Freudians and Theology

Alongside the very productive collision in the last decade between theology (particularly political theology) and a certain strain of Freudian theory/Continental philosophy, I’ve begun noticing that an increasing number of theologically trained folks are also carrying psychoanalytic credentials. I’d love to peg out the reason for this trend. It may well be due simply to the influence of Agamben, Zizek, Badiou, though I wonder if there isn’t another source of the interest—for example, in a sense that analysis is a better pastoral tool than the standard fare offered in pastoral education.

At any rate, I know that several of the folks regularly stopping through here are always looking for a good podcast to while away the hours at work. On the train from Albany this morning, I listened to a recording from 2002 of Eric Santner talking about Freud, Franz Rosensweig, and the intersection of psychoanalysis and theology. While it’s by no means intended to serve as an introduction, the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, is likely as good a place as any to start the arduous task of coming to grips with the technical language intrinsic to the larger conversation. Santner is good about both defining his terms and bringing in concrete examples.

I can’t remember where I found out about this recording, so I can’t tip my hat to [Jeremyanyone in particular. I’ll return my thanks by passing on the recommendation.

arguments for God’s existence :: Paul Tillich

I’ve been delighted by a few gems here and there while reading through Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, but one of the best so far has been his treatment of arguments for the existence of God. Beyond a bit of freshman excitement, I can’t say that I’ve ever invested myself too heavily in arguing for God’s existence—it has just never seemed like the sort of thing where arguing actually did much good.

Well, Paul Tillich gave the issue a genuinely intelligent treatment that I haven’t heard before in quite these terms:

It is a remarkable fact that for many centuries leading theologians and philosophers were almost equally divided between those who attacked and those who defended the arguments for the existence of God. Neither group prevailed over the other in a final way. This situation admits only one explanation: the one group did not attack what the other group defended.

Tillich goes on to argue that, among other confusions, attributing “existence” to God is already problematic insofar as it renders God a determinate Being among beings.

Actually they [the scholastics] did not mean ‘existence.’ They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.

He continues by arguing that every argument for the existence of God is more or less a failure qua argument, but that these arguments are unparalleled statements of the inerradicable question mark overhanging human finitude.

The arguments for the existence of God neither are arguments nor are they proof of the existence of God. They are expressions of the question of God which is implied in human finitude. This question is their truth; every answer they give is untrue.

What the arguments end up “proving” is that there are trajectories in the structure of human existence that remain inexplicable in terms of human experience.

The ‘first cause’ is a hypostatised question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain….In the same way, a ‘necessary substance’ is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which gives substantiality to all substances.

The finite conditions of goodness, being, causation, truth, meaning, purpose, etc., all depend for their validity on some unconditioned Highest instance. The trouble occurs when this necessary structural position in human thought and experience is identified, point blank, with God. Onto-logical necessities are taken to indicate the existence of a highest Being. Unfortunately, this is already to “fit” God into the structure of Being-as-we-know-it, which is an implicit denial of God’s transcendence. God is, of course, wilier than to be pinned down so easily!

All quotes from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 204-210.

Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction

Here’s the introduction from one of my term papers (my favorite of the semester) to let you in on what I’ve been mulling over lately:

Among several theses advanced over the course of his text, The Animal that Therefore I Am, Derrida argues that the history of writing can be divided into two classes: writers who have seen and been seen by an animal, and those who have never been addressed in this way.[1] “Being seen” signifies a recognition of the impenetrable difference of the animal without, on the basis of that difference dismissing the gaze of an animal as an other with no claim. Suffice it to say, he does not find the latter class to be an expansive tradition. “For thinking concerning the animal, if there is such a thing, derives from poetry. There you have a thesis: it is what philosophy has, essentially, had to deprive itself of. It is the difference between philosophical knowledge and poetic thinking.”[2] The poetic imagination, in contrast to the philosopher’s, has from time to time had the courage to stand in the gaze of the animal and to write as one who is seen. The “immense disavowal” of the animals’ gaze on the part of the philosophic tradition has enabled philosophers of all stripes to lump all animals together in a single undifferentiated term, “animal,” washing over tremendous differences for the sake of a convenient category for non-human creatures.[3] The presumption that Derrida calls into question is that the difference between humans and animals is such that a single, clean line can be drawn, leaving “the animal” on one side (in all the multiplied differences among animals) and “the human” on the other. Of course, this clean distinction between “the human” and “the animal” has borne profound conceptual and political ramifications—enabling the construction of notions of utter human uniqueness and justifying instrumental regimes of domestication, production, experimentation, exploitation, and habitat encroachment which subject animals, often ruthlessly, to larger human projects.[4]

The Christian theological tradition has played no small part in constructing the human-animal distinction as we know it and has brought a substantial ideological investment—particularly in the notion that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God—to the task of differentiating human beings from “the animal” in a thoroughgoing manner.[5] There is no shortage of examples of theologians participating in the “immense disavowal” that Derrida imputes to the philosophic tradition.[6] Nevertheless, there are perhaps resources (resources which may have remained hidden from Derrida’s sight) within the theological tradition for the subversion (or deconstruction) of this powerful (main)stream of thought at the foundation of Western cultural and political edifices. Continue reading “Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Derrida, the Song of Songs, and the Human-Animal Distinction”

John Milbank and Catharine Pickstock on CBC :: “Ideas” interview

If you are looking for an intriguing way to put an hour of your audial energies to good service, may I suggest a podcast from the CBC program “Ideas”–an interview with Catharine Pickstock and John Milbank. It serves as an excellent introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (and brings some of its more abrasive aspects to the surface). The interview is a few years old, but I didn’t find it till last week, perhaps you haven’t found it either.

It is available here. 

David Bentley Hart :: Nietzsche and the Market

In a book that I’ve enjoyed immensely, I came across what is likely the most ingenious footnote I’ve ever read. Hart is in the midst of an argument connecting the postmodern deconstructionist philosophers and the logic of capitalism, arguing that both reinforce the absolute freedom of choice for selves increasingly isolated and punctual. According to both, no power may be allowed to dominate the public space in such a way that choices are determined for the others—every identity is held in check by the inviolable “other-ness” of every other; thus, every self must be given the space to choose between all the possible identities available (all of them bound in place side by side as equivalent products on the shelf, each with a different wrapper). As Hart was dealing with Nietzsche in particular, he offered the footnote that delighted me at the tail end of this sentence: 

Nietzsche, however much he detested bourgeois values, perhaps knew not which god he served.

And here is the note itself: 

Nietzsche’s avowed god, Dionysus, is of course an endlessly protean and deceptive deity and a wearer of many masks. When he makes his unannounced appearance at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, as its secret protagonist, whose divine irony has occultly enlivened its pages, he exercises his uniquely divine gift, the numinous privilege of veiling and unveiling, concealment and manifestation; he is the patron deity, appropriately of the philosophical project of genealogy. But perhaps another veil remains to be lifted, and the god may be invited to step forth again, in his still more essential identity: Henry Ford. After all, Ford’s most concise and oracular pronouncement—“History is bunk!”—might be read as an exquisite condensation of the theme of the second of the Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (…). And there could scarcely be a more vibrant image of univocity’s perpetual beat of repetition—of eternal recurrence, the eternal return of the same—than the assembly line: difference here is certainly not analogical, but merely univocal, and the affirmation of one instance is an affirmation of the whole. It is moreover, well documented that Ford was a devotee of square dancing, which is clearly akin to (perhaps descended from) the dithyrambic choreia of the bacchantes; Ford was a god who danced. 

Hart’s argument is, of course, quite serious, but it is refreshing to see someone argue with such a wry smile visible between the lines. And one can hardly help but laugh at the picture of Nietzsche as the devotee of a square dancing magnate of the auto industry. 

David Bentley Hart,  The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 435. 

 

varieties of secularism :: comments (3) Taylor as secularist

Series Index

This is the second part of a post that grew too big for its fishbowl (anyone remember Otto?). 

No doubt that Taylor can be read, and should be read in this way. In fact, the greatest payoff of Taylor’s work in my own thinking (and the reason that I turned to his work in the first place) lies along these lines. But A Secular Age is not straightforwardly apologetic, and in many ways the text actually works as a secularizing force upon its readers. The book does not call religious identity into question directly but in the expansive understanding of others that it encourages.

When I visited Duke a little over a year ago, J. Kameron Carter began a lecture by pinpointing modernity’s starting date: October 23, 1492. In large part, his argument for this assertion resonates with Taylor’s basic premises in A Secular Age. Carter argued that contact with a people whose history included no interaction with the Christian gospel (who couldn’t thereby easily be assimilated into the larger narrative as infidels who had rejected it) and the accompanying concept of isolable “race” functioned as an “other” whose very existence necessitated a reevaluation of European identity. Thinking “Christian-ness” and “white-ness” as realities clearly confined to a single continent (an “old world”) constituted them as only one option among others and undermined the universality of the narrative self-understanding within which Europeans lived (and placed their “oriental” neighbors).

Taylor argues that secularization is the story of a developing simultaneous plausibility of an increasing number of identities. Secularization is found where I can imagine myself residing within my city (without too much difficulty) as an atheist, as a Muslim, as a pagan. My contact with people who actually do inhabit these identities (and their contact with me as a Christian) helps me in some small part to understand the very different motivations, goals, and narrative boundaries of others, and subverts any inclination to explain those differences away as stupidity or wickedness. When I understand another person’s perspective by trying on his or her shoes, I inevitably see the explanatory power (and thereby, the fundamental plausibility) of another perspective from the inside. That society is more secular which has a larger number of plausible shoes to try on at any given time. Western secularization, then, is the effect of an increasing ability to see things another way. 

Now, Taylor’s project is a force advancing secularization insofar as it seeks to do just that—to see the explanatory power of other perspectives from the inside. As he provides us a window into the motivations of others (and encourages us to develop the same ability), he leads us into the oftentimes perplexing situation where we can interpret an event or a situation in two or three ways simultaneously. Or, as Pascal said of Christian faith in the upswing of modernity, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

A few days ago, I made it around to reading Wilfred McClay’s review of Taylor’s book in First Things (May 2008). He makes substantially the same point about the ambivalence of Taylor’s book. He says, “[Taylor’s] heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls ‘the Jamesean open space,’ a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at… the place ‘where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,’ and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem.” A bit further, he says, “One wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against.”

In the end, then, Taylor’s book does the church a great service by exposing and undermining the monolithic character of claims for secularization, but the church must go further than Taylor has been willing to go. Being faithful to the testimony of Jesus Christ’s good news certainly doesn’t preclude being able to see things from the perspective of another rationality (which is simply charity), but it does mean entrusting one’s whole heart and soul (“losing one’s life”) to the church’s historical claims about Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his unique relationship to the Father and Spirit. That commitment, in turn, means that the church must speak to those “others” whom it labors to understand in witness to the singularity of the Christian story, and do so by means of argument if necessary. 

varieties of secularism :: comments (2) Taylor as apologist

Series Index

There is a tension latent in Taylor’s work that becomes apparent when one attempts to situate his thought relative to secularization. Is A Secular Age advocating or critiquing secularity? Is reading A Secular Age likely to make a person more or less “secular?” No matter one’s inclination in reply to these questions, plainly the meticulous restraint of Taylor’s argument and his attentive and generous reading of every text mentioned will bear no facile, partisan answer. Taylor’s narratival argument cannot be flattened to platitude nor transformed into the endorsement of one simple trajectory. Secularization is the complex expression of a host of diverse forces before it is either “progress” or “disaster.” No one can inhabit faith naïvely in a secular age, nor can anyone credibly reduce religious belief to the persistence of delusion.

To be sure, the greatest part of Taylor’s project is to describe secularization with richly convincing detail; nevertheless, he is no disinterested party in the matter. Locating the poles of the tension in his argument will be instructive in expressing the value that I find in Taylor’s latest work.

In his paper, John Milbank argued that A Secular Age is a profoundly anti-sociological book that adds plausibility to faith by means of a profound historical and cultural apologetic. In his concluding comments, Taylor did not disagree with Milbank’s assessment, though he enumerated several ways in which his text is much more than simply an apologetic—for reasons I will discuss momentarily. Taylor’s text is only indirectly apologetic.

Taylor reserves his sharpest polemic comments for advocates of what he calls the “subtraction account.” He has little patience for those who see secularization as the stripping away of all the metaphysical dross that taints and obscures what is essentially human, some rational or natural core that underlies the confused visage of even religious people. And rightly so—positing secularization as the outcome of some inexorable progress (be it scientific, political, social, or economic) ignores the extent to which secularization is the expression of a whole network of contingent historical events and thought patterns, played out across large segments of society. When that context is left out of the picture, secularization conceals its own genealogy and purports an intimidating inevitability (by which its strongest proponents are especially seduced) that recasts religious allegiance as something parochial and antique.

Insofar as Taylor’s work exposes the clandestine sources of the secularizing impulses that reside within each of our minds, he tells a story that empowers believers to “see through” the forces that undermine faith. Secularization is the expression of cultural impulses—not the will of the Weltgeist. Genuine Christian faith (or any other form of religion) is no less inherently plausible than other culturally-bound expressions of the meaning and purpose of human life, including the convoluted and parasitic value system of reductive materialism. And insofar as many reductive modes of thinking remain—in one way or another—parasitic on religiously grounded worldviews for their ethical motivation, Taylor stands opposed to ideological secularism because it undermines the self-understandings that provide moral orientation and social coherence. On this level, Taylor’s project is a critique of secularization that deflates its pretensions of inevitability and thus, functions apologetically on behalf of believers. 

[This post outgrew its own britches, and thus, is continued in another installment]

varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality”

Series Index

I’ll admit that it has taken me longer than I would have liked to get around to writing a summary of my thoughts about the conference (which was now a month ago!), but “late” and “never” are still two different categories.

The first thing that I’d like to offer comments on deals with the papers offered by many of the conference speakers. A common theme among many of the presenting scholars was a search for something along the lines of a “secular spirituality,” though the shape of that quest was portrayed diversely by those considering it a worthwhile goal.

Simon During described in great detail a particular moment in which a novel’s main character finds an ordinary street corner, on an otherwise drab afternoon, to be suddenly and spectacularly remarkable. He refrains from attaching any meaning to the conjunction of cement, pavement, tufts of grass in the cracks, and sunshine, but nonetheless finds the sheer existence of such a scene, its “here-ness,” to be an uplifting and motivating experience. The unlikeliness of the whole thing coming together in just this way is cause for something like reverence—but it is a reverence entirely bound within the scene itself. During calls this a moment of “mundanity” and he speaks of the “mundane” as something which exists outside both the religious and the secular.
Continue reading “varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality””

Charles Taylor :: secularization conference

Tomorrow morning Carolyn and I are going to drive over to New Haven in order to spend a few days listening to people interact with Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age. Taylor has become something of a hero to both of us in the last year or so, and we are both looking forward to meeting him there. In particular, Taylor (along with Alasdair MacIntyre) has helped me to articulate the instincts and patterns of thinking that foment doubt. Situating those patterns of thought historically and culturally  does not make them go away, but it strips them of any claim to absolute objectivity—and in so doing, increases the plausability of faith (which nonetheless always remains a “leap”). This is not the place to go into the exact shape of my doubts, but by “patterns of thought” I am referring to fairly common tendencies in our culture; a penchant for reductive explanation, instrumentalizing and pragmatist thought, and the critiques of characters like Feuerbach and Freud.  Taylor did not set out to write an apologetic in either Sources of the Self or A Secular Age. Nonetheless, both of these books have allowed me to see through my own doubts in fairly significant ways—which is something I count as a great gift. 

In the next few days, I intend to post basic outlines/notes from a few of the sessions at the conference (a schedule is available here). I am not sure whether we will have internet access in New Haven, but regardless postings will appear soon. Your thoughts and comments are not only welcome but solicited. 

To start things off, I’ll offer a few quotes that adumbrate the basic argument behind Taylor’s attempt to tell the story of secularization in a new way in A Secular Age:  

“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even through they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true…

“Now in this regard, there has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived ‘naively’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.”

For Taylor, the story of secularization is not primarily the story of the removal of religious figures from positions of political power (the disestablishment of churches and the separation of church and state), nor is it the story of the decline of religious belief and practice (however that may be measured), rather the story of secularization is the story of the plurality of plausible interpretations for human experience, and the inability to reach a perspective where one can finally and decisively inhabit one interpretation or another. As such, Taylor is arguing that secularization is not the result of the inevitable march of scientific knowledge or changes in political and economic structures; rather, it arises as the result of the surfeit of plausible self-understandings, some of which have no recourse to any transcendence.

The thesis of the text, (which will likely need some unpacking in the next few posts) is this:

“I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense [the third “story” in the paragraph above] has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”

__________________________
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, 12, 18.

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

Charles Taylor and John Locke on reason

“I have borrowed the term ‘self-responsibility’ from Husserl to describe something that Locke shares with Descartes and which touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself:

‘For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Mens Eyes, as to know by other Mens Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation… In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust are but shreads.'[1]

Plato, of course, says something analogous…. But what is different with the moderns is that the requirement to work it out oneself is more radical and exclusive, and tis in virtue of their very notion of reason.

Plato enjoins us to stand out against custom and ‘opinion’ in order to arrive at the truth. But the truth at which we arrive is a vision of the order of things. It is not absolutely excluded in principle that our best way of getting there might be to be guided by some authority–not, indeed, the corrupt and erroneous one of popular opinion, but by someone with wisdom. Once we have science [according to Plato], of course, we can dispense with guidance, but it might help us to come to this independent condition.”

I think that our first instinct is to apply this “scientific” mode of reasoning to religious questions—and it tends to strip religions down to bare and vague transcendence—which is about all that any of us can “work out for ourselves.” I’m more and more confident that this mode of reasoning itself needs to be questioned, not least because it is a “tradition” all its own. Taylor is proving immensely helpful in that project.

__________________
[1] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:4:23.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 167-68.

Bonhoeffer on moral philosophy (and the deconstruction thereof)

“Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

Creation and Fall, 27.