Notes on the divine contingent

2 12 2010

The common expectation of the religious person in the face of a secular critique is that only the divine can save humanity from the universal threat of contingency. Even Heidegger said: “Only a god can save us”. My main contention over the past few years is that the divine itself includes contingency; one could even say that it is contingent par excellence. In principio erat Verbum does not somehow mean that things are ordered perfectly according to human understanding. It may mean that they are ordered according to another that we do not understand, but to say such a thing is ridiculous in itself.

Religious reason rises and falls on absurdity. It is like Slavoj Zizek’s exegesis of Job: God reproves the friend- theologians who try to justify Job’s suffering. The jouissance of religion is precisely to rejoice in this absurdity. It is to reify and deify post facto justifications for unexplainable events. The phrase, credo ut intelligam is an attempt to cover up and tame such a sentiment. But the logic of religious faith lies in the act of belief itself. It is in itself unsettled, dynamic, and leads to a sort of “bad infinity”. The divine in the end is not the necessary; it is the more-than-necessary. It is completely contingent, completely Other.

To a certain extent, religious culture is completely useless for modern conversations of ethics, precisely because the Divine is “beyond good and evil”. That is the unsettling thought behind all of the “folk Catholic” phenomena that I have cited in the past few years. The difference between the miracle and coincidence, the prophet and the false prophet, the angel and the demon is indiscernible precisely because it is codified after the event has taken place. Within the context of the event itself, there is only a void, a completely naked phenomenon. The more we analyze the details, the small practices that have changed with time (i.e. contingencies), the more we realize that the Idea Itself (“Catholicism”) does not exist in anything but a negative sense. The variations in local tradition and doctrine prove that contingency exists in the Idea itself, in the form of a Hegelian negation of a negation.

In plain and vulgar English, theories of the divine are attempts to clean up the fact that shit happens. But such a clean up effort is never successful, and there lies the genius of religious ideology itself: not in success, but in failure.


Actions

Information

4 responses

4 12 2010
sortacatholic

Arturo: The jouissance of religion is precisely to rejoice in this absurdity. It is to reify and deify post facto justifications for unexplainable events. The phrase, credo ut intelligam is an attempt to cover up and tame such a sentiment.

The rough opposite of jouissance and the pleasure of absurity is the loss of the divine in inexplicable and unfathomable suffering. The experience of pain beyond human understanding and the response to deliverance from this pain sometimes turns towards a heinous “reification” in grave injustice and hatred towards innocents. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his new Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years (London, New York: Viking, 2010) characterizes the Black Death as an example of an existential wound that not only catalyzed doubt about God and his temporal hierarchy, but also intense anti-Semitic pogroms self-justified through the blood libel. (551 — 555) For MacCulloch, the blood-letting of flagellants and subsequent cults of the Precious Blood of the plague survivors intensified the blood libel and supposed Jewish host desecration as retrospective “reasons” for the pandemic bubonic plague catastrophe. (ibid.) MacCulloch’s analysis of the mohel in an anonymous 16 c. Portuguese depiction of the Circumcision as a cabal of demonic Jews headed by a gross cariacture of a rabbi as a shortsighted knife-wielding attacker. (554 — 555; Museo de Arte Antica, Lisbon). The profound gift of the brit milah, the mark of the Covenant, is changed to a perverted view of Jews as gleeful assailants of the Lord.

The joy of “folk Catholicism”, of the ecstatic joy of the Mass and attendant rituals as a mystical, even orgasmic experience of divine love in our world rather than intellectual inquiries, is intrinsically predicated on historical suffering and irrational, vicious hatred. We by our very nature, are perpetually tempted to temper an experience of the divine ecstasy just beyond our grasp on anger and hatred within our grasp. Arturo’s remark in Sh*# my Pope says
that “Many of the “sacred cows” that we see being attacked / preserved during this time were often products of their time [the Reformation] and nothing more.” (my brackets) The recent surge of affection for and adoration at the extraordinary form exhibits some of the dangers of reification: the tendency to idealize a past seemingly “set in stone”, as Arturo remarks, and a sublimation of the dangers of the past in jouissance. This is the challenge: to wield the ecstatic/orgasmic joy wisely, ever balancing the mystical with the intellectual, the compassionate with the attendant horrors of history. This is a difficult cross to bear when it is easier to retreat into abstractions, but nevertheless one that must be carried past the temptation of false and cheap excitement.

3 12 2010
ben

But Jesus is not completely other. You’ve given a great critique of paganism, but not Christianity. Jesus is both personal and actual, both historical (seemingly contingent) and necessary.

2 12 2010
john burnett

The difference between the miracle and coincidence, the prophet and the false prophet, the angel and the demon is indiscernible precisely because it is codified after the event has taken place. Within the context of the event itself, there is only a void, a completely naked phenomenon.

Reminds me that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and told Josiah he would die in peace.

2 12 2010
Turmarion

In plain and vulgar English, theories of the divine are attempts to clean up the fact that shit happens.

I don’t think you could say it much better than that.

One slight question, though–would this be a fair interpretation of what you’re saying: any human experience, conception, or theory of the divine is contingent? It seems to me that God in Himself, the Ein Soph, the essence of God (per Eastern Orthodox thought), the deus absconditus, would be radically non-contingent. He/She/It is as He/She/It is regardless of what we think or like or even conceive of the whole deal. Of course, once you start talking about God, you’re back in contingency–which is OK, which has to be OK for us in this world.

Even if one accepts the (debatable) claim that mystics have direct experience of God (or whatever one wants to call the Transcendent Ultimate Thingy), as soon as even the greatest mystic starts talking about what he experienced, he’s forced to use language, which is conditioned by culture, psychology, etc., and so once more we’re back in contingency. This is why despite my Zen phase, I never could completely buy the whole “transmission of the mind of the Buddha” thing. When words enter, it’s not unsullied, pure Reality any more, and anyhow, the behavior of supposedly enlightened Zen masters all too often didn’t seem much like Buddha-mind. Oh, well–guess things are tough all over.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: