Friday, 28 November 2008

Adrian Johnston: Žižek's ontology

Those of you who are into Žižek (yes, I’m looking at you, Shane) will be interested in Adrian Johnston’s very fine new book, Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (Northwestern UP, 2008). The book is a fascinating account of subjectivity and ontology, and it’s far and away the best and most interesting thing I’ve read on Žižek. (Actually, the best part of the book is Žižek’s humorous endorsement on the cover: he expresses some anxiety about the question whether Johnston “is the original and I am a copy.”)

To summarise Johnston’s argument very briefly: While Badiou wants to think subjectivity as something that can never emerge from being, Žižek tries to understand subjectivity as emerging from flaws that inhere in being. For Žižek, subjectivity occurs as a kind of monstrous mistake, a malfunctioning produced by the cracks and imbalances in being: “this malfunctioning occurs because substance is shot through with openings for possible deviations from its ‘normal’ functioning…. For Žižek, true subjectivity is a kind of catastrophic imbalance that shouldn’t exist, a monstrous ontological mutation that comes to be as an outgrowth of antagonisms and tensions immanent to the being of human nature” (p. 196).

This theory of subjectivity leads Žižek to rethink the very ontological foundations of materialism: “One of the most regularly recurring philosophemes in Žižek’s oeuvre … is the notion that being as such is ‘not all’. He repeatedly insists upon the incomplete and discordant nature of whatever constitutes the foundational substance of ontology. Žižek describes the Hegelian Absolute … not as a calm, serene, universal All peacefully at one with itself but, on the contrary, as at war with itself, as internally rent asunder by antagonisms and unrest…. A crack runs through being. Žižek identifies this crack as the subject” (p. 165).

On a related note, a reader of F&T has notified me of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Blackwell, 2008) – I haven’t seen this yet, but apparently it critiques the enthusiasm with which some theologians have tried to appropriate Žižek and Badiou. If you’ve read the new Eagleton book, I’d be very interested to know what you think of it.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Moving to Sydney

A couple of months from now, I’ll be moving to Sydney to take up a position as Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College (a university-based seminary in Parramatta: it’s both a seminary of the Uniting Church and part of the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University). So I’ll be teaching undergraduate and Masters students, as well as supervising doctoral research. Needless to say, I’d be glad to talk to any of you Sydneysiders who might be considering doctoral work in theology.

I’m told that my great, great, great (etc) grandfather was Governor of the Parramatta jail, way back in the 19th century – and he was such a despicable tyrant that the inmates rioted and killed him. I trust my own time in Parramatta will be just as memorable.

Around the traps

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Iron & Wine and Augustine: on grace and mothers

One of Augustine’s favourite biblical texts was Paul’s question to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:7): “What do you have that you did not receive?” – Quid enim habebat quod non acceperat? Against Pelagian conceptions of grace, Augustine insists on the absolute priority of God’s action towards us in Christ. Even when God rewards us for good works, God is merely “crowning his own gifts.” There is, in other words, a sheer incommensurability between God’s gift to us and the gifts that we return to God. Even the best of our gifts are always derivative and dependent on the grace that we have already received.

I think there’s a nice illustration of this concept in the Iron & Wine song, “Upward over the Mountain” (from the 2002 album, The Creek Drank the Cradle – you can hear the song in this clip).

The song is an achingly beautiful depiction of the relationship between a son and his mother. The son is united to his mother through the gift of life and through the history they have shared. He recalls that fragile, fleeting moment after birth, “the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body.” But while acknowledging this connection, he also reminds his mother of the painful distance which adulthood opens up between them. He has outgrown the faith she once gave him: “Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given.” He asks her – impossibly – to “forget me, now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to.”

And yet he remains haunted by their bond, by the fact that his entire life – with all its griefs and freedoms – remains an unfathomable gift. In one of the song’s most poignant lines, he pleads: “Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you.” This line could serve as an exquisite parable of the whole relationship between child and mother: even when he gives her a gift, there is a tragic incommensurability between what he gives her and all that he has already received from her. Any gift to the mother is at best a mere trinket, at worst a kind of theft in which the very possibility of giving is painfully wrested from her.

To sell the mother’s car in order to buy her a pair of shoes – that is the kind of half-comical scenario which Augustine describes when he speaks of the incommensurability between grace and gratitude. “What do you have that you did not receive?” It makes you wonder about the way Augustine’s own relationship with his mother might have shaped his theology of grace: perhaps the best cure for Pelagianism is the experience of the mother’s unmerited, presuppositionless giving. So that the proper way to respond to a Pelagian is still the same as it always was: “You’re a very naughty boy – your mother would be so disappointed!”

Augustine – “the son of so many tears,” as he called himself – was deeply aware that he had always already received, that behind all his actions lay a gift that could never be earned or repaid. Indeed, when Augustine mourns the death of his mother, he can only confess: “I will speak not of her gifts, but of Yours in her.”

Anyway, here are the full lyrics of that beautiful Iron & Wine song, “Upward over the Mountain”:

Mother don’t worry, I killed the last snake that lived in the creek bed
Mother don’t worry, I’ve got some money I saved for the weekend
Mother remember being so stern with that girl who was with me?
Mother remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body?

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying upwards over the mountain

Mother I made it up from the bruise on the floor of this prison
Mother I lost it, all of the fear of the Lord I was given
Mother forget me now that the creek drank the cradle you sang to
Mother forgive me, I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons can be birds taken broken up to the mountain

Mother don’t worry, I’ve got a coat and some friends on the corner
Mother don’t worry, she’s got a garden, we’re planting it together
Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry?
Blood on the floor and fleas on their paws, and you cried till the morning

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying always over the mountain

Saturday, 22 November 2008

William Stringfellow: theology at the circus

Some time ago, a reader here at F&T recommended the work of William Stringfellow – a writer I had never really come across till then. And when Kim Fabricius came to visit recently, he told me that he had also started reading Stringfellow. So this week I finally started reading him too, beginning with the excellent Eerdmans anthology. This is astonishing stuff – Stringfellow’s analysis of the principalities is especially good. I’m also intrigued by his love for the circus (he and his partner Anthony Towne once spent the summer traveling with a circus!). Here’s an excerpt of Stringfellow’s theological reflection on the circus:

“The circus is among the few coherent images of the eschatological realm to which people still have ready access and ... the circus thereby affords some elementary insights into the idea of society as a consummate event. This principality, this art, this veritable liturgy, this common enterprise of multifarious creatures called the circus enacts a hope, in an immediate and historic sense, and simultaneously embodies an ecumenical foresight of radical and wondrous splendour, encompassing, as it does both empirically and symbolically, the scope and diversity of creation. I suppose some ... may deem the association of the circus and the Kingdom scandalous or facetious or bizarre, and scoff quickly at the thought that the circus is relevant to the ethics of society.... To [these people] I only respond that the connection seems to me to be at once suggested when one recalls that biblical people, like circus folk, live typically as sojourners, interrupting time, with few possessions, and in tents, in this world. The church would likely be more faithful if the church were similarly nomadic.”

—William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 53.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Dishonest money: what the financial crisis tells us about ourselves

A guest-post by Scott Stephens (originally written for an Australian church newspaper)

Credit is the lifeblood of the modern economy. It saturates our lives – from the personal credit we each use to purchase household items or to buy our homes, to the shadier, more mysterious world of credit default swaps (CDSs) and other derivatives that commercial banks now trade like a currency.

But it’s the very ubiquity of credit that prevents us from seeing its true nature, like being unable to see the wood for the trees. Credit is, in essence, the promise of limitless, indefinite, unfathomable wealth. And we need credit is because of the kind of lives that we have become accustomed to living, or the size of the profit margins your investors demand. Credit is, like most facets of our economy, an invention, a form of technology for generating more money. But the real innovation of the last two decades has been the willingness of banks to trade debt and risk itself, and thereby to make the economy both more profitable and more volatile.

Likewise, on the personal front, it has been the availability of “cheap money” in the form of low interest mortgages, the subsequent housing bubble, and the conversion of home equity into another line of credit that has pumped billions of dollars into national economies. What we have witnessed, in other words, is a natural extension of the very logic of money, which has aimed from its very beginning at generating more and more of itself, seemingly out of nothing.

This surprisingly modern idea – money generating more money – was actually first put forward by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He observed the introduction of markets into the first great metropolises of Asia Minor, and even described trade as “the salvation of the states.” But Aristotle was then shocked to observe that the efficiency and simplicity of the market seemed to unleash something monstrous in the human heart. As people saw how much money there was to be made, they began lusting after “profit without limit.” They traded “the good life” (namely, a life organized around virtue and the common good) for lives of excess. Aristotle concluded that, whereas trade had the potential to be “the salvation of the states,” the seemingly limitless flow of money trade introduced into the life of the city brought along with it vices or moral impairments that would be the destruction of the city.

The vices he named were: greed, an inability to be satisfied, a lack of sobriety or self-control, and the willingness to profit through usury. The great tragedy, of course, is that the very vices that Aristotle identified as most corrosive to the common good have become the celebrated virtues upon which the modern economy is built. Capitalism thrives only through these vices.

While we hope and pray that those in positions of influence will find a just and effective response to the current credit contraction, should we not also reflect on our own indulgence in the greed and uncontrolled lifestyles that have brought us to this point? Shouldn’t we hope that out of this comes a rediscovery of a keen sense of the common good, and of new forms of community that nurture the virtues that have long since seemed to disappear from our society?

The onus, then, is on the church – not merely to pray in some benign way that God would mollify the effects of this financial crisis, but really to constitute that alternate form of community. To give the formation of Christian virtue and Christlike generosity priority over misguided “stewardship” (which so often is ecclesiastical code for white-knuckled miserliness). To have the courage to tell our congregations that participation in the Body of Christ means wanting less, using less, wasting less, so that we can distribute more. To embrace those sacramental resources that have been entrusted to us to keep us faithful to our calling, and which themselves enact a radically different kind of economics to that of corpulent capitalism.

At Vanderbilt

If you’re in the Nashville area this week, I’ll be giving a paper on Thursday at Vanderbilt Divinity School (time: 6.30 pm / venue: Tillett 
Lounge). The paper is entitled “Grace Interrupts Nature: Towards an Apocalyptic Revision of the Doctrine of Creation.” Here’s an excerpt:

From the standpoint of “nature” as such, I think we can therefore regard the death and resurrection of Jesus as a fundamentally disordering intrusion into history. It is worth considering here Slavoj Žižek’s – admittedly rather startling – identification of “love” and “evil.” For Žižek, love enters the world as an alien principle, a contradiction of the very order of reality. Ethically, love is a refusal of the Kantian categorical imperative. It is an absolutely ungrounded choice of the one over the many. Love opposes all natural law; it is against nature, and as such can be described formally and ontologically as “evil,” as the precise opposite of the ethical “good”. In a similar way, the resurrection of Jesus takes place in the world as a contradiction of the world’s own structures and possibilities; it introduces rupture within the world’s order, tearing open a space within which its own new order can begin to take form. As God’s eschatological act, the death and resurrection of Jesus breaks with being itself, bringing into existence something wholly new: in Pauline language, this is nothing less than the inauguration of a new creation.

To speak of new creation as divine apocalyptic incursion may seem unsettlingly violent and disruptive – and it is true that Paul’s own imagery is pervaded by the atmosphere of violent militancy. But in fact an apocalyptic conception of creation inverts the symbiotic structures of peace/violence, order/chaos, being/nothingness. With Paul, one can say that God comes to the world as a militant incursion, effecting a decisive conquest over the powers of the present age. From the perspective of the world’s own order, this divine apocalypse can only be regarded as a violent intrusion; but this event is in fact nothing else than the incursion of peace into a world so radically disordered that peace itself appears as violence, just as love appears as the ethical evil. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe illustrates this kind of symbiotic inversion when he notes the way in which industrial strikes are frequently depicted as “disturbances of industrial peace,” so that the end of a strike is understood as “a return to normality and order” – whereas, in reality, capitalism itself is a permanent disorder, a “state of war” which is only occasionally interrupted by the order of peace. When the peace of God comes to the world, it overturns the world’s violence and so appears to the world as violence and conflict; the new order of God’s reign dissolves all law, and so appears to the world as disorder and anarchy. The love of God contradicts nature, and so appears to the world as a rupture of “evil”, indeed as the very negation of being. [...]

Paul highlights this point in his teaching on baptism: in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no ‘male and female’” (Gal. 3:28). As J. Louis Martyn observes, this liturgical formula, with its allusion to Genesis 1:27, suggests that “in baptism the structure of the original creation had been set aside”. The Christian community finds its origin in a moment of generative divine disruption: in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has interrupted the world’s order, setting it aside and bringing forth a new community with a new principle and a new order. In this divine irruption, the world’s order is exposed as disorder; and God’s (apparently chaotic and disordering) advent is revealed as “new creation” – as the generative inauguration of the world’s new and proper order.

It is in this sense that I would like to speak of creatio as an event which occurs in history but which is nevertheless strictly ex nihilo: God’s creative act in the resurrection of Jesus is wholly contingent, non-necessary, presuppositionless; it is not necessitated by any prior logic, nor framed by any prior context. As the classical ex nihilo doctrine emphasised, the creative event is rather that which produces every context and every frame of reference. And since this event takes place not outside but within history, it occurs also as a disturbance and dislocation of the world’s internal order – a dis-ordering of being which is nothing else than the creative generation of a new order, an incursion of peace which dislocates the world’s violence.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Yoder against Kuyper

The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper advocated “sphere sovereignty” – a theory famously summed up in his statement, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” The political implications of this theory are articulated in Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (and, more concretely, in the social and legal arrangements of apartheid in South Africa).

John Howard Yoder rightly argues that such a concept of Christ’s lordship – in which Christians are called to participate in every sphere of life – represents a complete reversal of the New Testament witness. In his book Discipleship As Political Responsibility (Herald Press, 2003), Yoder writes:

“It is remarkable how the meaning of Christ’s lordship has been reversed in modern ecumenical discussion. In New Testament times the lordship of Christ meant that even that which is pagan, the state, was under God’s rule. Today exactly the same expression means that Christians have been sent into all areas of public life, including every political position, and that there as Christians they are to do their duties according to the rules of the state – in other words, the opposite of the meaning in the New Testament” (pp. 62-63).

Thursday, 13 November 2008

And the winner is...

Okay, using a highly advanced technique of random selection, I’ve decided to give the free copy of Nate’s book to Chad Marshall.

But don’t despair, dear readers – everyone’s a winner today! If you head on over to the Wipf & Stock website, all F&T readers can now (for a limited time) purchase Nate’s book at a special 40% discount – from $28 down to $16.80! Just add the book to your shopping cart, and then enter the special coupon code KERR40.

So don’t delay, get your apocalypse now: Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Once more with Nate Kerr: liturgy as dispossession

I was glad to hear that Nate Kerr’s new book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission, was quick to sell out at AAR last week. I’ve got one more copy to give away, so leave a comment here if you’d like a copy (I’ll just randomly choose someone from the comments-thread to receive a copy).

Here’s another quote from this remarkable book:

“Marked by the excess in history that is Jesus’ ongoing historicity, ‘church’ no longer names either a stable site of production, nor does it possess a proper place of its own. Rather, as that work which binds us ever again to the particularity of Jesus, liturgy is precisely the practiced loss of a historical ‘place’ or ‘identity’…. Such is the Spirit’s own apocalyptically irruptive work, by which we are called ever anew into subversive openness to that reality which arrives as always in excess of every social ‘site’ as such: the ‘original revolution’ of God’s reign that is Christ’s cross and resurrection” (pp. 179-80).

Friday, 7 November 2008

Bruno Forte: on music and apocalyptic aesthetics

In my posts on popular culture here at F&T (on films, music, or whatever), I’m often looking for ways to talk about aesthetics in terms of disruption and dissonance – “form” as a kind of apocalyptic grotesqueness; “beauty” hidden sub specie crucis. There are some helpful ideas along these lines in a new book by the Italian theologian and archbishop, Bruno Forte: The Portal of Beauty: Towards a Theology of Aesthetics (Eerdmans, 2008). I went along tonight to a public lecture by Forte, and it was quite stunning – the Catholic archbishop presented a kind of “aesthetics of the cross,” with numerous colourful digressions into Luther and Karl Barth. So now I’ve now been devouring his book – here’s what he has to say in the chapter on music:

“Transposing this understanding of the Spirit to the musical event … one can hypothesize a form of music in which interruption, transgression, and silence are no less eloquent than harmony and sound. It is a matter, that is, of arriving at a kind of music that – without excluding tonality a priori, but also without any rigid adherence to it – would be able to find excessive forms which could transmit the message of that openness, newness and freedom proper to the action of the Spirit in God and history…. Such music would certainly not transmit the classical idea of beauty – the presence of the Whole in the fragment – by way of harmony or ordered numerical relationships. Yet it could render the no less pregnant idea of beauty as the Whole irrupting into the fragment and the fragment opening itself to be embraced in the depths of the unsayable Whole; and this by way of interruption, negation, surprise, silence, no less than of harmony, measure, and relationship” (pp. 99-100).

Ah, just thinking about it gives me a hankering for a good dose of Tom Waits:

       “Well you play that tarantella, all the hounds will start to roar
       The boys all go to hell and then the Cubans hit the floor
       They drive along the pipeline, they tango till they’re sore
       They take apart their nightmares and they leave them by the door”

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Art and theology with Edward Knippers

The series on the paintings of Edward Knippers is now underway over at Theology Forum (including my own post), with plenty of nice pictures to look at. Here are the links so far, with a brief excerpt from each post:

First, Edward Knippers discusses his own work in relation to a theology of incarnation and embodiment: “I hope that my cubist-type language suggests a multi-dimensional world quite different from our own as it keeps the eyes in constant motion through transparent overlappings. I have tried to use this visual metaphor to hint at the movement behind the veil – to uphold the truth that for those in Christ there is glory beyond the edges of our comprehension.”

Next, Fred Sanders discusses the visual language of Knippers’ work: “Up close, a Knippers painting is a revelation: in your space, in your face, confrontational and aggressive. His pinkish giants don’t stay in a polite middle distance in his images, but crowd the foreground. A room with three or four of them in it feels more like a wrestling arena than an art gallery.”

Then I discuss representations of resurrection in Knippers’ paintings: “Above Lazarus stands the figure of Christ, with hands spread out in a gesture of creation, of forming. It is Christ who dissolves the formlessness of death, and brings forth the new form of sheer uncontainable life. The creative presence of Christ fractures and disrupts the world’s material order, bursting it open and reassembling it, wholly interpenetrating it with the flash and flame of God’s own life.”

Then David Buschart discusses physicality in Knippers’ work: “By omitting dress, Knippers deftly brokers the challenge of both universality and particularity, for the absence of dress in his human figures removes an excuse for someone to hold the images at a distance, and yet these are particular people.”

And finally, Edward Knippers responds to the posts.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Electing not to vote?

In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923), Carl Schmitt argues that, while the foundational principle of modern parliamentarism is “openness and discussion,” the situation of parliamentarism has become critical today since “the development of modern mass democracy has made argumentative public discussion an empty formality.” Parties no longer face each other discussing opinions, but they face each other “as social or economic power-groups calculating their mutual interests and opportunities for power, and they actually agree compromises and coalitions on this basis” (p. 6).

Further, public opinion is not won over through open discussion; instead, “the masses are won over through a propaganda apparatus whose maximum effect relies on an appeal to immediate interests and passions. Argument in the real sense that is characteristic for genuine discussion ceases. In its place there appears a conscious reckoning of interests and chances for power in the parties’ negotiations; in the treatment of the masses, posterlike, insistent suggestion or … the ‘symbol’ appears” (p. 6).

What about elections? Schmitt contrasts liberal parliamentary democracy with other forms of democracy, and he describes as “undemocratic” the liberal conception “that a people could only express its will when each citizen voted in deepest secrecy and complete isolation, that is, without leaving the sphere of the private and irresponsible…. Then every single vote was registered and an arithmetical majority was calculated” (p. 16).

What is lost in this liberal conception, he argues, is an understanding of “the people” as a public entity. “The unanimous opinion of one hundred million private persons is neither the will of the people nor public opinion”; nor is our modern “statistical apparatus” the only way of expressing such public opinion. Indeed: “The stronger the power of democratic feeling, the more certain is the awareness that democracy is something other than a registration system for secret ballots” (p. 16).

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