Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging II

Second day of the conference, fewer people in the chairs today. Find it interesting how small this conference is compared to the Idea of Communism conference. I won’t speculate on why, but just note it. Anyhow, today is almost entirely devoted to distributism. That would suggest it is the predominant form of Christian social teaching, though a friend humorously suggested that Mugabe is the truest distributist in history. Polemical! More below.

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Open Thread: A Hegel Quote

“Theologians are like the Englishman who didn’t know that he as speaking prose; because they work exegetically and (so they believe) in a passively receptive way, they have no inkling of the fact that they are thereby active and reflective. But if thinking is merely contingent, it abandons itself to the categories of finite content, of finitude, of finite thinking, and is incapable of comprehending the divine in the content; it is not the divine but the finite spirit that moves in such categories. As a result of such a finite thinking and comprehending of the divine, or of what is in and for itself, as a result of this finite thinking of the absolute content, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity have for the most part disappeared from dogmatics. Philosophy is preeminently, though not exclusively, what is at present essentially orthodox; the propositions that have always been valid, the basic truths of Christianity, are maintained and preserved by it.” — Philosophy of Religion, 1827 lectures

Barth on the Attributes of God

With my post-Agamben eyes, and more recently in light of Anthony’s suggestion at the AAR that “God” should be aligned with the “never-living,” I took particular note of the places in Barth’s (rather laborious) exposition of the attributes of God where he talks about God’s life. In the section on God’s constancy, the main move that Barth makes to distance his concept of God from the traditional notion of impassibility is to understand God’s constancy as his life. We can’t think of God’s impassibility as a lack of movement, since that would mean that God is dead. He also wraps up the section on God’s eternity by saying that we must understand God’s life as eternal, to keep us from veering back into an abstract concept of eternity, etc. (I haven’t read the “glory” section yet — the end of the eternity section is what prompted this post.)

My question: Why not treat God’s “life” as a separate attribute?

Infinite Regress

Every time I say this, someone says I’m missing the point, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Christian tradition is morbidly afraid of infinite regress, which in my mind includes mutual determination as a subspecies.

For instance, why is it that the West can say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (based on the biblical text), but not that the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit (which seems to be supported by the biblical account of Christ’s conception)? Did they just not want to trouble the waters further? Judging by their vociferous defense of the Filioque, that’s not a very likely explanation. Rather, it seems to me that they didn’t take that equally obvious route because that would mean that the Son and the Spirit were mutually determinative, introducing a kind of infinite regress (or vicious circle).

Similarly, every proof of the existence of God presupposes that infinite regress is an impossible outcome — hence the uncaused cause, that than which no greater can be thought, etc., etc., etc.

What is the significance of this? Only time will tell!

Denzinger Reborn

One of the most-cited texts in Catholic theology is Denzinger‘s Enchiridion Symbolorum, a compilation of doctrinal statements from church councils and other authoritative documents that provided a standard reference point. It stands alongside Migne‘s Patrologia as a monument to the intense passion for compilation that apparently consumed the Catholic theological community during the 19th century — the results of which Gramsci appears to have had in mind when he recommended that Marxism should follow the Catholic Church’s lead in developing standard “doctrinal” resources:

one would have to study all the material of the same type published by the Catholics, in various countries, in relation to the Bible, the Gospels, the Early Fathers, the Liturgy and Apologetics, great specialized encyclopedias of uneven value which are continually being published and which maintain the ideological unity of hundreds of thousands of priests and other cadres who provide the framework and the strength of the Catholic Church. (Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith [New York: International Publishers, 1971], 414-15.)

Why stop with Marxism, though? Why shouldn’t Lacan have his own Denzinger? Why not an Enchiridion Deleuziensum? What exactly are we waiting for?

Theological Responses to Zizek

If any of you know of any responses to Zizek specifically by theologians, please point them out to me in comments. I already know about Graham Ward’s chapter in Cities of God, and of course the materials in Theology and the Political, and also the article from First Things on Badiou and Zizek.

I’d particularly appreciate responses from people outside of Radical Orthodoxy or reactionary Catholicism. But maybe theologians outside the Radical Orthodox circle might not have gotten around to Zizek yet. Their up-to-the-minute-ness is perhaps Radical Orthodoxy’s best aspect — now if only we could figure out a way to get them to read, if not more carefully, at least more sympathetically (categories which in my mind almost entirely overlap when it comes to initial understanding of a new text or body of thought).

X, Our Contemporary

I notice a certain structural homology among some contemporary thinkers — an attempt to reactivate a previous debate in the history of philosophy as though its (undecided) outcome were of massive importance to the present moment. To some degree, Agamben does this with the relationship between Aristotle and Neoplatonism, but much moreso with the “debate” he stages between Benjamin and Schmitt (or Benjamin and Scholem, or Benjamin’s Kafka and Scholem, or Benjamin and…). For Zizek, the relations among the main figures in German Idealism is an urgent concern, requiring many italics and fine distinctions, and the Radical Orthodoxy crowd is obviously trying to reactivate the main debates of late scholasticism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Neoplatonism. There have been many other examples throughout the modern period — Nietzsche, for example, especially in The Birth of Tragedy, fits this pattern insofar as he so aggressively takes sides among the various Greek tragedians and philosophers.

What all these “reactivations” share is a certain indifference toward the scholarship — they are not trying to contribute to the existing industry of interpretation surrounding their chosen figures. Thus the true rigorous scholar can always object that the “reactivators” haven’t done their homework and point out any number of specific instances where they have gotten things wrong. But the very act of reactivating a past moment is dehistoricizing, implicitly rejecting the very form of historicist scholarship, and so even if the reactivator immerses herself in the existing scholarship, even if she “does her homework,” it necessarily will fail to be in the spirit of a true scholar contributing to the growth of scholarship. (In fact, it seems that the true test case would be a “reactivator” who actually had mastered the scholarship and was invulnerable to any specific quibbles — her stance itself would serve as a kind of “zero degree” offense against scholarly rigor, showing that her guilt was strictly a priori, original sin as opposed to concrete sins.)

Here I think that something of a paradigm case can be found in the relationship between theology and biblical studies in the modern period — the theologian is one for whom the Bible and the various other authoritative figures have an immediate contemporary purchase, and so the biblical scholar can always object that the theologian is “misusing” scripture. But taking modern biblical scholarship as emblematic of historicist research in general, every scholar in the premodern period was a “theologian,” even and especially those who were primarily biblical commentators — the “biblical scholarship” of the medieval period can’t help but strike the modern biblical scholar as abusive and even absurd.

To draw a parallel here, in the context of the modern university, continental philosophers and “theorists” of every stripe are, on the purely formal level, theologians. Constitutively “dilettantes,” a priori offenders against positivist and historicist “rigour,” keeping the past alive so as to be ready to greet the new. That’s the problem with continental philosophy and theory — not that their use of authorities is overdone and constitutes an imposing scholasticism, but that it’s not scholastic enough, not scholarly enough, always and everywhere setting the authority to work even in the most seemingly inoccuous commentary.

The Silent Treatment

Should God, of his free choice, wish not to reveal himself but to remain silent, man would attain the ultimate and highest self-perfection of his spiritual and religious existence by listening to the silence of God. (Karl Rahner, Hearers of the Word, pg. 16)

Rahner’s point here is to emphasize that finding the conditions of possibility for humankind receiving revelation (the task of “philosophy of religion”) is separate from the question of whether revelation has “empirically” happened (if it has, it is the subject matter of “theology”). Elsewhere, he lines up the speech or silence of God as two seemingly parallel possibilities. But does this really make sense in his scheme? After all, Rahner determines that the “place” where we receive revelation is in human historicity and specifically in human language — hence we can expect revelation to have a determinate content and to have taken place at a determinate time (for example, the content could be Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, and the time could be around 30 A.D. — for example).

If the Anknupfungspunkt were something like the pineal gland, then it would make sense for it to remain idle — but if the “pineal gland” here is the existential structure of humanity, then “listening to the silence of God” doesn’t seem to be a coherent possibility. God would somehow have to let us know, at a determinate time, that he intended to remain silent — as it were, to open his mouth to speak, then think better of it. Silence as sheer silence would not be revelation at all. The highest calling of humanity, in the event of a “null” revelation, would be to live as though there were no God — something the human beings in such a hypothetical situation would presumably do quite naively, without knowing or being able to know that they were doing so.

Or is Rahner thinking that at some point, someone would begin to feel awkward and ask his neighbor, “Do you feel like someone’s mad at you? Like there’s someone with their back turned, their arms crossed, really wanting you to notice that they’re not paying attention to you?” The “silence” of the null revelation would be the sound of God tapping his foot, furiously waiting for someone to ask him what’s wrong.

Benjamin: Latin American Liberation Theologian

In Fire Alarm, Michael Löwy brings Benjamin’s “Theses” into dialogue with Latin American liberation theology. One gets the impression that this connection is somehow surprising, but in fact the genealogical connection is obvious: JB Metz.

I defy any of my readers to find a major text of liberation theology (at least in the initial, “heroic” stage) that doesn’t cite Metz! I defy you!

Someone should write an essay about this, probably.