What is a theological concept? Part 4: Jean-Luc Nancy’s “something in Christianity deeper than Christianity”

In the previous post I explored Nancy’s reading of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme as a theological moment in Badiou’s thought. But what about Nancy himself? Does his own atheism—for atheist he indeed professes to be, providing that atheism is understood in a way that avoids the Christmas projection—avoid theological concepts? In this post I want to suggest one moment in Nancy’s thought that could well be considered theological. As with Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme, my aim in these early posts in the series is not to adjudicate in any definitive way whether these philosophical moves are or are not ‘theological’; my concern here is to sketch some contours of the territory we shall be surveying in more detail in future posts, and to consider what sorts of philosophical concepts, moments and moves are liable to be called ‘theological’.

Nancy himself does not see atheism as a decision that ruptures from theistic thought, but as contemporaneous with—as well as the consummation of—monotheism: monotheism is an atheism (La Déclosion[1] 27/Dis-Enclosure[2] 14). The trajectory of atheistic thought for Nancy begins as far back as Xenophanes and his tirades against the anthropomorphic gods, a rejection of immanent deity that is only accelerated by the singular theos of Plato which replaces the paradigm of gods and mortals inhabiting the same space with the ontological distance that the name ‘God’ will henceforth measure (DDC 29/DisDC 16). The invention of atheism and the invention of theism are contemporaneous and correlative, because they both rely on what Nancy calls ‘le paradigme principiel’ (DDC 29/DisDC 16), the principial paradigm, which seeks to establish, or to put into question, the principle or archē of the world, the axiological reason for what is given. Theism and atheism are bound by their complicity in this principial paradigm in a way that the assertion of atheism and the denial of theism simply reinforces. Here, theism and atheism stand or fall together; neither can survive the other.

Nancy critiques this logic of the principle, shared by theism and atheism alike, as being either inconsistent or incomplete. Its great weakness is at the moment of the positing of the principle itself, the ‘in the beginning there was (not)…’ Whether it is affirmed or denied, this originary moment can only ever collapse into its own affirmation or denial (DDC 37/DisDC 22). Either 1) a principle must make itself an exception to its own ‘principiality’ in an ever-repeated (bad infinite) gesture, or 2) it must confirm itself as an equally recurring bad infinite. It must except itself from its own ‘principiality’ in the sense that, while everything that follows it must be accounted for in its terms (in terms of ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ or ‘All is matter…’ or ‘All is history…’ etc.), no such constraint is demanded (or indeed possible) in the case of the principle itself. Or it must confirm itself infinitely in the sense of an infinite regress: it must account for its own principle, and the principle of that principle, and so on to infinity… If the principle is complete, it is not consistent, and if it is consistent, it is not complete.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.


Nancy and the self-surpassing of religion

Nancy’s own position is framed by the need to, and impossibility of, escaping this theo-logic of parasitic imitation, as Derrida warns in On Touching: ‘This is not about being free from harm, safe, and saved, seeking one’s salvation or immunity outside of Christianity. These values would still be Christian’ (On Touching 220).

Nancy is aware of this danger of seeking to bootstrap his way to post-theological thinking, and in L’Adoration he articulates his own position not in terms of a rupture with Christianity but rather as a claim to be faithful to something in Christianity deeper than Christianity itself, for which God is only the ‘front man’ (Adoration[3] 31-2):

Whereas the Qu’ran states that God created mankind in order to be adored, modern man is ready to condemn the nullity of this vain operation, the exorbitant presumptuousness of such a Narcissus. But what if we were called upon to understand the Qu’ran’s statement altogether differently? What if it meant that “God” is only the name adopted by a pure excess—indeed vain, indeed exorbitant—of the world and existence over themselves, in themselves? Of a purely and simply infinite relationship to infinity? (ADC 20)

It is the movement of self-surpassing, of pure excess, in itself that is crucial for Nancy’s purposes, not the fact that this self-surpassing happens to be, in this instance, Christian:

It is necessary to extract from Christianity what bore us and produced us: it is necessary, if possible, to extract from a ground deeper than the ground of the religious thing [la chose religieuse] that of which religion will have been a form and a misrecognition. (ADC, 26)

 Indeed, Nancy is not interested in Christianity for itself, for any religious, moral, spiritual or salvific virtue (ADC 39), and the self-surpassing he discerns only in some currents of the Christian tradition (most prominently the Reformation, ADC 50-1) is deeper than religion itself.

The idea that we must search in religion for something deeper than the religion itself, of which religion is perhaps only a misrecognition, is a familiar enough move. It is the move of Derrida’s ‘messianicity without messinaism’ or indeed ‘religion without religion’. It is also a Kantian move, the Kant who in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone discerns in the determinate historical husk of Christian religion the kernel of the universal archetype which alone is worthy of imitation. As a trajectory, Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ can also be brought into productive conversation with Marcel Gauchet’s idea of ‘the religion of the egress from religion’ in The Disenchantment of the World, as Nancy himself notes in Dis-Enclosure.

However, Nancy’s idea of ‘something in Christianity deeper than Christianity’ can itself be considered a characteristically Christian move: a search for the animating spirit beyond the letter of the law.[4] It is the gesture of ad fontes, of semper reformanda, of circumcision of the heart rather than circumcision of the flesh (Colossians 2:11), of the reality rather than the shadow (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17), of the antitype rather than the type (Romans 5:14).

So in seeking to escape Badiou’s imitation of the theological entry of the eternal into the temporal, Nancy performs a theological gesture. There is, of course, a conversation to be had about whether this gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’ is irreducibly or contingently theological, and we shall return to this in a future post. Derrida, in On Touching, suspects that it may reveal Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity to have been ‘Christian hyperbole’, but I do not want to be too hasty either in echoing or rejecting that claim. For now, I simply note that the gesture of finding ‘something in x deeper than x’ it is both present in Nancy’s navigation of the Christian legacy and also a repeated and prominent move within the Christian tradition itself.


Raising the stakes

But this is not simply the swapping of one theological imitation for a second, equivalent imitation. In repeating the Christian gesture of ‘something in x deeper than x’, Nancy has escalated the philosophical stakes. Badiou’s imitation is local: his understanding of the birth of philosophy can be viewed as a theological moment. But Nancy’s imitation, precisely because it rejects any determinate figure of self-surpassing but seeks to imitate the movement itself, is not local but limitless. Nancy’s rejection of Badiou’s theological imitation turns out to be a much more radical gesture of imitation than that which it dismisses.

Rather than avoiding the question of philosophy’s imitation of theology, Nancy has succeeded only in playing out that same question on the much broader canvas of the notion of imitation itself, and all the questions that can be asked of Badiou’s interruption of the mytheme by the matheme can be asked of the gesture of Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’.

Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ infinitises the gesture of imitation, performing the sublation of the example in the imitation of exemplarity. Nancy’s ‘something in x deeper than x’ is not an alternative to Badiou’s Christmas projection at all, but its hyperbolisation and its paroxysm.

[1] Hereafter: DDC.

[2] Hereafter: DisDC.

[3] Hereafter: ADC.

[4] I will develop this claim more in a future post when I engage at length with Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment.

cc image courtesy of Morgan on Flickr

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The Return of Religion, Kettle Logic, and the Secular Dilemma

lambert-return-statementsAt this year’s Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy conference I had the pleasure of responding to Gregg Lambert’s new book Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary PhilosophyI chose to focus on the very idea of the “return of religion”, its multiple senses, and their potential conflicts. The paper is downloadable from academia.edu and researchgate.net.

Here is the abstract:

There are at least three distinct senses of the “return of religion” in recent Continental thought. Taken together, they obey a sort of kettle logic, and they leave the secularist with a dilemma about how to avoid returning to religion in the very attempt to escape it. The paper discusses Gregg Lambert’s Return Statements, and engages mainly with Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, touching briefly on Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Quentin Meillassoux.

Difficult Atheism reviewed in Derrida Today

derrida-todayThe latest issue of Derrida Today includes a review of my Difficult Atheism by Christina Smerick. You can read the whole review online for free here.

Watkin’s thesis is bold and unapologetic, and shapes the path of his reading and thinking with intense focus. His main concern, bordering on a battle cry, is that the ground gained by atheism is being lost once more to a new ‘colonisation’ by theism.

Watkin proceeds systematically and with an admirable thoroughness.

Reading Meillassoux produces ‘aha!’ moments, where he turns a philosophical concept on its head (as when he advocates for radical possibility, which must be if everything is necessarily contigent); Watkin does an admirable job of waking us up from our thrall and pointing out the deep problems with such seemingly magical moves.

Watkin accomplishes a daunting task in this book, managing to summarize and explain some of the most complicated, complicating works we have from these thinkers while at the same time issuing forth his own provocative thesis, thus finding points of commonality in unlikely places.

Talk at UD Melbourne on Aug 5 – Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux

On August 5 at 11am Difficult AtheismI will have the pleasure of speaking at the Melbourne University of Divinity philosophy seminar on the subject “Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux”. The talk seeks to synthesise and develop some of the main lines of thinking from Difficult Atheism and to open the argument of the book to a wider audience.

Here is the abstract:

This paper summarises and extends the argument of my 2011 book Difficult Atheism to argue that contemporary “atheism” is an umbrella term used to describe three distinct positions. I briefly explore these three positions in the work of French philosophers Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux, showing that they seek to position themselves in relation to the theological in three mutually exclusive ways. As well as being of interest to scholars working in contemporary French thought, the talk aims to offer to a broader audience a framework for understanding and evaluating modern atheisms.

Third Derrida Podcast: Derrida, Atheism and Theology

The third of the podcasts on Derrida and Reformed theology has now been released. The first considered questions of metaphysics and the second focused on Derrida’s ethics; this final podcast discusses Derrida’s engagement with theological themes.

I begin by discussing Derrida’s cautious affirmation that “I rightly pass for an atheist”, and try to dismantle the myth that, for Derrida, God can be whatever you want him/her/it to be. I trace Derrida’s rejection of the god of onto-theology and then explain why he returns to the trope of “x without x” (religion without religion, God without God…), using the example of “messianicity without messianism” and his affirmation of a democracy to come.

I note that, while Reformed theology shares with Derrida a rejection of the God of onto-theology, absolute personality theism is nevertheless very different from both the God of metaphysics and Derrida’s own position, and that introducing absolute personality Trinitarianism into the conversation shows that ontotheology and Derrida have a number of key commitments in common. After a brief discussion of divine accommodation in Calvin I contrast messianicity without messinaism with the account of predestination in Ephesians 1, offering a note of caution with respect to Derridean openness to the other-to-come. I finish by summing up some of the principles that I have found helpful in staging an engagement between Derrida and Reformed theology.

Derrida's theology

New review of Difficult Atheism at Marx and Philosophy

Over at Marx&Philosophy, Bryan Cooke (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference) has posted a review of Difficult Atheism.

The opening paragraph gives a flavour of the review’s tone and also of Bryan’s style, which, for all the right reasons, is best left undescribed:

Christopher Watkin’s thoughtful, learned and above all deeply nuanced book about three major contemporary French philosophers brings a welcome depth, conceptual deftness and almost unprecedented sobriety to a topic (namely the relationship between philosophy, religion and politics) which more often than not is completely swallowed in a kind of bathetic tennis match between the ideological nostrums du jour.

It is clear that Bryan found the chapters on Meillassoux most engaging, and after gently questioning the way I bring in Jean-Luc Nancy to sit alongside (and against) Badiou and Meillassoux, he concludes thus:

Difficult Atheism is a first-rate, profoundly illuminating book. Scholarly without being portentous, rigorous without being dry, it is the kind of book which retroactively renders whole shelves redundant. And while it is in no way a manifesto, nor a political tract in a conventional sense, I think that its reflections on justice and religion will be of interest to Marxists, for whom, after all – following Marx, and against 19th century positivism – atheism has always been difficult, precisely because it is tied to the project of a world where religious opiates will not be necessary.

It is a very gracious and elegant review, and I am grateful to Bryan for the time and care he clearly spent considering the book’s arguments.


Review of Difficult Atheism in The Heythrop Journal

Difficult AtheismA new review of my Difficult Atheism has just been published in The Heythrop Journal 55:4 (2014): 755-756.

Here is the final paragraph, in which the reviewer (Dane Neufeld of Wycliffe College, Toronto) sums up both his commendation of, and reservation about, the book:

Difficult Atheism is a challenging read but the difficulty of the book is necessitated by the content which it engages. Watkin’s prose exhibits powerfully the struggle of contemporary French philosophy to think without God. Among other things, this book is a testament to the manner in which traditional western theology and philosophy, despite all of the recent disruptions and transformations, continues to sustain its reach into the western imagination. To this end, one feels that Watkin’s conclusion could have been longer. He leaves a question mark over the possibility of an atheism or post theological philosophy that is not parasitic in one manner or another. Perhaps he could have pursued the question: what would such a philosophy have to look like? What criteria would be required? And furthermore, what are the consequences for atheism, or philosophy after the death of God, if this goal proves unattainable? Nevertheless, Difficult Atheism is an important book that engages the topic of atheism with a level of insight and depth that is uncommon in many current discussions.

The question “what would such a philosophy have to look like?” is an interesting one, and Dane is right to ask it. It is, however, a lot harder to answer. The position I arrive at through the course of Difficult Atheism is that any philosophy that successfully avoids imitative or parasitic atheism seems inevitably to fall into ascetic atheism, and vice versa. I am questioning the premise of the project of “such a philosophy”, rather than opening an easy way to a new solution. In the new book I’m writing, The Human Remains, I do however adopt a more “constructive” tone, seeking to show how the human being, traditionally so intricated in the West with the notion of God on which it is parasitic, can be rethought without losing the benefits of the theological account. To the extent that this is what, in Difficult Atheism, I call a “theological integration”, my response to Dane’s question is “wait and see”.

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Of ornitheology

flightless birdsHow do we decide if a particular philosophy is covertly theological? One all-too-common response to this question boils down to little more than a theological bird-watching expedition in which we don our binoculars, pick up our guide books and descend upon an unsuspecting article or book in the hope of catching sight of a Lesser Spotted Miracle or a Great Crested Messiah in the long grass. If we are lucky—or inventive—enough to clap eyes on a theological ornithoid, we tick it off our list, conclude that the terrain definitely smells of incense, and return home contended but, ultimately, none the wiser.

Let’s call this curious practice ‘ornitheology’. Like the quarry they stalk, ornitheologians have their own distinctive calls that can be heard echoing through the philosophical canopy: such and such a concept ‘bears a striking resemblance to’, ‘has all the markings of’, is an atheistic ‘version’ of, ‘is quintessentially’, ‘repeats’, ‘imitates’ or ‘follows’ a theological ‘pattern’ or ‘paradigm’.

One of the problems with ornitheology (there are many, I fear) is that it smuggles a hidden premise under its moss-green waxed jacket, a premise that concerns the nature of imitation: If something looks like a miracle then it must be a miracle, and if it is a miracle then it must be theological. This hides a further assumption: that theology owns the intellectual copyright on everything it touches. Any motif or way of thinking deployed by theology will remain always and forever theological. But we need to be wary of this jump; perhaps it will remain forever theological, and perhaps it won’t, but it’s at least worth asking the question.

We need more sophisticated ways of thinking about God and theology in relation to philosophical writing, ways that can account a little more satisfactorily for what some contemporary philosophers are trying to achieve. Part of the problem is the tired ideology of conflict between philosophy and theology. In a piece I have coming out on Kevin Hart soon I call this the topographical model. In topographical thinking, philosophy and theology are each exhaustive in their own domain, able to say everything that is to be said, but impotent outside the confines of what are assumed to be their respective frontiers. When one discipline seeks to exert what it sees as its own sovereign right over all or part of a foreign territory, all sorts of hackles are raised by the critical border police. It is a land-grabbing paradigm that serves neither philosophy nor theology well.

3 ornithologists

One way to ask the question of the relation between philosophy and theology in a way that moves us beyond the tram-line logic of the ornitheologian (the more it looks like a miracle, the more theological it must be) is to focus not on which theological trope is imitated in a particular philosophy (here a god, there a god, everywhere a faith in god) but to think also about the complex nature of imitation itself. Might there not be ways of understanding what it means to imitate theology other than saying that imitating theology is always theological? Doesn’t that depend as much on what imitation is as on what theology is? If, for example, Western universalism or the idea of revolution or equality or deconstruction or whatever else owe much to Christianity (and there are of course arguments on both sides) it doesn’t necessarily mean that all revolutions are Christian revolutions or that all universalism is Christian universalism. Or at the very least it doesn’t mean that we should assume to know from the outset what ‘Christian’ means if we do say that all revolutions are Christian.

For one sketch of what rethinking imitation and challenging ornitheology might look like, see my post on Meillassoux as Oedipus. I hope that the line I take in that piece can begin to make sense of why Meillassoux would say, in ‘The Divine Inexistence’, that the only way to banish the religious is for the universal to be incarnated, or why in The Number and the Siren he insists that the only way that Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés… can be unique is by being Christic and imitating Christ’s glorious body and the Catholic mass. If imitation always equals complicity, as it does for the ornitheologian, then these images and moves in Meillassoux just can’t make much sense, or else they need to be done away with in an ungainly critical pirouette which sees reader trying to explain away in an puff of Orwellian pseudo-logic what nevertheless stands clear on the page: it may look like a miracle, quack like a miracle and swim like a miracle, but don’t let that fool you…

In the meantime, listen out for the distinctive calls of the ornitheologians; they are a common species in our parts.