Choose life

It’s a small mercy that I at least never attended an anti-abortion protest. That was a little too tacky, too “political” for my upwardly mobile family at our upwardly mobile church. God sent his Son to die on the cross so we could clean up and move to the suburbs, and his perfect will for our life obviously didn’t include yelling and screaming and getting arrested. Nonetheless, the pro-life movement is driven by “my people,” the evangelicals, who are now on the cusp of victory in a generation-long battle that has deployed all available tactics, from the long march through the institutions to harassment, terrorism, and assassination. They wanted it bad, and now they’re getting it. We’re all getting it.

Recently I was talking to a friend from a similar background to mine. Though he was a little younger, we both shared the experience of living through the Bush years in a conservative Christian college milieu, and both of us found it profoundly disillusioning. He put it well when he said that both the Christian college community and the Bush administration represented a world in with “our people” had won, and both were unlivable. I can’t help but notice that the same pattern held when the evangelicals won by catapulting a man who exuded the sleazy menace of a televangelist — preaching the prosperity gospel without the tedious “gospel” part — into the White House against our will. And it will continue to hold when Roe is overturned, as the result will be a moral, social, and political disaster that will make Prohibition look like a well-considered public policy intervention.

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For the love of God, please bring back episodic drama

In the Poetics, Aristotle identifies two basic forms of storytelling — tight and focused (tragedy) and loose and episodic (epic) — and I always tell my students that it broadly maps onto film vs. television. And in that context, I suggest that his assessment that tragedy is “better” doesn’t make much sense. Which is better, I ask, The Sopranos or The Godfather? They’re just different genres.

The problem with contemporary storytelling is that every epic (TV show) thinks it’s a tragedy (a fourteen-hour movie), and every tragedy (film) thinks it’s part of an epic (franchise universes). Neither really works or makes sense. Continue reading “For the love of God, please bring back episodic drama”

What does a ‘gender critical’ feminist want?

As a person with blue hair, it’s been interesting to find myself becoming the symbol of wishy washy young people who don’t know we’re born and can’t possibly understand the struggles of our elders who had their heads kicked in so they could fight to keep trans women out of bathrooms. It’s telling that blue hair has become a symbol of everything so-called ‘gender critical’ feminists oppose; and I think it’s indicative of their inability to imagine gendered embodiment or bodily modification as sites of pleasure and desire as well as suffering and violation.

The disdain for aesthetic frivolity is as old as white feminism itself, going all the way back to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women draws on anti-black, Orientalist and homophobic tropes to condemn ‘luxury’ – by which she means any kind of physical experience which renders a person passive or which allows feeling to triumph over reason. Like many ‘gender critical’ feminists, Wollstonecraft experienced the sharp end of patriarchal and homophobic social structures, struggling to hold her family together in the face of her father’s dissolution, and abandoned by the father of her child to fend for herself in the face of a censorious society. But the rights which she longs for are organised around bourgeois notions of freedom, centred on ideals of hard work, private property and self-sufficiency, and in her eagerness to find a footing of equality with men, she cultivates a disdain – sometimes even a disgust – both for the women around her and for her own queer desire.

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Ritually Atoning for America’s Original Sin

[Originally published at Truthout.]

We often hear from politicians that slavery is “America’s original sin.” This phrase has become a cliché, thoughtlessly intoned mostly by Democrats, though occasionally also deployed by Republicans in a bid to look like they are taking racism seriously. In most cases, it seems like little more than a way of gesturing at the unique gravity of racism. Nevertheless, if we take this bromide at its word – that grappling with racial oppression is not just a social or political problem, but also downright theological – it reveals the inherent deadlocks in liberal anti-racism.

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Accessible English text of Vaiśeṣika Sūtra

As many readers know, I teach in a Great Books program where our courses center on the discussion of important primary texts across all major liberal arts disciplines — humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The center of authority in the classroom is not the professor, but the course materials, and accordingly we are encouraged to be a “jack of all trades” and teach outside our scholarly expertise. Hence this semester I am actually teaching a natural science course on different views of astronomy and cosmology through history. While a traditional Great Books program would focus only on Western sources, we have aimed for greater inclusivenes. My current syllabus includes Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic sources alongside Western materials.

This brings me to the topic of my post, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, an ancient Hindu text that espouses something like atomism. It was clearly a slam dunk for my course, to include alongside Democritus and Lucretius, but I have been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of a useable English translation of the text. This old edition is festooned with so much commentary as to be unreadable. Meanwhile, more recent editions are unusable for different reasons. The translation by Debasish Chakrabarty leaves so many words untranslated — including, absurdly, the words for the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) — as to be almost completely unreadable. Subhash Kak’s rendering is somewhat better, but still leaves far too many words untranslated and is burdened with a line-by-line commentary that alternates between boring reiteration and a tendentious attempt to demonstrate that the text anticipates everything in modern science. I can’t give either of those translations to my students and expect them to make heads or tails of it. I realize that no translation fully captures all the nuances of the foreign language — yet the solution is surely not to simply give up and expect the reader to learn dozens of foreign terms before they can approach the text at all.

Finally, driven by desperation, I went through the old edition, which at least translates the text into English, and transcribed the aphorisms of the original text. I provide the result here in case anyone might find it useful. It includes some clarifying footnotes of my own, as well as some material related directly to my classroom context (such as a division of the reading for two class sessions). I am aware that a full understanding of the text and its legacy requires engagement with the commentary, but I cannot pretend to provide that in the context of my class in any case. Presenting the original text, relatively unadorned, will at least give my students an overview of its breadth and key claims.

Thou shalt not lie

Immanuel Kant famously taught that we should treat all human beings as ends in themselves, and never simply as means. The categorical imperative imposes a complete prohibition against lying, because when someone lies, they treat the recipient of that lie not as an end in themselves, but as a means for the liar. When a lie is told, there is a fundamental breach––Kant calls this an annihilation––of a person’s dignity and autonomy. Many actions can be justified within a Kantian ethic; never lying.

I am becoming more Kantian by the day.

What we are witnessing today is not some postmodern moment where everything is relative. No, what we are witnessing today is a fundamental violation of Kant’s categorical imperative where a small group of right-wing extremists constantly lie to their listeners, and it is literally resulting in mass death. This is not sustainable.

When Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity––both fully vaccinated and part of a company that requires vaccination––get on television night after night and tell their viewers that Anthony Fauci is evil and that the Covid-19 vaccine is not trustworthy, they are lying. They are lying openly and they are lying unashamedly. They are using their viewers not as ends, but as means for their own political gain. Viewers of Fox News have dignity, and as that dignity is constantly violated by these bad men during a once in a century pandemic, said viewers are unnecessarily, but predictably, dying. This is not sustainable.

When these same right-wing commentators and politicians tell their listeners that President Biden has opened the southern border and that there are dangerous criminals flooding in, they are lying. Joe Biden has almost completely closed the border and he is likely violating international law by deporting asylum seekers, but half of America believes otherwise because people on television, radio, and pulpits have lied to them. The result of this lie ends up violating the basic dignity and autonomy of those who are credibly seeking help at our southern border, almost always leading to their further suffering and possible death. This is not sustainable.

From climate change to reproductive rights, the lies are nearly endless. I am actually not sure how to respond to a situation where half of the country is being lied to day after day. This might be where we need the psychoanalysts to explain that some people want to be lied to. But that still offers us no solution. In a world of lies where basic human dignity is being violated in such a blatant way, and where we see in real time the deadly results of those lies, the correct response must be political. The liars need to be defeated and their voices muted.

But is a politics built upon a prohibition of lying actually possible in a time when the liars are so loud? I’m genuinely not sure. But I am tired of watching family and friends get lied to again and again. I increasingly think that at a fundamental level Kant is right: we need a prohibition against lying. Humanity might literally depend on this.

LEST XIII Dissenting Church: Exploring the Theological Power of Conflict and Disagreement

Readers of the blog may be interested in the upcoming 13th Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology Conference, which will be taking place online from 20-23 October. The conference is free to attend, and you can register here.

I’ll be taking part in the final conference plenary as a keynote speaker. The theme for the panel is, “The theological power of conflict and disagreement?” Papers will be made available online before the conference and during the conference itself we’ll discuss the key ideas and arguments presented by the panellists. My paper is titled ‘Love your enemy: theology, identity and antagonism’, abstract as follows:

Christianity has always been characterised by disagreement, conflict, and inconsistency; so much so that it is tempting to define Christianity precisely as an ongoing disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Theology has, for the most part, evaded this messy and embarrassing reality in favour of fantasies of wholeness, maintained by a range of strategies from sleights of hand, outright denial, or projection. Contestation cannot become a point of departure for theology so long as theologians are invested in denying its existence. To understand this desire for coherence, which grounds so much theological evasion, this paper draws on the work of Slavoj Žižek, whose materialist reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis offers resources for considering theology’s desire for unity, and suggests a number of possibilities for understanding, unsettling, and reworking our theological investments in fantasies of identity. As continental philosophy in the wake of Hegel has consistently held, however, we cannot understand self-relation and identity without also understanding the relationship between the self and the other. To consider contestation within Christianity, then, we must also pay attention to the fundamental antagonism which makes possible these internal conflicts: the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. This distinction is homologous with Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as the dimension of human relations that concerns the distinction between friend and enemy. This paper, then, explores what it means to take seriously the centrality of the distinction between friend and enemy to the construction of Christian identity, and will consider what it would mean to undertake to love our enemies, our selves. 

Political Theology syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for this course, and also to Sean Capener, some of whose ideas for excerpts I have borrowed, and to Robin James, whose pitch/thinkpiece assignment I’ve adapted! I’ll be starting to teach my joint second- and third-year course on Political Theology next week and I’m somewhat nervously looking forward to it – I think of all the courses I’ve taught this is the one with the most texts that have most profoundly shaped my thinking, which I know can sometimes make it more difficult to teach well.

Module summary:
“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt began the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

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Thoughts in the wake of the Texas anti-abortion law

[A blogpost version of a Twitter thread from earlier this morning.]

I grew up as a conservative evangelical and understand why the appeal to the life of the fetus has proven such a powerful argument. But forced childbirth is ghoulish and dystopian and it concerns a 100% definite human being we can see and talk to right now.

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What is the chief end of man?

A few months ago, my friend Anthony Paul Smith posted a couple tweets that I have continued to mull over. Responding to some online discourse worrying about the declining birthrate in the US, he wrote:

There’s something deeply, ontologically creepy about birth rate discourse and how so much is tied to the Ponzi scheme we’ve set up as a society that requires unlimited population growth to support unlimited creation of wealth, unmoored from ecological connections.

Also I think we’ve reached a stage in human development where most people don’t know what the point of the future of the human race is. Make iPhones by oppressing a majority of the world? Helping Elon Musk send a bunch of corpses to Mars for his own ego? Unlimited breadsticks?

I think the same about returning to “normal” after the pandemic. I have certainly longed for normality, but now that it’s becoming more of a reality, I’m reminded of all the annoying and boring and mildly humiliating things that we accepted as “normal.” Why were we in such a hurry to get back to this? And why — despite all the early-pandemic articles speculating that this massive disruption could be a social reset allowing us to clarify our goals and values — does there seem to be no alternative to the binary of pandemic misery or everyday normal misery?

Continue reading “What is the chief end of man?”