There was once a little bestseller called, Why do Bad things happen to good People. The title captured that sense in which one can be perplexed by a situation that, at first glance, seems so strange that an answer is sought. In many ways this can be the initial experience when reading a Liberal or Progressive critique of the Radical tradition. Something that would almost inspire one to write a short book entitled, Why Do Bad Critiques Come From Good People.
After all those in the Liberal and Progressive traditions also seek societal reconfiguration, equality and emancipatory political activity. So why do their critiques miss the mark? A good example of the problem can be seen in a recent critique from Micah Bales entitled Should we Give up God for Lent? Bales is committed to social action and happens to be part of a denomination that I am personally attracted to (the Quakers).
On the surface the article is critical of a course I developed (after reading the work of Merold Westphal) called, “Atheism for Lent” (AfL). A course in which people read and discuss some of the greatest critiques of Christianity, faith and God, not to judge them but to let them judge us. The course itself is designed to help people interrogate their beliefs and discover how they function. As such it can be described as offering a critical lens through which to discover the extent to which ones beliefs operate in an instrumental manner. In short, whether or not ones beliefs operate as a type of psychological crutch required in order to find meaning in existence. To borrow Tillich’s famous distinction, the AfL course is designed to unearth whether ones religion is an artefact that a person grasps hold of in order to live, or whether it is a contingent means of pointing us toward the depth-dimension in existence itself.
Yet the piece is more a criticism of my wider project (of which AfL is a part) and its relation to societal transformation. So instead of responding directly to the article I wish to draw out and clarify the reason for the underlying misunderstandings that we find there, particularily when it comes to questions of the political. I will mention two that are pertinent before closing with a reflection on the directly religious element of the piece (which is religiously conservative in nature).
The perverse belief in action
Firstly, I wish to draw out how those in the Liberal tradition generally advocate a form of perpetual concrete action when faced with the injustices around them. In the words of Levinas, the face of the other issues a cry for help and the liberal is one who responds directly to that cry. The issue here is the nature of the response, one that can be termed “perverse.” The pervert is, psychoanalytically speaking, unable to say “no” to the desire of the other. The pervert’s desire is to be the object of the others pleasure. They are the one who always says “yes.”
In a similar manner the liberal experiences a cry in the concrete face of the other that always demands a direct response. Hence there is a dislike of critical theory, which involves a form of stepping back from that cry (attending university, reading, writing etc). In Micah’s piece this is classically played out in his use of words such as “intellectualism” and “elitism.” Because the liberal tradition always attempts to say “yes” to the call of the other any form of theoretical activity is viewed as oppositional to (or, at best a distraction from) the emancipatory project. The European tradition of Leftist theory is seen as divorced from the exigencies of actual action to eleviate inequality. Theory is seen as a type of second-order reflection on political activity rather than a form of political (in)activity. We see here, of course, the influence of American pragmatism.
From the Radical perspective however the perverse response needs to be avoided. This means that there are times when we should refuse to respond to the concrete cry of the other for the sake of wider and deeper transformation. This means having to take on a certain guilt while working toward real change.
To take an example, I remember hearing of a church that did a number of fund raising activities for the homeless, including helping out at a local soup kitchen. Over a ten-week course on homelessness they continually challenged those involved to respond to the cry of the homeless in their city. Yet never once did they ask why the homeless actually existed there in the first place. This was structurally similar to the Christian call, during the eightieth century, to be kind to ones slaves and treat them well. It was only as people actually began to attack the structures that enabled slavery (the economic and political systems that kept it in place) that things began to change.
The Liberal political position, as exemplified in Bales piece, rightly sees critical theory as a refusal to act. The difference is that the Radical tradition understands that this refusal is itself a form of political intervention, one that reads the signs and works out both when and where to act in order to find the Archimedean point where oppression can be cut off.
The point here is that the perverse response actually perpetuates the very injustice it seems to attack (helping the homeless live in a less painful way while not working out the base that enables that superstructure to continue unabashed). This is why Marx was critical of what was taking place in 1870. He was worried that the revolution would happen before he had finished Capital. In other words, before the careful work of reading the signs was finished. In this way critical theory is vital to the emancipatory project rather than some mere past-time we might be able to indulge in once the work of raising up the oppressed is completed.
The failure to see inequality as stemming from a primordial antagonism
The second difference to mention between the Liberal and Radical traditions is that the Liberals focus on different concrete modes of oppression, oppressions that they see as betrayals of a deep non-antagonistic reality in being that can, if rediscovered, bring harmony between peoples (as well as between people and nature, etc.). In other words, the fundamental nature of the universe is a balance and harmony that has been disrupted.
To love the other as oneself is thus taken to mean that we ought to respect other people’s (cultural, religious and political) identities as equal to our own (insofar as they don’t themselves have a bias toward hatred and exclusion).
In contrast the Radical tradition asserts that the antagonisms played out in historical life (sexism, racism etc.) are contingent, historical reflections of a basic antagonism inscribed into subjectivity itself (that itself reflects an ontological condition) and that the way to traverse these is to address the basic scapegoat mechanism designed to obscure this antagonism (for the scapegoat mechanism is what reduces antagonism to a negative destructive force rather than a positive destructive one).
To love ones neighbour is not read as loving the others identity as one loves ones own (the ego reading in which we affirm the others concrete identity as we affirm ours), but rather as embracing ones own internal antagonisms in order to love the other in their antagonisms.
Here the point is to affirm the internal conflict which undermines our ego images. To love oneself is thus to cut against oneself as an ego. It is not a selfish call but rather a deeply selfless and painful one. It is an act of radical violence against ones own identity.
This is why the liberal strategy of opening up communities to previously scapegoated others is not, in itself, sufficient. In religious terms we can note how some conservative churches are beginning to open up to the possibility that gays and lesbians can be equal members of their community. Just as they eventually learned to reject explicit racism and sexism now they are gradually learning to overcome heterosexism. But the problem is that the fundamental structure of scapegoating is not broken in the acceptance of the latest “other,” and if the underlying scapegoat mechanism is not decommissioned then new “others” will always arise to protect the group from its own internal conflicts.
There will always be an other as long as we refuse to face ourselves. For example in some of these groups gays and lesbians are now being accepted as long as they embrace the idea of lifelong monogamous marriage. This means that those, gay and straight, who don’t accept that lifestyle for themselves can be excluded as immoral, corrupt and a threat to the institution of marriage.
This is likely why Bales is unable to see my formation of ikon and ikonNYC as political interventions (he critiques me for not being interested in political action).
The formation of these groups are the most important part of my project (of which writing is only a small part) and are dedicated to breaking the scapegoat mechanism and thus undermining the libidinal pleasure received from the act of exclusion itself.
Also, when Bales writes that my work “is most attractive to those who enjoy privileged positions in society,” he not only misses the way that my theory arose from of my upbringing in one of the world’s worst conflict zones (being firmly rooted in reconciliation work in Belfast, N.Ireland) but at a deeper level, how this work is best received in other places of deep oppression. Recently, for instance, I was invited to a prison to talk with long term inmates about the work. It was here that my project made most sense, creating a space for real transformation (indeed the people on death row at that time, who I was not allowed to see, were reading The Orthodox Heretic). In addition to this, it was my work in Belfast with the Simon Community (a homeless organization) and in community development where I learned the power of these ideas. Indeed the irony is that he mentions how badly my work would go down in L’Arche, a community that many ikon people have worked with and whose founder (Vanier) has impacted my own thinking in a profound way.
Why Atheism for Lent
In closing the article moves from the (liberal) political to the (conservative) religious in a brief critique of the Atheism for Lent course. Here he writes, “How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing! How can we give up God for almost six weeks? How would we sustain our struggle for justice, truth, mercy and genuine love? What could be the possible benefit of denying this healing, life-giving power for forty days? We live in a world desperately in need of God’s presence and intervention. Will we dare to believe?”
In this quote he admits that he needs God in order to gain meaning and work for justice. I do not doubt this and I also do not think that he means to assert that other people also need religious belief. His claim is simply that without God (which we read as his belief that God is at work in his life) he would crash and burn.
I can empathise here in that there was an area in my life where I felt that I needed something in order to live. I thought that if I lost that thing my heart would burst out of my chest and that life would escape my body. However I would say that this is, while romantic, an ultimately destructive place to be.
Atheism for Lent is precisely designed for people like myself and Micah. For people whose belief in God (or other things) is not something that they can question without the sense that destruction would result. For people who approach the sacred as an object of depth rather than as simply the experience of depth in everything. It is for people who think they need some thing more than air because they think that there is no life outside that thing: that their lungs would explode if they lost it. The point of Atheism for Lent is that the loss of the God-object is precisely that which unfolds into Tillich’s experience of God as found in Ultimate Concern.
A healthy faith collective then is there to help people encounter this depth-dimension precisely by breaking the sense that there is some thing that is needed like air (for reducing faith to the affirmation of a thing renders the sacred into an object to be placed alongside other objects).
In Atheism for Lent we encourage people to face their doubts, to consider how the idea of God functions in their life and discover that faith is not connected with affirming some particular thing but rather of being taken up in the depth of life, a commitment that transcends theistic/atheistic distinctions and that results in real, material commitment to political transformation (through the valuation of life itself). As such I would invite Bales, and others like him,to give the course a go. To find out more visit here (new content added everyday at midnight).