Empty time and Now time

The second week of Advent brought us prophetic passages from Isaiah (11:1-10) that look forward to an idealistic time that seems entirely incompatible with the present.  “On that day,” wolves and lambs will live together, leopards will lie down with young goats, and a little child will lead the whole operation.  Such an occurrence would be something out of the ordinary indeed–wholly other from what we know as our current reality.

In the reading from Isaiah and among the critical theories and postmodern philosophies that shape my worldview, there is a structural or fundamental difference between time as we experience it and the time of the event that ruptures our current reality.  For Isaiah, the time in which such wildly pastoral events might happen is the time of the “to come,” an as-yet-unknown future, but one toward which we should look with active anticipation.  For Walter Benjamin, the difference stood between what he called a homogenous, empty time and the time of the now (Jetztzeit).  The former would be our ordinary conception of time as a series of moments, each more or less the same in terms of measurement and content.  The later, however, is the time of the now (but not necessarily the time of the present) that fills up the present moment.  This now time is pregnant or full of something new, something different, something other than the homogeneity or sameness of empty time.  In fact, it’s so full that when it gets itself inserted into homogenous, empty time Benjamin says that it blasts open the historical continuum.  The content of the time of the now is so potent that the present cannot fully contain it, at least not in the way that the present currently appears.  This now time, this event that gets itself realized, occurs in such a way as to alter the historical continuum, altering the homogenous present by inserting something new, something wholly other, such that the present can’t not respond.

Benjamin’s time of the now alludes to an eternal time in which the ordinary progression of time comes to a halt.  Time is at a standstill.  In Derrida’s (and Jack Caputo’s) terms, the arrival of the event interrupts the present in such a way that we are arrested, brought to a standstill, in the face of the event.  Isaiah too seems to long for this sort of arrival of the future, as he describes it in such a way that humans would be confronted with occurences that they couldn’t understand, couldn’t possibly fathom under present conditions.

Yet this shock of the time of the now, the standstill of time, allows us a moment to pause and arrange our thoughts.  For Benjamin, at least, the now time allows thinking to be arrested and to crystalize or become a constellation:  “Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad.”  When we’re able to examine this monad, this crystallization of thought, we see the world not as it is, but rather as it might be.  And in this moment the messianic, the “to come,” flashes up, providing us a glimpse of what is always on the horizon.

It is only in the time of the now that, in Benjamin’s terms, something different might cross our horizon and enter our reality.  For Derrida, the wholly other does not come when or how we might expect, but rather it appears as the impossibility that surprises us by becoming possible.  For both, the goal is to blast open the homogenous time or the economy of the same that permeates our present reality.  Our call then is to grab ahold of the time of the now, to make the best of the standstill to arrange our thoughts such that the “to come” might show itself and alter our reality in profound ways.

Something different is coming and must come.  “On that day” things will not be as they are, but right relations will prevail–relations of equality, relations of justice, relations of peace.

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Theopoiesis and a process

The temporal movement of theopoetics has been long and rhythmic, pulsing along at some points faster than at others.  And just as its historical lineage is vast, so too are its present-day branches.  From the Biblical hermeneutics of Amos Wilder and Stanley Hopper, to its deconstructive instantiations in John Caputo’s The Insistence of God, to Roland Faber and Catherine Kellers’ theopoetics as a branch of process thought, to Anne Michelle Carpenter’s work on Balthasar’s aesthetics as a theology of poetry, the varieties of theopoetics are great in number and ever-increasing.  Like David Russell Moseley, I am grateful for this plurality of theo-poets and for such diverse conversation partners along this endeavor.

Moseley’s recent post, responding to Callid Keefe-Perry’s interview with Wipf & Stock and to Anne Michelle Carpenter’s book Theo-Poeticsdifferentiates between theopoetics as against theology and theopoetics as an inherent part of theology, siding with the later and taking issue with the former.  Process theopoetics, the form of theopoetics out of which I (mostly) work, is often characterized as anti-theological because it does indeed take issue with the logos portion of theo-logy.  Just as Raimon Panikkar reminds us, theological language cannot be made clear and precise, because such language always misses part of that which it attempts to disclose.  For this reason, process theopoetics seeks to supplement the logos of theology with the poiesis of theopoiesis to denote a continual “making” or creating of the world and the divine-world relation, instead of claiming clear and distinct statements about God as final and complete.  To be sure, the goal is not to get rid of the logos as the ordering function of theology, but to call attention to the fact that something always escapes our theological and philosophical statements about the divine.

In her chapter “Theopoiesis and the Pluriverse” in Theopoetic FoldsCatherine Keller writes at length on the etemylogical origin of the word theopoiesis and the early church fathers who first used this term.  Clement, Iranaeus, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea all understood the term as invoking a sort of deification–literally making divine.  The goal, whether aimed at via mysticism or simply by the work of Christ through the church, was for us to be made divine.  Keller notes here that Whitehead doesn’t disaffirm such a view, but rather takes it and radicalizes it.  In very metaphysical ways, Whitehead understands the world as becoming like God and perhaps even as becoming God.  Through his panentheism (all within God), he envisions a side to God that continually receives the entire content of the world into God’s self as it unfolds.  Moreover, by way of God being the highest exemplification of metaphysical principles rather than an exception, entities in the world become what they are in just the same way that God becomes what God is.  And entities in the world become what they are in response to God’s insistent calling, thereby taking God’s urges and actualizing them in the world.  In process terms, theopoiesis is radicalized because such deification doesn’t stop with humans, but expands to all entities within the world.  Every little “thing” that constitutes the world comes into existence in this way.

This making-divine of the world becomes intensely active and convivial (to use Keller’s word) in process theopoetics because of the relation between God and the world in this panentheistic sense.  God becomes as the world becomes, and the world becomes as God becomes.  God calls and the world responds.  The world responds and God reformulates the call.  If such a process continues indefinitely (barring any cataclysmic end to the world), then one is better to talk of a theo-poetics than a theo-logy, as every attempt to classify, order, or pin down is always just short of the mark, a little too late, or not quite on the spot.

Repoliticizing the church at Subverting the Norm

I’m excited to present with my awesome partner in all things radical Bo Eberle at Subverting the Norm this weekend.  Here’s a description of what I’ll be discussing.  You can also go here if you want to see what Bo will be presenting.

Repoliticizing the Church: Finding Postsecular Engagement in Adorno and Benjamin

At a recent speaking engagement, Brian McLaren said, “In many cases the church is not relevant in today’s world.  But can it be and should it be is another question.”  More forcefully, in their book on the new materialism, Jeffrey Robbins and Clayton Crocket describe the postsecular world as repoliticizing religion such that radicalized religion can no longer perform religious acts in solitary confinement, so to speak, but must engage its own culpability for and entanglement in the most pressing issues facing inhabitants of our world.  Other postmodern philosophers, such as Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler, have in recent years turned to the work of two early critical theorists—Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin—as examples for how to (re)think religion’s repoliticization.  This presentation will return to Adorno’s critique of Enlightenment religion as secularized and de-radicalized before examining how both Adorno and Benjamin reinscribe religion with political import, allowing us in turn to rethink the church’s engagement with perhaps the two most pernicious problems facing the world today: the global economic crisis and the ecological crisis (which are inextricably linked).  I will argue that the church should make itself relevant in today’s world by responding to these issues and ensuring that such issues are no longer ignored in our preaching, liturgy, and church theology.  Adorno and Benjamin’s materialist conceptions of religion and notion of inverse theology (now in play in both the work of Zizek and Butler) provide a compelling means for moving the church from stasis to radical re-engagement.

The Enoch Factor

As a budding materialist (for info on what that means, see these posts) and philosopher, I’m not typically interested in books on spirituality. This is probably a fault of mine, but I openly admit it. However, when I first read about Steve McSwain‘s book The Enoch Factor I was intrigued for a couple of reasons. First, I read the Book of Enoch in college and remembered him having been an interesting character of the Hebrew Bible. Second, McSwain’s take on the type of shallow spirituality professed in many churches today seemed right on, and I wanted to hear him out. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.

ImageWhat initially drew me to this book is also what carried me through to the end–McSwain’s unapologetic critique of the type of Christianity that requires assent to key beliefs or dogmas. McSwain himself has clearly undergone a very real transformation after which he understands truth, religion, and faith not as a set of dogmatic statements or theological litmus-tests, but as a journey that could take on many forms. As one who attends an “emergent” church with openly gay ministers on staff, it was absolutely refreshing to hear a former Southern Baptist pastor articulate his understanding of faith as constantly expanding and evolving and his understanding of other religions as equally possible paths to the divine reality. McSwain’s book is truly brave in this regard–he embraces his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and affirms that while Christianity is his chosen path, it is not the only path to knowing God.

The reason I tend not to read books on spirituality is that all too often these books focus on extra-worldly concerns, leaving aside the issues that face us everyday in the world we currently inhabit. I don’t, however, think this is the case with The Enoch Factor. Aside from a couple of statements (which I may have misinterpreted), I think that the type of spirituality McSwain models could in fact be one that renews human individuals in order for them to focus on addressing real-world concerns with new vivacity and a renewed sense of purpose. Knowing God, the way he articulates it, is a journey that can lead each person to a better space, a better personal awareness, and toward a healthier means of living and being in the world. McSwain writes: “Unless there are profound changes in human consciousness–that is, changes in how we look at each other and treat each other, there is little hope for humanity’s survival.” This statement from the beginning of the book signals his desire to address the problems inherent in the physical world we call home through a vital spiritual quest that calls us to give up on “religion” in favor of a life of faith with an acute awareness of the divine and a clearer understanding of our role on this earth.

Adorno and Critical Self-Reflection

Second post in the theology of remembrance series…

In the decades following World War II, a phrase was coined in Germany that can roughly be translated as “coming to terms with the past” or “mastering the past.” This is not an exact translation, since a precise translation simply looses some of the cultural understanding that goes along with the German phrase. But the process of coming to terms with the past became the goal of at least a subset of the German population (which included notable political and public figures), and this subset understand the process as a finite and measurable task with a clear goal. There could be, so they argued, some point at which Germans could come to terms with their Nazi past, after having considered, dissected, and discussed this past. The process, while perhaps wrong-headed, was a somewhat undertandable outgrowth of a situation of extreme guilt and shame. However, not everyone in Germany bought into such a process. Some, like philosophers Theodor Adorno and Eric Voegelin, viewed the project of coming to terms with the past as a suspicious process that in reality aimed at moving beyond the past in the sense of doing away with the past or sweeping the past under the rug. This post will talk about Adorno’s critiques of such a process and will outline what he viewed as more helpful ways of examining the past, including most importantly his notion of critical self-reflection.

A brief word about Adorno–Theodor Adorno was the son of a Roman Catholic mother and Jewish father who claimed at least a partial Jewish heritage throughout the course of his life. He was trained in both philosophy and musical composition and even studied with the early 20th century Austrian composers Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Adorno completed his dissertation on Kierkegaard under the direction of Paul Tillich, who continued to be an influential presence in his life. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Frankfurt where he became a member of the Institute for Social Research, run at the time by Max Horkheimer. Both Adorno and Horkheimer (as well as most others at the institute) were heavily influenced by Marx and socialist philosophical critiques, and the two used Marx’s critiques of economy and capital to develop a more robust critical theory. And in fact, Frankfurt is typically regarded as the birthplace of critical theory–a type of study that seeks to uncover the assumptions that may be hidden, displaced, or that go unvocalized in a society.

In 1959 Adorno delivered a radio address on “The Meaning of Working Through the Past.” The talk later became an essay that is his most salient response to the problem of coming to terms with the past as it appeared in post-war Germany. In it he speaks about the difference between working through the past and working upon the past. The first he sees as (and the translation of the German word corresponds to) carrying out an unpleasant task, as in clearing away the paperwork on one’s desk. The second, however, he understood as digesting or processing the past so as to understand it more fully, and it was this second notion (working upon the past) that Adorno advocated. He goes on in the talk to discuss how those who engaged in working through the past seemed to be merely brushing the past aside, hastily working through it so as to be rid of it; and wrote that this hasty process would result in an “empty and cold forgetting.” Forgetting the atrocities committed under National Socialism in Germany meant for Adorno that the conditions that made the Nazis’ rise to power possible in the first place would go unexamined and could therefore potentially re-present themselves even within the newly minted democratic republic of Germany. Thus, Adorno looked for a path toward remembrance that routed itself (consciouslly and critically) through the very deplorable past that some Germans most wanted to forget or move beyond.

He did this by suggesting that critical self-reflection become the cornerstone of intellectual and public discussion. By this he meant taking an honest and deep look at oneself in order to consider the motivations and influences affecting one’s decisions, actions, and discourse. In Germany this meant examining the factors that allowed National Socialists to come to power in the first place, and then taking a good, hard look at the present conditions to see what had changed, what remained the same, and if those original factors were still there.

Clearly the idea of critical self-reflection has a lot possibility outside of post-Holocaust discussions and outside of talk about German’s past. But in thinking about the atrocities of the Holocaust, critical self-reflection asks those involved (and even those of us who are heir to religious thinking that contributed to violent anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism) to work upon the past by looking closely at what created those factors that led to such atrocities and then asking whether or not those factors still exist today. Just because we live in a democratic society where we can’t even imagine such things taking place, Adorno reminds us that those same “modernist” systems (democracy, technology, industrialization) completely and totally broke down in the Second World War so as to lend themselves to the horrific acts of the Nazi state. Modernity ended up being the greatest help to the Nazis, rather than a safeguard against human brutality. For this reason, Adorno sees the on-going process of critical self-reflection as an extremely important part of the task of remembering the past.

There’ll be more to come on Adorno’s understanding of religion and theology in future posts. But for now we can consider what it would mean for religious persons to adopt a practice of critical self-reflection. This doesn’t necessarily mean undermining our entire belief system, but it could mean thinking critically about the past and present motivations, actions, and beliefs that are a part of our religious traditions in order to 1) understand our traditions more fully and know why we stand where we stand today, and to 2) ensure that there aren’t tendencies within our religious traditions that might cause undue harm to ourselves or others either inside or outside of our traditions.

Peter Rollins and Inverse Theology

My favorite Irish theologian and critical theorist has been at it again–deconstructing the church, Christianity, religion, and any other monolith that stands in his way! Peter Rollins’s latest book, Insurrection, unfolds what I call a Christian form of inverse theology–a theology that views damaged life (the material world in which we live) from the perspective of the redeemed. I’ve talked a bit about this notion elsewhere, so I won’t go into the details of inverse theology here. But you can listen to the podcast of Tripp Fuller and I’s breakout session at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation to get a basic understanding of what I mean by ‘inverse theology.’

In Insurrection, Pete does two things that I find particularly helpful from a materialist standpoint: first, he gives us a biting critique of “religion” that I think works well with a thorough-going criticism of Western Christianity as overrun and co-opted by the forces of global capitalism; and second, he tells us without any reservations that seeking an escape from this world in favor of a perfected realm “beyond” is not what God intends for us. On the first point, Pete uncovers “religion” as a sort of security blanket: it tells us what we want to hear and does it in such a way that no serious life change is required. This, he thinks (and I agree), is basically the opposite of the message of the gospels. For this reason, he asks Christians and Christian leaders (pastors, youth workers, etc.) to realize and admit their own doubts. Only by doing so can we ever unshackle ourselves from a “reified” religion in order to more fully experience the events of Jesus’ life as orienting us to participation in this world. He writes: “The whole religion industry is thus fueled by our desire to escape suffering and avoid the gnawing sense of meaninglessness. The certainty is marketable because it is a response to our unhappy situation, and it keeps selling because it is ultimately ineffective in properly transforming it.” These lines connect my first and second points by describing how religion attempts to make itself “marketable” by providing bits of belief through sound bites that don’t really have any depth or meaning and don’t ultimately either require a person to realize and admit her/his own doubt or engage more radically with the world in which we live. Our desire to avoid suffering goes hand in hand with a desire to avoid doubt, since witnessing or acknowledging suffering oftentimes leads to religious or existential doubt. Moreover (and most importantly for Pete), we cannot fully experience or participate in the crucifixion and resurrection if we are concerned solely with escaping material reality or damaged life.

In the second half of his book, Pete turns precisely to the resurrection, suggesting that the resurrection not be viewed as the means by which we leave the world behind, but as an invitation into deeper relationship with the world we currently inhabit.

“We do not find happiness by renouncing the world and pointing our desire toward the divine, but now we discover the divine in our very act of loving the world.”

Pete writes against what he calls the religious view by saying that we aren’t to seek God as a transcendent being–an object to be loved–but we recognize and realize God through the very act of loving. It’s what we do in this world with and for those around us that actually makes us most aware of God’s presence. “In the very mode of seeing that raises the suffering, broken, and excluded to the level of the beautiful, sublime, and absolute, God is present. Not dwelling behind or above, but as dwelling in the very midst.” For this reason, the resurrection is not a turn away from the world, but a return to the world (very literally).

This understanding of the resurrection I think highlights most clearly a Christian form of inverse theology in that it reorients our gaze away from a transcendent realm and onto the reality of damaged life, forcing us to acknowledge and live in and among the suffering, joy, pain, and bliss that life in this world entails. And in so doing it also requires us to work toward alleviating at least some of the suffering of damaged life. We can’t pretend that in 10 or 50 or even 200 years the world will be a shiny, happy place because of our efforts, but we can certainly hold out some small bit of hope that it will be better than it is now.