The Hobbesian Anthropos

In some ways I feel as if I barely understand Hobbes. Perhaps that has something to do with the divergent iterations that spring from varied corners of academia.

Hobbes represents everything, and nothing. He is one of those not-too-distant scholars in history whose varied existences go toward proving that figuring out exactly what a thinker is doing, why, and how is a little harder than your entry-level college textbook is willing to admit (and, who blames them? We can’t wade into the shit head first; instead, we take slow subtle steps). So, yes, we can talk, definitively, about the years of his exile in France, his bachelorhood, his travels across Europe with those he is tutoring; but, the tricky business is determining his place in the history of political thought, the importance of his specific take on the social contract (and not talking anachronistically of a full-blown political liberalism), and, perhaps, what exactly the hell is going on with his particular model of the human.

Hobbes and Chill

 

I can’t solve all the problems. This isn’t really my area of specialty, but what I think I can speak to his the particular form of the Hobbesian state of nature. What bothers me most is the way it is carelessly and crudely employed. Even in scholarly writing there are the quick, throw-away references to Hobbes and his anthropology. Usually the charge of psychological egoism, an overwhelming self-interest or greed; or simply the quick line pointing to the ‘wolf man’.

What isn’t paid enough attention to, I think, is the deeply physiological nature of the Hobbesian human. It is perhaps one of the more careless omissions that in the only (that I can find) translation of De  Homine (Bernard Gert’s work) the first 9 chapters are missing! Why? Well, the footnote in the 1991 reprint merely says “they are irrelevant to Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy” (35). Well, gee, thanks for deciding that for me. Maybe I wanted to read them??

The reason that they are irrelevant? Well, the first chapter deals with ‘out-of-date’ biology and chapters 2 through 9 are concerned with optics. But, why does Hobbes devote the first 9 chapters to things wholly extraneous to the rest of his work dedicated to de homine? Well, perhaps he had a reason?

It seems quite obvious to me that there are physiological reasons, that the foundation of Hobbes’ thought regarding the human, and going beyond to his moral and political philosophy is grounded in the materiality of the human, in the physiological workings of man. This needs to be appreciated to understand anything about the necessity and inevitability of violence in the state of nature. Fear, not simply greed, leads to violence. But, fear is based on the inability of the subject to determine (a hermeneutical problem) what the other subject will do. And, when one thinks that they may suffer violence, they are led by their natural right to do what they can to defend their self from the ultimate evil (as Hobbes doesn’t allow for a teleology, only an evil, which is immobility and death).

It seems quite obvious, then, why both optics and biology are important for the foundation of Hobbes’ material concerns when discussing man. It sucks it was left out of this particular translation of De Homine….

Advertisements

Murdering God

While more posts, after a long hiatus, will be developed soon, I thought I would share some of one of my favorite writer’s (Philip Goodchild’s) work, a spectacular moment of vulnerability which occurs in the preface of his magisterial volume, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety.

This book emerged from the tension between four powerful insights – insights bringing problems, no solutions. The last insight to arrive was the contemporary truth of suffering: a growing awareness that current trends in globalization, trade and the spread of technology are not only leading towards a condition where the human habitat is unsustainable, but the urgency and responsibility announced by this preventable catastrophe mean that little else is worth thinking about. . . As a whole, however, my work is grounded in an ‘idea’ – or perhaps I should say ‘experience’ – of what I will call ‘God’. This ‘idea’ was so overwhelming and so distinct from our customary ways of thinking that, while intelligible in itself, it remains incommunicable until it has called into question and reformulated all existing categories of philosophy and theology. Finally, the work of the revaluation of values which may lead to the cessation of suffering was developed in the form of the ‘murder of God’ –  the actual work of calling into question the fundamental concepts and values of the European tradition. (xiii-xiv)

The provocative ‘murdering of God’ is a necessity, especially when it comes to overturning those ways of being, ways of relating to others, that are dominant but which bring forth suffering. Here, Goodchild is insistent on the immense importance of finding new ways to value. Or, perhaps, hearkening back to older traditions of value, lost ways of determining worth. Our dominant systems (of discourse, trade, sociality), while often gesturing toward ideas like ‘human rights’, ‘justice’, ‘the good’, ‘God’, are only superficially intertwined with various ways of thinking about them. Instead, what Goodchild realizes and explicates in his broader corpus, is the way that money is what determines the way in which those prior signifiers are thought. To the point that the dominant religion simply is money. Money is God now.

But, here, we see that this isn’t just a cold ‘just the facts’ sort of discourse. In fact, doing so would be mirroring the sort of mirage of the ‘fact/value’ distinction that many modern economists assert.

Goodchild continues, though:

Each of these insights  fractured my self-consciousness, exposing an abyss beneath my thoughts and relations to myself, to others and to the world. I became a stranger to those closest to me as well as to myself.  Each issue imposed itself as a dynamic force on thought, a problem of unlimited importance that I feel barely equipped to begin to address. Moreover, these are not personal but universal and global problems, imposing the responsibility on each person to find an appropriate way of addressing them. In the case of each problem, however, there is only a minority who feel the impact of its force. . . The public consensus is engaged in a vast enterprise of evasion, sheltering in a wicked and lethal complacency. . . Thinking is nearly as dangerous as complacency. (xiv)

Engaging in the problems of contemporary economy, then, is of the most immense importance, such that even thinking seriously about it causes immense pain and ignites crisis. As Goodchild mentions, while there is an importance, for him, in the issues of ‘liberal norms’ such as toleration, rights, and also post-structural notions of difference, alterity, and locality, these take a seat to the overwhelming insight of suffering, but not just any suffering. Here, we are talking about universal suffering found in the univocal policies which are bringing about ecological crises which may eliminate the human race in under two centuries.

Maybe it is only though investing ourselves in these problems, problems which hurt to think about, that we can turn back the tides of collapse.

And, this will undoubtedly call for murdering God, because the global God isn’t the God of natural theology, nor Christianity, nor Islam; effectively, in the practicality of every day life, our God is something else. And, it is killing us.

 

Review of: The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy

The amazing book on Christian ethics by Jeph Holloway.

This blog has a LOT of purposes, which perhaps contributes to its downfall. Nonetheless, I have to include a plug for one of my former professor’s book which came out last April. If you care in the least about subjects in the realm of theology, philosophy, ethics, or ecclesiology you should pick up the book. It is not that expensive, especially if you want an electronic copy.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Holloway’s book on ethics centers squarely around theodicy. Now, I know what you may be thinking: theodicy is, primarily, a philosophical topic taken up by, usually, apologists (though, it seems most often the hard work is done by those scholars like Van Inwagen and then disseminated by rank-and-file apologists). After all, considering the existence of deity in the face of seemingly insurmountable natural and moral evil is becoming a rather stark task, one that the Christian should rightly confront and not shy away from.

Holloway, however, is not particularly concerned with discussing theodicy as some sort of difficulty in the face of God’s reality; rather, he starts by pointing out, quite rightly, that despite the insistence that Augustine (the bishop usually associated with the origination of the term) is concerned with proving God (and the goodness of God) existed in light of evil, the notion is just contextually naive. Augustine was concerned instead “as a pastor to instruct members of the faith community–the church– as to the nature of evil and God’s response to it. (3)”. This is the starting point for Holloway, and what he seeks to do as well. No defense of belief in God (others have done this, and this is not the point or scope of the volume) as would be assumed by the reliance on theodicy.

God is doing something about Evil. That is the assumption, and God doing something about evil (theodicy, God’s justice in the presence of evil) is the foundation for the ethic to be explored in this volume (and subsequent volumes to hopefully be released within the next year or so). Primarily, Holloway echoes often the following phrase throughout the book: God, in God’s redemptive work, is creating a people whose lives, sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. In this phrase Holloway packs several themes that he finds intimately detailed within Ephesians, characteristics that are crucial for properly doing Christian ethics. Thus, Holloway sees Christian ethics as needing to be theocentric, redemptive, ecclesial, liturgical, and eschatological, and he explores these themes in conversation with partners as diverse as Nietzsche and Niebuhr, MacIntyre and Gustafson, and virtually everyone else on the spectrum of ideas. In this respect, the name-dropping can be sometimes overwhelming; nonetheless, the resources are invaluable to the argument. This is truly an interdisciplinary volume, marrying quite rightly philosophy, theology, ethics, and biblical studies. The use, more explicitly, of scripture and biblical studies is a much needed corrective to those like Hauerwas who often seem to know the Ethica Nicomachea a bit more thoroughly than the New Testament.

Truly the importance of theodicy is convincingly applied as a starting point for a Christian ethic, especially one indebted to a view of scripture as a grand narrative, as is becoming more popular in light of Wright, Hauerwas, Long, and others. Turning the term on its head and asking the question, “What is God doing about evil?” rather than “How can God and evil coexist?” is not only more contextually interesting, it also helps to marry theology and ethics (too often separated in modern theology) and put a certain amount of burden on the Christian. God is redeeming the world, in this understanding, through his people, and God is a deity of work, and thus calls for his people to worship through their work to redeem.

If one is looking for a usual book on ethics, one that posits various questions or situations and employs a decisionistic enterprise then you had better look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a volume that delves into scripture (primarily Ephesians, as the theme of the book is centered around it), sifts through recent ethical theory and philosophical inquiry, and challenges the theologian and lay Christian then you should certainly pick up the volume. It is excellently written, rather than excruciatingly dry, and unusually convincing in argument.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

If you are interested in checking out the book click here

 

Look for a forthcoming interview with Dr. Holloway concerning the book, Christian ethics, philosophy, and Pauline theology. Oh, and maybe jazz.

 

Thanks for reading!

A Kingdom of Justice: Part 1

Justice? Competing Visions…

Evil acts are committed.

Reaction(s) occur.

The audience applause.

These are the bare minimums, the bare occurrences, within plots; problem, reaction(s), and ending solution. We watch a movie and the plot is introduced with an initial problem. Someone has to do something! Some person must solve this problem which often concerns some sort of evil or immoral act, or other such problem. Stories are ripe with the fruits of cultural engagement, engagement which transcends the story and reaches also into the metaphysical concerns and beliefs of  a culture or cross section of a culture. Thus, perhaps we can look a bit into story to see what seems to me to be the norm when it comes to how justice is understood by our culture.

Take, for instance, a really simplified version of Gladiator. Certainly this film has been seen  by many to be a modern-day classic, and a film which has helped bring about popularity of historic biopics with similar scenery (like Troy and Alexander). It is an amazing piece of cinema and holds up to a variety of interpretations and artful analyses. However, taking an extremely simplified analysis allows one to see the usual good vs. evil motif, or perhaps less strongly, right vs. wrong. Justice must be done, and even if Maximus is not able to see fulfillment in this life, he will meet his family in the next. The ones who did wrong against him are ultimately accounted for and there is vindication.

War movies have similarly been popular in recent decades, especially ones that pit the Righteous Allied against the Evil Axis, or perhaps the Good Western democracies against the Bad Communists. It is all very black and white. It is all very simplified; evil must be defeated ultimately through persuasion or force. Evil is given ontological reality, it is a thing that must be encountered and defeated.

Christians often do the same, especially when aligned with the state or other prominent powers. The Spanish Inquisition, though actually quite limited in scope, sought to bring about the ultimate good through persuasive force. The ultimate goal was to save the soul of the pagan or mistaken Jew, even if they must be forcibly baptized or made to recant their prior faith. We can also see here the separation between the material and spiritual, though such is relatively absent in New Testament literature.

Modern Christians have done similar. Following H. Richard Niebuhr it has become the norm to view Christ’s commands (or imperatives) as unlivable. After all, we live in a fallen and sinful world.  But also, after all, we live within Christendom, right? A sort of civil religion still exists whereby American nationalism and patriotism are seen as connected intimately with Christianity. What is good for America is good for the church.

In fact, when evil is done to America or seeks to dominate swaths of land or influence culture, the American/Christian must intercede. When terrorists cause havoc it is an imperative that we become involved and punish those that do evil acts so that further destruction may not occur. Or so that those who have died are avenged. The soldier is fighting for the country, and for virtues that are at the heart of both America and (supposedly) the Christian faith.

This is the dominant paradigm. Justice involves engagement, and engagement is usually through mediums of force or persuasion.

Do these contentions hold up? Is this the biblical paradigm that Christians are called to live by? Certainly it is rationally justifiable, but which rationality and whose justice are we navigating under? 

Such questions will be further pondered in the second part of this blog.

Who Isn’t into Theology?

In the wake of tragedies we all question, ponder, examine, or make the choice to make no examination whatsoever (which is by itself the result of examination!). While I by no means would attempt to address the sort of causation-fascination the media is attached to in order to garner attention from their listeners, readers, and watchers, I do believe it important to realize the reactions of humans in the wake of tragedies like the elementary school shootings at Sandy Hook in Newton, CT. The same, of course, occurred after the 9/11 attacks, after the Aurora theatre shootings, in the wake of any sort of horrid tragedy that the media picks up on and rapes from any angle it can in order to sell the sort of reality they portray. 

 

OK. That was a bit pessimistic and a borderline harangue, perhaps. The more immediately interesting issue, to me, however, is the intense theologizing and philosophizing that occurs immediately in the wake of these terrible happenings. Mike Huckabee, for instance, immediately issues a statement that includes God in which he alludes to a certain type of theodicy. In whatever rhetorical manner he intends he makes theological pronouncements concerning the causation of such horrific instances. God being shoved away from society has brought about a situation wherein evils can occur in schools. I do not think it is particularly helpful to dissect someone like Huckabee, but I do think it is helpful to realize that this is a perfectly natural reaction: to orient the situation in a certain way that what has occurred makes sense in regards to the particular schema we live our lives by.

 

If one makes a quick trip on any social media site they see the same being done by most people, whether church-going types, theists who are not engaged in a community of believers, pagans, atheists, agnostics, and whatever other sort of nebulous categories we can come up with. Whether religion is a topic immediately engaged or not, big subjects such as the nature of human existence, bioethics, entitlement rights, power rights, virtue, dualistic tensions inherent in reality, the overall nature of reality, etc… are heavy on the minds and hearts of individuals. We all philosophize. We all theologize.

 

While not seeing philosophy and theology as coterminous, I do think the two are necessarily linked. If one were to attempt some sort of grand survey of human existence it would become quite apparent that the distinction between “religious” and “secular” is quite new (the Ancient near Easterns certainly would not see the distinction, neither would those in the Hellenistic regions). In fact, some would say that there is no real separation between the two even now. William Cavanaugh, DePaul University Professor of Theology, has written several volumes which have engaged this subject such as Migrations of the Holy:God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. His analysis leaves one realizing that the “secular state” really has become the holy order taking the place of religion, mirroring the societal aspects that religion once inhabited, attempting to replace the importance that religion once held; holiness has simply migrated from overtly religious institutions to covert theological institutions. Stanley Hauerwas, along with Cavanaugh, has for instance noticed the sacrificial language used in relation to the soldier, who lays down not only his life but also his distaste for the taking of life in order to serve the means of the state. In a more direct manner, Giorgio Agamben, atheist Italian political philosopher, has written in his  volume The Kingdom and the Glory that “in modernity, theology continues to be present and active in an eminent way” (loc.203 Kindle version). Here he sides with Carl Schmitt, and not Max Weber, in his analysis, though he deepens the paradigm from Schmitt’s early comments. Agamben implements the ideas of the signature found in Foucault’s work in order to explain the relationship between the secular and the religious (the signature is “something that in a sign or concept marks and exceeds such a sign or concept referring it back to a determinate interpretation or field, without for this reason leaving the semiotic to constitute a new meaning or a new concept” (loc. 203).)

 

Suffice it to say, the secular is a type of religious, even if one does not want to go as far as Agamben. It orients the individual to schematize reality in certain ways and to relate signs and symbols of reality in these certain ways. The demythologization of reality is another mythologization, just of a different type (sorry Bultmann!). The difference is simply that it is the reigning myth and is asserted as the hierarchical victor (though it exists in constant tension and will eventually topple, if we take Derrida seriously).

 

With all of that said (and I admit it was a lot and may seem a bit technical to some) I must come to the main part, perhaps the important challenge, that I want to impart: as Christians we must know our theology.

 

Too often after tragedies it becomes easy to make these simple statements, many of which are good meaning but carelessly said. We state, “God has his will,” or question, “Why would God do this?” or, “Where was God in the midst of this tragedy?” or, “Why would someone do this?”. We comfort those in sorrow with well-meaning but misplaced words. This is certainly not to say that all of the above is not valid, nor correct; I am not attempting to evaluate the statements, but the background of the statement made or position held. We need to be careful with what we say. We need to engage theology and philosophy very carefully. Our theology and our philosophy reflect our worldviews, and often our worldviews are the result of the global culture industries we spend the majority of our time engaging in rather than the Scriptures, or Plato, or Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas.

 

Please, challenge yourself to drop the popular god of comfortability, the god of pleasure, the god of the media, the idols that are thrust upon us often. If you are a Christian, engage in studying who the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is. Justify through the Scriptures and through other interpreters of the Scriptures what you know of God, the world, who the human is, what sin is, what economics is, etc… This is necessary, of the ultimate importance, for the Christian. It is also a difficult and lifelong commitment.

 

To become literate in the language of Christianity is quite easy; to become fluent in that language, however, is difficult and must be worked toward.