Friday, April 29, 2011

Barth's and Zizek's little Hegeling: Dialectic with no Synthesis

Hegel is making a little comeback in some circles. He is an extraordinary thinker. However, most consider him the guy who collapses all differences into an all-encompassing identity. The post-structuralist philosophers attacked this Hegelian form where the dialectic started with a thesis then dealt with its antithesis only to become resolved by a synthesis. It is such a neat, tidy system.

Theologians have resisted the way Hegel seemed to move the act-being of God into a progressive movement within human consciousness (that erases transcendence). Barth had a professed love/hate relationship with Hegel. First, he admitted loving to do a little Hegeling. However, second, Barth ridicules Hegel for his bombastic attempt to encompass all thought to human reason. Most of Barth's commentators notice this love/hate relationship as well. Since Barth seemed to reject the modern tradition (which led into liberal theology) then he mostly has no place for Hegel.

Nevertheless, what if Slavoj Zizek is right that Hegel has no neat and tidy synthesis? Zizek writes that "far from being a story of its progressive overcoming, dialectics is for Hegel a systematic notation of the failure of all such attempts-- 'absolute knowledge' denotes a subjective position which finally accepts 'contradiction' as an internal condition of every identity. In other words, Hegelian 'reconciliation' is not a 'panlogicist' sublation of all reality in the Concept but a final consent to the fact that the Concept is 'not-all'." Here Zizek rejects the textbook presentation of Hegel that past thinkers like Kojeve presented.

What I claim is that as Zizek's Hegel leads to human knowledge that embraces negativity, does not Barth's veiled/unveiled dialectic lead to the same conclusion? Many of the commentators, in light of McCormack's work, note that Barth never did abandon his dialectic. Barth pronounces a dialectic Yes/No to all human thought. There is grace and judgment that must stay in tension. Thus, Barth rejects both a synthesis and a diastasis when it comes to philosophical/theological thought.

It is clear that Barth is not a deconstructionist in that there is still a veiled content to his theology supplied by the revelation of Christ, the Word of God. But even this supplied, external revelation is presented as a veiled/unveiled dialectic. So one can move forward in doing theology and philosophy but it will always have a pinch of negativity to it; I would say that there is only so much of the infinite that we the finite can take. Even when Barth moves ahead with his wonderful doctrine of election, which has grace at its center, he still must pronounce a No to the way we have handled this calling or tried to cover over this grace with structures of the No-God.

So, when commentators write that Barth's dialectic is not Hegelian because it does not have a synthesis, one might reply that Zizek's Hegel might be closer to Barth than he would have liked. In short, when Barth wrote that Hegel is the Protestant Thomas Aquinas and that the future may belong to him, he may have been more right than he knew.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Natural Law/Aquinas...Why Not Hegel?

Some recent conversations and readings i have been exposed to seem to be saying the same thing that what we need now in Christian theology in light of postmodern relativism and religious fundamentalism is a return to the natural law tradition especially seen in Thomas Aquinas. It is a leap backward that is trying to ground a "religious" tradition (I believe) without sounding all that religious. It is just "philosophical" theology or political thought that has worked and will keep us grounded.

There is obviously a place for philosophical theology. We are doing it anyway whether we try to temper it with a little Barthian withdrawal or not. So a number of writers are trying to update Barth's work via Aquinas especially in the realm of ethics. My response is...why not Hegel?

Hegel is more suited for this than Aquinas. He does theology AFTER THE ENLIGHTENMENT! There is (according to Zizek) a certain sense where philosophy hits the road with Kant and Hegel (not with Plato and Aristotle). I just don't buy into the whole we need to go back before the nominalists took over theory (see Radical Orthodoxy). And besides, Hegel does a lot of theology (theology that is rather heterodox but theology nonetheless).

Bruce McCormack has noted how much more Hegelian Barth becomes since CD II:2 and especially in CD IV:1. Still, Barth does not go all the way. Yet, some Hegelians will claim Barth wants his cake and to eat it to when he argues for the freedom/necessity of God's acts.

When it comes to ethics I am beginning to see the wisdom of framing them in the McCormack/Nimmo school via on God's act of election and of thus being a Being-in-act. It is via Christ's act as a Real Human that we know who God is because of what Christ did in History as mediated by the Spirit. Does not our ethics flow from the victory of Christ as revealed by the Spirit? The calling of us as being in Christ (The Elector/Elected) illustrates that the Spirit is mediating between us and God and between each other. The command ethics are first framed by the gospel of grace in Christ. Again, following Zizek, Christ did the work!-that's revelation. Now you who know your election, act by this command.

Barth himself in his Hegel essay claims that Hegel is the Protestant Aquinas, and I am starting to think if we want to continue in the protestant stream we need Hegel as a guide.

Friday, April 15, 2011

TV watches us!

My son is 3 months old now. One of the things my wife has read (or heard in her Child Ed class) is that it is not good to expose one's child to too much TV (I believe she said 2 hours max). I of course said no problem because generally TV shows are not that interesting, and I would rather have my son build a puzzle or read a book when he gets old enough. However, what I found was how hard it was to be in the living room without the TV on! That almost as a unconscious reflex I would walk into the room and immediately go for the remote and turn to something I did not predetermine I would watch. For example, even when I am trying to give my infant son his bottle I'm mysteriously drawn away from my attention to him and instead gaze at the stupidest TV commercial. Why?

According to Zizek, quoting Lefort (I think), this is due to the fact that the TV serves as the opposite logic of what we think. In other words, it is not us that watch the TV at times but it instead watches us. It is like the opposite of George Orwell's book 1984 where he talks about the Big Other that has a universal gaze of society (proto-totalitarian society where we have no freedom because of its watchful eye).

In our reality TV world, in fact the terror is in the realization that actually nobody is watching us. Think about the explosion of Youtube videos of people of all ages exposing themselves in all manners of speaking (and I mean this literally-music, politics, sex, comedy, random, boring events from life, etc.); it is almost like they cannot live without the thought that the camera is not there to capture them. The same thing goes for reality TV shows, according to Zizek. He notes that reality TV show's characters are fictions; what is so funny is that a real person (Kardashian X) plays herself (Kardashian X) as an actor-why this works is that they really are there own sitcom (we often note how made-up the "drama" really is)! This mirrors the way you have the "real" Youtube videos or even functions as analogy of the potential masks that we put on in everyday reality.

Perhaps that is why we have the TV on even though nobody is really watching. We need the background noise to fill in the reality that someone is really there. Try to get comfortable with the silence of your living room...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Summary of Barth's ethics: Ethics is election

First summary of looking at Barth's ethics: One can only do ethics in light of our election in Christ. For Barth, Christ is the Electing/Sanctifying God and the Elected/Sanctified Human that I beleive St. Paul says we find our place in. thus, any type of ethics must be based off this "covenantal ontology". By being-in-act as both the Elector and the Elected, Christ followed the "command" of God in "humility" and "obedience". Thus, when Barth later talks about ethics following the "command of God" for humans it is in the light of God's own humility that was added on through Christ.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Barth's Ethics: Week 3

Beginning the 3rd week of my Barth's Ethics seminar. Just finished David Clough's book on Barth's ethics where he argues there is a consistent thread of reading the ethics from Romans II to the Church Dogmatics as an ethics of crisis via dialectics. It is a pretty good read and I think it provided a good ground on where I think I would like to take Barth's thought. This week I begin to read CD III:4 on his ethics of creation.

So what is the aim of this reading?

1. I want to see how Barth's idea of ethics fits with his thoughts on dialectics and his theology of election (Barth's strongest point in my opinion). I like the openness of his ethics so far even thought he betrays this move sometimes. How does an ethic get formed in light of the Event of revelation for Barth?

2. To then see how his ethics fits into the realm of the 4 moves for social-political framework laid out by Ken Surin: 1)politics of identity, 2) politics of subjectivity (Levinas-Derrida), 3) politics of Event (Badiou and Zizek) and 4) politics of multitude (Deleuze and Negri). At this point he is somewhere between 2-3, I would guess, but Negri is a source of intrigue for me lately and I may ultimately use him to critique Barth's position.

3. Does Barth's ethics provide a way to resist the state of exception and biopolitics? I am beginning to read Barth's attack on the 19th century and WW1/WW2 as an attack on a form of biopolitics. If I can find the time to read Agamben along with Barth then I might try to make this connection. Agamben already did this himself by referencing Barth's "live 'as if'". Could Barth then advocate an ethic of Bartelby-"I prefer not to"? Or is his ethics of crisis line up with Zizek's more ethics that acts without a firm foundation of acting?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thoughts on The Divine Comedy

It may be difficult for us to completely understand the worldview of Dante. We live in a world where secular power (for the most part) and religious power are mutually exclusive (at least in theory). Moreover, the sad history of religious abuses of temporal power is right before our eyes as we read the text of The Divine Comedy. Furthermore, many of us might not be as enthusiastic about empire as Dante appears to be. Nevertheless, there is something else that we find in Dante. We see the importance of imagination, and how imagination can create an open space to generate possibilities. As Sandra Levy states, “What I mean by imagination here is the inherent human power to transcend the concrete, to create new images or ideas that can open up new possibility and promise – the not-yet of a future we can envision, the re-valuing of a remembered past.”[1] Certainly, Dante would much to agree with concerning the statements of Levy. These possibilities enable the reader to strive for better things and not acquiesce to “the way things are”. This does not mean that we live in a state of complete delusion. Rather, we should see that reality and fiction form a synthesis. In The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, young Bastian comes to this conclusion:

[Bastian] now realized that not only was Fantastica sick, but the human world as well. The two were connected. He had always felt this, though he could not have explained why it was so. He had never been willing to believe that life had to be gray and dull as people claimed. He heard them saying: “Life is like that,” but he couldn’t agree. He never stopped believing in mysteries and miracles.[2]

While Ende and Dante have different goals in mind, they both show how the imagination can present a reality in which we can act to change the way things are. Furthermore, Dante uses imagination and fiction to critic how things are as well.

In his book The Last Days of a Condemned Man, Victor Hugo makes this comment: “Today, the author can reveal the political and social ideas that he wished to bring to the public’s attention under this innocent and transparent literary disguise.”[3] Dante also uses his craft as a means of exposure. Of course, he also fuels his poetry with a sense of divine vocation. Nevertheless, Dante writes in order to remind Italy (both Church and State) of their identity – what God has called them to be. However, he also shows them in his poem what they can be. On top of all of that, he also gives dignity to his fellow countrymen and women by writing the poem for them as we already discussed above. He writes it for them by uses Italian for the language rather than Latin.

While both Dante is less than subtle, they both speak a kind of truth that Christianity may have let slip away. Whether these are true experiences for the poet or a “disingenuous bid for fame”[4] fails to take in the artistic beauty of what Dante has accomplished. He certainly gives the reader an experience as he weaves strands of history and theology together and gives the reader a fresh perspective on the world both physical and spiritual. It is no wonder that The Divine Comedy continues to endure as one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. It seems that it will continue to be enjoyed for coming generations. Thus, as Hawkins so eloquently puts it: “But for many who found themselves transformed by Dante’s words, the poet’s wish has indeed been granted to him. The sparks have made a flame.”[5]

[1] Sandra Levy. Imagination and the Journey of Faith (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), p. 3. Italics are hers.

[2] Michael Ende. The Neverending Story (New York: Firebird, 2005), p. 153. The italics are used in Ende’s book to differentiate between the world of Fantastica and the human world.

[3] Victor Hugo. The Last Days of a Condemned Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 12.

[4] Hawkins, Dante’s Testaments, p. 95.

[5] Hawkins, Dante’s Testaments, p. 95.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Where have all the Barth-Derrida Comparisons Gone?

I have recently read through a number of the "postmodern" Barth interpretations (Lowe, Johnson, Ward, Andrews) because I believe that the Barth renaissance is due to the "end of modernity". In each work, the postmodern thinker that was compared with Barth was the French philosopher (in-famous for deconstruction) Jacques Derrida. It was actually exclusively Derrida that was used.

Then, all of a sudden, no one seems to be following up this comparison. Why? I mean, even when the latest Karl Barth blog event happened, Derrida, of all people, was not invited. I list a few reasons why this might be the case:

1. The Barth guild basically poo-pooed any so-called link in the work of Barth and Derrida. This can be found primarily in the work of Webster and McCormack. Their essays show that it is a twisting of the "real" Barth to have him in dialogue with Derrida (or any other "postmodern" thinker). So perspective essays on this link have been sort of chased away.

2. The turn to the Other that Derrida finds inspiration from Levinas has been under attack as of late by Badiou and Zizek. The new turn to ontology dismisses Derrida's warnings. Notice that Smith wrote a book comparing the Other in Levinas and Barth as well. Thus, theologians seem to be jumping on board with Badiou and Zizek because of their Paul work and thus to dismiss Derrida's suspicions as well. In short, the ontology of violence is a facade.

3. Because of the turn to materialism and immanence via Badiou and Zizek, both Barth and Derrida have been ignored or critiqued. Barth's dismissal of analogy of being might be a good connecting point to post-structuralists who are also dismissive of starting with a God saturated "nature" that links to an above realm but his analogy of faith is seen as too fideistic (that seems to be Milbank's and company's contention). It is a fideism that is content to just play language games.

So where do we go from here? I for one think the dismissal of Barth or Derrida is premature (even though I think the current work by Zizek and others are necessary). Here are some ideas for moving forward:

1. The Barth and Derrida comparisons mostly worked with the so-called "early" Barth and the "early" Derrida. The criticism by both Webster and McCormack was that the "postmodern" Barth writers mostly used Romans II and his other early writings and avoided his later stuff int the CD. Maybe it is time to read just Barth and just Derrida anew. In short, there seems to be no Derrida of hospitality, the gift, etc. in relation to the Barth of the "lordless powers" of the late CD. Maybe it is time to read The Gift of Death with the late CD.

2. It might be good to have both Barth and Derrida remind us of the latest "isms" that are on the horizon. The idea that we can tip our hat to Stalin or we need a totalitarian leader/example again is an option seems downright silly (but it is out there). Both Derrida and Barth criticized the excess of capitalism and communism without following an "ism".

3. Maybe a little immanence via Negri and Deleuze can be used to chasten the current Barthian transcendence. Why? Popular Christian theology is mostly about transcendence (just ask your common Christian) and God's move toward us; even your common Barthian is there. In short, if you want to challenge the status quo of theology you got to start here. Therefore, maybe we can find a way to bring Barth down to the immanent realm in a way that is not reliant on Hegel or on language games.

So my current suspicions is that Badiou/Zizek go too far, Derrida/Levinas not far enough and perhaps the Deleuze/Foucault/Negri (maybe Agamben) is in between. So, if Barth is to be in conversation here in the way religion/politics/philosophy mingle I think it has to be in a post-humanistic way that wants to take seriously the various movements of life that also respects the movement of divine life. I'll continue on Barth's ethics in a couple of days...