Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The New Jerusalem in the Pure Land: Tanabe's "Philosophy as Metanoetics" and Christian Idealism

 Hajime Tanabe (1885-1962) was a pioneer of the Kyoto School of philosophy, a creative interaction between Japanese Buddhism (as a melange of various schools, such as Zen or Pure Land, as well as with traditional paganism [Shinto]) and western philosophy. It takes up the challenge of German Idealism, seeking a synthesis between the Asiatic (Indo-Chinese) and the European (Hellenic). Tanabe began writing in response to the far more Idealist Kitaro Nishida, who stood for the systems building that Tanabe found suspect. Nishida combined the Zen school with Hegel to form a method of dialectical reasoning towards Nothingness. In contrast to a Christianized neoplatonic definition of nothing as barren absence, the Void is the realm of pure potency (akin to Matter) and the fundament out of which all creation is formed. Through dialectical reasoning, the sage will ascend through discursive rings, overcoming false dichotomies towards greater universals. In contrast to vulgar teaching on Hegel, synthesis is not A + B = C, which is then replicated as C + D = E until one reaches utopia. Rather, the process of aufhebung (which is what Nishida effectively describes) is sublation. It is not a crooked jamming together of a thesis and antithesis. Rather, through a higher reasoning, a synthesis is effected where one categorically moves on from a polarity, with the remnant built into the genealogy of the synthesis. Most pop-philosophy textbooks have a completely ignorant view of Hegel, a product of his less than stellar students. But I digress.

For Nishida, reaching the Void requires a move through the universal of judgement, between subject and object, to reach self-consciousness. From the universal of consciousness (subjectivity and objectivity) one reaches towards the universal consciousness (somewhat similar to Hegel's absolute subject). Finally one moves into the totality of Nothingness from the universal of intelligence, overcoming the God-world problem, which can also be phrased in the Kantian noumena (thing-in-itself) and phenomena (thing-as-it-appears). The result is Zen, an awareness of the All-as-One, which then allows one to live in peace and harmony, a piece aware of the whole. You begin to enjoy the infinite plurality of life as the unfolding of the infinitely fecund Void. From the All-One all emanated, the pure potency behind all of reality. And to All-One on returns, the hope of Nirvana and blissful existence as the indivisible part of the Whole. Universal harmony is recognized and enjoyed, as the sage becomes vehicle of Nothingness. Nishida's philosophy is, in someways, a pairing of dialectical rationality with Heideggerian phenomenology. But such is framed in very Japanese terms: Buddhist monks had already deployed dialectical reasoning in service of self-emptying for centuries.

But Tanabe found Nishida lacking. In his historical context, Tanabe was a Japanese nationalist grieved with his nation's plunge into militaristic empire. Such not only ended horribly for Japan (reduced to American vassalage), but brought untold nightmare across Asia in pursuit of colonies (the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere). While Tanabe did not name Nishida, he is clearly his antagonist. The constructive project of synthesis did nothing to stave off man's ultimate sinfulness. Such is manifested, in philosophy, through the hubris of closing the circle (or reaching the most outer ring). The sage's dialectical mastery puffs him up, but it's a lie. For he has not unleashed dialectical reasoning upon dialectical reasoning, he has not critiqued the critique. Thus, for Tanabe, Kant never went far enough in his critical reasoning, for critique itself had not been critiqued! Instead, Kant had arbitrarily bounded a purified and "enlightened" Christianity, which had failed to fully grapple with the nature of time. That is why Tanabe thought Hegel was a good Kantian viz. his attempt to complete the system of Idealism. Hence Hegel placed such a heavy accent on history as the very dimensions in which dialectical reason plays out. Since time is unfinished so too is the project of dialectical criticism always unfinished. 

But Tanabe saw in Hegel the same Zen concern of dialectical mastery through reason. It is pure jiriki, self-power, the ability for the sage to ascend through his own intellectual capacity. Tanabe does not believe such is impossible, but laments. Such is very good for the man who bears Wisdom in his soul (as Socrates was compared to ugly Satyr vase who was full of gods). But what about the rest of us? Tanabe laments that he no such sage, he cannot pull himself up from his own power. Thus the world is doomed to decays as a few rare individuals reach enlightenment on their own. Of course, most who claim this status are themselves deceived fools. Hence, in the hands of less worthy students, Hegelian dialectics congealed into a stale systematic pantheism. The logic of identity (A = A) turns this dialectical process into metaphysical ontology. Thus Hegelians end up baptizing, often in a crude way, a whiggish teleology of history reaching towards the liberal constitutional state. For those who realize the fundamental bankruptcy of this project, a "criticize, but no further", one laments how this false world-order depends on a refusal to press on out of fear. For if the dialectician went all the way, the entirety of this social order would be open to radical change. Such was what Kierkegaard saw in the popular Hegelianism in church and state in his native Denmark. They had said "this far, no further", but such was arbitrary and bloodless. It reconstructed a metaphysical abstraction, which mutilated history in the process.

But Tanabe, like Kierkegaard (and Pascal before him), saw a way out through metanoetics (repentance). Reason is not self-sustaining, depending on axiomatic laws of self-subsistence. Logic cannot exist through identity (Reason = Reason; A = A). Dialectical process will, if not radically pursued, fall again into a falsely reified ontology. Instead, reason must pursue its end unto its death. It must become "trans-rational" through self-negation. For, as Tanabe explained, "Reason, whose very nature it is to be dialectical, is self-negating and can exist only in the mediation and resurrection effected through its self-negation or self-destruction." (Philosophy as Metanoetics, 50-51). Reason, logic, philosophy: the only hope is through death and resurrection. Hence the fundamental importance of tariki, Other-Power. Man can only be saved from one outside, and thus the task of humanity in all its brilliance is through opening. Humanity is not to build, but to wait (even wait with haste as the Blumhardts said). Only the grace of God can overcome the despair endemic to the positive project of rational systems. Philosophy as repentance is the only thing that can clear the eyes so as to see divine intervention.

As an aside, Tanabe seemed to recognize what Alexandre Kojeve recognized about Hegel. While Hegel was committed to the use of dialectical reasoning to build up towards a universal perspective (viz. the Absolute Subject), Kojeve saw Hegel as almost producing a theory of revelation. It was not that history had simply evolved from one stage into another through a process of contradiction. Rather the contradiction produced the opening through the Absolute Subject may appear, an unveiling of the entire shape of time. Now Tanabe saw this insight in conflict with Hegel's intellectualist dependence on the axiomatic law of identity, which will inevitably drive this approach into ontotheology, temporality is closed and ejected even as it is (self-evidently!) still on going. Tanabe argued this shift as a misunderstanding of time's shape. Defined linearly, time becomes space and takes on substantial qualities. Thus, the "eternal now" of the mystic's vision (where past and future dissolve into the present) is not the glorification of time, but its utter ruin. It is not the movement of a death and resurrection, but pure substantive life (which becomes a living death). If such is true about Hegel, its roots may lie in Hegel's dependence on the German mystical tradition (Theologica Germanica and Tauler viz. Luther, and especially Jakob Boehme, c.f. O'Regan The Heterodox Hegel). The openness of man is rejected for closure, which is again an elite quest for the jiriki of the Zen sage, dialectical ascension (through asceticism, per medieval monasticism) into the light. Boehme preserved this tradition through Luther and Meister Eckhart, which Hegel takes up in a far more rational direction.

But for Tanabe, this redemption (even if it were possible) left the world condemned. Though he doesn't draw this comparison, it reminds me of the shadow of Ivan Karamazov's Grand Inquisitor (in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov). The satanism was actually the jiriki of the ascetic sage, a monk in the desert pouring himself out for the Lord. But this pursuit was too much. Not only was it costly, but left the world damned. It's this accusation the Inquisitor flings at Jesus: You ask too much! You've abandoned the world! We will be the savior you failed to be! Thus Babel viz. the Roman magisterium would build a system to care for the world-as-it-is, even if it requires deceit, manipulation, and coercion. The Inquisitor listened to the wisdom of the serpent: he turned rocks into bread, he miraculously dove from the Temple, and he accepted vassalage to the devil in exchange for earthly sovereignty. If hating God and embracing satan is the price to pay for peace and prosperity, so the Inquisitor reasons, so be it. From cradle to grave, the masses will find happiness and contentment. Aloysia Karamazov is disturbed by this Jesuitical version of Christian faith, but the fulfillment of this story is not in the lines drawn. The Inquisitor was wrong, God had not abandoned the world and only expected the perfect. His very life (and silence before his accusers) was poured out for the life of the world. By embracing the tomb, the glorious light of resurrection shone forth. Rather than the false reification of jiriki, either in a mystic's escape or an idolatry as a means to an end, tariki hopes in the grace of God.

It's from this vantage that Tanabe praised Christianity, but found it flawed. The anthropomorphism of the Bible and the long tradition of neoplatonic ontotheology (from Plotinus into figures like Augustine and Boethius) traps the radical vision of resurrection from exploding. The problem is, fundamentally, a definition of God in personal (and ontological) terms. Theism is Christianity's weakness. Instead, Tanabe adhered to the teaching of Shinran and Pure Land Buddhism. In short (and put imperfectly and crudely): Pure Land Buddhism adhered to the salvific grace of Amitabha Buddha (revered as the savior Buddha). For Pure Land, Amitabha ascended (reaching Nirvana) but did not cease. Instead, he created the Pure Land and remained psychically present, operating in the world to save all those who call upon his name (and access his merits). Through the teaching of Shinran (1173-1263), a Japanese Buddhist monk, Japanese Buddhist received the teaching of the Pure Land. Shinran effectively taught a form of salvation by grace through faith alone, which (like St. Paul) encountered criticisms of laxity and lapses into sin (which was blamed on Shinran's teachings). But this grace became available for all, especially non-monks. One does not need to ascend through ascetic practice and dialectical mastery to find Nirvana. Instead, the grace of the Buddha opened a path of life for the world, and he is present to hear the cries of the faithful, to save them according to their desire (not merit or ability). Tanabe defended the teaching of Shinran (and the philosophy of metanoetics) as not license to do whatever one wanted (reminiscent again of St. Paul). However, it was only through tariki that redemption for the radical evil of man (manifest in Japanese imperialism and genocide on the mainland) can be expurgated through radical good. It was only this path which could save individual Japanese, loaded with national guilt, as well as open the nation up to a future beyond a return to empire or complete capture to the American orbit. Only repentance could change the future.

Again, Tanabe rejected axiomatic substantive-identity as a dead-end. The mystic's quest ultimately was self-focused (which was what led to despair), whereas death-and-resurrection placed one in the grace of the fecund void, the power of the Pure Land to which all aspire. Time was therefore not linear (and not collapsible into a single point of "eternal now", but parabolic. The hope is that the present is glorified as a pure medium of exchange between past and future. The past gives shape and form to the future, while the future frees the past from its passing. The present is the site of resurrection, a future with flesh, a past risen from the dead. Love (viz. metanoetics) overcomes the false antinomies (past vs. future) through self-abandonment. Those willing to lose their lives for the Good News will live forever. Tanabe believed Schelling was onto this truth in his later revision away from axiomatic self-identity. However, Schelling pursued this path through sheer paganism, a pantheistic All-One through self-affirmation (a less rigorous lapse into Zen's jiriki). Only abandoning oneself can the grace of Amitabha flow into the moment. Sins are forgiven, redemption made possible, and hope manifest. And thus one is thrown back into the world to weep with it, channeling this grace to others so they too may call on Amitabha and be saved.

There's much to recommend to Tanabe's vision and his rejection of limits to the critical project of philosophy. Like Kierkegaard, whom he deeply admired, one must follow the dialectical spiral into the oblivion as the only honest path. And it's from emptiness that redemption emerges. For having arrived at the Pure Land, graced through the salvific work of the Buddha, one can be a vessel for sacrificial mercy. Philosophy services this, admonishing (as Pascal had) that the heart has reasons which reason cannot comprehend. Such is true not only for the radical evil that manifests in the world through sin, but also the potential for radical good overcoming such through forgiveness. And this forgiveness reaches down to the very bottom, to the most depraved, lost, and weak among us. There's hope even for Tanabe (who saw himself as a beggarly and broken man) and the wreckage of his Japan.

A Christian may use this philosophy fruitfully, as well as appreciate the "noble pagan" ethos of a theologian like Shinran (who Tanabe brings into conversation with Pascal and Kierkegaard). Of course, for a Christian, a key element to its theological ethics is the historicity of the Christ in Israel's history. It is precisely because the story of Israel consummated in the fullness of time that Tanabe's death/resurrection (as an exitus/reditus of fall/redemption) is true. Amitabha does not need to be quite historical to describe this Other-Power which suspends the world, even as it stands a part. Hence Tanabe sees parallels with his philosophy in the revelational philosophy of Karl Barth. Scripture is true, even if its history is not verifiable (which is left off as a side question). Barth's Christocentrism is thus easily unmoored to fit other contexts. It's really only Barth's eurocentrism (and misunderstanding of other religious movements) which keeps him explicitly Christian. But, as St. Paul said, if Christ was not raised, our trust in God is in vain! Jesus is the Christ, but as the Christ he is the fulfillment of Amitabha Buddha. He is the man who makes the Pure Land available. But even more so, he is the Logos who built New Jerusalem, from which our historic forms take place. Tanabe is not denying the importance of history (far from it!), but focused on it strictly in philosophical abstract. The need for evidentially based resurrection (eye witnesses viz traditioned texts) does not get rid of his more fundamental arguments.

Obviously the hardest nut to crack here is Tanabe's critique of theism. Tanabe construed the God-world dichotomy as another antinomy that falsely stalled out criticism. Such was the very problem of revelation as such, giving rise to both mystics and the intellectualist (later rationalist) quest. Even Aquinas, who carved out much knowledge of the world through scholastic dialectical methods, depended on a revelational mystery at the end. These truths are known because they come from heaven. But such remains open to further dialectical critique, which was what appeared in the panentheism of various mystics. The divide (and all the metaphysical and epistemic problems flowing from it) is overcome through a kind of mystical union in a neoplatonic exitus-reditus.  But, per Tanabe, this approach does nothing for humanity as such, unless one embraces a universalism which denies any meaning to history and collapses good and evil as false subjective perspectives. Pantheism denies redemption, for there is no radical evil to be done away with. Forgiveness is reconceived as simply a metaphysical return, not an ethical problem. The influence of Heidegger on Tanabe is clear (especially when he discusses historical contingency as "thrownness"), though reflecting an erroneous vitalist self-affirmation in the end. 

For Tanabe, the divine grace comes from the fecund Nothing of pure potency. Freedom is unleashed when the negativity of the Buddha transforms you into a medium for this grace. Again, the past and future intermingle (without collapse) in the present, which has no definition of its own except in its sheer negativity. It is how time does not simply become a species of space, a place to dwell and not the flow of resurrected life. Repentance is the self-emptying tariki so as to become other than one's self according to the Other-Power. God, as a personal agent governing the world, gets in the way of this process because it is a dialectic which freezes. Creator and creature remained radically juxtaposed, which results in the panentheistic erasure through reditus. For Tanabe, the schema of movement only describes time, not substances. Otherwise, ontologically, the mystic's dance ends in the complete eradication of all diversity as the All-One reassumes all of its emanations (the Plotinian adaptation of Stoic eschatology for Platonic metaphysics of form and matter). Thus redemption not only becomes impossible for this world, but it also means that the only real hope is the sage's escape through mystical ascension. Ascenticism becomes about gaining power, and not hoping in grace. The god of Plotinus redefined Christian eschatology (and its primitive notion of deity) in a way which destroyed the flow of time.

In more traditionally Christian terms, the above is the problem of communion. How can God and creature meet? In medieval Latin theology, some theologians introduced what (effectively) was an infinite regress. God's grace was, ultimately, creaturely, flowing from Augustine's hypothetical that God's theophany in the OT was triadic and mediated through an angelic creature. In other words, Moses saw the trinity in the burning bush, but the miraculous fire was itself a creature. The reason for this view (though Augustine is only speculating) was to defend the consubstantial trinity professed at Nicaea from Arian diminutives. Most Arians (including Arius himself) did not deny that Christ is God, only that He is not "homoousios", consubstantial, which seemed to smack of monarchism (condemned in 3rd century Antioch and associated with Paul of Samosata). In other words, there was a fear of collapsing the Father and the Son into a simple being who wore different masks pertaining to his actions (and the incarnation became a sort of God-controlled man). Now while the problem was overcome directly in relation to Christology (the categories of person, nature, and hypostatic union), how this applied to men in general was not always as clear. However, the Cappadocians (Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Gregory Nyssen) collectively utilized Aristotelian notions of "energy" (energeia, or works) to argue for a divine identity through eternal works. Hence God didn't need a world to be just, and yet God was visible through the enactment of historical divine justice through these works. Hence, God was present in the Red Sea without that historic event meaning some kind of metaphysical collapse.

The concept of "energies" became far more important in Byzantium than the Latin West (where it was formally vindicated in the 13th c. councils related to Palamism). However it was present too in some forms of Scotistic metaphysics in the West. There is more to be done here, research wise, but suffice to say that this metaphysical approach was a means to overcome Hellenistic philosophy. In short, it allowed the Bible's anthropomorphisms to mean what they mean, overcoming the accusations of Hellenistic accusers. George Berkeley's idealist philosophy, drawing from the well neoplatonic metaphysics, made this view clear for patristically-oriented Protestants who shifted further away from Aristotelian dichotomies (as well as the insane fragmentation of Ramist logic). Dualities that exist throughout the world do not form into dualisms, caesura throughout the created world. Rather the multiplicity of things interpenetrate each other, not metaphysically (a question of substance and space) but temporally. In lay terms, there's a time for the sun and a time for the moon, and both have unity through divine love, each giving way to the other, the reciprocal pouring out and being poured into. Thus the God-world problem is overcome not through pantheism (or panentheism), or frozen into a metaphysical idolatry, but through God's energetic presence. Hence the Pauline language of me working, but not me, but Christ in and through me (1 Cor. 15:10; Gal 2:20). The personality of God is manifest through this working, and this happens not substantively (the "energies" are not things) but through the flow of time. Idealism fits this mode, moving away from questions of substantive material to solve actuality/potentiality, towards the divine will enacting His own actuality (again, a Scotistic definition of divine forms).

In short, Tanabe doesn't quite grasp the plethora of Christian theology (dependent, as I suspect, on German philosophy for its reading) to see how it is Christ as Logos, not Amitabha as Buddha, which provides a far more satisfying (and true) ground for metanoetics. It is the cosmic effect of the cross which makes the New Jerusalem a coming reality. It is to fidelity to Christ in the heart, and confession with the tongue, which creates the space through which one receives grace. It is through the energetic presence of God, the fire of the creative Logos, which leads to the Pure Land of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The true tariki is God Himself who descended into the depths for the redemption of the world. It is a shame repentance has often been so far from the lips of Christians. Tanabe helps restore the primacy of this to true philosophy, an entire form of life.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Messianic Secret: An Analysis of Jean Baudrillard's "Forget Foucault"

 In Forget Foucault, Baudrillard stands puzzled (and somewhat in awe) at the indelible incoherence in Foucault's genealogical theory. Foucault weaves a web of how power (or sexuality or discipline) has not dissipated in the liberal and democratic era, but suffused itself. In the pre-modern era, power stood centralized and cemented into a singular entity (the monarch's body, for example). The modern era did not erase this power, overcome happily in a people's revolution, but simply snaked into every avenue of life. The discursive reality of power was in the fact that everyone participated in it, thus becoming their own master. Such did not abolish the evil (Foucault would never dare such a word, but the moral judgement is baked into it), but only spread it (like improperly operating on cancer can spread it throughout the body). The result was that dominating power exists everywhere. No longer does a jailer need to threaten the captives, we've become our own jailers, internalizing it through the disciplinary mechanism of the panopticon. No longer are the outcasts supernaturally possessed (breeding fearful awe as much as disdain), but are simply infirm and insane. The discourse of madness rationalizes and masters reality, thus spreading the source of power throughout social systems. Modernity did not abolish royalty, but made every person a king. Sexuality has not liberate mankind, but made us even more obsessively scrupulous. There's never been repression except through the discourse of liberation, creating man's own prison through his ratiocination. So far Foucault.

But what is this power? Baudrillard notes how Foucault struggles to define it. But that's precisely the problem, isn't it? To define power is simply to create another rational linguistic game (especially when it service to critique). Thus, Foucault is truly Nietzschean in that he has substituted his own vision for the past's. While Foucault might distinguish power from its liminal extent (calling it 'resistance'), nothing seems to change or mean anything. Baudrillard compares this analysis (present equally in Deleuze) as a fully cracked windshield: it's clearly smashed into infinitely fractured pieces, yet the whole remains in tact. Why? How come the oppressed never seem interested in throwing off their chains? How come fascism has attracted people so easily? Everything moves and everything remains the same. How come?

The flurry of words, for Baudrillard, signify something else. It's not that power is everywhere, and now so clearly seen by the masses engaged in discourse about it (from academics like Foucault or mass-media to pop-culture, etc). Again, if everyone recognizes power and abjures it (in favor of the people's revolution), why does nothing seem to happen? Baudrillard considers infantile the mystification of capitalism and fascism to justify their continued hold on people's mind. He can't consider people so idiotic for this approach to make sense. Instead, it's because the secret of power is that it's a secret. And what's a secret? Nothing. To expose a secret is for it to cease to be a secret. It is the unknowable, which means it is the void. It simply does not exist. And all the best politicians have known this reality (which is precisely it's lack of reality). Power is not the same as physical force, but an unspeakable arrangement. Power exists when it is not talked about.

For Baudrillard, Focault's mystique is pulling the wool over people's eyes. Power never existed, and Foucault's theorizing appears as a self-negation (but, in fact, reinscribes a different kind of power order as much as Foucault's true significance remains hidden). As Baudrillard asks quizzically, if power didn't exist until it was discursively made available in various ideologies, where did it come from? It's a dead-end question. Power exists in its invisibility, not visibility. To make power visible is to offer it a challenge. Power cannot ever exist as a totality without risk of collapse. To refuse to meet a challenge is to concede. To be named is to be dared into over extension. And power, just like material accumulation, exists in a nervous apprehension that it dares to be immortal, yet is all too mortal. Thus, the discourse of power, while it claims to expose, really reinscribes a new kind of order. Hence, true power actually exists often among those who decry power. The ideology of victimhood that is all too prevalent in western politics is power precisely because none dare challenge it. And when it is challenged, it is not challenged extensively to over exert itself. Power claims to be unlimited, but can only exist as long as it stays within the folded shroud of its own limitations.

But, why do people challenge? Why does anyone bother if power's really an illusion? Because power seduces (the key concept in Baudrillard's essay). People want to play the game for the opportunity for reversal. The owned might one day become the owner. The dominated might become the dominator. Power depends upon this shared understanding, unleashing energetic movements back and forth as the game gets played. To call out "power" is equivalent to calling a time-out for a rule violation. Of course, all agree to this dynamic, where a challenge is issued and either won or lost. However, if the referee called every single play, if power was challenged again and again and again, what happens to the game? The game would dissolve because the game, fundamentally, is nothing. It's an arrangement that groups are "seduced" into, an internal leading which exists as a secret exists. To call up "the rules", as Foucault would have it, is production, producere, to lead out the nothing that is then exposed as such. There is no ontology besides subtle wordplay behind what Foucault is doing. One does not analyze power, sexuality, desire (per Deleuze), or anything else. These aren't phenomena, for as soon as they are they cease to be. They're corpses of the dead. To analyze power is to obsess over something that's already come and pass. Hence Baudrillard quotes Kafka:

"The Messiah will only come when he will no longer be necessary. He will come one day after his advent. He will not come on the day of the Last Judgement, but on the day after." (49)
Thus, Foucault is himself something of a charlatan, but one who is playing the game. Foucaultian dynamics have become themselves the secret dynamic at work, manifest precisely in their faux-liberative attack on rationality, power, and the diffusive effects of categorical knowledge. This knowledge doesn't liberate, but simply is the game played once more, the same way revolutionaries find themselves quickly running a new bureaucracy. Thus, the enlightened is the one who understands the nature of the secret. However the superstitious, the overly zealous, not only end up ruining the game, but reviving it as a monstrosity:

"Power did not always consider itself power, and the secret of the great politicians was to know that power does not exist. To know that it is only a perspectival space of simulation, as was the pictorial Renaissance, and that if power seduces, it is precisely - what the naive realists of politics will never understand - because it is simulacrum and because it undergoes a metamorphosis into signs and invented on the basis of signs. (This is why parody, the reversal of signs or their hyperextension, can touch power more deeply than any force relation.) This secret of power's lack of existence that the great politicians shared also belongs to the great bankers, who know that money is nothing, that money does not exist; and it also belonged to the great theologians and inquisitors who knew that God does not exist, that God is dead. This gives them incredible superiority. Power is truly sovereign when it grasps this secret and confronts itself with that very challenge. When it ceases to do so and pretends to finds a truth, a substance, or a representation (in the will of the people, etc.), then it loses its sovereignty, allowing others to hurl back the challenge of its own life or death, until it dies in effect at the hands of that infatuation with itself, that imaginary concept of itself, and that superstitious belief in itself as a substance; it dies as well when it fails to recognize itself as a void, or as something reversible in death. At one times leaders were killed when they lost that secret" (59)

 Thus, to confuse power for what it is is to invite its dissolution. To think it's something, which can be grasped, handled, hoarded, or wielded is to kill the very thing beloved. Per Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, it's Lenny's love of pretty things that causes him to murder. Vivisection rapidly leads to death. To break things down into smaller and smaller components is to essentially erase them (as an atomic view of "reality" is basically to treat empirical phenomena as the simulacra and lose one's self in a delusion). Thus, not only does Foucault construct a new myth, but it's grasping after a static void. The nothingness of the secret (in all its fecundity) is reduced to a corpse, a reified shell. Thus, not only do Foucaultians play the game, but they turn it into an absurdity. It's not life, but a zombie. Power is resurrected as resistance, but since the power described is dead, its return to life is as a zombie. Thus, alongside Kafka, Baudrillard cites a piece of graffiti from Los Angeles: "When Jesus arose from the dead, he became a Zombi". Which is to say, the liberative potential is really nothing more than a reanimated corpse. The luster of life, seduction, is replaced with a pale (and consciously sculpted) imitation.

This self-creation is itself what constitutes the allure of "fascism". It wasn't some romantic mystique of the past or the leader. Rather, it was an aesthetic rendition of what was lost. There was no politics, since power had died a death of a thousand cuts in the banality of Weimar. It was self-consciously playing a game, like resurrecting a sport and playing it as an "old" game. It was nostalgia, a dance with the dead as if they were still alive. It was a fundamentally parasitic order, not creating something new but trying to stuff life (a dead and meaningless reification) back into a corpse. Thus, fundamentally, the antifascist Foucaultian turn among many European leftists was of the same ethos as fascism. The same form appears again and again and again. Death is overcome through zombification, an infinite fractalization of this named (and killed) power. And rather than the artful dance of seduction, this produces a frenzied reproduction, a factory on overdrive, to produce more and more and more and more and more cases. Thus fascism and antifascism are the same aestheticization of politics, the zombification of power, creating a nightmare for a world as it falls apart but shambles on. Death is abolished, even as it is reinscribed.

Thus, to ask Baudriallard what the way out is would be to miss the point. There's no way out because one would then think there's some world outside of the one we live in. Rather, seduction leads us to fall in love with our illusions, which can exist so long as we uncritically believe them to exist. Overexerting any system by challenge will begin to topple it. And it's precisely the desire to play the game, for real, which will then send any regime or order into a kind of collapse. It's grasping after the wind. To grab it is for it to cease to be wind. And in the hyperreal world of the simulacra is to try to transform the void into zombies, rather than allowing the course of death to take its toll. Those enlightened, to know it's all nothing, become free inside (knowing it's all a game) even as they, to advance, must act as if it's all very real. But the fuzziness of the borders, ambiguities in the rules, word-play in doctrine are not to be solved, but enjoyed just as they are.

Baudrillard's vision is a powerful reversal to the Foucaultian genealogy. To speak of freedom is to require repression. The romantic revolutionary can't exist without the enemy. Thus fascism's romantic streak is precisely that it can't win without losing. It must continue in rebellion, even as it rules the entire world. But unlike the classic revolutionary, that frantically seeks the real (the same way the autist in The Rainmaker seeks an answer to the joke who's one first), the fascist aestheticization is to self-consciously play the game as game to achieve its own will worship. Again, it's what links Foucaultean leftists to the Nazis, an anti-politics of self-expression, politics as an ethos. It's perhaps why Carl Schmitt referred to Hitler originally as a "Disraelite". A double-insult, Schmitt considers Hitler's histrionics as the same romantic politics of Disraeli: politics was an art of self-expression. This meant rhetoric is the only real, a reveling in its own emptiness as an expression of straightforward power politics. In short, Hitler would've been a YIPpee (a point that Armand Barotti makes in his essay "Fascist Ideology of the Self").

Baudrillard offers a serious challenge to any claim of a real. He has a point, especially in theological terms, that the victory of God as an immanent creator presaged God's death. As God was made available either as the distant engineer (who was accessible and understand through human reasoning and nature) or as a close friend/force (grasped through feeling or willing) God ceased to exist. Baudrillard isn't saying that there isn't a "real" world, but we only live as human being (through artifice) by constricting this real world. The real world is inorganic and dead. And while perhaps all things pertaining to mankind must eventually quit their game, it's the real which is to be kept at bay.

However, this view of "the real" ultimately denies the reality of the human consciousness, depending upon the dynamic of modern science. In contrast, perhaps the real is none other than the appearances themselves. To discover the atomic is not to fabricate a new world, but to discover worlds layered in worlds (though perhaps not all worlds are fit for human life). Rather than seeing the real as death, the real is life. It is the energetic excess of life which defines the world, not the cold and lifeless death. For Baudrillard would then have to deal with the very coming to be of life, especially human life. The view of science as a saving of the appearances would then not simply to defend humanity's island in the sky, but to actually fully channel what the world actually is intended to be. Thus Berkeley's neoplatonic Logos metaphysics actually undergirds a view of things in contradistinction. While various orders and rules may phase in and out of being, they're very coming to being depends upon a real order outside of them that impinges upon how the rules are played. The obsessive quest of the revolutionary to ratiocinate himself into the divine councils of the Real are false not because there's no real (and he mistakes what the game is). Rather he fails to adequately deal with history as such. The reinscribing of a new order is not simply an expression of keeping the secret while writing new rules. The very fact of rules depends upon the existence (even if not understood) of a cosmic order. And that cosmic order does not stand apart from human life (which requires it to be stolen from Heaven by some brave Jacobin Prometheus on behalf of the people). But it is through human life viz. history.

Thus, the theology of resurrection is strictly opposed to the zombification of aesthetic politics. The resurrection of Jesus is the glorification of flesh into a new order of being, an eternal order, one that has no beginning or end. It is not simply life returned, like putting toothpaste back in the tube (resulting in a grotesque mess with very little success). Yet this order requires its own secret. The freedom of a new order depends upon it not being enslaved to the past. Jesus fulfills Israel's history, but only indirectly. He is the messiah, but only in the third person. The disciples see Jesus risen, but His appearance defies categorization. It's a whisper in the wind, not a self-derived memento mori, but God as spirit and light. The future is opened to a new order of things. The past is not erased, but fulfilled. And political orders throughout time, as much as they're alive or vibrant, reflect a similar historical suffusion (neither given to utopia nor nostalgia). 

Baudrillard successfully exposes the emptiness of the Foucaultian project, but then leaves his own project in suspension. The christ can never actually come, or at least he always comes too late. But what if the Messiah crosses the threshold. The secret does not paper over a gaping abyss, but acts as sunglasses. The Real is not death, but our lives are dead compared to the life of the Real. Could we bear such a weight of glory as we are? No, but thanks be to God He raises the dead.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

This is My Body: A Review of Matt Colvin's "The Lost Supper"

Christians have severely divided over the phenomena of the Lord's Supper. Should you use leavened or unleavened bread (dividing east from west)? How do you receive it? More importantly, what happens to the elements when the Lord's Supper is performed? Is there a moment of "change" and if so what is the change? Is it bread and wine anymore? What does it mean to "be" the body and blood of Christ? And how does a Christian partake of it? However, the most important question that has been buried under a mountain of theological speculation is simply what this meal was to Jesus and His disciples who celebrated it?

Colvin intervenes here to recontextualize the historic Last Supper. Historians of the period have often been perplexed at the institution of this rite. While for a long time presumed to have some connection to Passover, twentieth-century scholars moved away from an uncritical reliance on medieval (or post-Second Temple Judaism) texts to inform Jewish practices. Even so, it was hard to precisely determine what Jesus was precisely up to in the meal and how this translated into the markedly different ritual of the eucharist. At some point, scholars began to abandon the question altogether. The Last Supper may in fact have no relation, whatsoever, to the eucharist. Instead, historians turned to Greco-Roman rituals of table fellowship and com-pan-ionship and convivum. The assumption was that the eucharist must have developed out of some melange of mystery religion (like the Eleusinian rite) and shared collegiate life. The Last Supper as a textual memory then recombines to shape this otherwise Gentile practice. Thus, the truth of what happened at Jesus' last Passover was lost to history. Many academic theologians accepted these pronouncements (or even ratified them), creating a gulf between Christian theology and the historical dimensions of the New Testament.

However, recent scholarship has questioned both the polarity between Jew and Gentile in the world of the Second Temple, as well as their collapse into a vaguely generic "Hellenic" world. Jews kept themselves distinct in a variety of ways, not always consistent with each other. Similarly, critical use of late Roman rabbis and medieval Jewish traditions has yielded fruit in understanding the origin of far earlier practices. As Alan Segal showed in his work on plurality in Jewish views of God, later texts showed scars of battles with apparently successful efforts of Christians to woo Jews from the synagogue to the church. And finally, and most importantly, there has been a recent turn to finally treat the New Testament (especially Paul) as Jewish literature. Ignoring the common matrix from which both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged, allowed both Jewish and Christian theologians to avoid the other. Christianity became increasingly identified as a Gentile phenomenon.

Matt Colvin intervenes here, drawing heavily upon the erudition of David Daube who (far earlier than most) rejected many of the above dichotomies. Perhaps because he was a philologist with a sharp eye for detecting a puzzle, Daube focused on micro problems in narrative and law, yielding a rich harvest. Daube had done this for the New Testament, particularly the Last Supper's connection to a messianic banquet. The afiqomen, later a strange ritual hide-and-seek during the Passover, was a remnant of Passover's distinctly messianic resonances. Thus, the Last Supper was not only a Passover meal, but involved ritual elements that Jesus assumed to himself. If Jesus was taking an otherwise annual ritual and inserting a radical change into it, why so little instruction? Why did the disciples (who often throughout the gospels express confusion at Jesus' words and doings) seem to "get it"? To point at the bread and cup, saying "This is my body..my blood", was Jesus' indirect identification with the messiah and the coming kingdom of God.

Colvin's work goes beyond Daube, not only reconstructing the historiography of how this argument progressed (with the eccentric career and work of Robert Eisler and the work of Joachim Jeremias), but how it makes the most amount of sense with the text's narrative. Drawing on later Jewish ritual writings and commentary (Mishnah and Talmud), Colvin critically examines how these rituals bore scars of purging the Christian sounding elements out. Reference to human mediator, linked to messianic expectation, are diminished if not erased. Christians similarly moved their own liturgical referents away from Israel in their own narrative memorial. The result was covering over the link where Jesus emerged from a distinctly Jewish milieu of messianic expectation in a new Exodus. Colvin draws extensively from N.T. Wright and Richard Hays, who see this narrative expectation not only weaved throughout the New Testament, but constitutive of Second Temple Jewish thought in general. Colvin deploys these to solve several textual riddles along the way. For example, why did Jesus use such a strange word for "daily" in the Lord's prayer? Answer: it's an eschatological prayer "the bread of tomorrow", which fits with the rest of the prayer, which calls God's future into the present. Many of these puzzles become clearer when the Aramaic context of both Jesus' speech, and many narrative arcs, is explicated. This is especially the case for Mark's Gospel (drawing on the work of Maurice Casey who sees Mark as not only clearly the work of an Aramaic-speaking Jew of the 1st c., but that this work forms the spine for the later Grecian works of Matthew and Luke, who rework the Marcan material)

Thus, Colvin makes a strong case that the Passover meal Jesus celebrated was eschatological, fulfilling the meal as it transfigured into something else. It culminated Israel's story. Like Moses establishing the Passover before the cataclysmic events of judgement which it would later celebrate, so too does Jesus found this meal around his (the Christ's) impending death and resurrection. Colvin summarizes the point well:

"Thus, as we also found in the case of the words over the bread, we discover
that Jesus’ words about the wine are more concerned with using the Passover
to speak to his disciples about his own impending death and its significance
within Israel’s story than they were about explaining the metaphysical relation
of the bread and wine to his body and blood. His words over the bread
identify himself as Israel’s Messiah; his words over the cup are a way of
indicating that he will offer himself as a sacrifice, a new Passover lamb to
accomplish a new Exodus; and that this will bring about the coming Kingdom
of God. Messiah, new Exodus, and coming Kingdom: this is a deeply Jewish
set of meanings for these rituals, full of the themes that were on every mind
and heart at Passover. Jesus in the Last Supper is doing what we should expect
for a Jewish Messiah’s last meal with his disciples; he is doing exactly
what Jews have always done with the food and drink of the Passover: make
them tell the story of God and Israel—past, present, and future—and by ritual
participation inscribe themselves in that story, in those events." (92)

As clear from the quote, Colvin does not leave the work here. Instead, he turns his sights on the development of eucharistic theology throughout church history. Later paradigms of thought obscured the narratival aspect of the ritual, replacing it with an emphasis on substances both visible and invisible. From one end, transubstantiation developed from a medieval context that saw the supper as "medicine of immortality", where bread and wine are vehicles to communicate grace (a substance) to the souls of men. However, the rejection of a "real presence" for symbolism (both in Berenger's heresy as well as in most Reformed confessions) depended on the same semiotic theory of sign/signified. Rather than denying the existence of bread and wine for the supernatural substances of body and blood, the latter become accessible only through faith. For some Reformed theologians, this (like transubstantiation to medieval theologians) is simply a mystery (i.e. they have no idea how one feeds by faith). Others increasingly schematize the process as a series of mental or emotional acts one does in a proper succession. However both miss the key issue: it's the narrative of Israel's story that creates a trans-historical participation, not the substances/accidents of empirical and spiritual realities. Thus, Colvin' work acts as a sledgehammer to any "sacramental" (a taxonomic designation unwarranted from Scripture) theory of sign/signified. In a way, it's a strong rejection of Augustinian sacramentology, which influenced all sides (Roman and Reformed). 

Jesus (like a good Second Temple Jew) focused on bodies in action. Take, eat, take, drink. This emphasis leaves no room for the piety of reverence for the elements, a superstitious addition that confuses the meaning of the rite. It's not about confecting the presence of God through an ordained minister's words, or a believing heart of the recipient, but participation in God's divine story. It's this participation which saves. As Colvin puts it with clarity:

"This is not mere knowledge of facts. It involves what Richard Hays calls
“the conversion of the imagination” and results in worship of Jesus and of
Israel’s God. The great irony is that the disciples on the road to Emmaus
were in a state of confused incomprehension, not understanding the story or
Jesus or themselves, and consequently gloomy and depressed (σκυθρωποί,
24:17)—and all while Jesus was present. No sooner did they recognize him
than he absented himself from them again (24:31–32). This pattern is repeated
at the end of the chapter for the gathered disciples in Jerusalem: Christ
appears bodily to them and blesses them (presence), then is “parted from
them and carried up into heaven” (absence), whereupon they “worshiped
him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk. 24:52). In this narrative,
the presence of Christ is not effected by the eating of the bread (still less by
“consecration” of it); indeed, the resurrected Jesus appeared and was bodily
present to his disciples on the road to Emmaus only in order to bring about
the disciples’ participation in his new life, which is the life of the renewed
Israel, the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story. The goal is participation,
not “presence.” " (98)
Participation, not substance and presence, becomes the metaphysic behind the eucharist's power. It is not about removing the ritual potency of the rite, but recovering it in the New Testament's own terms. Colvin establishes how the rite of Passover, both in the Old Testament as well as in later Jewish commentary, was not simply a mental act reaching backwards. Rather, every celebration of the Passover was to participate in the original. This rite looked backwards and forwards simultaneously, holding onto history as a guarantee of a future promise (a future Exodus). It's precisely this way with Christians who, in eating and drinking as their Lord commanded, celebrate a public memorial, a witness to the atoning death and resurrection of the Christ. The meal not only reaches backwards to the founding act, but to the future redemption of bodies and souls in the Resurrection. The meal celebrates and expresses the Kingdom of God present now, which will one day encompass all things. It's not unlike Irenaeus' view of the eucharist which hung the meal's grace and power in being sealed with a promise:

"And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God" (Adv Haer, Book V, II, 3)

It's this view which is keenly demonstrated in Paul's relatively sparse reference to the Supper in his First Letter to the Corinthians. Substance ontology confuses the flow of Paul's argument: it was participation in Christ's recapitulation of Israel's story which saves. The bread and the wine are communion (koinonia) which saves, a participation in the divine story. It's the same metaphysical logic about how the Israelites drank the water from Christ, the rock who followed them in the Wilderness. It is not simply anachronism, but a trans-historical union made through ritual story. Thus, the Supper is no less metaphysical or sacred when the emphasis is shifted to story from substance, to social rite from the elements and the individual's conscience. It was not for failure to believe the proper dogma or initiate the right mental act which Paul condemns as "failing to discern the body". It was a failure to conform the public behavior with the rite it was calling down. How can you participate in the saving story if you deny it with your actions? How can you claim unity with the Christ who forgave sins when you trample your brethren, turning the meal into a revel of gluttony and drunkenness? Paul stewarded the mysteries as a herald of the gospel, revealing what God had been up to all along, not the keeper of the cult from prying eyes (as those who participated in the Eleusinian mysteries were sworn to silence).

To conclude, Colvin sets out some applications for contemporary church life. For one, there's no reason to bar small children from communion if they can eat. It is not their knowledge or ability to properly ratiocinate that makes them capable, but belonging to the church. Similarly, while veneration of the elements is out of the question, the disregard of simply dumping them in the trash is also an affront. Framed in a different way: a wedding cake is special and not to be treated with contempt (lest you treat the bride and groom with contempt). However, a crumb of cake falling to the floor is no cause of panic. What if a mouse runs off with it? Such was a serious question for Medieval monks, beautifully illustrated in the Book of Kells (decorating the front cover of Colvin's book). However, to simply dump the cake would be an utter contempt of the wedding as a whole. Properly reverential disposal reflects an understanding of the rite. Ultimately, Colvin's glosses his project with a level of hope. Despite the fact that Christians often failed to grasp the Jewish logic behind the ritual (though not completely, as Colvin notes figures who grasped it, ranging from Medieval critics of Paschasius Radbertus to the 1559 Book of Common Prayer), the rite remained nonetheless. The words of institution were rightly stated before the meal. Despite superstitious adoration of the elements, most people still ate and drank as Jesus commanded. The work of God ultimately prevailed. Additionally, this basis for communion would also allow wider Christian communion, cutting through debate about ontological change on all sides.

The book, overall, is a refreshing return to the sources. Unlike many adherents of the New Perspective on Paul, Colvin is a talented philologist. The focus on the riddles of texts avoids the criticism that the New Perspective(s) advance a more contemporaneous ethos. We're all subjects of our own time, and this criticism deflates many of the novelties that emerge from the academy. However, to simply wash one's hands of it (as many Old Perspective types do) is to deny the fundamental glory of the Renaissance/Reformation project of ad fontes humanism. As Colvin notes (citing Wright), we can ride the hermeneutic spiral to actually discover the reality of the text, triangulated in dialogue between the text (author), the reader, and the context (history). Philology frees man from simply being a prisoner of the age, and instead reinscribes him as a fellow creature in God's world.

One thing lacks for me. Colvin is correct to shift attention away from the elements to the narrative ritual, but he doesn't bother to explain why this shift took place in the ways it did. Perhaps that was ultimately beyond the scope of the project, but it raises additional questions.  Colvin notes the importance of bread and wine: common bread (not circular wafers) and fermented wine (not grape juice). These have symbolic significance. However, the meaning of these elements could use further development. Per the quote from Irenaeus above, the symbolic resonances of bread and wine throughout scripture scream out for a certain kind of meaning. And it's from these particular elements that consecrationism (which Colvin derides) emerged. It was not simply bread and wine, but the Lord's bread and wine. Colvin's reaction to theological dead ends may be necessary (eg when the Supper changes from bread and wine into body, how one feeds by faith, etc), but consecration does not necessitate those things. For Irenaeus, consecreation derived from the fact that the ritual marks out this bread and wine, a kin to how people today pray a blessing over a meal. It's not about substance ontology, but social ontology. This cake, and none other, is the wedding cake (including the significance of actions using it or dishonoring it). Additionally, framed in the worship of the church, these gifts are considered sacrificial. Here Irenaeus frames the eucharistic consecration in these terms:

For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Sprit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. (Book IV, XVIII, 5)

This text has often been used to defend real presence and other sacramental substance ontologies. However, when connected to his later commented quoted above, the point is how this meal bears the promise. The focus on the elements is a necessary correlation, lest one lapse into the idea of a wedding cake without a cake. As Colvin rightly points out, one does not need to eat to participate. It's no affront to the bride if someone who is celiac abstains from the cake, even as they participate. It's an exception that proves the rule. Nevertheless, the ritual subsides in the meal as much as in the social context. For Irenaeus, the bread and wine are body and blood precisely because they bear the promises. To eat and drink is be marked for the future world of resurrected beatitude. And they bear this promise not arbitrarily, but because of the rich symbolic power of both bread and wine. 

This symbolism is not simply intellectual, but physical. Bread means what it means because of how it exists. The breaking of it, the bodily sustenance, its constitution (which Colvin points out about Paul's use of yeast to make an argument). All of these develop what the elements mean as particular bearers of this promise. For Irenaeus, unlike later proponents of the eucharist as a sacrifice, the Christians offer bread and wine (as bread and wine, not body and blood) as a sacrifice to God. These good gifts are given to man by God to enjoy, they are lifted back to God as a thanks-giving (eucharist) and received again, bearing the promise of God's peace and forgiveness, marking the participant for eternal life. This might better explain how consecration may not simply be discarded, but rightly recovered. To properly recognize and sanctify bread and wine qua bread and wine, as why they rightly bear the promises of God in the new Passover meal of the eucharist, does not need to subtract from Messiah's story (even as it often has by replacing it).

Additionally, in consecration, memorializing, eating, this account has deep resonances with Luther's own rejection of Augustinian semiotics. The bread and wine were the Lord's body not according to the dichotomous nature of sign/signified, but through the given word of promise. Christ commands the disciples to do this meal as a memorial, and Paul rightly understand this as proclaiming the Lord's death until Christ comes again. Colvin rejects (correctly I think) the focus on presence, but does not linger on the metaphysical question as long as he should. In his disputation with Erasmus over the free will, Luther scoffs at Erasmus' refined view of God's presence of the world. God was everywhere, not only in golden temples. He was even in the sink! The omnipresence of God meant God was accessible anywhere and to all, and yet this sheer presence was meaningless. The biblical authors were not stupidly anthropomorphic when they used spatial references to God (ie James' "draw near to God"); they didn't think God was "somewhere" in the same way a misplaced key is somewhere. Rather, God's presence referred to a kind of disposition. Hence the importance of the sacraments. These were not a category of given sign/signified referents to access something called grace. Rather, they were where God's presence was given in a significant sense. How do you know where to find a merciful God? How do you know God's actual disposition towards you (in particular)? Through the promises. If God says He is in this meal as forgiveness, then you know there is where you can go to find God's mercy (or, if you profane the meal, to find God's wrath).

Luther's commentary may seem like idle speculation far beyond the concrete elements of the Lord's Supper, but it fits quite well with Colvin's argument. The participation happens through story, hearing and believing (enacted in obediently taking/eating/drinking). And narrative is Word. That was what the Lutherans pursued in arguing against the extra Calvinisticum. The Word was the clear presence of God in the World in a particular way, and that way was inextricably linked to the bodily, historical, reality of Jesus as the Christ. Such is the essence of "magic" (as in the wisdom that constituted the Magi who followed Bethelehem's star). This metaphysic of the Word (against the far more dualistic, and constantly fracturing, sign/signified between the empty vehicle and the invisible real) underwrites a rich metaphysical reality of participation. It prevents any lazy reading of participationist metaphysics, slipping into an intellectualist symbolism. No, the meal has power because God has said so. And that given word is what marks out these rites as "sacraments". It's not a mysterious conjunction between visible and invisible substances, but the power of God in word. 

Without the word, speechless ritual can take its place (whether performed by a hierarch or in the consciousness of the recipient). Hence why Luther raged so violently against the "enthusiasts", those who would cleave God's Word from God's Presence. The latter is meaningless in any ontological sense. It only makes sense in the context of the former. Colvin may rightly criticize Luther's scrupulousness (i.e. licking up spilled communion wine and crying at the tragedy of it), but there's much in common between Luther's word-based metaphysic and the participationist metaphysics that Colvin (et al) have excavated. In fact, their commonality is from attention to text (and not reliance on extraneous metaphysical theory).

I commend Colvin's book to anyone who wants a clear and concise explanation of what the Lord's Supper is and is not. It not only solves textual problems and historical riddles, it opens a wide vista on what the future could be through return.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Of Fire and Flames: Berkeley and the Development of Christian Enlightenment

*This is a repost, with some edits, of an older essay*

We're all children of the Enlightenment. Even claims to pre-modernity or Romantic reaction are, in their crudest forms, obscuring the larger social, metaphysical, and epistemological game change. Of course, the actual antagonists to Lockean empiricism or Cartesian rationalism were not trying to flee their age, but push through it. I reject the idea that modernity is some cataclysmic epochal shift, as if thousands of years of history culminated in some new age of Aquarius. I also reject most accounts of "post-modernism", treated as a homogenous monolith, as generally confused, rarely giving in-depth attention to individual authors/theorists.

Anyway, it's for this reason why I appreciate the kind of idealist-empiricism of George Berkeley. Ignore the label, it's basically useless. Berkeley offers a distinctly Christian approach to philosophy that embraces common-sense without reifying common-sense as the given means to access the Real. It's a way forward for Christians beyond empty traps, atheism, and deism.

The Foundationalist project is in total disrepair. And yet there's no way back to the "Christian-Platonic Synthesis" (a barbarism deployed goofball theologians). The use of this concept is mostly fictional and romantic. When it was in effect (if it was ever, and that's a big if), it didn't succeed because of beauty but reality. It was considered good science, a good account of knowledge about the real world, accounting for causation and how things interacted. There is much that could be said about the use of Plato, Aristotle, and various Greek metaphysicists/physicists. However, the major problems introduced were we relate to things as we experience and things as they are, as well as whether our knowledge of things is radically different than their ontic category. Nominalism is of course notorious for this skepticism about conflating our knowledge as somehow pinned onto a divine knowledge.

The Cartesian divide introduced the radical rift between mind and matter, and Locke didn't make things better. Locke, as far as I understand, almost swallowed up the former in the latter, which is saved from pure materialism through a deus ex machina (i.e. super-added qualities, such as mind to matter). The point of this contention is, perhaps, a recognition of epistemic humility: we have no idea how our subjective awareness relates to the basic categories of matter (reflected in the abstraction of extension, space, number, etc.). Thus, perhaps Locke was trying to reconfigure Cartesian theory, saving it from radical dualism. I'm not sure. However, the project ends up asserting the primacy and self-sustainability of "matter", the world of pure potency that empirical senses give us access.

It's here Berkeley intervenes, but let's pass him by for a moment to his critic Hume. The Scot didn't quite grasp Berkeley's project and turned it inside out. All we are is chaos and our knowledge of things is a castle built in air. We have customs, norms, traditions, etc. to guide us, but we have no sureness of the real world as such. That entire Enlightenment project, to come up with purely rational (and thus a-historical and de-cultured) categories to document and know everything, was a fraud. When Kant was hit with this philosophy, he awoke from his "dogmatic slumber." He was now skeptical of the popular philosophes Leibniz and Wolfe. And yet Kant didn't want a spiral into reality as simply the meaningless flux that somehow is given a faux order. Hume would probably snigger at Darwinian metaphysicists who claim some God's eye knowledge of Nature, acknowledge human epistemic weakness from a position of strength. If you can categorize all our illusions and delusions as evolutionary advantageous, you know something the others don't, like the king on the balcony watching the blind grope the elephant. These people are simply propping up their own dogmatic faith, falling into the same trap that the Encyclopedists had.

But Kant, as I understand it, had articulated a way beyond the impasse. The synthetic a-priori helped grasp the necessary truth of things, even if these truths were wholly inaccessible to a systemic critique. This wasn't a utility argument, but if morality was to exist, one needed to posit stable subjects, capable subjects, and a world-order to substantiate them. Thus the immortal soul, free will, and God, must be posited to explain civilization, with laws, duties, and judges/law-makers. Because we have these things, and they involve elements that make us richly human, their back-stop must exist as well, otherwise we're babbling idiots. The division between phenomenal and noumenal is basically to safe-guard synthetic dogmas, which make way for the empirical sciences. We don't need myths, religions, or legends to justify this state of affairs, but hard nosed philosophical rigor. We don't need a first ancestor, a heroic founder who brought us the law, or divine revelation to justify these affairs. Instead, we can sweep these away and establish a rational order that saves an inaccessible realm of faith. We can sidestep the whole question of "first principles' and posit their necessity for the basic project of rationality to go on.

Of course, critical friends like J.G. Hamann poked holes in Kant's system. As far as I understand, Hamann was not an enemy of Kant or his band of Continental Enlighteners. Rather, he was a critical ally, bemused that this synthethic edifice fell out of a few German heads, ignorant of how the world actually functions.  Time, history, experience, language, these are the very grounds for this entire conversation. That Kant had basically ignored them was peak stupidity, and the Magus of the North did his best to mock, parody, and tease Kantians into frustration. It's this alteration that constitutes the Romantic movement, not exactly a reaction, but a critical engagement. Our rationality is not so clear cut, even as Kant moved beyond machine like positivism. If we heavily weight our synthetic assumptions, ignorant that they too are a product of time, we miss the historical-humanity of the philosophical project. Instead Hamann pursues a rich Lutheran theology of creation. As Osward Bayer (a Lutheran theologian and scholar of Hamann) points out about Luther's theological method: objective and subjective are integrated through a focus on God as He is towards "me". Thus Luther seamlessly transitions:

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears," etc. etc.

 According to Bayer, Hamann grasped this fundamental part about Luther, seeing the seamless whole of creation yet one still dependent on the Creator. Hamann did not like the direction of emptying creation of its life, drained into the test-tubes and dictionaries of empirical dissectors and vivisectors. Such was to grope some objective perspective that was ever illusive. This logomachy of rationalist systems building reached ever further into the dark, a growing shade of nihilism (the point Hamann's fellow critic Jacobi made). Additionally to slice and dice the historical world into increasingly meaningless atoms was to reject life. As biogenesist Louis Pasteur would successfully argue, life isn't a "thing" that exists under the surface. It's not a combustion of chemicals, electricity, or faux-substance vital elan. Thus, while Kant was trying to save the Enlightenment, he was still unable to escape the contingent. The noumenal/phenomenal distinction cordoned off the realm of empirical knowledge from the realm of transcendental meaning. Put a part, Kant hoped to rescue the latter through backwards reasoning. This empirical world depends upon these transcendentals, even if they're not empirical. Rather than lapse into Hume's garrulous skepticism, Kant pursued his own project. For Hamann, Kant would lead right back into rationalist weakness with the tissue-paper defense for his own project of Enlightenment. His systems avoided the infinite complexity of life. Such was not romantic nostalgia (Hamann was also an Enlightener), but to recognize the ever-flowing present of history. Reason could not escape its ineluctable contingency and subjectivity, and yet pure subjectivity would lead to anarchic meaninglessness. Thus began the German Idealist quest.

One completely insane way to overcome this dilemma is to make the subject effectively a universal. The world was a large blob, an it, which needed to be understood, tamed, mastered. Fichte promoted this philosophy, buts its weakness (and violence) soon became apparent. But it, like Kant's project, was concerned to overcome the Cartesian dualism, between things as they are (matter) and rationality (mind). Per Fichte, one can assume a level of inoperative nonexistence on the side of the phenomenal, but that radically makes the world simply a product of human subjective knowing (or even requiring some unmediated access to a universal subject through action). Kant and other critical rationalists were the alternative, never conceding the nonexistence of objectivity, but with a tenous connection as to how any man can find it. Hamann and Herder, in their different ways, rejected this attempt to basically evacuate history. And not only man as a historical creature, but God as a living and providential lord of time. Despite Kant's efforts to save God (in theory), God becomes a synthetic retrojection to justify civilizational projects. Such was a bulwark against either the confessional fideists (as Kant had believed Jacobi and Hamann to have become) as well as atheistic materialists, whose empiricism fed off its own incoherence. Why fill the encyclopedias with a knowledge that becomes increasing atomic if one were honest. How would one not reach a Humean skepticism? Diderot and d'Holbach essentially thought man was a cunning ape, and knowledge was functionally pragmatic (not real).

Berkeley, rightly understood, offers a real alternative. To begin, he rejected the dichotomy: matter does not exist. This approach has often been lampooned in Philosophy 101 accounts (thanks, in no small part, to Hume, which he thanked as a necessary step towards skepticism). However, the real question (taken for granted) is: what is matter? Berkeley picked apart Locke/Newton's defense of primary qualities as an insane project (i.e. can you imagine a triangle without color, shape, or not of any particular type? no, abstraction is not possible). Pure potency is given a substance, but one all the way down, philosophically required to justify the distinction between the inquiring mind (subject) and the inert object. But we don't need any of that. We don't need to turn to myth or legend either. Instead, the world is simply what it appears to be. There's nothing behind the various qualia we encounter; there's no thing underneath sense data and our mental configuration of the same (i.e. seeing a bird, and then imagining a bird with fangs and laser eyes, is on the same spectrum of mental ideas).

But then what back-stop to demarcate reality from the idiosyncratic dreamworld of our own solipsistic imagination? For Berkeley, the only way was to recognize the Logos, the Mind above all minds that made this world possible. Such wasn't a synthetic concept for Berkeley: the intelligibility of things, our tentative grasp for meaning, the sheer communicability of one mind to another, apparent in time and space, demonstrated a world presided over by a supreme mind. In a sense, we live in the radically foundationless world of God's imagination. That's what reality is. Such a claim operates as an a priori theory, but it's not something invisible to the human eye. Again, the intelligible order of the world, one outside of man's control, demonstrates the existence of the Logos, Hence Psalm 19: "Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard" (Ps 19:2-3). The Logos creates the common basis through which man experiences one another.

However, given Berkeley's dualism between spirit/mind and idea, how did these two interact. Isn't this simply rephrasing the Cartesian problem? No because the spirit is a question of who while the idea is a question of what. Berkeley's middle and later career was devoted to developing these connections. At first, Berkeley posited the concept of "prejudice" as what bound various ideas together. Despite the negative connotation of ignorance or arbitrariness, prejudice meant something like a pattern that mankind weaves for themselves. Prejudices may be true or false. For Berkeley, the question wasn't trying to discover the really real beneath empirical data, but the pattern of the Mind who made these various ideas move together. Creation was a series of symbols, mysteries, riddles that minds would engage and seek to understand. To see things this way was to posit a supreme Mind, a Logos. A mindless nature would not produce signs, those would only be man's projections onto them. One either turned up to recognize a cosmic sovereign and governor, or lapsed into sollipsism or nihilism. But how does the Logos' idea, His thoughts, actually move and impact all of creation?

Berkely, in his mature work Siris (a bizarre essay/pamphlet combining an exploration of neo-Platonic metaphysics with a defense of drinking tar water), opts for energy against the empirical materialists, the living Word of Christianity against Deism:

(237) [...] Nor will it suffice from present phaenomena and effects, through a chain of natural causes, and subordinate blind agents, to trace a divine intellect as the remote original cause, that first created the world, and then set it a going, We can not make even one single step in accounting for the phaenomena, without admitting the immediate presence and immediate action of an incorporeal agent, who connects, moves, and disposes all things, according to such rules, and for such purposes as seem good to him.

Unlike the later romantics (or many contemporary theologians), Berkeley does believe in the project for universal rationality, but such is found through the revelation of the Logos in nature and, most importantly, in scripture. His philosophy was a bid to reject the radical skepticism at heart in Lockean/Newtonian empiricism/rationalism. On the one hand, he radicalized empiricism through rejecting Cartesian dualism. However this returns man not to animal-like agnosticism and practical reasoning. Rather, man's dignity is affirmed through the ability to see as the Logos sees. Man thinks God's thoughts after Him. Despite the fact that Hamann thought Berkeley was simply a mystic who preceded Hume (he refers to the bishop of Cloyne as the "Eleatic"), the idealist-skeptic pipeline, there is much between the two. Where Hamann avoided metaphysical questions, Berkeley never strongly addressed history. But both sought to see the universal through the contingent. Reality was manifest dialogically through the ruling and reigning Word. Berkeley and Hamann represent very different periods, but they advance a fundamentally Christian interpretation of Enlightenment. Nature has no existence of her own except as the beautifully crafted web from the Logos' creative speech. God as Creator and God as Savior are united through the constitutive action of the Logos: He speaks and it is.

Sadly Berkeley's metaphysical thought failed to reach deeply into Germany. Berkeley was mainly known through Hume, a Christian skeptic whose truculent high-church piety prevented him from following his argument. Such was true to the extent that the practical atheism of heterodox Deism, found in Locke, motivated the bishop to philosophically engage. Berkeley (rightly) saw Newtonian physics leading to the erasure of Nature's architect for her many mechanics and engineers (mankind). God would become an inoperative theory at best, as Nature became a machine. But if nature was the thoughts of the Logos, its intelligibility could not be so completely mechanized. And as discussed, this rationalism and empiricism would lead to nihilism and skepticism, which opened the door to a kind of irrational fideism. Berkeley did not need to believe God's presence existed at the subliminal, the inexpressible terror beyond all beyonds, but spoke in a way intelligible to man. God created the world of minds that witness the wonders of this world, able to comprehend through discourse. Humans are not bastard children of the machine. Instead, God works (energizes) in and through creation, present in nature and history, even in the miraculous events of His revealed presence to Israel. For Berkeley, philosophy revealed this Logos, though that was not good enough. Man could only understand what the Logos was in relation to the world, not who He is (hence divine revelation expressed this character).

Berkeley's project represents a fully Enlightened, yet fully Christian, philosophic project to save reason from within man's subjective world. The bishop humanizes the world in the way the Romantics claimed, yet pursues the quest for universal (or the absolute subject's) vision/reason. Unlike later romantics, who frolicked in nature's night, Berkeley the Christian rejected a self-generated/evolved world qua organism. Instead, creation is the wonderful art, the proem, of the Logos. Nature is most truly nature when it is uplifted through joyful creativity from its priests (of whom the Logos leads as chief officiator). Creation not something to subdue or worship. Rather, God and man cooperate to cultivate and beautify, filling the world with befitting symbols and signs of radiant intelligence. Such is the energy of the spirit, the trace of a mind (even the Mind) at work:

220. Force or power, strickly speaking, is in the agent alone who imparts an equivocal force to the invisible elementary fire, or animal spirit (a) of the world, and this to the ignited body or visible flame, which produceth the sense of light and heat. In this chain the first and last links are allowed to be incorporeal : the two intermediate are corporeal, being capable of motion, rarefaction, gravity, and other qualities of bodies. It is fit to distinguish these things, in order to avoid ambiguity concerning the nature of fire. (102)

"Energy" (or "fire" or "power") mediates between "idea" and "spirit", the work which holds together our mental impressions and the minds that make them. In other words, God acts in the world, but God is not simply His acts (though we can know Him through them). It's in the same way we become aware of other minds through their works, not a direct connection. Berkeley revives the Christianized neo-platonic notion of the essence-energies distinction*, which explains a host of theological and philosophical problems between God and the world. Recent Physics supports this mode of description, abandoning hard materialism for talk of energy, waves, and light. Such not only defends a Christian view of God and the world, but it also finds a way through the dichotomies and contradictions of any crude materialism

Berkeley's approach had a limited (and modified) following, and later became wildly unpopular. His contemporaries (like Hume or Samuel Johnson) rejected it for a host of stupid reasons. And these crude understandings of Berkeley translated into later accounts of his philosophy. Berkeley's project was and is an attempt of limits, a way to understand the radical openness of the world and God's presence within it. Berkeley criticized the functional atheism, the replacement of God's fiery working with a world-system. Berkeley represents the full potential of the Enlightenment to allow the breathing space for creation to energetically express its mystery and wonder. Such is precisely the definition of the modern: the mutual interpenetration of past and present in an openness to the future. In the bishop's hands, it had a distinctly Christian content.

This enlightening disposition not only applied to philosophy, but political and social theory. Reason and freedom weren't conceived in the abstract, but in relation to bloody civil war. The Enlightenment, as a continent wide project, developed from civil/confessional wars (e.g. French Wars of Religion, Dutch Independence, 30 Years War, English Civil Wars). Papal Christendom collapsed, alternative churches/confessions arose, and new ways were sought to comprehend diversities in a given kingdom. Some in the republic of letters pursued the category of "nature" to support a broad polity, with more or less Christian distinctive. History also became a means of solidifying a given polity. In Britain, a reforming Church would wrestle with various alternatives to deal with plurality without abandoning a specific Christian witness. It was into this project Berkeley participated. Without getting into specific (explicated in other essays), Berkeley advanced a Christian, yet civically broad and plural, social space.

Berkeley did not try to invent a new philosophical system, but to properly ground philosophy's relationship to theology. It was the Christian scriptures which revealed (not manufactured) the Logos, the divine governor and judge of the world. The bishop saw Locke/Newton as offering a world-system, an idol to replace theology, an alternative (and more liberal) version of Hobbes' Leviathan. And yet the problems of modernity had made themselves known. There was no going back to uncritical ignorance, conflating the modern with the ancients, or thinking we can simply ape the ancients to counter our decadent age. Berkeley's philosophy is fundamentally modern in all the right ways. For Christians, it's one of the best beginnings to take seriously the task ahead. The Logos continues to work and speak.

*When I first made this claim, it was a hunch and speculative. But then I discovered Berkeley making this point in Siris:

187. At the transfiguration, the apostles saw our Saviour's face shining as the sun, and his raiment white as light, also a lucid cloud or body of light, out of which the voice came ; which visible light and splendor was, not many centuries ago, maintained by the Greek church, 'to have been divine, and uncreated, and the very glory of God : as may be seen in the history wrote by the emperor John Cantacuzene. And of late years bishop Patrick gives it as his opinion, that in the beginning of the world, the Shecinah or divine presence, which was then frequent and ordinary, appeared by light or fire. In commenting on that passage, where Cain is said to have gone out from the presence of the Lord, the bishop observes, that if Cain after this turned a downright idolater, as many think, it is very likely he introduced the worship of the sun, as the best re semblance he could find of the glory of the Lord, which was wont to appear in a flaming light. It would be endless to enumerate all the passages of holy scripture, which confirm and illustrate this notion, or represent the Deity as appearing and operating by fire. The misconstruction of which might possibly have misled the Gnostics, Basilidians, and other ancient heretics into an opinion, that Jesus Christ was the visible corporeal sun.
The distinction here made through reference to "the Greek church" and John Cantacuzenus (the monk-emperor who endorsed Palamism) shows Berkeley is making a direct reference. God is not identical with the uncreated light, even as it obviously can't be a creature. This isn't high octane speculation, but Berkeley recognizing that God's presence in the world is not identical with the subjective identity. In other words and other terms, I don't exist apart from body and soul (as if I could cut the "I" out) but "I" am not my body or soul.