Sunday, September 14, 2014

Forgive My Father, He Knows Not What He Does

It's been a troublesome week for the NFL. They are finally faced with what has been happening under the surface of the league for years now, as testified to by former players such as Chris Carter and Keyshawn Johnson this morning on ESPN. What is interesting is the response that is being evoked from the talking heads. While Chris Carter bemoans the culture that has been created as a result of the encouraged physical violence as a form of punishment, we still have others who refuse to see the real issue. Immediately after Carter's emotional speech in which he courageously said, "my mom was wrong" about the physical violence as a form of punishment, we immediately saw Mike Ditka and Keyshawn Johnson jump in and deny that Carter could possibly be correct. It was the classic defense mechanism, "if it weren't for the fact that my father/mother beat me, I would not be the man I am today." Is this not all too expected?

It is all too ideological and riddled with bad theology. Both Ditka's and Johnson's comments reek of the Christian declaration that all humans are inherently evil until we understand that we need God. Is this not identical to the foundation of child discipline that our culture is built upon? It is the common understanding that your child is going to be a brat unless you take the law into your own hands and hit him or her. To question this common wisdom is identical to heretical questioning of God or foundational theological ideas. Do not both Ditka and Johnson sound similar to the fundamentalist that will not question the idea of Hell or come to terms with the fact that omnipotence and omnibenevolence do not work in light of the world we live in?

They espouse the same thinking as those who think that they deserve Hell. Too often we view our parents as omniscient beings who are infallible. It is not until they do something that breaks our ideological view of them that we begin to see and understand them as people who did their best; and this does not seem to happen until we are already adults. But still, they have a hold over us that prevents total questioning in many cases. So what else are Keyshawn Johnson and Mike Ditka saying when they defend their parent's abusive form of punishment except, "Don't question the Father, he knows better than we ever will." Should we or should we not question the system that allows for Adrian Peterson to defend what he did to his child as a simple spanking that got just a little out of hand? What about a system that allows for hundreds of Ravens fans and people nationwide to stand with Ray Rice and then blame his wife for staying with him?

Perhaps we should listen to what Chris Carter said, understanding the limitations of parenting at the time they did and then understand that they were wrong, but anger solves nothing. But this is also what makes the Rice and Peterson situations so upsetting. They do not have these pardons, if you will allow my apologetic language. My dad has spoken of going to school and seeing his friends covered and black and blue bruises and never understanding that to be wrong of his friends' parents. Then, of course, this style is passed on in some way to he and my mother. Of course I was "paddled" and it was wrong. What cannot be accepted further today is that exact thought. "Of course I was hit/paddled/switched, etc." should end with my generation. In fact, it should have ended long before.

Often it takes seeing ourselves through the guise of the Other to reveal the monstrosity that we are. What the Rice video shows and what the pictures of Adrian Peterson's child reveal is what domestic abuse looks like, and in turn, what we look like. Rice may be extreme, but Peterson was just "spanking" his child. Why have people reacted so against it? Because that would be their only defense as well. I was only hitting my child, forgive me, I know not what I did.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Play of a Kierkegaardian House

          Perhaps Derrida’s Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences could be understood as a critique of the structuralist ignorance of anxiety. This is not to say that structuralism was ignorant of the concept of anxiety, itself, but is rather to say that, as Derrida shows us, structuralism contained despair over the paradox that “the center is not the center” (1). This despair mirrors that of the despair Kierkegaard explores in The Sickness unto Death. Both Derrida and Kierkegaard are interested in pointing out the despair that finds its home within our thoughts and actions, but Derrida rejects Kierkegaard’s solution. I intend to point out the shared critique of both Kierkegaard and Derrida concerning anxiety; but furthermore, I will apply Derrida’s critique to that Kierkegaard’s solution (realizing our self through God, the infinite) to reveal that Kierkegaard makes the same mistake, creating a fundamental ground to stand on by offering God as a center.
            Let us first operate under this premise: the concept of anxiety, in this particular case, is based upon uncertainty; existential anxiety, if I may. Kierkegaard’s Sickness is aimed at revealing that the nature of this anxiety is based upon a person’s inability to feel complete, and thus to attain her true self. The existential void within a person is revealed to be infinite, as nothing in this world can fill it because everything is finite. Thus, the only way to fill the hole within a person is for her to recognize God as infinite and therefore the only hope to attain her true self. The beginnings of despair are found in ignorance, according to Kierkegaard, however “the ever increasing intensity of despair depends upon the degree of consciousness or is proportionate to its increase: the greater the degree of consciousness, the more intensive the despair” (Kierkegaard 42). As one becomes more aware of the existential void, anxiety and despair increase. As such, this is why Derrida’s critique of Levi-Strauss in Structure, Sign, and Play is so devastating. The idea of a centered structure is “incoherent” because “the center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere” (Derrida 1). What is revealed further in this is the true reason that such an idea had been seen as necessary in philosophy: “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire” (1). Derrida’s critique reveals the existential anxiety within not simply structuralism, but also the individual.
            Just as Kierkegaard postulates that anxiety and despair are repressed by individuals to the point that most of humanity “prefers to live in the basement,” Derrida reveals that even in the most supposedly “conscious” individuals in philosophy there is an underlying existential void that remains the cause of it all (Kierkegaard 43). As with the destructive attacks upon metaphysics by Heidegger and Nietzsche brought with them the continuation of metaphysics, the existential void that drives all of humanity’s need for certainty is brought with those who bring absolutes to the philosophical or theological table. To put it more precisely, if “every particular borrowing drags along with it the whole of metaphysics,” then every particular human attempt at certainty brings with it humanity’s existential void, unrecognized as impossible to fill (Derrida 3). To further an earlier quote from Kierkegaard:

Imagine a house with a basement, first floor, and second floor planned so that there is or is supposed to be a social distinction between the occupants according to floor. Now, if what it means to be a human being is compared with such a house, then all too regrettably the sad and ludicrous truth about the majority of people is that in their own house they prefer to live in the basement. (43)

What Derrida’s critique of structuralism shows us, in Kierkegaardian terms, is that one cannot examine the world from a bird’s eye view when she is trapped in the basement! What is worth noting is that Kierkegaard, in his house, does not give us a roof. We are either in the basement, on the first floor, or on the second, thus connoting that there is no bird’s eye view. Derrida’s criticism of Levi-Strauss’ work as acting as empirical data is all the more enforced by such an understanding. Furthermore, Derrida conveys that discourse on the Human Sciences brings with it the floor of the house that the individual is living. She is never outside of the house.
            In this way, Kierkegaard brings to mind the notion of the bricoleur. The bricoleur uses “the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which they are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them” (Derrida 5). Since the individual brings with her the house and the floor she lives, she understands things through the tools she has at her disposal in her house, on her floor. Thus it is impossible to not be the bricoleur. What Derrida explains through language, Kierkegaard illustrates through metaphor. Each person is the house, but they are inside it, inside of their own idea of themselves, unable to fully see what floor they are on. There is only an imaginary opposition to the bricoleur, the engineer. Such a subject would be “the absolute origin of his own discourse, and would supposedly construct it ‘out of nothing,’ ‘out of whole cloth,’ would be the creator of the verbe, the verbe itself” (Derrida 5). This is something unobtainable for the person. The person is not the builder of the house, she is constructed, whether physically by biology, or through language when she perceives “who she is.”
            This is where, using Derrida’s critique, Kierkegaard is contradictory. Kierkegaard reveals the existential void within people and examines the ways in which it presents itself. He stays wonderfully coherent in his ideas of subjectivity and truth. However, in his response to the existential void he maintains the centered structure that Derrida reveals as incoherent. For Kierkegaard, as mentioned earlier, the existential void is created in the infinite hole that is created within us by our connection to God. As explained by Kierkegaard, “[a] human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis” (13). We therefore require something infinite to fill the existential void left by our synthesis that left us the infinite within the finite. The only way to fill this void, for Kierkegaard, to realize our true selves, is for us to exist before God (“before” used not as conveying time, but as subjects before a king). However, this creates an issue that Derrida exposes in Structure, Sign, and Play.
            God, for Kierkegaard, acts as the center of a structure, and thus acts as a notion of certainty to cover up the existential void. God, for Kierkegaard, becomes a band-aid of sorts, forced into coherence by a desire to overcome anxiety and despair. It becomes a tool with which “anxiety can be mastered, for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being” (Derrida 1). Kierkegaard’s God becomes the perfect example of a “center at the center of the totality, and yet… does not belong to the totality” (1). Kierkegaard finds himself committing the error he condemns by creating for the self, “an imaginatively constructed god” (Kierkegaard 69). No doubt Kierkegaard would disagree with Derrida that there is no engineer. Now Kierkegaard becomes the structuralist who “seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from play and from the order of the sign” (Derrida 10). Kierkegaard affirms the subjective over the absolute, yet finds that he is unable to make “the Nietzschean affirmation- the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation” (10). Kierkegaard cannot bring himself to take the leap of faith into this affirmation of play. Even down to Kierkegaard’s explanation of human’s synthesis of infinitude and finitude he bases all reasoning upon the fundamental center of everything that is yet outside of it all: God.
            If play is “always and interplay of absence and presence” then a further answer as to why Kierkegaard’s God has not withstood a Derridian critique is revealed to be that this center does not allow for play (Derrida 10). This Kierkegaardian God is one of absolute presence. There is nothing in which it does not abide. In fact, it goes so far as to abide outside of everything as well, as it is something that Kierkegaard says we must exist before. Play, however, “is the disruption of presence” and proves itself as a necessity of existence through language (10). If God is to be found, it will be as something that occurs in bricolage because that is all that is real, it is all that can be affirmed, it is what so clearly pronounces that there is play. We must affirm play to “pass beyond man and humanism, the name man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology… has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of the game” (10). To go beyond metaphysics, certainty, and origins is the Nietzschean cry for a world beyond good and evil and a beginning of a world that exists out from under the shadow of God.
                Going beyond such a world is what philosophy has strived for, and thus turning the page, or as Derrida puts it, taking a “step outside philosophy” becomes no simple task (4). Every critique has taken within it what it critiqued. The task becomes how to leave the shadow of what was and cross over into something new.  Kierkegaard’s work on anxiety becomes lacking not because of the problem it addresses, but because of the solution it offers. To think outside of philosophy is perhaps to offer new solutions to problems. Kierkegaard’s solution does not take the step. It presents a wonderful opportunity to, though, and that it is its new value. It is not that we must discontinue reading such philosophers, it is that we must “read philosophers in a certain way” (Derrida 7). The seemingly vague idea put forth here by Derrida is quite vital. It represents a new way of thinking about old ideas that refuses black and white for the more viable gray. Maybe in this Nietzschean affirmation, we experience something divine.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

If Someone Has Their Cloak Forcibly Taken From Them, Do Not Hesitate to Give Them Yours.

"To read widely, and often, is thus to hope to be changed, to still believe that change is possible. It is never, ever a waste of time. Be it an essay or short story or novel or article, a good read never goes unanswered because a good read opens up a world that requires our attention. That might be the inner world of the self, it might be the domestic world of a family relationship, or it could be the plight of a whole people." - Kester Brewin

This article has made me want to finally voice my comments on these past couple weeks concerning some of the remarks I have seen about Vilonia.

Often prayer is used as a mechanism for non-activity. I don't mean to say whether or not prayer does anything, what I mean to say is that prayer is sometimes used by people to avoid actually interacting with the situation. I watched (in horror) these past couple weeks as the terrible situation in Vilonia and Mayflower was turned into a soapbox for people to debate whether or not prayer works. On one side was the mantra that people should actually do something, and prayer is not doing anything to help. On the other side, an argument for its effectiveness and the merit of praying for the situation and the people involved. However, both sides have real flaws.

For the side that met the night of, or day after and had a small prayer circle for the people affected by the storms, but then went home to their TVs, books, and hot meals without ever sending clothes, money, food, etc. to the affected places, they must examine themselves and actually ask whether or not they did anything to help, or if they were simply praying to feel like they had helped. I remember a time when I headed into Main Hall at UCA and walked by someone who was crying, after shortly listening to their situation, I simply was at a loss and said that I would pray for them. I have never felt more empty in my life as I did in that moment, because I did nothing for them. I'm sure they appreciated the prayer, but I didn't. I could have and should have done something to physically help them. Returning to the prayer circle, but ignoring what exactly was prayed as treatment to its irrelevance to what I am speaking of, the circle potentially created an avenue to not help while feeling like one has. What is Christianity if it is not activity by emulation of Jesus? It seems to me that praying for God to do something while you have an opportunity to do something as well misses the point. What becomes of God other than some-thing in which people relay the things they know they should be doing as "disciples?" Did Jesus not say "if someone takes your cloak, do not hesitate to give him your tunic?" Well what if someone has had their clock forcibly taken from them and you have not only one, but two?

For the other side, who I am well aware took action, who argued repetitively that prayer does nothing to help, let me explain: You're wrong. Whether or not words that were prayed were relayed to a hyper-being in the beyond who may or may not choose to take action in a given situation is totally irrelevant. When one simply dismisses prayer one must be careful not to also dismiss the people praying. I think of a friend, who was particularly out of place as an intern at a church, being asked to lead the church's prayer group at one people. Though uncomfortable doing it, upon reflecting his observation was, to me, profound: prayer is something in which people call upon God to act as a vanishing mediator for bringing them together. When those moments come where people have lost everything or feel as if they have nothing to live for, the prayer circle is there for total openness and total inclusion. To use my friends description, God as a "vanishing mediator" breaks down the walls that people have built up to hide their brokenness and builds a bridge between people. Thus, the prayer circle becomes something that while praying for people who have suffered seeing the broken walls that were at one time what encompassed the building they called "home," the people who are praying willingly break down the walls around their souls. For the people who quite literally lost everything, prayer can be the thing that allows them to be in control.

I tend to think of prayer through a C.S. Lewis quote: "Prayer is not about speaking to God, it is about listening." I interpret this not as a call to listen to God, but rather as as call to listen to what you're praying. Prayer is a time of meditation and openness, sometimes going beyond what you even think yourself willing to go. Thus, prayer is not about asking an Omni-God to help with the situation as much as it is you trying to find your exact thoughts and feelings on the subject. A proper prayer (as if there is such as thing) could never do anything to prevent someone from acting on what is right. Prayer cannot be something done in response to what you believe, but rather is something done to find out what you believe.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Twilight of the Idols: Thoughts On a Haunting Passage

One passage from Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols really struck me as I was reading this evening:
Nothing seems rarer to me today than genuine hypocrisy. I greatly suspect that the soft air of our culture is insalubrious for this plant. Hypocrisy belongs in the ages of strong faith when, even though constrained to display another faith, one did not abandon one's own faith. Today one does abandon it; or, even in either case one remains honest. Without a doubt, a very much greater number of convictions is possible today than formerly: "possible" means permissible, which means harmless. This begets tolerance toward oneself.
Tolerance toward oneself permits several convictions, and they get along with each other: they are careful, like all the rest of the world, not to compromise themselves. How does one compromise oneself today? If one is consistent. If one proceeds in a straight line. If one is not ambiguous enough to permit five conflicting interpretations. If one is genuine.
I fear greatly that modern man is simply too comfortable for some vices, so that they die out by default. All evil that is a function of a strong will- and perhaps there is no evil without strength of will- degenerates into virtue in our tepid air. The few hypocrites whom I have met imitated hypocrisy: like almost every tenth person today, they were actors.
Conviction is a word that rings in my ears and sits in my gut. For me, its tie to religion is almost palpable. However, conviction, so I have had to teach myself, is not a word that can be hijacked by religion alone. Conviction is something that is deeply human; so much so that it quite readily reveals a person's true desire. I see, and I think I understand Nietzsche to see, that hypocrisy occurs when we betray our own convictions. However, the problem is that our convictions are not really convictions anymore as they have become diluted and surrounded by other supposed "convictions." It is equatable to spreading oneself out over five distinct jobs, rather than doing one job as well as possible. The work done on one job that retains a person's sole focus will be noticeably better than work done on five jobs by one person who is simply attempting to get them all done. Likewise, if we attempt to hold five convictions, all of which are actually in dissonance of one another, how can our convictions remain reflections of the part of each of us that we would suppose is truly "me"?

Nietzsche's writing that "this begets tolerance of oneself" is, much like his passage in which the madman declared the death of God, a cry to humanity that we are devaluing ourselves, and it is an inside job. What happens to a person who literally does not believe anything? This is not atheism. It has nothing to do with it. Much as total transcendence and total immanence are actually indistinguishable, so is holding convictions about everything in comparison to holding none whatsoever. What is more is that these diluted convictions create an avenue for the justification of everything, irrelevant to what is labeled right or wrong. Take for example Christian politicians who demonize the poor and pass laws to put the poor at a further disadvantage in society. Is this not in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus who sought to to uplift the poor and see them as blessed in the future for their poor hand in life? Why is this possible if not for the myriad convictions that we only hold when it is convenient for us? For Nietzsche, we have so devalued all our values that even hypocrisy is lost on us. Hypocrisy is not inconsistency, Nietzsche cries, life is now inconsistency. 

Is being genuine even possible, asks Nietzsche? One cannot live under the false ideal that it is possible to live a non-contradictory life. However, contradiction is not the point of Nietzsche's passage. Where does this end? Nietzsche charges that we have so little respect for life, for humanity, for being, that we undermine it at every turn. We have so disrespected what makes us human that even our convictions betray us as they become avenues for political statements rather than the concrete evidence of what we believe is worth sacrificing our own being for. Convictions cannot conflict and remain convictions, less they become ideals. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Doubting T(e)hom(as)

          The words of the much maligned apostle Thomas ring sharply in much of theology today, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20: 25 NIV). Though Thomas is of course referencing the supposed risen Christ, his words have become a universal apparatus for defining what it is like to be unfaithful to any part of Christianity. There is no doubting today for some Christians, so to do so is to be like Thomas, second only to Judas in weakness of faith. Though Thomas eventually regains his faith it is most important to see the manner in which it happens. It is only through affirming a negative that Thomas’ faith returns. Due to the crucifixion, the resurrection is an event of total negation. Thus, Thomas’ affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection is to confirm not that Jesus is alive (it is not that Jesus had been lost but was thought to possibly live), but rather to reveal that Jesus is not dead. It is through a similar mechanism that the process theology of Catherine Keller works in her theology of tehom in relation to God. I argue in this paper that radical doubt is the beginning of true Christian faith as it opens up one’s openness to the possibility of the impossible.
In Face of the Deep Catherine Keller approaches this topic specifically in her chapter Docta Ignoratia. What has resulted in the need for the dominant form of Christian faith to be interchangeable with the one word many fundamentalists fear? This word, of course, is “knowledge.” As Keller points out, the answer to this question is found in Sunday School: “God called the light ‘good,’ so the dark must be ‘bad’” (200). Through this oversimplification of what is “good” and what is “bad” Christianity becomes scared of the dark, so to speak. It will refuse to take on the questions that cannot be answered safely within the confines of Biblical literalism and simple minded appeals to authority. This is the experience of Thomas for the duration of humanity’s existence. Thomas is somehow a fool for wandering around in the dark. He is somehow a fool for simply admitting that he finds the story of the resurrection incredible. Derrida forgive me, but what lies outside the text of John is the fact that the rest of the disciples had their faiths confirmed (read: transformed into knowledge) by Jesus’ appearance to Thomas. What is lost within the common reading of Thomas, however, is the idea that it is only Thomas who can remain faithful (quite literally, full of faith) post-event to God, or more specifically, the possibility of the impossible.
The disciples, outside of Thomas, immediately believed the incredible and found it absurd that Thomas did not believe. What this means in my reading of the story of Doubting Thomas has key implications. The ten disciples (assuming Judas has not been replaced at that time) who did not doubt believe the absurd with nothing that tells them that they should. It is to believe a legend or an unfounded rumor. With Jesus’ revelation of his resurrected body to them their faith immediately is confirmed. The question I must now ask is this: is there any faith left with them? What is impossible? Nothing; and they knew it all along. What does one need overcome through faith when there can be no more obstacles? The disciples avoid the darkness. They turned on the lights in a room until Jesus said to them that it is okay to go outside in the sun. In contrast, what does this event reveal to Thomas? It reveals quite plainly the possibility of the impossible. We are not led to believe that Thomas did not want Jesus’ resurrection to be true, but rather we are led to see the painful doubt of Thomas as he would not create false light where there was only darkness.
Thomas can be seen very easily in Keller’s understanding of negative theologians: “These theologians of negation after all did not offer the truth of a sun beyond the delusions of the cave. They prayed for the darkness beyond the delusions of the sun” (202). The value of my retelling of the story of Thomas, I believe, is that it reveals what faith means when it is not knowledge. Post-event (meaning Jesus’ asking Thomas to place his hand in his scars), Thomas does not just expect the impossible. He must instead realize the possibility of the impossible. What is revealed as the thing which gives Thomas faith? It is an action. Thomas interacts with the impossible, restoring his faith. Never confirming it. Is this not precisely what Keller means when she states that “a theology of becoming may depend upon the apophatic gesture for any credibility of affirmation. For it would articulate a faith with which to face uncertainty, not a knowledge with which to eliminate it” (203). Unlike the other disciples, who when Jesus reveals his resurrection, receive a positive affirmation, Thomas’ faith is the direct result of a direct interaction with the negation of the impossible.
Thomas becomes the only disciple to enter into a Holy Saturday experience. Thomas leaves the light because it is taken away from him and he willingly engages the darkness of unknowing. It is only Thomas who experiences the radical doubt that can be associated with Christianity. It is only Thomas who can ask the question, “why do I believe what I believe?” and “Can I believe this anymore?” It is Thomas who now reveals to us that “the ‘darkness of our ignorance’ is not a fault or a sin” (205). Only Thomas can explore the depths of unknowing post-event. Thomas’ doubt reveals that for him God seems truly impossible to know. He does not pretend to think that anything is possible until he experience the action with God (the impossible becoming possible). Keller quotes Nicholas of Cusa’s hypothetical pagan questioning of Christianity to address this further:
            Pagan: What are you worshiping?
            Christian: God.
            Pagan: Who is the God you worship?
            Christian: I do not know.
            Pagan: How can you so earnestly worship that which you do not know?
            Christian: It is because I do not know that I worship. (205)
Christianity can be seen as the radical religion because it can be easily stated that Christianity desires to say “I do not know.” This is perhaps most obviously experienced with Jesus’ death on the cross, as he cries out, “Where are you?” It is not proper at some point to refer to Christianity as the religion of doubt?
            In Christianity nothing is static, but is rather dynamic, or “becoming” as Keller argues. This is exemplified wonderfully in Kester Brewin’s retelling of parable of the prodigal son in his book Mutiny!. To summarize, Brewin sees the parable from the perspective of the son. It becomes a tragedy. The son, wanting to become his own person, leaves his father’s house where he is taken care of. He succeeds in becoming his own person as he experiences the world for what it is. After a great famine he returns home, but not as his father’s son, but rather as a worker. This is to be compared to the experience of a child going to college and coming back home. Much like a conservative parent who does not want to confront the change within the child, the father runs out to meet his son, gives him a ring and a cloak, all while telling him not to speak. In this way, the son loses his own individuality and is consumed back into the home and nothing is changed. It is like nothing ever happened. Brewin, however, takes this parable and applies it to Jesus. Jesus leaves his home (an assumed Heaven) and enters the world. What happens when God calls Jesus back home, though? Something radically different than what is found in the parable. Jesus refuses to meet his Father and be subsumed back into his original home. He does this because something has to change. As mentioned above, Jesus then cries out “Where are you and why have you forsaken me?”  This reveals that Christianity demands change from everything, including God. Why is God not down here in the muck and the mud with us? “I can only answer thus: ‘I have no idea’” (212).
            It is seen now that the route to Christian faith is through both radical doubt and then action. Both the story of Doubting Thomas and Keller’s tehomic theology reveal the innate radicalness of Christianity. What is perhaps truly revelatory of both my reading of the story of Thomas and Keller’s reading of Genesis is the attempt to truly take the text at its word. One must avoid tehomophobia and recognize that the Judeo-Christian story is one that calls upon people to recognize the darkness. Perhaps it now makes even more sense why Jesus said to his disciples after his interaction with Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” for now we understand that it was obvious that they should first not see in order so that they could ever have faith in the possibility of the impossible. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Decentering Humanity: The Ethics of the Subjective Objective

          In the famous 1939 Film, The Wizard of Oz, we follow Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow into the great wizard’s palace where they must confront the seemingly powerful being. Upon his assertions of his own supreme power and that they must do his will because he is so powerful we are then confronted with the truth as Toto pulls away the curtain to the main characters’ left: There is no Wizard of Oz, only a man behind the curtain pulling levers and controlling the appearance of the ominous presence that is before them. But this twist is exactly what we all expect: Wizard or not, we are not in control but it is the powers that be that seem to exert control over us. To put forth what would have been an extremely upsetting twist The Wizard of Oz would have needed Toto to reveal that there was not even a man behind the curtain, instead there was nothing. The Wizard was simply a figurehead who only served as the embodiment of control. In a similar way, the truth of Christianity reveals the same truth: God is a figurehead that allows humanity to see itself as the ultimate controller. Christianity takes a more radical turn though as Christ on the cross is crucified and the curtain that shields us from the ultimate Truth hiding within the Holy of Holies is torn down the middle revealing the truth that humanity desires to never confront: There is nothing behind the curtain. I argue that the radical truth of Christianity is this revelation and that it immediately decenters of humanity, forcing us to confront the idea of meaning through ethics that we have used God to provide for.
            Slavoj Žižek writes in The Puppet and the Dwarf that “behind the curtain of public text, there is only what we put there” (127). This is simply to say that there is what is, but beyond that we make it what we want it to be. What the figurehead of God actually does is center and elevate us to the point in which everything we do is of ultimate concern. Our underlying mentality is to always find the secret meaning that is within everything. One must go no further than conspiracy theories to see that people do not accept what is revealed to them as most obvious and instead choose to substitute their own realities, whether believable or outlandish. Religion is the invention of humanity that allows us to be “ultimately concerned” (Tillich 1). However, God is the mechanism in which we proclaim our own acts as ultimately concerning. The truly radical truth of Christianity is that it proclaims that our own acts do not actually have any repercussions beyond what happens within life itself. Christianity kills God himself in order to end the total narcissism that was the act of being ultimately concerned with every single action. However, rather than this opening up supreme nihilism, we find that it is actually a rescue from it. The decentering of humanity results in an uplifting of life itself and a possibility of redemption from misinterpretation of our situation.
            Žižek reveals to us the proper nature of Christianity in his reading of the Old Testament book of Job:

Job’s properly ethical dignity lies in the way he persistently rejects the notion that his suffering can have any meaning, either punishment for his past sins or the trial of his faith, against three theologians who bombard him with possible meanings… God takes his side at the end, claiming that every word Job spoke was true, while every word the three theologians spoke was false. (125)

Most importantly Žižek divorces the idea of meaning from the suffering. This once again removes the state of being ultimately concerned about our own actions. What "God" causes us to do in a confessional setting is to apply extreme narcissism to every action, but this is disavowed unless one admits to the revealed truth of Christianity. Alain Badiou notes a similar aspect when inspecting the foundation of the ethic of human rights. He writes:

We posit a general human subject, such that whatever evil befalls him is universally identifiable (even if this universality often goes by the altogether paradoxical name of ‘public opinion’), such that this subject is both, on the one hand, a passive, pathetic, or reflexive subject – he who suffers – and, on the other, the active, determining subject of judgment – he who, in identifying suffering, knows that it must be stopped by all available means. (9)

With the idea of God making the state of our own actions ultimate concerning this allows humanity, as Badiou points out, to assume a dual position as both passive and active.
            This passive and active state I believe is a direct result of the idea of God and brings us back to my original example of Oz. The wizard itself is not the one who possesses the power, but is instead the placeholder in which we have placed all the power we do not want to admit we possess. In the same way it is not God who possesses obscene power, but it is instead us. When we sit in passivity we use reflexivity to provide meaning to the events that occur. This is the idea behind Žižek’s title. It is the “key distinction between symbolic history… and its obscene Other, the unacknowledgeable… fantasmatic, secret history that actually sustains [history]” (Žižek 128). The puppet that is theology can be “seen” making its rounds and being the cause of everything. It is assigning ultimate relevance to all things and assuring that what is happening has a point that may or may not be known now, but will certainly be known later. It seems perfectly obvious as “the power of this doctrine rests, at first glance, in its self-evidence” (Badiou 9). But the truth is more cunning than the puppet. The puppet provides for history to be thoroughly self-centered, but what is revealed by Christianity, according to Žižek, is the ultimate decentering of humanity in the scope of both ourselves and history. “What is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content, but, more specifically, that there is nothing – no secret – behind it to be revealed(Žižek 127). Nothing is weaving the web that is everything, it simply is.
            But we deny the idea of historical materialism in our drive for power. For if we take God out of the picture we fear actually to lose the power that is driving everything. Badiou points out that this is revealed in Psychoanalysis: “I delight in the exteriority of the other in so far as he figures as myself made visible to myself” (21). The exteriority of the other (which is only a mirror of myself) allows humanity to create themselves as the ultimate center of the universe whilst maintaining that this center is actually God. The curtain, rather than separating us from the thing that is radically and wholly other, instead serves as a barrier so that we cannot encounter the Thing that is more real than we are. As Žižek points out during in his reading of the Fall of Man, “ if we take these statements literally, the unavoidable conclusion is that the moment of the Fall (the forgetting of the ancient wisdom) coincides with its exact opposite – with the longed-for next step in evolution” (85). This is a reading that rather than showing humanity’s bifurcation with the divine instead shows it as historical materialism's revealed logical next step. What Žižek’s reading of the Fall shows us is that we separated ourselves from the divine (our idea of the center of all meaning) in order so that we could actually center ourselves. What we misinterpreted was actually whether or not this was truly a decentering. What historical materialism reveals is that it was not. What we have done by centering ourselves through the appearance of decentering is create the avenue for a subjective “objective”.
            As Badiou points out, “there is not, in fact, one single Subject, but as many subjects as there are truths” (28). In our decentering of ourselves in order to center ourselves we have produced a subjective “objective.” This is to say that what we have constituted as objective is only objective because we, the possessors of ultimate meaning, deem it so in our now Subjective experience. We decide the meaning of things and therefore decide what an objective experience is ultimately. We do not accept our own inconsistency and therefore create a supreme other to ultimately take in to provide ourselves with the ultimate authority. Žižek follows Badiou’s thought: “Once Kant discovers the inner inconsistency of our experiential reality, he feels compelled to posit the existence of another, inaccessible, true reality of Things-in-themselves, instead of accepting this inconsistency” (70-71). We desire an absolute truth among all things to provide an ultimate meaning to all of existence. Yet, this is precisely what the truth Christianity denies.
                 In modern religion and belief we see that “the subject avoids its constitutive splitting by positing itself directly as the instrument of the Other’s Will” (29). However, both Badiou and Žižek reveal a deeper truth about the human situation. Badiou dismantles the idea of an absolute ethic by showing that the idea results from a false objectivity. In similar fashion Žižek shows the idea of God to be a (r)evolutionary function of humanity to assert ideals and meaning that Christianity deconstructs to reveal an utter nothing. The critique Christianity offers is one that is unique to religion. Rather than being a rendering of Tillich’s state of being ultimately concerned, it actually subverts such a definition and resituates the definition as the problem to begin with. What remains to be seen is whether or not humanity can handle itself as truly decentered.

Badiou, Alain. Ethics. New York: Verso, 2012.
Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Puppet and the Dwarf. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

Thanks for reading! 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gnosticism in "The Lego Movie"


This is one those posts where I look forward to one day looking back upon and laughing at myself for thinking that I ever knew anything.

          After hearing several positive reviews of The Lego Movie I decided it was most definitely time to go see it. One review praised the film as a critique of capitalism, and while even the chance of this was good enough to sell the movie to me, a second recommendation, from a professor at UCA, made the matter of seeing the movie urgent. His recommendation was that the movie, more than being a critique of capitalism, was loaded with Christian Gnosticism (incredibly relevant to both he and I, as we are conducting an independent study on the second century battle between Christian Gnosticism and Proto-Orthodoxy). After seeing the movie I must agree with my professor. 

          Gnosticism, in early Christianity, is not a movement that can be summed up by any one definition. To overgeneralize, simply for the purpose of this post, it is movement in Christianity that argued that the Truth (capital "T") was inside people. Thus, salvation was to find this inner truth that revealed Gnosis, or "Secret Knowledge" that was always inside a person. Gnostics believed humanity to be in much different situation than their rivals, the Proto-Orthodox, argued for. Rather than believing that this world was a perfect creation, ruined by humanity's fall and our subsequent use of free will, Gnostics refused to acknowledge this world as a creation of the perfect God. Instead, this world was created by a lesser god who botched the whole thing after borrowing some creative power from the real God. One name for this lesser god is mentioned specifically in The Gospel of Judas as "Saklas," which translates to "the fool." Gnostics argued that even after making such an obviously terrible world, Saklas had the nerve to assert himself as the one, true God. This fool, this god, is the God of the Old Testament: El, Elohim, YHWH, Jehovah, etc. This distinction is the primary idea that can be seen in The Lego Movie. 
          The big twist, the big reveal, is that the world has been made by Lord Business and he is "the man upstairs." He made this world that is imperfect. He denied anyone's freedom to build what is already inside of them. In his world of supposed order we find nothing but chaos, where in order to maintain order he has had to deny everyone in his world their own creativity, their own divinity. Meanwhile, his son is the actual God that is worth believing in; he is the God that the master builders, the ones who possess the inner knowledge, are fighting for. What else do we see? The fact that to create such a diverse world, the man upstairs is using the ideas that the master builders create, their obvious connection to the real source of creativity in the Lego universe: the real God. It is revealed that the man upstairs is subject to the creative power of the innocent God who lives further upstairs. The man upstairs has created his world in the basement, while the real creative power has been upstairs all along. 
          And what is seen in master builders' contact with the "real" world and its people? It is skepticism of the people's building ability. Is this not the recorded Gnostic's reaction to the Orthodox Christian? We see in both the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas that the Gnostic Jesus laughs at the average Christian's perception of the divine. He laughs at the disciples in the Gospel of Judas for holding communion, saying that they "are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your god [will be] praised" (Judas, Scene One). To the Gnostics, the Orthodox are mistaken in their faith because it is thoroughly of this world. Their god is not worth praise and has brainwashed his creation into believing him and only him. The key to escaping this world is finding that one does not need "the instruction manual" to attain salvation. Rather, one needs to find the Truth that the real man upstairs has instilled within a person. This realization brings salvation, it brings an escape from this world. In The Lego Movie it allows one to enter "Cloud Cuckoo Land."
          This is where Lego shows its cleverness. In Cloud Cuckoo Land there is no questioning anything, no negativity, no unhappiness, and anything that may even potentially turn into negativity is "repressed down deep inside," according to Unikitty. Is this anything other than a critique of the concept of heaven? It would appear at first that Cloud Cuckoo Land provides happiness to its members because it rids them of all the negativity that brings them down. But the truth is much darker. The members of Cloud Cuckoo Land are actually morbidly depressed. There is no happiness in Cloud Cuckoo Land because there is no more freedom there than there is upon the place they escaped from. If freedom is found precisely in one's impotentiality rather than his or her potentiality, then Cloud Cuckoo Land presents a situation where impotentiality is denied as one cannot ever not be not happy. This is manifested as happiness only while one is within Cloud Cuckoo Loud, but as the end of the movie reveals, once again the truth is inside an individual, as Unikitty officially admits to herself that she is unhappy and actually cultivates another's safety because of it.
          Thus, the critique of confessional religion that began by examining Christian Orthodoxy through Gnosticism is fully admitted by The Lego Movie. Just as Unikitty must escape her own psychological prison created by her "religion," so the main character, Emmet, a Messiah if I have ever seen one, must also. Emmet is the true kernel of Truth in Lego. First he, a working class nobody, is faced with the opportunity to be "the Special." The one who will save the world from the man upstairs, Lord Business. Then he is rejected by his new found peers, the ones who declared him to be the chosen one, except for a select few, who remain loyal. Ultimately, as Emmet is suddenly "defeated" by Lord Business, it is revealed that Vitruvious, the prophet who foretold of "the Special" who would save the world, made the whole thing up. The prophecy is not true. Emmet is not the Special because there is no such thing as the special. This is precisely what redeems Emmet and allows him to sacrifice himself to save the others and the world.
          Yet Vitruvious is wrong. The prophecy is true, even though it is completely false. To quote Lego's Messiah, Emmet: "The prophecy is made up, but it is also true." What we the viewers see is that what has occurred within the Lego realm is a religious event, yet is explained away by Vitruvious in his total atheism. To Vitruvious, there is no man upstairs that the master builders derive creativity from. It's all made up! The truth is that everything that happens is what we make happen! The cleverness of Lego is precisely in making Vitruvious a blind prophet. Vitruvious is the ironic hero as what he tells the world is self-evident to everyone except him. 
          The Lego Movie masquerades its brilliance in the innocence of a child's toy. However, it provides a scathing critique of the idea of Truth. What it repeatedly shows is that no one knows anything. Everyone is wrong, even when they are right (as Vitruvious shows)! It presents us with a world full of structures only to tell us that there are no structures and nothing is as it seems.