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.

Car-Crash Theology

He saluted the timestamp, archival marker as it was. On a purely solipsistic level, he wanted to believe that past could collapse into present, or that acts of thought were one long present. The ubiquity of the archive, and the marks it put on everything, would never again allow this. It created a topography behind him which insisted, beyond denial, that motion had occurred. Palaces, recognizable in proportion to completeness in proportion to decay, dotted the blurred-orange horizon and hailed their only-ever occupant, who now found himself a hundred stamps away. 

I’m currently thinking about the Shellean afterlife of theology when I should be reading any of a number of things which don’t seem to command my attention enough to do them, which is essentially the description of a “responsibility” in the first place. On hand I have five stones, variously consulted, plus a canteen. I’ll lay a cornerstone here, something I haven’t even looked at yet, and like every other one I will forget all about it, but the point is that at some point I’ll be able to come back and dig it up and remember that I ever put it here at all.

“The use for theology in a secular society is to understand our cultural heritage and diagnose its often unexpected influence” — Adam Kotsko

“Hmm, I think there is a better answer for the use [of] Death of God theology — it is similar to the new age of art.” 

Rarely does anyone think about the “use” of theology I’ve found, beyond its polemical/proselytizing/evangelizing/apologetic forms. This is what theology “does,” is create a framework in which to hold and maintain the believer while also potentially converting the non-believer. Traditionally, I think, this is what theology has done or been seen to do.

Kotsko thus suggests that the “use” of theology needs to be reconsidered for a secular society after the “death of God,” specifically the Hegelian-Altizerian interpretation which he thinks is “most interesting.” It is a functionally atheistic (post-theistic?) understanding of theology, theology conducted as genealogy, as archaeology, as a means of making sense of where we came from and where we’re going. This doesn’t mean relegating theology to the status of sociological phenomena; a real understanding of theo-logic has to go into this work of realizing the degrees to which religious belief has produced us, still pilots us, where we can permit it to do so (in a kind of chastened non-non-naivety) and where we must excise it. It’s not quite the making of Nietzsche’s ubermensch, as we get to decide exactly how much of the shadow of God’s corpse we want to live under at any given time. We can come and go from under it as we please.

The alternative, less overtly political “use” for theology after the death of God is in the kind of pastiche-role of an “art after metaphysics” such as that explored by John David Ebert. The “transcendental signified” — the universal concept, the keystone for a metaphysic — disappears behind the realities of language (a la Derrida). This is illustrated beautifully in Shusaku Endo’s Deep River, I think, in which the ostensibly universal significations of Catholic theology are, in frustration, locked into geographical particularity: “God revealed himself in Europe” an exasperated Jesuit tells a would-be Japanese priest as he attempts to translate Western images of God into usable tools for his homeland. The un-said insistence that Christianity is untranslatable outside of Western metaphysics turns into a damning affirmation: metaphysics — and consequently Christianity — are not in fact universal or “transcendental” categories of signification.

Ebert says that the contemporary art world has fully thrown itself into this realization. Dislocated forms, Eliot’s “fragments shored against ruins,” become the detritus by which we make new things: we recombine, redeploy, similar to what Jeffrey Nealon says is the role of conceptual poetics in the work of Kenneth Goldsmith and others. Theology is one of these many forms, these sense-making systems whose integrity has dissolved and left us with a “heap of broken images” which we can then put back together in ways that have never been seen before, to mean things they have never meant before–something intensely personal. Theology after the death of God becomes “profaned” in Giorgio Agamben’s sense, something tumbled from its pedestal, cast out of its state of use into an earthy realm where it is played with, given new uses. The grammar of the “Book of God,” so pulled down to earth, becomes available for new ways of navigating Being.

So now that God is dead, “theology” becomes newly available in two forms: as archaeology, a means of understanding who we are and where we come from, or as theo-poetics, a reclaiming of God-language for personal use and sense-making. In either cases, it is a disused tool: as archaeology, it is a signpost that has itself been pulled out and used to dig for the foundations of the sign. In art, we might use a spelunking analogy: our guide has died, and now we use their gear to find a way forward ourselves. Both approaches are “nihilistic,” as Kotsko wouldn’t hesitate to argue, but it’s not a project only for atheists. Catholic theologian Colby Dickinson cautions us to remember  that such theologies are profoundly political and cultural, rarely making actual claims about the ontological status of the divine (if such claims can be made at all). Such “immanent” theologies do not preclude the reality of a transcendent God who has (or has) not died (unless you’re an Altizer, of course); but they are profoundly political and cultural statements about the lack of any such God’s felt presence in modern society. As such, Dickinson is also interested in “finding new uses” for theology in such times. Insofar as he is speaking as a Catholic, I honestly don’t have any idea what the hell he means …

Because I understand the logic behind both of these approaches, this “resuscitation” of a discourse that has been dethroned, returning its vocabulary to play and common use, or to archival work. I think I understand the logic now more than I did a year ago; the purpose is not to make claims about the divine in reality but to (re)use the vocabulary available for something different. The Temple has been demolished, brick by brick, just as was prophesied: let us return to the stones and make something new out of them, so that we may “shore ourselves against its ruins.” Perhaps this is the noble image evoked by such projects.

… And yet I can’t shake the image of a story I heard, about a horrific car crash in which a child was decapitated. When the EMT’s arrived, the mother was holding the body in her lap, crying, trying to reattach the head, hope sparking through the chemical haze of adrenaline and grief which told her that this time, no, maybe this time, the red and gaping sever would shut like the beaten, battered gates of Hell in the wake of Resurrection.

“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.