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Liberalism… is often successful in preempting the debate by reformulating quarrels and conflicts within liberalism, so that they appear to have become debates within liberalism, putting in question this or that particular set of attitudes or policies, but not the fundamental tenets of liberalism with respect to individuals and the expression of their preferences. So so-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: the contemporary debate within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 394
HT to the recent post by Cosmos The Lost In, The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism.
In The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, von Balthasar gives a notable nod to the German Idealists and to Hegel in particular.
In order to read even a form within the world, we must see something invisible as well, and we do in fact see it. In a flower, a certain interior reality opens its eye and reveals something beyond and more profound than a form which delights us by its proportion and color. In the rhythm of the form of plants – from seed to full growth, from bud to fruit – there is manifested an essence, and to reduce the laws of this essence to mere utilitarian principles would be blasphemous. And in the totality of beings, as they ascend and maintain their equilibrium, there is revealed a mystery of Being, which it would be even more blasphemous and blind to interpret by reducing it to a neutral ‘existence’. As especially the Romantics and many German Idealists deeply knew, we are initiated into these mysteries because we ourselves are spirit in nature and because all the expressive laws of the macrocosm are at work in ourselves (444).
About the “mystery of Being,” a mystery that requires “initiation” as Hegel rightly noted in The Phenomenology of Spirit, von Balthasar continues,
At the level of total humanity, we can speak of a knowledge worthy of man only where we do not preliminary bracket out ‘the substratum of unknowing’ (as the so-called ‘exact sciences’ attempt to do), but, rather, very expressly include this dimension of mystery. For it is only in this way that the figure which lies at the heart of the matter becomes legible as a figure of reality. This is a fact which in Hegel is attested to in a hundred different ways and variations, his final dissolution of it into a divine omniscience notwithstanding (446).
So why is this important for von Balthasar? And why begin with the mystery of Being rather than the Christ event or at the very least creation?
Because for von Balthsar, the revelation of Christ is both a manifestation and concealment that takes place within Being. “The Incarnation of Word means the most extreme manifestness within the deepest concealment,” writes von Balthasar (456). What’s more, “this unique relationship of revelation and concealment is inscribed” in humanity’s Being (449). And as von Balthasar continues, “the revelation of grace is not the establishment of a new form within the created world; it is but a new manner of God’s presence in the form of the world” (451-452). What protects God from being subsumed into the order of nature, Being, or humanity is this dual nature of revelation. Si comprehendis non est Des (450).
As such, revelation,
does not have its place alongside the revelation in the creation, as if it competed with it, but within it. In the same way, the revelation in the Incarnation has its place within the revelation of God’s Being in man, who, as God’s image and likeness, conceals God even as he reveals him. In this instance this mean that, in Christ, man is disclosed along with God. This is so because God does not use human nature like an external instrument in order to articulate, from the outside and from above, the Wholly Other which God is; rather, God takes on man’s nature as his own and expresses himself from within it through the expressive structures of that nature’s essence. Thus the interiority in his expressive relationship derives from the fact that it is the Creator who is at work, and that he does not misuse his own creation for a purpose alien to it, but rather, by his becoming man, he could only honor it and crown it and bring it to its own intimate perfection (458-459).
And here is the kicker, the connection to what this all has to do with Being:
In abstract language we could say that it is Being itself (and not an existent among others) which, in this existent that is man, has found for itself definitive expression (459).
The mystery of Being protects God as the Wholly Other, yet reveals God as that which is most intimate, as the “Not-Other.”
In Walter Benjamin – Out of the Sources of Modern Judaism, Gillian Rose’s wonders if we might be inclined to follow Klee’s Angelus Dubiosus rather than Benjamin’s preference for the Angelus Novus.
The contrast between the two images is striking. As Rose asks, do we seek to aberrate mourning or do we inaugurate true mourning; do we rest easy in endless deferment and never quite arriving hope, our do we stake our solace in our transformation and the fact that our hunger, desire and eros presuppose satiation? Anything less, as Rose concludes, is sever eros from logos, which has become the driving characteristic of postmodern philosophy.
Summarizing Benjamin’s use of Klee’s Angelus Novus, Rose states:
In philosophical terms, I would argue, Benjamin only knew the dialectical image as a lightning flash, ‘the Then… held fast’, in the Now of recognizably. The rescue that is thus – and only thus – effected, can only take place for that which, in the next moment, is irretrievably lost. It is this unequivocal refusal of any dynamic of mutual recognition and struggle which keeps Benjamin’s thinking restricted to the stasis of desertion, aberrated mourning, and the yearning for invisible, divine violence… Unable to praise God, this is Klee’s traumatized Angel, who appears in the ninth thesis – the New Angel. Propelled backwards into the future by a storm from Paradise, he cannot stay and he cannot dissolve, but must impotently watch in horror the single catastrophe of History, the internal raging caused by the same paradisiacal storm, as it piles up its debris at his feet.
I prefer another angel of Klee’s, Angelus Dubiosus. With voluminous, blue, billowing and enfolding wings in which square eyeholes are cut for the expanse of rotund, taupe flesh to gaze through, this molelike angel appears unguarded rather than intent, grounded and slack rather than backing up and away in rigid horror. To me, this dubious angel suggests the humorous witness who must endure (209).
Rose phrase, “the stasis of desertion” seems so very important. It’s tempting to rest easy in endless deferment, to be ever clearing your throat but never saying anything. Such “aberrated mourning” is indeed static, it doesn’t do anything but cast the bereaved back upon the absence of death and back upon finitude that only finds meaning in “feeling” as reason is barred. It misses the dynamic of the Angelus Dubiosus, the hope of the heavenly banquet that is intimated here and now with each paschal sacrifice.
And there’s more. Rose’s Angel represents a humdrum hope of the simple garden variety. It does not mirror an ethics in extremis nor tend toward abstraction, but is characterized by bathos. “It appears commonplace, pedestrian, bulky and grounded – even though, mirabile dictu, there are no grounds and no ground,” writes Rose (10). It is not beyond reason, nor beyond metaphysics, but firmly entrenched within – eros and logos together. For Rose then, hunger is not perpetual deferral, but the transformative energia of God. Our task then is to “break the hard heart of subjective judgment; to soften the rigid stare of the Angelus Novus, the angel of history” (182).
 Perhaps Rose is picking up on Hegel’s description of “Protestant grief” in Faith and Knowledge. “God is something incomprehensible and unthinkable. Knowledge knows nothing save that it knows nothing; it must take refuge in faith. All of them agree that, as the old distinction put it, the Absolute is no more against Reason than it is for it; it is beyond Reason.” Religion characterized thus for Hegel “ builds its temples and altars in the heart of the individual. In sighs and prayers he seeks for the God whom he denies to himself in intuition, because of the risk that the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”
 Ethics in extremis “irrupts into the political arena, but it does not fundamentally transform it. The political tends naturally to the uniform and degenerate, and the most ethics would appear capable of is to shake it up from time to time. One might contrast this with a socialist or feminist morality, for which political change is the ground of transformed ethical relations between individuals. Such politics on this view is not simply a superaddition to existing modes of political existence. Far from being an outside intervention into the polis, it is a specific way of describing it.” Terry Eagleton, The Trouble with Strangers, 244.
Sometimes it’s important to remember that theology needs to be “for and against” Hegel, especially when one comes across a beautiful passage like this.
We can tell those who assert the truth and certainty of the reality of sense-objects that they should go back to the most elementary school of wisdom, viz. the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus, and that they have still to learn the secret meaning of the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. For he who is initiated into these Mysteries not only comes to doubt the being of sensuous things, but to despair of it; in part he brings about the nothingness of such things himself in his dealings with them, and in part he sees them reduce themselves to nothingness. Even the animals are not shut out from this wisdom but, on the contrary, show themselves to be most profoundly initiated into it; for they do not just stand idly in front of sensuous things as if these possessed intrinsic being, but, despairing of their reality, and completely assured of their nothingness, they fall to without ceremony and eat them up. And all Nature, like the animals, celebrates these open Mysteries which teach the truth about sensuous things.
~ The Phenomenology of Spirit, 109.
At the The Church and Postmodern Culture site, Carl Raschke presents an insightful review of Zizek’s and Gunjevic’s God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse. Despite the fact that the book “seems almost unreviewable,” it’s clear enough for Raschke that the text assumes the end of postmodern theology.
This is not to say that Raschke agrees with Zizek and Gunjevic. Indeed, his critique is a subtle riposte to Zizek’s theorizing and denouncement of Derridan a/theologies. Raschke rightly finds in Zizek’s corpus traces of pietism culminating in themes of “abjection and the painfulness of singular subjectivity.” In offering his critique of Zizek, I wonder if Raschke realizes that he is essentially in agreement with Milbank’s assessment: Zizek is not so much an atheist as much as he is a Protestant.
Whereas Zizek is too focused on Lacanian subjectivity, Gunjevic, according to Raschke, is too focused on forms of clericalism and institutionalism. In the face of apocalypse, Gunjevic’s stance is,
Not unlike living out some highly sophisticated fantasy of nineteenth century Gothic Romanticism. British academics singing matins and expatiating on the relevance of Scotus to sociology, while the guys in bearskins ransack the administration building at Oxford, strikes me more, however, as the gag for a Capital One commercial than a serious proposal for persevering through the dark times.
In the place of Zizek and Gunjevic, Raschke posits his own familiar view of postmodern theology, what he calls a “cosmological exceptionalism”. In the face of apocalyptic doom, “it’s not simply about living resolutely and authentically – that is to mistake Christianity for Heideggerianity. It’s about God vindicating those who don’t fit into the global or religious norms of the day at all, those whose only virtue was not so much how they lived, but their ‘faithfulness’ to the end.”
However wonderful this statement, Raschke quickly undermines this somewhat reasonable plea by slipping back into pietism and the Hedieggerian authenticity he previously derided. Raschke claims that New Testament apocalyptic means that Christ is “looking for one thing, and one thing only, when he arrives – faith.” It seems we have again returned to Protestant notions of sola fide, albeit with a postmodern veneer. God, we are told, is looking for an individual peering across the Kantian abyss.
Still, we can appreciate Rashke’s curious definition of apokalypsis: “it is about being Christs in the most Christ-like way to each other, as Luther once said.” Curious, because this quip highlighted by Raschke is essentially Gunjevic’s position. But Raschke doesn’t quite pick this up, and appears somewhat tone deaf when it comes to reading Gunjevic so that all he perceives are “new and improved version of academic ecclesio-theology.” But for Gunjevic, the virtues or ecclesial practices – the “technologies of the self” – are the virtues of the working class or “the mystagogy of revolution.” Gunjevic’s ecclesial practices are therefore far from the halls of Oxford and much more at home in the Balkans or a local union meeting.
Cast in this light, Gunjevic’s assessment of the revolutionary project is a rather modest philosophical proposal, firmly rooted in the Christian Socialist tradition. States Gunjevic,
Every revolution is doomed to fail if it lacks virtue, if it has no ad hoc participative asceticism which would assume a transcending dimension, no built-in dimension of spiritual exercise, or what Michael Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self.’ Revolution without virtue is necessarily caught between a violent orgiastic lunacy and a bureaucratized statist autism (13).
Dorothy Day once said something similar: “if we do not keep indoctrinating, we lose the vision. And if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives.”
According to Gunjevic, the ecclesial community, “has as its goal beyond goal the generation of new relationships, which themselves situate and define new individuals” (92). All of this for Gunjevic is to bring “Augustine to Spinoza and Spinoza to Augustine,” and to again bind together immanence and transcendence. In practical terms, this means that “ascetic exercise in ecclesial practice is a deliberately embraced discipline in terms of a goal that surpasses us, yet is also a vehicle” (101). We could do worse than to call this a politics of the good.
Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”… Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
Benedict’s thought echoes the opening words to Jaroslav Pelikan’s, Christianity and Classical Culture. Summarizing the linguistic and, in some sense, material appropriation of this historical confluence, Pelikan writes, “It remains one of the most momentous linguistic convergences in the entire history of the human mind and spirit that the New Testament happens to have been written in Greek” (3).
If Benedict and Pelikan are correct, where does this leave theology and the question of metaphysics? At the very lest, shouldn’t we be over and done with a facile rejection of metaphysics?
In Darwin’s Pious Idea, Conor Cunningham highlights the Cartesian dualism underlining the thought of Dawkins and Co. Frankly, I find it fascinating to believe that there are still people out there, apparently even scientists, who assume a mind/body distinction, and the existence of something as vacuous and elusive as “matter” or a soul locked inside a body. It seems that there are still many who have yet to consider Wittgenstein’s quip: ”The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”
So where does this mistaken belief come from? Cunningham writes about the genealogy of this assumption:
We can better understand this if we begin to realize that the notion of mere matter – that something is nothing but an aggregation of the Darwinina ‘swamp’ of pure becoming (our ever-contemporary origin, as it were) – is itself a product of a ‘Cartesian presumption,’ namely the dualism of res extensa/res cogitans (matter and mind). In this way Dawkins and his followers reproduce a quasi-Cartesianism in their strict division between genotype (res extensa) and phenotype (res cogitans). Therefore the materialist, operating in quasi-Cartesian terms, generate what can be called a homunculus fundamentalism: they presume that the soul is like a little person inside the human, but when they don’t find such an entity, they deny the soul existence…the smirk of the ultra-Darwinist (or eliminative materialist) is fueled and held captive by the picture of a mind inside the brain, or a soul inside or outside the body. Ultra-Darwinist keep pulling up our skirts, raising the curtains to reveal an absence – the missing homunculus. But if we take a closer look, we notice that there is something decidedly old-fashioned about this approach (65).
Cunningham goes on to argue that underpinning this outdated mode of Cartesian dualism is yet another philosophical assumption; namely, Zwinglian metaphysics. More on this later.
Real history is composed of human lives; and human life is metaphysics in act. To claim to constitute the science of history without any speculative preoccupation, or even to suppose that the humblest detail of history could be, in the strict sense of the word, a simple matter of observation, is to be influenced by prejudices on the pretext of attaining to an impossible neutrality.
~ Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma, 237.
Rather than erecting a dualism between God and the world, or to say that God is “wholly other,” Desmond posits the “inseparability of God and the world,” taking his cue from St. Paul and the mystery of creation’s groaning (Rom. 8).
God may be the absolute other, but the absolute other is not absolutely other. This other is absolute, but just as absolute it is for the other of itself, and hence not absolute, in the sense of being purely for itself alone. This is the agapeic ecstasis of transcendence itself… Creation itself is…the very happening of the between. We cannot elevate the absolute other into an otherness that is just the absolutization of opposition. Were this the last word, we would have to pack our bags and shut up. I agree, a reverent silence may be needful, but we can only speak of the absolutely other, even as absolutely other, because in some mysterious sense that other is communicated. The real question is the character of the communication.
~ William Desmond, God and the Between, 103
“Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by ‘extending’ democracy: say, by setting up ‘democratic’ banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction.”
Zizek questioning of the “bourgeois-state apparatus” in favor of something else sounds a lot like Illich’s argument for a “network of ever different relations of agape” (cf. Taylor’s, A Secular Age). That is, a mode of thinking and acting that escapes “bureaucratic control… [and] that we want to defend from measurement or manipulation” (The Rivers North of the Future, 21).