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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theodicy without Theodicy


Derrida captures both the imagination and the critical faculties with his theme of 'religion without religion'. Perhaps his greatest expositor, John D. Caputo, has ridden that horse all the way to the bank, if philosophers get to take anything to the bank, as it were. In his 'weak theology', Caputo offers his reading of Derrida's late writings, not to mention the various seminars in which these ideas play out on a stage of phenomenology, post-phenomenology and even a God without being. Caputo describes the deconstruction of confessional religions, and discovers the 'unconditional without sovereignty' which he identifies as the 'weak force of God'.

A religion without religion contains within it the deconstruction of classical theodicy, and perhaps points to a theodicy without theodicy. I might make the case that a religion without religion does not recognize anything that looks like a theodicy, whether with or without theodicy. Be that as it may, a theodicy without theodicy might take as its point of departure the power structure Caputo attributes to God in the metaphysical attitude: the problem does seem to boil down to power, its expression and its non-expression, its deployment in the world and its non-deployment.

I share with Caputo his disgust with theodicy as it usually plays out, as a means of explaining or justifying the misery, suffering and injustice visited upon the world, particularly upon the innocent. To drop 'mystery', a 'greater good' at the doorstep of horror and unspeakable suffering mocks God and the world, and constitutes the definition of obscenity.

Any reasonable person would think that, after the horrors of the 20th century (indeed the horrors of history), the 'end of theodicy' would have been a decisive one. Surely religion and theodicy would have died a permanent death by now, certainly by now; yet theodicy, like religion, lives on: what good is the death of God if theodicy and religion always rise again? 

Caputo's The Weakness of God dots its argument for the 'unconditional without sovereignty' with such occasions of the meaning and presence of the Omni-God against the weakness of God. But what of theodicy's corollary, the request (if not a demand) for an explanation or justification, the quality of which determines reason's permissibility of God? Playing out on the horizon of being, this crucial flip-side of theodicy allows God into, or disqualifies God from, the horizon of knowledge (albeit a certain kind of knowledge) and of being. God lives and dies by the swords of all kinds of positivisms, regardless of the side they take in the classic version of the great debate.

In a recent discussion on the 'priority of love' with a philosopher and friend, my interlocutor equated such priority with a 'theodicy without theodicy', and so I began this piece with the analogy of a religion without religion. His critique, which burns with concern for 'needless, unnecessary suffering of catastrophic proportions', runs adjacent to a critique of the Johannine Lazarus texts, and formulates its argument thus: Jesus, alive then and now, can call Lazarus or anyone else, then and now from death, but he doesn't. Now certainly the lingua franca of this critique is power itself, but also power within a will. The question asks, with all seriousness, why anyone ever suffers and dies, while a Jesus, very much alive and sporting a track record of doing nifty stuff, stands idly by and simply withholds miraculous power.

The question itself pokes at divine power and justice, but I do not think this question exhausts its theodical gesture by interrogating power. Its gesture also calls into question the various claims of religion for God and Jesus, in particular, Christian claims. So where do we start, start again? In other words, how is the priority of love, that God loves before he is, a theodicy without theodicy? Is it simply a fait accompli that a God who loves before he is, is a God who does not deploy power analogically (in terms of the human deployment of power), or deals in the structures of power at all? What is the difference between love and power when God does the loving? If Creation itself is an act of love, and not of sheer power, does a univocity of love put us in a position to create---is the power of love as intelligible as the love of power?

The problem gets even more complicated. How does one account for the urgency of the theodical gesture, and its logical aftermath---atheism---on the part of the positivist, when the theist finds this question oddly less than urgent? Can such urgency reduce to the desire to declare God nonsense under the scrutiny of sharply defined criteria for and of evidence? Do all theists secretly subscribe to Caputo's weak theology, acknowledging the obscenity of the theodical reply to the theodical question, yet somehow resolve to retain a faith in thematic religion (religion with religion), such as Catholicism? Are we all, deep down, Caputo's radical theologians? Do we radical theologians argue for an evidence invisible to the various positivisms in all sincerity? Is there any other place to go for a 'theology of the event'?

For the sake of this preliminary sketch of a theodicy without theodicy, we might speculate that God has as much use for theodicy as he does for religion: God has no use for what passes for religion---What are your vain sacrifices to me? 'Vain' sacrifice, the religious gesture with a gargantuan injection of religion. Is sacrifice always a gesture of power? Religiously speaking, the only sacrifice that God ever asks is the one he asks of himself, and the one ostensibly carried out on Calvary. A sacrifice of God for humanity. That sacrifice is the only possible sacrifice that completely absents vanity. This is not to say that the unconditional call of the event of God asks nothing of us; it simply does not ask us to sacrifice because of its inherent vanity. Even Abraham doesn't get to sacrifice, not even in the most famous sacrificial near-miss of all time.

So, then, the urgency of the question: a power than declines its exercise --- a will that wills not the 'good', where the very existence and meaning of that power hangs in the balance---no exercise, no being. Is it here, I wonder, where a theodicy without theodicy finds itself and its answer: if being is denied by empirical establishment of a lack of evidence, does that lack locate God beyond essence, otherwise than being---does positivism then give credence to a God without being, or does it relegate the whole matter to the ever-growing heap of nonsense? If willing the good for the other passes for love, then it is a strange love indeed that does not always and forever will the good for all of creation. What has happened to an appeal to the univocity of love?

But not so fast. The urgency of this theodical question also interrogates the lack of urgency on the part of those for whom the concrete players are not held to what must assuredly be a responsibility to their power. A theodicy with theodicy has no other recourse but to conclude irrational obstinacy, an embrace of a studied na├»ve magical realism. Presumably a theodicy without theodicy would have richer choices. Indeed, in any hypothetical theodicy without theodicy, doubt plays out very differently than in the classical theodicy with theodicy. So, then, which do we doubt, 'love' or 'the good'?

Emmanuel Levinas once suggested that Judaism is a religion for adults. It goes without saying (and this is perhaps why thinkers like Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Falque do not say it explicitly) that Christianity is also a religion for adults. One of the ways, it seems to me, Christianity enjoys a status similar to Judaism, is its rhythm of cataphasis and apophasis. Meister Ekhart asks God to free him from God. We ask in faith for God to help our poor faith. It also goes without saying that any responsible faith, any adult religion, would be constituted by doubt. This is not the destructive doubt of paralysis and positivism, but more akin, ironically, to Descartes' reduction to doubt, which, with its corrosive edges, tears down everything to the bare bones of an encounter with the infinite. Doubt begins the expedition to the discovery of a new world of contradiction and paradox, a world of Yeatsian 'terrible beauty', a world both beautiful and treacherous.

A theodicy without theodicy interrogates power itself, and empowers doubt to be its examiner. The 'doubting Thomas' of the Johannine tradition does not earn condemnation, even if that tradition does find him a bit comical, taking himself, as he does, just too seriously. No, not condemnation, but instead, this most adult of the apostles receives a gift; Thomas utters the highest Christology in the Gospel tradition: my Lord and my God.  Such belief anchored by doubt has always been offered by the Christian tradition as authentic over and against any brand of fideism. Doubt is the business end of reason; its drive toward a mature faith and authenticity leads not to postivism's dead ends and nonsense, but to think again. If not being, or a version of being, or of ontological difference, then toward what does declarative prayer direct itself?

It simply cannot be that the question of a Jesus, a God, who can but doesn't, ends the matter. That's just another way to say Roma locuta, causa finita est---we are trying to get beyond such positivisms. The theist and the atheist stand on different, not opposite, ends of the same question. But on what do they stand when they angle their stands at the same question? Is it the very 'ground of being' which some believe to 'be' God? No, I think not; a 'ground' is no place to stand if the question is being. A ground of being is just a being upon which being stands. That's simply the infinite regress of more of the same---classical theodicy in a slightly different light. What would a theodicy without theodicy stand on; what does a religion without religion stand on?

In such a preliminary piece, I must do a little damage control, and ask a more modest question. The fact is this, good people, atheist and theist alike, positivist and other-than-positivist alike, stand together in this world. 'Where do they stand?' is another way of asking 'how are things between them?' They stand before each other across the same abysmal question. If each encounters the face of the other, then they must stand on that which is before being itself. They stand, in short, on the love that is prior to being, on the claims made upon them before they are even 'selves'. This is the threshold upon a theodicy without theodicy, properly recognized and pronounced by someone who does not even believe such anteriority is either possible, or that it matters even if it were possible. His pronouncement accuses me, as his atheism calls my theism into question. What matters, at least at this point, is our standing; and we stand before the same voice, the same call from what is harbored in the name of God. How we hear it, and where doubt leads us, and what urgency moves us, makes all the difference in the world, even if we can share that world, even if the discovery of joy or crushing sadness awaits us in this shared world. Events are like that.