On Diaspora Book Event: Concluding Thoughts On the Avoidance of Religion

I want, first of all, to thank all of those who have taken the time and effort to post on this book. Dan Whistler, Ry, Adam, Bruce, and Beatrice have all written really fascinating, intelligent responses, all of which I’m continuing to think about and learn from. This was very generous of them. And the comments, as well, have been provocative and helpful. I’m appreciative, very much so, that my book has received such attention.

In the “Broader Questions” post, one of the issues that came up was the relation of this book to theology, and I suppose I can begin by talking about why I want to resist any “theologization” of my argument. The book, as I see it, is not primarily theological. Let’s say instead that the book is about religion.

Religion seems to function, today, as a strange coefficient that can be multiplied through other discourses without ever being thought of as in-itself. Or, when it is thought of in-itself, rarely addressed is its implication in, or even constitution of and by, these discourses. My book, as I see it, is trying to deal with this problematic. Why is this the case? And what would happen if we did address religion in such a way? We do need to deal with this problematic, but one the problematic is shown, what then? Should we keep religion? And if we don’t keep it, do we have to get rid of everything else with which it is co-implicated?

So, for instance, we have philosophy as it intersects with religion in Chapter 1. Or at least as it intersects with the question of God. What I’ve tried to do there, I hope is clear, is nothing like “philosophy of religion,” rather I’ve sought to get beneath these discourses and to trouble the very notion that one could separate these discourses (philosophy and religion, or philosophy and speech of/about God) in the first place. The pretense of separation between philosophy and theology (speech of/about God) is a way of avoiding the question of religion.

This emphasis on the “avoidance” of the question of religion might be a useful one to think about, in the wake of the book event, which has tended to focus on philosophical or theological issues. By avoidance, let me say, I don’t mean only that religion is denied mention. This is one kind of avoidance, but another kind of avoidance, we know, comes from talking about religion a lot, or maybe, purloined-letter style, treating religion as matter of fact, an ordinary given.

Following this thread of the avoidance of religion: we see it not only in philosophy of religion, but also in theology, which wants to separate itself from “religion” … as if theology were just an already legitimated discourse, self-confirming, and religion showed up from without. Whereas what I’m trying to say is that religion is internal to theology, in fact religion is the product of theology (or at least the two are co-constitutive). And of course the question of the avoidance of religion is at issue in my genealogy of religion and secularism. The thesis there, it could be said, is that religion functions to produce transcendence (i.e., the denial of immanent encounters and compositions with others, i.e., the denial of diaspora) in collusion with Christianity, and that later religion functions to produce the transcendence of secularism. So in this sense, the book is about the heterogeneous yet resonant avoidance of religion across the apparently distinct domains of philosophy, religious studies, theology, and anthropology (or social sciences more generally).

I think the politics of this avoidance, or the politics of working to unveil this avoidance and think otherwise, are important to me in a way that has not always come through in this event. By this, I mean that the book was motivated by a sense that what was going on in social science and decolonial discourse about secularism was deeply connected to what happens in philosophy of religion, which cannot be separated from theology, which cannot be separated from the history of Christianity, which produced theological discourse, which in doing so produced the concept of religion, which was the historical and conceptual condition of possibility—to bring it back home—for the secularism that was being called into critique in social science and decolonial discourse.

This is the set of issues, and the order of approach, that led me to this book, and particularly to the concept of diaspora, which is motivated by all of the just-mentioned discourses yet reducible to none of them. Diaspora can thus be seen as an attempt to leave behind these discourses, but in a critical way—a way that both challenges and antagonizes their assumptions, but that also repeats them, in the hope that such mimesis, twisted the right way, put into different relations, might give us a chance for better politics, or for a better sort of existence in this world, an existence that might give us a better way of (politically) constructing it.

Some issues that follow from this concern, which I think it’s worth taking the time to emphasize …

(1) It is important to me, especially through my account of Paul and through my genealogy in Chapter 4, to show the dead end of universalism. We’ve talked some about this, but I want to stress that my concern, here especially, is close to deconstructive. In other words, I want to stress that the name of universalism is what holds together a number of unappealing (and inconsistent) moves: the supersession of “Judaism” by Christianity, the contemporary notion of Judaeo-Christianity, the idea that religion (including Christianity) is bad because it divides, the idea that everyone needs to become Christian (because Christianity provides universality), the idea that everyone needs to become secular (because secularism provides universality), the idea that all religions are equally bad because they are religious, the idea that Christianity (unlike other religions) prepares you to leave behind religion, the return to Paul in the name of secularism and/or Christianity, and so on.

What I’m trying to get at is that the claim, “yes, I get all these problems, but a true universalism wouldn’t be like that,” refuses to take the affliction seriously, it attempts to transcend the actual limitations of the problem, and in doing so it repeats the source of the problem. What I want to stress is that this error (for lack of a better term) is present not just in Christianity (let’s get it right this time!) but also in philosophy. There is a critique of philosophy that I am developing here, which would be that it shares the desire to transcend, even if what it is telling us is that there is no transcendence. For philosophy tends to orient us towards universality and to see the flaws in such universality as contingent rather than intrinsic to its own behavior. (Hence the similarity with Christianity.) And it’s worth noting here the appeal of Laruelle, namely that he, at least in one key moment of his writing, insists that philosophy’s flaw is not contingent but necessitated by its own practice. I would say that such a situation holds for thought about the universal.

In the comments Ahab pressed about my relation to Marx, and this is something to be thought about, as is Bruce’s concern (along a converging line, I think) for a kind of fabulative humanity. This is something for which I need to take responsibility (more below on that). Alain, as well, has pushed me on the practical political implications of this (as have some on the ecclesial implications), and Beatrice brilliantly pushed me on the question of the divine creature, which would be a god that is neither transcendent nor universal (indeed would be much less universal than Spinoza’s God, or Nature). All of these are ways of developing diaspora so that not just conceptually but also performatively, and in virtue of its content, it opposes universalism. But I would say that in all of these what we get are figures, experiments, even fakes, that enable connections—but never the idea of universalism, and never the idea that something “like” universalism would be needed.

(2) This is to say that thought must become more and more a conduit, a transversal, rather that something done from the position of the philosopher, or the theologian, or the social scientist. This may sound like I’m advocating that strange thing called “theory”—but only recently has theory turned toward the last of these three, and in general it tends not to take seriously the first, and almost never the second. So the book, in its performance, is meant to be a provocation to all of these positions.

(3) Also, one thing I am claiming is that secularism and Christianity are more or less in tandem with one another. (Which is also to say that critiques of the secular must delve back into Christian origins, Paul, questions of supersessionism, etc., which they almost never do.) I have not heard much in response to this. Is such a claim really that uncontroversial? Note that this would mean not just that somehow secularism belongs to Christianity, but also that Christianity belongs to secularism. This would mean that opposition to one would include opposition to the other, as well as to the secular interpellation of most of the globe (except itself of course!) as belonging to religion. Meaning that the possibilities of life cannot be articulated in terms of Christianity, secularism, or religion. I argue that they can and should be articulated in terms of diaspora. This, in a broader sense, is the thesis of the book. Is such a thesis correct?

(4) I think my critique of theology, and of Christianity more generally, is more serious than it has come across / been received. I really am not trying to improve theology, or to offer a new theology. Rather I am trying to show how theology is impossible, or how it requires a massive repression or willed misrecognition of material. Thus to take this material seriously would be to call into question the very enterprise of theology.

To be a bit polemical, I’m suggesting that we’re now seeing theological moves that try to take into account the instability and questionability of theology, but in such a way as to conserve theology, like a bad version of Hegel. One example of this is the “new apocalyptic” position, which deals with theology’s questionability on a conceptual-abstract level, but another example, which has been undiscussed, is Carter’s theology, which deals with theology’s questionability on more concrete levels, such as with regard to race. My suggestion, which I think my argument supports quite well, is that Carter needs to provide an account either of what his basis for a better/redeemed theology would be, or of how what he is doing requires a complete repudiation of theology.

(5) What bothers me in these cases, and in theology more generally—and of course secularism more generally, as I cannot stress too much that my critique of Christianity does not proceed in the name of a secular alternative—is the refusal of responsibility. This issue, as well as some of the concerns I mentioned under (1), above, are being developed in my current research and writing, which revolve around the theme of “conversion.”

Responsibility is a tricky term, but let’s say that what I have in mind here is not the importance of conforming to some set of expectations and norms. That’s not what I mean by responsibility. What I mean, more precisely, is understanding and affirming one’s desire, behavior, thought patterns, etc., with all of the implications they have. And this includes, I would say, grasping that one’s own desire, behavior, thought patterns, etc., while ultimately one’s own, are inseparable from encounters with others and theirs.

What I am concerned with, then, is the way such responsibility has been massively avoided by Christianity and secularism. (Perhaps my main point of interest in Gnosticism is that it gets that an illusion can become total, and this sort of avoidance of responsibility needs to be thought of in terms of a total illusion.) This massive avoidance of responsibility, by Christianity and secularism, cannot be separated from the “avoidance of religion.” What I am trying to do in this book—or really just beginning to do in this book—is take responsibility for this avoidance (or these avoidances). That, I believe, is what this book is about implicitly and all the time, even as it is explicitly concerned with different discourses at different times.

10 thoughts on “On Diaspora Book Event: Concluding Thoughts On the Avoidance of Religion

  1. The idea that someone would read Dan’s book as an attempt to “improve” theology or get back to the “truer” theology is a sad testament to the blinders theological discourse can produce. It reminds me of the time I told a Nazarene youth minister that he was serving an institution that hurt people and would continue to hurt those people’s children, and he really felt that we fundamentally agreed at the end of the day.

  2. Adam’s comment above points to one reason why I think it will be interesting to see how Dan works out his understanding of diaspora with reference to concrete, material realities (be they real diasporic communities, refugees, congregations, etc.). I recognize that Dan’s account of diaspora represents a real challenge to the theoretical/theological models I’ve used to think about exile and diaspora (models tied to transcendence), and so also recognize that Dan’s approach can’t be domesticated for theological purposes.

    That said, I’m intrigued by this observation of Dan’s in the comments: “In more concrete situations, however, I have less of a problem with rhetoric tied to transcendence. So, for instance, while language of exile might be more transcendent-implying than I like, I’m very happy to use it or to enter into common affirmations with those who do. Whereas more conceptually-oriented work that insists on, or that explicitly cannot avoid, transcendence, is something I feel it is important to oppose.”

    Could such “more concrete situations” include the practices of congregations (in worship, mission, social activism, etc.) that are linked to a “rhetoric tied to transcendence”? Dan’s rejection of universalism would presumably mean that he’s against some type of emancipatory rhetoric like, “You ignorant Christians, Muslims, etc. need to be liberated from your discourses and practices that make appeals to some radically transcendent ‘being'”–even as Dan would oppose a more conceptual, less practice-based appeal to transcendence. Yet Adam’s comment seems to imply (and I may well be completely misguided and guilty of reading this into Adam’s comment) that what is needed is liberation from ecclesial communities (for whatever reason, but with reference to the topic at hand, because they are inextricably bound to a rhetoric of transcendence). I don’t think that Dan is preaching a gospel of diaspora which calls people to abandon communities whose practices are historically bound up with appeals to transcendence, because that would simply be another instance of the universalism he questions. But then that begs the question: how hard-and-fast a distinction can Dan make between “rhetoric tied to trascendence” used in particular, concrete communiities, on the one hand, and “more conceptually-oriented work that insists on, or that explicitly cannot avoid, transcendence”? Dan notes that it’s important to oppose the latter–should that opposition also commit him to opposing the former?

  3. My point was more about the total inability to really “hear” critiques, rather than the need to leave any particular community. I tend to think that the Church of the Nazarene is a community for which there is very little hope, though individual congregations are certainly exceptions — precisely because of this ability to hastily assimilate every possible critique. “No, don’t you see, we love homosexuals so much we can’t stand to see them engage in this destructive lifestyle!” Etc., etc.

    I’d propose that the question is whether “rhetoric of transcendence” is a means rather than an end — and in nearly every form of white Christianity I’m familiar with, it’s definitely an end.

  4. I regret that I did not have time to participate in this book event, but just wanted to say that I think On Diaspora is a great book, precisely because it doesn’t have this concrete applied aspect. To apply it would presume that we already know what diaspora means, as well as Christianity, religion and secularity. But what Dan does is construct the concepts themselves in a thoughtful, creative and unique way. As I read it, diaspora becomes the void or empty signifier that allows us to interrogate what we mean by Christianity, religion and secularity, including their mutual interrelation. The difference between what Dan is doing here and post-liberal or Hauerwasian theology is that Dan is not trying to save or preserve some distinctive identity of and for Christian theology over against something that is not Christian theology. This is why it’s such a refreshing book–it redraws the coordinates for thinking about all of these concepts, and it makes important constructive arguments, for example the notion of reverse causality of immanent surplus on p.22 with reference to Surin, that are strikingly original. Not that there aren’t precursors, but Dan takes the time to assemble the ideas themselves carefully and powerfully. Its originality belies its brevity.

  5. My point was not that On Diaspora isn’t a great book because it doesn’t deal with concrete cases, or that it should have been written to address them. Rather, my assumption is simply that Dan cares about the practical political implications of diaspora, and that it would be interesting to see Dan in future writings tease out those implications through engagements with particular cases. These don’t have to be ecclesiological cases: as I noted in my first comment on the chapter 5 summary, I think it could be richly productive to see what implications Dan’s account of diaspora would have for real diasporic communities who understand themselves to be in “exile” and who organize themselves politically to press for “return” (the Palestinian diaspora comes is what I’m primarily concerned with in my work, but similar questions could be raised for other diasporic/exilic/refugee communities)..
    To put the issue a little more polemically than I originally did: Edward Said stressed that “exile is neither aesthetically nor humanistically comprehensible,” and so cautioned against a philosophical aestheticizing of exile; does Dan’s account of diaspora escape the Saidian critque of aesthecized banalizations of exile/diaspora, and if so, how? I’m optimistic that it can–and Dan’s brief reflections (pp. 130-132) about the “space” of diaspora point in that direction. I’m not critiquing Dan so much as eagerly, and perhaps greedily, wanting more from him. None of that is to detract from the fact that Dan has produced an amazingly compact and challenging argument, one that I take to be a significant challenge to those of us who would style ourselves in one way or another as “theologians.”

  6. It’s true, the “hard-and-fast distinction” is hard to articulate. One of the things that strikes me, as I think about what I’m saying, is that i’m calling at once for an affirmation of theoretical innovation (in the direction of immanence) and for an ability to work with concrete situations. Whereas I realize i have no problem with going right after theories of transcendence. I suppose this has a lot to do with the way the last tends to depoliticize. And i think it would loop back to some of my other concerns to observe the sort of formation that would be able to depoliticize in this way, i.e that would be able to use transcendence as a way of ignoring or of solving in advance the political problematics of concrete situations. (A transcendent use of transcendence, perhaps?, which avoids responsibility — I think this is the case with RO, Barth / new apocalyptics, and even, as i mentioned, Carter.) I say this would loop back to my other concerns because it is precisely the history of Christianity that has tended to see / use transcendence in this way, i.e. to set up borders, to produce a normative center, and above all to define itself in terms of its “true beliefs” rather than through its encounters. Which, again to note some of the other points i’ve tried to make above, is a pattern one sees repeated in secularism. (Would be interested to hear what others think about this direction of thought, i.e. (1), (3), (5) above. — of course people may be getting very tired of this book!)

    Clayton, thanks so much for your comment. It was certainly my aim to use diaspora in this way, as a transversal cutting across and through the other three terms, in order to think differently about their meanings and maybe more importantly their interrelations. So I’m quite happy that that came through.

  7. I tried to do a few google searches to try and find the direct comment but in Carter’s book event doesn’t he locate the ‘basis’ for this theology in the testimony of his grandmother. If this is so (or even if not) does it not begin to pose some of the limits of how this thinking is able to criticize particular positions (not discourses). I don’t think what Dan is doing is able to ‘get behind’ particular formations of experience and trust but only once they emerge and are articulated within and among particular discourses. So I while I desire for theology as it is developed in particular discourses to be responsible to other relevant and related discourses I am not sure it is fair to say that theology . . . requires a massive repression or willed misrecognition of material. From my (very limited) knowledge of Carter and from my own engagement there is a difference between living and working out of what one ultimately trusts (which might posit some necessary ‘theology’ [perhaps different but not unrelated to academic theology]) but then also being open to the necessary responsibility of given expressions (which seemed to be the case with Carter in his willing participation here). This openness does require that one consider the possible impossibility of theology but that may or may not shift the posts of what one trusts within the world. Does that make any sense?
    Basically I am also sort of alluding to Alain’s ‘eagerness’. For many (some? . . . both?) of us these ideas are very much already on the ground and as such many more variables are also in play that are not accounted for here. This does not diminish Dan’s work as Dan himself delimits the aim of his work. It is only to say that its ultimately validity has to find itself within the gears and powers of larger experiences of reality that some of us work more or less directly within.

  8. David, yes, i follow you on the distinction between academic theology and what you see as emerging out of “living and working,” etc. Of course as Alain pointed out this difficult to distinguish in a hard and fast way. My aim is at the academic theology, at least in a direct sense. That’s what i have in my with my polemic.

    Also, i should clarify w/r/t Carter. The need for a “basis” is overstated. My point is that I am curious in what sense Carter sees himself as doing theology, precisely because he sees rather well its implication in colonialism and racism. It is due to my own sense of this implication that i want to evade advocating a properly theological position. Hence diaspora, which deals with theological material, but from a differing position. So i’m wondering in what sense Carter would want to do something like this, or if not why not? (i tried to get at that in my footnote on him, on i think p107)

  9. Coming in just at the tail end of what has been a splendid book event, I will simply alight with a few casual thoughts:

    1. The reason why some may find it hard to place Dan’s work on the disciplinary terrain is precisely that he is critiquing the very lines with which that terrain is drawn: the striated space that demarcates theology and philosophy along the fault lines of Christian and Secularist supersessions (not to speak of institutional exclusivities within the academy). To be sure, one could quibble that his characterization of such eclipses is a bit schematic and over-conclusive, and does not adequately account for the religious turn in Continental Philosophy since the late Foucault, as well as the coming of age of Islamic studies in the Western academy and progressive Islamic activism after 9/11 and their wide impact in our society and its (post)secular discourses. Nevertheless, Dan’s work should be appreciated as a tense DIAGONAL motion pulsating with existential (though not existentialist) urgency. As such it is also not eager to establishing a new normativity of thought, but rather invites like-minded rebels and malcontents to join him as partigiani in a struggle to unseat insalubrious overlords and their tyrannical control of (at least conceptual) space. In this sense what we’ve witnessed here is not simply a book event, but a book that IS (beginning to be) an event – a performance of a desire that might be shared and intensified.

    2. To me Dan’s treatment of modes of transcendence, whether in theology, philosophy of religion, secularist triumphalism, etc., is reminiscent of the immanent tense of transcendence in Derridean alterity. It is a denial of what I’d call the omniporosity of affect, a regime of endless mutual and plurivectoral affectings (affectus as pl.) that affords no permanent privileging of anything or anyone (either as autonomous or impassible.) The “avoidance of religion” that Dan confronts, then, can be conceived either as an idol of thought or false consciousness. The problem is not the transcendence of God, but of transcendence as such. The cure? I propose the positing of transcendence as a negative transcendental: NOTHING is immune to affectus.

    3. Dan’s view that “religion” is a product of Christianity (along with attendant implications) may seem phylocentric but in fact is an attempt to cleanse Christianity and its secularization of their own phylocentrism. If Dan is less than clear on when religio(n) came to be religion in the conventional sense today, let me suggest that it occurred in the Age of Science and Enlightenment. More precisely it began with the Deism of Edward Herbert of Cherbury (brother to the poet George Herbert) and came into maturity with Voltaire and Kant. Of course, the long history of Christianity as a singularly dogmatic tradition and communal form began with the early Church, but in premodern discussions of “religio,” the term was always grounded in the substrate of cultic practice. This obtained through the Reformation and the resultant compromise of “cuius regio, cuius religio” coming out of the religious wars (affirmed in the century between the Peace of Augsburg and that of Westphalia). But with Cherbury (early 17th c.) cult fell away in favor of creed in the discourse of religion, and thus was born the philosophy of religion, which, while turning away from the exclusivity of Christianity (as in certain skeptic tendencies of the 16th c.), was still conflating it (by extracting its essence) with religion in general. Whether hostile or critical of Christianity, the savants and philosophers of the Enlightenment fell thrall to this bind. Kant was certainly no exception.

    With Hegel the spell was partially broken, but only at the expense of the dubious creation of “world religions” as an ideological byproduct of colonialist expansion and encounters. With the advent of sociology and anthropology a century later Christianity (and its obsession with theology and doctrine) may have been somewhat decentered, but the concept of religion (and its successive secularity) it had spawned remained deeply imprinted. (Non-Western languages, for example, had to invent words for religion to translate the Latinate term.) The current attempt to give airing and redress to “indigenous religion(s)” may be a legitimate postcolonial response to the monopoly of world religions, but it does nothing to unseat the notion of religion as a Christian legacy. In a way it’s a bit like the expansion of marriage rights to gays and lesbians. It is only the proliferation of the same idea, not its overturn.

    In this light, maybe what Dan’s work teaches us is that we must begin by refusing the “theory of religion.” My question is, does he also repudiate the post-Geertzian reflex (including M.C. Taylor and Goodchild) to regard religion in terms of cybernetics or systems analysis? It intrigues me that he agrees with Bruce Rosenstock in locating the origin of “diaspora” in Deuteronomy. Along with Plato’s Laws, I would have said it was a proto-political theology (probably the earliest). Deuteronomy may have gone through the crucible of EXILE, but its aim seems not to be diaspora, but a return to an established land after the boundary stones of yore. After all, do we really want to leave behind the transcendence of Sinai, only to run to Horeb (when all the while what we secretly pine for are the comforts of Jerusalem)? If diaspora is Dan’s articulation for a taking of responsibility, then it seems to me that the line of flight and fight must not be so abridged. That said, let me end on a broader expression of thanks and camaraderie, not of detraction or quibbling.

  10. David, thanks for the comment. I should say that what I had in mind in agreeing Bruce was not that Deuteronomy provides the ideal type or model or even first instance of *precisely* what i’m calling for with diaspora, but rather that it is here we find first emerging the *problematic* of diaspora. And this is not hedging, insofar as diaspora is intrinsically problematic — i.e. to have the problematic to diaspora is already to be invovled in it in an essential way. (and obviously there are many routes that one can take this, one of which being the Yoderian “Jeremiah”, etc.)

    As for a post-Geertzian account of religion, I should say — as Dan Whistler rightly noted — that I am deeply indebted to Goodchild. What I am developing, however, which is not exactly in line with Goodchild, is an emphasis on the genealogy of religlion, on the stakes of keeping the name or the word “religion.” So while I like very much what Goodchild is doing as a theory of what people have tried to articulate via the name “religlion,” i don’t think that can be separated from the accumulated valences and relations of that name. Which is also to say that I am way of the way that such a post-Geertzian theory of religion does not shift the position of the conceiver of religion, even if what counts as religion is altered.

    (And note that for me i would not conflate premodern religio with cultiic practice, given my argument, drawing on Boyarin and Schwartz, about Christian belifef.)

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