Theology and The Failure of Order: A Theology of Failure Book Event

While I don’t typically anticipate theology books anymore, Marika Rose’s A Theology of Failure, was one I was waiting on from the moment I heard about it. I’ve often said that Marika is the only person who could get me interested in Zizek’s work, and this book not only proves that, but forwards a genuinely compelling set of questions regarding the nature and task of theology and the possibility of practicing this mode of inquiry in a way that is unconcerned with the reproduction of confessional Christian norms of speech, creatively re-uses Christian theological material, and aims to actually attend to and become accountable for the devastation Christian theology has wrought in the Western world. In all, Marika presents a book which I’m very excited to be in conversation about, and I simply want to extend a set of reflections that followed me throughout the book.

My first reflection concerns the notion of economy in Marika’s book. While I’m quite familiar with the philosophical and theological genealogies of economy, Marika’s Dionysian, Lacanian, and Zizekian engagement with economy both illuminated contours of the concept which I wasn’t expecting from the book, and also raised questions for me about the relationship between her articulation of the economic problem and its figuration in works by Mondzain, Agamben, Leshem, Singh, and Kotsko, to name a few. In A Theology of Failure, economy seems to primarily articulate an order of relationality. Whether between God and the world, or the Subject and the Other, economy is “the circular figure of exchange, causation, return, identity, and completion.” One of the rich contributions of Marika’s book is casting the problem of economy in terms that is not solely reducible to questions of financial management and stewardship, but, as I take it, a question of order and belonging. Marika attends to both the structural arrangement and articulation of order and to the subjective formation and inhabitation of particularly ordered environments–existence under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, life in the world, life in the wake of Western Christendom, etc. (and if I’m missing any valences to it that are crucial for understanding Marika’s engagement, I would be glad to hear more of how the term is working for her). For me, Marika’s argument for a theology of failure helpfully repurposes Zizek’s account of drive to illuminate how liberal and orthodox articulations of Christianity both aim to recast Christian order–whether through the preservation of the Church or the preservation of the West–as what we all really needed all along. Indeed, Marika’s attention to Christianity’s history of oppression and domination involves thinking with marginalized knowledges that make explicit the failure of Christian order and the failure of theology as it attempts to renarrate what is out of place back into its hopeful story of salvation. To make meaning out of these tragedies by rearticulating them within the symbolic world generated by Christian redemption.

It is the usefulness of this sense of economy for thinking the relationship of theology to order that also illuminated the fittingness of Marika’s employment of Zizek, and thus Lacan, for the problematics she is trying to explore. Because of its mode of explicitly relating sexuality and trauma to failure and economy, A Theology of Failure is able to think about trauma and theology at the structural level of theological re/production. Reading with Zizek, Marika notes trauma’s relationship to the aneconomic function of revolutionary violence. Trauma is that which interrupts the ordinary course of things… it is not caught up in the economy of necessity … and … does not make sense–it cannot be integrated into the economy of the symbolic order, of meaning making. It cannot be explained or justified” (122). With this notion of trauma, Marika’s is able to give an account of how to think Christian identity that is not concerned with overcoming this trauma through nostalgia or romance. In many ways, I resonated with Marika’s argument that “Christ is the trauma that grounds Christian identity” and, thus, rather than the production of a harmonious or rational order–a Christian project of sense-making–theology here is an insistence on interrogating the the inextricable and traumatic interrelations of life and death, birth and abortion, beauty and ugliness at the center of the Christian economy: “A Zizekian understanding of trauma would pave the way for an understanding of the church itself as an economy brought into being around the constitutive antagonism that is Christ” (128).

The place I most want to press Marika’s argument is regarding her attempts to think from the position of Christianity’s others as a way to hold Christianity to account for its failure and to pose the question, “What might Christianity become if we begin to think theologically from the position of the heretic, the witch, the slave” (181)? My question here is whether concluding with this mode of interrogating Christianity is already a failure to think theologically from those positions? By this I mean, is not the question of what Christianity could be come precisely bound up in the production of some future possibility of Christianity that a theology of failure is trying to release? Throughout the book I had the sense that part of the difficulty of Marika’s task in this book is trying to give an account of Christian failure by refusing to evacuate the position of the Christian and the internal re/production of Christian identity. However, I wonder if perhaps alongside of a theology of failure, a theology of disinterest, disinvestment, and indifference to what Christianity might become is crucial to stopping failure from being reincorporated into an engine of Christian becoming. One final related question: I also was curious about Marika’s separation of the slave, the heretic, and the witch from each other throughout the analysis. I imagine this was for pedagogical and analytic reasons, but I wonder if it is actually adequate to the demand of these figures? In my mind, it seems like the blackness of the heathen as a figure in the post-1492 imagination suggests they can be articulated and interrogated together. The history of enslaved conjure women or figures like Tituba raise the question of how these are being articulated as different positions and whether that articulation still preserves a form of ordering that obfuscates the reproduction of a hereditary sense of heathenism that follows the position of the slave. That is, I wonder about this failure to think the three together and how this might be accounted for in terms of sexuality and economy–in terms of the reproduction of order. It seems to me that a crucial failure here, then, might be the failure to think the heretic and the witch as racial positions as well, and I wonder what difference it would make to Marika’s account of a theology of failure to do so.