What’s love got to do with it?: On theology

“There is little at stake for you in this.” This is a complaint often spurted out with exasperation after a debate has reached its physical end point, when all parties involved are essentially exhausted, and directed towards those of us who do work in the liminal space of philosophy and theology (a kind of queer philosophical theology?). The force behind this accusation, always it seems with the presumed answer “nothing” as they often lump us all as some kind of Big Lebowski-esque nihilists, again relates to an old saw here: the questions of tradition, belief and authority. I may be wrong, but the complaint seems to me predicated on the notion that the study of theology only matters to those whose lives are caught up in the “Church”, that is in some form of the Christian tradition that looks to historical theology for its dogmatic basis (there will of course be different formulations here), the notions and concepts that will aid in spiritual and communal formation. Those who look to study theology and do not submit themselves to this authority, it seems to them, have little at stake in their study.

Setting aside the hypocrisy of this complaint, which is nonetheless worth noting, since some who make this complaint also accuse those who would call themselves secular thinkers of only being such on the basis of a Christian heresy and so subject, in some roundabout way, to Christian theology. But yes, let’s set that aside, since arguing with those folks usually results in accusations and jumps in logic that, well, are better left to sit in the light and wither. What then is behind this complaint from those who make it in good faith? Those who truly believe in the Christian story and, though they may argue with their Christian brothers and the rare sister about this doctrine of the Trinity versus that Soteriology, are genuinely at a loss for why those who (in their view at least) are atheists (I would have difficult accepting this label and have never called myself such) would want to discuss theology at all. I think, due in part to some bad experiences during my graduate experience, I’ve had trouble formulating a response, lumping these genuine people in with those who spew invectives against that Deleuzian or this Calvinist Pentecostel (to say nothing of the racism and homophobia just randomly spewed forth), all the while sitting around wine stained tables declaring that only they, they alone, welcome debate and why won’t those bastards come debate them without all the ad hominems. It was certainly a strange sight to behold and I am quite open that I found the whole experience damaging, even if I was able to keep my soul by the end of it. But it means I’ve been rude to these genuine believers who, if I had perhaps been less quick to defend myself, more trusting of their genuineness, could have made interesting discussion partners and even friends. For that I am sorry and apologize.

So, what is at stake? I would need to reject the premise that theology is only important for those who have submitted their life to some particular tradition and history. To riff on a Laruellean motif: theology was made for creatures; creatures were not made for theology. In the midst of a rather strange Facebook thread, it came out that many didn’t think theology could be assessed on the basis of its relationship to historical imperialism or colonialism, all the while demanding that proper Christian theology belongs to the historical councils and its safeguarding. Somehow (I don’t see how it is possible) the second was necessary, while the first was contingent. This perverse statement, one I would put in the ranks of a radical evil, was even uttered by a relatively prominent theologian: “Empires do bad things, but the Holy Spirit can bring good things out of bad. Such were the Councils.” In a certain sense, this form of meta-theological theodicy makes it rather difficult to explain to my genuine interlocutors what could possibly be at stake for me in the study of theology. I refuse to be forced, as another friend said, to make a confession of faith or unfaith on the basis of terms I don’t accept, and so we will have trouble, even peaceably, discussing what is at stake in a way that could be communicated to one another.

For in a certain way, before I share my own story, I have to wonder about the very question itself. After all, presumably the genuine interlocutor thinks that something is at stake for him or her. What is it? Salvation? But surely they know their tradition teaches that salvation doesn’t come by having the correct knowledge or by works alone, but by grace. Eternal life? Certainly that could have been pursued with doctoral study and the various apparatuses of academic life, for it appears, in their tradition, to be offered to everyone. But more than that, without truly knowing what is at stake for them, it is more difficult for me to know what these things could mean outside of some lived context; the study of theology has some bearing on our lives outside the bounds of publications and academic study, regardless of how much one may value it or not. And so, certainly, when we study theology something that is at stake for both us must be this: for me, as for the genuine orthodox interlocutor, how one lives is at stake.

Here I may begin, starting as I do from radically different first principles, to lose my genuine interlocutor, but perhaps they can forgive me that confusion and extend some grace in at least listening. Perhaps a discussion may follow. But let’s return to that aphorism: theology was made for creatures; creatures were not made for theology. Without any of the hangups of thinking the secular is a purely neutral space (who does that anymore?!), without thinking that the secular itself doesn’t have to answer for its own violence, without thinking that the secular is a transcendent good or any of that, I begin with a generic secular understanding of what is happening in theology, whether it be Christian or not, and the religions such a theology serves and masters (it is an amphibology). It is simply this, no theology has ever been sufficient, no theology has ever accurately named the divine or extrapolated its principles, all theology is failure, and this failure can’t be re-inscribed by the theologian ironically as a victory over the world, for all theology is ultimately world-shaped, and yet there are instances in theology that in the last analysis escape the world and can be materials for creatural construction.

In some ways this is a simple dualistic theory of theology (and teasing out the differences between religion and theology is important, but outside the scope of what I can do here as I haven’t quite worked that out for myself). One pulled from Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze and Negri. It can be stated in various ways, some better than others, some more physicalist than others, some more interesting than others, but essentially it says: theology is not one thing. The identity of theology, it’s “as-One” character, is as a duality of the open and closed, active and reactive, productive and stratafied. The parts of theology that are so vitally important to a creatural life, one where we (to borrow from Aristotle and the Islamic philosopher-theologians after him) live as if immortal, where the lived experience of life is in some very meaningful sense immortal, well these parts of theology, I think, will come from the vital, open, productive, side of the duality. And to understand that, you have to take theology as-One, you can’t simply give up on it, and throw it away (as an “authentic atheist” might), but you do so in order to connect up with something, to strike out on a new vector. In other words, I still have some faith, and it’s even a faith informed by tradition! A faith in creatures, what can be constructed out of creation, what is given in creation, but because it is based on the idea that tradition (theology) was created for creatures, I could never take any single tradition as self-sufficient. In this form of the generic secular the study of theology means the study not of Theology (usually a universalist Christian form) but of regional theologies. Judaism, Islam, Gnostic, and so forth. For, we are in some sense without-Theology, we were not made for it, but we did make it and at points, it has allowed for divine thinking, for little explosions of liberty, but it has also had to be resisted for those same divine thinkings and explosions of liberty.

Perhaps at this point I will have lost my genuine interlocutor, since this language game is rather different from their own piety. And I understand that, I am speaking from the perspective of radical immanence, with reference to concepts drawn from a relatively unknown French philosopher and some others known in particularly French ways, and to them that may appear as a stumbling block. So let me attempt a kind of translation. At some point a former friend, it was a difficult friendship and when it broke it was painful I think for both of us, but he told me about his conversion experience to Christianity. He told me that it came after a difficult break-up, and after hearing some theologians talking on the radio, he went to his local parish priest and told him that he wanted to learn how to love. It’s a beautiful story and I was very moved by it. And without saying anything about his own stakes in theology, I want to take this story and use it as a lens for asking a general question about the state of Christian theology today.

Everywhere, except amongst the vipers huddled around their wine stained table, I hear theologians talking about dispossession, the poor, love, and everyone I look I see “the Church” practicing possession, repression, hatred of the poor, and so I have to wonder, what does any of that have to do with learning to love? Of course, and it is sort of silly to have to say it, there are pockets that are very concerned with these things, but they tend, in my experience, to be very unconcerned with their orthodoxy and so more in line with the kind of generic secular formation I touched on above. But in general, what does Christianity have to do with Christ? What does yet another metaphysics of hierarchy have to do with love in 2013? What does theodicy – and I take the metaphysics of hierarchy to be above all else a theodicy, and theodicy to be above all else a form of radical evil – in its meta-theological form which turns attention away from theology’s role in racism, imperialism, colonialism, and all such forms of the wrong state of things, what does that have to do with love? You start off wanting to learn to love, and you end up unable to speak in the face of those who you now share a tradition with as they supporting a Pope attacking nuns, a theologian claiming that Muslim students unjustly arrested don’t deserve our support because as Muslims they are questionable people, a tradition that is more fearful of the implications of evolutionary theory than the ecological crisis, more concerned with the dignity of the unborn than the imprisonment of the living. You end up wanting to learn to love, and end up having nothing to do with it.

For me, this is what is at stake in the study of theology: I too want to learn how to love, but I want in the end to have something to do with it. And this is what I strive for in my teaching, whether it be in the Christian tradition or any other. I try to tease out with my students, regardless of their own personal faith commitments, what is most beautiful, and look in the face at what is most ugly. This isn’t easy, but it is certainly at stake for me in my personal life and in my life as an educator.

15 thoughts on “What’s love got to do with it?: On theology

  1. “…well these parts of theology, I think, will come from the vital, open, productive, side of the duality”

    Well, who wants to be moribund, clenched, obstructive? But one should not fear restfulness, closure, settled forms. Then cosmos is no more inherently well-disposed towards flux than it is towards stasis.

    (This is what programmers call a “closure”:

    (defn adder [x]
        (fn [y] (+ x y)))

    The inner expression, (fn [y] (+ x y)), captures a part of its environment (the variable x, which belongs to the outer expression), “closing” over it. Closures are encapsulations, bindings. For the inner to close over the outer is also a form of love)

    Like Mace Windu, I favour a style that uses both sides of the force.

  2. Hi Anthony,

    As someone who hopes to fit the bill of the ‘genuine’ interlocutor, and recalling a couple of email exchanges we’ve had related to this topic, I just want to say that I really appreciate what you say in this post. Even if you and I may approach theology from different first principles, I stand with you in your desire to eliminate the oppression (academic and otherwise) that is perpetuated by theology.

    I wonder, do you think it is helpful at all to define ‘theology’ in multiple ways, in order to delineate the points of agreement and disagreement, which in turn would make it possible to focus more specifically on the areas in theology where positive dialogue between divergent views can take place, or does this seem like an attempt to ‘move the goalposts’, so to speak?

  3. Dominic, if you were going for nerdiest comment ever, replete with Star Wars reference and coding, you have won. But I take your point. Of course the relationship between the two sides of the duality are more complex than I have laid out in this post, but that said, the form of closure I’m talking about would include things like the Magisterium as well as things like the local parish. Just because I am speaking in generally dualistic terms that are then re-conceived through Laruelle’s theory of duality, doesn’t mean this maps on to a simple moralism. But perhaps this isn’t the right place to work out your opposition to the line of thinkers I mention in the post?

    Daniel L., I thought that was a fancy term from German philosophy (though I have come to understand it more through some Slovenians and French, yes)! But in this case, I take it to be a foreclosing of any possibility of the good, in this particular instance, the good is foreclosed because we shouldn’t resist the world (empire, colonialism, etc.) since things like the councils arose out of them. It’s a strange form of thinking that simply because something is, it is the best possibly way to be. Think of how the Pope or some other theologians approach the Greek philosophical tradition and its relationship to Christianity. As a matter of fact, Greek philosophy has influenced Christian theology, and this was providential. I’ve been very obsessed with the form of theodicy lately, so I hope you’ll forgive my stretching it to encompass this sort of way of thinking.

    Geoff, while I have very serious issues with the way you deploy philosophy within Christian theology, yes I have always taken you to be genuine. I can see defining theology in multiple ways being interesting, I do think in many ways that is what Daniel Barber does in On Diaspora, but it depends on what the purpose of this delineation is. Though of course I would like dialogue to be productive, I think part of what allows for that is both sides admitting that one potential good outcome for either side is that the other cease to practice theology in the way they did before meeting. My worry with their being a transcendental Niceness (which was a line from that bizarre Facebook thread I did like) is it can sometimes cover over a rather aggressive move. I want a little veracity at play in this dialogue! What is more friendly than honesty? Is the move to delineate multiple theologies going to end up supporting the already hegemonic role of confessional Christian theology? Etc. But, yes, please do say more.

  4. It seems like a strange blackmail that you’re forced to reveal your “existential” commitment to the theological task, while your interlocutors have one that’s ready-made and presumably requires no questioning (even though church communities are often more hostile toward theological reflection than the secular academy is). Yet it’s worth laying out once in a while, even though a month from now everyone will be asking the same infuriatingly basic and banal questions as though you never wrote this.

    If I had to make a similar effort, I’d say there are three things that draw me to the theological task and prompt me to locate my primary scholarly identity there:

    1. Intellectual fascination — it’s intrinsically interesting to me to watch people attempt the very difficult and perhaps impossible task of trying to synthesize the sprawling body of biblical literature, the experience of salvation associated with the Christ-event, and various “secular” philosophies. It can get repetitive once orthodoxy gets established, but that just forces the effort of synthesis into new and unexpected areas.

    2. A fixation on “lost causes” — I have a gut-level attachment to things that sounded like a good idea but seem to have failed miserably. Christianity is the example of that phenomenon that I’m closest to. I want to figure out what went wrong and what could have theoretically gone right. It’s a “deconstruction” of the tradition to an extent, though with a more constructive emphasis than is usually associated with that term — I want to figure out how it has worked and whether there are materials available there for making it (or at least something) work differently. That’s basically the project of Politics of Redemption, a “deconstruction” of atonement theory with a strong emphasis on reconstruction.

    3. Personal salvation — Christianity was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened to me, but it also made me what I am. I find that studying it without practicing it allows me to keep it at a manageable distance. This may be “bad faith” in Milbank’s view, but for me to become an “authentic atheist” would mean allowing my life to be defined by anger and bitterness. I would be defining myself in opposition to Christianity and therefore still be defined by it. (This is not to say that other “authentic atheists” are so defined, just that my own personal experience seems to make that inevitable for me.) By holding theology at its proper distance, I’m trying to enact a kind of Pauline “freedom from the law” that doesn’t require the violation or renunciation of the law. From another direction, I’m trying to live out the messianic hope enunciated by Kafka-Benjamin-Agamben where the law will no longer be enforced but will be the object of study or play.

    I’d be very, very surprised if even the most orthodox theologians didn’t identify with point 3 to some extent. Of course, this brings me back to my very controversial theme that theology as an critical intellectual discourse always requires some degree of alienation from the community… about which I’m totally right, whether you like it or not!

  5. To further elaborate on point #3, I have theological reasons for practicing theology in the non-standard, non-pious way that I do. It doesn’t stem from some secular/atheist/liberal presupposition that I then try to synthesize with Christianity in my half-assed, bad-faith, second-rate way. My position on theology is theological all the way down.

  6. I recently ran across a term which seems to be appropriate for the crowd of ‘traditionalist’ theologians: ecumenism of the sword. I recently caught it while reading Children of Dune; it’s used by the character of The Preacher (Maud’Dib/Paul Atreides) against the growing establishment of religion centered around the figure of Paul-Maud’Dib. The main emphasis is exactly this kind of rejection of all differences by force through the incarnation of the ‘pure tradition’ of the past as the litmus and full extent of orthodoxy. Heterodoxy is absorbed into heresy not as a way of maintaining the tradition but as a way of safeguarding the power of those who control and define orthodoxy. The ‘evils’ of orthodoxy are often held by your interlocutors to be part of the ‘blessings’ of it: the use of force to consolidate power into a despotic regime (I hope that vague allusion to Deleuze isn’t lost!). Even though the actual history is much messier and shows that the absolute foundations which the regime posits for tradition and orthodoxy are anything but absolute. There are always multiple traditions, orthodoxies, and absolutes in play — something which your interlocutors willfully (and deceitfully) ignore — throughout the histories of Christian theology (the very fact that there is no single Christianity should be enough to show that those who hold to absolutes within Christian theology are either delusional, duped, or greedy for power.

  7. I have no commitment to the theological task these days, though I respect those who do, and curiosity compels me to continue reading theology…. Re love, which I don’t want to abandon altogether as a philosopheme, but shouldn’t a case also be made for disgust and pure hatred as philosophical categories, given the shits who rule our world?

  8. The case for disgust and pure hatred? So… guess you don’t follow @A_P_S then ;-)

    Just an interesting thought from the past few days, but seems with this post – which I like a lot Anthony – and the one on critiques on Radical Orthodoxy…well… seems like you guys feel the need for some love right now. Must be summer.

  9. haha… no worries, Anthony. Just a couple thoughts. I agree 100% with your call for honesty. Of course, at the risk of being banal, I’ll add that with honesty must come humility, since, even among the closest friends, honesty can easily breed defensiveness… and it seems to me that the theological debate today (not to mention public rhetoric in general) is rife with defensiveness (which may due to a variety of factors, both legitimate and not). For my part, this means constantly reminding myself that all of my attempts to ‘do theology’ are provisional, open to criticism, and should never be means of aggression or coercion, even at a theoretical level.

    Having said that, I suppose my main question would be where you think the points of connection might be between theologians who presuppose a transcendent God and theologians who presuppose ‘radical immanence’ (if I can use that term, and assuming you would classify yourself as such). Would the points of connection reside in the political? (hmm, that seems to imply that the political is a subcategory of the theological.)

    Beginning with a transcendent God also makes me feel compelled to modify your aphorism: while I agree that “creatures were not made for theology,” I would also add that, though theology is made by and for creatures, it must also, in some sense, be made by and for God. That is, theology is not simply a human endeavor with entirely human ends. Does this short-circuit the dialogue? Can these two ways of doing theology find common ground, or is this just creating a new paradigm for conflict?

  10. Geoff, I would think a ‘traditional’ theologian would see that at the extremes, transcendence and immanence meet in some sort of way (isn’t that what the centuries of debate around the incarnation is all about?). To posit the two as opposed — if not mutually exclusive — seems to be a more contemporary move designed to re-inscribe theological thinking with the thirst for power and control found in orthodoxy politics. I think that’s one of the traps with groups like RO deploy in order to sabotage any kind of actually productive dialogues in addition to poisoning the well of future dialogues — the discussion quickly is reduced to either accept RO as given by the neo-Magesterium or reject it without any middle ground or room for dialogue — something which is shared more with American evangelicalism than either evangelicals or RO (Anglo-)Catholics would like to admit.

  11. Hi Christopher,

    I take your point. Perhaps the language of transcendence and immanence still misses the target. I suppose it may be better to say that — at least in Christian theologies — there is a recognition that God’s transcendence and immanence merge somehow in God’s relationship to the world and to human beings. Thus, the deeper question is perhaps what a theology claims about God’s relationship to God’s creation. Perhaps some fruitful discussions could take place around the different ways such a relationship might be conceived.

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