Saturday, February 28, 2015

In the Merry Old Land of Uz

Ha, ha, ha
Ho, ho, ho
And a couple of tra - la - las
That's how we laugh the day away
In the Merry Old Land of Oz


It's where Job is from.

Idea for a 3 Stooges short:

It starts out merry, and ends up merry (all's well that ends well); but in this tale the boys meet a man named Job and all hell breaks loose.

Title: A Job's a Job, but that ain't my Job

Moe, Larry and Curly play Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (they are affectionately called Eli, Bil and Zo in our treatment). I'm wondering if this should really be a Shemp. I'll leave it to casting.

Closing scene (theme music): Eli, Bil and Zo riding into the sunset on Leviathan, who's spurting out sparks and fire from his mouth and nostrils as the boys squeal wo-wo-wo-wo-wo.

Cut. Print.


The Book of Job presents a problem of genre. Wise people place it among the Wisdom literature. But there is nothing in the Wisdom literature that contains this level of burlesque. God and [the]Satan, the one not so bright, the other a cunning knave, conjure several challenges for an unflappable Job. This is the stuff of comedy: financial catastrophe, violent death, horrific disease. God and [the]Satan--just what will those guys come up with next?

The standard reading of the book emphasizes the inscrutable knowledge, power, will of the Lord, and the smallness of human comprehension in the face of such a Lord. This reading is known as 'theodicy,' from the Greek roots, theos and dike, God and justice: God's justice. But what justice is this that abuses Job to show [the]Satan, the mischief-maker, just how just Job is?

Job never asks God to justify himself (he does ask audaciously for an explanation, but this never rise to the level of theodicy). He wonders what he or his family could have done to deserve such divine wrath, but cannot discover any guilt. Job wishes he had never lived, and he despairs in his profound loss and unspeakable suffering.

Job receives visits from his 'friends' who heighten his suffering through their presentation of traditional belief in retributive 'justice.' Talk about salt in the wounds. Job is grief-stricken beyond human endurance, though he does indeed endure. There must be something to Job's complaint, as the whirlwind appears, and God himself enters the fray. But this is not the Yahweh who held court in the opening lines of our text. This is no blow-hard: at this climax of the comic opera, we do not get the pompous ass promised in the overture. We do indeed get the inscrutable God.

Job 38 contains some of the most magnificent poetry in the library we call 'the bible.' Yehovah, speaking in his own name, recapitulates the beauty and terror of creation. Beginning in the cosmic order, God recounts the architecture of the world, all phenomena visible and invisible, the sentient and non-sentient universe. God underscores Job's absence from the terrible beauty of the world, from the dew to the fiery breath of Leviathan. Job, of course, acknowledges his absence from the events of creation and the reality of the created world (40:4-5). Finally, God humiliates Job with the imagery of Behemoth, the river horse hung like, well, a horse. Completely broken, Job surrenders to mystery of the world and its creator (42:2-6). Still, God makes Job present to the process of creation in the redux: he is made present to his absence, and present to a slightly widened aperture upon the wonders of the world. Job therefore retreats to a more strategic place, the docta ignorantia, the learned ignorance of apophatic space that, as Catherine Keller has pointed out in her Cloud of the Impossible, Nicholas of Cusa will carve out from the infinity of God. 

None of God's words address Job's complaint. There is no explanation for the capricious treatment visited upon Job's existence. God does not want to speak to the suffering he has allowed to be inflicted on his servant. God changes the subject[ivity] into intersubjectivity. Job gets a tour of the universe, and receives final vindication for his investigations; his friends are convicted for their 'theodicies,' pay their retribution to Job, and in good comic fashion, Job is restored to his rightful place in the land of Uz.

All's well that ends well. 

The traditional reading of Job will forever stand in its incoherence. The farcical elements of this book, its dark and dreaded humor, have no place amongst the so-called 'wisdom literature.' Job is sui generis, a comedy bordering on a satyr play that breaks the tension of a full day at the amphitheater. 

The book's 3 stooges want to make the matter one of theodicy. God and Job want it to be one of growing closeness between the human and the divine. God gives no answer to Job's suffering because there is no answer. But Job's restoration to even greater existence and fulfillment is telling. Is it just that some redactor couldn't stomach some original version of the text where Job simply dies of grief and disease? I think not. Job is about the reality of the horrors of life, the ugliness embedded within a good world. These things cause immense suffering, but they are generated within a world made with intelligibility and integrity. The restoration is something of a resurrection for Job, an allotment of more time, of more sacred space. The apophatic position is the winner in this comedy, and this deepening relationship between God and Job comes to fulfillment in another act of creation, of reshith. 'Where were you' becomes you are with me. The times of presence and absence blur into something new moving into another horizon.

The answer to Job is the Christ-event. I am with you always until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). God comes to man as man, and interdigitates his nature with the human. Why do we suffer in this world? God says I suffer with you. There are no more Jobs after Christ because such Jobs will have their answer before they even ask: the Cross of forsaken suffering witnessed in the first person by God. So where is the consolation in that? It is no consolation at all if such forsaken suffering stays on the Cross. The insistence from the Cross is a call from a distance to the hearer of the message. It is an invitation to release the event of love in the presence to the Other, a presence of human contact. Job's restoration is his contact with the divine. Suffering asks us to knock on the door of the neighbor who suffers. Visit, stay awhile. That is sacred time and sacred space. Solid time: reshith. It doesn't make suffering less painful, or less mysterious. It does make it a little less incomprehensible, in a learned ignorance kind of way. And it may lighten the burden of suffering by sharing in its presence through presence, for a sacred moment.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Retreat of the Barron: Theodicy Dies Hard

Robert Barron has reconsidered his recent homily on God's solidarity with the human condition. In his latest video, he retreats into simple theodicy, and though he asks his listeners to consider why Christians refer to the Friday of Jesus's death as 'good,' he has abandoned the theme of solidarity. Why Fr. Barron would adopt a strategy of defeat in the face of evil and suffering boggles the mind. Even his title for his presentation, "Stephen Fry, Job and Suffering" betrays a hopeless juxtaposition that valorizes all the wrong things.

Though he rightly reminds us that the actor-comedian is not the first to present the problem of suffering in the face of an omnibenevolent God, Barron allows the obscenity of theodicy in the face suffering children to hold the day. We stipulate that unspeakable suffering is the single best argument against the existence of the God of the 'omni's,' but we do not stipulate that the incomprehensibility of God's will, wisdom, plan, etc., is the answer to incomprehensible, meaningless suffering and other evils of this world.

It's as if Barron had reviewed my embrace of his homily and thought better of his original thesis, or certainly my synthesis of it, and now rejects it out of hand. Perhaps a review of the distinction of potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta is appropriate here. Suffice it to say that God has (co)ordinated his 'omnipotence' in this world of ours to this world. After creation, God saw that all was good, that creation was imbued with process, intelligibility and integrity. He therefore aligns himself to his creation and orders his power to what he has decreed in his creation. He has created creatures in his image and likeness,  and imbued them with radical freedom. He loves, but performs no magic.

The answer to Job and his shadows is not the potentia absoluta, but the potentia ordinata which expresses itself as divine love of the impossibility of the possible. We call this impossibility Christ. The answer to human suffering is the suffering of God. This response of solidarity is what I found so liberating in Fr. Barron's homily on Job. It cut to the horizon of love where God has chosen to reveal himself, as himself, in his self-communication in the Christ-event.

When Stephen Fry takes God to task for abandoning children in their suffering, I take Fry to task for not being at the bedside of these children more often, redeeming their suffering and time of loneliness. Would it kill him to tell a few jokes on the wards of Memorial Sloane-Kettering? It would seem that any atheistic ethic would demand that all atheists participate in the sacred time of the most profoundly human events---death and suffering. For theists this is not so much an ethic as an act of faith and mercy. Either substrate gets human beings to be present to the suffering other, to witness to what it means to be human and mortal.

So why are the suffering and dying so often alone? Because most atheists and theists share a secret,  their dirty little secret of self-indulgent, self-serving apathy.

Just as Christians are required to remove the log from their own eye before they presume to remove the speck from their brother's eye, so, too, the atheist must shake his fist at his fellow atheist before he shakes it at God.

How could Fr. Barron have missed this profoundly pastoral moment (he has just written a wonderful homily on The Transfiguration that deploys a savvy hermeneutic, which moved me to comment, especially upon his use of 'icon')? While we tend to the horrors of cancer in our fellow humans suffering in silence, perhaps we should also tend to the cancer of theodicy that makes a mockery of creation.

Divertimento--Mitternachtslied: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

I have been translating Zarathustra's ditty for 40 years. It has been ringing in my ears lately, and here is my latest tweaking of this little piece. I think we must imagine Midnight singing and shining its song every night, within a cycle of sleeping and awakening. As we do for Sisyphus, we must, as Camus advises, imagine Midnight happy, embracing each dream, awakening, joy and suffering--hoping to change none of it, night after night, day after day. The rhythm of a life well-lived embraces its days and midnights, its joy and suffering, its moments of weakness and strength.

Oh Mensch! Gib acht!

Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?

»Ich schlief, ich schlief—,

Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht:—

Die Welt ist tief,

Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.

Tief ist ihr Weh—,

Lust—tiefer noch als Herzeleid:

Weh spricht: Vergeh!

Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit—,

—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!«

All and none must listen:

Upon what words does deep midnight glisten?

“I sleep, I sleep-

I have awakened from a dream so deep-

The world is a chasm deep

A chasm deeper than day’s thought could leap.

Deep is its suffering-

Joy, yet deeper than the heart’s sad muttering:

Suffering glimmers, ‘enough, away’

But Joy wants eternity

Wants deep, deep eternity”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Men, Horses and Blue Mugs: Onticology of Substance

Levi Bryant's rather elegant elaboration and rehabilitation of Aristotelian substance in his Democracy of Objects ("The Paradox of Substance" and "Virtual Proper Being") lays an interesting foundation for understanding objects that entail autonomy and independence from phenomenality. Lately, Levi has loosened his notion of materiality from that of substance, and might be abandoning substance altogether in his revisiting (repetition) of Lacan's Borromean knot. Though I anticipate some clarifications from Levi, I do not hesitate to speculate on what that might mean for a system of objects as 'difference generators' (what Levi now calls 'machines') vis a vis what's going on in the Genesis texts. What follows in this post is not so much a critique of Levi's theses as it is my own reflection on how Levi's work might come to bear on theological gestures (all page numbers appearing in this post refer to Democracy of Objects and will be given in parentheses).

Levi embraces the 'archaic' Aristotelian term for its application to objects whose equality is at the level of substance: therein lies the democracy of objects--not that all objects are of the same substance, but that all objects have substance. This principle subverts any possibility that one object can be the ground of another. (73). The ground rules of Levi's system of objects entail several axioms which are in turn contextualized within [his debt to] Roy Bhasker's fundamentally religious question (A Realist Theory of Science [New York: Routledge, 1998]) on the condition of the world that makes science possible (42ff):

1. Because difference engines or substances are not identical to the events or qualities they produce, while nonetheless substances, however briefly, endure, the substantial dimension of objects deserves the title of virtual proper being. (69) .

2. ...substances are not predicated of anything else, it follows that substances are not in anything else in the sense that qualities are in substances. As Aristotle puts it, “[i]t is a characteristic common to every substance not to be in a subject. For a primary substance is neither said of a subject nor in a subject”. Substances are not something in an individual thing, but are rather what individual things are. (74)
3. ...objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations, harboring hidden volcanic powers irreducible to any of their manifestations in the world.(70)
4. The substantiality of objects is never to be equated with the qualities they produce.(70)

The blue mug sitting on Levi's desk illustrates the system of objects presented. The substance and virtual proper being of the mug secures for it its rights in this democracy. "The virtual proper being of an object is what makes an object properly an object. It is that which constitutes an object as a difference engine or generative mechanism. However, no one nor any other thing ever encounters an object qua its virtual proper being, for the substance of an object is perpetually withdrawn or in excess of any of its manifestations" (88). I understand Levi to be asserting here that the substance, or materiality of an object is only encountered through its local manifestation of which phenomenality is a subset (a special case)--when the object's materiality presents itself in the experience of a human object--when a subject encounters the local manifestation of another object.

So, in order to say something onticologically true about the blue mug, we must stipulate that "it would be inaccurate to suggest that the mug is blue or that the mug possesses the quality of blue. Rather, if we had an ontologically accurate language, we would instead say that “the mug blues” or that “the mug is bluing” or that “the mug does blue”. So for Levi's democracy, an object may or may not exert its power, but it might under certain circumstances. That is, the object's qualities are acts of being predicated of its substance.
The genius of this system is in its generative and coherent explicative strength. Such a democracy is a very big tent, as it admits all objects as objects that make a difference. Famously, there is no difference that does not make a difference, and if a difference is made then the being is.

Things really get interesting when Levi rewrites (repeats?) his democracy into Lacan's Borromean knot of the relation among the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary. In short, The Real now becomes the domain of materiality (substance); the Imaginary becomes the domain of phenomenology, and the Symbolic becomes the domain of (meta)narratives. Of course, Lacan's RSI has always had more than aleatory implications for theological gestures, if for no other reason than for its superficial trinitarian structure. Levi's own Borromean Critical Theory may have its own appeal for trinitarian reasons, but also for the play of objects in the predicament of entanglement(s), as Catherine Keller implies in her own recent work, but also, of course, in its appeal to the recent themes of this blog: reshith, the event in/of creation, and the reality of God and liturgical process.

Any process theology, tehomic or ante-tehomic (the latter my own inclination), would understand Borromean critical theory within a democracy of objects as essentially metonymic, and not paradigmatic. Given his commitment to a flat ontology, I can anticipate Levi's agreeing with this idea, namely, that the relation between the 'rings' is linear and syntagmatic, not paradigmatic, with its inherent risk of hierarchy. Any relationality in the knot traces itself on the string itself, not in the spaces that overlap or not.

The condition of the world that renders science (e.g., theology) possible is its transcendental intelligibility. That intelligibility need not be grounded in the Logos, or divine intelligence, but in its mere substance, and its manifestations, and eventually as its phenomenality (by phenomenality I am respecting the primacy of manifestations). From the perspective of Genesis, we can locate, in solid time, a materiality of reshith, of beginning. Since the qualities of any materiality are what it (substance) does, there is a real distinction to be made between the creating object and the created. Reshith generates secondary substances, that are not of itself, but manifestations of itself, through the action of its qualities, what materiality does. It is the very being of some objects in reality to simply do. Being as doing without diminishing substance, without breaking a piece off of a substance. The qualities are predicated of materiality, until and when they, as secondary substances, become primary substances, and therefore enter the horizon of being without grounding in what originary objects do. What Elohim is doing in reshith, he does because he is doing, not grounding. Elohim is not the ground of heaven and earth, he is their doing, their creating into the horizon of substantial democracy. Elohim, God, is not the ground of being, but the condition, the transcendental reality that makes intelligible intelligibility, and theological gestures possible. This is what we mean when we say that God loves before he is, where 'before' is an artifact of language rather than the event within the actual horizon of love.

Entanglement answers the question of sustaining the world. The autonomy and independence of objects from grounding remain coherent only in radical freedom in responsibility. Now these terms might seem particular (peculiar?) to a certain kind of object, a sentient object, or human object, but if science is to remain possible, then the world must adopt a conformation that is a viable condition for science, which is entangled only if its possible. That is why the scientific gesture will always be a religious one.

It does not matter that the blue mug is techne. In reshith, arche and techne stand in the same solid space-time:  they are one and the same. The blue mug is an object quite independent of its final cause (if I may say such things), as is its 'bluing.' The (very) local 'geopolitic' of a mug bluing, is anchored into its materiality in a way that drives its phenomenality and its untold story (semiosis). The very condition for the blue mug to be, accounts for all its manifestations, whether they present to the experience of Dasein or not. Indeed, if we are to take the very excess of objects seriously, that they cannot be contained in local manifestions or any category of qualities, then the release of the event of object qua object must occur on the horizon of democracy.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Human and Divine: Genesis in Quadragesymmetry

Yuletide, Easter, Lent...pagan words for pagan festivals...remnants, I suppose of a certain syncretism. I prefer Quadragesima for Lent; at least it tells us what's going on. So, too, with Natale, and Pasqua, which tell us about events, as opposed to seasons. The Germanic, pagan terms are all about kairos, but the Italian terms are about chronos, and the things that happen in time. But that's just me.

The time of Quadragesima puts us in Genesis. We are beginning, making a path, making inroads into creation. Like the breezy beginning of it all, we hover above the deep, the face of discernment. It is a time of penitence and a time for understanding origins. The mythos of Genesis presents religious truths in simple and picturesque language, and these truths place us in relation to the way things are for us. In earlier posts I spoke of reshith, a beginning, and of 'image and likeness,' a relationship etched in reality. I would like to continue with those meditations.

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [Gen. 1:26-27, NIV]

 The language here is of analogy; it is a grammar of the similarity and continuity between God and the human. God and man share in 'dominion,' and by this term I mean stewardship, over living creatures and the breathing earth. History has appropriated this analogy of dominion as political power anchored into a 'great chain of being;' but such an interpretation speaks more to man creating God in the image and likeness of man, than to what the plain sense of the biblical language authorizes. Creatures do not participate in the univocality ( I apologize for this term, but I want to suspend any commitment to Scotist-Deleuzean univocity, and keep a door open for Aquinas) of God, but they do participate, as creatures, in the creative impulse that keeps the world in the process of creation. We gain analogical knowledge of God in this passage, but I cannot stress enough that I am not suggesting that humans are anatomically or even psychologically similar to God. To allow the event of revelation to take place, we must remain free from any crass notions of identity with the Godhead. We must settle for likeness as concept, without placing the materiality of the divine and human on the same plane.

When we keep image and likeness in this kind of creative tension, we are better positioned to partake of the release of the event in Genesis 2:18-23.

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh.

Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." [NIV]

The Hebrew words for 'suitable helper' (the roots of the words ezer and neged )can also be rendered, without torturing the text too much as 'image and likeness.' The Genesis mythos tells us that God has created all creatures from the earth, but he did not rest until he had caused the appearance of his image and likeness. This is indeed a suitable place to rest, for God could see himself in the human. It is not good for God to be without a suitable creature to continue the work of creation along with him. So, too, it is not good that the human should be alone. But a suitable helper would not be found among non-human creatures. Only when the human saw himself in another creature could he rejoice: this creature is of my very self, my very image and likeness; she shares the human's name because she shares in his humanity. Ish and Ishah, a distinction in names, a difference created to bring the likeness of God all the closer: the likeness of creating, of making.

The symmetry at work in creation is one of analogy, of suitability, of appropriateness of relationship. This is the symmetry of the good, not of crass geometry. This symmetry has no shape or dimension: it is a state of relationships, in their relationships to materiality: analogical materiality. God is a maker of things; humans are makers of things. The sharing of image and likeness is in the making, and in the spiritual depths (tehom) that make each recognizable to the other. The human creature had a share and stake in the same ruach that oscillated on the horizon of reshith, beginning. 

It is easy to understand how such likeness and familiarity could be misappropriated into a notion of a great chain of being. Perhaps if its conception and execution were fluid and untainted by human greed and power, the great chain could have had some ethical value. But it is corrupt in its origins. Even its repetition in the tenets of the Age of Reason does not extricate it from its inherent intent on domination and power. Some ideas are just born bad to the bone of its bones, which is what the Great Chain of Being said to the Enlightenment. But I digress....

The status of symmetry in which God has revealed himself does not change when the man and woman ascend into history in their own process of becoming sentient creatures distinct from God. Many a homily these forty days and nights will characterize the human appropriation of knowledge of good and evil as a usurpation of the divine prerogative of being the arbiter of good and evil---as distinct for the human disposition, in its inevitable self-serving relativism, of what is good and evil. This is a fair reading of an important level in our texts. I would bracket that reading off to allow for another event to emerge from Genesis. The event of creatures realizing their own natures. Genesis has revealed something uncanny about the human creature: it is blinded by thirst for knowledge, and fallible in its pursuit.

 And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground--trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [Gen. 2:9, NIV]

There are two trees in the center of Eden: the fatal one, and the tree of life. To know is to live and die. The human chose first to know, and then to live; of course God would have none of that. Adam and Eve get the boot before they can marry knowledge with immortality.  Still, their choice is instructive. To be human is to want to know: knowledge often trumps humanity's best interests, even when given a choice ( sometimes we glow in the things we could do, as we neglect glowing on what we should do). If the humans of Eden had chosen the fruit of Life before they chose the fruit of Knowing, I imagine we'd have a very different book. Nonetheless, we are left with what has come to be known as Original Sin---the breach between the human and the divine that nonetheless maintains the status quo of the static symmetry between God and man.

Original Sin begs the question of 'originality' here, but perhaps its best to think of 'original' simply as 'first;' after all, we're immersed in a book of firsts. I'll certainly not present a theology of sin here, but I will suggest that sin is a departure from the order of creation. This kind of originality pokes at reshith itself, and that's why it's such a big deal (something like Myron Cohen stealing from Milton Berle stealing from Henny Youngman stealing from Jack Benny). Man in his mythic disobedience walks his originality back to the beginning itself, to the plane where he was not, and effectually begins again in that Joycean moment of a thunderous hundred letter word. This is man's nature: to know. to know he will fall, and like many-a-Finnegan, begin again. But God is in on this chaosmic joke, and Genesis lets the cat out of the bag: God brought all the animals to the man to see what he would name them. He already knew man was a creature who names, who knows by naming, and by extension, boxing, categorizing. He knew already than there is nothing that a human will not attempt to know and own by naming, not even the naming of God (witness the Exodus ontology, Ex. 3:14). The naming of cats is a difficult matter.

This is the human condition, and Genesis is its mythos. So why, then, redemption? While the symmetry between creator and created remains intact, the relationship itself has been injured. This much all people of the book acknowledge. This problem is not a matter of hurt feelings and anger, but it is a matter of the symmetry itself. It is inadequate to contain the relationship released through the revelation to come. That will have to wait in time, until a new symmetry can be rewritten on another horizon of love--in time--where it will breathe according to the ruach (the Spirit) to come. The historical moment of the Incarnation is the event in which God insists on a definitive symmetry in the interdigitations of the human and divine.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Postmodern Critique: Phenomenality and Materiality

While we are all moderns, that is, we exist in this universe, in this world, on this planet, in this environment of a natural earth under siege, technological achievements that saturate the human mind, bending it toward boredom to video games and hover boards, we nonetheless adopt a posture critical of the modern turn as a matter of survival, of assuring that what is human stays that way even as the inevitable march into the future offers few alternatives. The heady humanism that drives modernity's project creates for it the illusion of order, or better, the illusion that humans can and do impose order in our world.

Modernity's great gesture is the invention of containment, which bends the knees of those who blindly follow the big project. The invention states that we can know a thing so well as to create borders around all things that justify the essence of those things. We gather data about stuff, and determine the qualities and attributes of stuff, then tend to group stuff together in boxes, categories, that pretty much says everything about that stuff in the category, so that we can move on to put other stuff in other categories.

So, we adopt a critical posture that analyzes this rather grand gesture, the power to categorize and know. Modernity's first attempt at the grand move was political, and was designed to contain trouble. The rise of the mercantile phenomenon became the category of the 'middle class.' Science and the sciences became reason, and religion became bracketed off as the stuff of private thought (none dare call it reason), of something called faith. This strategy seemed to pay off--it worked, as the privatization of religion took its arguments off the streets and into homes and churches, and the discourse of the streets became that of commerce and economy, power and politics, and above all, scientific reason. Who can argue with success? Progress erupted and accomplished more in the new domains of the public sphere than what was accomplished in 50,000 years of homo sapiens prior to The Age of Reason. The juggernaut of modernity had buttressed its stay in human life.

The problem is this: the categories that empower the modern project are inventions whose purpose is to dominate. They say little or nothing about the objects in these categories, so long as objects behave according to the shape of the category. The very materiality of objects goes on, indifferent to the categories in which modernity has located them. The illusion of knowing trumps the freedom of objects to be what they are in themselves. The category imposes the will on materiality. A thing is what it is only in accordance with its category.

Now that effect certainly simplifies the world, and imposes digestible chunks of stuff for the sciences to investigate. The emergence of the disciplines provide ample evidence of this phenomenon. This is the driving force of progress, and we would have it no other way. Except maybe to take some wind out of those sails of hegemony over objects. The great modern shift to the subject has justified its invention of categories (even the concept of category itself), but at the expense of objects and their materiality.  Postmodernism wants to show the categorical impulse for what it is: invention and a figment of the imagination, a very useful one to be sure, but one whose imperial subjectivity tends to get caught up in itself. Where would objects be were it not for the categories dreamed up for them?

An interesting development in the categorical imagination has occurred famously in physics. Observation would have it that light behaves sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle (photon). This ingenious conclusion has proven to be very descriptive of general patterns observed in the universe. Nature is discrete: it seems to do things in packets and units. The computer technology that has analyzed these phenomena is itself poised to see its own reflection: its binary system, its digital configuration. Our observations of the physical universe, that is, its phenomenality, suggest that, alas, the universe, in its discrete units of energy, mass, quanta, are digital. Physics wants to tell us that the universe in and of itself is digital.

Of course, this conclusion is either true or false, but 'digital' is just another category that seems to describe the objects within it. It remains to be seen if  the very materiality of the universe is the way it is because of its phenomenality (that which appears in the experience of the observer). Either phenomenality is reduced to materiality or materiality is reduced to its phenomenality. This would mean that what we see is what it is.

At this time, I am more comfortable saying that what we see is what we see, and that which is, is what it is. We cannot conflate materiality and phenomenality without doing violence to either. We need to think of phenomenality without power if we are to allow objects to be objects, to allow the natural world to be free, if indeed it is free. Such a new phenomenology would seek out the margins of categories and look for signs of saturation and events which cannot be contained within them. What is presented to observation is certainly presented to the intuition, but the materiality of objects already saturates the categorical imagination, and the very event of materiality, of objects, cannot be released under the illusion of the hegemony of an encyclopedic modern project. Postmodernism must demonstrate that the perforations modernity has etched in reality are not real themselves. They are simply the convenience of dividing and conquering: ok for what it is, but impotent in the face of the real.

Friday, February 13, 2015

On the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

As I am gathering my thoughts and sit to write this post on the most Catholic of Catholic topics, I am also mulling over Levi Bryant's poignant call for a transformation of our concept of phenomenality. Unless I am morbidly misreading Jean-Luc Marion, his project is nothing if it is not about transforming what we mean by phenomenality. His phenomenology ain't your father's phenomenology. His readings of Husserl and Heidegger are deconstructive to the bone, and his emerging phenomenology and certainly his theology have as their goals the systematic release of the event, which is the very heart of deconstruction.

The Real Presence, and how that comes about in the Eucharist, are indeed saturated phenomena of the event, and certainly of idol and icon. In this piece I intend to respect just how these Catholic realities present to the intuition that which is uncontainable in intentionality. While I will discuss the old categories used by the Church to cope with the greatest of mysteries, I hope  to side-step resting in the idol, and pursue the iconic, and thereby set the stage for the release of the event harbored in the sacred texts, the liturgy and the Eucharistic moment.

To begin, I want to imagine that moment in thanksgiving (that is precisely what eucharistos means), but also in reshith, in a beginning; for the Eucharistic moment is about something appearing that was not there before. And that moment is 'solid time,' time not in its ordinary sense, but a time that has presence and is present, and has matter. The Eucharist is a place to stand. Thanksgiving, beginning, thanks-beginning, be-giving. The solid time of the Eucharist is a theological moment playing out on the horizon of the mystical.

We must imagine the sacramental essence of the Eucharist moving on the stage of liturgy, which is itself anchored into the words of the Word-made-flesh. The Logos is love, and its sacramental, liturgical present makes its presence known to us on a horizon of charity. Bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ: the idol (more but not less than a symbol) passes into icon (more but not less than reality-the hyper-real). The idol, created by the gaze upon it and saturated as it is, is still a missed opportunity. The icon provokes the gaze upon it, but does not reflect back on the gaze, but lets the light through, and gazes upon the gazer. The sacrament is a gift to the gazer giving thanks.

The Blessed Sacrament, the sacrament par excellence of the Catholic faith, is the Eucharist and the Real Presence. It is the sacrament from which all the others flow, and which authorizes and authenticates the very sacramentality so central to Catholicism's self-understanding. As such, the Eucharist must be understood in terms of its sacramentality, its relationship to the Body of Christ, and its liturgical meaning in process and reality. The faith makes great claims for the phenomenon of the Eucharist; it proclaims the real presence of Christ in divinity and humanity (the hypostatic union persists in any of its manifestations) under the appearances of bread and wine, the imparting of grace, the remission of sins,and the assimilation of the whole Christ within the person of the recipient and the community of the faithful.

The claims the Church makes for the Real Presence trace their authenticity and authority to the Synoptic Jesus's words over the bread and wine at the final meal he shared with his disciples. The words of inauguration, consecration or more commonly, of institution, vary slightly among the 3 Synoptics, but they are nearly identical in their 'this is my body' and 'this is my blood' statements. The Church confesses that the words uttered by the Word (Logos) have the power to effect what they say. It is the power of is-ing: this bread is my body--so it becomes; this wine is my blood--so it becomes; for the Logos participates in creation by fiat. In this sense, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements is already understood in the work of the evangelists, and the Pauline corpus attests to the same (e.g., 1 Corinthians). Indeed, the Eucharistic celebration is already deeply liturgical (of course in a rudimentary way) in the 1st century, and both the epistolary NT and the Gospels depict this state of affairs. John 6 is constitutive of the liturgical reality of Christ's flesh and blood, despite and because of its perverse and dramatic language. A juxtaposition of all the Eucharistic texts of the NT is instructive and convincing in determining the self-understanding of the early Church and I invite the reader to undertake this rewarding venture.

Far more controversial than a growing understanding of the Real Presence in the NT is the explanation of just how the liturgical celebration effects the change in the bread and wine. It simply wasn't a problem for the disciples at the last supper: what Jesus said became reality. Speculatively, there was no process involved at the inauguration of the Eucharist, precluded as it must have been by the prerogative of the actus purus of the divine Logos. God said it, so it is was. But how does it happen at each celebration of the Eucharist?

Here the genius of the Church develops the concept of transubstantiation (T, henceforth) to describe the metaphysics of the conversion, under the words of consecration/institution as uttered by the celebrant in persona Christi, which is the liturgical role of the priest in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The clumsy term T has its roots in Aristotle and 'substance theory.' Unfortunately for us [post]moderns, we have no rapport with such roots and theory. Suffice it to say that in this theory, a substance (deepest reality, essence) was separate from its attributes (appearance, qualities, properties). So when we ask 'what's this substance?' we expect a response that answers 'what's it made of,' such as, metal, wood, plastic, water, alcohol, oil, etc. When that question is asked of Aristotle or of  the mediaeval theologians who appropriated his work to provide philosophical scaffolding to their theologies, the answer would be 'what makes it what it is,' whatever absolute reality inhering in the thing in question, what ever makes the thing the thing itself, its deepest meaning and reality. Furthermore, substance was not something accessible through the senses, but only through pure intellect (as Aquinas would put it). In this sense, substance can only be understood as idol.

If T is to speak to us at all today, we must learn 'substance' as a technical term. We use terms like essence, deepest reality, deepest reality that determines identity, meaning, signified of a sign (semiotics), finality, telos when we want to mean what the Tradition means by 'substance.' We should become sensitive to how 'substance' is meant in the theology of the Eucharist, and try to imagine 'substance' both as it is understood in the Tradition (without of course collapsing the icon into the idol), and as it is informed by the terms we have replaced it with today. We should adopt a less hostile attitude toward substance theory, without necessarily embracing it (especially if that means resting in the idol and falling asleep before reaching the icon). We should be open to the ideas of, for example, Schillebeeckx and Rahner, and to the use of the ideas they have named 'transignification' and 'transfinalization' (respectively),  not to supplant but to deepen our understanding of the conversion that takes place in the bread and wine during the liturgy as it is understood in the Tradition. These newer terms have their own clumsiness to be sure, but they are not to be understood in the idolatry of their concepts, but how they operate in the heart and mind, in short, as iconic, as lifting the mind over the idol to the icon.

T was intended not only as a dogmatic explanation of a liturgical event, but also as a fence built around the Real Presence in order to protect it from degradation. The dogmas of T and the Real Presence therefore go hand in hand from the 4th Lateran Council of 1215 through the sessions of the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century to the present. Simply stated (ha!), T is the process of conversion, grounded in the words of the Word made flesh, whereby the the deepest reality and meaning of bread and wine, in their literal and symbolic sense and existence, are converted completely into the deepest reality and meaning of the Whole Christ, that is, everything to do with Christ that makes him Christ. The process does not entail any transformation or conversion of the appearance, properties or qualities of the bread and wine, nor does it entail any change in Christ's body and blood. Bread and wine remain as signifiers, but their reality, their sign has changed because their signified has been completely converted into another signified, with an attendant conversion of all meaning and presence. The finality of the bread and wine have undergone a complete conversion into the finality that is the Christ. This process has nothing to do with physics or the horizon of Being. It cuts to the heart of liturgy and sacramentality, and to the release of the event of faith.

When we participate in the Eucharist, we take in what the senses know as bread and wine, but assimilate the whole Christ into our being in a sacramental manner. In this way, the reality of the bread and wine become 'un-symbols,' the actuality and the reality of the body and blood of Christ, even as their appearances continue to be symbols of that body and blood. The symbolic richness remains, even as Christ's actual presence is really real. This is the mystery of the Catholic faith, and to participate in the sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Liturgy (as it is known in the East), is the sine qua non of catholicity--the Catholic experience.

Approaching the end of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI promulgated his Mysterium Fidei (mystery of faith), which countenanced his great anxiety that the high mood of the conciliar moment would result in a degraded understanding of the Real Presence and its guardian, T. He was already too late for the latter, but his trepidation regarding adding the layers of transignification and transfinalization into the magisterium was unfounded. There is more rampant misunderstanding of the Eucharist today, since the closing of the council in 1965 (the year of Mysterium Fidei). Perhaps allowing certain periti of the Council greater influence on its documents would have enriched the lives of Catholics with a more vibrant understanding of the Blessed Sacrament.

I have recently been challenged about my faith in the Real Presence and T, and my response then and now is simply that I have divine and Catholic faith in this profoundest of mysteries of the Church. I wonder if I could say that if I were not so theological a thinker, not so very sympathetic to post-structuralist, post-secularist ideas about this world and our reality; for it is my conviction that my faith in this matter reflects what the Church has always confessed.  It is unfortunate that T is generally not received into the sensus fidelium, such as it is; but neither has the Church worried itself with what it means to hand down the Tradition in a secular world.  The anxieties of a Papacy notwithstanding, such a central tenet of Catholic faith should be brought to each generation in the fullness of the Tradition and with respect to the signs of  the times.