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Contemplative clouds: a site of solitude or subjectivity?

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing asserts that his work depends on Dionysius “from beginning to end” (ch. 70).  The influence is obvious, but perhaps not as complete as the Cloud author suggests.  As much as it draws on the patristic tradition of mystical theology, this text already seems to be moving away from it, toward a more proto-modern mode of mysticism and the isolated or buffered subject of modernity which such mysticism foretells. 

Not yet at the extreme of Descartes’ methodological doubt or Husserl’s phenomenological epoche, the contemplative prayer advocated by this English mystic nevertheless involves a certain bracketing.  On the one hand, God is to be sought exclusively through the “cloud of unknowing,” which is a barrier to knowledge that is nevertheless permeable by divine love, or grace.  On the other hand, there is the “cloud of forgetting,” which detaches the contemplative from all sensations, images, and thoughts of people or things existing in the created world (ch. 5).  Now, clouds are not walls.  There is a certain degree of porousness implied by the metaphor.  And yet, the image of these clouds does encourage the prayerful soul to cultivate a profound sense of isolation from concrete reality in order to draw nearer to the God who nevertheless remains ever distant, thinkable only as “nothing” or “all,” approachable only from “nowhere” (chs. 68-9).  The clouds act like buffers, leaving the self prayerful but abstracted.  Soon, the prayers will cease but the abstraction will remain. 

That having been said, modern subjectivity having been identified for the problematic and contingent occurrence that it is, an open question remains concerning the potential value of this sort of spiritual practice.  The theme of solitude, more positive in connotation, could be developed here.  And it could be pointed out that such cloudily enclosed contemplation is meant to attract others to the grace of God, through the change in spiritual and physical appearance which it brings about in the practioner (ch. 54).  Ultimately, this contemplative prayer is, in its effects, both social and bodily–two qualities which we postmoderns demand.  And yet, ought not these qualities condition prayer itself, and not only its outcomes?  Or ought they not (at least not in the heights of contemplation)?  This question, to me, seems as important and perplexing today, as ever.  Must there be aloneness with the Alone, or is this precisely that which a prayerful encounter with the living God seeks to subvert?

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The church is a collective subject

February 14, 2010 21 comments

Halden Doerge spun out a provocative series of posts last week on the image of the church as the body of Christ. His main contention throughout was that “what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church.” From what I can tell, Halden’s objection to speaking of the church as “one body” with Christ stems from two related concerns: (1) to maintain Jesus’ position as mediator as unique to his historical person, and (2) to avoid rendering the church as a static, coherent “subject” such as could stand in as mediator. The latter seems especially problematic to him in that it divinizes the church understood as a static collective, leaving it in some sense immune to criticism. This is how “the body of Christ” can become an ideological concept.

This is a pretty perceptive analysis, in my opinion—but I think Halden locates the hinge in the wrong place. It’s not the concept of subjective unity that twists the image in an ideological direction, but the portrayal of the subject as static. Notice that in his most direct argument that the church is not a collective subject, the points of criticism tend toward the conclusion that there can be no such thing as a collective subject at all. Collectives are always constituted by a “nexus of relationships.” Because the church always takes the form of of mutual self-giving in love, it’s an “event” rather than a subject. But what does that assume about subjects? Can’t an individual subject, too, be described as a kind of nexus of inner relationships that require dynamic ordering if she is to stay sane, to act as one?

The problem isn’t with the idea of collective subjectivity itself. We live constantly as members of collective subjects, subjects that are more or less fractured, and more or less authoritarian. The problem is with a particular idea of what it means to be a unified subject: denying the “event” character of subjectivity itself, and portraying the subject as self-contained. (This kind of subject, whether individual or collective, is inevitably tyrannical.) Do away with a static, self-contained concept of subjectivity with respect to Christ, too, and Christ’s sole mediation need not preclude a participation in his unique personal identity—it could even be said that the specific form of Christ’s mediation is our inclusion in him as a collective subject. The uniqueness of Christ is precisely that he, unlike other historical figures, is an individual and collective subject at the same time.

This is all very schematic and impressionistic, I know. Bear with me.