Ludwig Wittgenstein defined the meaningless and the inevitability of God-talk in one and the same statement: “The sense of the world must lie outside the world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.41). The sense of life, the world as a whole – in one word – God, is unsayable. “In the world everything is as it tis, and everything happens as it does happen, in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (ibid). On the flip side, every statement of meaning and value, even the most trivial, is ultimately theological. This is even more true with statements and concepts concerning the exercise of power.
I will I will pick two such concepts, one from psychology, the other from international politics, to argue my point. The concept of self-actualisation, was introduced by Kurt Goldstein for the search of realizing one’s full potential. It has been used ever since by various schools of psychology, and made popular by self-help gurus. Another concept is self-determination. The latter has become normative in international relations since WW II. Less well-known is the fact that, whenever we employ these concepts, we operate with Aristotelian/Thomistic theology.
According to the Greek philosopher, actuality (ἐντελέχεια) and potentiality (δύναμις), could never be applied to the same entity. Humans have potential, God is actuality, Actus Purus, unadulterated act. Even more, God is not concerned with us. If he were, he wouldn’t possess the quality of self-determination. That is to say that God’s perfect mind cannot be moved by a thirteen years old girl being raped and stoned in Somalia. Yet human rights activists commenting the atrocity will uphold the universal right to “self-actualisation”, regardless of religion and gender, while acquiescing, in the same breath, that countries where such things happen have a basic right to ‘self-determination”, and should not be imposed alien values. How did we come to reconcile Aristotle’s Absolute Being with the misery and wickedness of humanity?
The paradox originates in the theology of St. Paul. It is the concept of Incarnation that brings together God’s actuality and human potentiality in Christ. Playing with Wittgenstein’s terms, the Cross is both a fact and the totality of facts. The sense of life manifests itself through God’s entering the cycle of birth and death.
It is this theological statement that enabled Aquinas to argue against Aristotle’s contention that God does not mind humanity. “We must say therefore that God knows not only that things are in him, but, by the fact that they are in him, he knows them in their own nature, and all the more perfectly, the more perfectly each one is in him”. His answer can be interpreted in two ways. In one sense, God knows about the girl in Somalia in him. God remains the Unmoved Mover, i.e., he knows but he is not moved by what he knows. God is here the UN inspector, neutralizing atrocity in political cliches and statistics. Yet in another sense, God knows tragedy in its own nature, that is, from the perspective of the cross, which is also the angle of the teen girl. God is, in this case, the revolutionary hero that raises above history and dominates it, in the name, and for the sake of its victims.
The first seeds of the secularisation of Incarnation theology have been planted during the Reformation. Erasmus contented against Luther’s “bondage of will” that God has transferred to humanity his self-determination at Creation. However, it was Luther himself who hit the nail on its head when he defined Christian freedom through the Cross rather than through Creation.
Luther made the individual believer be his/her own pope and the ultimate interpreter of faith. He also substituted secular “calling” to monasticism, and proclaimed the end of the “babylonian captivity” of ecclesiastical clericalism.
The German idealists continued to tent to the blade and the ear until they reached full corn in the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. With the latter, God dies in Christ to resurrect in humanity. The Supreme Being is immanent in history. God descends from abstract actuality into human potentiality, and returns to concret self-actualisation in humanity, through the process of history. Says Hegel: “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom”. Self-actualisation is thus implicit in human potentiality. Self-determination is implicit in the rattling of the chain.
It is worth noting the opposite trend of returning God to Aristotelian transcendence, taking place at the same time in Deism. Deism is the denial of God’s immanence in history. Theologically, it goes down to the denial of the Incarnation. This is also St. John’s definition of the Antichrist ”For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” (2 Jo 1,7). Politically, Deism is a return to Aristotelian polis-democracy, with its substantial division between citizen and slave, man and woman, Greek and barbarian.
However, the darkest side of polis-democracy was not slavery but the homo sacer “who can be killed but not offered as sacrifice”, the exclusion of bare life from the city. In other words, one could not claim any right to live, unless his/her life was qualified through belonging to social order. There was no intrinsic value recognized in humanity as such.
The Cross was God’s declaration of solidarity with homo sacer, the absolute valuation of human life outside society. “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb 13, 12-14). The Pauline gospel was the denial of the polis.
Nevertheless, it is the “ continuing city” as opposed to the seeking of “one to come” that constitutes the political core of Deism. According to Michael Bakunin, Deism is: “the reconciliation of Revolution with Reaction… the principle of liberty with that of authority, and naturally to the advantage of the latter… the deliberate submission of free reason to the eternal principles of faith”. Bakunin shows how the desistic Absolute Being of J.J. Rousseau provided the moral frame for Robespierre’s reign of terror, and for the modern worship of the state. One could add the American revolution to his examples. It was the Deism of the Founding Fathers that allowed them to reconcile the Declaration of Independence with slavery, and treat the Indians as homo sacer.
Deism defined God as the Great Watchmaker, and the universe as a perfect clock. William Paley was probably the best known advocate of this concept in natural theology. Every living species is in his view a perfectly designed machine. Contending against the lamarckian evolutionism of his time, Paley held the “argument from perfection”, the historical ancestor of the current “irreductible complexity” notion, used by the advocates of Intelligent Design. His argument will be mercilessly demolished by his brightest disciple, Charles Darwin.
The connection between natural theology and political theology in Deism is seen the anecdote about Napoleon’s innuendo to Laplace about the absence of God in his Mécanique Céleste. Laplace’s infamous answer – “I had no need of that hypothesis” – was tamed by his biographers and eulogists to mean that the solar system was a perfect clock that needed not being unwind from time to time by God. Actually, what he had no need of was the clock and the watchmaker hypothesis. He had the nebular hypothesis. He believed that the universe has evolved. And this was a political problem.
The watchmaker hypothesis in natural theology implies perfect design in nature. Transferred to the realm of politics, it implies a natural order which is perfect. The divine right of kings is replaced with the divine right of nature. The rational state is supposed to preserve the natural order and natural rights.
This is, as I already said, a return to the polis, where the rights of the citizen coexisted with what was universally understood as natural inequality. On the other hand, the political genius of Paul consisted not in being free of such prejudices. He was certainly not. He believed in the natural right of master over slave, of husband over wife. He asserted the natural superiority of Jews. Yet he also proclaimed the end of the law, mosaic as well as natural, along with the universal reign of grace.
Th elite of the Roman empire believed in one God. Their God was defined by Stoic philosophers as identical with the Logos, the divine/natural order of the cosmos. It was their ultimate aim to align the world to the Logos. However, the elite knew that philosophy was not for the commons. This is why Rome patronised over a huge pantheon of gods. They despised pagan superstitions, but found them useful for social control. Nonetheless, they abhorred Christianity because it proclaimed the end of their natural/divine order.
Similarly, the elites of Europe and North America knew that Deism was not for the people. They believed at the same time that the old religion was still necessary, and, as Voltaire said, God had to be (re)invented. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the governments of Europe became strongly supportive of religion. Romanticism was a time of religious revival. God was probably not dead in Europe, but he was on intensive care. The church could not survive without the aid of the state.
Things went differently in America because the Founding Fathers were consistent Deists. They truly believed in the divine/natural order of society, and, like Rome, allowed their pantheon to be controlled by it. What is then this natural order, this perfect clock, initiated by the divine watchmaker and anointed to be his infallible vicar, his redeeming Messiah, and his guiding spirit, in society. It is definitely no longer the sword, or any revealed religion or holy book. IT IS THE FREE MARKET.
America saved religion by inventing the religion marked. It allowed the marked to choose, to eliminate, to invent, to import, and to export its goods-gods. This religious marked has become global.