One of my courses this fall is on what’s called Kierkegaard’s ‘second authorship,’ which begins, more or less, with A Literary Review—a very long review, about a hundred pages, of a contemporary novel. It’s a really enjoyable read, and actually very suggestive as a genre: he manages to portray the details and spirit of the novel really well, at the same time as he spins out some interesting philosophical threads he sees reflected in the action. For those interested writing ‘constructive commentaries,’ who, like me, prefer to think within the thinking of another, the form of this book is a really interesting example.
Anyway, here’s one amusing snippet. The novel being reviewed tells two stories of two families belonging to two ages, and part of K’s procedure is to specify the general spirit of each age—’The Age of Revolution’ and ‘The Present Age.’
As against the age of revolution, which acted, the present age is the age of advertisement, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens, but what does happen is instant notification. An uprising in the present age is the most unthinkable of all; such a show of energy would strike the calculating sensibleness of the age as ludicrous. A political virtuoso, on the other hand, might be able to perform a feat of artistry that was amazing in quite another way. He could word an invitation, proposing a general meeting for the purpose of deciding on a revolution, so carefully that even the censor would have to pass it. And then on the evening in question he could give the gathering an impression so deceptive that it seemed as thought they had achieved the uprising; whereupon they would disperse quite peacefully, having spent a very pleasant evening. (62)
Or another, more relevant selection:
A profound religious renunciation of the world, and of what is of the world, adhered to in daily self-denial, would be unthinkable to the youth of our time; yet every second theology graduate would be virtuoso enough to do something far more marvellous: he would be able to propose a social foundation with no less a goal than to save all who are lost. The age of great and good actions is past; the present age is the age of anticipation. (ibid.)
In 2005, Slavoj Zizek contributed an essay to a volume entitled The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology. The essay was called “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence.” In it, he offers what could be (or could have been) a very important corrective of Levinas’ ethical and political thought. And yet, the argument ultimately falls apart both because of, and in spite of, Hegel. Let me try to explain.
First, the genuine potential: Zizek argues, promisingly, that Levinas’ deferral of politics (i.e., institutions of justice and the countless others which they represent apart from face-to-face encounter) to a moment subsequent to ethics (i.e., the relation of responsibility which is mediated by the face-to-face encounter) is too neat. In short, phenomenologically, “the Third [the abstract, political alterity of law] is not secondary; it is always already here . . . ” (182).
But in addition to affirming the equiprimordiality of ethics and politics, Zizek corrects Levinas in another important way, by recalling Primo Levi’s repeated use of the term “faceless” to describe the Muselmaenner who have become symbolic of the powerful dehumanization wrought by the Shoah (161). There is a sense in which ethics cannot always rely on an encounter with a face that is immediately disclosive of humanity. Or, in Zizek’s words, “what if it is precisely in the guise of the ‘faceless’ face of a Muselmann that we encounter the Other’s call at its purest and most radical? . . . . What if . . . we restore to the Levinasian ‘face’ all its monstrosity: face is not a harmonious Whole of the dazzling epiphany of a ‘human face,’ face is something the glimpse of which we get when we stumble upon a grotesquely distorted face, a face in the grip of a disgusting tic or grimace, a face which, precisely, confronts us when the neighbor ‘loses his face’” (162)? One could easily read this passage in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque, in stories such as “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
And yet, Zizek seems to take a false turn, both by following Hegel too closely and by not following him enough. In the first place, Zizek, like Hegel, sublates Jewish and Christian thought into a modern philosophical narrative which reduces them to sequential, provisional, dialectically positioned stages of a historical progression of spirit (187-8). Secondly, and perhaps even more problematically, Zizek departs from the Hegelian methodological principle of “speculative identity,” which Zizek himself endorses (187), in order to posit a rootless (and ruthless) justice which is liberated from its “contingent umbilical link that renders it ‘embedded’ in a particular situation” (184). Somehow, Zizek thinks it is okay to promote a massively abstract dualism between universal justice and particularly rooted justice, which Hegel’s principle by no means allows. In short, Zizek appropriates the problematic narrative structure of Hegel, while rejecting, in one crucial instance, something which Hegel actually seems to get right: namely, that justice is necessarily embodied in and shaped by the concrete forms of community.
Ultimately, it seems one could correct Levinas in certain respects, as Zizek does, without following him along these more unsavory paths.
For those who have taken to heart the works of Jean-Luc Marion–or Martin Heidegger, for that matter–it goes without saying that the history of the concept of being, particularly of the univocal concept of being which begins to gain prominence after Scotus, has been detrimental to theology. I do not dispute this claim. But I do wonder to what extent it has, over the years, become a cliche. At least, it strikes me that more time could be spent thinking about why this claim might be true than simply reiterating it as something obvious.
It bears remembering, for instance, that for Scotus and Suarez, to say that being is, at least in one respect, univocal is not to imply that God and creatures are the same. God’s being is infinite, simple, absolute, necessary; ours is finite, composite, relative, contingent. But the fact that we use the word “being” in each case suggests that something unites these radically dissimilar . . . . what can one even call them?–realities? beings?–language breaks down here. But in order to go on speaking, a provision will have to be made, and the concept of being could be read precisely as such a provision.
But if God and creatures are not the same, then has not God been reduced to an element within a larger horizon, and thereby dethroned? This objection would also be hard to sustain for Scotus and Suarez, insofar as God is nothing other than the simple fullness of being, upon which all other beings depend. The same question, moreover, could be repeated with respect to any alternative name that is used theologically: e.g., love, beauty, goodness, grace, holiness, power. Any divine name comes with the risk of subordinating God to a concept, but this is certainly not Scotus’ or Suarez’s intention, even though they have recourse to concepts.
Is the problem, then, that scholastic writing in general is not overtly prayerful? Is it that scholastic theology is divorced from spirituality? Perhaps. And yet, how can we be sure that the appearance of such a divorce does not stem from a failure of interpretation on our part? After all, Suarez was a devout Jesuit; Scotus was a faithful Franciscan. Arguably, their religiously vowed lives indicate the influence of an admirable spiritual practice. Who is to say that their theological systems did not emerge out of daily participation in the liturgy of the hours or (at least in Suarez’s case) the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius?
I, myself, have a preference for speaking of being in more explicitly analogical terms, because I think that this preserves the God-creature difference more effectively. And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether a relatively uninformed prejudice has started to inform our assessment of the great representatives of scholasticism.
This fall I will be teaching the introduction to the Theology course here at Notre Dame to 70 first year students. One of the main goals of the course is to introduce students to Theology as a mode of reflection, faith seeking understanding. On the first or second day of class I want to discuss the central aims of theology as it reflects upon the Bible, history, contemporary questions, etc. Theologians obviously have all sorts of goals in mind as they develop their theological vision but I will suggest that virtually all contemporary theologians aim to be: 1) faithful to Christian revelation; 2) intelligible within one’s context; 3) concretely liberating and responsive to contemporary concerns and suffering.
These goals are universally present in theology even as what each one means and how to configure the three together is endlessly contested and contestable. Indeed, at the danger of oversimplification, the shorthand of many theological disagreements comes down to these three aims: Balthasar worries that Rahner risks fidelity in the search for intelligibility; critics of Balthasar often argue that his theology fails on the second and third as he seeks to be faithful to revelation; the CDF’s critique of Liberation Theology argues that the latter fails with the criterion of fidelity in a desire for the third (the CDF’s worry about Marxism) and to a lesser extent the second. Of course, these three aims are never this separable: if Balthasar does indeed fail with the second and third, it is highly unlikely he is actually faithful to the Gospel; likewise, the CDF argues that liberation theologians undermine their goal of concrete liberation if a faulty view of history and anthropology is adopted.
Are there other aims as basic as these? Or would others describe them differently?
A nice piece alongside Rahner’s:
How strange it all seems to us! We know nothing of the way the cosmos, of which our earth is a part, is related to a heaven that occupies no localized position. Is not God everywhere?…we wonder why it is important to attribute such an improbable privilege to the Mother of Jesus, to assert that her body does not belong to the dust from which it was made, like everyone else’s, but – as the old legends depict it – is supposed to have disappeared from its grave, to the amazement of the assembled disciples, leaving roses blooming on the sarcophagus. Let us press the point: we may be believing Christians, but we hardly know anything about the relationship between death and resurrection. It is a brutal fact that we have before us a dead body, and it must go into the earth or into the fire. Another fact, an uplifting one, is that the Christian lives in the hope of being kept safe in God’s hands after his death; but how, in concrete terms, can we envisage this?…
What, therefore, is the Church celebrating today? That a simple human body, inseparably united to its soul, is capable of being the perfect response to God’s challenge and of uttering the unreserved ‘Yes’ to his request. It is a single body – for everything in Christianity is always personal, concrete, particular – but at the same time it is a body that recapitulates all the faith and hope of Israel and of all men on earth. Consequently, when it is taken up into ultimate salvation, it contains the firm promise of salvation for all flesh that yearns for redemption. For all our bodies long to participate in our ultimate salvation by God: we do not want to appear before God as naked souls, ‘not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor 5:4); and God, who caused bodies to die, ‘subjecting creation to futility’, has subjected it ‘in hope’ that it ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom 8:20f). So we are celebrating a feast of hope; but, like all the New Testament feasts, it is celebrated on the basis of a fulfillment that has already taken place.; that is, not only has the Son of God been resurrected bodily – which in view of his life and death, is quite natural – but also has the body that made him man, the earthly realm that proved ready to receive God and that remains inseparable from Christ’s body. Today we see that this earth was capable of carrying and bringing to birth the infinite fruit that had been implanted in her. Today we celebrate the ultimate affirmation and confirmation of the earth.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons through the Liturgical Year, 186, 190-191.