Levi Bryant was kind enough to mention my discussion of his 41 axioms for dark ontology in a new post developing his thoughts on religion. His new post provides a broader context for his axioms, which he says are probably better considered “theses” or part of a manifesto. I think this edit is appropriate, as it seems to make his 41 statements a little more plastic. In providing this context, Bryant brings up quite a few interrelated and interlocking issues with regard to religion, which is to be expected considering the incredible difficulty present in talking about “religion” at all. I have decided, however, to isolate a few themes and comment on them. It is my ultimate hope that those committed to not only analyzing but also practicing religious dispositions would be able to draw from realist discussions without animosity, as I would echo Rosenzweig’s comments on philosophy and theology as being fundamentally co-dependent, whether we like it or not (N.B.: this is different from, say, Schmitt’s analysis in that Rosenzweig’s is prescriptive with regard to the New Thinking, while Schmitt’s is descriptive with regard to political theology, but this is for another time). There are two common threads in the items I’ve isolated. The first is that they all involve taking things seriously, that is, not backing down from the strong claims made in particular avenues of thought and, especially, seeing them through with consequences for things like philosophy and theology. The second is that there appears to be a deeply ethical motivation at the bottom of these which gives rise to a necessary ontology, rather than the other way around (I think this is exactly the case for Christianity, as well). The themes I’ve identified are the following: (1) the implications of the “death of God” in a truly Nietzschean formulation, (2) the real and present problems posed by science (especially biology and medicine), and (3) the considering of religion primarily through social-scientific and demythologized methods (as opposed to engaging with “beliefs” or rational arguments). I will briefly discuss each in turn.
1. The Implications of the Death of God
The thing I have appreciated most about the realist renaissance of late is its unwavering honesty. This is what separates the kind of atheism espoused by many in the realist camp from that espoused by those involved in the “New Atheism” (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.)–the continental realists are willing to admit the abyss and face its accompanying nihilism. I’m reminded of Adam Kotsko’s recent tweets:
The New Atheism: All the evils in the world stem from people not sharing my opinion on metaphysical issues.
The New Atheism: This life is all we get, and it’s too short to let yourself miss the opportunity to deride people who think differently.
The New Atheism: Once we realize there’s no God, we see that all we have to cling to is our own unearned sense of self-importance.
Those who take the death of God seriously have no qualms putting such attitudes to rest (some better than others, of course). Bryant is courageous enough to own up to the problems this raises, and that deserves a commendable word.
The death of God does not only affect materialists, of course. It affects believers as well. In Christian philosophy, especially in America, we have seen several answers falling into basically two categories. Some have attempted to move through the death of God to a post-theological articulation of “God,” a la Thomas Altizer, Mark C. Taylor, etc., which amounts to the kind of poetic or symbol analysis that Bryant has been arguing against recently (an argument I am sympathetic toward). Others have suggested the death of God is merely the death of a particular god, an idolatrous god, and allows for the emergence of God in philosophy now that we have removed the high places of the Enlightenment and pagan metaphysics, so to speak. In this second category, we have further divisions, some more satisfactory than others. Radical Orthodoxy, for example, has sought to see this as an opportunity to re-establish a theological imperialism in its worst formulations and a resurrection of medieval metaphysics with the dethroning of modernity in its best. I find this approach wanting, however, as I think John Milbank, for example, is guilty of refusing to face many of the gritty realities involved with the death of God, even if the God that dies is not the true God (his dialogue with Slavoj Zizek is helpful here). I am more prone to agree with some voices who have, for whatever reason, died out in popularity in the last hundred years, voices I have sought to give a new platform to on this blog (Berdyaev, Rosenzweig, and Shestov, for example, and I would include the explicitly religious version of Kierkegaard as well). These kinds of thinkers are unified in their assertion that God communicates to us via revelation, which is specifically unpredictable and ultimately cosmological, rather than purely anthropocentric (though it clearly has consequences for humans precisely because humans are part of the cosmos).
Given the alternative reading of the death of God, I think there is much in common with Bryant’s vision of the world and ontology than one might initially think. Of course, such an attempt is nothing new–Christians have a habit of seeing truth in pagan thoughts precisely because Christian theology is rhizomic, not static. I do not desire to assimilate Bryant’s ontology into Christianity, as I find these kinds of correlations unhelpful (it is also my problem with Tillich, for example, which has given rise to phenomena like Caputo’s “weak theology”). Instead, I find Bryant’s honesty and decision to take certain conclusions about the world seriously to be incredibly refreshing and liberating, especially for Christian philosophy which has been for so long stuck in the clutches of a certain paradigm which only allows Christianity to exist as long as it removes all of its ontological and actual claims about the world (except in cases like Merold Westphal, who is an exception to the rule, it seems, though not without his own capitulations and problems). I say this to suggest that there may be a third way to view the death of God, one that is true to the problems inherent in the kind of world that no longer has God as its glue and yet takes the revelation of God seriously as a means of de-centering the human being, consciousness, theology and philosophy, etc. I don’t expect Bryant to convert (at least, not yet–one can always pray), but I do think there is a kind of religious thought that can emerge which might be more palatable to someone like Bryant (and myself, for that matter).
2. The Real and Present Problems Posed by Science
As I mentioned above, Bryant’s honesty is helpful, and taking the death of God seriously means taking materialism seriously, which has to mean taking science seriously (otherwise materialism, and thinking in general, is completely irrelevant). There is an obvious charge that Christians are guilty of eschewing all scientific thought because it really does force us to reformulate our thoughts on some basic dogmatic assertions (what the heck is a soul anyway?!). This is a charge that is valid, and a sin that Christians need to do some epistemological repenting of as soon as possible.
That said, it’s not the case that Christians have ignored science altogether. John Polkinghorne, for example, has done an excellent job not only taking science seriously (having discovered the quark and all that), but also figuring out what kind of implications that has for theology (as has Hans Kung). He has gone as far as to tackle the same question of Ray Brassier, for example, the extinction of the universe, in relation to eschatology. So I don’t want to beat up on Christians too badly, at least at an academic level, but it’s certainly fair to suggest the general populace needs to take science more seriously.
At the same time, science needs to back off its own imperialism and self-righteousness, which Bryant agrees with, especially considering his background. This doesn’t need much expanding, then, other than to once again echo Rosenzweig with regard to science and the religious.
3. Considering Religion Primarily through Social-Scientific and Demythologized Methods
This third item is difficult to comment on because there is so much Bryant gets right, but what is right is misdirected in an attack on religion. I’m not sure why I’m so into enumerating points all of a sudden, but I want to discuss three particular items in Bryant’s post, hopefully not losing too much in the funneling process. But first, a caveat. I think it must be said that Bryant and I have both been using the term “religion,” but have actually been talking about Christianity. For example, many of our comments are totally moot in the face of, say, Buddhism, especially of the kind the Kyoto School would defend, which stands firmly against anthropocentrism explicitly and also seeks to overcome nihilism via nihilism. That said, Christianity shares much in common with the Kyoto Buddhists (at their own admission), and as such I think Bryant’s critique misses the mark with regard to religion in general and Christianity in particular. On to the three items. First, Bryant seems to consider religion as primarily escapist and hostile toward material reality. Second, Bryant sees religion as a dangerously anthropocentric project which only serves to bolster the problems we currently face in the domains of ecology. Third, religion is presented as a sociological phenomenon that individuals are more or less unreflective on, at least with regard to what is known as “theology,” and is therefore more about social bonds than subjective thinking or existence. I’ll discuss each in turn.
This first dismissal from Bryant, that Christianity is most concerned with the afterlife and an upward removal from worldly existence, is surprising. Certainly Christian theology has been guilty of this in its history, and experience bears this out, but Christianity itself emerges as a religion fundamentally concerned with protecting the legitimacy of creation against those that would deny it. One of the earliest groups to be labeled “heretics” were the Gnostics, whose devaluing of material creation was combated by the doctrine of Incarnation and the goodness of the material world. Many Christian groups also continue to not only affirm the goodness of creation, but deeply defend it, most especially the Orthodox Christians and the neo-Reformational strands coming out of Amsterdam (see especially Herman Dooyeweerd, whose “sphere sovereignty” and ontology is eerily close to recent realist conversations, and also Jamie Smith’s earlier Deleuzean sensibilities in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy). As such, while it’s true that many Christian groups are definitely guilty of the criticism Bryant offers, a criticism I would share, it is not true that this is a necessary and fundamental quality inherent to Christianity (and especially religion). If anything, it is simply a resurgence of one of the most basic heresies first attacked by the early church.
The second dismissal, that Christianity and religion are too anthropocentric, is similarly problematic. In fact, I would go as far as to make the argument that religion is fundamentally opposed to anthropocentrism, that it is exactly anthropocentrism that religion tries to root out, and while it fails at doing this (even fails often), it is still its goal. Bryant targets the doctrine of individual salvation as an example of a deeply rooted narcissism and anthropocentrism in Christianity–and he’s right! But this is not the fundamental idea that Christianity has in mind with regard to salvation. The salvation brought about by Christ is for the whole world. It is cosmological in scope, and we see examples of this in the Scriptures (creation’s groaning for redemption is quite amenable, I think, to ecological concerns). While Christianity does indeed have as its goal a liberation of the human being, this is not the Christian message in its totality (Bryant would find a conversation with an Orthodox priest to be quite a different story than the individualistic models he has encountered). At the same time, human beings are part of the cosmos, and we should expect that Christianity would have something to say about them–subjective liberation is just as important as the liberation of the world from its own self-destruction. This is why Christianity is so important in the march toward ecological and political concerns–Jesus severely inverts the ego choosing instead a life of servitude and humility over militaristic messianism. The kind of life Christ invites us into, which Bryant seems to understand completely in his comments on the message of Christ, can and is implemented by the Church. Problematically for an analysis of this authenticity, it requires that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, and it demands that prayer be done in secret.
As to the final problem, that Christianity and religion are sociological objects rather than epistemological ones, I may be so bold as to say Bryant wants to have his cake and eat it too. Is religion anthropocentric, wherein the subject learns about herself and becomes a believer in the fairy tale of transcendent escapism allowing her to destroy creation? Or is religion a kind of inherent groupthink, or at best a casual cultural given with all the baggage of other casual cultural givens, wherein religion is pretty much irrelevant and therefore not worth combating at an intellectual level, since no one actually “believes” it anyway and our time could be better spent analyzing more important assemblages? To this I have to say that Christianity, like everything else, is a complex network of things, ideas, beliefs, traditions, reforms, progressions, orthodoxies, heresies, etc. Like most other things in nature, it is difficult to pin down an actual essence, especially considering all of its virtualities. For this reason, I am surprised Bryant does not consider the church the way he considers nature–the problem with his analysis, ironically, is that it is not sociological enough. While the Christian Church has indeed been guilty of choosing worldly interests, we must not consider this to be indicative of its actual activity, message, or mission, nor its latent creative power, just as I wouldn’t see the ridiculous personalities of Dawkins or Hitchens to be indicative of some kind of “essential” quality of materialism (a sociological analysis of materialism and atheism is equally as helpful, for these, too, are social assemblages). For every Constantine there is a St. Anthony; for every corrupt Pope there is a Daniel Berrigan; for every George W. Bush there is a Shane Claiborne. Further, I think Bryant puts too much stock in religion as a kind of naive practice. Many church-goers I speak with, especially evangelicals, are actually quite concerned with right doctrine and biblical preaching, which they discern via hermeneutical frameworks–and it is actually the desire to champion theology that is so destructive. Bryant is fighting on the wrong front; what we need, instead of theological answers, is existential examples (for this reason I have been drawn to figures like Toyohiko Kagawa).
These criticisms deserve a few general comments. Bryant’s comments appear to reflect a culturally conditioned experience with Christianity, namely, American evangelicalism, and ignore the breadth of historical and global expressions of a very complex religion. That said, Bryant and I are agreed on almost every single point in his criticism–yes, escapism is bad. Anthropocentrism is bad. Narcissistic models of salvation are bad. Ignoring science is bad. It is precisely for all these reasons that I am a Christian. I’m not saying Christianity is the only way to defeat these ills–Bryant’s method has promise, which is why I’m so interested in it, and also why I have taken so much time here to present a defense of the Christian religion. I want to be allowed to work with Bryant and remain a Christian who really does believe in Christianity’s ontological claims about the world, and for that very reason agrees with Bryant’s ontological claims about the world. I may have come off hostile here or there, but it is only in the interest of ultimately being friends. I am reminded of the introduction to Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity, where he discusses being barred from membership to Guy Debord’s anarchy clubs because of his faith–which spurred him to write the book legitimizing Christianity’s anarchism not to prove Debord wrong, but to show that there is more room for them to be co-workers than one initially thought.
Of course, for us to be co-workers, it will have to be admitted that the religious might not be so irrelevant, worthy of disdain and being ignored, after all. Perhaps theologians aren’t so bad (the right kinds, anyway). It is here where Bryant’s materialism can be different from the New Atheists–every time I speak with a New Atheist disciple, I repeat over and over “But you don’t have to hate all Christians! We can work together to root out the legitimate problems in Christianity and religion in general, not to its destruction but to its healing!” And of course, this never comes. But Bryant is smarter than that, and I pray he might see responsible Christian (and religious) thought as signs of possible co-laborers, rather than exotic sociological phenomena or people who haven’t caught up with the death of God.
With that, I leave with a quote from psychologist Eric Fromm, which I found on Richard Beck’s blog a while back. Perhaps we might engage in a common fight against a common enemy–idolatry:
[T]he principle shared by all radical humanists is that of negating and combating idolatry in every form and shape–idolatry, in the prophetic sense of worshiping the work of one’s own hands and hence making man subservient to things, in this process becoming a thing himself. The idols against which the Old Testament prophets fought were idols in wood and stone, or trees and hills; the idols of our day are leaders, institutions, especially the State, the nation, production, law and order, and every man-made thing. Whether or not one believes in God is a question secondary to whether or not one denies idols. The concept of alienation is the same as the Biblical concept of idolatry. It is man’s submission to the things of his creation and to the circumstances of his doing. Whatever may divide believers and non-believers, there is something which unites them if they are true to their common tradition, and that is the common fight against idolatry and the deep conviction that no thing and no institution must ever take the place of God…