living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘transcendence

Radiolab, “In the Dust of this Planet,” and Glenn Beck: Nihilism to Love

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True to style, Radiolab recently produced an especially stellar episode on the obscure topic of nihilism (the view that life has no meaning or purpose). And apparently, they did such a good job with it that Glenn Beck picked it up and did an episode of his own on the matter. Beck thinks that Radiolab is endorsing nihilism (and also that they are a part of a progressive movement to seed the public mind, apparently). In thinking this, Beck entirely misses the real thrust of Radiolab’s episode, which is a shame because he could likely benefit from a bit more “nihilism.” Allow me to explain.

The Paradox of Serious Nihilistic Denial

My own work centers on the classical insight that the fulfillment of life comes only after a certain kind of death (e.g. Mt. 16:25, Mk. 10:42-45). This entire blog, is one long meditation on this single monumental truth. So when I heard this episode by Radiolab, I could hardly stay in my seat. “They’re on to it!”, I shouted to my somewhat startled wife as we were cruising down the interstate. “On to what?”, she asked. “This is what I’m writing my dissertation on!”

Here I must clarify. I’m not writing my dissertation on nihilism. But then again, Radiolab’s episode was not really on nihilism either. Their episode was on the draw of nihilism, and that ends up pointing to something much larger. They noticed a trend in popular culture to valorize nihilism. Specifically, they noticed how the cover of Eugene Thacker’s philosophy text In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 had made its way into popular culture (appearing on tee-shirts and even inspiring a character on the program True Detective). The question (because Radiolab is always about the question) was: why?


In seeking to answer this Simon Critchley suggested that nihilism is as old as human history itself. Jad went on to explain that you’ll see it crop up whenever social structures begin to come undone, either by cultural decay, natural disasters, or war. He points to Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons” as the moment the term nihilism was coined. In that novel the son turns to the father and says “We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything.” The father says, “Everything?” “Everything… with indescribable composure.” In our time, all we need to do is turn on the news and we are bombarded with what seems to be a nameless evil that continues to emerge from both without and from within our own culture. It makes sense, then, that this urge to repudiate should manifest yet again. But when asked if there was something more potent about it in our own time, Critchley said, without hesitation, “yes.”

Recounting a class he taught with Eugene Thacker on mysticism, he tells of how in the fourth century AD, there was a movement in which people began to leave the great city of Alexandria for the desert. Influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy (and its suspicion of material reality) and a desire to encounter the pure love of Christ, these people fled the seat of all culture and learning of their day for the desolation of the Egyptian desert where they engaged in ascetic activities of self-renunciation and prayer. They wanted a love that was pure, and so they left what they deemed was evil in the world and sought to purge the evil within themselves in the solitude of the desert. What struck Critchley was that the students were deeply captivated by this image in a way that undergraduates are not typically prone to be captivated. Something in these strange mystics and their practices of solitude and bodily mortification in an attempt to free their capacity for love was hitting them in a very deep place.

Notice this: We are not talking about nihilism anymore. We are talking about forms of denial and about forms of criticism, but this is not nihilistic denial. Nihilistic denial must deny even the seriousness of its own denial, but these mystics denied and criticized the world and themselves out of a yearning for a goodness and truth the surpassed the world’s (or their own) ability to fathom. They recognized that even the very best human goods are ambiguous. As Thomas Merton said, “The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.” Thus, even the very best in human culture is open to criticism.

Negative Theology: Denial and the Transcendent Good

Again, this is not nihilism. This is what theology calls apophatic, or “negative” theology. Negative theology speaks of God, the ultimate good (Goodness itself), by way of negating the elements of creaturely goods that fail to rise to the level of the ultimate good. For example, we know that justice is good. But we do not know what perfect justice looks like. We only know what human justice looks like. Thus by way of the apophatic method we would seek to get closer to speaking of perfect justice by negating all the ways human justice fails to rise to the level of perfect justice. This way of thinking is thus critical of all human attempts to say positively what perfect justice is, but it is not nihilism. It is the denial that any human (ourselves included) have a positive and adequate concept for our longings for perfect truth, goodness, and fulfillment. There is a pull within us that we can hear calling our name, but though we have names for it (fulfillment, justice, salvation, etc), we do not know its essence (a classic source for this style of theology is Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced almost all Western theology. Check out a marvelous passage of his here).

Rationalized Consciousness Sees the Apophtic as Nihilistic

Now, to the one who is convinced that they do have a positive and adequate concept for this deep goodness, apophatic criticism cannot be distinguished from nihilism. To their minds, their own concept is not open to criticism. They are convinced that they have the answer, thus any criticism is deemed not faithfulness to a transcendent good, but instead a merely corrosive attack. Beck seems rather obviously in this place. At the end of his episode he says “As this world devolves into chaos and depravity, people are searching for meaning. We have to provide them with truth on every platform possible.”

For him the matter is straightforward. “We” (as opposed to “the progressives”) have the truth and what is needed is simply to distribute it.

The Paradox Beyond the Alternatives

The desert mystics would see such truth, in spite of its divine claim, as being all too human. It is too bound up in the city and the world that they had abandoned. It represents the prison bars behind which eternal love lives, longing to be freed. This is why Christ was such a powerful figure for them. Not because, as Beck thinks, he came to impart an adequate concept of goodness, but because Christ, in a single move, exposed the evil of the world and a love beyond understanding by completely giving himself away. In this act, the ultimate nihilism and the ultimate meaning are one.

UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been pressed on they way (in a previous draft) I affirmed Simon Critchley’s suggestion that nihilism goes all the way back. “Nihilism is a modern problem,” said my critic. I think that’s probably right. The examples the Critchley sites as nihilism prior to the modern era are in fact being conflated with other forms of criticism, including the apophatic criticism that I discussed in this paper. Thanks for the push-back, unnamed interlocutor.

Breaking God Talk

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[Warning: this is an especially geeky post]

God talk is an impossible possibility. This leads to all kinds of problems. Among them is a situation where many theists and atheists think they’re talking about God when they have not yet risen (or perhaps better, descended) to that level. The problems all flow from God’s eternality, and our non-eternality. I’ve been engaging this difficulty with a friend of mine via email. Below is a recent response by me to him. In the exchange “God talk” is being discussed as “the eternal.” I had said previously that religious belief was in a category of its own due to the eternal nature of its object. I said that religious belief needed to “transcend the categories of merely subjective and objective reflection.” He took issue with this, saying: 1) How can you know this? and 2) It’s impossible. The following was my reply.

The Possibility

It’s an interesting situation we’re dealing with. On the one hand, as you say, you can form a theoretical belief about the infinite that does not “mark it off as an object beyond oneself.” As you point out, I’m doing that when I say that the eternal “includes the reflecting self as well as the reflection.” You are right on both these points. And the fact is, there’s no way around it if we wish to go on thinking or speaking about the eternal in a discursive mode.

The Impossibility

Here we see the point where the trouble starts. Since these acts of thought can be performed, and because they are, in a sense, necessary, it is easy to think that by that very fact they are adequate. They are not. The eternal can never be talked about adequately because we are always in it, speaking, from it. (just like, as you point out, we are in our subjectivity. I’ll come back to that). Because of this there is no simply theoretical, no objective, no detached analytical knowledge of the eternal. This is why, I argue, religious belief is (or ought to be) in a category all its own.

The Paradox

Thus, religious beliefs (including atheistic religious beliefs) are sort of weird. They are irreducibly subjective, but they make universally objective claims.

From this, the terms we use to talk about the eternal need to mirror this weirdness. Their relative adequacy is constituted not simply by a their reflexivity, including the self as an object of reflection (“the eternal as the sum of all things, including myself”). No, as Charles Taylor points out, a radical reflexivity is necessary. The mind must try and fail to grasp as an object the very act of its own reflecting. This is what Robert Sharlemann pointed out as the genius of Tillich’s relation of human reason to divine revelation. In this attempt and failure, something of the eternal is paradoxically understood without being grasped. And from here, a sort of map is given for all further speech about the eternal. There is the attempt to speak of the eternal reality, the failure, and the pointing out of the attempt and failure (It’s rather Christological, if you think about it).

Transcending Our Subjectivity?

As for transcending subjectivity. The claim was that any relatively adequate term must transcend the merely subjective and objective modes. It was not that I have done this and have returned with the eternal Word. You’re right; it’s impossible (hence, what I said in the paragraph above).

How Can This Be Known?

To the question of how I know these things, two responses: 1. This question assumes that we are dealing with a theoretical question. As I’ve shown above, we are not. 2. It happens every time I pray. It is, as Sebastian Moore says, “intersubjectivity with the infinite.”

In closing, the following passage makes no sense if it is read from an “un-broken” frame of mind, one that has yet to meet the failure of radical reflexivity. But from the standpoint of one who as endured this paradox, it is a beautiful extension of the logic I have been describing in this post.


Speaking of God

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A good friend of mine recently told me that he needs to be able to conceive of God before it’s possible for him to believe in God. This got me thinking. We cannot conceive of anything apart from our ability to speak of it. How then do we speak of God? The way the situation is often put is that God is a being possessing a host of “omni”  properties (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc…). Yet as we consider language of this nature it becomes clear that terms originating in finite existence are struggling to grasp an infinite reality. This can be seen when we consider what could it possibly mean to say that a being is present everywhere (omnipresence)? What results is actually a contradiction!

But what about other language we use to conceive God? We say God is love. We say God exists. We say God is a being, is triune, has a son, desires things, punishes the wicked, saves the faithful, and so on. Does our finite language run into similar problems with these ascriptions? Or are things more straightforward in these cases? Perhaps that’s a matter up for discussion, but for the time being I hope it can at least be seen that something puzzling happens when we speak of God. My basic thesis on this point is that the “something puzzling” is due to the “infinite” nature of the “object” under discussion and the finite nature of the linguistic tools we are using in trying to grasp it. In the interest of providing a framework for speaking of God under these circumstances, allow me to propose three types of God language.

  1. Natural Terms: Terms that mean exactly what they stand for but mean a reality that transcends the finite. For example: “God is the absolute.” “God is being itself,” “God is,” “God is that which is ultimately real,” etc…
  2. Analogical or Symbolic Terms: Terms that “participate” in the infinite reality they describe, but due to their origin in finite existence lead to absurdities if taken in their natural sense. For example: “God is all-powerful,” “God is all-knowing,” “God is personal,” “God exists,” “God is love,” “God lives,” etc…
  3. Metaphorical Terms: Terms that are not literally intended in most important respects, but which point toward a single conceptual identity located within some specific attribute (which itself most likely needs to be understood analogically). For example: “This was from the hand of God,” “God is our rock,” “God is a consuming fire,” etc…

What should be noticed is that category 1. contains a single affirmation which is affirmed in multiple ways. And here is what is important: That single affirmation is all that can be said about God with the use of natural terms. Every other affirmation must be understood symbolically (be it analogically, or metaphorically).[1] The reason for this found in the nature of language and the structure of existence. God, as the absolute, grounds the categories of existence but is not conditioned by them. Our language is an expression of the categories of existence and as such is capable of dealing with objects within existing reality, but that is where its use as natural language ends. To speak of the reality that is not conditioned as an object within existence, but is both immanent in, and transcending of, existence, is to be forced to put language to a use that strains and ultimately breaks its natural role.

But it must be broken. For to the extent we insist our natural language grasps God, we force what is ultimate to play by the rules of that which is not ultimate. This can be easily seen by looking at the history of Christianity. The failure to recognize the symbolic nature of language about God has lead to innumerable conflicts, including: the conflict between God’s knowledge and will, freedom and foreknowledge, love and holiness, existence or non-existence, transcendence and immanence, power and weakness, unity and plurality, the list could go on. In each case God is being made a subject to the categories of existence, an attempt is then made to affirm God’s ultimacy, and the result is (as we saw above) a contradiction or antinomy.

There is real insight to be had in each of the above mentioned conflicts, but they ultimately reduce to analyses of existence. This is the doorway to analysis of God, but it is not analysis of God as God. God’s ultimacy assures this.

The implications of this insight are far reaching and existentially important. I have, myself, only begun the process of sorting through them. Perhaps the most deeply felt worry resulting from this discussion is the impression that God is being made infinitely remote, as in deism, or perhaps irrelevantly present, as in pantheism. There is insight in each of these concerns, but ultimately they succumb to the same problem we have been mentioning all along. So where is God? As natural language the question defeats itself. As the cry of our heart, it wells up from, and draws us toward, our origin, condition and end.

May we continue to speak of God, but may we avoid having our symbols become idols.

In our present age this term is problematic, as it now carries with it the connotation of being less real. It might be said that something is “only” or “just” symbolic. What is thought to have a greater ontological standing is language that is meant “literally.” This is unfortunate and is symptomatic of the basic problem I am addressing. On this latter scheme, either God is a being in the natural sense of the term, or God is not real. Modern atheism rightly protests the existence of such a being and accepts the latter conclusion. My point is that the dilemma is a false one. Symbolic language recognizes that all particular being participates in ultimate being. Language is one more instance of this general assertion. As such, to the extent that language is used symbolically it carries within itself its own negation. If it did not, finite reality would be capable of bearing ultimate reality, or ultimate reality itself would be subject to the tensions and conflicts essential to existential being. This cannot be so. Symbolic language dies to itself as natural language and in so doing reveals its own depth. If natural language resists this dynamic, it becomes idolatrous for it seeks to elevate something finite to the level of the ultimate.

Written by Alex

September 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Theology

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Introduction to Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology

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Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church. A theological system is supposed to satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every new generation. Theology moves back and forth between these two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance these two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak into the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. Afraid of missing the eternal truth, they identify it with some previous theological work, with traditional concepts and solutions, and try to impose these on a new, different situation. They confuse eternal truth with a temporal expression of this truth. This is evident in European theological orthodoxy, which in America is known as fundamentalism. When fundamentalism is combined with anti-theological bias, as it is for instance, in its biblicistic-evangelical form, the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow. Fundamentalism fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but because it speaks from a situation of the past. It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity. In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware.

Written by Alex

June 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm