6 Nov 2007

The Community of Non-Community. Philosophical Anthropology as a Challenge to Theology (Laclau, Badiou, Žižek)


"The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love. […] Division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature.”[1]

In the first chapter of Ut Unum Sint John Paul II situates the core of the ecumenical enterprise in God’s universal will of salvation. Divided humanity should be re-united into the one Body of Christ and the division between different Churches and ecclesial communities will have to be overcome. One particular church, the Roman-Catholic represents the universal Church of Christ, although elements of truth may be found outside this particular community. But also in the latter case, internally these elements tend towards a reintegration within the Catholic community.

"The Church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him", and at the same time acknowledges that "many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside her visible structure. These elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism towards Catholic unity”.[2]

As such, with the notion of Catholic Unity the Catholic Church reaffirms again the centrality of the idea of ‘universality’: God’s message is addressed to all men and to reorient the focus to the particularity of truth is thoroughly anti-Catholic. In more recent documents, the Vatican continues to stress this aspect, especially since some deviations within the Catholic community tend to undercut this central and indispensable aspect of Catholic faith. Pope Benedict XVI for example observes that some theologians are more willing to please a community of post-Christians, than to rethink difficult and unfashionable topics as the universality of truth.[1] Having discovered the ‘linguistic turn’ they reduce truth and rationality to what is meaningful within a very particular language game: this allows them to hold on to their so-called tradition while being at the same time a modern pluralist.[2] Tradition then, stripped from its inner grounds and conditions of possibility, becomes a package of identity-features; an outward costume that allows the cultural Christian to know about his identity in the midst of religious plurality. People might have these psychological needs, but as the Vatican and the whole Catholic theological tradition - at least till Johann Baptist Metz - realises, the consequences of this logic are disastrous. Metz even turns the safeguarding of universality into the special mission of the theologian today: “The theologians will be the last universalists in our highly differentiated world of science, and they will have to remain so, whether they like it or not.”[3]
Till so far the Catholic statement: no Christianity without universalism. More precarious is to understand the actual nature of this universalism. How are we to conceive universality and what is its precise relation to particularity? The intuition of my paper consists of the idea that the Catholic tradition defends with good reason the universalist dimension of Christianity, but that there is a risk of a certain misunderstanding of the universality of Christianity. As a result of the latter, the Catholic universalism (as represented by doctrinal documents) might turn out to closely resemble a particularistic position. In other words: the Catholic anti-communitarianism risks to lapse itself into a hidden form of communitarianism. The first part of the paper is meant as a short reconstruction of Catholic universalism. I will undertake this in the light of Ernesto Laclau’s postmarxist philosophy. In a second part, I will take a look at Alain Badiou’s reading of Saint-Paul as an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of a Christian particularism.

I. Ut Unum Sint versus Ernesto Laclau

Coming back to the quotes from Ut Unum Sint, we witness a strict distinction between universality and division. Division contradicts the will of God, for God wants us all to be united. Universality is therefore understood in terms of unity; a unity that can be reached by overcoming the division between different communities, and more specifically through a reintegration of the different extra-Catholic communities within the unity of the Catholic Church. The ultimate source of Christian universality is thus God’s will; a will mediated by one particular community. The mediation itself is not arbitrary. As a result of God’s own incarnation, the body of Christ comes to subsist in the Catholic Church, which as a community governed by the ‘Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him’ can clearly be designated as a particular community. The Catholic Church thus becomes Hegel’s concrete-universal: as the reign of the Spirit, it is the perfect synthesis between the divine and the earthly principle, giving flesh to the universal not just in the singular person of Jesus, but as a reality now accessible to all, through the institutional mediation. The objection to this logic is obvious: the Church may claim it represents the universal, but formally its universality is a generalization of a set of particular truths. Nevertheless, I will refrain here from judging whether the Church claims this with good reasons or not. The function of the objection is to help us to recast the scene and to enter the dialectics of particularity and universality.
Let us then start again, from a more general philosophical perspective, in order to see where the Church might fit in. As Ernesto Laclau[4] remarks, our postmodern condition is characterized by an increased awareness of the particularity of all identity; all discourses are particular discourses and none of them is in itself capable of bringing about the fullness of communion. This results in the common proposition that the validity of any statement is contextually determined. At first sight, the logic of differentiality at work here looks unproblematic: we are living in a culturally pluralistic world, with different identities shaped within different contexts. But, as Laclau points out, a strict logic of differentiality is actually self-defeating and confronts us with a paradox: if all identities are defined within a context and if we are to avoid a complete dispersion of identity, the context will have to be a relatively closed context. But how can we define the limits of a context? If we start from the fact that differences are constitutive for identities, we cannot appeal to something beyond differences. At the same time, we cannot overlook the Hegelian insight that we can only define limits by pointing out what is beyond them. The first solution would thus be to argue that beyond the limits are new differences. But in this case, it becomes impossible to know whether these new differences are internal or external to the context. If there is only contextuality, the very possibility of a limit and thus of a context becomes a problem. Laclau thus argues:

"the only way out of this difficulty is to postulate a beyond which is not one more difference but something which poses a threat (i.e. negates) to all the differences within that context – or, better, that the context constitutes itself as such through the act of exclusion of something alien, of a radical otherness."[5]

By consequence, antagonism is constitutive of all identity: an excluded, non-dialectizable element constitutes the system of differences and allows the context to define its limits.
How does this argument relate to the concept of universality? Laclau directs our attention to the absent focal point where all differences meet, namely ‘the beyond’ as implied by the logic of particularity. In two ways, the logic at work reveals something as universal. Firstly, to make identity-formation possible, ‘the beyond’ has to differ from the logic of differentiality and therefore refuses integretation within a particular discourse. As a result of this distance, it can be labelled as universal. Secondly, because ‘the beyond’ is at the same time a threat to the logic of differentiality, it introduces a universality of equivalence between the different particular discourses: as an ultimate limit it is a threat to all the differential identities, which render them interchangeable concerning the relation to the limit; all identities become equivalent with regard to the void of their outside.[6] The universal is therefore necessarily an elusive, vanishing point, required by the system of differential identities, though at the same time a threat which reproduces a relative universality between the particular identities. It would lead us too far to sketch all the different consequences of such an approach. What concerns us here is the basic structure of Laclau’s analysis as a peculiar tension between the universal as non-dialectizable and the logic of particular discourses; a structure which not only holds for the functioning of discourses, but which has its ontological condition in the subject as “immanently antagonised”[7].
Taking a look again at Ut Unum Sint, Laclau helps us to question an all too easy distinction between universality and division. The risk of such a distinction consists of cancelling the non-dialectizable universality of the beyond in favour of the relative universality between the discourses. The strategy then oscillates between two extremes: either all different discourses come to a full agreement and are united by a newly structured discourse, or one discourse is generalized as the final, all-encompassing discourse. But beside the fact that the Catholic Church tends to opt for the latter strategy, what becomes questionable is not the strategy, but the whole attempt to locate universality at the level of discourse. From the moment, universality is set in opposition with division, a counter-productive logic is set free: universality becomes the end of a process aimed at the erasure of division, and because division is finally understood as a division between different particular discourses, the process of erasure will inevitably turn into a battle of the discourses, all striving for a hegemonic position.
Paradoxically, the opposite thesis might make more sense: true universality is the universality of division. What divides us is finally not our being part of certain community, as distinct from other communities, but our being divided within ourselves. We are split between the sphere of the non-dialectizable and the order of representation. The latter explains how our identity is inevitably a particular construction within a particular community; the first explains why the particular construction does not exhaust who we are and why all construction is always under threat. Does this then leaves us with an opposition between two perspectives on universality, a Christian one which despises division on the one side and a postmodern which embraces division on the other side? Not immediately: the thesis of true universality as the universality of division might be more Christian than one usually thinks. In what follows, I will take a look a the reading of the New Testament by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek. As postmarxists, they are not the most orthodox readers of the gospel, but they might help us to get rid of a too communitarian interpretation of Christianity.

II. Saint-Paul and the Foundation of Universalism

In continuity with earlier existentialist interpretations, Badiou and Žižek assist us in detecting a fundamental tension cutting across the whole corpus of the New Testament. The tension is the following: we are split between two lords, and we cannot serve both (Mt 6:24). Obeying the will of the Father is radically incommensurable with obeying Mammon. Of course, this is just one specific formulation, and the different authors of the New Testament each have their terminology to designate the fundamental tension. John focuses on the idea of the world, as a sphere incommensurable with the Life of the Divine: “I am not praying for the world” (Jn 17:9), “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). For Paul, the tension is one between Love and the logic of grace on the one side, and the Law and the supplement of sin on the other side. Formalised: we are split, like in Laclau’s scheme, between the non-dialectizable and the economy of representation, for grace cannot be counted, it doesn’t allow any calculation from our side. At different places, the gospel is clear about this radical split which refuses all mediation: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). The law, tradition, family… are radically surpassed, unable to mediate between our human condition and the life of faith.
Let us make this a little more specific. As an atheist philosopher, Badiou turns his attention to Paul, not because he believes the traditional claim about Jesus’s resurrection, but because Paul has established a universalist truth-procedure:

"Paul’s unprecedented gesture consists in subtracting truth from the communitarian grasp, be it that of people, a city, an empire, a territory or a social class. What is true cannot be reduced to any objective aggregate."[8]

Badiou stresses that Paul’s notion of ‘Resurrection’ is not meant as an historical claim about the body of Jesus (no wonder that Paul has no interest in the historical Jesus). ‘Resurrection’ functions rather as an empty signifier which designates the pure event of the liberation from the Law. With this notion Paul was able to undermine the existing discourses of his time, by focusing on the site where all the particular discourses lose their representative ground. In contrast with the settled position of the Jews and the Greek, this allows Paul to open up a different relation to reality through his experience of the failure of the existing discourses. More specifically, Paul lays bare how both the Jewish and the Greek discourse are aspects of the same form of mastery. The Jewish discourse is the discourse of the exception, of the prophetic sign and the mastery of its deciphering. The Greek discourse bases itself on the cosmic order and the idea of a direct mastery of the totality through wisdom. The Jew is in exception to the Greek. In both cases their theory of salvation is tied to mastery.

"One may also say: Greek and Jewish discourses are both discourses of the Father. That is why they bind communities in a form of obedience (to the Cosmos, The Empire, God or the Law)."[9]

‘Resurrection’ then designates the reign of the Son, as the event of the opening up of the original closure of truth within particular discourses (of mastery); an event which reconnects us with the impossible Real (the non-dialectizable) as the source of life. As such, Paul makes a strict distinction between the world of truth (which we enter through grace as a pure and simple encounter) and the world of particularity. Of course, Paul knows that we live in a world of particularity, but truth can only be established by traversing all particular differences.[10] As a result, Paul refuses to play the subtle game of identity-construction; since we are all one in Christ, he refuses to set up dividing distinctions: “It is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can affect anything – only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).[11] This is not to deny the idea of a Christian identity. But the identity has now become something paradoxical, as the identity of non-identity, for there are essentially no particular characteristics which shape the identity of being Christian. Moreover, precisely this paradoxical point has become the place from where Christian universality is defined: the universality emerges from the point where those who are ‘part of no-part’ speak. Or as Žižek states:

"Christian universality is formulated from the position of those excluded, of those for whom there is no specific place within the existing order, although they belong to it; universality is strictly codependent with this lack of specific place/determination."[12]

The universal dimension discovered by Paul is therefore not the ‘neither Greek, nor Jew, but all united as Christians’. As Žižek argues, this would exclude the non-Christians and reduce Christianity to a particular discourse with a specific identity. Paul’s insight is that Christian universality is the universality of division. What is universal is the difference itself between Christian (the new man) and non-Christian (the old man). This division cuts across the whole social body: “It proposes something that is open to everybody.[…] The division is internal to the subject itself.”[13]

III. Conclusion

Both Badiou and Žižek agree that true evil does not lie in an excess of subjectivity, but in its ‘ontologization’, in its reinscription into a positive order of Being (cf. the Greek discourse of mastery). At once, this is for both the great insight of Christianity, that “the global cosmic ‘chain of Being’ is not ‘all there is’, that there is another Order which suddenly emerges and which suspends the validity of the Order of Being”[14]. Love, as non-negotiable, as non-dialectizable, as grace cuts through our being emerged in a particular subset of Being. As such, this kind of Urspaltung (a primal cut) is what connects us all; it opens up a true universality, which is no longer the generalization of a particular discourse. Also ecumenism might be driven by an attempt to avoid the model of generalization. But as an ecclesial practice, it becomes highly questionable if it will ever be able to escape the pitfalls of communitarianism. Theology in general tends to get stuck in a logic of differentiality. In a ever more secular world, it suffers from a strong need to affirm its own particular identity. These needs are human, without doubt, but the consequences of this logic might be disastrous: here, Christianity tends to degrade itself to a particular life-option, to a subset/dogmatism/fundamentalism among others, suppressing the universality of division in favour of the comfort of its own niche.

"There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ" (Rom 3:22-24)

[1] Cf. for example in Dominus Jesus, § 4: “The roots of these problems are to be found in certain presuppositions of both a philosophical and theological nature, which hinder the understanding and acceptance of the revealed truth. Some of these can be mentioned: the conviction of the elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth, even by Christian revelation; relativistic attitudes toward truth itself, according to which what is true for some would not be true for others.” Cf. also the recent notification on Roger Haight’s Jesus Symbol of God: “This theological position fundamentally denies the universal salvific mission of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Jn 14:6) and, as a consequence, the mission of the Church to announce and communicate the gift of Christ the Saviour to all humanity (cf. Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15; Eph 3:8-11), both of which are given clear witness in the New Testament and have always been proclaimed as the faith of the Church, even in recent documents.”
[2] For an Anglican perspective, cf. especially the thought of John Milbank. Having flirted with a rather particularistic Yale-school approach (in Theology and Social Theory), he more and more comes to stress the universalist aspects of Christianity. “Once again theologians have been caught out in their inauthentic pusillanimity. In deference to liberal fashion, they have foresworn Christian claims to uniqueness, to a transcending of the Jewish legacy and so forth. Now they are wrong-footed by Marxist atheists who recall us to the facts of historical phenomenology: Christianity was the first Enlightenment, the first irruption of an absolutely universal claim.” J. Milbank, Materialism and Transcendence, in C. Davis, J. Milbank & S. Žižek (ed.), Theology and the Political. The New Debate, Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2005, 393-426, p. 35.
[3] “Die Theologen werden die letzten Universalisten in unserer hochdifferenzierten Wissenschaftswelt sein, und sie werden es – um Gottes und der Menschen willen – bleiben müssen, gelegen oder ungelegen, immer auch mit der Bereitschaft, einen gewissen Ungleichzeitigkeitsverdacht auf sich sitzen zu lassen. […] Der Theologe, der nicht sich selbst und andere betrügen will, der Theo-logie treibt, und zwar nicht als dies oder das, sondern als den immer neuen Versuch der Rede von Gott, ist und bleibt auf Universalität verpflichtet.” J.B. Metz, Zum Begriff der neuen Politischen Theologie: 1967-1997, Mainz: , 1997, 156.
[4] E. Laclau, Subjects of Politics, Politics of the Subject, in Differences. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 7 (1995) nr. 1, 146-164, p. 150-153.
[5] Ibid., in, p. 151.
[6] Cf. also S. Žižek, The Parallax View, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2006, p. 36.
[7] Laclau agrees here with Žižek that we finally will have to make this move and that we cannot treat the distinction as one between two externally opposed views. Cf. E. Laclau, Politics, Polemics and Academics: An Interview by Paul Bowman, in Parallax 5 (1999) nr. 2, 96-107, p. 100. For the reason why we have to interiorize this, cf. Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 36.
[8] A. Badiou, Saint Paul. The Foundation of Universalism, trans. by R. Brassier, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 5.
[9] Ibid., p. 42.
[10] This does not mean however, that Paul is trying to abolish particular differences. His strategy is more subtle. Take for example his relation to what is Jewish. As Rom 9:1-6 makes clear, Paul’s relation to the Jews is essentially positive. It is therefore not all Paul’s aim to discredit particularity. But he finally praises particularity only to be able to traverse it. In Badiou’s words: “Paul fights against all those who would submit postevental universality to Jewish particularity. […] The task Paul sets for himself is obviously not that of abolishing Jewish particularity, which he constantly acknowledges as the event’s principle of historicity, but that of animating it internally by everything of which it is capable relative to the new discourse, and hence the new subject.”[10] Moreover, Paul does not conceal his own strategy here: “To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win the Jews; to those under the law, I became as one under the law – though not being myself under the law – that I might win those under the law. […] I have become all things to all men” (Cor. I.9:19-22). Ibid., p. 102.
[11] Cf. also Paul’s disdain for customary casuistry: within the order of particularity everything is essentially admitted. “In truth, all things are clean” (Rom 14:20). Also on the level of intersubjectivity, Paul displays a similar generosity: “Why, then, does one of you make himself judge over his brother, and why does another among you despise his brother? […] Let us each stop passing judgement, therefore, on one another” (Rom 14:10-13). To protect the universalism, he even explicitly warns that one must avoid doctrinal quarrels as much as possible. “Give a welcome to anyone whose faith is not strong, but do not get into arguments about doubtful points” (Rom 14:1)
[12] Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 35.
[13] A. Badiou, An Interview with Alain Badiou. “Universal Truths and the Question of Religion”, in Journal of Philosopy and Scripture 3/1 (2005) 38-42, p. 40.
[14] S. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 133.


JD said...

Hi Tom - been enjoying your blog - you should think about submitting some of your thoughts on this matter to Janus Head, who are doing a special issue on 'Evil' sometime soon... cf:

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