Beyond Monotheism — 11. Divine Multiplicity …

And so we come to systematic theology. Schneider decided that she has to get down to God-talk, and do some doctrine. So this chapter has a bit of theory, followed by some constructive theology in two parts: firstly on water, and secondly on rock. God is fluid and porous. The notion of linguistic competence is in the background throughout.

The theory is actually fairly familiar stuff for anyone used to reading constructive theology. She lays down the principle of metaphoric exemption at the beginning which is somewhere between apophatic theology and a theory of the indeterminacy of language: ‘everything we think or say, teach or proclaim, believe or catechize, is not God, not the Deep, not multiplicity, not enough.‘ (p153, italics original)

She then starts to work her theology around the two poles of the greatness and the there-ness of God. That God evades our knowledge, but at the same time is known in the most familiar, intimate, and experiential moments of life. God is there. God comes. Schneider calls this a contradiction: presumably one of experience rather than a logical contradiction. Whilst she doesn’t mention the terms, it is difficult to avoid being reminded of the puzzle of a transcendent/immanent God.

Knowledge about God is therefore cast back upon our local, particular forms of language and life. All our knowledge and life is a shared experience, and so knowing God is an attempt at developing fluency in theological talk and practice. Fluency rather than mastery: the ability to try out new formulations, assess their results and listen flexibly. Schneider wants us to be poets of the divine in the sense in which we can both experiment with and destroy our language.

She wants to preserve the open-endedness of God-talk, that makes it ever open to revision. Rather than being soothed into blessed assurance, we should be able to talk without self-assertion. Like adults. Which is why we need an image of God that is not static and reliable but dynamic and supple, open to transformation (and here she refers to the ways in which Theology has overcome challenges posed by the Copernican revolution by adaptation rather than resistance).

Such a theology is porous, it does not insist on its own boundaries. Just as our bodies and lives are not as self-contained as we would like to think (we moult, sweat, change shape and are regenerated), so there can be no hard and fast separation between God and the World. Which is not to say that they break down into each other, but that you can’t necessarily see the join, though you can make the reference. Difference is not static, but dynamic and ever-changing.

The ways in which we are in the world as non-monadic beings is in other ways reflected in God’s being-with the world. We know God through the flesh, and indeed Christian theology must begin with the flesh, because without the fleshiness of the world, there is no God. Which is to say that to think divinity without incarnation is reductive theology, rather than a more fully transcendent theology.

Thoughts for reflection: in contrast to the last chapter, Schneider refers to her task here as a dialect rather than a logic of multiplicity, and this obviously reflects her concern with localised thought. In responding to the challenge of weaving together the skepticism of her metaphoric exemption with the chaos of experiential God-talk, she asks ‘Might divinity be responsive like an idiom, specific and local like a dialect? Might theology thereby articulate localized concepts, language, and practices of faith that assume postures of fluency rather than mastery?’ (p155) She contrasts this with the ‘Constantinian’ temptation to making a universal dialect (and presumably this would apply to all sources of authority too, including scripture). A beautiful advantage of this approach is the different implications a doctrine may have in the various dialects. A good example arises when she locally interprets the doctrine of immutability: ‘The God Who Does Not Change is the fantasy lover who will never age, never look away, never betray.’ (p157) Granted. But surely it is also a remedy to the fantasy of an infinitely pliable lover, who (like Pooh) always wants what I want? In conversation we may develop an even more particular and specified dialect, but one that aspires to be a language: one that can say no to despotic God-fantasies, like a logic.

11 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 11. Divine Multiplicity …

  1. Please don’t hear what I’m about to say as some right-wing Christendom hog:

    Can we get past calling things “Constantinian”? It’s a lame, anachronistic charge.

    Other than that, still looking forward to reading the book.

  2. “She contrasts this with the ‘Constantinian’ temptation to making a universal dialect (and presumably this would apply to all sources of authority too, including scripture).” – Andy above.

    In so far as there was something that actually did happen in the history of Christianity that one can call a Constaninian mutation, one that inaugurated this mono-logic at the level of violent empire, of the message of the incarnated divine, I find it useful to recognize it as a temptation that persists in the living moment of Christianity.

  3. Obviously there is something annoying about the way some people use the term to express their own moral superiority, so I understand why you would dislike it, but I think Schneider’s use of it is of the helpful variety naming a temptation and recognizing a concrete moment in the history of Christianity and not a “charge” that operates at an ideological level to protect and proper herself up as pure.

  4. I enjoyed reading this chapter and very much like Schneider’s approach. What I wonder is, how deeply linked is the vision of the world presented in this chapter with acknowledging the world to be created by God? We have Deleuze as an example of someone who seems to maintain this vision of the world without a notion that it is created by God. We have a thinker like Schelling who offers something like a similar vision, and it depends entirely upon the createdness of the world. We have Rosenzweig who argues for a similar vision, and it too depends upon the createdness of the world. But then Arendt’s natality makes no such claim upon our acknowledgment of createdness. I guess my point is that we can have natality-multiplicity talk with or without creation talk. Has Schneider sufficiently shown why creation is a crucial category for her notion of divine multiplicity? (And let me be perfectly clear: I mean by creation here not a once-upon-a-time past event, but an ongoing event, call it the renewal of the world if you like.)

  5. On the “Constantinianism” issue, I would say that it’s dangerous to become tired of it (because of Theology’s lasting tendency to despotism), and certainly dangerous to be satisfied with it (as if it solves any real problems in contemporary analysis).

    I rather think Schneider is fighting shy a little of the creation issue. She has mentioned what she thinks of creatio ex nihilo, but sets the entire discussion of this chapter in terms of God’s interaction with the world (for lack of a better word). But that interaction doesn’t really take the form of causation, so the idea of creation is very much by the by (in that respect, her project resembles that of Augustine’s Confessions).

  6. I tend to agree with you,Andy, that Schneider seems to be “fighting shy a little of the creation issue.” This leads me to a follow-up: one can read very similar sorts of descriptions in praise of multiplicity in Deleuze-influenced writers, Brian Massumi, David Wills (Dorsality), Cary Wolfe, et al. None of these writers would find it necessary to invoke God. While Schneider may simply be confessing that for her the world’s multiplicity and natality is the revelation of God, this is not, I think, offering a theology. To invoke the term “flesh” and link multiplicity to incarnation goes some way further along the theology line, but isn’t there a danger that the Christian Event is equated with event simpliciter (=non-systematic, unpredictable occurence)? I have a feeeling that a concept of creation by itself would not be of help in recuperating the uniqueness of the Event unless it came along with a concept of redemption and of history as the site of a struggle between the power of creation and the will that opposes it (resists multiplicity in the name of the logic of the One, let’s say).

  7. I suppose if you think the notion of creation is essential to the idea of God, then she has a problem. But I really don’t think this is essential to Schneiderian God-talk.

    I really don’t read her enterprise as being about thinking multiplicity as such, but as getting beyond monotheism. So she doesn’t need to ‘wheel in’ God. That was where she started. The book has much more in common with McFague’s Models of God (and much more going for it than that work!) than it has with the writers you mention.

    But I agree that there is a danger of equating God with the event simpliciter. But I don’t think she’d want to put it even that generally. I think she’d want to embrace a good deal more cross-cultural thinking at the point of constructive theology. She admits that this is just the beginning and it can get a good deal more particular.

  8. Adam, I guess I am still struggling with a problem I sensed at the beginning and now that I have read much of the book still remains with me: the diminished notion of monotheism with which Schneider begins with as her target. If the target is monotheism as it comes to expression in the Hebrew Bible first of all, it seems like several features of this monotheism would need to be considered, namely, its notion that this God reveals himself in a creation whose end-point is the sabbath; that this God reveals himself in redeeming a people from slavery and revealing the sabbath as an institution of freedom; that this God in Deuteronomy makes the Promised Land an always future attainment, never a once and for all achieved possession. So, to abstract from this, let’s say we have a monotheism whose three moments are creation, revelation, and redemption. Now when Schneider is critical of monotheism that can be described with the words “logic of the One”, is she targeting the monotheism that has the temporal structure of creation, revelation, and redemption? Is her critique directed at a dangerous logic of the One somehow inherent in this monotheism, just in virtue of it being the revelation of one God, or is she targeting a logic inherent in reason’s attempt to fix this revelation in its own terms? Why does she not see her project as reclaiming the radicality of biblical monotheism? I grant that reflecting upon the narratives of Jesus puts her in touch with the biblical tradition, but can the NT narratives be read apart from the triple temporal categories of the Hebrew Bible (creation, revelation, redemption)?

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