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Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Antichrist

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.

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Ichneumonidae: Darwin’s theological dilemma and the rethinking of creation

Ichneumonidae: Darwin's theological dilemma and rethinking of creation

According to Darwin’s own confession, Ichneumonidae was the theological dilemma that would eventually push him toward agnosticism. He was bewildered by a natural order built on cruelty and pain. Ironically, Darwin’s blind spot was the evolution of the concept of God. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the concept of God did not emerge from admiration before a good creation. God was looked upon as the Liberator from a forbidding cosmic order. The Scientific Revolution was also contingent upon a theology that saw in science the instrument of divine liberation, rather than the contemplation of a perfect creation. The book traces the development of heterodox ideas within Christianity that, before Darwin, led to the concept of a self-creating cosmos and humanity, as a cosmic expression of the Incarnation, essential to free will and salvation.

The book can purchased from CreateSpace, Amazon, Kindle, or download PDF for free.

Amazing Grace, or the rise of Evangelical biopower

Two things happened in England in 1772. Judge William Murray concluded in Somerset v Stewart that a slave could not to be removed from England against his will. Secondly, John Newton composed Amazing Grace, his poetic confession. Newton had been a slave trader himself, before becoming an Anglican clergy, and, late in his life, an abolitionist. The two events are tips of the iceberg. They bridge below the waterline across the coalescing body of eighteenth-century biopower.

One should notice that neither Somerset v Stewart, nor Newton’s celebrated repentance, had any problem with slavery per se. Murray’s ruling  was exclusively founded on technical issues with the Common Law. Newton stopped cursing and drinking, and no longer neglected private devotion, but continued in slave trade after his conversion.

It is not difficult to see why the use of the moral argument would have set a dangerous precedent in court. After all, the debt prison was not better than slavery. Murray took also precautions with his language, as not to impede on slavery as such. However, how can we account for Newton’s blind spot on the wickedness of his trade?

The plain answer is that Amazing Grace marks in the realm of Religion what Somerset v Stewart did in that of in Law: a mutation in slave trade. I give credit for this definition to the Anglican theologian John Milbank. Below is the quote in full.

American conservative evangelical Christianity in its most recent modes is precisely a new mutation of the slave trade. Pursuit of profits and the salvation of souls becomes so seamlessly fused in the mode of a new ‘Church enterprise’ (involving huge material and abstract capital resources) that here effectively, the ‘born-again’ become themselves the produced, exchanged and capitalized commodities. A new evangelical church’s measure of success, both in spiritual and in financial terms, is precisely its ‘ownership’ of so many souls (and thereby indirectly bodies) or potential to own so many more souls. Of course the notion that these souls are really owned by Jesus, and so only held by men through a sort of proxy, is the alibi which ensures that this enslavement does not appear to be such.

John Newton’s conversion was the epitome of the emerging ‘born-again’ movement. According to the Catholic scholar Hans Kung, the core of the Evangelical movement consists in a form of  “emotional self-redemption”. It is the insulating subjectivity of the “born-again” experience that allows one to pay lip-service to Christ while worshiping Mammon.

Let’s consider this political/religious mutation in the context of historical evolution. The master/servant relationship has gone through three stages in human history. The first stage is slavery de jure. A person is the legal property of another person. In the second stage, serfdom, the master/servant relationship is mediated through the relationship of both to the land. The landlord owns the land, not the servant. However, the serf is a slave of his master de facto, as he is bound to the land de jure. The third stage is capitalism. The master/servant relationship is mediated through their relationship to money. The master owns the capital. The worker owns himself, but sells his/her time and skills to the master, because  life depends on salary.

Slavery was reintroduced in Christianity during the New World conquest. Serfdom was problematic in America for multiple reasons, one of them being the absence of feudal relations among the natives. The middle-ages peasant could be chained to the land because he had already been tied to it for generations. The lord and the serf shared in the same concept  of land-property. The natives had none of these.

Forced labor was a convenient option for the plantation owner, so it was enforced in court and sanctioned from the pulpit. However, forced labor was problematic with capitalism, which needed free labor movement. Somerset v Stewart reflects  the challenge on the legal system to reconcile colonial slavery with capitalism. It acquiescence in slavery while upholding free labor movement. The tension is even more clear in America.

Wall Street was established in 1711 in New York as the city’s first slave market.  In a few decades, it evolved into the New York Stock & Exchange Board, known today as the New York Stock Exchange. The ultra-capitalist Wall Street continued to thrive on speculations with cotton and cane sugar from slave labor, even after slavery was officially ended in the northern states. The first Capitol building, where the passing of the Bill Of Rights took place, was also located in Wall Street.

It is at the same time that we witness the birth of Evangelical biopower.

Michel Foucault coined the term biopower for power that makes all life its object. Biopower is a modern phenomenon. Premodern societies, even the most tyrannical and inquisitorial, lacked control over the body. Modern power, however, trends toward the systematic surveillance and policing of biological life.

In his work Truth and Juridical Forms, Foucault sets forth the thesis that certain English sects in the seventeenth century were precursors and served as models for modern biopolitics. Foucault contends that knowledge of juridical truth empowered the upper classes in the seventeenth century England to subject the commoners to arbitrary punishments and confiscate their assets. Religious dissents were particularly targeted.

In order to preempt legal actions against their own people, the Independents developed strict self-policing and surveillance practices. Every member in the congregation was expected to spy on all parishioners, and be spied himself by all of them. Private life was open to public scrutiny by the congregation.

Such self-policing movements became a valuable asset for the upper classes during the industrial revolution. Urban migration generated the need for new  forms of mass control. Living at minimum wage, thrown cyclically into temporary unemployment, often disabled by work accidents, the urban proletariat became an epitome for alcoholism and amoral behavior. Even worse, it became the favorite recipient of radical ideas, like socialism or communism.

Mass revivals and street evangelism were strongly encouraged and never in lack of generous funding. Abstinence and tranquility in domestic life were presented as the marks of being born again. The church was also a safety network for the unemployed and the sick. To this effect, it had to inspect the lives of the new converts, to see if they were sufficiently frugal and modest to qualify for help.

Religious surveillance and self-policing proved more financially convenient than government-sponsored programs. Apocalyptic thinking was also seen as an antidote against socialism and syndicalist radicalism. All in all, revivalism was both a way to combat social ills, and a political instrument for the control of the working class. It was under such circumstances that religious biopower became a model for modern biopolitics.

The phantoms of Ukrainian freedom-fighters haunt Europe

A specter is haunting Europe again. This time it doesn’t show up as a topless woman with a gun in one hand and a red flag in the other. Well, the topless woman might still be there, but  the specter puts the face of an WW II veteran, with cossack mustache and wearing a Waffen SS cap. Ukraine has become an unsolvable dilemma for liberal democracy. Whether Europe lets Putin have his way, or incorporates an uncontrollable revisionist movement, the outcome will be the same: challenging the moral consensus on which the present is built.

This moral/political consensus consists briefly in the concept that WW II was manichean conflict between a mad Axis and the Allied forces of good. However, there’s a lot of thrash swept under the red carpet (carpet bombing comes to mind) walked by the WW II victors, and there is lot of innocent blood on the other side.

During WW II, the nations of Eastern Europe faced the inescapable  dilemma of choosing between Hitler and Stalin. One was no better than the other, but, under the circumstances, Stalin fought on the good side (sort of). However, Eastern Europe could not afford the luxury of a philosophical perspective. To the common peasant, the difference between the German soldier and the Red Army soldier was that the former did not pillage and rape (Hollywood history notwithstanding). To the business man, Germany meant fair trade agreements. To the generals, fighting along the Germans meant good strategy. The intellectual admired Kant, but considered Machiavelli. For what is worth, the Allied proved themselves equally machiavellian when dealing with Stalin the fate of Eastern Europe postbellum.

Ukraine is the biggest skeleton in the closet. During WW II, Ukraine was an occupied nation humiliated by Russian crypto-nationalism. Its once reach peasantry had experienced mass starvation and terror with the imposition of kolchoz economy. People perceived Operation Barbarossa as an unique chance to liberate themselves. After the victory, the Ukrainian (excuse my word) freedom-fighters turned themselves to the Allied to be, perhaps, prosecuted and tried by western standards. They were sent back to Stalin to be tortured and executed along with their families. It is the phantoms of these soldiers that are haunting now the Euromaidan.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to follow the example of Hamlet. Talk to the phantoms. Let the dead talk to us. “Time is out of joint”. “Something is rotten in Europe”. Let the dark secrets come back to life and shatter the self-righteousness of our moral order. Let Europe, the not so innocent Queen, face her shame, like Gertrude in Hamlet:

Gertrude: Hamlet, you split my heart in two.

Hamlet: Then throw away the worse part. Live with the pure.