November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
April 4, 2005
After being discharged from the Army in 1993, I thought I would pursue professional politics as a course of life. I eagerly joined a local Republican politician in Hanover, Pennsylvania where, before the end of summer, Tom Ridge offered me an invitation to join his staff in his upcoming run for Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race. As a conservative Christian, I was on my way to restore God’s truth to an increasingly secularized America. But because I hadn’t yet gone to college, I thought it best to pursue a degree, (in political science, of course), and then return to the political scene in three or four years. Before long, while studying philosophy at Calvin College I came across Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which for the first time, gave me a way of framing history in terms of Christian ethics and politics. It was only a short step from MacIntyre to his theological tag-team partner, Stanley Hauerwas, whose radical Christian arguments fleshed out what a Christian politic means to physically embrace and embody. Needless to say, instead of heading back to Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, I headed to Duke to study Christian politics, with MacIntyre and Hauerwas.
What soon became clear in my study of history and Christianity was the strange way in which conservative Christianity in America became inherently bound up with the Republican Party. It was as if the Republican Party had invented Christianity as a way of furthering its agenda. I’m from the working class, my father recently retired from the Fire Department, and what became equally disturbing to me was the way in which the Republican Party ingeniously furthered the agenda of protecting the interest of the wealthy and middle-class, while at the same time, propagated the heroic salvaging of Christian morals from the onslaught of evil from the enemy of communism abroad and from secular humanism from within. I am now convinced that as Christians we need to argue for a robust materialist politics that goes beyond the monopoly of a singular party (The Republican Party or even the Democratic Party, although the former seem to be the Party in control at the moment), or a specific geography (The United States of America), or even a historical epoch, (The Middle-Ages). Indeed the Christian logic of love is one that transcends any static articulation wedded irreducibly to a human agenda of power and violence. Thus, Christian politics must be universal: it announces the bright light of liberation for the poor and the oppressed. Creation order is not removed from this universal Christian liberation wrought in the Incarnation and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit; to the contrary, as St. Paul tells us, ALL creation moans for its full restoration. We are living out this universal politics of liberation for the entire world and all material history. Yet, because the fullness of time has yet to arrive, this universal cannot be employed as a totality or an epistemological foundationalism, rather, as we shall see the Christian universal is always eschatologically constituted—always here, but not yet.
If Christian politics is universal, then politics, as God’s act of liberating the earth from sin through the Church is grounded in the very foundations of creation itself: Politics is infinitely more than the delimiting power of legislating, executing, and maintaining law and order in a human-made polity. Yet because politics is universal it is inescapably intertwined to the particular, and so it has something to say on all levels of existence, not only in the “invented” politics of the United States of America, but also on the level of a cultural and economic logic of the world. What I seek to do in what follows is to shows how the cultural logic of North American capitalism has entered into a stage of inventing what I call a “nihilistic sublimity.” Now that all meaning has been sundered from the earth, the existence that remains is wholly disjoined from meaning and so we are left in the total randomness of chance. All that is left to do in the chaotic moment is to mock existence itself through playing out the contradiction of existing within the horizon of meaningless existence. The logic of our time is something like a bemusing or sublime attempt to try and cancel existence out through existence itself.
This “ironical” condition reveals a cultural politics of nihilism. I am using the term “nihilism” in the Nietzschian sense spelled out by Gianni Vattimo, as “the dissolution of any ultimate foundation, the understanding that in the history of philosophy, and of western culture in general, ‘God is dead,’ and ‘the real world has become a fable.’ The secular sublime, because it flows through meaningless existence, is cut off from anything higher than itself (and in this way it is Kantian) and emerges from within the nihilistic play as like a transcendence within the immanent self-enclosed horizon. The sublime is therefore like a forced false-transcendence through a play of absolute repetition, like the techno beat. Once I locate this weird logic of the nihil (nothing), I will argue for a way to outflank this insidious and ultimately victimological stance from the perspective of Christian theological grounds. I will unfold this thesis in two basic stages. The first stage identifies a cultural logic of nihilism through an analysis of contradiction inherent in capitalism. After identifying our nihilism, the second stage poses two primary responses to our nihilism. There is, on the one hand, the exclusivist version. This view holds that nihilism is wholly antithetical to theology. One the other hand, the inclusivist version, embraces nihilism tout court; nihilism is all there is, and this position essentially poses our basic contradiction. I will suggest that neither version is viable, and instead opt for a materialist eschatology founded through a Trinitarian logic that gives a Real-nihilism without fetishizing the depth of non-existence into a contradictory and reified existence.
Stage One: Our Nihilism and the Contradiction
What is most exhilarating about our cultural and historical moment is how we are at once so fascinated with the delights of our spectacular world—from dizzying lights, to complex machines, to high-speed communication, to the pleasure of something as simple and grotesque as Gatorade— and yet, with all the immense pleasure that surround us in North America we find this same aesthetical display to be so entirely unsatisfactory. This is another expression of a basic contradiction of our moment. This is the play on the intoxicating and the absolute void, the surplus and the lack, all wrapped up into a singular existence. This seems to be a moment of pure contradiction that contradicts itself and so forth ad infinitum. By contradiction I do not mean the formal and reductive analytical sense of a statement that can be both true and false. Rather I mean contradiction that arises from the division between appearance and substance—between the dizzying lights and the speed of our time on the one side, and the empty evacuation of meaning that reside in the heart of all being on the other side. This is the core meaning of contradiction, but I would like to spell this out a bit more and in three stages: the first stage is the appearance of an objects’ aesthetic or phenomenological show, its external “form” if you like, that appears as pure and wholly unrelated to any depth or substance including the subject perceiving the object. So, the subject, observing the object, at once perceives the object’s “form” (in its phenomenological appearing), and yet within this perception there is pure unrelation (between subject and object, and between objects themselves) such that it undoes the force and depth of perception in its very act of perceiving.
The second stage is that the object’s aesthetic show is so attractive and so compelling and yet is grounded only in its pure appearance sundered from any depth. Appearance thus takes on an immanent transcendence within its internal horizon of existence. And so, in the third stage, the contradiction takes hold at the very moment when the appearance of things is displayed only through itself as appearance such that the subject herself is redefined in terms of pure appearance and no longer possesses any depth or resistance to the world logic of immanent transcendence. These steps of contradiction, premised on the Kantian Ding an Sich (the phenomenological “thing-in-itself”), becomes a nihilism because the depth of the world is subverted through pure non-relational appearance, which too becomes the logic of capitalism whereby depth is sacrificed for pure reification. In other words, the entire world becomes a pure invention of non-relation, and the links between things evaporates into mid-air. Therefore the only way you can show this cultural contradiction is by revealing an irrefutable logic that transcends pure appearance of the object, or the reification of the world.
These stages of what I am calling phenomenological contradiction, which is indicative of our current cultural logic, is based on George Lukács’ 1924 argument, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” This may be somewhat confusing at the moment but I will flesh this out through examples in what follows. Contradictions take place on nearly all levels of our creaturely existence, from the level of satisfying our most bane desires (where the body desires an object whose telos is other than the Good), to our collective cultural and political expressions in which humanity is represented as the zenith of all History, and yet we have no meaning at all; we are at once gods AND a mere disinterested throw of the dice. This prima facie observation of the basic contradiction of our nihilist epoch suggests that an analysis of contradiction could well serve us in attempting to get some kind of grip on the overdetermined conditions that seem to be invading us at the all level of existence, from the robotic techno rhythms that seamlessly melt into the consumer space in Banana Republic, Starbucks, and the American strip mall to the bureaucratic web that surrounds us with an increased and predictable pressure, and finally, to the arrival of snail mail in which you find your electric bill precariously inserted in the pages of Eddie Bauer’s Summer catalogue. There is a strange cultural logic that connects up various and sundry places and activities in a mono-logical or purely appearing fashion that, as Fredric Jameson has put it, overdetermines our basic ability to make sense of the world though our senses.
Jameson expresses this condition as, “Postmodern hyperspace” which, according to him, “has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world.”With this, we can take Jameson one step further, because what’s happening here is already a transcendent experience within immanence. The body is no longer able to locate itself as grounded, and therefore in a way, our contradictory moment of hyperspace—of pure surface effect, already presents us with a mystical experience. This mystical experience that results from loosing a grip on our external reality gets to the notion of the secular sublime that is introduced with the moment of immanent-transcendence. We now live in a moment of an unparalleled cultural shift in material history, a shift that makes Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm thesis” look severely out of date; indeed our state of things is much more complex and determined by this acceleration principle of hyper-space. We cannot simply say, for example, we are living in a moment of a shift from cultural moment A to cultural moment B employing the quasi Hegelian-cum-Marxist methodology. What seems to be taking hold instead is much more profound and is more like a great wave or flux that resists the transparency of ultimate constitution and transcendental analysis wedded to the austere empirical or sociological outlook. How do you get a grip on a diffusive logic, as like a snake whose very aesthetic movement operates on the elusive contradiction here and not here, of a presence and an absence? In the very instance we spot it, it is gone. Is it not more accurate to say that our cultural and historical paradigm is that we have no singular paradigm—or rather our paradigm is more like a “post-paradigm-paradigm” whose essential core is contradiction itself? But if this is so, what kind of material resources can we draw on to break this protracted deconstructive logic of our time? This will be a question we need to keep in focus, but let me flesh all this out with a few examples.
The first example of our moment of contradiction was perfectly witnessed at a Chicago Cubs/Florida Marlins’ baseball game in October 2003. The Cubs were five outs from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when a Cubs fan, Steve Bartman, tried to grab a foul ball, preventing Cubs outfielder Moises Alou from catching it. This singular event was instrumental to aiding the Florida Marlins to scoring extra runs that led to their 8-3 victory and ultimately advancing to the World Series. The POINT here is the contradiction of a fan aiding the opposing team to victory in a state of total existential overdetermination. For the later reported as saying: “I didn’t really realize I was there…I forgot where I was.” For Bartman was not only sitting in the front row he was also listening to the game on a portable radio receiver. This is the precise moment of the mind/body problematic—Bartman was present in two modes: with the body and with the mind both of which at once aesthetically correspond and potentially conflict with each other. Because he was present in more than one sense, in a way he was ultimately too present—too much THERE paradoxically to be there such that he couldn’t order his actions that accorded with his desires much less his material surroundings.
Another example of our contradictory moment can be seen in the recent film The Polar Express. This film is an example of yet another step in film’s history that collapses difference because it puts into play different characters whose voices are spoken from a single person, namely Tom Hanks. Not only is this film already beyond cinema, as it is digital which flattens out and further de-materializes the relation between viewer and the viewed, but the different characters in the film who speak to each other (Hero boy, Father, Conductor, Hobo, Scrooge, and Santa Claus) are each speaking to each other with the same voice, a univocal voice, whose very sound possesses a significant economic commodity. What is taking place here is apropos of a general cultural logic, because, in the first place, there is a compromise of difference in the film. The difference between the characters, on the surface of appearance, is different through the visual effects or pure surface, yet, this difference is compromised by the identity of Tom Hank’s voice. This is instructive because the identity of voice collapses the difference that the characters represent. Difference is under attack from a singularity (or mono-logical operation) that holds increasing sway over the logic of existence through culture. Tom Hanks becomes the contemporary, Mel Blanc who was the univocal voice for the animation series with the appropriate name, Loony Tunes.
There are of course bazillion examples of these contradictions, but what is at stake is that these examples bare out what might be analogous to the foolish schizoid-man who builds his house on the sand—the sand being a metaphor for the shifting tides of cultural relativity (the post-paradigm-paradigm that evades analysis) that brings to the surface the flow of being as absolute and unstoppable. To take a stand is to contradict oneself in the very act of mustering the stance itself. Is this not the post-modern irony that we enter when we read contemporary spy-thrillers works like Robert Ludlum’s the Jason Bourne series in which within the binary matrix of Communist East and Capitalist West the spy’s own identity is eventually obliterated all the way down. The entire premise of the series is that Jason Borne cannot remember his own identity. The identity of things is eroded. Is this not an irony that pokes fun of the real meaning of things with all its virtual force? Because there are no foundations, or set modes of thinking, the conscious response to this is to create a residual stance that can finally only be ironical or obliterated. Nothing can physically (or substantially) stand.
Is this too not a basic assumption of modern art from impressionism forward where the core substance of life drops into the register of the purely psychological and finally into inhuman abstractions of mathematical precision? For the psychological we need only think of Édouard Manet’s tour de force, A Bar at the Folies-Bergères, where the dominate figure, the barmaid, appears as disinterested as she exists. She is and yet her existence is sundered from social participation. This is seen by the total disjointed reality that the background mirror presents—a reality that confirms an irrefutable irony of human existence. One is, and therefore one cannot be. One cannot fully participate in the social because, as Margaret Thatcher has prophetically pointed out, the social is no more. Or, to put it in terms of our contradiction: being presents the conditions in which the subject can only be in opposition to being itself. The subject is precisely the non-participant in material reality. Painting follows this logic as it will eventually evacuate all relation to the human as seen in, for instance, Piet Mondrian’s idealized pure “reality” expressed in pure mathematical relation that dispenses with representation altogether. Being for Mondrian can no longer give the conditions of expression and so being appears in purely idealized terms, which is to say, being’s Real is inverted as the unreal-Real, the dessert of the virtual. Thus, we have finally struck the core of our contradiction: being gives us the conditions to annihilate itself as being by creating a false transcendence that bedazzles us to death.
It’s as if Hegel’s Absolute Spirit has finally whispered its age old secret in the ear of Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry): “Go ahead, make my day!” The Absolute Spirit becomes conscious of itself such that it can no longer stand itself anymore (like an annoying mother-in-law) and so must find amusement by the sublimity of historical suicide. This becomes the (in)famous End of History (Hegel), the End of politics (the Atom/Nuclear bomb), the End of ideology (Jean-François Lyotard), the End of Society (Reagan/Thatcher) or even the end of the End itself (Gilles Deleuze). And so, instead of the Marxist dream arriving in pure revolutionary consciousness as proletarian praxis (a la Lukács), we remain trapped in the morass of the sublimity of nihilism. We are far beyond Shakespeare’s zero-sum question voiced by Hamlet: “To be or not to be?” We are beyond it because our subjectivity unlike Hamlet’s, no longer stands outside History. History itself has folded entirely into the subject and the total horizon of being absorbs the entire globe. But does not the sheer weight of History break the back of the subject whose only entertainment now is passive irony—the participation in non-participation? Thus we have no question of the sort “to be or not to be?” rather we move into a pure post-subjective performance with the question: “Can I at once be AND not be?” i.e., the Deleuzian “rhizome.”
We can get a lot of enjoyment out of watching us play the game of trying to perform the post-subjective contradiction of being AND not being. It is our irony, and we love and hate it—like U2 mid-1990’s Zooropa tour that mocked itself in all its glory. We must further not suppose that this cultural logic of nihilism does not already play into a political logic not only on the level of the banal “Washington D.C.” form of the political but on the ontological level of the political too. William Cavanaugh is thus correct in pointing out that the “distinction between politics and religion was not discovered but invented”. The basic unfolding of existence encompasses all expressions of material history including nihilism and the unilateral, neo-conservative politics of the Bush administration. From the ontological level of creation, the logic of the world unfolds and nihilism is already bound up in this unfolding.
Stage Two: The Politics of the Church
Now that we have identified something of which nihilism is, I now want to turn to assessing this logic as it relates to the Church, and then move on to suggest that only Christian theology can grasp nihilism in all its un-reified depth. The ultimate end that we seek is to put into relation a material Christian logic of the Church with nihilism such that neither, nihilism dictates the terms of the Church’s existence in-itself, but neither does an idealized and ultimately de-politicized “Church” determine the world in terms that are external a trans-historical unfolding. There are two basic orientations that engage this cultural logic of nihilism. The first orientation is the exclusivist position and is adopted by conservative forms of Christianity, such as Protestant evangelicalism and very conservative forms of Roman Catholicism. The exclusivist orientation thinks of nihilism as a self-contained deposit and so can dismiss it tout court as if nihilism as a cultural logic is a disease in an otherwise perfectly healthy body-politic, and what we must do is perform something like surgery to extract the cancerous infection of nihilism, so the historically persistent body can continue on its way warding off evil at every turn. The basic axiom of this orientation is a fundamental dualism that supposes there is an impermeable division established between the Christian Church and the world. The problem with this position is that the Church becomes an idealized reality that is determined strictly on its own immanent terms of what George Lindbeck might call a cultural-linguistic construction that embodies a purely self-referential system of power through which the world is mediated. The inclusivist orientation is the second version and is directly opposite to the first exclusivist position, in that nihilism, if it exists at all, is seen as historically necessary and therefore inextricably part of the fabric of historical becoming, and the necessary cultural expression of this becoming. For this orientation, there is nothing beyond the cultural logic of nihilism as like the gravitational power of a black hole. There is no way we can isolate or contextualize it much less neatly extract it from a more fundamental substrata, viz. the body politic, or the Church. The basic axiom of this orientation is a fundamental univocity that supposes that all things are in the same way that everything else is. That is to say, according to this position there is no real difference between things and because there is no difference we cannot construct a boundary that separates two or more identities, for example, the Church and the world. If we cannot establish a boundary between things, then we cannot rightly say that things exist at all in relational terms to other things or objects. The cultural logic of nihilism therefore becomes an ontological logic that collapses everything else in its mono-logical (i.e., univocal) wake.
The exclusivist orientation is premised on a basic dualism, the Church is over and against the world; whereas the inclusivist view holds to a basic ontological assumption that there is an irreducible one-ness to all things that turns the Church unrecognizably into the world and conversely the world dissolves the Church into oblivion. But, we must ask, is there a way of thinking across both these horizons at once? Again, there are two sides here: on the one pole, we have a dualism and on the other you have a univocity. We have seen that both of these options fail to give us the conditions in which to constitute a complex Church-world relation without sliding down into sundering the world from the Church, or, on the other side, dissolving the Church into the world without remainder. What would it take to do this? What kind of axiom would we need and how would we go about implementing it? We would need that which can give us difference and identity at once without one side dominating the other! What kind of axiom would this be, would it not be contradictory and thus fall back into pure immanence? Would the positing of difference and identity at one and the same time not be contradictory, and if so, can we get out of this basic problematic? Let us think of it in purely relational terms: the dualistic (exclusivist) orientation possesses a relation, but its relation is organized between two absolutely opposing identities, the world and the Church. This pure opposition between the world and Church actually cancels out all relation because if they are opposed absolutely, they necessarily cannot relate. What about the univocalist (inclusivist) stance? Can we think of this orientation in relational terms? Here too relation between Church and the world are cancelled out, because all differences ultimately boil down to a fundamental oneness, and therefore the logic of relation is cancelled out altogether. What we need to find is a logical unfolding of relation that holds together as relation without sliding down one side of the pole (dualism), or the other (univocity). The key ingredient to the success of thinking relation therefore must posit a “third” mediating term by which the other two terms in a dualistic schema are able to co-exist without canceling each other out and collapsing into a pure oneness.
Hegel’s Logic of Relation, or, the ghost of the Crucified Logos The great German idealistic philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, attempted to establish a non-collapsible logical unfolding of pure relation, seen especially in his monumental works Phenomenology of Spirit, Science of Logic, and Hegel’s lecture On the Philosophy of Religion. There is actually something of a debate in contemporary theology that has taken shape over the question of Hegel’s success. It will be instructive for us to briefly visit the terms of this debate that organizes the requisite interpretations based on the success or failure of Hegel’s logic of relation. Like most debates, this one has two sides. There is first the “Manchester” school, and the other side is what I call the “Nottingham” school. The Manchester school, whose main proponents are Rowan Williams, Graham Ward, and Michael Hölzl, believe Hegel succeeds in producing a logic of pure mediated relation, and stresses Hegel’s logic penned especially in the lecture On the Philosophy of Religion. This side thinks Hegel’s logic actually thinks relation which is already Trinitarian insofar as thinking flows through the form of non-collapsible relation. Rowan Williams says that,
Our [human] thinking is ultimately radical loving: ecstasy, being-outside-ourselves [such that] the divine love exceeds the symmetry of the mutual self-dispossession of Father and Son, in constituting a life productive of infinite otherness and reconciliation…. [T]he Spirit is what makes possible the extension of repetition of the Father—Son relation for persons within the created order. So, for Hegel, if the pattern of identity-in-the-other constitutes a unity that is living, active, historical, productive, concrete, this establishes a necessary third term in the movement of thinking and of thinkable reality.
The very ground of thought qua thought transcends its own static condition— it goes beyond itself as like love that transverse the static boundaries of dualistic opposition. But thinking here must not be thought of as merely abstract or the opposite of action: thought does not pose an idealized break between itself as thought and action as some contemporary pragmatic philosophers suppose. Rather thinking is an action verb whose logical unfolding is concrete, productive and opens up reality through this very divinely linked action; indeed thinking is always already flowing through Trinity. The Nottingham School whose main proponents include, William Desmond, John Milbank, and Conor Cunningham, resolutely believe that Hegel fails to produce a mediating logic beyond its own self-determinate mediation. In other words, Hegel’s logic, on this view, is clearly not founded within the infinite flow of Trinitarian difference and reconciliation. Indeed, this orientation argues that Hegel’s thought never overcomes its protracted dualism, which results in thought only mediating itself through its own forcing determination. Because Hegel’s thought is self-determinate, (it is only conditioned on thought thinking its own operation of thinking qua thinking) it is not reliant on an external arrival of thought (i.e., divine self-giving) that serves as an irreducible mediation of thought itself. Therefore, thought-as-concrete relation on the Nottingham reading of Hegel can never flow through a Trinitarian externality/internality flux, but remains blocked off in purely immanent closure.
What we can take from examining the two different readings of Hegelian logos is the common need to think a mediating, non-collapsible concrete relation diagonally through and with two different fields of identity, in our case, Church and the world. Moreover, it must think beyond a dualistic closure. What both orientations (Manchester and Nottingham) demonstrate is that the Trinity is the locus classicus of all relation and action regardless of whether or not Hegel ever gets to the Trinity. The Trinity gives thought that at once retains identity; for all three persons (Father, Son, and Holy-Spirit) are God, and yet difference resides in that they are simultaneously three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), which never melt into a pure unnuanced oneness. This material relation is sometimes referred to as metaxological (from metaxu, the middle) (Desmond) or analogical (Milbank), nevertheless we have found what we are looking for in terms of a way of thinking material relation across difference without canceling identity out. And, moreover, because Trinity is the ground of all being, we have thought inextricably bound up AS cosmic action and this breaks out of the glib dualism that pits practice (as concrete and therefore real) over and against theory (as abstract and therefore removed from the real). Yet, we need to flesh this out one step further before we can return to engaging nihilistic logic that we have identified in the first section, and I want to do this by sticking with Hegel for another moment.
For Hegel, history can be seen in three basic stages that correspond to the persons of the Trinity: the first stage is monotheistic, in which there is the Father who sits outside History on his seat of absolute power. But history breaks open in Christianity (into a materialistic theology) when the Father sends the Son into history itself as the Logos (Christ); this second stage is riddled with ambiguity because the Logos is crucified and so knowledge (logoi) which is conditioned on Logos, is fractured from itself, and the world doesn’t make sense within its fallen and post-crucified Logos state, i.e., consciousness remains at a distance from the subject. On Hegel’s historical terms, modern philosophy (i.e., epistemological foundationalism) can be seen as the result of attempting to make sense of the world in terms of itself that wholly ignores the protracted time of fractured logoi as Crucified Logos. This is why, according to Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, foundationalist philosophy can only ever be totalizing regimes of systematic thought, and can thus only produce an onto-theological god—a god that Heidegger so loathed. But, according to Hegel, History consummates itself (and this is the third stage of Hegel’s history) when the Spirit arrives as pure self-consciousness. This arrival of the Spirit completes and resolves the ambiguity of the fractured logoi within the movement of world Spirit as the absolute arrival of all truth through itself. In other words, this is Hegel’s way of addressing Kant’s problem of the split between subject and object which is reconciled in a totalizing structure without falling prey to epistemological foundationalism of say, someone like the René Descartes. But, this begs the question: is not Hegel’s “Spirit” too hastily charged with to much responsibility? Does not Hegel’s Crucified Logos remain in a permanent state of death? Revealingly it was Hegel, not Nietzsche, who first announced to the world that “God is Dead.” This death of Logos shifts how thought is resolved as world historical resolution, but Hegel rushes too quickly to solve the epistemological fracture forcing his idea of “Spirit” to adopt all powers that are precisely because they are sundered from the Crucified Logos. This is seen in the fact that fractured logio (that results from the cause of the death of Logos) are mended in the self-coherence of the work of Spirit without a co-operation of the Father and the Son.
Therefore Hegel essentially hijacks the Trinity with his univocal view of the Spirit. Hegel’s Spirit says, “Screw this, I’m not going to die too” and so takes all things into its own hands. This results in collapsing all time and eternity into the arrival of Spirit in History. This is what Hegel calls self-consciousness. Thus, on my view, once the problem of the fractured logoi is wholly resolved through the work of the Spirit, then the Trinitarian economy must dissolve into an immanent form of historical self-mediation. The infinite collapses into a purely immanent plane, and we can see the work of Gilles Deleuze as an attempt to transcend beyond this banality through a form of mediating difference, albeit a pure difference. Hegel breaks the eschatological materialism of Christian history by foreclosing eternity into a pure self-repeating temporality and so falls into our inclusivist position in which the logic of nihilism flows freely and without resistance from anything outside itself. What is for us necessary is to circumvent this collapsing of history in upon itself, and this would mean that we must think the relation of the sanctifying work of the Spirit AND the Crucified Logos inextricably together who, although permanently broken, nevertheless sits on the right hand of the Father in Heaven, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead.
The structural metaphysics of Christian theology is unavoidably relational and must think across time from within time itself; it must think across death back into life again. It must finally think beyond the Nietzschian eternal return of temporality as such in which power (a la Foucault) becomes the trope by which all things are measured in the social. But this is where it gets good because in a paradoxical sense, Hegel’s immanent-cum-mediating Spirit, on my view, is the result of not mediating the Crucified Logos (fractured logoi) through the Logos who will Judge in relation to the Father and the right work of the Spirit doxologically expressed as Church. In other words, Hegel’s Spirit, is the spirit of the death of Christ, it is a Spirit of death of literally the total disjunction of life from meaning. And Hegel thinks this disjunction of meaning form reality is the very site of the arrival of self-consciousness in History. Christ’s death-spirit, on Hegel’s view, is the nihil. Does not Hegel stress too much the Crucified Logos to the degree that death is all that is left and the resurrection of this historical “death” is the Spirit whose work is the sanctification of immanence on its own terms? In contrast to Hegel’s totalizing genealogy of a dematerialized Spirit, what a materialistic eschatology that unfolds through the Church gives us is the sanctification of immanence in terms external to immanence. This is done by keeping a non-collapsible relation intact through Trinitarian unfolding in history. But once this symmetry is interrupted things start spinning out of existential proportion. Thus what we have with nihilism is the resultant cause of the Crucified Logos pushed to its absolute extreme to the point of inverting the entire creation order from the material to the purely virtual (i.e., the SPIRITual).
The virtual according to my reading then, is the protracted logic of the Crucified Logos that cannot be short-circuited, neither by modern philosophy (epistemology foundationalism) nor by Hegel’s immanent “Spirit” which flows necessarily through its own heretofore irresolvable and anti-Trinitarian logic. Let us recap: We have been looking for a way of relating our cultural nihilism (i.e., capitalistic logic) with world historic Christianity as the embodiment of the Trinitarian action as the Church. We have seen that both orientations of the exclusivist and the inclusivist fail to achieve this relation as they were doomed by virtue of their operating logic, dualism and univocity respectively. We next arrived at our relational-mediating logic through the Trinitarian difference whose action gives the condition of difference and identity through the Spirit’s mediation. But, we saw how Hegel’s Spirit hijacked Trinitarian mediation, by arriving in history as Absolute Spirit sundered from the relation with the Father and the double relation of the Crucified Logos and the Resurrected Logos awaiting to come again to judge the world. Instead, we saw that Hegel’s “Spirit” presupposes only that the Crucified Logos is forever locked into death, and so necessarily takes on an immanent unfolding that can only unfold in relation to itself. Hegel’s dialectic is exposed as really being univocal, because within pure immanence, identity (particularity) cannot hold sway long enough against this imposing univocal logic.
Therefore, on Hegel’s view the Church dissolves into nothingness. This further means that nihilism exists as a bastardized version of Trinitarian relations, but what this also means is that immanent nihilism is actually not nihilistic ENOUGH, it is rather a pretend nihilism, a simulacrum of nothing, because it cannot handle the truth of the Crucified Logos that can only be retrieved, as I have argued, through Trinitarian action within the middle of time’s movement toward its resolution in Christ through the Spirit (i.e. the Church). In other words, only Christianity can give the full weight of nihilism because the Church is the witness of the Crucified Logos that is constituted, not in terms of itself as pure immanent mediation—as Death qua Death, but is constituted in relation to the risen Christ (fully revealed in the future) through the material action of being Church that links the past with the present through the materiality of the administration of the sacraments. This action of the Church being in time and, in a sense, prophetically witnessing to the world beyond time, is the mending work of the Spirit. The material participation in Trinity through the sacraments of the Church gives a non-collapsible relation of the logics of the world. Death is, but death no longer has dominion over us, as St. Paul tells us. Christian material time is therefore an unfolding through a logic of nihilism that cannot be reified, but must be in relation to the work of the coming judgment of Christ and the mending work of the Spirit through the Father as the Church.
This means that theology can give nihilism its true profound reality without reifying into the sublime cut off from the transcendent. Yet, because the fullness of time has yet fully dawned on us, nihilism remains and continues playing itself out by getting us to think that its reality is more than it is, like the demons in the film Constantine that break into reality. What was interesting about this film was that the demons break a creational law of the world in which evil does not exist (a la Augustine’s Christian Neo-Platonism). But paradoxically what takes place in the film Constantine is not that the demonic takes on materiality, but rather the materiality of the world is finally fully subverted by the virtual, and so earth for a moment becomes hell. Earth becomes Hell until at last, a Christ-like sacrifice brings the materiality of the world back again.
A Christian materialist politics is the persistent faithfulness of the Church in the sanctification of the Spirit bearing witness to the depths of the love of God all the way down to the deepest depths of the cosmos, Hell, to the point where nothing can be out of reach of God’s outstretched arms on the cross. We cannot jettison our nihilism because it is the effects of the death of Christ whose logic flows through the world all the while it is slowly being mended through the work of the Spirit in the sacraments of the liturgy. Until this mending is complete the world remains ripped open and out of joint with itself. The resultant effects of this time out of joint with itself are mass oppression premised on a nihilistic economy of global capitalism as sin that flows without check. The poor become the real witnesses of Christ suffering in the world that the Church (as the community of the Spirit) must side with in order to be in tune with eschatological time. Christian politics must therefore be a universal politics of absolute love requiring us to reside on the threshold of nothingness as the mending work of the Spirit. We must infinitely reside between the Crucified Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, & Law, edited by Santiago Zabala, translated by William McCuaig (New York, Columbia University Press, 2003) p. xxxiv.
I am using the term materiality as between an idealized materiality of the vulgar Platonic sort on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a purely banal reductive materialism of the scientific sort in which matter is only reducible to itself. For an elaboration on this Christian materialism see John Milbank’s “Materialism and Transcendence” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate eds. Creston Davis, John Milbank & Slavoj Žižek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) p. 393-426. esp. 393-403. An eschatological material is therefore a materiality that is given in the middle of history between the Christ’s death (that fractures time, knowledge, and creation) and Christ coming judgment (that consummates time, knowledge and all matter) in which the Spirit (as Church) rests on the Son until his coming in Glory.
George Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, translated by Rodney Livingstone, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968) pp. 83-222. It is widely believed that Lukács was the founder of Western Marxism, that is, a Marxism that is not founded by a centralized party position. Ultimately, Lukács argues for a Hegelian ontology of becoming that can finally outflank capitalism’s reified reality, but, as we will see in the last stage of this paper, Hegel’s ontology cannot get around the problematic of capitalist nihilism either and that only theology can think beyond reification, on the one hand, and pure becoming on the other
Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, Duke University Press, 1991, p. 44).
According to Gilles Deleuze and Fèlix Guattari there is neither telos nor beginning, and so it is apropos for these atheistic philosophers to pose temporality in purely immanent self-returning terms of the virtual, and this is the notion of the “rhizome”. They say, “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (original italics). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 25).
William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) p. 5.
An example of this recently form axis between Protestant evangelicals and far right, conservative Roman Catholics is in the periodical, First Things, which currently runs about 25,000 subscribers in North America.
George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), see especially pages 32-41.
Gilles Deleuze was the premiere philosopher of the One in the 20th Century and whose thought is heavily indebted to the secular metaphysics of the medieval philosopher, Dun Scotus. For Scotus, Being flattens out the difference of beings so that God and Human beings are related to Being in univocal terms. See Catherine Pickstock’s brilliant assessment of Scotus’ secular ontology in After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) p. 121-135. For an account of Deleuze’s genealogy of univocity from Scotus forward, see Deleuze, Difference & Repeition, translated by Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)p. 35-42.
Rowan Williams “Logic and Spirit in Hegel” in Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology edited by Phillip Blond (London: Routledge, 1998) p. 122-123. For a similar Hegelian theological reading see, Graham Ward’s Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice, (Cambridge, 2005).
The various texts that support this reading of Hegel include: William Desmond, Being and the Between (SUNY, 1995), and Hegel’s God: A Counterfeit Double? (Ashgate: 2003), John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1990), Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology (Routledge, 2002).
See Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller, “The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through its own Activity” p. 211-235. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
I am indebted to the philosophy and theology cooperative (co-op).
Creston Davis is a Fellow of the Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences and a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Virginia. He is the editor of two volumes, Theology and The Political: The New Debate (with John Milbank and Slavoj Zizek), and Paul and Philosophy, (with Ward Blanton and Hent de Vries). His book, Halos and The Void, is forthcoming with Duke University Press. He is also a series editor of New Slant, a new theory and religion series by Duke University Press.