Sunday, February 26, 2017

Collecting Treasure in Heaven: A Treatise on Modernity

A recent sermon I heard was on love and the vocation of the Christian. The point was made that Christians, like Christ, are to live sacrificial lives of giving away for the sake of the other. However, this statement was qualified with the fact that our lives, unlike Christ, do not atone for sins. In living sacrificially, we are to repeat Christ, but not actually. I used to find little wrong with this, but recent thinking has convinced me this is something symptomatic of the modern age.

One of the major themes in Giorgio Agamben's work, namely in his work Opus Dei, is that modernity functions on an ontology that is movement oriented and grounded towards a goal that lacks definition. He calls this command-ontology, where we are simultaneously identified and constituted through a command, which, linguistically, refers to something that is not, but ought to be. This finds its roots in Christian metaphysics, perhaps reaching a kind of zenith in the Jesuit's motto: ad maiorem gloriam dei, "to the greater glory of God". Of course, this is a strange maxim. If all glory belongs to God, or, more precisely, God has maximum glory, as befits God, then how can God be given more glory? It's a paradox: we add to the one which nothing more can be added.

Following Carl Schmitt's idea that all significant political ideas originate as theological, Agamben sees modernity as reflecting this sentiment. However, it's not that this is a political quality, as much as it is a political quality of a politics colonized by the economic. Major political goods of the American scene are productivity and progress. But, we might ask, where is this leading? Progress and productivity is the only answer. These goods are goods in themselves, without any referential end. In this way, the businessman possesses the signature of the Roman priest, where masses are offered everlastingly, caught in a suspended time of eschatological deferral. The lack of apocalypse can turn the penultimate into a never-ending loop. This is not as much theoretical as lived practice. The growth of the economy, the exceeding bounds of prosperity, is a goal unto itself.

At the heart of this is the paradoxical intersected state of inoperative-operativity. Per the classical articulation of Adam Smith, the Invisible Hand directs the selfish actions of market-agents towards the goal of greater gain and growth. In this, the buyer/seller is not actually directing the economy, he is merely a vessel for the Invisible Hand's governance. Yet, simultaneously, the Invisible Hand can only be manifest, or even exist, through the actions of these agents. The inoperative Invisible Hand can only govern through the operativity of agents; the inoperative agents are only effectual through the operative Invisible Hand. This is akin to the theological rendering of ex operate operato, where the effect of the sacrament is in the fact that it is not the priest, but Christ, who acts. But Christ is not present except through the action of the priest. It's a knot that keeps a wheel spinning forever.

The admonition to love, but not accomplish the goals of love, as above, falls into this paradigmatic of endless striving. Analytically, I think Agamben's model helpfully lays bare some of the features of Modernity within the form of Genesis' curse. In addition, Agamben (following Benjamin) believes only the Messiah can undo this process and destroy it. He doesn't mean this literally, but I do. This, fundamentally, involves the messianic promise of rest, and I'll reflect on this more another time. For now, I'll focus on a metaphysical key that St. Maximus provides that undermines this system, and is worthy of reflection.

Origen, following all the sons of Hellas, saw a key question in philosophy as movement. For Origen, movement signified a kind of imperfection, for movement meant a movement towards something, which implies that one does not have that something which one moves towards. Thus, Origen, or at least some of his students, offered the possibility of a kind of endless set of cycles of fall and redemption because movement was a creaturely feature. The Eschaton would involve a movinglessness, which was an achievement of divinity. It's unclear whether that involves a kind of exitus-reditus Platonic metaphysics, where all things will collapse into God, or what.

Many tried to retool this vision. Augustine, and those who followed him, envisioned a kind of rest in a beatific vision, where an end of movement comes. But it's unclear what that means for creaturely life, or how exactly a divinized creature is as a creature still. Gregory of Nyssa saw the possibility of the endless quest, the unending seeing the back of God, as a means by which God in His infinity can meet and be present in His distance. The alone seeking the alone forever alone is negated through God's infinite effulgent presence. This is not really unique to Gregory, Plotinus conceptualized something similar.

However, the conceptual shift Maximus introduced is paradise/Resurrection as a movement around God, an orbit, for the saints. This is to take movement as the essence of creatureliness seriously without destroying it or negating salvation. What this means is that there may be a genuine rest without annihilating the creature. Entering into the rest translate movement into restful action, an inversion of endless progress. The goal is reached and then there is enjoyment of it.

I wonder if this might conceptually be pressed into a simple statement of looking after heavenly treasures than earthly treasures. The point in this is that whereas earthly treasures rot, have time limits, constantly threatened by theft or loss, heavenly treasures do not. Taken by itself, this could be seen to spiritualize the vicious cycle I've described above. But, theoretically, if Heavenly treasures do not disintegrate or disappear, then once we have them we can stop. We can enjoy, in that circular motion. Perhaps the Christian life is better described as my cup overfloweth than receiving and giving.

The core problem with the sermon above is that it traps man in a never-ending quest. It is an infinite burden and fundamentally alienating. Christ, at least, accomplished His work and sat down. The Christian plays this same role, but without form or telos. It is for nothing and is nothing. It is a recipe for the same nihilistic drive that the modern economy functions under. Christ's claim that His burden is light and easy becomes a sick joke. We neither work for Heavenly treasures, nor do we enter into that Rest that was promised for Today (c.f. Hebrews). Instead, we are apt to become like Dostoevksky's Inquisitor, who sought to give all to God and only found bitterness and agony.

This is the only possible destiny in the modern machine, but one which Christ came to end.

No comments:

Post a Comment