I Believe in Gods | On Losing Faith, and Remaining Faithful

A friend caught me at Greenbelt last weekend and we slipped off for a beer. He’s pursuing a path to ordination, and wanted to talk about some of the death of God ideas I’d written in After MagicIt gave me a chance to dialogue some ideas I’d been having about this, ideas I’d been spending time mulling on because people have been asking me if I still believed in God, or if I’d lost my faith. I thought it might be good to get some of them down online – though these are very much still ideas in progress.

To tackle the first question first: I do believe in gods. I think there’s something quite fascinating about the ancient Hindu idea of this whole ecosystem of divinities. Lacan’s idea of the ‘big Other’ I think is important here and as I look around at the world today, I see people absolutely under the influence of numerous gods – ‘big Other’ systems that they are in service to, that control the way they think and act, that place demands on them that they are perhaps unconscious of.

As to what a ‘god’ is, one helpful definition is ‘a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life.’

Part of this new book I’m writing (currently called ‘Getting High’) references David Noble’s excellent book ‘The Religion of Technology.’ Technology is a kind of religion – something that we find ourselves bound to and guided by, and – moving beyond ideas of ‘being’ – in many ways fits this definition of a god. As powerful systems that promise to raise human experience beyond the mundane, Capitalism, Communism and drug use can be seen as functioning in the same way.

So I think atheism is in many ways absurd: quite clearly, all around us are people who are living in service of and devotion to gods. The addict who steals from her children to fund her habit is faithfully serving her god. The party official who sends the dissenter off to the Gulag is faithfully serving his god. The businesswoman who shifts manufacture to a developing nation with almost no workers’ rights is remaining faithful to the doctrines of the market.

Using various references from literature, my point in After Magic was that this move into ‘super-nature,’ into unquestioning service of this ‘big Other’ tends to dehumanise us – as the examples above show. But all is not lost, for what archetypal stories from The Tempest to the gospels show us is that the most human thing we can do – and thus, paradoxically, the most godly – is to lay down our devotion to these gods that demand too much of us.

So, my answer to the first question is this: yes, I do believe in gods. What then of the question of whether I have lost my faith? If what you mean is devotion to orthodox Christian ideas about a personal god and salvation, then yes. I’m not in that place. But the reason that I still have a ‘troth’ to Christianity is because I think in the life of Jesus we see an example of resistance to the dehumanising demands of divinity. It is not that on the cross we see the death of God, but that here we see a pattern for the death of all gods. My Christianity is not about the generation of some new Kingdom, some new political system or utopia based on worship of a deity. My Christianity is about the process of putting to death all of the gods that keep promising release from death, but end up binding us and becoming the cause of injustice.

The friend I was talking with was coming at the issue with pastoral concerns as he journeyed towards ordination. And I think our conclusion was that the church can still be a very important place in society – not as a ‘place of worship’, not as a place of devotion to this one particular god, but as a place where the passion is rehearsed over and over, where gods are put to death.

To put this back in language I used in Mutiny, this is the church as an ‘agent of decay’ – a community that economically, politically, pharmacologically and theologically gathers to help one another put to death the systems that we have put ourselves in service of that have thus diminished our humanity.

In Infinitely Demanding, Simon Critchley says:

Anarchy should not seek to mirror the archic sovereignty that it undermines. That is, it should not seek to set itself up as the new hegemonic principle of political organisation, but remain the negation of totality and not the affirmation of a new totality…

In our terms, anarchy is the creation of interstitial distance within the state, the continual questioning from below of any attempt to establish order from above.

Replacing ‘anarchy’ with ‘Christianity,’ what we get is a community that gathers around an absence – the god who has gone – and uses this to continually critique any attempt to reestablish order from above, to reinstate some new god.

This, for me, is what just faithfulness to one another looks like. Perhaps that means I’ve lost my faith; to be honest, it feels as if I’m just finding it.

‘This, then, is how you should pray:’ – a Lords Prayer for a Radical Theology

In writing this book ‘On High’ I’ve been reflecting on how a book (Stark, by Ben Elton) and an even more recent film (Gravity) are paralleled with two very different stories from the bible: the story of the flood, and the story of Jesus’ birth. In a sense these are all creation/recreation narratives – some of them tinged with unpleasant undercurrents of pure elites, and others about the need to commit and engage with a hurting world… which is why I think Gravity is one of the most powerfully symbolic films Hollywood has ever produced.

More of that in the book (or in my review of the film here), but thinking on ‘the heavens’ – which is what space was called for so long – somehow drew me round to the Lord’s Prayer, and how that might be reconfigured for a radical theology.

New Lords Prayer

 

Be interested to hear if others have new versions they’d worked too…

Pentecost: The Sublime Move of the Oppressed

As people around the world celebrate Pentecost, I thought I’d post an excerpt from a chapter in On High – this work in progress on the human quest for altitude (draft intro available here). This section reflects on the charismatic movement in the context of the other ecstatic moves that were going on in different parts of the culture of 1960s California – and introduces a key idea of the book that draws from the process in physics called sublimation – where a material moves directly from the solid state into the gaseous without going through the liquid state first.

The bigger chapter it comes from does a pretty close reading of passages in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he (in the mind of Gonzo) is reflecting back on the decade just past, and the grand hopes for LSD which now lie broken:

What is sane? Especially here in “our own country”-in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. […] This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously […] – all those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit.

What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel. 

 This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries. It is also the military ethic… a blind faith in some higher and wiser “authority.” The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister… all the way up to “God.” One of the crucial moments of the Sixties came on that day when The Beatles cast their lot with the Maharishi.

Hope you enjoy the taster… drawing on LSD, Hells Angels, the Apollo missions and The Beatles it’s been enormous fun to write so far.

//

The ‘Pentecostal’ movement began in the US around 50 years earlier in the Los Angeles Azusa Street revival when, three days into a ten-day fast, a group of believers began ‘speaking in tongues’ and experiencing ecstatic worship and singing. Their meetings grew and grew, and the worshippers, who howled and sang and shook, became known as ‘Holy Rollers’ or ‘Holy Jumpers.’ However, it wasn’t until 1960 that this form of spirituality – which up to that point had been predominantly (though, especially initially, not exclusively) followed in working class Afro-Caribbean churches became mainstream as it ‘jumped’ over to the predominantly white, middle class Episcopal church – in exactly the same way that the predominantly black music of the blues had ‘jumped’ over (read ‘co-opted to make it acceptable in a climate of racial intolerance’) to the predominantly white rock and roll.

In Easter of that year, Dennis Bennett, pastor at the large St Marks Episcopalian Church in a suburb of Los Angeles, spoke to his congregation about the pentecostal experience that he had had. The impact of this intrusion of ecstatic experience into what was ironically called a ‘high’ church was enormous. Bennett was featured in Newsweek and Time magazine and was forced to resign. Like Timothy Leary, here was another man, a serious professional in his chosen field, who had to give up his position because of the extraordinary things he had experienced, things he refused to keep private and felt impelled to allow to spill over into his work.

What caused the uproar was Bennett’s claim to have been ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit.’ The term is interesting because of the the explicit references to the vertical that are made in both of the key moments that the concept is mentioned in the Bible. The first is during the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Matthew’s gospel tells it this way:

As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.

From there, Jesus is led by that spirit into the desert where, during a 40 day fast, he is tempted by the devil before returning to society and beginning to preach.

The second mention is in the book of Acts, during ‘Pentecost’ – the name referring to 50 days after the Passover – during which Jesus had been crucified. Towards the beginning of the book the writer describes what is seen as the ‘inciting incident’, the ‘generative moment’ of the Christian church. This is a group of people clearly traumatised by the powerful events they had experienced. Their leader has been executed and they are in hiding, the mood of violent suppression amplified by both Roman and Jewish opposition to them on seditious-political and heretical-religious grounds respectively. They are frightened, alienated from their society, disenfranchised and impotent to effect any change. Hence, as the story in Acts opens, Jesus’ followers are meeting in secret,

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what appeared to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.

The ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ that Bennett and the early Pentecostals was referring to was almost always of this latter kind: the dramatic tongues and ecstatic speech – often following from a long period of fasting or singing – rather than the more gentle dove-like descent in the earlier story of Jesus.

Either way, what happened in California in the 1960s again was yet another form of vision experience, where a group of people had their perceptions radically changed, their flat 2 dimensional worlds interrupted by a force from the third, vertical axis.

What became known as the ‘Charismatic movement’ swept through all parts of the church. The ‘charisms’ – from which we get the word ‘charisma’ – were gifts or favours from God. Years after the events of Acts, St Paul (who wasn’t there at the time – more of which later) spent a good chapter or so writing to the church in Corinth about them, listing such diverse gifts as that of administration, interpretation, helping others – alongside more spectacular ones such as healing, miracles and ecstatic speech. Expressing some frustration at their tendency to focus attention on the gifts that had more obvious pizzazz, Paul slightly contradicts himself by telling them to ‘eagerly desire the greater gifts,’ before then spending 3 long paragraphs basically saying ‘if you have all this ecstatic speaking in tongues, but don’t act lovingly and care for each other, forget it. Love is what lasts. Love is where it’s at.’

They, just like the Californian Christians so many years later, don’t appear to listen much. To return to Aldous Huxley in paraphrase, ‘the Spirit opens up the way of Mary, but shuts the door on that of Martha. It gives access to contemplation – but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action.’ The aim of these charismatic meetings was to ‘get high’, often including long periods of chanting, prayer and fasting, in cultural forms that have strong parallels with Kesey’s acid tests and transcendental meditation.

Hofmann (the chemist who first synthesised LSD) argued that LSD had emerged as a way of coping with the trauma of modern life – thus rendering people unable to rise to the challenge of actually changing it. It can be similarly argued that, in a parallel with the early church in Acts, Pentecostalism emerged in the 1920s among predominantly black, poor communities as a means of coping with the same oppression, violent suppression and political disenfranchisement, things which they had no means of effectively challenging. 30 years later the different forces of mechanisation and alienation, applied to a different strata of the population, formed the same shift among more mainstream Christians. The Charismatic movement was their counterculture, was their acid trip, was their roaring Harley Davidson.

In each of these situations though, the outcome of their ecstatic experiences was no material change whatsoever to the political or socio-economic structures that had brought the pressures to bear, pressures that had sent them rocketing up to great heights or screaming down highways at great speeds. Just as Huxley had written, and just as Thompson had experienced, their ascents to great heights did not endow them with great empathy.

In an analogy with physics, this sort of transformation is known as sublimation – when a material changes direcly from the solid state to the gaseous state without passing through the intermediate liquid phase. In physics, sublimation occurs more easily at very low pressures; in sociology, it is the precise opposite. With political change apparently beyond any hope or reach – the civil rights struggle still years from getting going – the Pentecostal churches moved directly from the solid phase of oppression and social alienation to the gaseous, ecstatic phase of spiritual liberation without passing through the intermediate phase of material change in circumstance.

This isn’t a value judgement on their lack of political courage – changes were entirely blocked to them at the time – but rather an observation that, under intense heat and pressure, they ascended directly into the sublime ecstatic, with talk of heaven and miraculous healing and divine provision, an out of body experience – while their bodies remained very much lacking socio-economic or political liberty. As Thompson notes, this was their ‘survival trip’ – and under these conditions and with the memory of slavery still fresh, survival was a radical political act in itself. When the civil rights movement did come, it is interesting to note that it came not out of this Pentecostal church, but from the far more down-to-earth Baptists, who put little by ‘holy jumping’ and babbling in tongues. When Martin Luther King ascended to the mountain-top and had his dream, it wasn’t of a future paradise above, but of genuine transformation below, of boys and girls of all races living in true liberty.

If Pentecostalism was sublimation within the oppressed black churches of the 1920s (and remains in a similarly subliminal state today, with its popularity in London skewed massively to more economically deprived areas) then LSD,  biker gangs, Transcendental Meditation and the Charismatic movement were identical sublime moves within different socio-economic strata. Each hailed the high places they had reached as places of great liberty, of enhanced human consciousness and tight-bound community, but, as Hunter S Thompson showed in his bitter critique, because these were means of survival only, none of them did much for those left behind. In by-passing the liquid state, the physical forms of the structures that had caused their alienation went unchanged, leaving the masses below still suffering the same fate.

In this light, George Harrison’s comment that ‘young people are searching for a bit of peace inside themselves,’ feels darker. Experiencing a lack of peace around them in the world they live in, their solution is not political activism to attain that peace, but meditation to achieve a little peace within themselves alone. With all their flower-power and ‘give peace a chance’ singing, LSD and hippy meditations didn’t energise the peace movement, they sapped it. For Leary, LSD use and internal freedom was a civil rights issue, words that conveniently allowed him to ignore the actual civil rights that others were marching and dying for. By harping on at great length about the power they had accessed in the transcendent realm, they abdicated responsibility for using the very human power that they did have, but were too timid to use.

Thus, in these years in the 60s these ‘higher’ visionary states of religious ecstasy or LSD often tended not to enhance humanity, but diminish it, not to celebrate the physical body, but to wish it gone, done with, replaced by something higher and more perfected. The reason Hunter Thompson drills down to is that vision experience – whether by religious or pharmacological means, or, more accurately an historic socio-cultural compound of the two – tends, via this process of pressured sublimation, to lead towards a view of the world that suggests some grand higher power is in control. LSD and Billy Graham and Dennis Bennett and the Maharishi all did the same work: in turbulent, violent and fast-changing times where people were terribly anxious about the world and their place in it, they constructed a promise of some force ‘tending the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Unsurprisingly, like moths the masses were drawn blindly in their different ways towards it, caring less about those left behind as they did so, calling back only for them to turn on, tune in and unfurl their wings too.

Thompson’s beef in Fear and Loathing thus boiled down to this: Leary and Kesey had sold acid as one thing, when really it was another, just as the church and the Maharishi had pedalled religion as one thing, when really it was something else entirely. Feeling cheated and disillusioned by all these world-saving highs, he’d sent his protagonists on  the most sublime bender of nihilist, godless self-destruction.

No empathy.

No escape.

Just ‘Whatever Fucks You Up,’ whatever shorts all these circuits, rams a bar into the spokes of the circus and grounds the brain to the earth for the longest possible. That narcissistic move from student activism to student nihilism that depressed Thompson so much is what (lecturer) Mark Fisher, 50 years later, sees in the depressive hedonia of his students:

Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterised as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.

No belief in political change. No great economic hope. A life of inevitable debt and meaningless labour. So, a little pleasure inside themselves; that the extent of their vision.

© Kester Brewin 2014

Hope you have a great ‘pentecost,’ but I hope it’s not a sublime one, not an ecstatic one. I hope it brings about practical, political, wide-acting love.

Why I Stopped Praying – But Will Never Stop Reading

IMG_1584_01_white

I’ve just written a piece for the HuffPost reflecting on reading, prayer and the generation of empathy – and why I’ve given up one, but will never give up the other.

Reading, just like prayer, is a deliberate act of focus, a form of meditation almost. It takes time. Not economically productive, it can be easily mocked as ‘useless,’ – and in the modern age it is hard to find space to get deep into it without being yanked away by the ping of notifications or other noises from the jungle of digital distractions.

Yes, like prayer, reading can be hard. But, most importantly, just like a prayer, the act of reading a novel, or a work of thoughtful non-fiction, is about sensitizing oneself to others and to the plight of the world outside of your everyday experience.

You can read it here, or, if you prefer (and better on mobile devices) on Medium here.

Finitely Demanding [2] – Death of God and the ‘Ethics of Anarchic Meta-Politics’

In the previous post I argued for a slight adjustment to Simon Critchley’s (excellent) thesis in Infinitely DemandingIn the book he sets out that an ‘event’ is that which calls a subject into existence, in the creation of a truth (or a ‘troth’ a – binding promise to it). The example he uses – calling on Badiou – is that of Paul’s experience of the resurrected Christ.

My argument is that this leads to difficulties because the kind of subject that is created by an event is perhaps governed by the nature of the event being experienced. Thus, Paul as ethical subject is created in a certain way by the use of the resurrection as the generating-event. Or, perhaps more importantly at a secondary level, the actually-existing church is created/sustained/generated by its attachment to a certain perspective on the Pauline-event. What this has led to is the building of a Christian empire, and the tendency for Christian faith to dehumanise people in relation to the other (for example on equality etc., rather than radically humanise them.

As an alternative, I’m suggesting replacing the subject-generating event of the resurrection with that of the crucifixion: the death of God. This, as I set out more fully in After Magic, isn’t a move to atheism, but rather a move to a tough agnosticism – a move that is actually performed by Jesus himself. It is not that we kill the Christian God, so much that we put to death our binding to any gods, to any top-level structure of organisation in order that we can resist the dehumanising that their demands create, and instead take radical responsibility for ourselves as finite human subjects living in communities that require care, on a planet that needs us to act now.

Linking with the work I set out in After Magic, the advantage here is that by using the death of God as this subject-generating event, the sort of subject that is generated, ’concerns not the regeneration of the divine other, but the dismantling of the power of the divine.’ Thus:

we are able to translate this directly into a form of activism that seeks a) to continue this work of dismantling of systems of oppression and b) to further prevent new systems based on infinite demands taking hold.

It’s to this form of activism that I want to turn now, keeping in mind this idea above that because of the death of God event we are subjects generated who seek to continually dismantle systems of oppression.

Critchley quotes Levinas to build a useful concept of anarchism:

Anarchy, unlike arché, cannot be sovereign. It can only disturb, albeit in a radical way, the State, prompting isolated moments of negation without any affirmation. The State, then, cannot set itself up as a Whole.

Critchley then comments on this himself, noting:

Anarchy should not seek to mirror the archic sovereignty that it undermines. That is, it should not seek to set itself up as the new hegemonic principle of political organisation, but remain the negation of totality and not the affirmation of a new totality…

In our terms, anarchy is the creation of interstitial distance within the state, the continual questioning from below of any attempt to establish order from above.

It was this that jumped out at me, sent me scribbling in the margins and eventually an email to Critchley himself. Why? Because he goes on to give examples of organisations such as Pink Bloc, Billionaires for Bush, Ya Basta! and Rebel Clown Army who ‘exercise a satirical pressure on the state in order to show that other forms of life are possible.’ Weren’t these groups, I asked him, the political equivalent of the cultural tricksters that Lewis Hyde examines in Trickster Makes this World – Mischief, Myth and Art - a work that heavily influenced my second book Other? And aren’t these ‘isolated moments of negation’ precisely the TAZ moments that pirates generate through carnival – as I’ve explored in Mutiny? His answer in short: YES.

This is, for me personally, a deep affirmation of the path I’ve been walking along (as ever, slightly blindly, tripping up, stumbling backwards through works I should have seen ages ago). With the twist in Infinitely Demanding (a twist Critchley also kindly agreed with) – linked with the work I’ve done on piracy and tricksters – I feel that a decent framework is in place to show the radical theology of the death of God as a structure that:

a) can generate strong ethical subjects (rather than collapsing people into disappointment and nihilism), and

b) provides a series of tactics for practical activism.

These are important because radical theology has (sometimes fairly) been tainted with a view that its work of deconstruction leaves people in dire negativity, with nothing to believe in and no moral compass. Beyond that, thinkers like Zizek, with his radical passivity – ‘we just have to do nothing and let it all collapse’ – have, I believe given people an excuse for taking no action at all and withdrawing from the world.

Zizek and Critchley have warred over this, and – as I state in After Magic – I come down on the side of Critchley. Why? Because texts like Matthew 25 make it clear: we should continue to act out of love for neighbour, leaving aside the possibility of ‘God’ completely. Zizek’s manifesto of no action contributes to passivity and nihilism and simply allows the powers-that-be to strengthen their self-serving top-level organisation without criticism.

Finally then, against Zizek these actions are validated for being both temporary, and incomplete. Our role is not to rule, not to build a new empire, a new Kingdom. No. The outworking of the death of god is the continual commitment to dismantling any system that sets itself up as a totality – even the form of communism or socialism that some might want to replace the current situation with. No, it is the ‘continual questioning from below of any attempt to establish order from above.’

Oddly, this has brought my writing full circle because this metaphor of ‘questioning from below’ is something I tackled in my first book The Complex Christ (Signs of Emergence in the US). There, I used some work that the computer scientist Danny Hillis had done on the famous number-sorting problem. He had created an evolutionary system to generate pieces of random code and see if they had any propensity for sorting numbers. If they did, they survived to the next generation. But initially it didn’t work too well. As I note in that book:

Hillis’s genius was to realize that his system was facing the same hurdle that many evolutionary systems do: it had reached a local maximum. Imagine all the infinite possibilities of number-sorting programs mapped out as a physical landscape. Like the Himalayas, there will be deep valleys—which represent the least successful programs—and tall peaks—which represent the more successful ones. What Hillis’s software was doing was blindly exploring that landscape, looking for steep sides going up toward peaks. Yet, being “blind,” once a miniprogram had reached a peak, any peak, it stopped evolving and thought it was on top of the world. It had no way of appreciating that there were thousands of low peaks in these virtual Himalayas, but only one Everest.

To get over this evolutionary problem, Hillis introduced a natural solution: predators. With his revised system, once a miniprogram had reached a local maximum of, say, 75 steps, it became at risk of being destroyed by a predator program if it stayed there, so it was forced off its peak, chased down to lower ground and then required to find a higher peak by mutating its code again. Running this system, Hillis came out with a program that could sort numbers in 62 steps, an improvement on the previous best of 66 steps that, in the computer world, was akin to knocking whole seconds off the 100m sprint record.

This is our role. Not to come up with water-tight answers. Not to be challenged by politicians and economists saying ‘well what do you think we should do then?!’ No. Our role is simply to keep chasing them down. To believe that every ‘maximum’ is only local, that every attempt to establish order from above will be imperfect and must, thus, be questioned from below and chased back down to earth.

This will take, to use Critchley’s subtitle, an ethics of commitment and a politics of resistance. And it will take ethical subjects generated by this most fascinating and subverting event: that not of the regeneration of God, but of God’s incarnation and very deliberate, very loving and very humanising death.

Chased down.

Here.

On earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finitely Demanding: Reading The Death of God into Critchley’s ‘Infinitely Demanding’

As it almost traditional now, Peter Rollins has organised a multi-day event in Belfast exploring the socio-political roots and impact of his explorations of Radical Theology… precisely at a time when I’m working and thus completely unable to attend (for which read ‘defend my own work against his pirating of it .-) )

I’m joking of course, but while some thoughts percolated about Simon Critchley’s book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance I was reminded of the attempts Pete is making in his home-town of Belfast to fuse his work with the very real political situation which is being played out there. In fact it is, I believe, a highly relevant work – but one that I wanted to add a couple of twists to, firstly into the radical theological situation, and secondly alloying Critchley’s political conclusions with some of my own work on activism.

Disappointment…

The book – which serves as the best distillation of all of Critchley’s philosophy so far – begins with a bold statement: philosophy does not begin in wonder, but in disappointment, ‘with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled.’ This will become important later, but in the work I’m doing at the moment on ‘On High’ – a sort of history of human attempts at transcendence, I was really struck by this. In particular:

Our culture is endlessly beset with Promethean myths of the overcoming of the human condition, whether through the fantasy of artificial intelligence, contemporary delusions about robotics, cloning and genetic manipulation of simply through cryogenics and cosmetic surgery. We seem to have enormous difficulty in accepting our limitedness, our finiteness, and this failure is a cause of much tragedy.

What this leads to is, for Critchley, two key forms of disappointment: religious and political. To take the religious first, he notes:

The experience of religious disappointment provokes the following, potentially abyssal question: if the legitimating theological structures and religious belief systems in which people like us believed are no longer believable, if, to coin a phrase, God is dead, then what becomes of the question of the meaning of life? It is this question that provokes the visit of what Nietzsche refers to as the uncanniest of guests: nihilism.

It is to dealing with this nihilism – this absence of any helpful structures of meaning in our post-religious, post-communist, consumer capitalist hegemonic age – that Critchley dedicates the rest of the book. Nihilism generally leads to ‘passive withdrawal or violent destruction’ and it is clearly vital that we work out how to move beyond these states without ‘bewitching ourselves with new and exotic forms of meaning… like European/American Buddhism.’

His argument draws principally on Badiou, Levinas and a Danish theologian called Knud Ejler Løgstrup, and aims at ‘an empowering conception of ethics that can face down the drift of the present.’

The Event that Generates the Ethical Subject – with an Infinite Demand

I’d recommend reading the argument in full, but my summary of what he constructs here is this:

1. The self is something that shapes itself through its relation to whatever it determines as its good.

2. What we think of as a self is fundamentally an ethical subject, a self that is constituted in relation to its good, a self – our self – that is organised around certain core values and commitments.

3. An ‘event’ is that which calls a subject into existence, in the creation of a truth (or a ‘troth’ a – binding promise to it).

How does this work in practice? The example that Critchley uses is the one Badiou and Zizek have written a great deal on – St. Paul. Within this framework, Paul is ‘called into existence’ (a new subject: his name/identity is changed) by the event of Christ’s resurrection, creating a ‘troth’ in him. He is bound to this good, and his ethics, values and commitments are formed entirely by his relationship to this good. Importantly, what this event generates in any particular situation ‘motivates ethical action whose justification exceeds that situation and works to bring about its transformation.’ In other words, there is an over-abundance in the demand.

Drawing in Løgstrup, what thus happens in the sermon on the mount is that an exorbitant demand is made, but one that must be applied in particularity, such that:

‘the individual’s relation to God is determined wholly at the point of his (sic) relation to the neighbour.’

Critchley goes further. Løgstrup’s theology means that:

to be Christian on this view does not mean subscribing to whatever variety of more or less obscure metaphysical beliefs in the incarnation, resurrection or whatever. It means rather that one’s entire existence should be organised around the fact of the ethical demand insofar as that demand is enacted in relation to the other person.

It is here that I think Critchley runs into rougher ground over what generates this intense, over-abundant ethical demand. Clearly he doesn’t want to adopt a position that it would have to be God who did so, and instead says that it doesn’t matter as long as a radical demand is experienced, and that:

whether it’s from God, the abyssal void at the heart of the being, the fairies at the bottom of the garden, or some other occult source is something we simply cannot know.

Yet, in this unknowing, he wants to ‘know’ this:

To put it more paradoxically, knowing that there is no God, we have to subject ourselves to the demand to be God-like.

Changing the Event from Resurrection of God to Destruction of the Divine

This resonates exactly with the phrase I used in After Magic: that is, the most God-like thing we can do is to live as if God did not exist. But I’m uncomfortable with how Critchley gets there. Surely the nature of the event does matter? If we look at the subject-generating events – Christ’s resurrection, communist revolution etc. – then the kinds of subjects that they generate seems to me to be affected by the events that generate them.

More specifically, in After Magic I argue that the infinite (or effectively infinite) ethical demand events generated by ‘divine’ events generate ethical frameworks within subjects that can draw towards dehumanising politics of empire, rather than a politics that emphasises an abundant care for neighbour – a point Critchley (who seems a genuinely lovely guy and has been very generous in correspondence) agreed with in a recent email exchange. What seems to be an inescapable tendency for systems that arise to organise subjects generated by ‘divine’ events is that they lead to truths/troths that justify violence or oppression. Thus we see the oppression of women/minorities/LGBT groups with arguments along the line of ‘I’d love to welcome women bishops / gay marriage, but God says no, so I have no choice.’ Similarly, ‘I don’t want to have to disappear you for dissent, but the Party says I have to.’

This is where the Radical Theological tradition steps up to the plate and, I believe, irons out some tricky creases in Critchley’s position. How so? Instead of the Pauline event of the resurrection of Christ, what would happen if the event that generated the ethical subject was instead the death of God?

With this we can still hold to the idea of an ‘event’ which calls a subject into existence, binding them to a ‘troth’, and organised around certain values and commitments. But the infinite demand is now reduced, not below abundance, not below the level which would overflow from specific particularity and which ‘motivates ethical action whose justification exceeds that situation and works to bring about its transformation’ – but to an in between level.

Why is this important? Because it in this way we are lifted out of passivity – and the violence, destruction and nihilism that comes from it – but not loaded with such an enormous demand that we end up dehumanised. Moreover, because the generating-event that we are bound to concerns not the regeneration of the divine other, but the dismantling of the power of the divine, we are able to translate this directly into a form of activism that seeks a) to continue this work of dismantling of systems of oppression and b) to further prevent new systems based on infinite demands taking hold.

And it’s this that binds the radical theological move to activism, not passivity, this that makes the death of God – as opposed to the resurrection of Christ – a far more powerful generating event.

It’s to the nature of this activism – and the place of the Trickster/Pirate within it – that we’ll turn to in a (shorter) second post tomorrow.

Work in Progress: On High

It’s been a little quiet around here recently, but that’s definitely not due to a lack of activity behind the scenes. Following on from Mutiny and After Magic, I’ve been working on a third piece in a loose-trilogy which is, for the moment, entitled On High.

In short, it’s a history of height. It plots our continued lust for transcendence in all its forms, through drugs, powered flight and religious practice. In particular, the book will focus on the extraordinary years from October 1966 to December 1969, and on three events which form a prism through which this long history can been focused.

The first is Ken Kesey’s ‘acid graduation’ in a warehouse in San Francisco. The second focuses on William Anders’ photo Earthrise in 1968, and the moon landings that followed in July ’69. The third is, in October that same year, the sending of the first ever communication between two remote computers.

Launching from these three events I’ll be attempting to take in something of the common threads (as well as common protagonists) that link them, focusing in particular on what some of the social and theological implications of our fascination with transcending our limited finitude have been. Then I’m hoping to end with an examination of the ‘religion of technology’ – exploring how our impulses on social media and the move towards wearable technology (and A-Life) are based in the same urges that lifted our ancestors eyes to the heavens.

Having set this summary out, I’m now hoping not to have to write the thing at all, right? :)

In case I do, I’ve posted a taster from a very early draft of the introduction on the writing site Medium.  Do have a read. Be great to hear thoughts at this early(ish) stage. Right. Head down again…

 

Trauma, Embodied: On the Revelation of the Unspoken

What happens when the unspoken is said?

We have all lived with the unsaid. Though invisible and unrecordable, it nonetheless has a form of powerful non-existence. It is a silence, an absence that haunts and chills, a spectral communicating that is often extremely clear, though no words can be recounted, nor any actions described that provide solid evidence.

But what happens when the unspoken is said?

The spectre that haunts suddenly becomes embodied. Audible, recordable, somehow visible. Rather than an unspeakable dream, the spoken unspoken creates a trauma. Where there was once nothing to see, nowhere to point, when what is unspoken is said the atmosphere precipitates a physical body, something real that has to be faced and related to.

The introduction of this third reality into a room of two generates problems. We sometimes talk about ‘the elephant in the room,’ but the admission of this elephant makes the room suddenly very crowded. What could be stepped around – an invisible presence that was accounted for, even in its absence – now has to be accommodated.

It cannot be avoided. It must be spoken of more. It must be described and detailed and intently examined. Paradoxically, these acts to accommodate the actual existence of this previously non-existent power can serve to deflate. The words seem more prosaic now that they can be seen. There is less poetry; more proscription.

This deflation can be useful. In human terms, the insurmountable issues that appeared to exist between two people can be diminished. Hurts laid bare. Saying the unspoken, incorporating what was said loudly in silence can, paradoxically, bring transparency.

But what of The Unspoken, the Presence that Has No Name? Here, The Unsayable is the unsaid – a powerful absence that, in non-existence, is able to silently say so much. The problem of so much muscular religion is that it insists on a revelation that loudly speaks the Unsayable. This incorporation, this precipitation of an invisible haunting into a manifest elephant, creates a trauma. There is now something that has to be described, examined, quantified and decided upon. What was, in the silence, so powerful, is now deflated. There is immediately less poetry; suddenly more proscription.

The more powerful revelation, I wonder, is that which still resists being said; a non-existence that haunts, that electrifies, that says so much without uttering a single word, without breathing a single breath, that refuses to be real in order to spare us the trauma of divine crowding. Instead, listening carefully to what is not said, we retain the space to act.

‘Angry Young Prophet’ becomes ‘Father-Figure’ – Driscoll and Tragedy of Prodigal Son

I’ve kept well away from all the Mark Driscoll things that have hit the headlines over the past few years, basically because it’s hardly seemed worth adding to the froth and lather that’s been worked up over what, essentially, is pretty much the sort of nonsense that one can only expect from the kind of religious set-up that Mars Hill represents.

However, Driscoll’s recent apology over the marketing scam scandal that’s surrounded one of his latest books made me sit up and think that something needed to be said. Why? Because I think he’s entered very very dangerous ground, ground that I’ve spent a fair while thinking about in my book Mutiny (not a #1 Best-Seller. I blame my marketing company.)

In his apology, Driscoll says:

In the last year or two, I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over, to be replaced by a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.

if God would lead you to pray for me, the Scripture he has impressed upon me this past year or two is 1 Corinthians 4:15: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” As I get older, I am seeking to increasingly love our people as I do my own children in order for our church to be a great family, because of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

With the Father’s affection, –Pastor Mark Driscoll

It’s this transformation of the ‘angry young prophet’ into the ‘affectionate father’ that I think is deeply problematic, and those involved with Driscoll, or influenced by his work should take real care. This is the hard lesson from the parable of the prodigal son: there is a cycle that needs breaking.

In Mutiny (you can read the relevant chapter here for free) I explore a radical re-reading of this deeply-loved parable as a tragedy. It’s a tragic story because, through all that the son goes through, he ends up right back in the place of suppression that he began in. He has learned nothing. His father still rules him.

This reading examines the economic situation, and the sense of enclosure that the young son felt. This was a rich estate, surrounded by those in need. They likely relied on slave labour. Wanting to feel some air in his lungs, the young son asks for his share of the estate – an estate which, then halved, still at the end of the story easily supports the father and other brother. We pick up the story as the son lies, starving:

He would never live freely off his father’s riches again, but he could return as a servant. This way he could rebuild his strength, and do so with honest labour. More than that, he could show his father the error of his father’s ways, tell him about the hungry people that lay dying not so far away, and turn his father’s heart to compassion for them.

So the son returned home. But his father saw him coming. He’d watched every day, worried about the ideas he might come back with, concerned that his other son’s head might also be turned. All he had worked for and gathered around himself was at stake. He could not risk it being redistributed in some ridiculous lefty scheme.

As it happened, he needn’t have worried. The young son was tired, thirsty and splintered. He could only speak with half a heart, and the ideas that had felt so clear and sharp far from home now felt confused and tumid. His father refused his pleas to have him work. He gave him a warm robe, which, if a little heavy on his thinned frame, felt sumptuously comfortable. He was given the family signet ring, which invested him with an odd feeling of pride. He was someone again, with a strange but alluring sense of power. There didn’t seem to be the time or place to challenge his father and persuade him to widen the radius of his generosity…and so he settled back into his old ways, and accepted his old seat at the large and loaded dinner table.

‘I was alive,’ the young man said to himself as he sat listening to his father toasting his return at the feast… ‘but now I am dead again.’ His older brother seemed disappointed and angry, and his head hung low as the music raged and his father grew enraged. He’d tried to break out and had failed; he’d let both of them down. His plan to escape was in tatters. It was over. The father was too strong. They would both become like him.

The ‘turn’ of the story occurs when the son is helpless, among animals and animal food. He feels too weak to push through with his escape, so gives up and returns. Thus, the ‘angry young prophet’ quietly goes back, chastened, and grows to become the father. Takes over the business, his anger pushed down, suppressed, taken out in tiny systemic, authoritarian ways, until his own son grows… and grows angry, and the cycle repeats again.

Jesus refused that way. Coming from a place of great riches to a place of great need, he experienced hunger and poverty. But he didn’t just give up and go back. No, he challenged his father instead to stop hiding, to come out and be vulnerable among these people too. This is the non-tragic ending that the prodigal son misses, and that the gospel presents.

When Driscoll talks about moving from ‘angry young prophet’ to becoming a father, it makes me worry that he is simply following this well-trodden path that the prodigal took… and the father too, in his own youth. Didn’t the angry young divinity of the Old Testament make moves to becoming the loving father? But this cycle only leads to another generation being suppressed, oppressed, and having anger generated too.

Importantly, though, as I discuss in Mutiny, the parable of the prodigal son is extraordinary for its total exclusion of women – just as Driscoll’s ministry is too. Other parallel stories I examine – Star Wars, Peter Pan and The Odyssey, all move away from tragedy precisely because of the female characters:

It is only with their feminine influence that narratives can be balanced, so that the heresy of the child can bring the parent’s redemption, and thus the cycle of life continue towards greater maturity.

Excluding women, moving from angry young man to father with still-unresolved anger issues, a refusal to break down his empire – all of these are tragic elements in the prodigal story that Jesus resisted and Driscoll refuses to. That, for me, sounds major klaxons. Here is a (hi)story all set, tragically, to repeat itself.