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.

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