Monday, April 24, 2017

"Of the dear I": The modern world's belly-god

Pretty much everywhere one hears about "experience", which is basically the new word for "gold". However, unlike older images of the pudgy bourgeois capitalist overlooking his factory, or some Scrooge-like figure hovering over his fortune like a greedy mountain dragon of old, the new image of this new capital is sexy, young, and robust. The purpose of life, it seems, is to acquire experiences. Why travel? To experience the world. Why go to this or that event, concert, show? To have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Why do legions of twenty-somethings enter, willingly, into a form of slavery, where they do low-level, menial tasks for free (the phenomenon of the intern)? To gain experience so that someone on the job-market will hire you. Why should young men and women sleep around before they get married? Because, as someone once told me, they need to get the experience to sexually please their future spouse. The examples continue on and on.

This connects to the uninterrupted reign of the subjective that Kant, accidentally it seems, unleashed with his so-called Second Copernican Revolution, the radicalization of Descartes' subject-object divide into the turn to the subject. J.G. Hamann was a friend and contemporary of Kant, and remained his fiercest critic. However, unlike his student Herder, Hamann did not utilize Kant's subjective turn to attack reason, but complicated the whole as the mess of a world post-Babel. Here's Oswald Bayer's reading of Hamann:
When assumed and dealt with, this conflict [of the unity or diversity of languages and reasons] can have a productive effect and yield gain for language. Hamann, however, refuses to expropriate this experience for the productivity of modern subjectivity and thus wring surreptitiously from necessity a virtue "of the dear I." Hearing and reading as continual converse in translation with the natural and social world cannot simply be reshaped into the function of an individuality that opens itself to the other and strangers only in order to expand and enrich itself, thus in the understanding of the other always returns to the self and uses the variety of languages or reasons only to enjoy itself. Romanticism and Schliermacher along with it misunderstood Hamann's hermeneutic. The same is true of Hegel, for whom the contemplative Spirit is enriched by empty into the other, but in this emptying merely comes to itself, becomes aware of itself, "through sinking, being sunk in the other," and gains nothing but itself.
The Subjectivist, whether he be the Kantian critic with his withering gaze, the voluntarist Fichtean who makes the world according to the will, or the synthesis of eternity and temporal into Hegel's process theology, is nothing more than a belly. The Subjectivist turns the Human into the ultimate consumer, far more destructive than the crass materialism of the shopping-mall idiot. This endless consumption threatens to transforms all else into objects, passive and inert, to be absorbed. It is the chief jewel crowning the headdress of Human vanity, which ultimately results not only in man's attempt to destroy creation, but also bring about the destruction of Humanity.

Film has, in recent years, done a great job at revealing the horror of this Human capacity. While one can clearly point to sci-fi, where aliens, apes, or machines mimic and adopt this Subjectivist posture, I think a more interesting example is the new horror movie Get Out. I admit I haven't seen it, reading reviews and plot synopses has been enough fuel for my imagination. What is amazing, in a black humor that, I hope, becomes the mark of Jordan Peele's directing career, is how Humanist liberals operate according to a vicious appetite. In a fantastical scenario, black men and women are being turned into vessels for fashionable liberals, consuming their flesh in a vampiric-zombie-esque form, reflecting this Subjectivist desire to "experience" all things. This goes beyond the complaint of cultural appropriation, which, as far as I understand, is completely irrelevant. Rather, it's taking the modern obsession on experience to an absurd conclusion. This ramps up the sexual commodification of experience to a completely different level (i.e. the "I want to sleep with a black man/woman" becomes "I want to be a black man/woman"). It's a tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of how evil our modern ethos can really be.

Hamann stands outside of this tradition, even as he appreciates the Enlightenment emphasis upon the crisis of multiplicity, discovering diverse worlds and forms outside of Europe. Hamann's response, however, is shaped by his Christianity, as a firm disciple of Luther. I will end with Hamann's cross-shaped hermeneutic, and leave it for further consideration:
What frees Hamann's understanding of language from illusion is the cross of Jesus Christ. It is for him the source of his critical contact with the conflict of languages and rationalities. The tyrant and sophist [i.e. the plurality of language is a battle of both illusions and seductions, but also violent conforming force--CP] can be "disarmed by nothing than mathemata pathemata, suffering erudition, aesthetic obedience to the cross." 
Addendum 5/6/17: It is interesting to consider that in the film Get Out the hypno-body snatching of the evil white liberals is the sending of the black consciousness to the "sunken place". This parallels Hegel's phrasing in how the Spirit, the ultimate Subject, most fully realizes itself in the created Other-Object. While the Synthesis appears, in its most positive construal, as a coming together of Subject and Object, it is possible to see it as the evolution of the Subject by the domination of the Other-Object. This reading makes more sense of Hegel's notion of the Subject's revelation of Self when confronted with the Other-Object is most properly realized in the dialectic of freedom and slavery. The Master is only free when he sees himself in the Slave, the Other-Object. Frederick Douglas famously reversed this formula, where the Slave becomes Subject by recognizing the Other-Object Master, who is merely a force of nature to be overcome. Both presuppose an antagonism at the heart of creation, which reflects the Fallen state of This Age. However, if, like Hegel, one makes a metaphysics of this, then we have rejected the Scripture. The agon of body-snatching is then the dark heart of reality, and we live in a world akin to Ridley Scott's Alien, where the Xenomorph is the most real Real subject, who truly comes to be by colonizing the Other. If Hegel is right, then God is the Devil and we are all in Hell.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Saving the Scripture from the Enthusiasts, or The Quest to Find a Biblical Metaphysic

Ephraim Radner's Introduction to his work Time and the Word begins with a survey of Post-Liberal myopia. What Lindbeck and Frei were able to do was reintroduce, to an academy thoroughly intoxicated on Biblical Criticism and its accompanying naive believe in Progress, the Bible as a subject, not merely object. The tools of Enlightened reason were not to dissect (or, more properly, vivisect) the Scripture, but the Scripture was to speak in its own voice. The World was to be reassumed by the text, following a post-modern trend towards the particular over the universal, the latter being a vain conceit by Western European imperialists.

This is all fine and good until one goes hunting for some substance: there isn't any. There's no reason to expect the Bible means anything other than anything else. Hauerwas, a quintessential post-Liberal with a vicious edge, proves the vacuity of it all. He argues, more precisely demands, Christians truth to power, live within the pages of the Bible, be fiercely committed to their churches. But one hears the faint ring of Liberal metaphysics, with talk of an arc of history bending towards justice (quoting Martin Luther King Jr.). That is to say, history is progressing to the future, one where Christ will rule. This reality is not even clearly a reality for Hauerwas, its stripped of its substance of Hegelian system and left to the pages of the Bible, something that is not clearly anything other than a textual world which makes claims we can live by. Maybe Hauerwas is so vicious against the Liberals because he basically is one, with priestess wife and all. Maybe he's no different than those hood-winked Platonist converts that merely inserted Christ for the Nous, leaving the task of sweeping up the embarrassments of his historical particularity.

Post-Liberals, in the assessment of Radner, give us back the Bible without any power. It is metaphysically flimsy, and cannot answer the charge that this hermeneutic could apply to any text. Why not just communities from the Koran? The Odyssey? Cat and the Hat? If we assert it is because the Bible contains the purest form, the Word of God in total, then the war is lost from the get go. First, it's historically unverifiable, and depends upon naked assertion and saccharine appeals. Second, this puts the Bible in the running with all else. For Radner, the key is to see the Bible as its own basis for metaphysics, which is what he does in the above cited work.

I reflect upon this because I've been reading Oswald Bayer's book on J.G. Hamann. On his own terms, he was a critic of Kant, but he was not the progenitor of Romanticism, even though his disciple Herder went in that direction. Instead, according to Bayer, Hamann did not abandon reason to the frenzy of pagan delights in his indulgence of the sensual, the earthy, and, ultimately, the time-bound. Instead, he maintained a marriage of reason and sense, the necessary and the contingent, the true and the historical. But most of all, he was an avid disciple of Luther.

The major significance of this is seen if one considers Luther's battle with the "enthusiasts", the Anabaptists. The latter were righteous in the way they lived, but I agree with Luther's critique 100%: their error is that they divide the external word from the internal word. This means they divorced the mediated word, given through preaching, the written text, temporal and contingent conversation, from its effects. The inner word could be taken apart and assessed. In this way, the former external aspect could be cast off as fleshly, opposed to their unmediated experience of God in an inner revelation. This could be argued as the same reason Luther, with acid tongue, cast off Zwingli at Heidelberg.

Hamann sees this same thing play out in Kant, who represents the secularization of Zwinglian theology. The inner-word of the categorical imperative, the only true sense in which the Human subject can touch the noumenal, outpaces all the mud of historical, time-bound experience. In this way, we may really speak of the Kantian revolution as a second Copernicus: he ushered in the post-Christian age. But, of course, Kant's post-Christian theology was preserved in the theological divorce Zwingli, and his dissenting brethren, offered.

However, Hamann did not merely revel in the contingent as a Romanticist. It is this whiplash against monolithic and towering reason which plays out with the post-Liberal rebellion against the academy's rationalist Biblical criticism. While perhaps it is fair to say that the academy in this set-up is not quite Kant, following the more conciliatory approach of Lessing and his descendants of the Social Gospel movement, the reaction followed a line that still depended on the whimsy of the imagination, which, in a sense, denied the question of metaphysics. Hegel tried to save metaphysics, and it still lives, but that's the major pillar left in Modernity.

Hamann, as Luther would have, posited a metaphysics of the Word. Now this has become the kerygma theology of the Barthians and Existentialists everywhere. This too is myopic and is a kissing cousin to the Post-Liberals. But again, this leaves one flat. But what if this is a misreading of Luther and Hamann. What if it's possible to see Radner's project, a Biblical metaphysics self-contained in the figures of the Scripture, as a fitting, and fulfilling, of both Luther and Hamann's intent to not tear a part the power of God from His Word, heard and heralded, in the annals of history and in the pages of time. What if this is the key to the metaphysical myopia of today's Christianity, which remains loyal to the Bible with no speculative edge? What if we don't need Plato to give what the Scripture already, in itself, contains?

This question is an open wound, and continue to be so until someone writes more to consider the options. So, as someone merely asking and not answering, I will leave it as it is. It is worth consideration, at the very least.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Faith as the Vita Passiva, or is Agamben a Lutheran?

Agamben sees Western Civ built upon ancient dialectics that Modernity has collapsed in such a way that makes it era where law becomes the ultimate killing-machine. One of these dialectics is founded in Aristotle's distinction between theoria and praxis, contemplatio and actio, or between speculative thought and action. These might be further considered along an axis of being and act. The dichotomous split plays on a dialectic of separation, where the being is secured and locked away from an arena elsewhere. Thus, being/act matches, in the polis, the oeconomia/political split. The essentially Human is left behind, and thus protected, through dimensional shift to the realm of politics. In the ancient city, the political did not deal with Human life in se, but with citizens, qualified bodies.

This classical split continued into theological discourse through the Middle Ages. But Luther was one who fundamentally challenged this arrangement through his articulation of faith as a vita passiva, neither being nor act, but a negated space of expectation and reception. The role of faith was, in this, opening up Human life beyond what it had or what it possessed, but transformed it before the potential of God's divine act. Here is Oswald Bayer explaining Luther's radical shift:

The decisive aspect of the vita passiva is that it is linked to a specific experience to an experience for which I am not the prime initiator, but which instead I suffer [...] The righteousness of faith is passive, [quoting Luther] "in that we allow God alone to work in us and we ourselves, with all our powers, do not do anything." [...] Luther's revolutionary new way to conceive of faith as a vita passiva found Luther sharing something in common with a particular form of mysticism [...] His consideration of such views is admittedly critical. For though it would seem that mystical contemplation appears to be passive, the opportunity lurks within that one can make advances in one's speculations and renunciations. That which alone is passive, the righteousness of faith (iustitia passiva), which can only be suffered, by contrast, happens when all thinking that one can justify oneself, in a metaphysical sense, as well as when all acting, in a moral sense, together with the desire to unite the two efforts, are radically destroyed. (Martin Luther's Theology, 42-43)
The key is that this results in an inoperativity of man's energies that wait transformation, an impossible possibility originating with the Divine initiative. This looks, on the surface, like a kind of mysticism, but this is totally rejected. The mystic quest involves not a waiting on God, but a greedy and aggressive push of the Human into where it has not yet tread. In the passive tranquility of the mystic, one is confronted with a super-human, namely the demoniac. The spiritualist is possessed of something beyond, his contemplation has become the most powerful act. Correlating to the corporate and the city, this is a politics that seeks to not merely deal with an externalized addendum, the citizen, but reaches into something else, the Human, or perhaps life itself. The mystic radically transforms the political arrangement.

It's fascinating to take this into account and consider how the period of early modernity saw a strange mixture of the mystical into what has otherwise been considered as the rise of Enlightenment thinking and rationalism. Hobbes certainly sought to imbue a mysticism into his Leviathan. Many state-builders had a strange, and to my mind not quite explainable, fascination with Jakob Boehme. Hegel considered him one of his chief influences. Applied to political theology, its possible to see Boehme's negative theology, where creation is the absent not-God which must be reconciled through a kind of fusion, as the very completing act that Hegel considered in the coming-to-be of God in his marriage to creation through the completion of history. In this, the mystical theology is a means for consolidating ultimate authority into the created as they blend. Hence, as Fukuyama put it, post-Cold War America is the end of history. In complete ignorance, a Babel was declared and a Devil enthroned.

Luther would be horrified, the apocalypse came with the death and resurrection of Christ, and it is this radical fact that does not develop, providentially or otherwise, but breaks in and turns the world upside down. This, perhaps more than anything, is what made the Reformation unique. The apocalypse of Christ, of Messiah, was what breaks the death machine, ala. a messianic Jew like Walter Benjamin.

It would be interesting to consider Luther through this lens as perhaps one of the most astute readers of political-theology. Maybe I'll return to this problem later for further thought.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Just Live by Faith: A Political-Theology Critique

In a recent academic political-theology article, Devin Singh wants to correct Agamben's archaeology of the doctrine of the Trinity (which is not terribly persuasive, even if it overwhelms in its confidence and scope) in order to pursue Agamben's real goal. Agamben wants to discover how Christianity contributed to the deep intractable problems of the West becoming a killing-machine. Singh wants to do this as well, and he highlights, at the end of his article, what this really is.

Unlike Agamben, who argues that Trinitarian doctrine disguises the fact that God is, at the heart, void, Singh disagrees. Instead, he maintains that Christianity has created an absence that haunts the politics of the West through the empty throne. His contention is that the awaited parousia, the foretold apocalypse of Christ's return, functions as the key embarrassment of Christian theology, which it is always seeking to manage or correct. Singh argues this is the heart that all critics of Christianity should press. This absence stifles real reforms out of a failed hope, and thus ends in cynical power-grabs and corrupt management. But it is heartfelt, and is reflected in folklore like King Arthur or Charlemagne's sleep under the hill, where the dormant king lies waiting for an indeterminate time as the peasants and plebs wait for liberation.

Thus, it seems for Singh disillusionment or prelatry are the only two real possibilities for Christianity, with the latter creating a clerical hierarchy between the managers and the managed. This ecclesiastical way of doing things remains with us in the way secularized society functions. There is still an established church and theology, but now it is post-Christian in the fullest sense, purging the Christian elements and maintaining the same framework. An infinitely deferred telos, which is some abstract entity called Progress, solidifies and coagulates a status quo. As I understand it, Singh's critique is devastating: Christianity created the ultimate caste system that shrouds itself and its origin through its theological arrangement; the secular, post-Christian modern state bears the same marks as it is precisely the same apparatus.

I admit, it is a powerful argument. The rest of this post will argue that this misunderstands a key point of Christ's ascension and that this attacks a real form of Christianity, but there is an alternative, which, perhaps seemingly committing a fallacy, is true Apostolic Christianity. But before that, I want to say that I have wept tears and had my heart rent over a desire to see Christ return. I can understand how the Papacy, for some, has functionally replaced Christ as if He were a ghost that floats about the Throne, an exemplar of kingly spiritual rule, but nothing more, as this age will, and seems to, drag on forever. I'm not sure what Singh would say, but the truly Imperial Papacy of Vatican I provides an answer to status quo dragging ad infinitum. The Pope's ex cathedra infallibility offers a sovereign power to gut society. Certainly liberals hope Francis will do this. On the one hand, one might say retaining the pomp would keep a kernal of this Western machine hidden, ready to resprout; but on the other, this might be the very means to jam a wedge in the machine and make it inoperative, preventing any replacement with another caste system. But back to my two main points.

First, Singh misunderstands the Ascension. He states that the fact the Holy Spirit is called Comforter implies a need for Comfort, namely Christ going away. But this misses the point. Christ did not go away, but ascended to the Right Hand of the Father. This is a place, but it is certainly an a-spacial place. Calvin made a good point to demand we acknowledge that Christ is still in the Flesh, thus He is somewhere, and as Human, He cannot be everywhere, as Luther and his allies had implied. But where is this somewhere? The re-creation of the apocalypse of Christ, where the dead are raised, is here, in material creation, on a Earth re-formed. While we exist in some form as souls, we are not really complete until we are in glorified flesh. But where is Christ? While the arguments viz. the 'communication of the attributes' are bizarre, and thus we're better off talking of Christ's presence in His Spirit, it gets the main point. Christ is everywhere, yes, even in His Flesh, as He reigns until all things are put under His feet.

This is important because even in fleshly absence, Christ is present all places and all times by the eyes of faith. Luther was right to describe the Lord's Supper and Baptism in this way, among many others 'mysteries', namely that while we may or may not see or be present with Christ in all our comings and goings, what makes these specials is the bond of promise. Christ promised to be in the Bread and Wine, and in faith we can see this. Thus Singh is wrong to make this into the problem. Perhaps this is the theologizing to hide the absence, but its pretty clear from the New Testament that there is a dialectic remaining in Creation between now-coming, between seeing with faith and seeing with glorified eyes, face-to-face. Faith becomes the means by which we overcome this dialectic of absence-presence, rule of the Devil and rule of God, through grabbing hold of the promises before they are manifest. Singh is putting a different metaphysic on the table then the one we see throughout all of Scripture where the just are to walk by faith.

Second, Singh, and Agamben, is right to describe a Christianity that built the well-oiled caste-system that became the post-Christian West. But what is this Christianity? I'd contend it is an apostate Christianity. As Ivan Illich liked to put it, corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst. This is, at its heart, the difference that Luther described between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. The former is the structure that is the West, the prelatry of the Grand Inquisitor, the deep theology of the filioque, the need for a lieutenant of Christ to replace Him while He is gone.

While it is certainly right and just to speak of an economy, a government of the mystery revealed, there have been two means of this. St. Paul tells us of an economy of the Word, where the Apostolic commission to the churches is to worship God through announcing His proclamation and communing with Him in His victory. The mystery of all ages has been revealed, namely Christ crucified and risen for the forgivenness of sins and the salvation of the world and mankind. This message must spread through the world.

But this is not the only form of the economy, which morphs into its own sort of mystery, a transformation of the kerygma into providence. I am not disputing God's sovereign, omniscient, and omnipotent oversight of all Creation, all time and space, but as the author of the Hebrew tells us, we do not see God ruling over all powers and principalities, but we do see Christ Jesus. It is the providential view, that demotes the Cross as a component of God's rule and consummation, rather than the very axis of the revelation, which offers up the shroud by which a new caste system forms without visibility. While the Scriptural author brackets the question of providence under the saving work of Christ Jesus, the consummation of Israel's history where the Word of God appeared in the flesh, the theology of glory inverts this, subordinating what we do know to what we do not know. Thus, a certain form of providentialism becomes a grinding post-facto determinism: all things are as they are because they are. This manufactures justification for everything and anything.

Evangelicalism, not to mention the Mainline, in America are thus, at this level, exactly the same. Evangelicalism, as Fundamentalism sold to the theology of glory of the zeitgeist, will move with the times. It will be no shock when a majority of Evangelicals accept Gay Marriage, because according to a providential logic, it is therefore it should be. Lest that seems extreme, the de facto position of No-Fault Divorce as standard is so incontrovertible, we cannot remember a time when it wasn't. The illusion is that the Evangelicals are cross-focused, but this is a sleight-of-hand. It is the same mistake as seeing Passion-Plays, or the like, as an example of the logic of the cross. It is an illusion, it is the form without the substance.

Singh's criticisms are deadly serious and ought to be taken to heart, but they do not reflect Christ's Empire, but rather apostate simulacra. This is a form of godliness which denies its power, and is nothing but straw.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Communio Sanctorum: Icons, the People of God, and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies

Georges Florovsky, a Russian Orthodox priest of the highest caliber, makes the point to emphasize that the Church is, first and foremost, the people of God. The priest/presbyter/elder is the one who stands as celebrant, who conducts at the front of the church, but he is not the church. This is the clericalism that is the hall-mark of Clericalism, that apostate Christianity that comes in many flavors. I've gone over this, so I won't beat a dead-horse.

This leads me to the Mondzain's critique of the underlying premises of the iconoclasm debate in 9th century Byzantium. Fundamentally, both factions strove for dominance of the image, with the iconoclasts wanting to break the unity of church and state with the latter with authority over the former, and the iconodulists maintaining a caesaropapist state where the church maintains authority over the emperor. Both sides accused each other of being idolators, and this is what unites them on a shared premise, namely that control of the image is to gain power, tout court. The modern world may be post-Christian, but is not post-ecclesiastic. The media has become the new church-court, and we live in a caesaropapism of CNN and the State. The media is not so much a fourth-estate in this, but functions as the soul of the state.

Now regardless if this is exactly true is not relevant, the iconoclasts could've won in the East and the effects would be the same, because the war on idolatry would still continue. This war is the attempt to crackdown on the inherent multi-valence of the enfleshed image, it can produce additional meanings, even to the point that it becomes its own sole reference point that people bow before (an idol).

Now Mondzain's POV is interesting at this general point, but misses, I think, a completely different angle on all of this. She utilizes, primarily, the work of Nikephoros, patriarch of Constantinople, who went to war against the iconoclasts, but digging into philosophical mechanisms to make his point. Mondzain attributes to him, and Iconodulia more generally, the brilliant recognition that getting a handle on the language of 'economy' is the only way to victory. Economy in this is basically a certain set of practicals, the reality, as determining the means to reach the end.

Now, I think it's certainly debateable whether the economy shared this same function in a concerted Orthodoxy that sought world-wide domination (she seems to be hyperventilating when she writes like this). She cites Origen, Basil, and John Chrysostom as examples of the economy. I won't dispute these, but I don't think that's the whole picture either. Clearly, Gregory Nazianzus and Athanasius were uncomfortable with Basil's economic silence in pronouncing the Holy Spirit as con-substantial with Father and Son, though they defended their friend and comrade. I think this raises the question of an alternative stream within and besides the "iconocrats".

But to cast this in proper terms, Mondzain's focus on Nikephoros ignores that in the East it was the ecclesiastics that constantly lost. Nikephoros represents the well-heeled of the Imperial bureaucracy, and many of these ended up in the power-circuits of the ordained hierarchy. But it was mobs of peasants that resisted the Iconoclast emperors attempt to destroy all icons. Symeon the New Theologian successfully challenged a bishop over the monopoly of the Spirit. Gregory Palamas banished philosophy from functioning as the in-out of God's presence. Orthodoxy was marked not with an ecclesiastic-court controlling the hordes of the faithful. Clearly if one examines Russian Orthodox history, it was not the rule of Moscow that determined the lives of the faithful, despite claims to the contrary.

Here, I think Mondzain really wants to tell a story of Latin, namely Roman, Christianity in Greek garbs. Yes, these battles took place, but they did not end in the way she suggests. I have severe doubts that Nikephoros represents an actual victory taking place in the East. The modern day intransigence by the monks of Mt. Athos to the widely corrupt, globalist, and Masonic Greek Orthodox church stands as a counter example.

This gets at the role of the icon, which Mondzain seems to believe functions within an economy that justifies its existence as the claim on lever of power. The Icon is the full-frontal gaze of the Church, it is the totalitarian eye that tells you that Holy-Mother Church is watching. Beware! But, what if this completely misses the point. What if the icon does not communicate the power of an ecclesiastic bureaucracy, but functions to join those in the Heavenlies with Christ to those who still are in the flesh. Mondzain misses the fact that in the East, it is not a clear-cut hierarchical decisions of who is declared a saint. Instead, many communities declare their members saints and iconographize them. It is not a top-down process, at least not always. Perhaps it's true that the bureaucrats of an Imperial church might try to clamp-down and call this process idolatry to gain control, but it certainly did not work, and less so as these empires were constantly bleeding before the Arab and the Turk.

What if, contrary to Mondzain's account, the Communion of the Saints, the ones spoken of by the author of Hebrews as that "great crowd of witnesses", in fact judged and supported Christians before any powers, including ecclesiastical ones. The icon is communion with those who remain, potentially, a judge before present actions. The gaze of the prosopon, the face of the saint, is a tunnel into a deeper reality that lay outside the bounds of necessity. It can't be controlled because the reign of the Spirit, the Wind who blows where He will, remains open to, potentially, any. Maximus was a layman who defied pope, patriarch, and emperor, and is thus recognized as Confessor. His iconographic gaze empowers and judges, not from the vantage of the ecclesiastical court, at least not necessarily, but from the vantage of the layman confronted with corruption, abuse, or plain sin.

Florovsky also, following a stream of Orthodox tradition, stated that the traditions of Christ's churches remain among the common faithful, in their prayers and worship, and defy collapse into any hierarchy. The Body of Christ was not the ordained, the professional Christians, but the whole. The bureaucrats of Constantinople sneered, even from their ordained offices, but were failures to gain for themselves or for the Emperor the governance of the masses. Armies of angry monks could topple Imperial or Patriarchal edicts if they contradicted the Apostolic deposit.

None of this is to argue, one way or another, whether the creation of icons, or their subsequent devotional use, is in line with the Scripture. Nor is this to miss Mondzain's real point, namely the potency of images and the fact that Clericalism has passed onto the post-Christian West the same structures of control. Per Schmitt, all secular concepts of politics and law were originally theological.

What to do? Mondzain's bankrupt and substanceless Humanism will get us nowhere. Christ remains the only Power over this. How so? Because, in Pauline form, the economy of the mystery is nothing less than Christ crucified. This is the apocalyptic rupture point that, even though constantly threatened to be transmuted into something else, puts the whole diabolic providence of This Age into question. Christ crucified stands as the fecund Word that is in the process, even as we speak, of flipping the world upside down, God's weakness overpowering the power of darkness etc. This is the Spirit who goes where He wills, passing and hovering over the depths to transform them, making Christ manifest in the most unlikely ways. A Theology of the Cross reveals a power that works contrariwise of all Babel projects, which include Mondzain's description of iconocrats and ecclesiastical structures that seek to control all meaning.

When Luther contrasted the Roman theology of glory, he predated, by hundreds of years, these later critiques. Now, certainly, the children of the Reformation returned to a non-cruciform providentialism, one which posits something other than the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world as the economy, the management, which Christians are tasked with. But this remains the radical difference between the Gospel and everything else. When St. Paul said he knew nothing but Christ crucified among the Corinthian church, he meant it. This was the regulating event, the heart of Human history, which the Church, through its many churches, had the task of heralding and celebrating in the Lord's Supper. Nothing more and nothing less. Scripture reveals this, as even Christ Himself teaches, as the heart of the eternal will of God.

The Communion of the Saints, those who share in this mystery of Christ, stands as an ever-present, unquenchable, alternative, something yet to be, but promised through the unbreakable Word of God.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Face-to-Face: Iconography and the Saving Work of Christ

In Orthodox iconography all images of Christ, Mary, and the saints are given a direct portrait. This is to say that we see them looking straight on. It is considered impious to show them in profile, that is to see a face from the side. In iconography one sees the Jewish mob, devils, etc. in profile. The face in profile is obscurity, shifting, instability. It isn't that the character in profile is not being honest with the viewer, but that it's in a position of deficiency. The character lacks a face to show.

This coincides with Eastern churches emphasizing the role of the face, something that has mostly been ignored or forgotten in the West, even though the ramifications continue to plague us. In Greek Christian theology, the word 'prosopon' means both face and person. It is because the face functions as a nexus point between the invisible and the visible. While the flash of the eyes (viz. Homeric epic) or flowing blood (viz. the Bible) unveil life, the face unveils the person. Seeing face to face, like St. Paul's desperate desire to see Christ, is to see the fullness of one's person and the radiance of that glory.

Orthodoxy, more so than other Christian churches, has preserved the distinction between person and nature. Some say confusion between these two is the root of every heresy. I wouldn't go that far, but I will say that it is highly problematic. Maximus the Confessor battled this distinction out as he tried to defend the full Humanity of Christ. In this, there's a kind of juncture between Humanity (nature) and the individual (person). The Fall broke this juncture, leaving us not only in broken communion with God relationally, but also a broken connection to God through His divine work of Humanity. We are born as inhuman Humans; we are out of touch with what we are. When the early hymns and sermons speak of Christ restoring Human nature, or healing our wounds, this did not mean that there was anything defective with Human nature, but rather there was something wrong with our link to it. Christ, by uniting divine nature to Human nature in the person of the Son, not only brought about restoring Humanity, but also leading Mankind to its mature glorified state.

What does this have to do with faces? Because in as much as we have a face we are a person. The destruction of sin is to annihilate the person through the dissolved bond with nature. We become inhuman, and thus our face no longer reveals anything. The face becomes only a face-in-profile, an unstable, shifting reality, heading towards death. The glory of the face is the Human revealed, the image of the Image, Christ, who in His face, we see the Father. There is a chain-reaction in as much as we recover our face, we shine the glory of God, Christ, who radiates the Father of All Lights. Orthodox iconography intends to show a world where Mankind is restoring its face through the work of Christ saving us and lifting us up. The saving work of Christ is the condition for us not only to have a face to reveal, but also that we might unveil our faces to one another, the communion of the saints. In glory we will not only see Christ face-to-face, but each other as well.

This is manifest in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin has a fascination with Hans Holbein the Younger's The Body of the Dead Christ which depicts, shockingly to a Russian Orthodox, Christ in profile. Rowan Williams' discussion of this book regards this as proof that Myshkin, for Dostoevky, is thus a defective, anti-Christ, form of Christ. While some have read Prince Myshkin as a Christ figure, and thus seeing Dostoevksy as suggesting an ineffective, romantic Christ-the-Beautiful-Soul, Williams sees this differently. Rather, this is Dostoevsky's critique of a certain form of arrogant, defective, theology. It is not Christ Risen, but Christ Dead. This is a kind of Nihilism at work, reflecting Russian fascination with German philosophy.

However, Dostoevky's critique withstanding, it's perhaps helpful to assess a weakness in the Orthodox account of iconography. There is an implicit rejection, or sidelining, of what Luther called the Beautiful Exchange, that is, as St. Paul said, Christ was made sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. This is the theology of the cross that stood to radically blow apart the Church, and function as a lever to pry apart those who would sidestep the cross.

Now, it's certainly the case that Christ rose from the grave in glory, and thus Orthodox iconography is not wrong to state this. But Hans Holbein, a good Lutheran as he was, saw that perhaps we move too quickly. Christ dead in the tomb might appear as weakness, impotence, and creatureliness. But, as Luther correctly understood the Apostles, this was the very means and mechanisms by which Christ in glory and power overcame the Dominions of the World. Thus, Christ Dead in the Tomb is by fleshly eyes the former, but by spiritual eyes in faith it is the latter. Christ wore the veneer of every sinner, took Himself the full power of Death through which He overcame the darkness and crushed Satan.

Thus, Christ's face in profile is really the face of all of Mankind who are deprived of their Humanity. We are all faces in profile, unstable and shifting, disconnected from what we are. But Christ took our facelessness upon Himself so that we might have a face. Christ never lost His face, but donned our facelessness to overpower the one who is robbing us of all life, slowly destroying our persons until we lay in the tomb, ultimately where our facelessness is revealed with pallid skin, maggots devouring, and eventually a skeletal husk. But now, as iconography reveals, the People of God can now have a face, we can now see the face of another.

All of this is important not only as the Gospel, but also because we have to see facelessness at work in the world, that is to say, death at work. Mass Media has now put upon us the ultimate devilish trick through the creation of the simulcra of realism. The idea now is that we can take control of persons by revealing them through rendered faces. The air-brushed, digitally sophisticated, photograph tells us that what we see is the truth, a truth that is perhaps more true because it was seized from sources unwilling to give it. Not only is this destructive, but it's a lie. The digital image is a magician's trick, we do not really see even though we are looking. The purveyance of the gaze fulls us into thinking we're ascending. It is anti-Christ in the most literal sense, because instead of believing that Christ, crucified and risen, reveals all of our faces, by reconnecting us to our divinely created Humanity, we believe it is we ourselves who have done it. We can make ourselves Human even as we are not.

Now I mean this last part in the sense not only of photography viz. news agencies, but also in private. The sophisticated uses of make-up, lighting, and photographic realism tries to create life. I believe that our righteousness is reflected in our corporeality, that holiness is beautiful. One sees the marks of sins in the ugliness of the face, an ugliness that cannot be suppressed no matter how many beauty products one uses. Our faces are our persons, and our decaying person will shine through as an ugly and shattered visage of death as long as we are bound in sin. Yet as much as Christ's life is present we see a beauty emerge within broken bodies. It's indescribable, but one can truly see beauty in the face of one who is in Christ.

Now, I hope you can never look at a painting or photograph the same way. The face is a stage on which the saving work of Christ stands victorious over a world of sin, death, and devils. May we look onto Christ and hold to Him, the Savior of the Human race.