Tarrying with Christ: A Theology of Failure Book Event

This is a guest post from Rajbir Singh Judge.

While reading Marika Rose’s brilliant book A Theology of Failure: Žižek against Christian Innocence, that nettlesome question surfaces: “What is Christianity?” And, from there, one is led to ask a different question: what was Christianity? Even though it is and has been a religion—which, we must recall, is “a term of its own making”—the answer is not so easily answered.[1] Asking about the past itself is double-edged in our age of historical recuperation. The past can signal the recovery of lost hope that has potential to liberate or it can refuse the premise of a contraction and reveal Christian genealogies that continue to suffocate. The latter question demands we consider the difference a Christian past introduced with respect to today. But, then, the question turns again, to the former possibility. Is there a different subaltern Christian repository for our ailing present? What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?[2]

Rose refuses these historical demands through a sustained focus on Dionysius the Areopagite and his coupling of Christian theology and Neoplatonism. Working through questions of freedom, materiality, hierarchy, and universality in Dionysius’s work, Rose argues against the simple recovery of a Dionysian project but also against a sedimented Christian hierarchy that can only be as such. One issue these questions crystallize around is hierarchy and the legitimation of power in the Church. Rose challenges arguments that, attributing theological authority to Dionysian corpus, erase the contradictions of economy within his work and present an ultimately benign hierarchical system. One must refuse, Rose argues, “to be drawn by the fantasy of a lost perfection” (178). One must “reject the notion of a pure origin” (185 fn. 4). But she also troubles “those who take Dionysius’s rigid affirmation of hierarchy to be the truth of his system as a whole” (24). In that reading, Dionysius’s corpus becomes “a cover for a theological power play” that is deceitful and even pernicious (25).

Against this double blackmail, Rose asks we repeat Dionysius differently. To return to the stalemate regarding hierarchy in the previous two positions, Rose points us toward Mary-Jane Rubenstein and David Newheiser’s work, which “display an uneasiness with the apparent authoritarianism of Dionysus’s hierarchies yet seek to save him from himself precisely by appealing to the apophatic elements of his thought” (25). In this understanding, Dionysius’s apophaticism provides resources to read him against himself—to unsettle the very hierarchies he sets into place. Or, in other words, “the radical nature of Dionysius’s apophatic claims has the potential for challenging and transforming his cataphatic claims” (26) And here is Rose’s provocation. This is not simply an ambiguity or a potentiality within his work, but an antagonism (26). Tracing these impossibilities and contradictions in Dionysius’s work, it is, therefore, “not straightforwardly—if at all possible to be simply faithful to Dionysius’s work, which is itself internally inconsistent” (28). Denied this easy to grasp object and its historical context, “Dionysius’s readers are, to some extent, condemned to failure, to the very diversity and impurity that Dionysius himself seeks to escape” (28). Restated differently, the conflicts in his work provide “a possibility to radically reconfigure his work” because the effects can also exceed their cause (152).

Though our line of inquiry is destabilized in an encounter with this failure, the questions still hold since the very impossibility of Christianity signals something rather than nothing for today. Christianity, now its failure, entails a possible difference in regard to yesterday and today.[3] But, we already know, Christianity is better understood as “the very movement of Christianization.”[4] That is to say, Christian becoming. Christianity, Rose too notes throughout, is not divorced from its present movements, its colonialism. Perhaps here we can refine our questions about the past to be more precise. The question we must ponder is: what will Christianity be? The answer again is not an easy one and requires we first adequately organize Christianity as a concept. In this attempt, however, our focus cannot be on Christianity’s “abstract logical status,” but, as Talal Asad writes, to examine “the way in which a specific political (or religious) discourse that employs them seems to mobilize or direct the behavior of people within given situations.”[5]

In her materialism, Rose as well argues faithfulness to the event of Christ requires one not locate an abstract definition, but consider the materiality of Christ himself. The Church then cannot be understood as “an idea or set of ideas” but must be thought “as a particular group of people, a particular set of institutions, a particular collection of texts and practices.” The event of Christ, therefore, is “a fidelity to a body, therefore, that is as ill-defined, fluid, and mutable as any other body—which always exceed and undermines any particular interpretation, any attempt to identify the universal core of Christianity” (13). In some ways, the very attempt to return to an originary or foundational core in order to provide an “abstract logical status” undoes Christianity as such—failure is at the center. Still, though a thing’s constitution might not be what is most real about it, there certainly are real consequences.[6] Especially so, as Gil Anidjar argues, since Christianity is not a consensual term.[7]  Here then we must ask: “But what if Christianity were what it has, in fact, become?”[8] And what Christianity is cannot be in doubt. As Amy Hollywood writes, “Today, who isn’t within Christianity’s orbit? Whose life isn’t determined by that horizon?”[9] When we dwell on such Christian becoming, or perhaps just colonialism, we must also remember that inconsistency and inchoateness at the heart of the Christian tradition is not necessarily opposed to domination. Instability, Anidjar argues, does not undermine Christianity as a regulatory ideal, but gives it its force.[10]

Rose is quite thoughtful and careful on this point. The larger problem is, as Rose skillfully presents, one of economy— “the circular figure of exchange, causation, return, identity, and completion”—which cannot be sustained as such marked as it is, for example, in the Christian tradition by the relation between God and the created world. These concerns are transposed into a different register with the Enlightenment. As Rose writes, it was a “fundamental reordering of the center of the economic question away from God and toward the individual subject” where mastery over this gap takes hold countering the troubles apophatic theology presents (29).  Grappling in this problem-space, she offers a rare qualification. She recognizes the particular nature of Christianity while limiting its return to its specific boundaries. Rose, that is, tries to inscribe Christianity into its limits, contracting its reach, by refusing its unimpeded flow and its returns—rejecting its smooth economic circulation.[11]

The question Rose asks then is not simply about Christianity today or what it was in the past or what it has become in general, but a much longer and qualified one:

Is there a way for white Western theologians to respond to the philosophical shift from the divine to the human economy, to give an account of the homology between creation and sin, to cling both to the traditional affirmation of and the desire to transcend materiality, to confront the reality of political and ecclesiastical power while also providing the resources to resist them, and to acknowledge both the particularity of Christianity and the fecundity of its liaisons with its others? (55)

In lieu of this question, Rose differentiates herself from Radical Orthodoxy and Deconstructionist Christians regarding the question of economy. Rose argues whereas Radical Orthodoxy proposes an ontological peace secured by the guarantee of redemption that repudiates the problem of a gap—a “‘return to the crudest ontology of Christian’ imperial power”—Christian deconstructionists favor “an ontology of connection, uncertainty, and multiplicity” thereby “legitimating the soft power of Western neocolonialism” (176). Against Radical Orthodoxy’s mastery and Christian desconstructionists’ escape, Rose strives to emphasize “incompleteness, contingency and distortion” in relation to the gap in economy.

However, Rose argues, the goal for theology is not simply to dwell in uncertainty, hesitation, or silence (172). Instead, we have to think of it as unfinished—to open economy as failure itself.  To do so, Rose turns our attention to Slavoj Žižek whose work posits that “the material world, the social order, and the individual subject alike are structured as internally ruptured economies, failed wholes broken apart by a transcendence that arises from their own immanence” (10). Foundationally structured by this traumatic gap, a society or individual, therefore, can never be whole, harmonious, self-contained or self-identical. Constitutive rather than disruptive, this failure then is a condition of existence that can be generative rather than simply a longing for a completeness always deferred (102, 176).  It is generative, however, as drive not desire. Whereas desire tries to suture this gap, a “failed attempt to attain impossible Oneness,” drive both founds and ruptures the economy, centered as it is with failure as the goal (67). Put another way, desire looks to obtain the object of desire and produce an impossible fullness (which the subject deliberately avoids), but drive is the “celebration of incompleteness and imperfection” itself (67). For Rose, Christ is this trauma at the heart of Christianity—which requires a relation of drive against desire.

The importance of Rose’s reading of drive cannot be understated—especially when we consider the desire for a harmonious totality centered on epistemological recovery that pervades the humanities. In studies of the postcolony, genealogies offer redemption; archives promise mastery. This desire emerges, as Frank Wilderson aptly notes, in the “postcolonial’s capacity for cartographic restoration,” the psychic grounding wires that accompany colonial rule—creating desire for a known object, to produce an authentic decolonial self through knowledge itself.[12] The search and promise of another archive or an alternative genealogy soothes. But reorienting toward drive as Rose demands, the question is not simply of epistemological recovery—the need to recover a past that can anchor the self—but ontological, which means, as Rose writes, “an inherent limitation within materiality itself” (68).  Orienting toward drive requires we forgo the desire aiming “consciously at reintegration of the lost object unconsciously at its endless deferral” (67). There is no “‘deeper message’” (73).

Perhaps then, recalling that there is no deeper message, our question might be slightly different, shorter. Why Christianity at all? The question is not hinting that we should stop research into Christianity altogether—in fact the academy might be particularly well-suited for only Christianity. Rose too recognizes the predicament, noting her study is a contextual theology that “grapples with an inheritance of white Western Christianity.” (177). She critiques Žižek for making the crucifixion the example of divine violence rather than one particular example (113). But my question is not about provincializing Christianity. Instead, the question is: what does it mean for Christianity to do the ‘failing’ even if it is one’s theological inheritance? The question asks: what happens when one identifies the gap, loss, and failure through Christianity rather than simply as such? For example, Christ is the traumatic antagonism and conditional foundation of Christian identity, rather than the object of desire that covers a foundational gap.

What does it mean for an intrinsic incompleteness, a structural lack, a groundless ground, to be named and known internal to Christianity? And, then, importantly, what if we thought about lack without recourse to Christianity? One could say, by locating failure so neatly within Christian theology, failure is not really failure and, therefore, not drive, but desire—failure/Christ itself becomes the object of desire, which is locatable, but deferred, within Christianity—such as the body of Christ. To shift perspective slightly, to ask why Christianity leads to the question of melancholia. The danger lies in developing a melancholic relation to Christianity, which can mask a structural lack by appropriating loss itself and creating a fetish. To appropriate Rebecca Comay’s incisive work, “Melancholia would thus be a way of staging a dispossession of that which was never [Christianity’s] own to lose in the first place – and thus, precisely by occluding structural lack as determinate loss, would exemplify the strictly perverse effort to assert a relation with the non-relational.”[13] Melanchola begins to bleed into fetishism. To quote Comay at length:

Perversion not only names the simultaneity of recognition and disavowal: it hints at the deeper paradox that the very recognition is the disavowal. There is no acknowledgement of trauma which in its claim to adequacy (a claim implicit in the very protestation of inadequacy) does not efface the loss it would concede.[14]

A structural and indeterminate lack, for example, yields its own fulfilment by being locatable as Dionysius’s work and filling the very vacuum that Rose importantly draws our attention to. Or, to think of another possible relation, Christianity as failure, Christ as trauma, today, can function as the very memorial that commemorates failure itself. It becomes “the melancholic cannibal,” a vampire bat gazing at the wreckage of history.[15]

Therefore, even confronting its own failure, Christianity can colonize or, perhaps, Christianize, through this melancholic relation to loss—by accounting for the very trauma it simultaneously recognizes. In so doing, to rephrase Partha Chatterjee’s questioning of nationalism, Christianity then provides modular form through its content to think about the failure and loss—becoming the object of desire globally.[16] To push this argument to its furthest end, instead of the black subject position disarticulating our foundational assumptions, as Wilderson posits, Christianity always already has because of its foundational structure—form and content bleed into each other—because of the trauma of Christ.[17] This is a point Rose rejects by drawing attention to how the slave founds the “Western, [or is it Christian], symbolic order” (146). But still questions remain. As Comay writes “Is it possible to acknowledge loss without thereby surreptitiously disavowing it?”[18] Does this acknowledgment/disavowal efface the centrality of a negativity that cannot be contained? Is it still possible to encounter trauma when we know, recover, and identify the terms of that trauma? Such failure then might be another situation, to rephrase Anidjar, in which “Christianity exonerates itself more than it [fails].”[19]

A Theology of Failure raises many important questions. It is beautifully written and theoretically sophisticated. I learned much even as Rose herself continuously qualified and limited her claims. But still, limitations aside, the questions still trouble. What is Christianity? What was Christianity? What will Christianity be? Why Christianity? Yet when confronted with these questions that disappear and appear, when asked to consider a possible Christianity marked by Christian pasts, presents, and futures, even ones that fail in our world which is marked by destruction, I wonder in silence and can only answer with an “I would prefer not to.”[20]

[1] Gil Anidjar, “Of Globalatinology,” Derrida Today 6, no. 1 (2013), 13.

[2] I borrow line of inquiry from Michel Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment” and Gil Anidjar’s “What Was Enlightenment”. See Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 32-50 and Gil Anidjar, “What Was Enlightenment,” Critical Research On Research 7, no. 2 (2019): 173-181.

[3] Rose rightly notes that trauma or failure do not necessarily lead to change.

[4] Gil Anidjar, “Of Globalatinology,” Derrida Today 6, no. 1 (2013), 16.

[5] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 185.

[6] Here I rephrase Ed Pluth who writes, “There is no reason to think that a thing’s constitution is what is always most real about it, since a constitutive story is only a partial story about whatever thing is in question.” (111). See Ed Pluth, “On Transcendental Materialism and the Natural Real,” Filozofski vestnik 33, no. 2 (2012), 95–113.

[7] Gil Anidjar, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Christianity” Interventions 11, no. 3 (2009), 390.

[8] Anidjar, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Christianity,” 390.

[9] Amy Hollywood, “Inescapable Christianity” Marginalia: Los Angeles Review of Books, March 2, 2015.

[10] Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2014), 248.

[11] This could also be reductive of Christianity—is it simply one religion among many? See Gil Anidjar, “The Meaning of Life,” Critical inquiry 37, no. 4 (2011): 722.

[12] Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Duke University Press, 2010), 123.

[13] Rebecca Comay, “The Sickness of Tradition: Between Melancholia and Fetishism,” in Walter Benjamin and History, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Continuum, 2005), 89.

[14] Comay, 90.

[15] Anidjar, Blood, 194.

[16] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton, 1993), 8.

[17] Frank Wilderson, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003), 226.

[18] Comay, 88.

[19] Gil Anidjar, “The Forgetting of Christianity,” ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies 1, No. 1 (2015), 33.

[20] Silence here is central. As Ed Pluth and Cindy Zeiher write, “Lacanian psychoanalysis utilizes a silence that jars, one that highlights gaps and splits. It is not a healing, restorative silence at all, but a disruptive one, and one that echoes or repeats the very creation of the split subject (42). See Ed Pluth and Cindy Zeiher. On Silence: Holding the Voice Hostage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).