Reproduction Interrupted and the Legacies of Systematic Thought: A Theology of Failure Book Event

This is a guest post by Ben Fulford.

Marika Rose’s A Theology of Failure speaks powerfully to a problem that has come increasingly to concern me as someone working in Christian theology, teaching systematic theology no less, and immersed in institutional structures like the Society for the Study of Theology that we’ve both been attending for several years now. That problem is what I take to be the central problem of the book: the challenge of faithfully betraying the intellectual and spiritual tradition in which one has been formed, as one comes to learn – and I am still learning – of the extent and depths of its complicities with manifold forms of violence, structural and directly corporeal, going back in different ways over many centuries, and still live today, and always linked intimately with various formations of Christian identity.

The challenge of faithful betrayal is not a new one in Christian tradition: it is one faced by many teachers and writers in respect of failing yet generative heritages, whether it be Gregory of Nazianzus and the legacy of Origen, Aquinas with respect to Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius, or James H. Cone and both the AME church and Karl Barth, or Kelly Brown Douglas, Jacqueline Grant and Delores Williams and others with respect to Cone. As these latter examples show, the task is much sharper and more radical when the failure of the generativity one finds in what one has received has to do with structures of oppression in society and the academy. For many contemporary theologians racialised as white there is a particular, long deferred challenge of faithfully betraying our theological formations and the institutional structures that reproduce, celebrate and preserve them.

One of the gifts of A Theology of Failure is to keep that challenge and task squarely before the reader by thematising and theorising it by bringing one representative of that tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, (whom I think we will both have encountered at Cambridge University’s Divinity Faculty) into conversation with the ontology of Slavoj Žižek. But Marika renders a further service by also reminding us of the perennial dangers of ‘Christian innocence’, or perhaps that should be white Christian innocence: the tendency of white Christian theologians not only to abstract from materiality but also to seek refuge from this history and complicity in an uncontaminated Christian essence prior to and transcendent of its failures, which she finds exemplified in deconstructionist liberal theologians, liberation theologians, postliberal theologians and especially the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy. It is a persistently searching observation, for that trait that, once pointed out, is easy to identify in my own theological tendencies and in so much modern theology on all sides.

It is Žižek’s ontology that does the most work here, I think, and Marika expounds it with rare clarity and a generous, rigorous criticality. Rose proposes to use, not claim, Žižek (140), and seeks to correct his misogyny and Eurocentrism by recourse to some black and queer theorists and queer theologians. It might seem an odd choice to turn to a white western, Eurocentric thinker in the tradition of German idealism. The book’s wager is that, despite his Eurocentrism and misogyny, Žižek’s reconfiguring of the legacies of German idealism through the categories of psychoanalysis, offers a way of theorising the situation and task of (white) Christian theology today, and especially insofar as its whiteness is occluded and furthered by its entanglement with hierarchical Neoplatonic metaphysics, exemplified in Dionysius. That entanglement gives such theology a tendency to try to absorb the world into God and theology, overcoming multiplicity: a tendency deeply connected to Western Christianity’s structures of dominance. The paradoxical remedy for this compound, horrific failure is a radical rethinking of Christian identity and Christian theology and its task on the terms of Žižek’s materialist ontology of failure.

According to Žižek, any economic or symbolic order is built upon an internal contradiction or antagonism or failure at its heart, which is covered over by a fantasy of that which would complete the whole and fill the gap, a fantasy whose obverse is made up of whatever has been excluded as a condition of those orders (as abject), and which appears as monstrous because it connotes death, the ultimate disruption. The theological moment of Žižek’s system is the moment of revolutionary ‘violence’ or trauma: those rare, fleeting interruptive events which confront the economic and symbolic orders with the internal contradiction or failure at their heart. These events make possible genuine human freedom, the choice between reinstating fantasy and the relationship of desire toward the object of fantasy, or orienting oneself toward reality and embracing the inconsistency or failure and confronting the abject: what Žižek calls ‘drive’.

This ‘notion of creation as trauma evokes the founding moment of Christianity: Jesus’s death on the cross’ (124). Indeed, it offers a way of rethinking Christian identity. The church may be understood, on this account, ‘as an economy brought into being around the constitutive antagonism that is Christ.’ (127) Christ is trauma that grounds the church, the Christian and theology, at once foundation stone and stumbling block (in Žižek’s reading of 1 Peter 2:9). In this Žižekian theology of the cross, Christian identity is essentially traumatic (140), ‘formed not so much by a particular set of answers, a particular vision of harmony, but by the constant attempt to grapple with Christ as a difficulty, a question, a traumatic antagonism.’ (129, 150, 180) It is a problem, Marika argues, that is incarnated in the church and addressed only by ‘struggling with and against the corruption of Christianity rather than seeking to escape it.’ (11) It is from Christianity’s abject others that this confrontation with its central constitutive trauma comes, Marika argues, and by embracing that failure, the church might come to stop constructing its identity upon their exclusion.

This shift means doing Christian theology differently from the margins of society, church and theological academy, as a materialist theology that attends to the specificities and contradictions of lived Christianity, of Christians’ acts, sexual or otherwise, and of those marginalised by Christian identity and doctrine. For to attend to them is to attend to the obscene underside of that doctrine, which is the truth of Christian identity. They are therefore also the source of the possibility of the church’s radical transformation. The rupture they occasion makes possible a renunciation and drastic conversion on the part of Christians and their theologising. It makes possible the renunciation of Christian tendencies to conquest and assimilation, scapegoating and treating Christianity’s others as means to the completion of Christian identity. It makes possible a renunciation of Christian innocence, of taking refuge from responsibility in positing pure, ideal forms of Christianity predicated on transcendence, over against the lethal, oppressive forms we inhabit.

It also makes love possible: to relate to the other according to the logic of drive, loving the world and their neighbours (173) ‘in all of their grotesque materiality, their beauty and horror, to acknowledge the independent value and the coherence of its others and to allow itself to be unsettled, challenged, and transformed by its encounters with them.’

This is an austere vision of love that partly recalls ancient Christian ideals of apatheia as the condition of being free to love: love emancipated by trauma as a selfless kenosis and self-subjugation to heteronomy, to the demands of others (180). Yet there are also more attractive sides to this account, especially the possibility it holds out for a transformation of Christian attitudes to ordinary things in their disgusting (death-connoting) incompleteness, particularity and mundanity, which become sites of quotidian epiphany. For love according to drive means that the disgusting becomes the ordinary through which the sublime is encountered in everyday acts like house cleaning (138-9).

Faithful betrayal, then, involves loving the church in its corruptions and failures, by which I take Marika to mean a love which looks at those failures squarely and faces those excluded by them without deflecting that love onto a fantasy of the church and freeing the world from our attempts to control it, freeing the others of Christianity from their role in its economy and symbolic order. In this way the reproduction of the existing order of Christianity may be disrupted (12), so that Christianity is reproduced, reborn beyond its death, the end of its world (173). Fidelity to the Christian tradition, then, means being willing to betray it unto death in the name of what we love in it, or at least betray aspects of it (150). The object of this fidelity seems to shift at different points. It is fidelity to Christ (11, 150, 181), the ground of Christian identity; it is fidelity to Christianity’s ‘constitutively excluded others’ (148) to cease founding Christian identity upon them; it is fidelity to ‘the materiality of Christ’s own self which is to say, the church understood in a materialist sense …as a particular group of people, a particular set of institutions, a particular collection of texts and practice’. Nor will this struggle ever be complete – that too, I think we are to infer, is a fantasy – and so there is the risk, (frankly acknowledged) of reincorporation into theological respectability, into theological sameness, of failing to fail effectively (150).

There is a complex and not yet clear relationship of identity-in-difference here between Christ, these others and the church. At times Christ in his fleshly, historical, geographical and scripturally rendered particularity is the ground of Christian identity and the unity of Christianity in its manifold diversity (139). At other times Christ seems wholly identified with the church, even to be collapsed into it; at times there seems to be an implied identity between Christ and Christianity’s excluded others internal to yet also over against the church from within, insofar as both seem to be occupy the function of the antagonistic ground of Christian identity. Perhaps Christ here is the church’s trauma as the manifestation to itself of its own failure in being constituted on the exclusion of its others, the truth of its identity, but also the revelation of them as the source of its transformation, but perhaps also the revelation of its perpetual incompleteness and imperfection. Just here there are also questions for me. On the one hand, which Christianity or whose Christianities are we talking about? At times it seems to be specifically white, Eurocentric Christianities; at other times it seems to be Christianity in general, and again at other times it seems that white Eurocentric Christianity could be said to be universal in the legacy of its antiblackness. But where does that leave other Christianities and other Christians? They seem still decentered and passive victims – which rather runs against a proper concern in the book to move away from thinking in those terms. It also seems to run against the complexities of the agency, movements and histories of those once enslaved or with legacies of enslavement in relation to Europe within the black Atlantic on Paul Gilroy’s account, or perhaps on CLR James’ account of the Haitian revolution – but I’m still early in my education in these matters.

On the other hand, in Marika’s ecclesiology the specificity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ seems to yield to other material specificities in these identifications, and yet his specificity seems important at other times to the specificity of Christian identity and its materiality on Marika’s account, and indeed for many kinds of Christianity, including Christianities and Christian theologies of those minoritized, subjugated and othered by white western Christianity. Perhaps the charge that liberatory Christologies erect a fantasy of a ‘perfectly liberatory historical Jesus’ (178) might imply that we should attend to a monstrous, grotesque Jesus in or behind or beyond the scriptural texts, practices, and images of Christian traditions?

There is at times a similar identification of God with Christian community, or at least with what we – freed from desire and loving according to drive – love in Christian community. The connections between Dionysius’ negative theology and his Neoplatonic hierarchical ontology illustrate the dangers of ‘weaponised apophaticism’ (148). Transcendence needs to be reconceived as ‘that which disrupts the boundaries of what is from within, which interrupts the reproduction of the same’ (173). Transcendence needs to be located within immanence (177) as ‘that which is loved within the constitutive failure of the church to be faithful to Christ.’ Indeed, God is that work of love (154) ‘in and through Christ-as-the-church.’ But the Neoplatonic-inflected account of transcendence as beyond materiality and all that gets coded as material over against spiritual and rational (women, the black racial others of whiteness) is not the only logic of transcendence in Christian tradition, perhaps not even in Dionysius, as Marika’s account of the internal tensions in his theology between his Neoplatonic scheme and his Christian inheritances seems to indicate (139). Moreover, as Kathryn Tanner argues, much depends on how theological ideas are used and in what doctrinal connections and contexts. Perhaps the iconoclastic power of a non-contrastive idea of divine transcendence bound up with creation ex nihilo in its most radical sense (of which evil might be understood as a parody) that Linn Tonstad deploys need not be so readily relinquished?

I also wonder about another central ambiguity around the term failure. At times it denotes the violence perpetrated by dominant forms of Christianity and legitimated by their doctrines; at other times it denotes a more positive task both of not passing on toxic elements of Christianity and of not evading Christianity’s complicity nor seeking to secure its purity and wholeness against its others; and yet again it seems that this attitude recognises the abiding constitutive place of failure in any identity or community such that it seems both necessary to strive for and yet impossible really to realise (?) a community is not predicated on violent exclusion. I would like to be able to distinguish simply between bad and good failure, but I wonder if there are not more intimately and inseparably connected on this account, introducing a profound ambiguity and tension into the call for Christian theology to fail better and into the orientation of a disrupted and reborn Christian love (to rework Augustine: what do we love when we love the church in its failures?).

Finally, I wonder about other risks of working with Žižek’s ontology, in addition to those which Marika so carefully and lucidly exposes and mitigates. The impression I keep getting as I read the book is that the spectre of wholeness and unity haunts Žižek’s ontology of the self, of society and of the church insofar as it seems to live on in them by its very negation there, determining the terms of the possibilities of freedom and of love, and of transformation so that those once excluded and now loved as others still only confront us in their heterogeneity to us, defined still by the negation of the terms by which we excluded them and constructed ourselves. Might it be that the terms of this ontology are still too systematic, making it more difficult to avoid the ambiguities of failure resolving, practically and theoretically, into their negative pole?