Beyond Monotheism — 14. A Turn to Ethics: Unity Beyond Monotheism

Schneider articulates straightaway one of the main concerns of the chapter:  “A logic of multiplicity is not opposed to unity (the inclusive sense of One) or oneness (the exclusive sense of One), which means that divine multiplicity does not exclude either unity or oneness except in their absolute or eternal sense” (198).  The fact that multiplicity opposes the One does not mean that it abandons any account of unity (or to use a more DeleuzoGuattarian term, “consistency”)—it is simply that multiplicity refuses to absolutize unity, to make it something that transcends and pre-exists the flux of existence.  Thus oneness and unity “are proximal and partial aspects of the divine,” but never “the ‘whole’ story of reality” (198).  They are, one might say, the effect rather than the cause of reality.

To think in terms of unity or oneness is helpful and necessary, for when we fail to do so the world becomes senseless and overwhelming.  Furthermore, a failure to think in terms of unity and oneness renders us incapable of appreciating individuals—each individual, while specific and contextual, is nonetheless “a kind of One-itself” (198).  Schneider recognizes a certain tension here, given that she has constantly polemicized against the logic of the One, often in the name of the particular, inexchangeable individual, and that she now advocates the logic of the One as a condition of possibility for an inexchangeable individual.  She thus makes clear that the object of critique is not a contingent form of unity, but rather the tendency to move from unity-within-fluidity to originary unity, a move that is occasioned when “the logic of the One mistakes the nominal, sanity-producing value of oneness and unity for ontology, for reality” (199). 

She continues on in this direction, showing from a number of angles how oneness and unity can be helpful—for instance, the importance of “functional unities” (200) in peacebuilding efforts, the way that humans filter out certain smells, and the moment of recognition between Mary Magdalene and the post-resurrection Jesus in the garden outside the tomb.  In short, a practical, as opposed to a metaphysically reified, account of unity and oneness is necessary, and in many ways helpful, and thus should not be precluded from an account of divine multiplicity.

The chapter, having accounted for the relevance of practical unities (at least when set against/within a background fluidity), then shifts rather noticeably to a call for an ethics that is “capable of navigating a shifting surface without collapse, capable of responding to the velocity and gush of the embodied, real world” (202).  Anticipating, perhaps, that some might discern an ineluctably antinomical structure within a call for promiscuity from within Abrahamic traditions—how can a God that stands against idols (recall Barth, in the last chapter, as an extreme version of this) achieve consistency with an ethics of plurivocal encounters?—Schneider contends that divine jealousy comes from humans rather than from the divine.  After all, she notes, the command, “You shall have no other gods before me,” implies monolatry rather than monotheism.  There are other Gods in play. 

So she imagines it the other way around, in an intriguingly perverse Feuerbachianism: “What if the commandment, from within monotheism reflects not the jealousy of the Divine, but the jealousy of the people, a jealousy that naturally follows in the wake of the logic of the One?” (203)  Here we should recall the very early chapters, where Schneider argued that the emergence of the logic of the One arises in light of traumatic experience and the need for security and/or certainty.  Here we can see one of the payoffs of such a tale of origins.  The same anxiety that engenders the logic of the One also makes us jealous of God.  After all, God does not cease being multiple just because humans imagine God as One, so it makes sense to understand “divine jealousy” as in fact humans’ jealousy of God for being multiple.  As Schneider says, “the people wish to control God’s promiscuous pursuit of lovers—of the world itself—and to somehow contain the very heart of God” (203).

The ethics Schneider suggests is one whereby people learn to imitate God’s promiscuous pursuit of lovers.  Love means “being present” (204) to/in the multiplicity that is the world.  She makes clear, following Bonhoeffer and Levinas, that such love “is grown-up, and it is not cheap” (205).  It is a kind of differential repetition of incarnation, for what love demands is a being present to the world in its excesses, making divinity inseparable from the contours of the world.   I will leave the final word (at least the final word prior to my “relections/questions”!) to Schneider, whose expression is quite elegant:

“As the conceptual shape of divinity, multiplicity is therefore the embodiment of love.  And love is what divinity is because love cannot be One, as Augustine realized.  Love, necessitating the existence of others, of difference, gravity, and encounter, is the divine reality of heterogeneity even among those usually classed as ‘same.’  And love is the only commandment that is possible in a logic of multiplicity, because at its simplest level, ethical ‘love’ is the actualized recognition of the presence of others, acceptance of the dangerous gift of the world itself” (205).

Reflections/Questions:  I love the love.  That said, how does the discourse of intrinsically excessive love intertwine with the apparent impossibility of such love?  (Schneider mentions Derrida, but does not engage the relevant paradox that Derrida saw in the impossible possibility of hospitality.)  And how does an ethics of being present cohere with the constant making-absent that is necessitated by a logic of difference?

Also, while I appreciate Schneider’s desire to provide an alternative account of oneness, I think it remains inchoate as it stands (which may of course be fine given the already wide-ranging—and successfully effected—aims of the book).  Is oneness a pragmatic necessity that evades the reality of difference?  Or is it somehow one aspect of reality?  Is the goal to license a Kantian account of the phenomenal and noumenal, or a Deleuzian account of the actual and virtual, or (less likely) a Thomist account of the analogy of identity and difference, or something else?

25 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 14. A Turn to Ethics: Unity Beyond Monotheism

  1. This chapter is for me, both as a Jew and as a scholar of Jewish philosophy, the most troubling. I too “love the love”, but I am disturbed by Schneider’s tendency to describe Judaism, Islam, and Christian as at their heart monotheistic traditions that cannot contain the love that “leaks” out of the monotheistic renderings of Judaism etc. (204). Or “monotheism fails at the heart of these traditons” (204). First of all, this looks like equal assault on Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But early in the chapter Schneider says “the story of the One is a kind of hedge that the Greeks, the Jews, Egyptians, the Hellenized Christians, and the Muslims constructed against all that is changing, unknowable, new” (199). This statement is most distressing. It makes it pretty clear that for Schneider the Hebrew Bible as the sacred constitution of one people (Israel, the Jews) is at its heart a “story” about a monotheism that tries to hold in its grip the power of divine love, that tries to stop the leak. The Christians who are not Hellenized (who reject ethnic peoplehood and nation) are the closest to embracing what is leaking out of the monotheistic traditions. So, how can a Jew embrace this? Can a Jew remain faithful to her tradition and stand together with Schneider on the side of incarnational love? I for one would like be such a Jew, but Schneider has made my continuing commitment to the biblical covenant of my monotheistic tradition into an at best a provisional grasp at a security blanket. Schneider should know better than to fall victim to the very exclusivism she excoriates. She has read Levinas, so how can she talk so blithely about how the Jew and the Greek stand together behind a “hedge” constructed against all that is “changing, unknowable, new” This kind of lumping together (of Jew and Greek, let me leave aside the Muslim) is such an egregious misreading of “the Jew”, the Jew’s monotheistic tradition and how it has been understood by people like Levinas (who would never utter anything like what Schneider says about the failure at the heart of monotheism) that it leaves me utterly bewildered. If her animus is against fundamentalists, great and wonderful. But I guess that would have been too easy a target for her, so she has to go after the “heart of monotheism.” That it looks like she does not even spare Christians is not to the point: she has left no place for the Jew or the Muslim to stand who does not want to join Schneider on the post-ethnic, post-covenantal, open-ended fluidity of an incarnational love whose only biblical story is that of Jesus. The Jew has very often been offered a chance to stand with the Christian if only we would transcend our bad particularity (read Hegel on the Jews in the Spirit of Christianity). So, in this chapter, we find an example, in my opinion, of the same logic only now spoken on behalf of multiplicity, call it the logic of “Judenrein multiplicity.”

    This is not meant as a criticism of so much that I admire and applaud in this book, but as a criticism of a flaw that matters to me in my particularity. That many great theologians (Augustine, Luther, Barth to name a few) fell short on this point (what to say about “the Jew”) does not mean that they “fail at the heart” of their thinking or that what is good about them only “leaks” out from their texts. At the heart of her book Schneider succeeds. I don’t particulary like what leaks out in this chapter.

  2. Good and interesting comment. I think you have struck on a vital issue here, which seems to be a tension in the book (I haven’t read it mind, so bear with me) between on one hand her desire for plurality and the possibility of the divine in ‘other religions’, but simultaneously, as you say, drawing all resources from Christianity, with the incarnation, leaving a problematic history of religions here as one of improvement.

    So, errr, I’ve basically repeated your point.

  3. Kind of reminds me when I explain Hegel’s history of religions to students and someone always says ‘surely hinduism is actually very complex and not at all ‘primitive”

  4. Bruce,

    In your opinion, on what grounds could one critique Judaism and the majoritarian trend of monotheism therein and not fall into this logic? Is a critique of monotheism possible without thereby falling into some kind of Hegelian logic (w/r/t religion)?


    How would you propose to affirm plurality and the possibility of the divine in other religions while still being rooted in a concrete community?

  5. Which on second thought i’ll just copy:

    I should mention something that I didn’t in the post … As this chapter is about “nationality”, and as Schneider opens with that intriguing piece about her own ethnicity, I wonder whether the question of race, ethnicity, etc, deserves a more prominent place in criticism of monotheism.

    After all, if one of the basic problems of the One is its erasure of differences, then surely it would of interest, as a mode of resistance, to think about ways that “particularized” Christianities might make use of that particularity in order to delink from the Christian One. Perhaps this is not promising with certain ethnicities, I don’t know, but there are undoubtedly many Carribean Christianities that could be exemplary here. Or, think of the way that Southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants to the US were required to “become” Catholic, which is essentially to give up their difference (no more pagan festivals, no more idolatrous and extra-priestly household gods/saints, etc).

    Also, this would allow us to get at the difference of Jewish monotheism from Christian monotheism. The way, for instance, that the former is not separated from a defense of embodied difference.

  6. I don’t think I’m proposing anything, just commentating. I’m not sure, but inter-religious dialogue does exist and communities can live side by side and most religious people have some inkling that other religions may point to what they are getting at in some way or another, even if this may well be perceived in a negative sense (this religion reflects the truths of my own in a diminished form). Perhaps a more philosophical answer would be that we can have a plurality of concrete communities, of hugely variegated sorts (as actually exist) rather than mapping plurality as a need for the Divine onto a equally plural community.

  7. Anthony:

    The key problem in any critique of biblical monotheism (and not Xenophantic or Parmenidean monotheism) is to think transcendence (unique Oneness) and immanence (corporeal particularity) together. I entirely agree with Schneider on this. Judaism holds the tension together by representing the covenant in the flesh to be a cut that in the reproductive body of a people witnesses to an invisible god who refuses an identification with the phallic potency of human kingship and power (pharaonic self-pretension). The cut in the flesh witnesses against what Wilhelm Reich called phallic narcissism. Israelite kingship problematizes this, but the prophets (and the book of Deuteronomy) offer an internal critique of the king as the embodied flesh of God (and think of David dancing before the ark where his exposed nakedness is humbled before God’s invisibility). So, when Christianity sees the king as the crucified flesh of Jesus, this is another way to witness to the covenant of the cut in the body. Why should one witness speak against the other? If we both have problems with parts of our traditions that arrogate power to our proud flesh (Constantinianism, the settler movement), why would we lay the blame on the monotheistic revelations in whose covenants we walk? Is it not the arrogance of our flesh that betrays what our covenants witness to? The flesh cannot witness to itself, and there cannot be revelation in the flesh if the flesh is not cut by/from the divine.

  8. Alex,

    I don’t think what you’re saying here is contrary to Schneider’s book and neither does it get past the problem you’re pointing out.


    First, I too have appreciated your comments throughout. In the midst of general agreement it was interesting and challenging to have a critical voice from outside the usual suspects.

    I’m not so sure I agree with you on this flesh thing though. It is interesting in some regards that where Schneider locates the problem in a logic of the One you locate it in our flesh and its lack of witness to itself. I tend to think that flesh does give witness to itself and it is the divine, especially in the name of God, that cannot give witness to itself. I am thinking of Derrida’s On Touching and Michel Henry’s notion of flesh in his, admittedly Christian, I am the Truth.

  9. Self-witnessing: isn’t this only the narcissism of the logic of the One? I admit that a self-witnessing God is a God without/before the world (Rosenzweig calls this, drawing from Schelling, the nothingness of God), but a self-witnessing flesh is, at its moral best, the solitary Self of Greek tragedy, and, at its moral worst, the violent Self of self-divinizing kingship (and Oedipus flips back and forth between both). Monotheistic revelation releases both God and the human from narcissism. Whether God remains faithful to her covenant(s) or has, as the bible puts it, “hidden the face”, is not our problem as humans, which is to remain faithful witnesses. Perhaps God needs our flesh more than we need God (a good kabbalistic doctrine, actually, that Schelling for example is profoundly sensitive to), but that does not undermine the mutuality of the need. And this “holding together”, if it suggests a “higher immanence,” is perhaps better seen as a suggesting a higher *imminence*, that is, the imminence of redemption in every moment.

    I have tried to respect the tenor and seriousness of the interlocutors whom I found on this blog. I am glad that my interventions have not seemed to be ill-tempered interruptions.

  10. Bruce, as a student of Schelling (btw, I was also delighted that you’d read Melville’s The Confidence-Man), I really appreciate your reflections drawing from that well. Perhaps your previous comments, which I’ve read but all-too-quickly, will answer this already: in you reading, to what are the faithful (and, based on your comment about “the mutuality of need,” God) redeemed?

    I’m with you on your take on monotheism insofar as the witness humans bear is ultimately, drawing from Schelling still, cognizant of the “veil of melancholy” spread over its (and its God’s) existence. That is, that what punctures human narcissism is the recognition that their God is “embodied ((another nod to Schelling, and not to the Christian incarnation), and thus both less & more than what they bear witness to. This provokes melancholy in the most proper Greek sense: as the mood, borne from a feeling of things being askew, that gives rise to creativity. This radically changes the rules of self-witness, in such a way that only repression allows it to be the prerogative of the One.

  11. Yes, it was definitely helpful to get someone from outside the “usual suspects” — I tried my best to recruit people but was not successful, so it was great that it happened spontaneously.

    I know a lot of people really have their heart set on Goodchild’s Theology of Money for the next event, but I wonder if it might not be better to do Carter’s Race: A Theological Account. I’ve only read the first few chapters, but it seems to get at a lot of the concerns Bruce and Dan have raised in the last couple discussions.

  12. I just read the Prelude chapter on google books and I see what Adam means about Carter’s touching on themes broached in recent exchanges about flesh and covenant. I am eager to read more of the book, whether it is the subject of the discussion or not.

  13. Vote for Theology of Money followed by the Race book. In quick succession, with Theology of Money coming soon, perhaps in a few weeks, at the beginning of October. I can perhaps then coincide the book event with the forthcoming activism around these parts, and a discussion with said activists about its content – with its combination of economics (broadly conceived), environmentalism and peak oil I think this would be appropriate.

    I think it would be cool if book events kind of provided the backbone of this blog, as they make sure everyone is up to speed on interesting stuff as well as providing a useful resource for others.

  14. I started reading through Capitalism and Religion recently (technically for the second time) and have been having a blast (what a great Preface). I think if pressed, I’d vote for Theology of Money, but I’d like to see Race treated at some point as well.

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