Nietzsche on the Prejudices of the Philosophers

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are — how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness — but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of rank, who are more honest and doltish — and talk of ‘inspiration’); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’ — most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract — that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’ — and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.

— Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil

If We Want Democracy, We Need Socialism

In my experience, the basic difference between capitalism and socialism is often missed. Capitalism, it is thought, represents free markets, consumer choice, personal liberty, etc. And socialism represents “big government,” state intervention, and a utilitarian sacrifice of the individual in favor of the “greater good.”

At bottom, however, the distinction is much simpler: It comes down to the question of who owns the means of production. Capitalists advocate private ownership of the means of production, whereas socialists advocate collective ownership. As I argued in the previous post, collective ownership is democratic and private ownership is plutocratic.

Some time ago, I offered an overview of the Marxian critique of alienated labor and I think it gets to the heart of this issue. Private ownership of the means of production goes like this: A capitalist, seeking to make profit, purchases a factory and the equipment necessary to make a product which can then be sold in the marketplace. The capitalist then hires workers to come in and use this equipment to make said product. The capitalist repays the workers in the form of wages, but, in order to ensure the maximum amount of profit possible, he [the capitalist] drives the workers’ wages down as much as possible so that he can extract the surplus value of their labor and keep it as profit. This is what we call exploitation.

The long and short of it is that the workers are selling themselves to the capitalist in exchange for wages, which will then (hopefully) allow the worker to purchase life’s basic necessities (i.e., food, shelter, healthcare, etc.) on the marketplace. But to say that one’s basic necessities must be purchased is to say that one’s freedom must be purchased. It is after all undeniable that someone who has good food, is healthy and well-educated has greater access to opportunity than someone who does not.

The private ownership of the means of production, in other words, turns everything — including human lives — into a commodity. It is said that workers are free, but of what does this freedom consist? The freedom to sell oneself to this capitalist or that one? Either way, one can expect low wages, for not only does the capitalist seek profit for himself, but must also be competing with other companies, which means products must be sold at the lowest price possible (thereby cutting into the workers’ wages even more) and strategically planned obsolescence ensures that consumers will continue to purchase new products in the years to come.

All the while, Marx argues, the worker is alienated from herself, from her labor, from the product of her labor, and from her fellow workers, all of which have been turned into commodities. Contrary to popular belief, socialists maintain that human beings need meaningful work, which capitalism all too often denies us. We are forced to work mindless, meaningless jobs, creating and selling worthless, mass produced products, and competing with our fellow workers to make sure that, if anyone is going to be hungry tonight, it will not be me. It is therefore hardly surprising that we need external incentives to work these jobs!

What we need instead, I argue, is a world in which people can freely choose work that is meaningful to them without having to worry about whether or not it will put bread on the table. And who can do better work in any given field than someone who is doing it because they are truly passionate about it? (It is true that this model would likely result in the demise of the fast food industry, but something tells me we will find the strength to carry on.)[1]

And here we find another fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism: individualism versus social holism. Socialists maintain that human beings are always and already social creatures. The cinematic, atomized, asocial, rugged individual is, according to this view, simply a fiction. This is important because it means that things are better for everyone involved when everyone has access to life’s basic necessities (crime rates, for example, drop significantly when everyone has access to food, education, and healthcare).[2] It is not forced “charity”; it is living together as social creatures. And despite the fact that we are indoctrinated from day one with “rugged individualism” and talk of the evils of “human nature,” I think that the evidence overwhelmingly favors social holism.[3]

The common notion, then, that I begin as a “private individual” who can “freely choose” to enter into contracts with other private individuals to exchange goods and services is, I think, deeply flawed. On this line of thinking, social interaction is nothing more than enlightened self-interest, rather than a fundamental part of being human. And if this individualist model is correct, it is easy to see why I should think I have no necessary responsibility to my fellow human beings.

And this detached individualism is precisely what capitalism requires. Altruism does not maximize profits — not directly, at least. Maximization of profit is, after all, the single and fundamental law of capitalism. And whether it is altruism or egoism that best serves this purpose seems to be utterly irrelevant. So while it is true that the “free market” may at times decide to favor the well-being of the people, it is only insofar as this course of action can be shown to be the most profitable. Placing inherent value in anything — including human beings — other than profit is fundamentally anti-capitalist. I see no way around this conclusion.

It is also commonly objected that the radical egalitarianism of socialism forces equality upon society. But exactly what unnatural equality is being enforced by ensuring that everyone has access to life’s basic necessities? Can one be more or less equal in regard to needing food? It seems to me that this is to say that human beings are not inherently valuable. After all, how can we affirm the inherent value of human life while requiring that one “earn” the things required to sustain said life? If we are not naturally equal in our deserving access to these necessities, we are not naturally equal in value as persons.

This is not to say that “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.” Food is not a trophy. And to say that ensuring that all have access to life’s basic necessities is to “force equality” seems to be tantamount to affirming Social Darwinism (i.e., the strong, naturally unequal insofar as they are able to easily access life’s necessities, and bearing no responsibility to the weak, will succeed, while the weak, naturally unequal insofar as they are unable to easily access life’s necessities (whether through physical or mental disabilities, socioeconomic situation, etc.) will perish or be “weeded out”).

In the end, I see capitalism as deeply immoral. And while individual cases of its success may be presented (I do not deny that capitalism works perfectly well for some people — and not just greedy schmucks, but some honest, hardworking folks as well), an examination of the philosophical ideas that underpin capitalism demonstrates (quite conclusively, in my view) that the harms far outweigh any benefits. To reject capitalism is not to reject liberty and free choice, but instead exploitation, hierarchy, and otherwise anti-social, anti-democratic values.

Contrary to popular belief, socialism can offer a morally legitimate alternative. Personally, I do not advocate “state socialism,” but rather libertarian socialism, for I believe that worker-ownership of the means of production should mean just that — worker-ownership, not state ownership. In fact, “state socialism” is essentially capitalistic, in my view, insofar as the means of production are privately owned by a single entity (i.e., the state).

If we want democracy, we need socialism — libertarian socialism to be precise.

For further reading on contemporary experiments in collective ownership, check out Mondragon and Marinaleda.


 

[1] I, for example, am currently pursuing a career in professional philosophy. I am fully aware of the fact that this is a risky endeavor, but I would rather take a risk to do something I love and am good at than to simply take a job that I know guarantees a steady paycheck. If this does not work out for me and I am unable to find a job, there are many who will say that it is my own fault for choosing such a difficult profession. In other words, it is my fault for foolishly choosing what I love over what pays well. Apparently I am to submit to the demands of the market first and foremost. Unfortunately, the instrumental rationality of the market places little value in things such as philosophy, and literature, so I suppose I am simply out of luck if my passions and talents lie in the humanities. A free market indeed!

[2] See, for example, this study.

[3] See, for example, the work of Frans de Waal.

Notes On Anarchism: Plutocracy or Democracy

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Capitalism is antithetical to democracy. The choice between socialism and capitalism is, to my mind, a choice between democracy and effective plutocracy (i.e., rule by the wealthy). Socialism, as the collective ownership of the means of production, implies the most radical form of direct democracy. Under capitalism, on the other hand — particularly as advocated by modern-day libertarians and so-called “anarcho”-capitalists — one votes with one’s dollar, which is to say, the wealthier one is, the more power one has. Money literally is power. Being heard, just like everything else (i.e., safety, healthcare, education, food, shelter, etc.), is a commodity to be purchased in the market place. One is only as free as one can afford. And because capitalism is not meritocratic, as I have argued before, I take this to be a pretty damning problem.

Radical Theology and Radical Hope

In light of recent events in Ferguson, I have been thinking a lot about hope – why we hope, for what we hope, in what we hope, etc. The truth is, these days I have difficulty not feeling incredibly cynical about the possibility of a better future. It often seems that all is indeed lost and there isn’t much left to do about it.

I am informed on a fairly regular basis that “human nature” is just too corrupt, greedy, and selfish, that the world is too fallen, to ever hope to achieve the (supposedly) utopian societies envisioned by radical political philosophy, and that salvation can only come through escape. We must hope for the coming of the Big Other, who will smite our enemies and lift us from the filth that is this earth. And not only are we to hope that this will happen, we are to truly believe that it will happen. It is a certainty.

As a post/non-theist, it is easy to buy into the idea that without this sort of certainty that everything will be okay and we will be saved in the end, I have no reason to hope, nothing for which to hope, nothing in which to place my hope. However, I think it is precisely this uncertainty – perhaps even this apparent hopelessness – which allows for the possibility of genuine hope. It is precisely because I don’t know what will happen, because the future is open and could go in any number of possible directions – because the responsibility rests upon us – that I can hope.

“What remains now is to hope,” writes John Caputo, “and to hope, Levinas says, requires first to be driven into a state where, calculatively speaking, it is hopeless, where the odds are hopelessly against us, to hope against hope, as St. Paul says.”[1] He goes on to write, “Hope is not hope if can see what you are hoping for on the horizon.”[2] If I can see the Big Other on the horizon, and know with certainty that he will come and will prevail, I have nothing in which to hope. All that’s left to do is wait for his arrival. I am absolved of all responsibility.

The author of the Book of Acts expresses his own ambivalence toward this cloud-staring – which seems to function as a means of regaining control over our uncertain and (potentially) hopeless state – when he has two men appear to the apostles following Jesus’ ascension:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’[3]

These men seem to be essentially saying, “your business is here, on earth, in the messiness of daily human life, which is dark and violent and uncertain and often seems utterly hopeless. But that is the world that Christ came to redeem, and you will find him in the faces of the least of these, who need bread and water before they need the promise of a blissful hereafter.” Now, of course, I took a liberty or two in that rendering, but I think it gets the point.

Radical theology[4] has taken up the Judeo-Christian notion of Messianism, but has begun to talk, following Derrida, of a Messianism without the Messiah. According to Derrida, when we deconstruct a name, which is always historically contingent, we seek to unleash the undeconstructible event that is harbored within that name. Example: Laws are contingent, debatable, and subject to change; however, what the law aims at is justice, and justice, says Derrida, is undeconstructible. In other words, justice can never be contained or grasped in its totality, for to do so would be to render justice a lifeless thing. Justice is always to come, and if we think we’ve got it that is precisely the moment at which we can be sure that we don’t. As Caputo writes, “The event can never be held captive by any particular instance of the event, never reduced to any present form or instantation. It would be the height of injustice, not to say of arrogance, to say that justice is finally realized in some existing form, in some present person or state.”[5]

It is the same, in Derridean deconstruction, with the Messiah. Particular persons may come, but the Messiah, the messianic event harbored in that name, can never properly arrive, can never be fully and completely present. But Derrida puts it even more strongly. God in this sense must be a completely and utterly “impossible, unimaginable, un-foreseeable, unbelievable ab-solute surprise.”[6] For this God to truly be God, for Derrida, she must be so totally Other that there is no conceptualizing or imagining her in any way. Otherwise, we would be able to grasp the event harbored in God’s name, and effectively empty God’s name of its eventiveness.

However, Richard Kearney, in The God Who May Be, challenges this notion of the absolute otherness of God.

Yet – to repeat – how could we ever recognize a God stripped of every specific horizon of memory and anticipation? How could we give content to a faith devoid of stories and covenants, promises, alliances, and good works, or fully trust a God devoid of all names (Yahweh, Elohim, Jesus, Allah)? If the powers of human vision and imagination are so mortified by the impossible God of deconstruction – leaving us ‘without vision, without truth, without revelation’ – then must not our encounter with the coming of the other find itself not only blind but empty? We might be tempted to put to Derrida here the question he put so adroitly to Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics” – how is alterity to be experienced as other if it surpasses all our phenomenal horizons of experience?[7]

According to Derrida, the to-come is the most important part of the democracy-to-come or the justice-to-come, because those names – democracy and justice – may change. But the event that they harbor, the to-come, will not. But if we are talking about the Messiah- or justice- or democracy-to-come, surely they cannot be absolutely beyond our comprehension, otherwise we would not know them or even be able to experience them. On this model, it seems, we have no idea precisely what is to come, other than that it will be so completely other that can never see it coming. But it seems here we would run up against Meno’s paradox[8] and could no longer talk meaningfully about hope if we don’t actually know what we are hoping for. Isn’t it justice and not injustice? Love and not hatred? Yes, the names justice and love may indeed be historically contingent names that harbor uncontainable events, but I would rather say that the names can still be meaningful insofar as they can’t be referring to just anything – which seems to be a dangerous implication of Derrida’s approach here – but that for which we hope and desire (i.e., again, justice not injustice, love not hatred, etc.).

Kearney would rather situate our messianic hope – our hope for a more just future – back into the biblical tradition, which, he thinks, means to put the responsibility back onto our own shoulders. Rather than a Big Other who will inevitably come and rescue us from our helpless state, Kearney’s God-who-may-be is utterly contingent upon our acting to bring her about. This possible God is the justice-to-come, the hope and desire that draw us forward into an open and undetermined future, where justice will flow like waters only if we are willing to act.

Kearney finds the first suggestion of such a God in Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. The Hebrew is commonly rendered to favor Greek notions of being and substance, as “I am that I am,” but Kearney argues that a more faithful reading of the original Hebrew, which would not have carried this Greek influence, would be, “I will be what I will be,”[9] or, “I am who may be.” In this sense, God is revealed as a promise, a possibility-to-be, rather than pure actuality. To quote at length:

In the circular words, I-am-who-may-be, God transfigures and exceeds being. His esse reveals itself, surprisingly and dramatically, as posse. The Exodus 3:14 exchange between God and Moses might, I have been suggesting, be usefully reread not as the manifestation of some secret name but as a pledge to remain constant to a promise. God, transfiguring himself in the guise of an angel, speaks through (per-sona) a burning bush and seems to say something like this: I am who may be if you continue to keep my word and struggle for the coming of justice. The God who reveals Himself on Mount Horeb is and is not, neither is nor is not. This is a God who puns and tautologizes, flares up and withdraws, promising always to return, to become again, to come to be what he is not yet for us. This God is the coming God who may-be. The one who resists quietism as much as zealotry, who renounces both the onto-theology of essence and the voluntarist impatience to appropriate promised lands. This Exodic God obviates the extremes of atheistic and theistic dogmatism in the name of a still small voice that whispers and cries in the wilderness: perhaps. Yes, perhaps if we remain faithful to the promise, one day, some day, we know not when, I-am-who-may-be will at last be. Be what? we ask. Be what is promised as it is promised. And what is that? we ask. A kingdom of justice and love. There and then, to the human “Here I am,” God may in turn respond, “Here I am.” But not yet.[10]

Due to considerations of time and space, I cannot go into great detail regarding this provocative reading – I highly recommend Kearney’s book – but I would like to suggest, in a fusion of Caputo’s deconstructionist reading, and Kearney’s hermeneutical reading, that this “kingdom of justice and love” is the God whom we desire and for whom we hope as we struggle for justice. More precisely, this kingdom is the event that is harbored in the name of God.

This is not, to be clear, to claim at some point a being called God will literally come into existence, but that there is something going on in this name, something which cannot be reduced to the name, nor captured in historical instances, or ever fully conceptualized and foreseen – all of which is to say, an event – for which we are striving as we pursue this kingdom of justice and love. The name of God itself is historically contingent, but, as Caputo says, it “is very simply the most famous and richest name we have to signify this open-ended excess and an inaccessible mystery.”[11]

As we struggle and hope against hope for justice in our racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic world, I think there is something very real, but perhaps so deep, so utterly meaningful, that it is bursting at the seams of our understanding, that it irresistibly draws us forward into a kingdom of justice and love, which is always to-come – insofar as it cannot become a graspable thing – but not so completely unforeseeable as to exceed even our desire and our hope, our songs and stories, our gods and angels, or even – perhaps! – ourselves.


 

[1] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 256.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 1:10-11, NRSV.

[4] Everything that I say about radical theology is admittedly provisional. I think the writings of radical theologians are incredibly provocative and I continually return to them and feel challenged by them. At the same time, I am sympathetic to such critiques as that of Walter Kaufmann in The Faith of A Heretic, who argues that liberal and radical theologians need to let their yes be yes and their no be no, rather than redefining God into existence. Ultimately, however, I tend to think the deconstructionist approach, which does not want to redefine God, but to deconstruct all of the social and historical contingencies in the name of God and see what is left, is a valid one.

[5] John D. Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics: On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event,” in After the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 55.

[6] John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 73.

[7] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 76.

[8] “And how are you going to inquire about it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? For what sort of thing, from among the ones you do not know, will you take as your object of inquiry? And even if you do happen to bump into it, how are you going to know that it is the thing you did not know?” From Meno, in A Plato Reader: Eight Essential Dialogues, ed. C.D.C. Reeve, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012), 72.

[9] This alternative possible rendering is included as a footnote in my NRSV Bible.

[10] Kearney, 37-38.

[11] Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics,” 53.

Anatheism: A Nutshell Explanation and Some Other Reflections

In a nutshell, anatheism is this: I do not and cannot know with absolute certainty whether or not the God of theism exists. I highly doubt it, but, by definition, his/her/its existence is unfalsifiable (which is arguably a good reason to be skeptical). However, what I do know in this moment of not knowing is the stranger/foreigner/other who comes to me, present in her physical, all too physicalness. She is present to me in this world. However, she comes speaking a different language, practicing a different religion, honoring different cultural traditions, etc. and is therefore, in this sense, transcendent. She always escapes my grasp. I can never completely contain her within my understanding—part of her will always be missing. My task, then, is to translate her, without subsuming her under the same, the latter of which is much easier.

In calling upon me to engage in this act of translation, she is calling me out of myself, beyond the realm of the familiar and the boundaries of my comfort zone. In this way, my encounter with the stranger is a sort of sacramental encounter—through the physical face of the stranger I meet that which always transcends me and escapes my grasp and calls me out of myself to a fuller life. This is the something “more” that, after having been met in the mysterious yet concretely present face of the other, is subsequently theorized in various ways as “God.” This could therefore be seen as a sort of deconstructive move, which finds that the undeconstructible element of what we call God is rooted in a relational ontology–i.e., in our being-for and -through-the-other. We might say, then, that this is the deepest and most meaningful aspect of our existence. And furthermore, this links up quite nicely with arguments that empathy could be seen as the evolutionary basis of our morality.

Hence, if we have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, anatheism suggests that we can find wisdom regarding this situation in which we meet the transcendent-yet-present stranger in the texts of our religious traditions. In the biblical tradition [1], for example, it is no uncommon theme that God appears in the form of an unknown guest in need of food, water, and shelter–i.e., the three strangers who approach Abraham out of the wilderness (Genesis 18:1-15), the messenger who comes to Mary’s door (Luke 1:26-38), and the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49). In this moment, our wager—an anatheist wager—is to choose between hostility and hospitality, though we can never be sure whether the figure before us is a god or a monster (or perhaps something else entirely).

In other words, this is not done without some risk. I am—figuratively, though likely also literally—crossing borders into unknown territory. And I can never be sure of what awaits me on the other side. In the biblical tradition, when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God (or her messengers) and “Love of the guest becomes love of God” [2] (emphasis mine), for we have met this alterity—this not-me, this unfamiliar, this I-know-not-what—with hospitality rather than hostility.

The point, then, of anatheism’s maintaining and being informed by the biblical narratives rather than allowing them to go the way of theism, is not as an attempt to cling to theism, but is rather an act of hermeneutically retrieving these narratives which are deep and rich and can offer profound wisdom and insight for—among other things—this anatheist wager between hostility and hospitality. Anatheism keeps us on our toes, seeks to de-sediment our dogmatic philosophies and theologies (especially, in this instance, dogmatic theism and dogmatic anti-theism), and challenges us to remain open to alterity in whatever form it may present itself.


 

[1] I speak primarily from this tradition because it is the tradition in which I am rooted.

[2] Richard Kearney, Anatheism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 29.

On Gender Constructivism

Gender constructivism, in short, is the idea that gender norms are socially constructed rather than being somehow essential–viz., there is no essential “maleness” or “femaleness”–which would be gender essentialism–that somehow transcends history and culture and–in the case of “maleness”–inhabits all humans who have penises from birth (which appears to me to be an even stranger idea now that I see it written down).

Often it is objected that these lines of thinking want to eradicate difference and make everyone–men and women–the same. However, in fact the opposite is the case. Constructivism wants to recognize that every single person is different, and that it is extremely problematic to try to reduce all of these differences to an either/or of male/female. Not surprisingly, trying to reduce difference to these socially conditioned gender roles can be emotionally and psychologically damaging insofar as one faces high levels of social pressure to conform to the gender role prescribed to her on the basis of her genitalia and made to feel ashamed when she fails to do so.

And anyway, if there were truly such things as essential “maleness” and “femaleness” these characteristics would have to be universal and exceptionless. As soon as there is one exception, essentialism no longer holds water as an adequate explanation of apparent gender differences. I know of no such exceptionless characteristic that has ever been specifically and determinately demonstrated. And any apparent universal trait is typically easy to explain as a result of social condition (i.e., “Boys tend to be more aggressive” is easily explained by the fact that, from the time that they are born, boys are both directly and indirectly receiving messages from parents, siblings, other children, teachers, preachers, TV shows, etc. about how boys are “supposed” to act and “not supposed” to act, and it is therefore not surprising when a young boy tends to develop these same characteristics. In other words, from a very young age, difference is suppressed and confined to one gender role or another rather than allowing the child’s individuality develop free from social pressure and the fear of being made to feel ashamed for not being “manly” enough, being too “girly”, etc.).

So, rather than seeking to eliminate difference, gender constructivism wants to free up difference, to loosen it from the either/or grip of gender essentialism, and to allow each individual to be an individual.

Notes On Anarchism: Earning and Deserving

In capitalist societies, human life is not inherently valued. It is something that must be bought, and in order to afford it, one must sell oneself to the capitalists, prove oneself profitable, and in return will receive wages which will (hopefully) be enough to purchase life’s basic necessities–viz., food, housing, healthcare, etc. When the things that are necessary to survive are conceived as things to be earned, as things which one does not deserve simply in virtue of being human, then human life itself cannot be said to be held as inherently valuable. If it were, the things necessary to sustain this supposedly inherently valuable life would not be a matter of being earned just in case one meets certain conditions. The only inherently valuable thing in a capitalist society is capital. And I have a real problem with any system that values something–anything–above human life.

Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

Apparently, my ongoing–albeit intermittent–“Notes On Anarchism” series has morphed into a way to (attempt to) briefly and succinctly respond to frequently asked questions regarding anarchism (and socialism more generally).

Thus, today I am taking up the annoyingly common objection that, because man (it is always man–I suppose the jury is still out on woman) is inherently evil, socialism (especially libertarian socialism) could never work, because man [sic!] would have to be inherently good. Therefore, it is concluded, the state is necessary and capitalism is our best bet economically.

What I find particularly odd about this objection is that it seems to be essentially saying that, because humans are inherently evil, we should–indeed, we must–build an economic system that encourages greed, selfishness, and the valuing of profit above all else (i.e., capitalism); and that, furthermore, we should give some of these inherently evil people a monopoly of force over the rest of society. If it is true that humans are inherently evil, this hardly seems like a solution.

Secondly, the “inherently evil”-“inherently good” dichotomy is, in my opinion, a red herring. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do people always say to me, “Well, either you believe people are inherently good or you believe that people are inherently evil.” My question is: Why should we assume that people are inherently anything? This thinking strikes me as incredibly reductionistic, and I have addressed it in further detail, spelling out what I take to be serious problems with the idea of “human nature” here.

Now, to be clear, I do believe that empathy and mutual aid are an “inherent” (if we must use that word) aspect of the human species, developed over the course of evolution and without which we would never have survived. I absolutely believe that humans are social creatures and that if anarchy (in the pejorative sense) were to prevail, most of us would probably not run around killing, raping, and pillaging (and if the threat of the state’s use of force is the only thing that prevents you from doing so, I don’t think I want to hang out with you.) There is, to my mind, plenty of good and convincing evidence for all of this. Why, for example, is the lack of empathy (i.e., psychopathy) considered psychologically aberrant? Why is it so damaging for soldiers who experience firsthand the ravages of war? Why do babies who aren’t held enough often become psychopaths? Because we are social creatures!

The principles of “rugged individualism” and Social Darwinism still enjoy a considerable amount of prominence among right-wing politicians, but, quite simply, I think the evidence is completely and utterly lacking that these ideas come anywhere near accurately describing the human species and how we relate to one another. I have written on this in more detail before as well.

So, no, I don’t think people are “inherently good”, but I also don’t think people are “inherently evil.” Such reductionistic categories ignore perfectly good evidence to the contrary, as well as encourage vacuous thinking when approaching social and political problems. (I.e., “There is a lot of crime, which obviously just means that people are inherently evil”, rather than, “There is a lot of crime; why might that be? What social, political, economic, or other forms of power relations might be contributing to that?” To say nothing of asking what the historical evolution is of such ideas as “human nature”, what kinds of social and historical contingencies surrounded and contributed to the development of those ideas, how one’s own social and cultural background might be contributing to one’s adherence to these types of ideas, etc. etc.)

Social and political issues are incredibly complex, and, as is clear to anyone who is actually interested enough to do a minimal investigation into the political philosophies of socialism and anarchism rather than just assaulting us with right-wing talking points (if the reader will forgive a brief lapse into cynicism), anarchism and socialism attempt to address these issues with respect for their complexity. Anarchists do not deny that people do bad things, and that they would continue to do bad things in an anarchist society. However, anarchists also believe that there are many, many ways in which current structures–the state and capitalism chief among them–which serve to exacerbate these problems, often to an extreme degree. Capitalism, for example, must discourage and suppress sentiments of collectivity and communality among the working classes, as such sentiments encourage people to work together for mutual benefit rather than for the profit of their capitalist bosses. It is therefore in no way surprising that Milton Friedman said that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

Anatheism: A Third Way

“The biggest no to theism in our modern era,” writes Richard Kearney, “was not Nietzsche’s philosophical announcement of the death of “God” in 1882 but the actual disappearance of “God” from the world in the concentration camps of Europe in the 1940s.” (58) Following this disappearance, the question, according to John Caputo, is, “Who–or what–comes after the God of metaphysics?”

Richard Kearney presents ana-theism as a sort of third way between theism and atheism–a way of conceding the atheist critique of theism while maintaining the sense of the sacred, of transcendence and divinity in theism. He writes in the introduction: “Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove.”(3)

The term, anatheism, is taken from the Greek, ana, which could be translated as “after”, “again”, or “return”, and theos, which is, of course, God. Kearney thus uses anatheism as a way to say, “Returning to God after God.” In the wake of the death of God, it is an attempt, not to resurrect theism, but to embrace “a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular.” (57) Anatheism is a humble third way that

differs from dogmatic atheism in that it resists absolutist positions against the divine, just as it differs from the absolutist positions of dogmatic theism for the divine. It is a movement—not a state—that refuses all absolute talk about the absolute, negative or positive; for it acknowledges that the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

I.

A central component of anatheism—perhaps, indeed, the central component—is hospitality. Kearney begins by examining moments of hospitality in the three great western monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each episode that is considered, when hospitality is extended to the stranger, the guest, it is revealed that it is in fact God who has been welcomed.

Abraham is confronted by three strangers and faces the choice between hostility and hospitality. He chooses hospitality, opens his home to the strangers, shares a meal—breaks bread, we might say—with them, and it is then revealed that they are in fact messengers of God. Had he chosen hostility—perhaps the more rational choice in a hostile world—he would have effectively closed the door to the divine who arrived in the form of a guest.

Similarly, Mary is confronted with the choice between hostility and hospitality when the angel Gabriel appears at her door. She too chooses hospitality, and in so doing receives a message from God.

Jesus also appears to have a sense of this mysterious-mystical relationship between God and the stranger, identifying himself, in Matthew 25:31-46, with the stranger who is in need of food, water, and clothing. Those who followed Jesus’ advice to “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42), it is revealed, have in fact extended their hospitality to Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke goes further in illustrating this point when Christ, having resurrected, appears to his disciples as a stranger whom they do not recognize. It is only after inviting in this strange guest and sharing a meal—again, the breaking of bread—that the stranger is suddenly revealed as Christ himself. As Kearney writes, “God is revealed après coup, in the wake of the encounter, in the trace of his passing . . . When God is revealed as having been present all the time, God is already gone.” (22)

Finally, Kearney discerns a similar moment of hospitality to the stranger-as-God in Islam, when Muhammad is met with an unfamiliar voice in the middle of the night in the solitude of a cave. Muhammad must choose whether to open himself up to the strange voice or recoil in fear and hostility. In choosing the former, he, like Abraham and Mary before him, receives a message from God.

All of these examples illustrate the way in which, as Kearney writes, “Love of guest becomes love of God.” (29) Rather than occupying some far off heavenly realm, “The divine, as exile, is in each human other who asks to be received into our midst.” (20)

II.

Anatheism, therefore, is a call to radical hospitality. Not uncritical hospitality, for “Not every stranger is divine” (45), but a hospitality that refuses to close the door to difference, to stop one’s ears and cover one’s eyes to the stranger simply in virtue of her being a stranger. To instead devote one’s discerning attention to the needs of the Other, who “is sacred in that she always embodies something else, something more, something other than what the self can grasp or contain.” (152) Our task is to translate the stranger without transforming her into what is familiar and comfortable—into another self. “But to open oneself to such radical attention one must,” Kearney writes, “abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of interconfessional hospitality can be born.” (52)

This Master God is the tribal God, the omnipotent deity who is decidedly one our side and not on the side of our enemies. “Anatheist hospitality,” however, “opposes such gnostic divides between friend and enemy, where God is always my ally and the Stranger my adversary.” (172) Rather, it is precisely through the face of the stranger that we discover God—a God who “is a promise, a call, a desire to love and be loved that cannot be at all unless we allow God to be God.” (52-53) This is the God of whom Bonhoeffer writes from his prison cell, who “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (67) Kearney similarly writes that “the only God worthy of belief is a vulnerable and powerless one who suffers with us and is incapable of being relieved from this suffering unless we act against injustice.” (61)

III.

Anatheist spirituality, then, is not one of metaphysics and ontotheology but one of temporality and immanence: “[F]aith becomes a commitment not to some transcendental otherworld but to a deep temporality in which the divine dwells as the seed of possibility calling to be made ever more incarnate in the human and natural world.” (142) Again, it recognizes the atheist critique of theism and does not make attempts to cling to the Alpha-God of old, but rather to find a post-theist language which can, in conceding the death of God, nevertheless not ignore or categorically dismiss “this radical and recurring sense of something more—something ulterior, extra, and unexpected—that various religions call God.” (183)

It is a faith—if we dare use such a loaded term—that maintains “a deep mystical appreciation of something Other than our finite, human being: some Other we can welcome as a stranger if we can overcome our natural response of fear and trauma.” (180) In this sense, “God thus becomes a God after God, a God who no longer is but who may be again in the form of renewed life.” (80)

IV.

The reader may finally be wondering whether or not the anatheist will just come out and say whether or not she believes in God, and why or why not.

“[T]he anatheist,” according to Kearney, “at least when philosophizing, provisionally brackets out questions of ‘God’ and ‘religion.'” (75) In other words, it seems, the anatheist is, in addition to a hermeneutist, a bit of a phenomenologist, with this statement recalling Joseph Dabney Bettis’ following description of the phenomenologist as one who “brackets out the question of truth as ‘actually being the case’ to expose the question of truth as meaning.” (8) He continues:

If I should say, ‘I believe that the Bible is the Word of God’, the phenomenologist might say in reply, ‘Let us bracket out for the moment the question of whether or not your statement is true and ask the question, what do you mean by ‘believe’? It is not self-evident what you mean. Describe what you mean. (8)

In other words, the phenomenologist is not, at least in the first instance, as interested in the arguments for God’s existence that fill the pages of philosophers of religion’s books, but rather with the question of what names such as God even mean. After all, can we really discuss the existence of God before having agreed upon what we mean when we say God? W. Brede Kristensen recognizes this difficulty when he writes

When we consider the idea, ‘God’, even ignoring the fact that this is absent in Buddhism, we must conclude that there is no particular idea of deity which is everywhere applicable. And if we relinquish the given forms of particular ideas of deity in order to find that which is common behind them, we are then left with empty concepts. (44)

God, while perhaps having a fairly unified identity in the southwestern United States, where I grew up, is in fact a difficult figure to pin down. There are even different theological positions in Christianity—take the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism, for example—which, while agreeing upon the basic shell of who/what God is, seem to ultimately present deities with some pretty radical differences, and the acceptance of one or the other will likely affect one’s entire practice of Christianity (i.e., how one prays, worships, reads and interprets the Bible, etc.).

Does anatheism therefore simply ignore the question of God’s existence? No. Rather, “Anatheism tries to introduce reasonable hermeneutic considerations to the theist-atheist debate.” (171) It looks for meaning in the narratives of religious texts and indeed the name of God itself beyond the questions of literal history and existence. “Mindful of the inherent art of religion,” Kearney writes,

we are more likely to resist the temptations of fetishism and idolatry—that is, avoid taking the divine literally, as something we could presume to contain or possess. The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. Spiritual art may thus teach us that the divine stranger can never be taken for granted, can never be reduced to a collective acquis, but needs to be interpreted again and again. (14)

Anatheism recognizes that “The Bible, like most spiritual texts, is an assembly of fables, histories, chronicles, polemics, letters, and moral teachings as well as some inevitable primitive prejudices and errors” (169), while at the same time recognizing that “to say that holy Scriptures are made up of stories is not to say that they are just made up . . . For stories . . . can often reveal more essential and profound truths than histories that chronicle a mere sequence of events.” (170)

V.

Anatheism is, as has been said, a third way. A way of puncturing the false binaries and either/or reasoning of our western minds and suggesting that maybe—just maybe—there is more to the story. For this reason, Kearney emphasizes that anatheism should not be taken to be a static position, but rather a movement which, “Instead of never making up its mind . . . is always making up its mind.” (184) Therefore, he concludes, we might best think of anatheism as an adjective: “I make a distinction here . . . between anatheist atheism and antitheist atheism, on the one hand, and between anatheist theism and dogmatic theism, on the other.” (184) In the end, then, while Kearney makes no bones about his suspicion of theism, the anatheist may or may not believe in something that we could call “God,” and whether or not she does, she attempts to maintain an aversion to dogma and a healthy skepticism toward any word that claims to be the final Word.

 

Notes

Bettis, James Dabney, ed., Phenomenology of Religion. (New York, Harper & Row, 1969).

Kearney, Richard, Anatheism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Kristensen, W. Bede, From The Meaning of Religion, tr. John B. Carmen, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1960, in Phenomenology of Religion, James Dabney Bettis, ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

Breast feeding and Elliot Roger

Originally posted on renegade~betty:

I realize that the topic of this post is a bit of a departure from my norm. I also realize that I haven’t blogged in a very long time. Things have been crazy lately with the end of the semester coming and going and preparing to move across the country for graduate school. Also, I feel as if lately I have been in a position of learning rather than speaking. There are a lot of personal questions I have been trying to sift through, and over the last couple of months, I haven’t felt like I was ready to share my partially formed thoughts. That being said, with news breaking over the shooting in Isla Vista, and the twittersphere a flutter with controversy and activism, the feminist in me has been rather active lately in terms of the things I have been turning over in my head and attempting to…

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