Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Christology with a Dash of Freud and a Pinch of Marx

Here are some excerpts from Erich Fromm's essay "The Dogma of Christ" in The Frankfurt School on Religion and the collection of essays entitled The Dogma of Christ. This is an extremely interesting essay, Fromm employs two of the "Masters of Suspicion" to read (and critique) the doctrine of Christology for the early Church and later its shift away from the early Church's Christology to the Christology of the Catholic Church. Both doctrines of Christ are rooted in the Church communities' social and economic standings.
I want to include enough to interest people to read it, but not too much to give it all away. The parts that I focus on a Marxian reading of first century Palestine which sets up for a Freudian reading of the doctrine of Christ for the first century Christian community. Without further ado, dear reader, let's get started.
In the first century C.E., "Palestine was a part of the Roman Empire and succumbed to the conditions of its economic and social development".
Economically, there were basically three classes. First, "the rural population was exhausted by an extraordinarily heavy tax burden" and either became debt slaves, or as the farmers lost their means of production or their small land holdings, they "swelled the ranks of the large-city proletariat of Jerusalem" or "resorted to desperate remedies, such as violent political uprising and plundering." Second, just above the impoverished proletariat there arose a middle economic class, "though suffering under Roman pressure, was nevertheless economically stable." Third, there was a "small but powerful influential class of the feudal, priestly, and moneyed aristocracy." Within the Palestinian population, there was a corresponding social differentiation to this severe economic cleavage. Sadducees represented the rich upper class, Pharisees represented the middle economic class, and the Am Ha-aretz (literally, land folk), corresponded to the "lowest stratum of the urban Lumpenproletariat and the oppressed peasants." There was much hatred between the lowest class and the Pharisaic circles (if you question this, ask me for some literary instances where this arises), and the conflict increased as "Roman oppression became heavier and the lowest classes [became] more crushed and uprooted." This is where we see the rise of national, social, and religious revolutionaries; mainly embodied in political attempts at revolt like the Zealots and Sicarii (dagger carriers), and religious-messianic movements (but "there is by no means a sharp deperation between these two streams moving toward liberation and salvation; often they flow into each other).
Out of these lowest classes - "the masses of uneducated poor, the proletariat of Jerusalem, and the peasants in the country", those who "because of the increasing political and economic oppression and because of social restriction and contempt, increasingly felt the urge to change existing conditions" - arose the kind of people who supported early Christianity.
Do passages like Luke 6:20 ff, then, not only "express longing and expectation of the poor and oppressed for a new and better world, but also their complete hatred of the authorities - the rich, the learned, and the powerful"?
How did the early Christian community view Christ? In Acts 2:36, wee see that "God made him [Jesus] both Lord and Christ". This "is the oldest doctrine of Christ that we have, and is therefore of great interest, especially since it was later supplanted by other, more extensive doctrines." This is called the "adoptionist" theory "because here an act of adoption is assumed". "The thought present here is that Jesus was not the messiah from the beginning; in other words, he was not from the beginning the Son of God, but became so only by a definite, very distinct act of God's will. This is expressed in the fact that the statement in Psalms 2:7, 'You are my son, today I have begotten you," is interpreted as referring to the moment of the exaltation of Jesus (Acts 13:33)." According to the ancient Semetic idea, the king is a son of God on the day he mounts the throne. "It is therefore in keeping with the oriental spirit to say that Jesus, as he was exalted to the right hand of God, became the Son of God."
"We see thus that the concept of Jesus held by the early community was that he was a man chosen by God and elevated by him as a 'messiah', and later as 'Son of God'. This Christology of the early community resembles in many respects the concept of the messiah chosen by God to introduce a kingdom of righteousness and love, a concept which had been familiar among the Jewish masses for a long time." Except there are a few new elements: "in the fact of his exaltation as Son of God to sit at the right hand of the Almighty, and in the act that this messiah is no longer the powerful, victorious hero, but his significance and dignity reside just in his suffering, in his death on the cross."
This is where we add the dash of Freud, and may get a little controversial.
"The first Christians were a brotherhood of socially and economically oppressed enthusiasts held together by hope and hatred." "While the Zealots and Sicarii endeavored to realize their wishes in the sphere of political reality, the complete hopelessness of realization led the early Christians to formulate the same wishes in fantasy." "If there was nothing left for the Zealots but to die in hopeless battle, the followers of Christ could dream of their goal without reality immediately showing them the hopelessness of their wishes. By substituting fantasy for reality, the Christian message satisfied the longings for hope and revenge, and although it failed to relieve hunger, it brought a fantasy satisfaction of no little significance for the oppressed."
1. A man is rased to a god; he is adopted by God. "We have here the old myth of the rebellion of the son, an expression of hostile impulses toward the father-god." "These people hated intensely the authorities that confronted them with 'fatherly' power. The priests, scholars, aristocrates, in short, all the rulers who excluded them from the enjoyment of life and who in their emotional world played the role of the sever, forbidding, threatening, tormenting father - they also had to hate this God who was an ally of their oppressors, who permitted them to suffer and be oppressed. They themselves wanted to rul...but it seemed hopeless to try to acheive this in reality and to overthrow and destroy their present masters by force. So they satisfied their wishes in fantasy. Consciously they did not date to slander the fatherly God. Concious hatred was reserved for the authorities, not for the elevated father figure, the diving being himself. But the unconscious hostility to the divine father found expression in the Christ fantasy. They put a man at God's side and made him a co-regent with God the father. This man who became a god, and with whom as humans they could identify, represented their Oedipus wishes; he was a symbol of their unconscious hostility to God the father, for if a man could become God, the latter was deprived of his priveleged fatherly position of being unique and unreachable. The belief in the elevation of a man to god was thus the expression of an unconscious wish for the removal of the divine father.
2. The figure of the suffering savior was determined "by the fact that some of the death wishes against the father-god were shifted to the son. In the myth of the dying god (Adonis, Attis, Osiris), god himself was the one whose death was fantasied. In the early Christian myth the father is killed in the son."
3. "Since the believing enthusiasts were imbued with hatred and death wishes - consciously against their rulers, unconsciously against God the father - they identified with the crucified; they themselves suffered death on the cross and atoned in this way for their death wishes against the father. through his death, Jesus expiated the guilt of all, and the first Christians greatly needed such an atonement."

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: In Memoriam

Prior to the commencement of his presidency, George W. Bush’s campaign slogan was “Bringing America Together”. Apparently, according to the Republican Party in general, and Bush in particular, the grand old U.S. of A. was experiencing a crisis of national identity. Whether there was an internal conflict of Us/Them in the United States or not, Bush’s dreams were answered at the precise moment that two planes crashed into the national monument known as the World Trade Center, five years ago. The “crises of national identity found its provisional resolution by displacing the internal conflict of Us/Them on an external screen.” (Richard Kearney) The body politic known as the United States was (re)united on September 11, 2001, just like the separatist Puritans and the non-religious adventurers were united under the Mayflower Compact or like how frontiersmen put there differences aside while expanding America’s borders westward. This time, however, “we” were not arriving to the New World on the Mayflower or pushing the frontier further west in stagecoaches or covered wagons and uniting against the savage “Indians”, instead, “they” were the savages arriving on airplanes, crashing into buildings, nevertheless, again we united against “them”. Our crises of national identity, our differences were put behind us; America had been brought together against “them”; against savage terrorists. We were once again the United States of America.
However, it was indeed a “provisional resolution”. Between the attack upon the World Trade Center and today, five years later, we have seen the Bush administration declare preemptive war on Iraq, declare an endless “war on terrorism”, curtail civil rights, defy laws, resort to overwhelming force, and other actions, like these, that are “ready products of fear and hasty thought.” (Wendell Berry) Again we are experiencing crises of national identity; Americans are no longer united over the issues of war in Iraq (how is this connected to 9/11 again?), war in Afghanistan, or war on terrorism. Words like “freedom” are evoked to reunite the body politic, because who is against “freedom”? Terrorists. This administration is fighting for “freedom” against those who are against “freedom”, so if you are against this administrations actions, you are against “freedom” (you are no better than a terrorist) because this administration is fighting for “freedom”. This logic disintegrates public dialogue into ad hominem arguments, words like “freedom” disintegrate into rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification, and critical self-appraisal is thrown out with the bathwater. We are implored to remember the victims aboard the planes and in the towers who died on this fateful day, but these are just disguised calls to revenge and resentment, to increase military funding (recall Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex), to give our endless support to the thriving bureaucracy, in order to stamp out these “embittered few”, these “thousands of trained terrorists” so “innocents” who died on 9/11 and others will not have died in vain (The National Security Strategy). But will retaliating in immature and dangerous ways, will the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of “innocents” in Iraq and Afghanistan, will the deaths of thousands of American, Canadian, English, Iraq, and Afghan soldiers, will the severed head of Osama bin-Laden, save the victims deaths from banality? It doesn’t look like America’s typical unoriginal and uncreative response of war and violence will save or is saving the victims death from be(com)ing trivial. Perhaps it is now, five years out, to start thinking of different ways to handle the crises that 9/11 has placed in our laps. When should we start forgiving? When is it right to remember and when is it right to forget? How much should we remember and how much should we forget? Is this a time and place (like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, or Rwanda) where we should take note of Nietzsche’s call to “actively forget the past” in order to surmount revenge and resentment? To rework Adorno’s question about Auschwitz (which he later retracted), “Is poetry possible after 9/11?” Or is this a time and place (like Auschwitz) in which “it is essential to remember the past in order to honour our ‘debt to the dead’ and try to insure that it never happens again” (Kearney)? If we are to remember the past, if we are to narrate the events of half a decade ago, how do we do so without “losing the unique character of unspeakable horror” (Kearney)? Let’s not follow the easy path of many Christians, both conservative and liberal, and create or subscribe to some Master Narrative that attempts to explain it away. 9/11 did not happen because God called down destruction on America because of homosexuals, or gay marriage, or whatever. We must avoid “banalising” it “by reducing it to voyeuristic spectacle or kitsh” (Kearney) or a commodity of the culture industry (a real and present danger with the appearance of numerous emotive 9/11 films).
Either way, we must take seriously both the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers and the dissent of the populace concerning the subsequent actions taken by the Bush administration in order to make occasion for strenuous self-appraisal. First, what has the United States done to stimulate such an attack? Could it be that we are trespassers in the Islamic holy land, not just Mecca, but the whole Saudi Arabian peninsula? Could it be because of the untrammeled spread of the global market leaving the Islamic people maimed in its path? Second, why are citizens dissenting? Obviously, some people aren’t pleased with the way this administration is handling things. Instead of hijacking, raping, and using religious vocabulary to justify your actions and arrogantly proclaiming the superiority of your stance while ignoring the critique, why not actually engage the critique and confront the disagreement? How could there possibly be a quandary if your stance and actions are divinely sanctioned? Displacing internal conflict onto an external screen is only a temporary cover-up for crises of national identity, attention cannot be diverted ad infinitum from the internal conflicts (though an endless war on terror was a creative attempt), eventually these crises will have to be dealt with.
If America is to be brought together, let it be brought together not by identifying outside enemies like America did in the 20th century with communists, fascists, Cubans, Iraqis, Vietcong, or North Koreans nor by trivializing the deaths of victims by using their deaths as a method to continually fuel the military-industrial machine to satiate our perceived need for revenge. Perhaps, it is time to think of new ways to “bring America together”. But first it is time to think of new descriptions as to what is meant by “America”, both ideally and in actual performance, or whether or not America should be “brought together” at all.

Monday, September 04, 2006

"Who Disturbs My Slumber? The Faces of Poor People, Ethical Obligation, and Différance

No, the allusion to (actually, the direct quotation of) the magical sand tiger and the (literal) mouth of the “Cave of Wonders” in Disney’s Aladdin, who – subsequently to having those golden bug halves become his eyes and prior to his persistent goings on about a “diamond in the rough” – asks “Who disturbs my slumber?”, does not start this essay (article, blog post, whatever) out on the proverbial wrong foot with a confusion of pronouns. My (at least perceived) intent is not to address the abstract, universal notion of “poverty”, I would go so far as to say that I’m not really all that concerned with the problem of poverty. Now before I get in trouble, let me say that instead I am kept up at night by the one-legged, homeless Jamaican man who plays percussion on an upside down plastic trash can in hopes to insight some subjective pleasure in Chinatown/Spadina Street pedestrians to accumulate enough “spare” change to buy a decent lunch. Sure, he isn’t that good – Kant with his objective aesthetic judgment and his pockets full of Loonies and Toonies would just keep walking – but he is hungry. The woman who feeds the cats that hang around by my garbage cans, who built them a shelter out of a Styrofoam cooler, and asks them if they are going to catch pigeons, she too disturbs my sleep. She is probably homeless and most likely doesn’t have any food for herself. There is also the man in the jean jacket with the worn elbows who stands outside Burger King on College and Spadina everyday and asks everyone who passes if he can have money for a burger. Or the woman with the thick harlequin-esque makeup who smells like urine and walked me and Jeff all the way from Spadina to Bathurst mumbling incessantly, but seemed to enjoy a “listening” ear and the occasional affirmation to her incoherent mumblings. These people, these faces, keep me up at night. Not because I invite them all over to watch Spiderman cartoons in French on the Quebecois CBC station and then they can’t take a hint when midnight rolls around and I keep yawning and saying “well, it’s about that time”. They disturb my slumber because these are actual faces that are calling me, in some way, to relieve their suffering and I do not even now how to begin to respond. Therefore, the question is not “what disturbs my slumber?”, but precisely “who disturbs my slumber?”. These are, at least a few, who disturb my slumber.
It seems that différance is the im/possibility of everything (is différance also the im/possibility of différance making différance it’s own condition and therefore “unconditional” and metaphysical? (Dudiak’s critique of Caputo?)) . If this is the case, if différance is the im/possibility of everything, then différance is (always?) prior to any call (face/flesh) of the other that elicits my/our response and obligates me/us in their singularity (Levinas). This may be what Levinas is signifying when he says the other is “Absolutely Other” (however, can you have a relationship with an absolute? (Caputo’s critique of Levinas?)). If the other is always “Absolutely Other”, if différance is the im/possibility of ethics, how can I respond in such a way that relieves these faces from their suffering? It would seem that the typical response to the faces of those mentioned above is to give them money. But is this simply reducing them to the Same? By tossing them a Toonie am I simply assimilating them into the competitive market? Am I responding as a bourgeois, capitalist oppressor as if I can relieve their suffering by reducing them to the Same? Will the act of giving them some spare change relieve their suffering as singularities that call for a singular response? Is this what they want? Do they even know what they want? Do they want to be parasitic upon or be assimilated into a culture that locks up food and forces people to labor so an elite few can be “free” and “truly human” (*jab at Hannah Arendt*)?
I’m experiencing an existential crisis. First, these people I mentioned are poor and homeless. Their faces call me, place an obligation upon me, and I am responsible to respond. However, I must interpret this call. I am a bourgeois, capitalist oppressor who drank single malt scotch aged 12 years while typing this post full of obscure, philosophical references, and I will interpret this call from this place I find myself in, which normally elicits the response of giving money. They are poor because they are not like me, so I make them like me by giving them money. How can I respond otherwise? How can I respond to their call without reducing them to the Same? Which brings me to my second point. They are calling me to relieve their suffering. But they must also interpret their suffering. This is similar to the well-trodden authorial intent discussion. They may entertain private meanings inaccessible to anyone, but they may also have blind spots concerning their suffering and their call and their hoped-for response. They want to eat, maybe their suffering is more of an existential desire that they are looking to satiate, but if they could satiate it indefinitely by being assimilated into this culture would it be worth it? Is that what they really want?
Please respond, whether to my (mis?) readings of différance and ethical obligation, or to how I should respond to those who disturb my slumber.