Freedom, Responsibility, and Redemption: The Prince of This World book event

pid_23793Let’s start at the end. The end of Adam Kotsko’s timely and compelling book and the end of my general exams. In fact, we might start at the beginning of the end of my exams when I finished a review of Kotsko’s book for the Anglican Theological Review the weekend before starting my exams. This could have been a tedious trainwreck of bad planning (and there was some extra stress due to my terribly bad planning), but I mostly found it helpful for thinking about some key questions that have emerged in my own graduate study—questions that shaped my examination papers and which I keep returning to as the shell of world continues to slowly collapse in on itself. These questions primarily center on the conclusions and the constructive push that Kotsko offers. In many ways it is a constructive turn that feel at odds with the very convincing story of the Devil’s rise and fall. This tension is not, I think, because the constructive piece is a bad one but because I wonder whether there is a more radical conclusion that would take more seriously. Having read Jared’s response to the book, I was even more struck by the notion that thinking seriously about race and coloniality in the Devil’s story may lead us to push further than the Devil’s redemption and think more about God’s responsibility for evil.

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To play devil’s advocate for a minute….

The brutal ejection of a paying and duly seated passenger from a United Airlines flight has prompted a flourishing of contrarian hot takes. “Actually,” our clever subversive thinkers opine, “if you’ll let me play devil’s advocate for a minute here, the powerful corporation should get to do whatever the hell it wants and we should obey!” I have long been a critic of contrarianism, whose root “contrary” claim is that the rich and powerful are an oppressed group who need our defense, but I kind of can’t believe that I have never specifically called attention to the role of the devil in their rhetoric.

One of the key themes of The Prince of This World (available wherever fine books are sold) is that the symbol of the devil emerges as a political-theological weapon of the Jewish community under conditions of unspeakable persecution and suffering. The imagery of the demonic allows them to name their oppressive rulers as illegitimate opponents of God’s justice — and to inscribe them into a narrative in which God will ultimately defeat them. Over time, however, as Christians appropriate this symbol and subsequently enter into alliance with the rulers of this world, the polarity becomes reversed and the imagery of the demonic becomes a tool of the oppressor, a way of scapegoating the already weak and victimized.

The service that the contrarian hot take-ist performs is to undo this reversal. The “devil’s advocate” who takes up the cause of the powerful against their victims actually names the illegitimate earthly powers as demonic. The gesture may seem subversive in a modern context, where the devil stands as a rebel against the even more questionable authority of the oppressive Christian God, but for those with eyes to see, it is actually sad and pathetic. Here we can look at Milton’s Paradise Lost, the subject of many contrarian hot takes to the effect that actually, the devil is the hero! Wow, edgy! But if we take the devil as a hero, we wind up rooting for the guy who manipulates two people with the emotional maturity of children into ruining their own lives, out of impotent spite.

If that’s what contrarian cleverness looks like, I’ll stick with boring, flat-footed common sense: the powerful do not need advocates, their victims really are victims, and the only person more pathetic than a bully is the snivelling toady who cheers him on.

January speaking dates

I am planning to kick off next year with two speaking dates. The first will be part of a larger event on “The Temptation of Christ” for the DePaul Humanities Center on Monday, January 16 (PDF flyer), and the second will be a conversation with Peter Coviello (possibly known to you as the author of one of the best post-election essays in existence) on The Prince of This World at the Seminary Co-op on Thursday, January 19 (JPG flyer).

What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

Trump’s Theater of Cruelty

It has often been remarked that Trump has brought a “reality TV” feel to this election cycle. What is less noted is that he is on both sides of the reality show equation — for his supporters, he is Simon Cowell, while for his opponents, he is the hapless bad singer in the early days of an American Idol season. From one perspective, he is dishing out punishment to the losers, while from the other, he is suffering a humiliation all the more acute for his seeming lack of self-awareness.

The common denominator is cruelty, which is the true core of reality TV’s libidinal appeal. And I am not ashamed of my desire to see Trump suffer cruelty. He embodies everything I hate, and he misses no opportunity to double down on everything that is bad about him. I am no great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I began positively rooting for her when the debate presented her with an opportunity to publicly humiliate him on a national stage. Republicans have been demonizing her as a castrating ice queen for decades — and I was glad to see her “lean in” and openly scoff Trump, setting him up to humiliate himself again and again.

This kind of justified hatred is something that centrist liberalism normally cannot tap into, and that is its greatest weakness, because such hatred is a deeply human instinct that can’t be bought off with tax credits or GDP increases. Yet it is an instinct that takes us to some pretty dark places — both historically and theologically. In my research for The Prince of This World (shipping any day now), I found that it led all the way to hell, which is itself presented as a theater of cruelty. Theologians from Tertullian through to Aquinas and beyond highlight the fact that one of the attractions of hell is watching the sufferings of the unrighteous.

For all eternity, the saints get to enjoy the spectacle of God’s justice, world without end. There is something disturbing about this, insofar as the Christian concept of justice drifted ever further from what we would recognize as just punishment and focused increasingly on arbitrary scapegoating. Yet even if we agreed completely with Tertullian and Aquinas’s idea of who would join Trump in the eternal fires of hell, there is a deeper problem at work. Like all spectacles, the spectacle of hell — even an “accurate” hell — is a compensation, a distraction.

By focusing on the individual exclusively, we are distracted from the fact that the same system that produces the spectacle also produces that individual. In the medieval Christian worldview, this was very literal, insofar as God predetermined that each sinner would “freely” sin. In our setting, it has frequently been pointed out that Trump is “as American as apple pie.” Indulging our personal hatred for Trump — which is, I would emphasize, completely justified — is a poor compensation for the fact that we live in a system that produces Trumps.

To take only the most obvious example, Trump would not exist if we did not allow wealthy men to stockpile money and give it to their children. Trump would not exist if we did not set up a system where a man could live his entire life without hearing the word “no,” all because of what his father did. If we could channel some of that hatred and resentment into a determined campaign to impose a punitive estate tax, so that no Trumps can ever happen again, that would be productive. But the estate tax is treated as an amoral, technocratic question of economic growth, leaving the libidinal energy of hatred to find other, more destructive venues.

Please note that I am not saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game” — I think we must hate both, channeling our hatred for the player to abolish the game. System vs. individual is a false dichotomy: we can tell the system is horrible by the fact that it really does produce horrible individuals. The fact that Trump was produced by a horrible system doesn’t make him a less horrible person or somehow let him off the hook for his freely chosen, exhorbitant actions. He should be banished from the public eye for the rest of his life, and all his wealth should be seized and given to poor refugees.

At the end of the day, though, the most urgent question is not how to send the right people to hell (as my Trump example shows, that will never happen anyway). We need to abolish the system that produces these demons in the first place. And we can never do that within the liberal procedural frame that refuses to admit that the demons exist.