July 19, 2024

“Naming The Darkness,” Spiritual Violence, And Radical Incompleteness – Resituating A Political Theology, Part 1 (James E. Willis, III)

The following is the first of a two-part series. It is republished from Religious Theory on May 1, 2020.

The Death of God theological movement of the mid-twentieth century serves as a productive starting place to consider spiritual violence in our time, or the forceful displacement of human relations in religious belief both as individuals and as a community. Spiritual violence is examined through a political reading of Simon Critchley’s mystical anarchy and Martin Hägglund’s democratic socialism, bridged together with Saul Newman’s anarchy within political theology. These ideas are then considered alongside Lissa McCullough’s generative twilight of a self-sacrificing axial God.

Emerging from this analysis is the notion of a radical human incompleteness which can resituate a political theology beyond the traumas of religious mythology. The reason why Death of God theology is useful is because the political becomes possible in human incompleteness through the act of spiritual violence from God’s self-sacrifice. Political theology should reconsider a re-mythologization of religion with anarchical relations which freely consider radical incompleteness.

The Death of God and Political Theology

The Death of God phenomenon in the 1960’s was a theological movement whose deeper implications were never really theological in the strictest sense, but rather political. As a discrete theological movement, the Death of God emerged from the rubble of the first half of the twentieth century which exposed a contemporary political sense of loss. The expression of that loss has taken many forms in the intervening years, but through it, we can today consider spiritual violence more clearly. Spiritual violence, as I am using it, is a forceful displacement of human relations in religious belief both as individuals and as a community.

Spiritual violence is an act of human relationality because it clearly demarcates the disintegration of religious belief individuality and collectively. The Death of God movement helps to sharpen the lens of spiritual violence. I have no interest in attempting to reshape or reframe Death of God theology in whatever shape it is in today, but rather to use it as a starting place to examine the political connections in its expression of loss. In this case, the political is any relation between people which is public and visible, thereby visible in its normalization. This is not a contribution to the Death of God literature, but rather a reflection on spiritual violence in political theology as it relates to human relations in a contemporary feeling of loss.

I want to argue that spiritual violence ultimately exposes human radical incompleteness. This incompleteness, when read through Simon Critchley’s mystical anarchy and Martin Hägglund’s democratic socialism, opens a path where Death of God is operationally a starting place to resituate the political through the transgressions of religious mythology.

Situating the Death of God and Its (Ir)Relevance Today

The rarity of academic theology spilling over into the public consciousness was that of the so-called Death of God movement in the mid-to-late 1960s. Though this theology was relatively short-lived, its antecedent radical theology of the imprisoned (late) Dietrich Bonhoeffer receives continued coverage. 

Yet, this movement did not disappear off the scene, though arguably it took on different forms in the later 20th century liberation theology and academic work by people like Mark C. Taylor. With the 2014 publication of Resurrecting the Death of God, Daniel Peterson and G. Michael Zbaraschuk gathered a host of scholars who are thinking through the death of God in its contemporary forms.   Peterson’s introduction provides, at least to my understanding, a helpful summary of death of God positions.[9] For example, in summarizing Thomas J.J. Altizer’s view, Peterson writes:

…Altizer sees “bad faith” as a desperate reaction against the pervasive nihilism that shrouds our contemporary experience. Instead of looking forward to a new disclosure of God in the world out of absolute nothingness, “bad faith” (as evident in Christian fundamentalism) denies the sacrificial self-emptying of God by focusing on what is now a shattered or vacated transcendence – just as orthodox Christianity has done over the course of nearly two thousand years. Unable to face the terrifying abyss of the Godhead, fundamentalist Christians avert their eyes out of fear and look up to an imaginary God in a heaven of their own making. Unfortunately, says Altizer, that heaven is empty…(8)

Just as the mid-60s thinkers were, themselves, born in the rubble of World War I and educationally reared in the destruction of the Holocaust, World War II, and the subsequent Cold War, the inheritors of the Death of God theology today are educationally reared in a world of post-9/11 global terrorism and pervasive digitalized surveillance. This is to say that the inescapable threads of destruction which run through Death of God theology today are really no different: scholars working in religious studies and Christian theology simply cannot ignore violence in all its forms, including spiritual violence.

It is also suggestive that future scholars will, themselves, bring the critiques of religion, belief, and God to bear on and in their world. Such is true, in particular, with religion and violence which pervasively finds outlets as diverse as terroristic attacks, surveillance on religious groups, and state coercion toward minority groups.

Peterson highlights Taylor’s work in this area and his implicit dependence on Jacques Derrida. Taylor’s critiques of Altizer are unfailingly Derridean (“metaphysics of presence”). Yet, Peterson’s summary of Taylor’s work touches on an important point which is not fully worked out: “The divine Spirit is fully present in the ‘eternal restlessness of becoming,’ granting form to ever-changing constellations of being as configuration wholly within the temporal process. Nothing lies beyond our world.”[17] The latter phrasing bears more than a passing resemblance to Derrida’s infamous “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”(9)

There is no outside context to God, then, save time and space and “process.” Yet the “becoming” is key here because it transgresses the process. I seek to show why transgression pertains more to the violence of becoming, a spiritual violence, the birthing pains of a world not yet, but also a world which bears the marks of uniquely spiritual violence. This is not to typify violence in all of its forms, but rather to comment on a specific type of spiritual violence which transgresses God language as it likewise transgresses the political. 

Derrida’s transgression is taken up at length in Kevin Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign insofar as [Derrida] argues against God conceived, experienced, or used as mode of presence, though not against God as such. In Derrida’s world, there may be a God, and this God may be full self-presence, or may be otherwise than presence…To say that God dies means for Derrida no more than (and no less than) that God is unable to reveal himself in language.(287)

Becoming is not just part of the world, in all its various processes, but it is the world. It is the soon-but-not-yet both revealed and hidden in language. The transgression Peterson points to is highlighted in his question for the future of Death of God theology: “…what would it be like to imagine and construct a more sustained and comprehensive retrieval of radical theology, heralding its resurrection or second coming both for the present and for the future?”(10) This question does not go far enough because the ‘60s Death of God theology, itself, did not go far enough. If Death of God theology was borne out of abominable traumas of the Holocaust and two world wars, do our continued traumas map onto our language of God? Does the claim of the “overwhelming silence of God” warrant sufficient evidence to rethink notions of God in language?

While many would locate the Death of God movement as a final gasp of theological air, Peterson reorients it as the starting place of “theological reflection” which would be more accurately called religious courage to “…name…the darkness, the feeling of loss, the sense of divine absence that perhaps many continue to feel – or fail to acknowledge – in our time.”(16)

To this end, I demonstrate how the political theology found in Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless (2012), specifically the notion of “mystical anarchy,” and Martin Hägglund’s recent (2019) This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, specifically in the recalibration of Marxism in “democratic socialism,” contribute something dialogically potent in developing the idea of radical incompleteness. Independently, Critchley and Hägglund present fascinating analyses, but read together, they contribute something unique to the wider study of political theology as it relates to spiritual violence.

Simon Critchley: A Political Theology of Mystical Anarchy

In order to unpack Critchley’s concept of “mystical anarchy,” we must first recognize his insistence that the modern democratic state exists as a reciprocal “fiction” which gathers its “legitimacy” through the mutual delusion of representatives believing that they are, in fact, representing the people and people believing their views are being represented in government.  Following Rousseau, Critchley highlights the religious aspect of representative government, or “…the self-binding of the general will…requir[ing]the ligature of religio.” There are mutual fictions here, too, because “the fiction of politics cannot be sustained without the fiction of civil theology.”(89)

Critchley calls the “exposure” of such fictions a “historical and analytical labor of demythologization” which carries implied moral implications due to what he calls a “supreme fiction” where people know they believe in fiction but still choose to believe. I will shortly tie these concepts to his mystical anarchy, but it is worth noting that the underpinning of belief is also tied to human action, like work, which provides the moral foundation for why anarchy is so important here. For example, I’m not sure we can accurately thread together the moral backdrop without “demythologizing” Genesis 3:17 where Adam is condemned to a life of work. Just as representative government and wider religious belief operate on mutual, or even “supreme fictions,” so too work operates in the register of believing humans are still reaping the punishments of disobedience.

The root of Critchley’s mystical anarchy is found in the rejection of original sin. Whereas in the Abrahamic faiths original sin forms the backdrop to the state, and its ancillary mechanisms of enforcement, “[a]narchists believe in the essential goodness of the human being.”(107) Critchley further traces Bakunin’s thought here, particularly that “if human beings are essentially good, then it is the mechanisms of the state, religion, law, and the police that make them bad.” The state, via religious notions of sin and guilt, then create a permanent loop where humans must be saved “from themselves.” The rejection of original sin means the opening of freedom in “sinless union.”(108)

Critchley proposes a radical shift in community, particularly relational dynamics, or “an infinitely demanding subjective ethics of responsibility” which is developed from Lacan. This re-visioning of community is only possible once “…original sin has been overcome.”(117) Transformative to human relationships, abandoning original sin would also mean Schmitt’s argument could also be overcome because politics would no longer be a “hideous surrogate for religious salvation.”(111)

Critchley pivots to an inner form of anarchy, one which is (following Gustav Landauer) “…the creation of new forms of life at a distance from the order of the state – which is the order of visibility – and cultivating largely invisible commonalities…”(143-44) An inner anarchy is one where resistance is fully and finally possible because it is the “cultivation of invisibility, opacity, anonymity, and resonance,”(151) where “…life [is] no longer exhausted by work, cowed by law and the police.” (150) 

The operation of the state, then, is not only bodily control (i.e. the work of the police) but the imposition of human work in order to control and regulate citizenry in “political deism governed by the hidden and divine hand of the market.”(152)  The anarchy Critchley describes is the antithesis of work for the sake of state control because the work one does is, essentially, mystical self-annihilation (hence “mystical” anarchy).

The first person, the ego/I which is anarchically free from being “cowed” is free to be annihilated rather than to annihilate through violence toward the other. Yet self-annihilation, and Critchley follows the medieval Christian mystics closely here, means one “…become[s] God. When I become nothing, I become God.”[40] The logics of self-annihilation and “auto-theism”(130) are not fully worked out, but what ties “mystical” and “anarchy” together is the outworking of an ethical demand realized when “…God is the first anarchist, calling us into a struggle with the mythic violence of law, the state, and politics by allowing us to glimpse the possibility of something that stands apart, an infinite demand that cannot be fulfilled, that divides the subjectivity that tries to follow it.”(220)

For Critchley, this “infinite demand” is manifest, here and now in the lived life, as “[o]pposition to the fictions of state and government…not in the name of disorder, but of another principle of order: free organization, self-determination, collaboration, cooperation…”(232) Just as I am not sure our word “freedom” quite does justice to the ethic of “infinite demand” in the “mythic violence of law, the state, and politics,” so too I am not sure “anarchy” can be fully couched within a political theology. The boundary transgressions here are important, though, even if they are not easily categorized much less implemented across a lived realpolitik. What ties together mystical anarchy understood to a political theology frame?

We will return to this question, but for the moment it seems prudent to suggest a connection to death of God theology. If mystical anarchy is an interior process which is then operationalized in human freedom, in some capacity it functions as a critique to preserve one’s integrity. It is a signifier of something amok in human governmentality and its spiritual freedoms which are stripped in the delusions of representative government. This is to say mystical anarchy points to the harrowing systems of control which emerge after God, in this instance the Death of God, where regulation bodies function for the regulation of bodies.

An appeal to divine sovereignty may have served to control many of the masses which are no under representative government, but the Death of God and mystical anarchy help to sound the alarm regarding new operations of bodily control. That is, the pivot of infiltrational power at the level of the state after the death of God functions as a new type of annihilational sovereignty: not one of the self, but of the mental body politic which turns the “mythic violence of law, the state, and politics” into the actualized violence in new systems of control.

James E. Willis III teaches at the University of Indianapolis. He has published numerous scholarly articles on ethics, philosophy, theology, and data analytics.

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