“Naming The Darkness,” Spiritual Violence, And Radical Incompleteness – Resituating A Political Theology, Part 2 (James E. Willis, III)

The following is the first of a two-part series. The first can be found here. It is republished from Religious Theory on May 9, 2020.

A philosophy of finite human time is one way to read Martin Hägglund’s recent This Life because time is of critical importance in his corpus to date. His interpretation of Marx centers on “labor time” to realize the critiques of Marx: “the alienation of our labor, the exploitation of our time, the commodification of our lives, the necessity of unemployment, and the inherent tendency toward destructive economic crises.”(33) Hägglund develops this critique with what he calls “democratic socialism,” or a form of government after capitalism and after religion.

While the totality of Hägglund’s democratic socialism is beyond the scope here, I seek to focus on some specific points he makes in relation to religion.  Hägglund sees the state as being originary over the free individual, and this extends spiritually: “…there can be no spiritual life without some form of the state: some form of institutional organization of our life-activities governed by norms to which we have bound ourselves.”(266-67)

Hägglund supports reinterpreting religion through faith in the secular and social justice for its own sake, just as he supports the “reinvent[ion]” of the state rather than some form of incoherent abolition of the state. Hägglund’s position, while potent in quarters where capitalism exposes the worst of societal abuses, is markedly and purposefully reformist: “To subordinate the state to society is to transform the state into an actual democracy.”(268)

Hägglund locates the basis by which democratic socialism functions in what he calls “secular faith,” or the “commitment to our shared, finite lives as ends in themselves.” Hägglund takes a cue from Marx in his criticism of both capitalism and religion as “self-alienation,” or the devaluing of our time in less than meaningful work and religion which devalues time in its promise of “eternity.” Both capitalism and religion, Hägglund reiterates, “make us disown our lives, rather than enabling us to own the question of what we ought to do with our finite time.”(330)

Hägglund elevates time, specifically the time of a person’s individual life, to the highest status yet, like religion and economics broadly construed, it is driven by human anxiety over finality and loss in death. Thus, something becomes one’s own, i.e. one’s own life and efforts, when a person realizes what is “worth doing” and what is “worth prioritizing.” Such spiritual clarity must precede freedom of the individual and the individual’s freedom in the state.

Hägglund concludes by making the point explicit: democractic socialism is only realized by the reformulation of religion into “secular faith.” This is no mere humanism, or even a rosy view of human nature without the strictures of religion, but rather a reformation of freedom from both the state, understood as the purveyor and sustainer of capitalism, and of religion, understood as the institution which robs people of their finite lives with unrealistic hope: “To complete our emancipation, we ought to remove all remaining forms of political theology by removing any appeal to ‘God’ in favor of the explicit democratic recognition that what ultimately matters is our relations to one another.”(388)

Democratic socialism is, then, ultimately an embodiment of the anxieties necessary to recalibrate our views of time and its worth. The spiritual worth here, at least as I read Hägglund, is the freedom to create action in one’s life, here and now, in life. There are political implications here, too, because individuals who are actualized are in a better position to “…recognize that our finitude is inseparable from our dignity and our care for one another.”(389)

Hägglund and Critchley: Re-Envisioning Religion and the State

Hägglund and Critchley are doing different things in their respective books, of course. Hägglund is not writing a political theology, but is rather dispensing with the theological in a recalibration of the political. Critchley, on the other hand, is doing something closer to an extended study of a type of political theology. However, between the two thinkers, there are some curious points of intersection and sharp division which are worth highlighting. The intent is to get closer to “naming the darkness” in our attempt to trace spiritual violence in the political.

Hägglund and Critchley share a skepticism of representative government in general and democracy in particular. They together question whether representative government actually expresses the wishes and collective will of the represented. A point of divergence is the role of sovereign power resulting from this skepticism. Where Hägglund subsumes sovereignty into the collective (i.e. democratic) will of the people pursuing social ends for the “common good,” Critchley traces the “paradox” of sovereignty through the continued “fiction” of representative government. 

The fictive is just as important in Hägglund because it must be overcome, just as in Critchley, because “[w]e demand a better society and we now that it depends on us.”(369) This is to say the fictive, as Critchley puts it, has some operational power to rethink the political not as abstraction, but as a motivational tool for individuals to wake up to “…’God’ [as]…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 divide subjectivity that tries to follow it.”  The fictive, which not only undergirds representative government, also provides the route into the moral (“infinite demand” in Critchley and “spiritual freedom” in Hägglund).

Such a moral route means no less than “absolute daring” for Critchley, and it is informed by “sheer ethical overload” because one’s own limited life means we – finite – are met with an infinite demand: “…we are doubly bound: both to follow the thumb-line of the divine commandment and to accept responsibility for choosing not to follow it.”(220) For Hägglund, however, the stakes are clear: political theology must be overcome by a reshaping of human labor in one’s finite time.

For Hägglund, morality, freedom, and political theology meet the same end in one’s finite resources and one’s finite time of life. The embodiment of the ethical, at least in the tension between the individual and the state, is borne out in the impossibility of mystical anarchy for Critchley, but is rather reconfigured in the struggle for emancipation in Hägglund. Both thinkers put the (im)possibility of human freedom in relation to the state behind the ethical demand to act, albeit in different ways.

Hägglund and Critchley both work out human freedom in political terms, whether as a type of interior anarchy (Critchley) or as an expression of one’s anxiety to find meaning in life’s fleeting time (Hägglund). Yet, this connection is superficial. The spiritual violence I surface here is opposing in these two thinkers: for Critchley, the natural trajectory is exterior (the state) to interior (mystical anarchy) whereas for Hägglund the interior (anxiety) unfolds to the exterior (state emancipation). The differences in trajectory suggest how to frame spiritual violence in political theology, at least as far as these two thinkers are concerned.

The movement from the exterior to the interior (Critchley) means reshaping our views of the order of life: “Opposition to the fictions of state and government is advanced not in the name of disorder, but of another principle of order: free organization, self-determination, self-determination, [and] collaboration…”(232) In contrast, the move from the interior to the exterior, according to Hägglund, is a revaluation of human freedom because it is “…a new vision of democratic socialism that is committed to providing the material and spiritual conditions for each one of us to lead a free life, in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another.”(26) Human freedom is, for both of them, the ends worth pursuing, though the “violence” done here is entirely spiritual because both entail ultimate risk, the cost of which has real consequences.

For Critchley, human freedom is undertaken in the risk of reliance on human goodness whereas for Hägglund, such goodness flourishes in the risk of relying on the protections of effective government. At the heart of both thinkers is the notion of collaboration of free persons who undertake risk. This risk is underpinned by the threat of physical violence, whether that is through the use of surveillance (Critchley) or the tangibility of loss through meaninglessness (Hägglund). Both, too, contain spiritual risk because of the relations of persons to themselves and others. Governance and its attendant protocols form the surrogacy of risk in relationality.

Recent work by Saul Newman brings together these differing strands of Critchley’s and Hägglund’s respective arguments. Newman emphasizes “…an ethos of care for what exists”(158) very much the same way that Hägglund argues for the centrality of “our care for one another.”(389) Similarly, in the same sentence no less, Newman details the role of “becoming” in “the possibility of a certain ‘re-enchantment’ of the world”(158) which has resonances with Critchley’s interpretation of the connection between anarchy and the mystical: “…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…”(143-4)

Newman’s casting of political theology of “an expression of a desire for incarnation into a kind of transcendent political community, the sovereign state” shows the asymmetry between Critchley and Hägglund: the act of governance, that of the prerogative of the sovereign state, opens anew the re-visioning of theological anarchy albeit in different ways. For Critchley, anarchy is related to the medieval mystic Marguerite Porete in the sense of “hacking” away at one’s self to meet an “infinite demand of love.” Newman echoes this point with the notion of anarchy being the power to change our own conditions by forming “parallel communities free from the inequalities, violence and domination that characterise broader society.”(167)

Yet, for Hägglund, the state is needed to realize human potential, so where would anarchy make sense? In Hägglund, the locus of freedom, i.e. of human flourishing, is not found in the state (even if the state is the mechanism by which human flourishing occurs), but is rather in the “conditions of spiritual life.” This is no mere replacement, but rather the relocation of human spirituality away from the ephemeral and vague into the concrete outworking of human activity in this life, protected by the government, and made manifest by mutual cooperation. Anarchy, then, is rewritten into the human experience of spirituality: by and through human flourishing, anarchy becomes the outward rejection of meaninglessness and adoption of freedom to live and work without coercion from outside influence.

Here, at the greatest point of divergence, a theological reconsidering of anarchy through Newman’s “ascesis,” or “practices of self-transformation,” is where both Critchley and Hägglund converge in the most productive way: spiritual life’s demands extend beyond the material and, thus, the govern-able, yet there an incompleteness which is at once threatened by governance protocols and is also liberated in the reaffiliation with others in meaningful relation. This is to say the key aspect of Critchley and Hägglund, which is conceptually illuminated by Newman, is human incompleteness, which is most acutely expressed in one’s spiritual life. A political theology which considers the potency of anarchism locates a radical incompleteness in human vulnerability.[35] The relationship between human incompleteness and spiritual violence can be read through recent Death of God thinking.

I return to my earlier point adapted from Peterson’s point about developing a radical theology insofar as the task of the theologian is less about God-speak than it is about “nam[ing] the darkness, the feeling of loss, the sense of divine absence.” Peterson here also sets out something of an agenda for theology in our time: to figure out “tools for working out a new kind of ‘God/less’ talk that takes the otherwise overwhelming silence of God into account as the starting point for theological reflection.”(16)

Political theology, at least as construed above, is not so much one of those tools, but rather a set of models to unpack human incompleteness in its vulnerability. Mystical anarchy, then, is one of those models with which to reconfigure language to make cogency out of the “overwhelming silence of God.”  Spiritual violence, rewritten around this incompleteness, becomes another model for understanding “the feeling of loss, the sense of divine absence.” Anarchy, religiously understood as an act of reconfiguration in social relations to one another in communion away from the gaze of governance, becomes the tool.

Glow of the Self-Sacrificing God

Lissa McCullough’s work in the chapter, “Twilight of the Axial God,” provides a way to think through human incompleteness through the spiritual violence I’ve traced so far in Critchley and Hägglund. In a divine entropy of sorts, McCullough describes how “we find ourselves having to assess, while participating in, the strange history of a self-evacuating God…”(179) The “comprehensive void” that is left is not entirely black, an abyss, but rather a “sacrificial light.”

Writing with a similar vernacular as the earlier Death of God theologian, Altizer, McCullough describes a regeneration of life after the “absolute sacrifice of God.” This assessment, concurrent with the twilight of the Axial God and our human history, is a political act because it requires participation in this history of a “self-evacuating” God.[44] McCullough stresses the changes underway in human history are “not at the level of personal belief but at the level of effective social organization”[45] which means that the political is re-written through the death of God, ultimately leading to a “system of alienation.”

This “system” is not unfamiliar to humanity, of course. She emphasizes how ancient people “…bartered the terrors of freedom for the security of self-possession and fixed identity” which is to say ancient peoples, terrified of the natural world and the freedom within, constricted themselves with religious mythology to give themselves “identity.” This is not a new analysis, of course, but it leads to her claim that the Death of God movement “inaugurates the final axial moment, the apotheosis of negation, in the wake of which a more generative, less reactive and reactionary basis for human thinking and acting…”(182)

This line of thinking follows Critchley’s mystical anarchy in a peculiar way. The act of constricting, that of governance and its protocols, set in to motion humanity’s history which is now changing with the reaffirmation of freedom which is found from breaking loose from such ancient strictures. This is to say that the Death of God, much like the freedom found in Critchley’s mystical anarchy, provides a new way to think outside of the ancient constriction of religion and its political claims.

McCullough goes on to describe life after this axial moment, this final generative twilight as life that is “actual, not alienated…where the most sacred challenges – challenges evaded or deflected by religion as we have known it – still await our attention.” This call out of the slumbers of religion, relegated at best to a promised salvation and at worst to damnation, means facing forward the immense difficulties of this life. The political distractions of life’s ultimate meaning somehow being worked out after this life are repositioned here to the interconnectedness of all people living actual lives.

Advocating for “…the immediate, local, real particularity of the actual world,”(183) Elsewhere, and more recently, McCullough spells out the political implications of such real living, yet in the Altizerrian “atheism as an inevitable expression of faith itself”: “Where atheism pervades it bespeaks an abiding presence and even parousia of God, and where faith pervades it embodies the kenotic dissolution of a God now fully incarnate, hence no longer God.”(170) McCullough’s political vision for actual life is similar to Hägglund’s plea for human flourishing here and now, not cowed by unpaid promises or terrifying threats.

My mention of the political centers on the two connections I have made with McCullough’s thought: the freedom of mystical anarchy in the death of God as a final sacrifice of God (i.e. Critchley) and the affirmation of this life to be lived, here and now, with the pressing concerns of this life (i.e. Hägglund). The former operates as a historical context while the latter pivots to a way to reconsider this life. Both are replete with human incompleteness.

Freedom in mystical anarchy bears no way to consider how to use this freedom; in the utter sacrifice of the axial God, humanity finds itself in not a new world, but in a new position to resituate itself as ultimately free from the bonds of religion into something entirely novel in the history of humanity. The opaque notions of how to use this new freedom, particularly when we think about how to resituate our place in the world, demonstrates our incompleteness in this world. The same is true, too, with the pressing concerns of this life, of this world, which has not gone away. Hägglund’s and McCullough’s thought, together in comparison, show us an ethical imperative of living this life as a form of interconnectedness. This interconnectedness, perhaps being thought out as a new form of society, means that we are, as individuals, incomplete.

In our lived experiences together, as community, we begin to complete ourselves. We must take this ethical imperative and resituate ourselves within the web of interconnectedness, awash and in acceptance of our individual incompleteness. It is this fundamental human trait, our incompleteness, which serves as the means to rethink the political, the ultimate meaning of our lives, and the ability to resituate ourselves. However, we must return to the notion of spiritual violence in order to examine how it undergirds this resituating of the political.

Political Theology Beyond the Death of God

All of this is to say, so far, that the political here becomes possible in human incompleteness through the act of self-sacrifice of God. This self-sacrifice is the ultimate act of spiritual violence on God’s part, and yet, as McCullough indicates in her assessment of our time, we must live in this shadow, in this generative twilight. This is what I mean when I say that the Death of God, at least as it is formulated here, is the starting place for reconsidering the political. I want to argue that the reordering of human relationality means that, paradoxically, spiritual violence provides a way to examine religion without being under its spell, its spell of governance protocols and enforcement mechanisms.

The void left in the Death of God is the chasm of generative power to real life, real human relationality, and a real political orientation. This is to say that if we take McCullough seriously, post-axial religion is not a dark abyss but rather a light we must pass through in order to realize the power of spiritual violence to recreate our relations with one another. If human relations are built on and carried out by formal and informal structures, the contrast between Critchley and Hägglund becomes ever more prescient: Critchley’s spiritual anarchy is pitted against structures but Hägglund’s democratic socialism creates new structures.

The tension here demonstrates that social (de)structuring bears out our ethical commitments to one another. The Death of the Axial God in this way allows spiritual violence to bypass the worst excesses of religious terroristic violence and religious emotional violence. The spiritual violence of the ultimate self-sacrifice of God means the recreation of human (de)structuring of society. The naming of the darkness is, then, the resituating of the political within new human relations. The symbol which connects all of these ideas together is that of human incompleteness.

Re-Mythologizing Political Theology in Radical Incompleteness

Reading Critchley and Hägglund through McCullough’s notion of a self-sacrificing axial God shows us how to position spiritual violence in the political. That is, we seek a resituating of human relations after this event, our starting place, to reorient the political and a political theology simultaneously. Human relations are reformed in this resituating from displacement and disorientation through mutual acceptance of humanity’s incompleteness. But, this incompleteness is radical because it requires religious courage. That is, our radical incompleteness means our most profound vulnerability is written around human finitude and our religious stories, mythologies, which help us to make meaning of that finitude. But, our radical incompleteness is also our most profound creativity to develop new mythologies to compensate for that incompleteness.

Spiritual violence, the breakdown of our relations with one another in the contemporary world, must embrace this radical incompleteness in order to transgress the entrenched mythologies of the axial religions. This means that new political space is created in our desire to renegotiate religious mythologies. We return to the point above regarding the world becoming through new political contexts which are distinctly spiritual.

What is becoming is an ethical freedom, written at the margins of our own internal and external capacities for resistance to governance and control, an anarchy that begins as a mystical experience and culminates in a reforming of our interconnected bonds. This is to say that naming the darkness refers most concretely to the traumas suffered in the dislocation of our human relations, which have been most fervently expressed in our religious stories. The binding function of religion, one of its most ancient definitions, though unbundled in the contemporary world, has the ability to once again rejoin people together in the collective renegotiation of religious narratives.

What and how the resituating of religious myths would look like in human society is beyond the scope here, but I conclude suggesting that such re-mythologization bears its most potent fruit in considering the rightful place of our anarchical, free, and gloriously incomplete relations with one another.

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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