The first line of Barber’s introduction (as other commenters have already noted) cautions that the book is “not easily placed.” Indeed, parsing through the bibliography and table of contents of this boldly named book with a flesh-tone cover, I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of it. But, by the third chapter, I’d become somehow convinced that it was directly responding to the guttural concerns about religion that sucked me into the field in the first place. I once found it inspiring to be an uncounted (and unaccountable) nomad in the world of “identitarian” religious belonging. I had an intuition that uncharted space existed—that some religio-spiritual intellectual space existed that was open to play and invention, where people might crib from those dominant traditions when necessary, without feeling the need to be accountable to them by some form of blood pact. Years ago, I convinced myself that theology was a suitable place to do this. But, almost in spite of the speculative absurdity of its own history, theology remains a discipline that’s deeply bound to the stolid structures of academic Christianity. I’ve gotten a bit weary. Perhaps some of the spit and vinegar has seeped out of me. Barber’s project is a little breath of possibility, for the way that it both occupies and yet also deterriotorializes that theological infrastructure. The book may not be easily placed, but there’s something in its intrinsic logic that I find easy to affirm.
What does this fifth chapter do? It begins by drawing our attention explicitly to what will have already become painfully obvious to the sympathetic reader: we’re afflicted. The public structures (Christianity, religion, secularism) that compete for loyalty appear, upon analysis, as forms of dominational affliction. “What would it mean to be cured of this affliction?” (115) It would mean, first, that the cure is not to be found in some outside order—some transcendent plane. The always too immanent poison will (something like a vaccination) have to be the cure. This is because, Barber argues, transcendence works like a kind of fantasy that “functions to conceal the very nature of the affliction.” (116) Transcendence is the opium. In this case, the cure then resides within the problematic discursive tradition itself.
Barber engages, in this chapter, two primary interlocutors who—by his account—appear to create diasporic relations with the Christianity in question. They work to cure it from within. In the work of John Howard Yoder, Barber finds a new form of “history-telling” and, thus, a more diasporic form of temporality. Using the example of the Christian-Jewish schism, Yoder points to the contingency of history (it didn’t have to be this way). The implication is that this reveals the contingent and “differential milieu” (119) from which Christian history and identity emerge. Christianity has always, in other words, been contingent and discontinuous. It is originarily problematic. It is here that Barber sources Catherine Keller’s work on Christian origin stories and the creatio ex nihilo doctrine. Against the orthodox claim that the Christian creating god made the world out of a zero-material state, Keller points to the Genesis image of God’s breath working its way across the tehomic deep space chaos that is already there. Barber stresses that this isn’t an origin story that simply replaces the transcendent creator with a transcendent chaos (130). Instead Barber threads this back into his apocalyptic, suggesting that what Keller calls the “tehomic ethic” (that bears with the ever-present chaos), indicates that “there is no origin nor end, only an immanently apocalyptic depth of reality.” (131) The act that Barber calls “fabulation” (the diasporic mode of [hi]story-telling that counters rigid identitarian forms) constructively experiments with this chaotic, apocalyptic potentiality. Due to the fabulative “origins” of Christianity, religion, and the secular Barber calls for each to abandon heresiology and cultivate a new relation with this chaotic excess. He ends by evoking what sort of secular we might be left with, in such a scenario: a secular that functions not as a plane but as “power of namelessness” (144) that stirs in interparticularities and seeks “commonality.” This would be, as I read it, a secular that does not transcend but—rather—gets into the marrow of the bones of public life. It would work interstitially.
There are many things I could say here, and many things I’d like to. But I will try to keep my comments brief.
First, I wish there had been more reflection on the particular sort of secular that he’s illuminating: the diasporic secular. I feel that the secular turn in his book occurred rather late and I was left wanting some concrete examples of what this “power of namelessness” would look, or sound, like in action. How it would work, in other words. I have intuitions. But those aren’t always accurate.
I was also wondering why Barber didn’t make reference to Keller’s work on apocalyptics. He shifts from her work on the tehomic in Face of the Deep into his own reading of the apocalyptic. I would have been interested to know how Barber’s apocalyptic might have been conversant with Keller’s “counter-apocalyptics” (Apocalypse Now and Then or God and Power) which resonates selectively with the script of apocalypse but reads it differentially.
In a more general sense, I appreciate the way Barber strategically turned Christian discourse back on itself (the old “poison is the cure” thing). I like the way that the immanentized eschaton functions as form of careful attention to interparticularity and, especially, the relations that exist in those interparcticular spaces. I read this as the cultivation of a hope or faith in the deep potential of differential relations—one that’s respectfully teased out from the the cracks between confessional treasures…those ancient icons of thought. I do realize, however, that using the poison as an intellectual cure is not quite the same thing as a vaccination. I’m wondering what would keep a diasporic “cure” from becoming an apologetic.
I do think, personally, that this immanent and diasporic apocalyptic has real potential to refresh the sort of impetus that once resided in the now stale figure of a pluralistic universe (this is, of course, the sort of cosmic pluralism that William James was originally envisioning in his 1909 A Pluralistic Universe). And Barber does suggest that there is some inherent resonance between pluralism and diaspora, that diaspora is a “tendency toward pluralism” (125). But, of course, to the extent that pluralism itself functions as a transcendent subset of the secular, with its own universal regulations that dictate identitarian belonging, diaspora would resist it. I think this is helpful and actually seems more able to nurture the co-existence and co-constitution of pluralities than the classic pluralistic paradigm.
My deepest curiosity about the text, at this point, is whether diaspora is dissonant—to some degree—with theological advances made by William James and A.N. Whitehead. What I’m speaking of, particularly, is the decoupling of the divine and the absolute that James argued was so necessary and Whitehead worked out meticulously through his ontological cosmology in Process and Reality. I’m speaking, especially, of how these thinkers resisted Christendom’s assertion that God is the absolute, the “outermost sphere” (to put it in more Schmittian terms). The philosophical issue of the absolute is not the central theological question (this was James’ issue with the British Hegelians of his day). The intimacy between humans and the divine, James suggested, was not between a tiny creature and a totalitarian forcefield of power. Instead, as Whitehead suggested, God was a creature, too. The only non-temporal creature, but a creature nonetheless—an earthling, or perhaps simply a worlded entity. God becomes an actualized particularity who is also, like other creatures, vulnerable. This affects the kind of metaphysical work that the divine is able (and willing) to do. It affects the relations between creature/creator, human/divine. Implications are myriad. I wont get too caught up in them here. Suffice it to say that James believed that a pluralistic universe would include the gods and was not governed or contained by them—they were part of the mix, part of the mess, and were perhaps (from some angles) another form of “cosmic litter”.
The decoupling between the divine and the absolute hovers (if only suggestively) in the background of Keller’s tehomic ethic. I say this because Keller has been deeply influenced by the Whiteheadian process tradition of thought. This decoupling illuminates the relational distance between the creative breath of God and the Deep that this figure—poised for creation—hovers over. As I understand, it is this relational distance which opens up the space for a love that allows us (as Barber quotes her) to bear with the chaos. God’s distance from the Deep (the divinity’s position within what James would call the pluralistic universe) creates the breathing room for us to cultivate this love connection that feeds the tehomic ethic.
The relation between God and the absolute in Barber’s work is still not crystal clear, to me. My suspicion is that, insofar as one can speak of things divine in Barber’s scheme, God and the absolute are deeply entwined. The name of God appears, in this text, in the Spinozan sense. We have the one immanent substance (could this, here, accurately be called the absolute?) that’s named God or Nature. To be fair, this scheme does not stage the divine name as a transcendent absolute. But the split-identity of substance seems to bear the name of either God or Nature and thus appears to belong to an absolutely immanent substance. And Barber problematizes the creatureliness of the divine as part and parcel of a “rival paradigm” that he names “Philosophical Delimitation” (PD). He criticizes Heidegger, especially, for his charge that god-talk “must be classified together with all other statements regarding beings.” (12) That is, God too is dependent upon a kind of horizon that mortalizes him into a being. God, too, is contingent. Barber doesn’t appear to have problems with the limits that this would place on God. Instead, he contests the disciplinary limits that this places on divine logics (theology) from the vantage point of philosophy. But I’m worried that his determination of the “proper” role of theology might actually foreclose on some theological options—potentially heretical ones, at that (as we might remember that there is an old orthodox allergy to the creatureliness of Christ, better understood as The God-Man.)
Barber certainly affirms, in this book, fabulation and fictiveness. So I would assume that, in a general sense, the old intellectual icons that give names to the divine might play any number of roles in diasporic thought. But I’m curious to know how much this God-or-Nature figure would name the absolute. And would this indeed, as I’ve been musing, foreclose on the possibility that God (or the gods) might be creatures, earthings, or beings, as well? Could divinity ever be effectively actualized into a particular, contingent, entity? Would we be thrown back into an Augustinian logic, where the one divine substance has the “habit” of taking on quasi-mortal form (in Augustine’s case, either as God-Man or the spirit)? Diasporic thought accommodates contingent identities, but would it also be able to deal with the speculative hot mess that we get with contingent divinities, as well?