Levi Bryant’s “Axioms for a Dark Ontology,” Wherein I Somehow Found Myself Defending Theology

At Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant has published two posts (1, 2) outlining 41 axioms relevant to his project. To clarify his purpose in giving these axioms, he offered this explanation:

In modern mathematics, an axiom is not a “self-evident truth” (nothing is self-evidently true these day) but a constraint on how a particular branch of mathematics is to unfold.  In this sense, an axiom is a sort of rule of the game.  It says “given this constraint, how must questions in this branch of mathematics be posed and what can be deduced?”  The axioms I set forth last night are what I take to be the only legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from the state of knowledge today in the physical sciences, biology, neurology, psychology, etc.  It’s simply no longer possible to honestly believe in a world characterized by purposiveness, body/mind divisions, design, the supernatural, and all the rest.

The axioms range from comments on the sciences to religion, and their aphoristic quality makes them particularly potent. I have been intrigued by Bryant’s comments on religion lately, especially considering his criticisms of John D. Caputo and postmodern theology in general. As to be expected, the aphorisms embrace the necessary nihilism accompanying a courageous materialist worldview.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of these aphorisms. The fact is, I’m guilty of faith in God, worthy of disdain and being ignored (see axiom 7 below), and while I find Bryant to be a sharp and fascinating voice, I don’t have a desire to agree with him simply because he’s smarter than me (which he is). As such, many of my augmentations have to take the bite out of his series of axioms. Reading through, I found myself agreeing with more than I thought I would, but by necessity had to alter particular ideas to make them palatable (which, for Bryant, would be precisely the problem, I’m sure). Some axioms seem quite easy to adopt, while others feel reductionistic. There is a lot going on in these axioms, but I’ll offer a few examples with some irresponsibly brief commentary.

16. If, as Caputo says, religious texts are like comic book stories that provide valuable life stories and ideals, we’d do better to draw our examples of such things from great literature than horribly written and poorly organized sacred texts that invite superstitious, non-materialist brutality and ignorance.

32. There is no religion that does not involve the supernatural.  Those theologians that attempt to persuade us that religion is really about meanings and symbols do not understand what they’re talking about.

I find this to be an excellent criticism of Caputo and the like. Bryant is going after the idea that one can eject all ontological affirmations of, say, Christianity, and retain the title “Christian” as a useful category. If all one has is a linguistic husk of what was once an ontological framework, making real claims about the world, then one is operating with a symbolic-network in the domain of poetry at best, not religion. And frankly, there is better poetry than the Bible. As such, if one is going to reduce religion down to a series of symbols and language, and that’s all, then one might as well find a better symbolic-network. This one is simply not worth the effort when there are far easier alternatives. I have appreciated the realist turn in continental philosophy because, perhaps ironically, it actually provides a new hope for actual Christianity, that is, a courageous Christianity that is capable of making claims about the world without an infinite string of commas, parentheses, and footnotes.

Outside of his religious axioms, there are others that I have no problem ascribing to. Certain materialist sympathies are easy to swallow, for example the premise that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, displacement of the supremacy of consciousness, and especially the dethroning of philosophy as a necessary ground for all other disciplines. Further, in his discussions of causes and the required work to maintain “things,” he is very close to Rosenzweig’s ontology, which I have obvious sympathies toward. Most apparent are these two:

 37. In ecologies and societies, there is no one cause for any particular event, but rather all events are “overdetermined” or the result of multiple causes.

38.  Everything is in a constant state of disintegration.  For this reason, work, energy, and operations are required for any ordered existence to continue enduring in time.

But the axioms also suffer from a certain over-simplification with regard to religion in particular. I’ll grant wholeheartedly that a thorough-going materialist can’t affirm something like an afterlife or the Divine (which is why I’m not a materialist), but some of these conclusions do not appear to be based on materialism so much as something else, perhaps an ethical framework or subjective bias. Here are a few instances:

7. There is no supernatural causation of any kind, nor any genuinely mystical experiences (e.g. astrology and merging with the totality of things) so anything that posits deep meanings, supernatural causes, purposes, and so on ought to be treated with disdain and ignored.

17. There will never be a progressive form of spirituality as any discussion of the divine is always recouped as a justification for various forms of oppression (e.g., fundamentalists enlisting Hawking’s and Einstein’s statements about God for their own cause).  As a result, moderate believers are often worse than fundamentalists as they enable these dynamics of power.

19. The worst abuses of history arise from believing that we’re acting on behalf of a goal or aim of history or an afterlife.  Once the permanence of death is erased in thought, the most horrific abuses of life are all justified as this world doesn’t matter, and when we say that history has a goal we justify doing anything in the present to reach that goal.

30. Religions are not beliefs but are political institutions that exert power in the world in various ways and that organize people in various ways.  As a consequence, discussions of religion at the level of belief and whether or not those beliefs are true often miss the fact that religions are sociological entities.

31. Theology seldom contributes anything to our understanding of religion and often muddies the water by presenting a rationalized version of popular belief and religion.  The claims of theologians are seldom reflective of what the population believes.  As a consequence, we have more to learn about religion from the ethnographer and the sociologist of religion than we do from the theologian who is generally what Deleuze called a State Thinker, even in his most progressive moment.

I can see where Bryant is getting a lot of this, and I certainly don’t think it’s unfounded whatsoever. It’s true–folk religion doesn’t appear to be interested in “radical theology”; pastors that are ministering to a significant number of people won’t be reading someone like Thomas Altizer, or even Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and if they do they’re likely to either transcend or be pushed out of their communities (i.e. Rob Bell). It’s also true that the belief in an afterlife has led to all kinds of atrocities, and that religion is regularly a power-move.

But it is simply false that, for example, the elimination of a belief in the afterlife would make us any less violent (a pretty staggering number of deaths in the twentieth-century were caused not by those who believed in an afterlife but those who vehemently denied it, who were all too happy to affirm the permanence of death–granted many of these were guilty of believing in a certain telos of history, but to suggest the belief in an afterlife is as important as Bryant does is worth suspicion). It is also hard to affirm axiom 30 on my end, considering what draws me to Bryant’s criticism of someone like Caputo is his affirmation that religions are ontologies, not merely linguistic-systems. If everyone became a sociologist of religion, there wouldn’t be a religion to examine (which is obviously not a problem for Bryant, but would be for me). This leads me to my surprising defense of theology, but of a certain sort. Bryant downplays the role of theology in the life of the church, and it seems he is responding most specifically to a kind of pervasive complacency in Christianity. It would be hard to read axiom 31, for example, in light of many committed Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians who hang on the word of their theologians, or for a negative example in light of those who hang on the word of popular theologians like John Piper or Michael Horton. As a result, I can’t affirm that the answer is to destroy theology, but to present a theological alternative, considering church folks really do consider theology. The church, in Bryant’s view, is surprisingly not sociological it appears, considering one could place the same criticisms on science, philosophy, etc., since the average person does not seem to take those insights into consideration either. The church or any other gathering of people cannot be a barometer for ejecting disciplines. He is right to say theologians are seldom reflective of a church community’s actual beliefs; what’s wrong with this? We have the sociologists for that. Theologians are not descriptive of popular belief, as sociologists, but attempt to be prescriptive, offering new blood or new horizons on which to think. Theology is pointless, of course, if it never reaches the masses in a way that is understandable, which has been my criticism of things like alleged “radical theology,” which is usually a circlejerk.

So to summarize:

There is still much to gain from dialogue with committed materialists, and considering Christianity’s roots in the terrifying affirmation of existence in the Hebrew Scriptures I think there is actually more in common than either side initially thinks. It is impossible, however, to fully identify with a materialist nihilism and remain a Christian, a point which Bryant and I will always agree, and which I am happy to use against the likes of Caputo. I was surprised to find myself defending theology, considering I regularly work against it, but perhaps this is a case of keeping one’s house in order–criticizing theologians when one is in the company of theologians, coming to their rescue when they are unfairly maligned. One wonders if the discussion between religion and the materialists would have to look similar to interreligious dialogue, much like those found among the fruits of the Kyoto School. I’m still interested in what Bryant has to say about ontology, metaphysics, etc., even though I would apparently be treated with disdain or ignored, despite the fact that positing “meaning” or something “supernatural” looks quite different from place to place. Out of everything in axioms, that is probably the most wounding and surprising. It is here where I suppose I would have to side with the more epistemologically humble Transgressive Realism of Braver against Bryant’s bracketing of all theological insights.

I have written a follow-up to this post here.

[edit: grammar]

This entry was posted in Continental Philosophy, Franz Rosenzweig, John D. Caputo, Kyoto School, Levi Bryant, Metaphysics, Philosophers, Philosophy, Radical Theology, Realism and Anti-Realism, Religion, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Levi Bryant’s “Axioms for a Dark Ontology,” Wherein I Somehow Found Myself Defending Theology

  1. Pingback: Further Thoughts on Dark Ontology and Religion | Larval Subjects .

  2. Pingback: Caputo’s The Insistence of God I: Preliminary Remarks | Re(-)petitions

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