Beyond Monotheism – 8. Starting the Story Again

Schneider’s keen, subtle sense of narrative, of which Clayton made an astute comment a couple of days ago, is especially clear in this chapter devoted to the theological significance of narratives, of narrative’s significance to theology.  Her resistance to the stasis of a frozen theological content, as discussed in last chapter’s reading of Dante, carries over starkly in her resistance to a kind of blinkered theological discourse so self-consumed that it, in effect, brackets out the the very stuff that constitutes its (theology’s) vitality and significance.  “It is,” she writes,

“past time for theologians, storytellers, and poets to listen again to each other and inspire one another.  The disenchantment that the logic of the One now requires along with various estrangements between belief, imagination, story, and credibility in the telling of Christian theology have weakened theology, particularly those theologies that have turned away from poetry, tears, laughter, and deep (or tall) tales.”

It is striking to note that theology, in Schneider’s presentation, is weakened most by its refusal of those elements of experience that highlight contingency, frailty, and error.  In short, theology is most weak when its attempts at systematization are most rigorous and/or complete–when it (provisionally) attains the self-perfection toward which it traditionally strives.

A theology that separates myth and poetry from its so-called big questions (in her words, the “ontological engagement with divinity”) is weakened because it fails to own up to its place in the world from which it emerges.  Such a theology might give lip service to “context,” with cosmetic and metaphorical tweaks here and there to make it more culturally palatable, but there is something disingenuous about a contextual/metaphoric adaptation that is uni-directional.  Life, however, does not work like that: when A adapts to B, it is simply  not the case that B remains wholly unchanged. Similarly, contextual adaptation and the implementation of metaphor, the very building blocks of narrative, change everything–from the storyteller to the audience.  And, indeed, the stories themselves.  Because once you admit to adaptation and metaphor, and thus to the telling of stories, they (and the stories they ride in on) all tend to mount endlessly–like when you lie, and find yourself creating lies on top of lies, even those that are only tangentially related to the original lie, which often has been largely forgotten.  Adaptation speaks to an ever-growing (or, in Schneider’s preferred imagery, ever-deepening) stack of tall tales, where intention and ownership are not so much inconsequential as they as just another story.  Of course, in the view of theology held sway by the logic of the One, this is sufficient warrant to separate the promise of truth from the present reality of fiction.  The One, Schneider emphasizes, echoing the previous chapter, like any good storyteller should, cannot countenance fluidity.

A value of a theology of  multiplicity, she writes, is that it owns up the fractured, heartbreaking, amorous, and hilarious experience of being embodied in the world.  Inasmuch as it is open to the old stories as stories (those of any religious tradition, not just Christianity), that is, stories that are to be repeated in such a way that leaves far more room for error and humility than dogmatic defensiveness, such a theology is capable of “help[ing] people to experience and to be open to the creating, loving, and evolving divinity that flows in the world…”

Schneider concludes her chapter with two “Tehomic” examples that highlight the fluidity of storytelling, and that illustrate the weakness inherent to pursuing strength.

Thoughts for Reflection: My thought for reflection here relates to the one from yesterday.  Namely, to what extent does knowledge that the monologic of traditional theology rests on a repressed narrative somehow betray its repressive power (in defiance of the vulgar reality of this repressiveness)?  Or, alternatively, if our hope to activate a theology of multiplicity rests in the will, that is, our will to be tellers of tales, does our hope lay in a critical mass of people doing so?  And, if so, what does a community of infinitely unfolding tales actually look like?  How do we prevent narrative improvisation from spilling into the incomprehensible stasis that is noise?   The answer, I think, is a kind of trial-and-error–the stuff of more stories–whose successes are perhaps spectacularly momentary and fleeting–the stuff of legend.

22 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism – 8. Starting the Story Again

  1. First of all, thanks to the narrators of this book. I’m not entirely convinced by the thesis, but I want to read it and give it a more thorough reading.

    Now, my question, is there a way to bring forth other narratives without, as Brad suggests, it devolving into noise? One possible way is something like the Dionysian throng, in which the Apollinian arises as the necessary counterpoint to the Dionysian, i.e. the monological arises necessarily from the life of the plural, that the plural cannot exist apart from the tension created by the monological. But (contra Schneider) this would involve the necessity of the monological in order to fund plurality….

  2. Schneider is quite clear throughout the book that she isn’t setting up the One as a bogeyman. It isn’t that the One should be banished forever and excluded from entering into the a priori goodness of multiplicity. She even goes so far, in the next chapter I think, to say that the One is necessary in terms of individuation (I may have the terminology mixed up with my own, but she’s building off of Deleuze so I think it still works). I don’t know if the relationship is necessarily one of necessity, or if it is one has to be careful, within Schneider’s framework, that they not sneak the logic of the One back into its privileged place and thereby overdetermine thought again.

  3. I think Schneider is an extraordinary writer, and she is incredibly good at reading, interpreting, writing and thinking literary narratives, including what she does with Thomas King in this chapter. She is trying to develop a better, more supple language that would be adequate to the multiplicity of experience, including religious experience.

    Like most of you, I thought the reading of Dante was a tour de force, and it recalls Keller’s readings of Job and Melville in Face of the Deep. Did anyone remember that Keller discussed the frozen immobility of tehomic waters as ice in her reading of Augustine? I see this as a precursor of Schneider’s reading.

    I’m interested in re-reading her developing her logic of multiplicity in the next three chapters.

    As far as noise goes, one of the insights of post-structuralism was to undermine the strict opposition of information vs. noise, and complexity theory I think gives resources to think and to read more complexly and more multiply without reducing thinking and existence to a monological story.

  4. Clayton, complexity theory does offer us a way of thinking productively about noise, but systems are not completely out of the woods w/ regard to entropy. It’s just when they do disperse and fall apart, we are more apt now not to isolate the effects, but see its broader implications. In this way, noise becomes a kind of information, but not necessarily in the smaller-scale of an individual’s or community’s lived experience. So, while I agree w/ you whole-heartedly, I think we’re wise to be cautious about thinking that just because the opposition is no longer so strict that it has lost its importance.

    I suppose my question relates to how we negotiate the interaction of the One and the multitude. (This is the second time in a week, I’ve referenced this book, but the question reminds me of that discussed in Scott Saul’s research on jazz improvisation in Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t — where the multiplicity of improvisation emerges from a set-piece, and succeeds only inasmuch as it (a) returns to the set-piece and (b) causes the set-piece to change. Without (a) or (b) you have a discordant improvisation, and probably just somebody full of hot air. A whole bunch of noise.) Now, as Anthony notes, Schneider addresses all this in the book, but I’ve tried to keep my summaries from skipping ahead. Spoilers are, after all, for the comments.

  5. I think that’s right Brad, and these distinctions (info vs. noise) are still important, even if they break down in absolute terms. That’s how I read Deleuze, who operates with all kinds of oppositions, but they’re more pragmatic. Entropy of course is an enormous topic that I’m trying to wrap my mind around (Penrose does some really interesting stuff in The Emperor’s New Mind with it, whereas Julian Barbour tries to get rid of it by abolishing time, which seems in some ways consonant with Badiou–both are Platonists).

    I like the musical analogy too, insofar as Schneider is playing (with) the One, rather than simply dismissing it.

  6. Anthony, would you say that she’s being just as open-ended about immutability? I rather think the doctrine’s getting a hard time, and would be able to have a lot more respect for Schneider if she had room for a more sympathetic appreciation of it.

    Briefly, the reason we should all think God is immutable is because as soon as you have ascertained a characteristic of God that you’re gonna believe in (and this characteristic can be as flexible and relational as you want – repenting of evil intent, adapting to human foolishness, etc.) then any point at which God doesn’t demonstrate that characteristic can count as a criticism of God. It’s basically a grammatical point rather than an observation of Her character: a prelude to theology (which is how Burrell argues it works in Thomas’ Summa theologica).

    And if I get told one more time that I should have humour as a theologian, I shall tie this book to a humbug and drown it in the Thames.

  7. Arguably, a bad sense of humor is even more humorous than a good one.

    You address your question to Anthony, but I’ll throw in my two cents. Insofar as she is being open-ended about the One, I don’t see how she cannot be about immutability. The question then becomes whether immutability (or the One), is worth all that much once it is stripped of what it claims for itself. Meaning … it seems that it becomes, at least from the perspective of its claims to autonomy, a kind of necessary mistake, in the service of individuation.

  8. Thanks Brad: I’m not sure how much immutability does claim for itself. It strikes me that Schneider is criticising those who misunderstand the logical grammar of immutability to be some kind of anthropomorphic characteristic. And I don’t really know who makes that kind of mistake. She doesn’t really name her Aunt Sallies.

    Maybe all this will be made clear when I read this earlier work of hers she keeps referencing on metaphor…

  9. I realized after the fact that I anthropomorphized there. What I meant was what the logic of immutability would seem to imply. Meaning — you can build in a flexibility to immutability, but arguably only so much. Flexibility could be construed as a constituent aspect of immutability, but can only be so if immutability stands alone outside said flexibility.

  10. I completely sympathize with you being tired of being told to have a sense of humor. But if you’re going to bring that out, I have to admit I’m a little tired of arguments of the form “But don’t you see that this traditional dogma is actually great as long as you understand it in a way that virtually no one understands it or ever has?”

  11. Thanks Adam. I suppose we could try counting up thinkers that understand immutability anthromorphically as against those that understand it as a precondition for talking about God. And maybe your guys would win, and then I would indeed claim that they’d misunderstood it all. It’s a boring way forward.

    Having said that, I really don’t think I was being controversial here. It was a fairly simply summary of the first article of Aquinas’ ninth question on “whether God is altogether immutable?” And I did mention two people (Burrell and Aquinas) in my comment who I reckon understand immutable in this way. I could add Denys Turner, Herbert McCabe, and that lot I guess.

    So basically I reckon you’re right about tenuous reformulations of old doctrines, but you’re wrong think thinking I was doing one.

  12. Perhaps not: I’m just giving one reason not to dismiss the idea.

    As to Brad’s idea that you can’t have as much flexibility as you like, well I would argue that a sharp distinction between the characteristic and the way in which it is applied allows as much casuistry and specificity as you want: in fact the more the better, given the complexity of the world from which we speak.

    So you could say God needs to be empathetic: I’ll say God’s immutably empathetic; you say that actually some situations require you to not be empathetic, and I’ll say God immutably knows which situation in which to be empathetic etc. etc.

    In doing this experiment, we work at the undefined ways of being good and knowing God.

    So it’s do-able.

  13. Well, both your approach and the “dismissing” approach involve rejecting what most people understand by the word “impassibility.” Insisting that people have misunderstood strikes me as a kind of “retcon,” given the prevalence of the supposed misunderstanding.

  14. I have been following the chapter reviews and the discussion threads with great interest and pleasure. I am currently at work on a talk on Peterson, political theology, and biblical monotheism, so I have found this whole discussion to be most useful for my thinking through some of the issues. Let me ask, if I may interrupt somewhat, whether Schneider addresses herself to Peterson’s major claim, that the problem with monotheism arises when divine unity and human unity are thought to be commensurate. Or, put differently, when a homology is established between divine monarchy and human monarchy. The two are incommensurate because the “mon” does not mean the same thing in the two contexts: God’s oneness is the unity-in-trinity of the three persons of the godhead; human oneness is numerical (being counted as one of a class, a single instance of some concept). One could make the same point (as Hermann Cohen does) without invoking Trinitarian theology. What I am wondering is this: does Schneider’s critique of the “logic of the One” address itself to the logic of the Unique One (Hermann Cohen call this “der Einzige”) or does it address itself to the logic of the one (instance of a class). If Schneider addresses the latter logic, if she is saying that God should not be represented as one in this way (as, to put it crudely, the single member of the class of divine beings) because it operates with the category of Sameness (what is, is what can be counted under a covering concept) and denies radical heterogeneity, what I then would ask is this: is this a critique of monotheism as such or a critique rather of Greek philosophic monotheism. That is, is Schneider’s target really the monotheism of biblical revelation (as, for example, it is explicated by Cohen, Rosenzweig, Levinas)? Does her argument really draw biblical revelation as such into complicity with all the bad things associated with what Derrida called “ontotheology”?

  15. There are a lot of questions here, but I’ll just try my hand at a couple key points — she explicitly says that she’s not convinced by the notion that the Trinity overcomes the “logic of the One.” It provides some resources for a thinking of multiplicity, but it historically wound up becoming little more than a “One in triplicate.” As for the question of biblical revelation, I think it’s pretty clear from the chapter on Israel that she sees monotheism coming into a very firm and influential form in the biblical texts — yet at the same time, there are other things going on, other points to be mined. For her, trying to separate out a “good” monotheism (biblical) from a “bad” version (Greek) just isn’t going to work. That’s not what she’s about.

  16. That was helpful. Perhaps I could ask you to clarify the last two sentences. If Schneider does not want to “separate out” a good monotheism from a bad monotheism, as you say, this is entirely compatible with the Derridean approach to monotheism (in “Faith and Knowledge” in Acts of Religion, p. 90, for example) that sees the “good” and the “bad” as inextricably tied together (the autoimmune syndrome). Or is Schneider “not about” separating “good” and “bad” monotheisms in the sense that all monotheism for her is bad? If, as I suspect, the latter is the case, does Schneider retain any place in her thought for a logic of a unique (ethical) revelation of the Not-One-Being?

  17. She says repeatedly that the logic of the One isn’t wrong, just incomplete. When it claims to be the whole story, it obscures our view of the divine. I don’t think she would embrace the notion of a unique revelation in the sense of there being only one authentic revelation — that would contradict her entire project. She’s working within the Christian tradition, as a Christian, in order to find the resources for a broader and more authentic way to encounter the divine.

    I’m happy to try to answer any further questions, but if you have many more, the answer might be simply to read the book.

  18. I will certainly read the book. This thread has piqued my interest.

    Just to clarify my question (and not raise another one) about “unique (ethical) revelation”: I did not mean to refer (only) to a specific historical revelation, but to a category of human experience (or, better, human existence) that serves as the condition of possibility for an ethical relation to one’s fellow. One finds various forms of this notion of revelation in Buber’s I-Thou; Cohen’s Korrelation; Rosenzweig’s Offen-barung; Levinas’s Other-than-Being. Whether this category is considered to be in any way significant for theological thought, and if it is, whether it finds expression in (some parts of) the Hebrew Bible or not has some bearing on whether one wants to break with (or go beyond) monotheism. And let me also add, to be entirely honest, that I worry about certain Marcionite tendencies in postmodern Christian theologies, in which “Jewish” monotheism (and Jewish postmodern thought) is equated with the logic of univocal Being (Milbank), and I am eager to discover a Christian postmodern, post-monotheistic theology that avoids this Marcionite anti-Judaism. I am not at all attributing this to Schneider. As I say, I am eager to read Schneider’s book. No reply to this comment is necessary.

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