Soskice on Mystics and Language

Janet Martin Soskice, philosopher of religion at Cambridge, defends the realism behind descriptions of mystical experience:

Consider accounts of religious or mystical experience; the mystic, as we have noted, often feels a crisis of descriptive language because there do not seem to be words and concepts in the common stock adequate to his or her experience. This straining of linguistic resources leads to the catachretical employment of metaphor, of phrases like ‘the dark night’, ‘the spiritual marriage’, and ‘mystic union’. But the significance of these terms can be assessed, even by other theists, only in terms of the contexts in which they arise… Often, too, it will be found that the mystic’s remarks arise from particular patterns of devotional life; hence the common injunction that the neophyte follow a particular course of life, of reading and of prayer so that he may, by God’s grace, be open to this ‘night’ or ‘marriage’. Experience is vital to the mystic, but experience interpreted in the descriptive vocabulary of their particular community of interest and tradition of belief.

This emphasis on experience does not mean that only those privileged with mystical experiences can speak about them. The generality of Christians speak of the ‘beatific vision’ without having had experiences which they would describe as such. They do so because they belong to a community and tradition of faith which contains authoritative members for whom the term does denominate a particular experience. There is an element of trust involved in relying on others who experience is wider than one’s own, yet in almost all areas of life this is the perfectly rational enterprise of using the wider resources of the community to extend one’s own, and necessarily limited, experience and expertise. (Metaphor and Religious Language, 151-2)

These ‘authoritative members’ are, of course, the saints, whose own intimate encounters with God ground our language about him, so many years later or across continents. They also provide a sort of guideline for figuring out how to grow deeply into God, as we may recognize similar experiences of a ‘dark night of the soul’ or an intimate ‘spiritual marriage.’

Interview with Meillassoux

There’s an interesting new movement in French philosophy termed “speculative realism” which attempts to recover a chastened confidence in reason. There’s an interview with one of its leading proponents, Quentin Meillassoux, over at Idée@Jour. Since, however, it’s in French, here’s a translation:

Q. Can metaphysics speak to these times of crisis?

A.The very fact of getting back in touch with metaphysical questioning is itself a call to a refound confidence in the capacities of thought. This confidence certainly assumes an increased vigilance, bound by the critical heritage of the last decades, toward the dogmatic illusions which speculative philosophy was able to haul through the centuries. But we see today that the abandonment of metaphysical reflection, far from causing the intolerance of thought to decline, did nothing but exacerbate the desire for a blind faith—as though an overreaching skepticism towards reason turned into a fanaticism wishing to be inaccessible to discussion. Resetting ourselves in a metaphysical perspective permits us to confer anew on the concept—rather than on faith alone or the sole opportunism of interest—the duty of helping us to construct our existence, to “vectorise” the concept in its relation to a world both rich and opaque. A metaphysics instructed by the work of its great adversaries—instructed by its reversals (Nietzsche), by its destruction (Heidegger), therapeutic dissolution (Wittgenstein), or deconstruction (Derrida)—sets out both an extraordinary heritage, a treasure of unique thought towards which we are yet able to return—and at the same time imposes on us a totally new and exciting task: that is, how to produce a contemporary metaphysics, able to give a meaning, even a fragile one, to our lives by the sole force of thought, and one which may be likely to “pass across” [passer au travers] those tremendous undertakings of “demolition” which together ran through [traversé] the 20th century.

Q. What are the paths for metaphysics in 2010?

A. They are numerous, and the foremost among them bears a relation to the renewed questioning of its singular: is it still necessary to speak, like Heidegger or above all Derrida, of metaphysics [“la” métaphysique], or is it better rather to speak of metaphysics-plural [“des” métaphysiques-pluriel] which echoes the title of our [new book] series? In effect, this plurality is manifested to us in at least three ways, which make up three important modalities of contemporary research:

  • First of all, returning to the surface of those metaphysics either forgotten or neglected for a long time in France, when, that is, they represent alternatives to the grand classical systems of Aristotle, Descartes or Hegel: a metaphysics no longer of substance, of the subject, or of the closed system, but of the Open (Bergson), of the event (Whitehead), of singularity-in-becoming (Simondon), of possession (Tarde), of the work to be created [l’oeuvre à faire] (Souriau). Many more undertakings which demonstrate that metaphysics [“la” métaphysique] is not reducible to a determined collection of concepts which, once disqualified, take with them the whole of speculative thought.
  • This power of the difference [l’altérité] of metaphysics permits us to be comforted in our hope for its renewal, and that from the heart itself of those currents which contested it the most radically: Alain Badiou, thinking totally within the heritage of Lacan‘s anti-philosophy, takes up in depth the most radical requirements of Platonism in order to elaborate a system of the undecidable event and its weak multiplicities; Graham Harman, an American philosopher whose first work in French we are about to publish, successfully extracts from Heidegger himself a completely rethought metaphysics of the object.
  • Finally, this rediscovery of an “other metaphysics” [autre métaphysique] (according to the expression of Pierre Montebello) is accompanied by the discovery of a metaphysics of the other [métaphysique de l’autre]—that is to say, of “non-Western” peoples. In Métaphysique cannibales, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro establishes that the Amerindians developed a metaphysics of original predation, a “multinaturalist perspectivism” that philosophy—in particular that of Deleuze and Guattari—can help us to tackle and understand. Viveiros can then cite, to support his point, a postface of Lévi-Strauss to a volume of L’Homme, dating from 2000, which treats of this “metaphysics of original predation” and reveals to us the gripping evolution of the author of Mythologiques vis-à-vis philosophy: “…whether one rejoices or worries, philosophy once again occupies center stage. No longer our philosophy, of which my generation had asked foreign [exotiques] peoples for help to dismantle [défaire]; but rather, by a striking turn, theirs.”

One could not better describe the movement underway: this benefit (bien) from a thirst for otherness [altérité] and the decentering which metaphysics begins again in the plural, requiring us to think this profusion in preserving it, as much as we can, from ancient wanderings.

Žižek on “Forced Choice”

Slavoj Žižek is an interesting philosopher, combining very eclectic interests in Hegel, Marx, the psychoanalyst Lacan, and (surprisingly enough) Christian theology. In the following excerpt, he is explaining the “real” status of freedom—“real” in the sense Lacan uses it, where the thing itself is not real, it does not exist, but it nevertheless has various effects on the world. To use a controversial example, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were precisely “real”: though they did not exist, they presented symbolic justification of a war in the Middle East. For Žižek, modern freedom has this same “real-impossible” status:

A few months ago, a Yugoslav student was called to regular military service. In Yugoslavia, at the beginning of military service, there is a certain ritual: every new soldier must solemnly swear that he is willing to serve his country and to defend it even if it means losing his life, and so on—the usual patriotic stuff. After the public ceremony, everybody must sign the solemn document. The young soldier simply refused to sign, saying that an oath depends upon free choice, that it is a matter of free decision, and he, from his free choice, did not want to give his signature tot he oath. But, he was quick to add, if any of the officers present was prepared to give him a formal order to sign the oath, he would of course be prepared to do so. The perplexed officers explained to him that because the oath depended upon his free decision (an oath obtained by force is valueless), they could not give him such an order, but that, on the other hand, if he still refused to give his signature, he would be prosecuted for refusing to do his duty and condemned to prison. . .

In the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs, there is always such a paradoxical point of choix forcé—at this point, the community is saying to the subject: you have freedom to choose, but on condition that you choose the right thing; you have, for example, the freedom to choose to sign or not to sign the oath, on condition that you choose rightly—that is, to sign it. If you make the wrong choice, you lose freedom of choice itself. And it is by no means accidental that this paradox arises at the level of the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs: the situation of the forced choice consists in the fact that the subject must freely choose the community to which he belongs, independent of his choice—he must choose what is already given to him. (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 185-6)

What strikes me is exactly the way this analysis confirms the Christian (especially Pauline/Augustinian) understanding of the nature of free will: when one chooses the good (and only the good), then one is truly free! But when one chooses evil, out of a free choice between good and evil, then one becomes bound to the evil and loses “freedom of choice itself.” It is a matter, then, of freely choosing the good set before us, already given us by God and in this way becoming part of the free community (the Church). But God does, paradoxically, command us to choose this freedom: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deut. 30:19). “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). To continue to freely choose evil is actually to elect out of the community. For this reason, the logic of excommunication enunciated by Hauerwas is exactly right: “Excommunication is not to throw someone out of the church, but rather an attempt to help them see that they have become a stumbling block and are, therefore, already out of the church. Excommunication is a call to come home. . .” (Matthew, 165).

Žižek on Judas

With the recent craze surrounding the Gospel of Judas recently discovered, claiming that Judas is the real tragic hero and faithful disciple of the Gospel story, I found this quote from philosopher Slavoj Žižek quite interesting:

[…] the final rehabilitation of Judas as the real tragic hero of this story: he was the one whose love for Christ was the greatest, and it was for this reason that Christ considered him strong enough to fulfil the horrible mission of betraying him, thus assuring the accomplishment of Christ’s destiny (the Crucifixion). The tragedy of Judas was that in the name of his dedication to the Cause, he was prepared to risk not only his life but even his ‘second life’, his posthumous good name: he knows very well that he will enter history as the one who betrayed our Saviour, and he is prepared to endure even that for the fulfilment of God’s mission. Jesus used Judas as a means to attain his goal, knowing very well that his own suffering would be transformed into a model imitated by millions (imitatio Christi), while Judas’ sacrifice is a pure loss without any narcissistic benefit. Perhaps he is a little like the faithful victims of the Stalinist monster trials who confessed their guilt, proclaimed themselves miserable scum, knowing that by so doing they were accomplishing the last and highest service to the Cause of the Revolution. (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 127 n.11)

Preposterous, but interesting!

The Lost Community

La communauté perdue, ou rompue, peut être exemplifiée de toutes sortes de manières, dans toutes sortes de paradigmes : famille naturelle, cité athénienne, république romaine, première communauté chrétienne, corporations, communes ou fraternités — toujours, il est question d’un âge perdu où la communauté se tissait de liens étroits, harmonieux et infrangibles, et se donnait surtout à elle-même, dans ses institutions, dans ses rites et dans ses symboles, la représentation, voire l’offrande vivante de sa propre unité, de son intimité et de son autonomie immanentes. (La communauté désoeuvrée, 29-30.)

The lost, or broken, community can be exemplified in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of paradigms: the natural family, the Athenian city, the Roman Republic, the first Christian community, corporations, communes, or brotherhoods—always it is a matter of a lost age in which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds and in which above all it played back to itself, through its institutions, its rituals, and its symbols, the representation, indeed the living offering, of its own immanent unity, intimacy, and autonomy. (The Inoperative Community, 9.)

I think Jean-Luc Nancy, the author of this quote, is fundamentally wrong—at least on his characterization of the first Christian community. A reading of Acts and Paul’s letters will show far less than a “lost age” of “tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds.” The idyllic passage in Acts 2:44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” the height of community and communication of goods, comes before the community is, properly speaking, “Christian.” And by the time the church of Antioch arises and the designation “Christian” is given for this strange mix of Jews and Greeks (11:26), the Church is in serious disarray: the baptizing of an Ethiopian, conversion of Saul the murderer, persecution in Jerusalem, Spirit-filling of Cornelius the Roman, and Peter’s vision regarding the abrogation of kosher laws all contribute to a great commotion that demands the calling of the first council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). However, lest this little act of community politics be thought to restore order, Paul writes Galatians (esp. 2:11-14). The Christian community is always already a disorderly community, a broken body. In the end, the Church is the community of the Eucharist.

Nancy on Individualism

Jean-Luc Nancy, a French philosopher, writes these provocative words on the impotence of individualism:

L’individualisme est un atomisme inconséquent, qui oublie que l’enjeu de l’atome est celui d’un monde.

Individualism is a thoughtless atomism, which forgets that with an atom, a world is at stake. (La communauté désoeuvrée, 17)

The political thought of our age, the theories that led to the founding of the constitutional democracies we enjoy (more or less) as citizens of Canada, the US and other western nations, assume individualism. Nancy suggests, in other words, our own societies are castles in the sky, they rest on air.