Temptations of the “Everybody”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nota Bene: Due to the impending porting of The Divine Wedgie to the Patheos Catholic channel, this will be the final substantive post on this platform. Links to the new site will be posted once it is live.

Commonweal Magazine recently published a highly informative article by Regina Munch, on her reflections on the post-Brexit fallout among millenials, as well as the recriminations of racism and xenophobia following the narrow victory of Britons wishing to leave the European Union.

Though this is not the central point of her article, what is indeed interesting is what seems to be Munch’s calling out of a kind of universalism in the production of political opinion by media elites. In a way, what she indicates goes beyond what Michel Foucault wrote about deviancy in his History of Sexuality. There, he spoke about the processes that led to the production of normality on the one hand, and deviancy on the other.

The difference in what Munch seems to indicate is that, while there are still the shrill cries of deviancy (namely racism and xenophobia) from the Remain camp, the manufactured commentary from both online and broadcasted sources actually go further by also denying the existence of a different opinion altogether, with cries like “everybody” or “universally” thrown about like so much political confetti, papering over any geographical, class, age-based or economic nuance on the ground.

Regardless of the side of the debate, or regardless of the topic of debate, and regardless of the variety of opinions that the media showers us with, it would seem that the filtering of opinion via media channels both new and traditional still bears a new form of the logic of massification identified by Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, a logic which the Marxist saw as a form of totalitarianism. In a way, this form of massification is more insidious due to its attempts at erasure of any type of complexity by manufacturing a simulated notion of the “everybody”, outside which no real thought or person exists. What is more, this simulated uniformity can apply to opinions manufactured on all sides of any debate.

As the media, rather than lived experience, becomes an increasingly important source of information, one temptation to resist would be the one that such media encourages, namely the tendency to ignore the complexity that embodied experience can uncover and adopt the virtual uniformity of whatever is being flashed on one’s screen. Indeed, it would appear that vigilence against the processes that generate such uniformity might be needed in order to defend the politics presumed by Aristotle to be predicated on difference. The converse is that, if one were to give into manufactured uniformity, the existence of any truly political exercise is put at risk.

Free Panel Presentation: An Augustinian Theology of Migrant Identity

 

Readers in the Chicago area might be interested in a free event next week, organised by DePaul University’s Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology.
World Catholicism Week is an annual week-long program that further investigates the demographic shift in Catholicism, from an Anglo-American and European spheres to the Asian, African and beyond. This year, the event is run under the theme of Catholicism in Diaspora.
The Divine Wedgie’s Matthew Tan is part of the program, and will present a paper entitled “The Love of Many Lands: an Augustinian Theology of Migrant Identity“. The paper looks at the issue of multiplicity in the migrant in light of the patristic analysis of multiplicity being the fruit of sin. It will survey the promises and pitfalls of sociopolitical analysis on the issue of multiplicity and show how an Augustinian take can enrich migrant theory on this very issue. Conversely, it will also show how taking migrant theory seriously can also be a fruitful avenue of engaging the multiplicity of Catholic migrants.
But this paper (to be presented as part of a panel discussion on 8th April at 2pm) is part of a much larger program, which features speakers far more prominent and important. These include the sociologist Philip Jensen, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo from the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, and Rev. Andrew O’Connor, the founder of the Goods of Conscience clothing line.
All events are to be held in Room 120 AB of DePaul’s Student Center from the 7th to 11th April and are open to the public. Anyone interested is requested to visit the World Catholicism Week website and register their interest. Further details of each event can also be found.

How Earthly was My City? A Tale of Two Augustines

The 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 and the killing of an American diplomat in Libya are again providing fodder for the secular chatterati to repeat the somewhat fatigued refrain of the need to ensure peace by keeping religion out of politics. Meanwhile, another emerging trend that goes unnoticed is the common effort by both neoconservative and progressive Christian voices to advocate a form of public religion that wants to give Christianity a public profile, but in a way that makes it simultaneously purely civic.
This rendering of a civic Christianity seems to be informed in some ways by a retrieval of the writings of Augustine of Hippo, which may not sound surprising, given Augustine’s seemingly positive attitude to secular governance. Key to this is the quintessentially Augustinian trope in City of God of every Christian being simultaneously a citizen of two cities. On the one hand, there is the City of Man, the earthly and temporary City. On the other hand, there is the City of God, the heavenly and thus eternal city.
Augustine has often been used as the clear stamp of authority of a particular mode of politics that renders Christianity a completely apolitical force. There is the impression that on matters political, Augustine’s thought can only have one clear trajectory. However, it must be pointed out that Augustine’s division of citizenships can be rendered in two very different ways, each of which has profound implications on how the Body of Christ moves whilst in the City of Man. Christians of all stripes have historically skipped between these two readings, often with elaborate and sometimes compelling justifications.
One possible reading, which Jean Perry points out in an article entitled “Locke’s Accidental Church” to be in the tradition of Martin Luther, regards the division of citizenships as a sort of political division of labour. The City of Man, according to this reading, is the city where the body of the Christian resides, whilst the City of God is one where the soul of the same Christian resides. In this reading of Augustine, each sphere comes with its own ultimate authority, with the Church put in charge of the soul, and the sovereign in charge of the body. The Church under this reading is a purely spiritual power, what the 20th century Thomist Jacques Maritain calls a “country of souls” with a “minimum of body” with no direct temporal manifestations. Under such a reading, a Christian’s should not mix his spiritual with his political life unless that political life intrudes into concerns that are purely spiritual.
Another possible reading of Augustine – one that is often put forward in this blog – is one where the division is not at the level of soul and body, but at the direction of one’s love and desire. It begins from the premise that we are fundamentally desiring beings, a premise that is gleaned from the famous beginning of Augustine’s Confessions. It also takes from his City of God that the two cities are fundamentally two assemblages of love, so we have on the one hand one city that loves God as the highest good and another that loves the self as the highest good. Both of these cities will have physical manifestations because loves and desires engage the whole person, soul and body. The political implication of this reading is that the City of God will have institutions that cut across those of the City of Man as the Body of Christ moves towards its fulfilment at the end of history.
In sum, one reading of Augustine would cede complete temporal authority to temporal powers, whilst another would challenge the temporal power’s monopoly in earthly affairs. More posts are necessary to explain why this blog favours the second reading. For now, it is sufficient to point out that a political reading of Augustine is anything but straightforward, and does not lead to a single decisive conclusion about the Church’s place in the political sphere.

Why "Religion" is Bad for You

Much has been said about the often bandied phrase “separation of Church and State”. This separation is often seen as something natural, ordained by God to prevent the sad history of bloodshed brought about by bringing politics under religious influence. Religion is thus seen as a destructive force, and secularism is harmful (as Christohper Hitchens once argued) only insofar as it is pursued like a religion.
It is important to take a step back from such ideological debates and ask, as William Cavanaugh did in his The Myth of Religious Violence, one small but important etymological question: is the word “religion” the same now as it was in the medieval and even classical period. In other words, has the definition of religion remained a term that is transhistorical, transcultural, and transpatial? The argument that religious influence on politics is a regressive step can only work if such a definition of religion is true.
Probably influenced by the intellectual archeology of Michel Foucault, Cavanaugh puts forward a compelling genealogy of the word “religion” to show that, rather than being a freestanding term, independent of culture and history, “religion” is actually historically and culturally contingent. More specfiically, it is unavoidably bound up in shifts in the configurations of power. So bound up is this term with power that to entertain the idea that you can have an understanding of “religion” that is free of any configuration of power, argues Cavanaugh, is itself the product of a submission to a hierarchy of power.
But very importantly, Cavanaugh goes onto argue with Talal Asad that religion currently conceived has been stripped of a very important component, its spatial manifestation in an embodied society. There seems now to be a conception of society that is in its natural state free from any religion. Society is seen as naturally secular. This notion of “religion” and “society”, implies Cavanaugh, along with other historians of religion, is actually a product peculiar to the West, and inextricably tied to the rise of the modern nation state. It is the state, argues Cavanaugh, that defines what counts as “religion”, because it wants to maximise control over “society”. Set in this context, religion has become associated with belief because the machinations of state power have stripped religion of any societal manifestations, forgetting that “religion” in the classico-medieval definition implicates societies of committment and virtue, what Talal Asad regards as “a program of disciplinary practices” enacted in real space and time.
The implications of this genealogy are massive, for in debates over the separation of church and state Christians will do well, as Matthew Tan will soon argue in an upcoming first installment of the Seminars in Political and Religious Life series, to avoid submitting to the terms set by the nation state. To call for freedom of “Religion” may actually amount to a ceding to the discursive cage set by the state. “Religion” is bad for you not because it violates the natural secularity of society, but because “Religion” defined as mere belief cut off from society is an emaciated witness to Jesus Christ, and a proper defense of religion must involve a proper appreciation of its spatial implications. This in turn means not only a rejection of an emaciated “religion”, but also a rejection of a naturally secular societal space.
This is not necessarily a return to chauvinism, as the screeching banshees of the secular commentarati would have it, but a proper recognition of the embodied nature of the Body of Christ, which is broken in real space and time for the life of the world. Indeed, Christians must also be wary of thinking back romantically on pre-modern notions of spatial religion, for even that might risk ceding to the supremacy of secular discourse, where a sacramental logic no longer has anything unique to offer to a naturally secular society.

A Theological Response to Ecological Disaster

Matthew Tan has, together with Paul Tyson of the Australian Catholic University, recently published an article in the second volume of the new established journal Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics, which is run by the Centre for Faith Ethics and Society in the University of Notre Dame in Australia.
The article looks at the necessity for a properly theological, rather than technical vision in order to stave off any impending ecological disaster. Rather than the often bandied regimes of management, or the sacralisation of the environment, avoiding any further damage to the environment is dependent on nothing less than a genuine conversion to Christ. The article draws these findings from the writings of the sociologist turned theologian, Jacques Ellul. Access to the article is possible by clicking here, and other articles in the edition of the journal can be accessed here. Readers might also be interested in an earlier reflection on a Christian response to environmentalism which is not a simple acceptance or facile rejection.

The Sacred Making the Secular More Secular

Many of the secular liberal set often decry the involvement of religious actors in fear that the integrity of the secular sphere has been undermined. The impression is one of a free space being unduly interfered with by agents that deign to make that space less free to further their own ideological programs.
In response, a good number often use the line of argument that goes along this line: the space is free so as to allow for the expression of all ideological programs anyway, so what’s the big deal?
What often gets overlooked in these kinds of polarised debates – which very often begin by ceding to the terms set by the secular status quo anyway and thus nullify the “religious” edge of these actors or assume the relationship between the religious and secular as a zero-sum game – is a line of argument put forward by David L. Schindler in his Heart of the World, Centre of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism and Liberation.
The argument seems to be more in keeping with the biblical image in Matthew 5, where Jesus tells the parable of the “lamp under a bushel”. The lamp is meant to be put up in the highest place for all to see, depicting the way in which the Church is designed by Jesus to be the “light of the world”.
But what does the light do? Does the light so overwhelm the vision of others within its proximity that they are unable to see and engage the world around them? Or, as a light is meant to work, does it illuminate the true picture of the things around it, and thus give a true picture of the things around the people who are within the light’s proximity. The more the light penetrates the world, the more the world is able to be appreciated as the world.
In a similar vein, Schindler seems to argue in his book, Communio ecclesiology works on the assumption that secular is actually not meant to be shielded from the interference of the Church. Rather, the Church by its very nature should be involved in the affairs of this world, in a way that interrupts the regular patterns of the secular sphere but not in a way as to overwhelm the secular. Indeed, the more the Church penetrates the secular, the more the secular is able to be appreciated qua the secular.
Liberals will cry “Fundamentalist”, so-called conservatives will cry “spineless Modernist”. Both positions share the same inherently secular premises that both marginalise the church and undermine the secular. For Schindler, however, it is only in the light of the Christ, embodied in his Church, that the secular is able to see the purpose for which it was created. It is able to recognise its capacities as well as limitations, and in so doing allow for the proper flourishing of those that seek to participate in its sphere. Paradoxically, the secular can thus only be more secular, the more the Church is set as its center.

The Abolition of Man According to Henri de Lubac

In The Drama of Atheist Humanism, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac remarked that
It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organise the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organise it against man.