Back in 2009 I asked the question, “what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy?” No one from among the “certain” Christian theologians answered the question. Hardly surprising, as they rarely do answer questions, or engage outside of their own very closed circles. Perhaps it has to do with something about pearls before swine or, just maybe, something about cockroaches scattering when you turn the light on them (I’ll allow the reader to choose their preferred speciesist insult). Without anyone willing to answer, I still have the question rattling around. Recently a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook have been raving about David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and exchanging Christian high-fives about how Hart has really given it to those stupid, incoherent (new?) atheist materialists. I admit it, something about Christian triumphalism in a world bleeding under Christian knives means I couldn’t help but make a few jokes and ask a few aggressive questions. Now, I have never enjoyed reading Hart (his prose so often praised by other Christian theologians has struck me as bloated and pompously overblown, typical of an aggressive 16 year-old overachiever) and I haven’t touched his most recent books (after trudging through the burnt husk of a body that was his reading of Deleuze in The Beauty of the Infinite I had used up all the charity I had for his work), but this question is not really one about Hart in general. Rather, the question has to do with the kind of general condition of the kind of contemporary Christian theology that Hart and others do. When I see a book like The Experience of God or a recent article in Modern Theology by Aaron Riches called “Christology and Anti-Humanism” I cannot help but wonder, who are they writing for?
While I haven’t read Hart’s recent work, and likely won’t (my life is finite after all and I have books that actually bring me bliss sitting on my shelves), I did recently read through Riches article. I am going to use this article to highlight a number of problems present in the attempt to engaged with philosophy by contemporary Christian theology and foremost amongst them, I am claiming, is the problem of audience.
Riches article is ostensibly an orthodox Catholic response to “anti-humanism” of “Speculative Realism” (always capitalized by Riches in the article, referring, I suppose, to what he takes as a proper school of thought). In many ways it is better than some of the works of his teachers and cohorts. One doesn’t have an image of an overly aggressive, drunken, wild-eyed man, spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth, shouting that “Meillassoux has the ontology of an abortionist!” But, it is precisely on this issue of abortion that the entire essay pivots, though to catch this one needs to pay attention to the footnotes. The threat of anti-humanism is couched, for Riches, in the posthuman condition where suddenly the blending of technology and non-human animals with humans is the norm (setting aside that, frankly, it is true that human beings do not exist in a vacuum, that the domestication of human beings by their technology and by animals is an observable historical phenomenon, that the wider biosphere matters for the existence of human beings, etc.). He puts it somewhat hyberbolically, writing “The broader cultural consequence of this destablisation is evidenced, for example, in the way it is increasingly uncontroversial for someone to argue in favour of ‘animal rights’, while defending the morality of infanticide, euthanasia, and the destruction of human lives that do not exhibit ‘rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness’.” Here Riches is quoting and referencing Peter Singer, who most of you will know is a utilitarian ethicist. This is the first weirdness of the engagement with philosophy undertaken here. For Riches is, again, ostensibly giving the Catholic response to the the supposed anti-humanism of speculative realism, and yet we begin with Peter Singer whose work has a certain antipathy towards metaphysics, before then touching briefly touching on eliminative materialism, and then turning to Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillassoux, who are supposed to be the paragons of speculative realism, before finally turning to Badiou (and Althusser, and Foucault) as somehow another example of speculative realism’s anti-humanism (ignoring the fact that none of these thinkers are very sympathetic to “animal rights” or even a thinking of the animal as such).
Much of this is a confusion over the meaning of speculative realism. Brassier, as is well-known, has essentially denounced the term and called discussion of speculative realism an “online orgy of stupidity”. Meillassoux has distanced himself from the other three thinkers who spoke at the original one-day event. Iain Hamilton Grant is just out in the world doing Iain Hamilton Grant, arguing for a radical version of idealism. And Graham Harman is milking the phenomenon for all its worth on the philosophical stock market. It’s far from a school and even Riches contradictorily admits as such before abandoning any responsibility to present any attentive account of it writing, “The term ‘Speculative Realism’ is diverse, fluid, rigorous and elegant, and deserving of an attentive account (which I have not provided).” I won’t detail the confusions that arise in the collapsing of French theoretical anti-humanism, which reaches its apogee in Badiou’s work, with the neo-scientism of Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. And I have not even mentioned the very interesting sections on Kojève’s reading and reversal of Solovyov or his very deft and elegant use of Bérulle to summarize Christology. In a certain sense I’m not doing that because I am returning Riches’ polemic back to him and I have to remind ever Christian theologian of their own scriptures regarding swords. But also because, in so far as Riches engaged with these works outside of Christian theology and in so far as he does so within the pages of a theology journal, I have to wonder why? He’s not engaging them on their own terms. He is not presenting them to theologians in a fair way (admitting as such, even claiming that doing so is a kind of trap of liberalism). He is not reflecting on the various practices they share in common and he does repeat the usual radical orthodoxy genealogy which traces back all the problems in the world to Duns Scotus (I recently read a Graham Ward piece where he lets the cat out of the bag and traces it all back to Ibn-Sina). Does he think his critique will be read by adherents of their various fluid, diverse philosophies? That they will turn back to Sancta Mater Ecclesia? Is that what this is ultimately about? Or does engaging with the hard core of contemporary philosophy allow the Catholic theologian to pretend that this is 1907 and they are making the brave fight against what Catholic theologians, and only Catholic theologians, refer to as Modernism (this is not your historians modernism)?
Ultimately what Riches present as a response to his cobbled together Franken-anti-humanism is a familiar argument for anyone who is conversant with 20th Century Catholic (European) theology. The incarnation of Christ is what reveals the true identity of Man [sic or not, your call]: “The human being (homo sapiens) is fully humanised (divinsied) when God and the human are ‘one’ in Christ. […] For the Christians, this means that there can be no theologically neutral ground on which to affirm or deny the dignity of the human person or speak of human rights; in abstraction from Jesus Christ the fate of the human being is necessarily (and metaphysically) one with disintegration of all matter.” In other words, only Christianity secures the “transcendent dignity of the human person in the face of a culture of ‘passive nihilism’.” Is this not an obscene statement sent out into the very world wrought by Christianity, both in the form of Christiandom and its secularized civil religion? To say it in the light of murdered peoples? A continent ravaged by disease and admonished not to use sexual protection to stem that tide? A generation of damaged children? Generation upon generation of women hobbled by what Mary Daly named the sin of psychological paralysis? And, in a Church so complicit in the horrors of the last 1500 years, whose social teaching has always built in the plausible deniability of their third way, why is it always in the face of the actual ambiguity of human life that it stakes all of its political capital? Are human beings not being treated in the most indignant of ways at Guantanamo Bay right now? Where is the word on their dignity? Where are the marches in solidarity with those bodies? But always the fetus as the rock upon which this Church must be built! Why is there so little engagement with the other monotheistic theological traditions who support the transcendent dignity of the human person (though, obviously, with the incarnation) but whose views on abortion are very different? Why too the glib dismissals of ecological posthumanism? The threat to the biosphere doesn’t arise out of anti-humanism, but ultimately is derived from a vision of the world that sees human beings as very much separate metaphysically from the rest of the world. And for all of the misunderstanding of Brassier’s philosophical casting of the meta-extinction of life, we are facing in the short-term the very real extinction of a number of species and perhaps even our own.
But, I don’t know why I’m asking these questions. No one will come along to answer them. Because ultimately, though folks like myself are the few who do engage with both de Lubac and Deleuze, Badiou and Bérulle, these sorts of works are not written for me. What does contemporary theology want from philosophy? A fantasy that this is a debate which matters, a scapegoat to avoid the introspection that the decline of traditional religion demands, a projection of an other against which one can take a stand. Theo-boys playing dress up, putting on the outfits of their Fathers and playing disputatio, slapping each other on the back and saying to one another things like, “It has often been observed that most of us incline instinctively to one or another form of heresy. It is why heresy is the most natural (and also the most individually satisfying) thing in the world, while orthodoxy takes effort and requires a whole community of individuals listening to one another and not only to their own inner voices.” Doesn’t that feel good? Theology as culture war, but with the added benefit of a certain disavowal, of a certain transcending the idiocy everyone knows is present there.
And so I can’t help but wonder, at the end of this polemic, can’t theology do better? But more than that, does theology even know what it wants?