January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
June 24, 2013
I’ve been reading two books of late that would seem to bear little relationship to each other, but actually do in a revolutionary and quite profound manner. The first is by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003). The second is theoretical physicist Lee Smolen’s Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Spin Networks, 2013).
The one is probably the best historical and exegetical account ever written concerning the Blblical background of, and historical-theoretical muddles pertaining to, what we often forget is the very nucleus of what we call the “Christian faith” – and by extension the raison d’etre for the existence of a Christian “church” all – that is, the resurrection. The other is a bold and provocative (although in my mind somewhat philosophically flawed) revisioning of the framework and system of assumptions surrounding current scientific cosmology.
So what do these books have to do with the broad thematic issues of this blog? Just about everything.
Physics and the reversal of Platonism
Let’s start with Smolen’s thesis. Smolen’s critique of theoretical physics, even in its most trendy and abstruse iterations today that include string theory, quantum gravity, and the so-called “many worlds” hypothesis, comes very close to what amounts to the kernel of all postmodern thinking – what Deleuze refers to as the “reversal of Platonism” and Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathusra as the identification of Being with Becoming.
Smolen wants to argue that the problem from the ancient Greeks, who invented what we know as “natural philosophy” or science, to present day physics has been its “Platonic” fixation on the timeless character of ultimate reality as the context for explaining events as we perceive them. The scientific counterpart to Plato’s realm of heavenly ideas is, of course, the dogma that all truths must be mathematicized and phenomena, as Kant insisted long ago, subject to a scheme of predictable regularities.
Although Smolen doesn’t mention it, the most egregious example of what Smolen calls this age-old metaphysical “fantasy” of science is the French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace’s infamous remark that he had “no need of” the God hypothesis because mathematically he could map all the laws and initial conditions of the universe based on Newton’s models in order to “explain” anything and everything.
In contrast, Smolen’s “new physics” resembles in important respects Nietzsche own anticipatory postmodern “philosophy of the future”. The only way we can “understand” anything is to postulate the ultimate reality of time and becoming, Heraclitus’ river into which one can never step twice.
Smolen’s reformulation of what he calls the “metaconfiguration” of all the laws of physics is both ingenious and rather “elegant” (as scientific theorists love to say). But his Achilles heel, of which he is himself distinctly aware, is the question of the very “why” of temporality itself.
Smolen relies heavily in the book on Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason to demolish Platonism, eternalism, and mathematicism in science. Yet he himself comes to the pass where he recognizes, in effect, that if the principle of sufficient reason is truly global and comprehensive for any possible theorizing, then there must also be a sufficiency principle for time itself, a corner which he unfortunately paints himself into and tries to get out of with the usual “this will require further research” sort of gambit.
Have we forgotten that Christ has “risen”?
Okay, but how does this rather familiar “dialectical” impasse within scientific reasoning have anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus?
First, we must ask ourselves, if we are Christians, do we take the resurrection seriously? I would insist that we don’t, even the most devout among us who demand that we have kept our fidelity to the “ancient faith”. We just give lip service to it without any clue as what it really is or means, other than something we doctrinally affirm every year on Easter Sunday.
We make a big deal theologically about the Cross, but even the most sophisticated latter day versions of any theologia crucis can do no more than somehow conflate uncritically Good Friday with what happened two days later.
Yet what do we make of Paul’s well-known admonition to the Corinthians: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). Christianity is all about – and there really is nothing else – the resurrection. If you take away the resurrection, you get, at least from the standpoint of the New Testament, simply an elaborate version of Philonic Judaism, or at minimum a peculiar variant on what historians of religion would call ancient “soter (or ‘savior’) mysticism”, which was prevalent everywhere throughout its Hellenistic and Mediterranean venue.
Isis is long gone, and were it not for the resurrection, so would the strange persona a bunch of Roman ragamuffins referred to as “Christus”.
The reason we don’t take the resurrection seriously – and this is the case I would maintain for both “moderns” and “postmoderns” – is that we are incarcerated in the same “prison house of language”, (as Frederic Jameson would put it), comparable to Smolen’s scientific penitentiary of an unshakable Cartesian mathesis universalis), that comes down to the time-honored theological and confessional discourse of eternalism. Such a diagnosis clarifies, of course, Nietzsche’s aphorism that Christianity historically is simply “Platonism for the masses.”
In that respect Wright does something similar to Smolen when he seeks to reposition what we term the true “essence of Christianity” as a strange and still barely cognizable grouping of ambiguous historical events that a little band of no-count first-century Galileans attested as the irrefragible fulfillment of the seven-hundred-year-old messianic prophecies of that “peculiar people” known at the time as “Jews”, who themselves originated from an even more obscure set of anomalous occurrences a millenium and a half earlier in Egypt, where they were then known as habiru or “outliers.”
The strangest of “universalisms”
How could these uniquely temporal singularities become the spark that led to the overturning of the seemingly insuperable authority of “eternal Rome” and lead to the foundation of Western civilization itself, where modern science was incubated?
The “universalism” of the Christian understanding, as French philosopher Alain Badiou in his book Saint Paul, shows us forcefully, is not born of some new Platonic insight into the inner fabric of reality, but of a still unfathomable singularity that is completely time-bound, but resonates down through the ages as an “event” that encodes and orders the flux of temporary experience ever thereafter.
Like the cosmological singularities, popularly known as “black holes”, that both rupture the carefully interwoven threads of previous space-time and generate by themselves the putative “timeless” laws that govern our evolving knowledge of nature, the singularities of divine revelation gives us a special kind of knowledge that puts things in a quite “unnatural’ perspective.
If anyone is interested in how all this works out in terms of the odyssey of contemporary Continental philosophy, I would recommend reading my own Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).
The truth of revelation, of course, does not come ultimately through either the “Book” of Nature, as the “natural philosophers” would have argued, nor the Book that is Scripture (as most Protestants assume uncritically), but through the “event” that theologically has been encoded as the Incarnation, but “phenomenologically” speaking can be recognized as the ever renewing take-away of “Christians’ from the perplexing series of incidents reported first by the women when they visited the tomb, then by disciples on the road to Emmaus, and subsequently at several locations within that narrow time frame.
These incidents become the signifying idiomata of the apparent event that we call Christ’s resurrection. The thread of that event runs all the way from what happened on Pentecost to Paul’s own self-described “revelation” (apocalypsis) on the road to Damascus to Luther’s experience of the righteousness of Christ in the tower, and so on.
The history of the church is nothing more than a stuttering and slowly crystallizing witness (often punctuated unfortunately with the hubris of a misplaced theological certitude) to that kairos-moment (i.e., the “fullness” of our ongoing temporal experience) when eternity became time, when Being became Becoming once and for all. That is really what Bultmann meant by the “Christ-event”, his re-appopriation of Heidegger’s Er-eignis when “being” and “time” are no longer distinguishable.
As Smolen points out, such an “overfull” time is never simply past, “mere history.” It is the temporality of the “presence” of the fullness of time (the so-called eschaton) that is here now.
The church does not need to situate itself in the postmodern world. If it thinks about it, its own kerygma is the secret of the postmodern world.
But if that strange fact were recognized, the church would no longer consist simply of Nietzsche’s “tombs and sepulchres in which are contained the bones of the dead God.”
The tomb in fact has always been empty. We are risen with him. Amen.
Carl Raschke is professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, specializing in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to religion, popular culture, and technology.