested in actually having a conversation.

So what do we do about that?

I just got back from California after attending the Western Conference on Christianity and Literature this past weekend. The theme of the conference was “Shepherding Language: Restoring Our Faith in Words.” This is a good and noble pursuit, but as Jacques pointed out regarding the Southeast Evanston Association, “shepherding language” is going to involve a particular idea of what that ought to look like, oftentimes to the exclusion of others. For some, such as Thursday night’s keynote speaker, “shepherding language” involved what Nealon elsewhere calls “a wholly untenable and manipulative fall back into tradition.” I’m sorry, but after the death of discourse, there is no way to simply go back to someone else’s ostensibly “plain and simple” way of doing things. Rather, we seem to have been trying to teach ourselves “how to avoid speaking.”

For the rest of us, though, there was a concerted decision to speak up anyway — a refusal to avoid speaking. Our second keynote, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, has become one of my favorite people; in general, but particularly in her articulation of her refusal to avoid speaking: how to speak without certainty, how to insist on the desire to communicate, in a world that is going to automatically be suspicious, and equally so, of both clear speech and obfuscation as thinly-disguised acts of power and violence. For McEntyre, “restoring faith in words” doesn’t involve rediscovering that faith, but remaking it, re-investing it, actually speaking “in good faith.” If Richard Kearney has prescribed “anatheism” as a return to or rediscovery of God “after God,” then perhaps McEntyre is proposing, though not quite in these terms, a redefinition of analogy — ana logos, a return to words after the death of words.

That’s what I plan to do here, anyway. I am a third-year doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. I am currently studying for the comprehensive exams which will define my specialties, of which there are three: 1) the Catholic imagination in the modern novel, 2) Postmodern literature and philosophy/theory, and 3) the 21st Century novel “after Theory.” According to plan, this will culminate in a dissertation on how religious authors in the past fifteen years have used the novel form as a space in which to re-imagine the possibilities of religion, and re-articulate their own religious identities, in light of the challenges of postmodern philosophy and politics. I have called postmodernism the “gauntlet” through which religious identity must now pass in today’s world, but one of my professor’s Andrew McKenna, has insisted on calling it a “guillotine.” He’s probably right.

This, then, is my negotiation with the guillotine. Just as I believe literature serves as a space for re-imagining the sacred, so I plan to use this blog as a space in which to practice ana logos, returning to language, documenting my journey through the rest of my doctorate and being as conscious as I can to not let my thoughts slip into the trappings of higher academia, at least not before their time. This is the place for me to talk about the things that matter to me — God, art, politics, being human — and to practice talking about them as though I were talking to a systems engineer (my best friend), a mental health counselor working in crisis intake (my wife), the senior pastor of the small Evangelical Free Church I attend, or even my mother-in-law …

Especially my mother-in-law.

This is, simply, my attempt to write “without footnotes.” Or, well, not exactly. Quite the opposite, actually.

These are, in fact, all my footnotes.