Saturday, August 15, 2009

After God

Mark C. Taylor, 2008

Chapter One: Theorizing Religion
This book is set against what some have termed the “fourth Great Awakening.” After years of theorizing the end of religion and the advent of a new, secular world, it has become apparent that the world is growing more religious, not less. Why, Mark asks, is that?

In essence, he argues, it’s because neither critics nor supporters (neo-foundationalists) realize that secularity is an essentially religious phenomenon, with roots tracing back to the Protestant revolution of the 16th century. Likewise, neither side has an adequately broad definition of religion to allow them to see the full extent of its presence in the contemporary world.

To counter this, Mark offers his own definition of religion:
“Religion is an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose, and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure.”

He then proceeds to analyze the ways in which his project of offering a definition of religion run counter to the prevailing intellectual trends of the past several decades. The main problem is the backlash against structuralism. He cites Eliade and his study of cosmogonic myths as the paradigmatic example of structuralism. In the Sacred and the Profane, Eliade attempted to trace universal, structural features that defined “the religious experience,” much in the way James attempted to do so by differentiating between the healthy-minded homo religiosus, who sees all events as a call for affirmation, and the sick soul, who sees the world as fundamentally evil and alienating. Likewise, Mark groups Tillich with the these two other ways of being religious, arguing that his distinction between “the ontological type of philosophy of religion,” which proceeds “from the thought to the being of God,” and the “cosmological version,” which follows the effect, or created world, back to its source in God, serve similar functions. In the first way, man discovers himself when meeting God, whereas in the second, God remains something fundamentally alien to man.

Mark collapses all of these distinctions into that between monism and dualism. James’s healthy soul and Tillich’s ontological version of philosophy are types of monism, whereas James’s sick soul and Tillich’s cosmological argument belong to a fundamentally dualistic worldview.

Mark clearly remains very sympathetic to the structuralist project, thinking the distinction between the sick and healthy minded souls are useful, if ultimately inadequate, tools for organizing our understanding of the various symbols in religious traditions. However, he also admits that such sympathies have long been in question by post-structuralists, who believe, for a variety of political and philosophical reasons that we know quite well, that the structuralist project is a fundamentally violent one, embedded in colonialist roots and indifferent to the lived reality of other, non Judeo-Christian traditions.

After God, then, is an effort to move beyond the impasse between structuralists and post-structuralists, as well as the division between monism and dualisms. Instead, the book attempts to conceptualize religion as the virtual field upon which all of these possibilities plays out. After God, in short, is Mark’s affair with the meta-narrative.

Chapter Two: The Protestant Revolution
However, in order to have an adequate grasp of the concepts at stake, mct next turns to the origin of modernity and our concepts of secularity, arguing that “modernity is a theological invention.” While acknowledging that modernity is a term so contested as to be almost meaningless, mct nevertheless claims that all definitions share a common belief in self-reflexivity. “To be modern, it is necessary to regard oneself as different from others who have gone before.” Modernity is about rupture.

The source of this rupture can be traced back to Luther’s turn to the subject and formulation of the divided soul, the paradox of man being “simul iustus et peccator” - simultaneously sinner and justified. Much of the analysis given is biographical information covered in Oberman’s book, but mct also gives a better sense of the influence of nominalism and Ockham. For years after the crusades brought Aristotle back to christendom, the rationalism of Aquinas dominated Christian theology. Already in Aquinas, mct sees the roots of secularism, arguing that “the Thomistic synthesis points in two opposite directions: on the one hand the natural domain is understood as distinct from but subordinate to the supernatural, and on the other hand, the natural realm in all of its manifestations is characterized by an autonomy that eventually leads to its independence from the supernatural” (51). While the Thomistic system provided meaning and stability in the High Middle ages, the late Middle Ages, marked by the Black Death and the instability of shifting social orders, no longer found it as persuasive.

Within this context, nominalism developed. While thomism stressed knowledge of God above all else and argued that God only willed what was reasonable, nominalism posited God as omnipotent will, and absolutely free. The world existed from moment to moment by God’s will, and thus was radically contingent. There was no guarantee that the cosmic order would remain stable, since God could always undo what was done.
This led to an empirical epistemology, claiming that the individual was the only thing that could be known, though all worldly knowledge was provisional, grounded as it is in the abyss of God’s will. As an extension of the provisional nature of knowledge, a new understanding of language develops, one where words are detached from things, leaving us in a ‘linguistic labyrinth’ where signs point only to other signs.

For obvious reasons, this emphasis on empiricism created the conditions for modern science. More than that, nominalism both reflected and created the sense of prevailing anxiety of Luther’s age. Luther, like many medievals, was plagued with a sense of terrible anxiety about the (im)possibility and necessity of fulfilling God’s laws. After years of torment, Luther was struck by a revelation while reading a passage of Paul in Romans 1:17 about justification by grace. He then realized that God had the power to bestow righteousness on men, without this erasing their fundamental sinfulness. Thus the protestant believer confesses, I am what I am not.

More than that, the influence of Luther also continues to the present regarding the way it replaced the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church with the decentralized, lateralized community of believers. His doctrine of a calling, the idea that all vocations, not just religious, were responses to the will of God collapsed the sacred into the profane. However, though in this respect Luther foreshadowed developments of network culture, in other respects, his hatred of money and apparent dualistic rejection of the world seem contrary to the developments of the modern world.

In those respects, Calvin was much more influential on modernity than Luther. Calvin offered a way of rationalizing belief that would provide guidance to countless Christians. As Weber noted, the belief that worldly success proved once status as saved - though not necessarily advocated by Calvin himself - in combination with Luther’s doctrine of vocation, led to a development of inner asceticism that proved essential for the development of capitalism. Most importantly, though, Calvin declared usury acceptable, almost single-handedly leading to a new conception of commerce, where money/signs can make money/signs. In this, one can see the influence of Ockham, where signs referred to signs.

Ultimately, Mark claims the real difference between Calvin and Luther came down to the way in which they conceptualized the relation between signs and signifiers. When Luther claimed that Christ was present in the eucharist, he was embedded in a medieval paradigm, where signs still referred to things, whereas when Calvin claimed the eucharist was symbolic, it was another instance of signs referring to signs.

Finally, mct ends with a discussion of the more general trends that accompanied the Protestant revolution: literacy climbs with the emphasis on each reading the scripture, mass communication spreads, and in Catholic countries where literacy is suppressed, industrialization is delayed.

Chapter 3: Subjectivity and Modernity
Chapter three begins with a discussion of the relation between revolution and modernity. Luther’s divided subject eventually became the autonomous modern subject. Coupled with the decentralization of power implicit in the priesthood of all believers, these theological results of the Protestant revolution primed Western culture for the French and American political revolutions, and democracy more generally.

The links between the American revolution and theology are perhaps more obvious. America began with the religious projects of the Puritans. Operating within Ockham’s distinction between potentia absoluta (God’s capacity to do anything) and potentia ordinata (God’s freely chosen decision to limit his power to allow a space for human action), the Puritans conceived of themselves as actualizing the “city upon the hill,” becoming a guide for all nations. Thus, the origins of American exceptionalism. These origins in utopian individualism made Americans generally wary of government; they acknowledged its necessity, due to man’s sinful nature, but nonetheless maintained a “nearly messianic belief in the benefits of liberty,” whose influence on the revolution is obvious (89).

In addition, the refusal of Church authority led Americans to place extreme importance on the literal truth of the scriptures. Yet in contrast to this extreme, rigid religiosity, there was also a strong strain of deism among the founding fathers, which mct traces back to the influence of Newton. Newton considered his scientific efforts to be supportive of Protestant Christianity; natural laws, he claimed, were imposed upon inert matter by a transcendent creator God. Such laws show the orderly nature of the world, but in no way undercut the free will of God who could nonetheless have willed otherwise.

This notion of a rationally ordered world was picked up by Locke and other deists. Locke defined the course of much later philosophy by developing 2 principles:
1. “Interpretive schemata emerge from but do not act back upon sense data.
2. “Complex ideas and systems can always be reduced to the simple units from which they are constituted.”
Locke attempted to synthesize religion with rationality, but his efforts were quickly overshadowed by other interpreters who offered entirely rational versions of religion, at the expense of revelation.

In contrast to all of these trends that led to the American Revolution, the French Revolution stemmed from a much more radical relation to religion. Oppressed by the power of the Catholic Church, the French became much more militantly atheistic, making their revolution and subsequent notion of secularism “inseparable from the negation of Christianity” (98). Ironically, though, the French constitution essentially substituted the nation for the Church, so far as power structures go. French society, then, remained rigidly hierarchical.

Next, mct turns to the relation between the French Revolution and the Kantian subject. Mct makes the claim that Kantian autonomy is inseparable from what he terms “an-archy,” literally “without beginning.” “Autonomy presupposes an-archy, which is the nonfoundational foundation or groundless ground of the law that the self-legislating subject gives to itself” (102). The Kantian subject is a moment of revolution for mct. Whereas his predecessors had conceived of universality as something internally imposed, and the relationships between heteronomy and autonomy as oppositional, Kant internalized all of those dualities, making the universal internally legislated. Recognizing the tension between these dualities, Kant develops a notion of “inner teleology” in his Third Critique, a ‘purposiveness without purpose,’ in which means an ends are reciprocally related in such a way that each becomes itself in and through the other and neither can be itself apart from itself” (109). This is the moment in which Kant discovers “the principle of constitutive relationality, in which identity is differential rather than oppositional” (110). In short, identity involves an excess which always escapes identity; identity is predicated on the other which can not be wholly incorporated.

Kant’s successors realized that inner teleology was most evident in the self-reflexive structure of self-consciousness. The subject in self-consciousness turns back on itself, becoming an object for itself through self-representation. Coming into presence (Darstellung) is predicated upon representation (Vorstellung). Specifically, mct sees this in Hegel. In Hegel, the will can only be itself through its particular instantiations; put otherwise, the universal will id “in itself” particular (117). Thus, Spirit is inescapably active and restless, and the subject can only be itself by being other.

Heidegger simply brings to fruition this train by refusing to close the loop of self-reflexivity. Heidegger locates this obscurity in the inescapable temporality of the subject. The product of a past that is never accessible to itself as a modality of the present, the subject remains adrift, incapable of accessing an inescapably open future. The past that never was returns as the future that never will be.

All of this works its ways back to the absence of the Lutheran and Calvinist God. Deus absconditus becomes subjectus absconditus; the radical alterity of the absent/transcendent God is internalized. And so we are left with the radically incomplete, open subject, who desires desire, and strives restlessly in he spirit of ceaseless creativity.

Chapter Four: Religious Secularity
Chapter four opens with an analysis of the paradigmatic theory of secularization, Peter Berger’s in The Sacred Canopy. The gist of it echoes what mct said earlier; secularization is supposed to accompany modernization. However, despite its supposed roots in a disenchanted world, such an analysis is predicated on religious notions of teleology, insofar as it posits the secularized society as its goal; it’s also normative, as it considers secularization a mark of progress, and considers the return of religion as a form of regression.

This is not a coincidence, and much of the chapter (and the book) centers around the idea that secularity and religion are co-emergent and co-dependent. Yet to speak of secularism is incorrect; rather, one should speak of secularisms. mct identifies two basics ways of the world becoming secular. First, God can become so transcendent as to be absent, or, second, religion can become so immanent as to be invisible.

The first form of secularity is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whereas in old, polytheistic traditions, divinity was largely immanent, Judaism broke from that tradition by appropriating the transcendent creator God as its God and the only God. With this God came creativity as we know. In the polytheistic paradigm, life was meaningful because it conformed to the patterns of mythical narratives, which, in turn, echoed the rhythm in the seasons. Yet, ultimately, this left no room for creativity, which is only possible with a Judaic God characterized as creator and origin of the world. So too does Judaism introduce the notion of contingency; only with a created world is it possible to conceive of the world as contingent. Finally, Exodus, with its narrative of bondage, desert, and Promised land, offers the first example of the tripartite conception of history that will come to characterize many versions of history, both medieval Christian narratives, and our own contemporary division between ancient, modern, and postmodern.

Once the transcendent God arrives, a series of dualisms take shape:
Chosen/not chosen
Here we see a familiar narrative forming. The transcendent God gives universal laws that gradually become more and more autonomous, particularly as religious strictures evolved forbidding representation of God. Eventually God becomes so remote that it can no longer be conceived or represented, throwing the human mind back on its own power to abstract and represent.

In contrast to Judaism, Christianity represents, however problematically, a new immanence. Problematically, because it claims to be heir to the Judaic God of transcendence, leading to centuries of disputes about how to reconcile the claim of Christ’s divinity with the unity of God. This problem arises largely because difference and unity are conceived of as mutually exclusive at the time.

The most significant attempt to formulate a doctrine of the trinity comes with Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The council was intended to mediate between the left-wing Origenists, who claimed the Son was subordinate to the father, and the right-wing Origenists who claimed the two were identical and equal. The right-wing Origenists were technically called modalistic monarchists, because they argued that the Father and the Son were modes of the same God. However, their opponents nicknamed them patripassionists, because the logical consequence of their stance was that God the Father must have suffered when the Son was crucified.

The major left-wing Origenist, Arius, thought this a blasphemous claim, as it contradicted the notion that God was immutable. Instead, he essentially denied the incarnation. In turn, he was attacked by Alexander and Athanius, who believed that to deny the divinity of Christ and the Incarnation was to deny the possibility of salvation. It’s interesting to think that Christianity wasn’t always primarily soteriological.

Despite tentative political compromises- the claim that God is three in one - this is never really solved, because the terms of the debate, which conceptualize plurality and identity as opposites preclude the possibility of a resolution. It’s not until Hegel appropriates the trinitarian structure as the dynamic structure of all reality, and theorizes the dialectic that allows one to understand identity and difference as continuous (see above), that the trinitarian debates can truly be resolved.

Hegel’s right-wing followers appropriate Hegel’s system to defend traditional Protestantism. In contrast, the left-wing followers believe Hegel has just proved that belief and practice are epiphenomenal. Consequently, all religious experience can be understood as manifesting and responding to social and economic practices, among others.

Hegel’s absolute knowledge leads to the hermeneutics of suspicion, because it implies that reason itself has a history. If reason evolves, than our notion of things such as beauty and truth are contingent, not universal absolutes. Applied to the bible, this leads to an acceleration of biblical criticism. Secondary biblical criticism existed for centuries before Hegel, of course, but followers of Hegel used his work to conclude that the Bible was wholly historical and that religion ought to be replaced by reason.

In essence, Hegel is the source of many of the phenomena mention in chapter one. Origins become more important; the hermeneutics of suspicion invoke the difference, in some form or another, between superstructure and infrastructure, which turn out to be secularized versions of the difference between the Forms and their shadows that we see in Plato.

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