Calvin’s Big Other

A common misconception in the early stages of learning Lacanian theory is to assume that “the big Other” is God. In point of fact, this is not the case. The big Other refers to the realm of officiality and quasi-officiality, and the use of the word “big” rather than, say, “grand” in translating this concept testifies to a fundamental silliness. We all know objectively that the social order is impersonal, but we act like there’s a person out there — not like all the other others, but a really big Other — whose recognition we need and who, in some cases, must be kept in the dark.

For instance, we all know that marriage is really about commitment and love and that a piece of paper doesn’t determine that, but people obviously still want to go through the proper channels in order to be “really” married, and sometimes there is anxiety on the part of one or both partners if the wedding has occurred but the paperwork seems to be out of order, etc. The commitment is between the two people, but the big Other is party to it. On the other side, the phenomenon of “open secrets” or what people will say “off the record” show that sometimes the big Other needs to be kept in the dark — it’s one thing for a Bush administration official to privately confide in a reporter that the Iraq War is lost, but it would be completely different for one to say so in testimony to Congress. The indisputable, objective underlying reality — that the Iraq War is lost — remains the same in both cases, but it still matters whether it’s official, that is, whether the big Other has heard about it.

The theology of John Calvin seems to me to provide a great way to illustrate this disjuncture between God and the big Other. On the one hand, God is controlling everything behind our backs, acting according to a purpose that is known only to him and that does not correspond to our own ideas of morality and logic. (Thus God is more properly aligned with the Lacanian Real.) But on the other hand, Calvin — perhaps because of his legal training — places a huge emphasis on the realm of officiality. For instance, in his exposition of the line “crucified under Pontius Pilate” from the creed, Calvin argues that the death of Jesus couldn’t be a suicide or any kind of “private” death — it had to be public, and to be properly public, it had to be an official death sentence handed down by the official representative of the state. This officiality holds even though Calvin thinks that Pilate as a private individual believed Jesus to be innocent. Similarly, in his discussion of church discipline, he repeatedly emphasizes that a person is to be officially considered a member of the church or a minister (as appropriate) as long as that person has not been officially removed from that position by the proper authorities. This has nothing to do with salvation — God can do what he wants, and it is already known that there will be “chaff” (reprobate) among the members of the church. So if Calvin isn’t doing this for the sake of God, what’s the purpose? Clearly, he wants to satisfy the big Other.