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Deleuze and Cinema: The Political Significance of (Time) Images Part 3

So far I have been trying to keep to a certain trajectory. By following Deleuze’s tracing of the breakdown of the movement image, or images with meanings tied directly to sensory-motor perceptions, to the exposure of the true nature of time in the time image, we have hopefully now arrived at why this really matters. I ended my last post by saying that we must inhabit the radical “breaks” that the time image reveals (and I tried to describe) in order to choose, in Deleuze’s sense of eternal return, difference rather our normal mode of re-cognition and re-creation.

Ways in which we recognize the world, or see the world, might be a way of describing various “spiritual” groups. For example, mystics might be said to quite literally see the world in a way that highlights or brings forth the inherent mysteries that many of us miss or glaze over in our quotidian devotion to the status quo. William Connolly experiments with organizing people this way in his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008). Connolly observes that members of different creedal groups, whether they are straightforward capitalists and businessmen or conservative Christians, are drawn together despite creedal differences because they possess affinities of spirituality (40). For example, Connolly points out that an atheist who resents the world for containing no meaning or redemption shares a similar existential ethos of resentment and revenge with the conservative Christian who, even if unconsciously, resents God for making life unfair or making salvation difficult to attain, or generating so many rules that must be followed. These less than obvious groupings are what Connolly dubs a “resonance machine,” this particular machine Connolly calls the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” which is primarily operative in our current state of affairs. Connolly further elucidates:

Partners to the resonance machine in question have an existential orientation that encourages them to transfigure interest into greed, greed into anti-market ideology, anti-market ideology into market manipulation, market manipulation into state institutionalization of those operations, and the entire complex into policies that pull the security net away from ordinary workers, consumers, and retirees- some of  whom are then set up to translate new intensities of resentment and cynicism into participation in the machine (43). 

In regard to how this narrative continually plays out on our plane of immanence, one might say that we are living in the midst of a very long, bad movie (C2 115). The movie we live in, directed by global capitalism and neoliberalism, is repetitive and self-enclosed. This is precisely why Deleuze turns to film as a philosophical site of resistance.  As a philosopher committed to being open to life, Deleuze shows that cinema, as one of the most important events of modern life, gives us mode of “seeing” that is outside of the human subject and opens up new ways of seeing and interrupts the dominant way seeing and receiving data that continually bombards us.

Unlike everyday life, where we see things from a particular position grounded in our own subjectivity, cinema has the potential to temporarily liberate us from our limited embodied perspective. The organizing structure of our own perceptive consciousness can disrupted by cinema which contains the unique ability, via its use of background, sound, light, movement, and time, to create its own novel perspective that liberates us from the normal sequence of everyday life. While our brains normally organize subsequent images into a coherent whole in what we assume is a shared world with others, films can present images apart from this normal ordering sequence, as well as disrupt our sense of a shared perspective. Ideally, cinema might corrupt the everyday viewpoint that we are used to, and how we synthesize sense data into abstract “time” is disrupted. Images become singularities, dislodged from logical sequences, so that we can achieve a glimpse at time itself not as a linear construction, but an outward and infinitely divergent movement of becoming (again, as I tried to articulate in my last post). The time-image allows us to see that common sense perception is not all there is, history as a series of images and movement is not closed but open, things can always be otherwise than they are if only we see differently.

To this effect, I quote Deleuze at length from Cinema 2:

We see, and we more or less experience, a powerful organization of poverty and oppression. And we are precisely not without sensory-motor schemata for recognizing such things, for putting up with and approving of them and for behaving ourselves subsequently, taking into account our situation, our capabilities,and our taste. We have schemata for turning away when it is too unpleasant, for prompting resignation when it is terrible and for assimilating when it is too beautiful. It should be pointed out here that even metaphors are sensory-motor evasions, and furnish us with something to say when we no longer know what to do: they are specific specific schemata of an affective nature. Now this is what a cliche is. A cliche is a sensory-motor image of a thing. As Bergson says, we do not perceive the image or the thing in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally only perceive cliches. But, if our sensory-motor schemata jam or break, then a different type of image can appear: a pure optical-sound image, the whole image without metaphor, brings out the thing in itself, literally, in its excess of horror or beauty, in its radical or unjustifiable character, because it no longer has to be ‘justified,’ for better or worse…  The factory creature gets up, and we can no longer say ‘Well, people have to work…’ I thought I was seeing convicts: the factory is a prison, the school is a prison, literally, not metaphorically… On the contrary, it is necessary to discover the seperate elements and realtions that elude us at the heart of the unclear image: to show how and in what sense a school is a prison, housing estates are examples of prostitution, bankers are killers, photographs tricks- literally, without metaphor. (C2 20-21)

In some sense, as Deleuze argues, the less we recognize the more we see…. “there is no knowing how far a real image may lead” (21). One might think about the Wal Mart shopper, enticed by “Always Low Prices. Always,” who only chooses to see the surface level images presented to them, accepting that they flow from the narrative presented to them via the media and advertisements europa2which praise the benefits of exploitative capitalism by hiding its true nature, the images of its underside. In the marketplace we always find buffers that serve to keep many aspects of the world, or the image, apart from our consciousness (lest we question our habits and sensory-motor schemata that allow the system to function).  We cannot see the factory as a prison because it acts as nothing more than an abstract image in our minds or it is simply a piece of scenery we see on our way to our various destinations. In the film Europe 51, the wealthy protagonist only comes to see the factory, to reinhabit the image of the factory anew, by working within the factory which unlocks the images behind the images that we willfully accept in our desire to continue to not be disturbed.

For those who take part in the conservative resonance machines, what is shared is a tragic view of reality wherein time and movement are viewed as linear and there are no singularities, only products or commodities. In this way, conservative politics often seem to be grounded in a resentment that grows out of profound disappointment in the world. Time as serial and located within the subject is taken for granted, and I suggest the corollary of this acceptance is in fact a passivity in the face of exploitation and the resentment and revenge impulse that living in the midst of an unchallenged system of domination, i.e. capitalism, is created. Hence, as Connolly pointed out, victims often “translate new intensities of resentment and cynicism into participation in the machine.” Traditional theology, according to Deleuze, views God’s plan as the constitutive of the virtual and we, humanity, are here enacting the virtual “plan” in actuality. The script is written and we, as actors in God’s movie, are here to play it out. This is the conservative fallacy, and the fallacy that ideologically undergirds our inability to envision difference qua difference and being qua becoming. One Deleuze scholar Ronald Bogue, puts it thusly;

One mode of life, for example, is that of the ideologue, or the true believer, for whom the answers are already given and there is nothing to choose. Another is that of the  indifferent or uncertain, those who lack the capacity to choose or who never know    enough to be able to choose. A third is that of the fatalists and devotees of evil, those who make a single choice that commits them to an inevitable and unavoidable sequence of actions that afford no further choice. And finally, there is the mode of existence of those who choose to choose., those who affirm a life of continual choosing. The choice in this last mode of existence, in short, “has no other object than itself: I choose to choose, and  that means I exclude every choice made according to the mode of having no choice (Deleuze on Cinema 121)

We must choose to reject the bad movie we are stuck within. Traditional theology, according to Deleuze, views God’s plan as the constitutive of the virtual and we, humanity, are here enacting the virtual “plan” in actuality. The script is written and we, as actors in God’s movie, are here to play it out (and not simply those with supreme confidence in the sovereignty of God, that is more of a narrative faith in determinism, what Deleuze is getting at is a sensory-motor implicit fatalism, we associate certain A’s with their effect B, over and over, “e.g. ‘it’s just the way it is’). This is the conservative fallacy, and the fallacy that ideologically undergirds our inability to envision difference qua difference and being qua becoming. In choosing to choose, what we are doing is choosing multiplicity, choosing difference, and choosing becoming. The second “choose” in choosing to choose represents a multiplicity and contingency that opposes the fatalism of market capitalism and theologies of divine providence alike (which, we have seen, resonate together).

We must choose to choose, choose to continually inhabit the rarified image, cease the suppression of the illusion that we are seeing everything when we are seeing almost nothing. Here, the revolutionary potential of cinema might be realized as truly Catholic in the sense new “resonance machines” might be formed with Catholic, or universal, aspirations for reestablsihing the link between humanity and the world itself, not the cheap representations of the world passed off to us in the interest of our own exploitation, or the exploitation of the many at the hands of the few (who, one might argue, do see it all). This link, Deleuze claims, is always at stake. Deleuze harps on the notion of belief as a choice, one that is more necessary and at the same time more difficult than before (that is, prior models of belief, i.e. religious belief, or even atheism). “The less the world is,” Deleuze teaches, “the more it is the artist’s duty to believe and produce belief in a relation between man and the world, because the world is made by men [sic, of course]” (C2 171). Now, however, especially after the revolutionary potential of Christian faith seems to have passed, as we are trapped in the jaws of capitalism and a failed Enlightenment, we no longer believe in the world, “we do not believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us” (171). Whether we are atheists or Christian, we must not resonate together as Connolly sees the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, but “in our universal schizophrenia, we need reasons to believe in this world.” I can only imagine the despair of Deleuze if he were here as I write this and millions still debate Miley Cirus “twerking” (don’t ask me) at the VMA’s as America is on the verge of bombing Syria.

Delueze urges us to go beyond mere ideological criticism. Ideology is certainly what significantly undergirds our sensory-motor schemata, but it is our perception of the world that, most fundamentally, determines our belief. Through theorizing time in this way, and pointing to media such as cinema that might help us see differently, see again, see differently, in order to realize the vast potential of this world so we might believe, that is the legacy of Deleuze’s corpus. Traditional forms of representation (which are rarely truly “art”) ally themselves with the conspiracy to hide this fact that inspires authentic belief, instead inducing an all too complicit ennui.

Cinema might help us regain the certain “Catholic” aspirations that we now seem to lack. Deleuze quite rightly observes that today, “the people are missing.” Cinema, and art in general, must not address a people that we presuppose are already there, but “contributing to the invention of a people” (C2 217).  Clayton Crockett articulates the project as “The invention of a people today involves a construction of a time-image, a new way to think, to directly short-circuit the clichés, deceptions, and manipulations of the State” (Crockett 183) Whether or not we agree with Deleuze that Christianity and perhaps religion in general has lost its revolutionary character (though for better or worse, the events of the Arab Spring might give Deleuze pause), we need reasons and apparatuses that help us believe in this world, to create a people that can oppose neoliberal regimes that eviscerate the common human being. And again, it may not be a simple matter of giving peoples more information (the failure of Wikileaks and other organization to produce arguably any substantial change helps demonstrate this) or a more inspiring message to hear, but quite literally helping them to see differently in order to overcome. The creation of the time-image, for Deleuze, was the cinematic attempt to create images that could not be so easily hijacked for sinister political purposes due to their ambivalent nature. We would do well to think again about how to create new time images that due not fit the current aesthetic model of politics as usual. Art for art’s sake is not impervious to subversion, so it must continually renew itself to stay ahead of a kind of sterilizing aestheticization.

The hope is to begin to cultivate positive “resonance machines” that can operate across creedal differences  not on the frequency of resentment and greed but genuine belief in the world and a commitment to seeing again the cliches of our world in order to break them apart and begin anew. Connolly shows us how such resonances are possible, that indeed respect difference to the point of radical plurality, yet Connolly and Deleuze both help us rehabilitate a kind of “spirituality” that can be identified that is open to be shared which does not so much transcend particularity but work within it. Religion may or may not be a source of this spirituality in the future, but it has never been more important to seek it, or better yet create it.

Deleuze and Cinema: The Political Significance of Images (Part 1)

I’m a terrible and inconsistent blogger, why not try and try again! Anyway, I’ve been reading through Deleuze’s Cinema volumes (and some commentaries on them) and have had been experiencing another one of those cliche “wow, I can’t believe I’ve not thought about this in this way before” moments. In a way, I feel fortunate to have first read Derrida, then Lacan, and now finally Deleuze. For Derrida, of course, we are usually talking about semiotics, the play of signs, differance, the trace, etc. Lacan extends semiotic logic (of the Sausserian variety) to the unconscious, and hence we can crudely say each gives us a way to think about the world. Deleuze is fascinating to me because he does not so much build on either semiotics or psychoanalysis (though he certainly works through these modes of thought) but returns to a seemingly more obvious and basic way of understanding the world via the image of thought. Deleuze is suspicious of essentialistisms whether they be linguistic or psychoanalytic, and sets out to demonstrate that images themselves carry their own logic that cannot be subsumed into other categories of thought, hence a philosophy of cinema itself. If we are always looking “behind” images we miss the importance of the images themselves.

I’ve already been speaking very crudely, and so I’ll continue to be indefensibly cursory. What I want to talk about is the historical development of what Deleuze calls the “movement image” in pre-war cinema to the so called “time image.” D.W. Griffith, infamous racist and undeniably prolific innovator, for Deleuze, stands as emblematic of the movement image which employs techniques such as montage to an kind of organic unity previously unrepresented in film. One can think of Birth of a Nation and think not only of its propagandizing racism, but the way in which wide shots, close ups, and montage are used to represent the supposed onward march of history, the unity of a people as they confront their enemies in order to restore harmony to their world; the life of individual parts depicted in the film depend on the harmony of the whole. Black people, in this case, are the disturbance that throws of the unity of the United States, and intolerance is posited as organic unity (Marrati 99). A point Deleuze draws out is not that the images derive from a narrative, as we tend to think, but precisely the opposite: narrative forms from the composition and sequence of images. When the filmmaker invokes a montage, as directors like Griffith and Eisenstein often do, they present us with a depiction of an organic, living entity, a people, and from our internalization of the wholeness of that entity, when it is disturbed we naturally want to see the balance restored, almost the way in which gradients function in physics to restore equilibrium. A  video I found on YouTube demonstrates how this form of the “movement image” is in no way a bygone method of film making, with the narrator pointing out that Steven Spielberg is perhaps contemporary cinema’s greatest purveyor of these pre-war techniques (though not necessarily toward the same political ends, at least explicitly).

This video points out how we organize ourselves according to images, we use our senses to place ourselves within the images and flow with them. We always try to compare the way in which we see in film to how we see the world, by virtue of our expectations of how images flow from one another in our everyday experience, we want to see our experience reflected within the film, we play out visual narratives.  As the narrator here puts it, with film we “see outside of our bodies that which had previously been

The perfect organic harmony of "nature."

The perfect organic harmony of “nature.”

confined in our minds.” So with someone like Spielberg and his film Jurassic Park, we can start to see how this is the case. Spielberg presents the viewer with a miraculous discovery of nature, petrified DNA that unlocks wondrous scientific possibility. The first third of the film, both narratively and visually presents us with a beautiful, harmonious world even after dinosaurs have been created. We see them grazing in the fields, moving together peacefully and in diverse packs. From these images, we form a sense of normalcy, of equilibrium, which is only later disturbed. Never mind the fact that we never see images of creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rexs or Velociraptors, even if narratively we know of their existence, before the event that disturbs the balance of the world (this is a nod to how the images, not simply the narrative, are anterior to our understanding of the film). Hence we yearn for the return of the stability of the pre-disturbance world, the harmony that was stolen from our perception. So in Jurassic Park, it is

The natural organization of white society

The natural organization of white society

not just the narrative we are invested in, e.g. we want to see the children survive, we want to see Newman get eaten as punishment for his disruptive actions (like black people in Griffiths’ BOAN) etc, but our consciousness gets caught up in the motion itself and wants to complete the motions that have been presented to us (a harmonious world that reflects our understanding of how things should be) which means deleting whatever is a threat to our visual perception of organic unity. As Deleuze would say in his earlier work Difference and Repetition, we seek the return of the same, rather than the return of difference. We get caught up in bad “habits” of thought, always seeking to represent, categorize, expect one thing must always follow another thing, rather than fully realizing the rich virtuality and possibility of difference containing within immanent reality, without thinking difference. As historian Lewis Namier quips, the problem is that we are always “remembering the future.”

The "disturbance"

The original “disturbance,” although at this point ironically the T Rex is restoring balance

Film is not simply a matter of light projected on a screen, as Clayton Crockett argues, it is a kind of simulation of our brain itself, our brain is also a screen so it is not surprise that film is capable of affecting us in the profound, diverse ways that it does. Just as we said earlier that the key is to look at images themselves and not the hidden linguistic signs (images are signs, just not lingusitic)or psychology behind them, so too the brain itself is a screen because there is nothing behind it. Crockett defines a brain broadly following Deleuze when he says “we need just a little order to protect us from chaos” (WIP 201). A brain thus “names that minimal order… we use to represent the minimal degree of organization required for being (Religion, Politics, and the Earth

Well, here it's black people rather than giant lizards, but you get the point

Well, here it’s black people rather than giant lizards, but you get the point…. they must be driven away to restore the normalcy of intolerance

121). The complexity and self-organization of reality itself is a brain, following Hegel in a manner of spirit, or thought, returning to itself by “positing itself outside of itself and then affirming the identity in difference between spirit and what it is not, substance becomes subject, becomes conscious of itself” (RPE 118). Crucially, then the “screen,” or consciousness in the form of a brain, is what “distinguishes something from chaos, makes something be” (RPE 122). Accordingly, chaos does not exist without a “screen,” chaos, Crockett explains, is only possibility, determination comes only with a screen, with some kind of ordering principle. Nature then, and its physical laws, is something like a giant “screen.” Recall how the narrator in the youtube clip observes that with film we “see outside our bodies” what was previously confined to the inside of our minds- in this sense, cinema represents a kind of externalized brain, or location of perception and organization, that not only mimics the way we see, but can change the way we see by creating new ways of not only conceiving of movement, but also time.

If this is the case, we can see the importance of creating new kinds of film, and I’ll get to that in my next post regarding what Deleuze calls the “time-image.” With the shift from the movement image to the time image, coinciding with World War 2 and having much to do with it, faith in “history,” or the unimpeded progress of mankind (sic) is disabused. No longer, after such global trauma, is organic unity and decisive action assumed. The way in which the world was assumed to be a the height of modernity becomes unrecognizable, and it is exactly when these recognitions fail (and Deleuze is always troubling recognition) that the structure of the “natural” and social habits of perception break down (Maratti 59). Rather than perception being directly tied to individual or collective action or movement, i.e. faith in history, our illusions of representation and recognition fail us and we are left with a demand for “increased thought, even if thought begins by undoing the system of actions, perceptions, and affections on which the cinema had been fed up to that point” (C1 206). Time begins to present itself, that is to say the diffractive, nonlinear, virtual, preganant nature of time that allows us to reconsider all that is, when faith in history is lost. Old conceptions of history give way to concepts like the “event” and continual becoming and the eternal return of difference. We need new imaginations and new ways of seeing, which will have to do with recognizing (re-cognizing, thinking the same again and again) less so that we can see more, as Deleuze argues. These are concepts that the time image deals with, and I’ll write about soon.

Stoicism, Epicurism, Hume, and Death: Can Only an Atheist Experience Resurrection?

One consequence of glossing over Friday with Sunday is that we fail to reflect on what happens on Friday. Death. Forsakenness. Failure. Meaninglessness. If one knows that one is impervious to death, and will only stay “dead” for less than 2 days, there would be few people who wouldn’t be willing to undergo torture and “death” for the sake of one person they love, let alone all of humanity. Resurrection is something that must take is by surprise, it cannot, by definition, function as a given for any particular action. Sacrifice on behalf of another with the expectation of avoiding the consequences of this sacrifice (by magic?) is nothing. The ancient philosophers often reflected more thoughtfully and honestly about death than we can, we of the religion of ‘live forever after we die.’

In particular, if we are to take this day seriously, enter into the experience of the disciples, even Jesus on Friday, it is appropriate to think about what we must be willing to accept, ween ourselves off of ‘resurrection dependance’ in order to even create the real hope of genuine resurrection in the first place, for resurrection is inherently scandalous, unpredictable. The Gospel of Mark tells us that when the empty tomb was discovered, the women were, in the original Greek, felt “trauma” and “ecstasy.” Fear and elation. This kind of experience only comes when one resigns oneself to the reality of death, not counting on the deus ex machina form of cheap resuscitation.

Epicurus wrote, “Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense experience, and death is the privation of sense experience. Hence, correct knowledge of the fact of death makes the mortality of life a matter of contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life but by removing the longing for immortality.”

Is this perhaps the meaning of  1 Cor. 15:55 “”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Could it be, that on Saturday, our task is not to despair over death, but to remove its sting not by cheating it, but by accepting it as a part of life, even something beautiful? Is not our own mortality, as Derrida argued (our ‘temporality’) the very condition of life? Without the risk that every new day brings along with our mortality, our fallibility, are not the conditions created to be joyful and to have meaning? Imagine a life with no risk, not mortality, no change, no aging, no sorrows. Think about this for a while. Is this a life you would want to live? Is reusrrection really a means to get to that life, or is the ‘sting’ of death removed when we embrace it, when we learn not to fear it? Contrary to popular belief, Epicurus did not live what we would consider an extravagant life of hedonistic pleasure. He did value pleasure above all else, but it was happiness, time with friends, little things . He once allegedly said “give me a small bowl of cheese and I will feast like a King.” Epicurus lived life to the fullest by learning to value the intricacies and inescapable parts of human life. And sometimes Christians expect their meaning to derive from cosmic magic that brings dead people back to life. Who lives the fuller life?

The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is credited with saying “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” This attitude expresses a different angle on death. If we are not willing to accept death as nothingness, as Epicurus did, how about we at least remain agnostic about it? Like Epicurus, Aurelius recognizes that death could be nothingness, and thus should nto be feared, but what if there are Gods? Let us trust their justice. Accepting some theory of Atonement or a belief that Jesus came back from the dead would not have any consequence regarding what happens to us.

On Saturday, we must accept death, and move on. Only by doing this is there any possibility of (but certainly no guarentee) of the traumatic ecstacy that happens when we encounter the impossible. If we do not first acknowledge (and really, really believe) that such a thing as resurrection is impossible, we can never hope to experience it. And perhaps it will not take the form we think.

Peter Rollins relays a parable written by Buddhist Darian Leader. “The story tells of a mother whose baby dies. She is so distraught that she carries the dead body strapped to her chest and travels around attempting to find someone who would be able to breathe life back into her beloved infants body.

Eventually she finds a holy man who says that he can help her, but only if she can bring to him a handful of mustard seeds from a home whose inhabitants have not suffered the loss of someone they love.

The woman begins to search but is unable to find any home that has not been marked by the dark shadow of death and loss. Yet, in her futile search something truly amazing happens. For as she hears the various stories of these different people she slowly begins to come to terms with the death of her own child. After a little time she is finally able to let go and bury her infant in the soil of the Earth.”

For resurrection, for new life to emerge from death, what we need are not magical theories of cheating death, but the embrace of a stranger.

David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher and remembered as “the Great Skeptic.” Hume championed a radical empiricism, or the idea that our knowledge is limited to what we can experience. The consequence of this view lead to his most famous work dealing with the problem of induction. Induction is a form of reasoning the operates by forming conclusions that are probabilistic given previous observations or instances, and thus induction does not provide entailments, i.e. a conclusion that must be the case (as in deductive reasoning, e.g. All men are mammals, I am a man, therefore I am a mammal). Rather, an example of inductive reasoning would be: The sun has always come up to start the day, so tomorrow the sun will come up again to start the day. Or, all emeralds we have dug up are green, so all emeralds are green. This has caused many philosophers to lose sleep, but the logical philosophical problem of induction is not of our concern today. Not on Saturday. The point of this excursus is to take from Hume on simple observation that misses our attention most of the time: because something has happened in the past is not a guarantee for anything to happen in the future. While Hume stressed the logical problem of saying that one thing causes another thing when all we can really observe is that one thing behaves a certain way under particular circumstances, this does not mean we can say that X causes Y. We may be deceived by our common sense.

What if instead of viewing this problem logically we take Hume’s skepticism existentially. On Good Friday, we always tell ourselves (hopefully with Tony Campolo in mind) that it may look bleak now, but “Sunday’s comin’! If on Friday we take Sunday as a given, then what is the meaning of Friday? Isn’t Good Friday turned into a sterile waiting room, a mere inconvenience? Is the actual experience of the disciples on Saturday, that experience of being abandoned, disillusioned, robbed of hope, of being dejected and decentered, the piercing self questioning that must have followed them wherever they went, questioning the foundation of one’s very life, are those experiences meant to be cast aside using a kind of inductive expectation? We’re told everything is going to be ok… everything was ok. Jesus leaves the tomb. We set our eyes to the future. But what are we missing out on? What is escaping our observation? What simple truth do we ignore because we are not focused in the present, what we are presented with? What kind of unjustified conclusions are we drawing? Perhaps this is where Humean skepticism (the perverted kind that I am using for my own purposes, not Hume’s) may lead us, to Epicurus, the Stoics, Buddhist wisdom, all which may help  us recover the only kind of disposition that will allow us to have a real Resurrection Sunday one day. Sunday’s have always come after Friday’s in the past. But let’s table that for now and be in Saturday.

The Predicament of Belief: Part I

This is the beginning of a series of posts for a “blog tour” supporting Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp’s new book “The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith” organized by the fellas over at Homebrewed Christianity. On March 15th ,everyone is encouraged to attend the first “Theo-nerd Book Party” that will be streamed live from 10pm-1am EST where we the readers (and fans) can try our best to “Make Phil sweat” as we ask our questions, raise or concerns, or sing our praises of the new book. More info can be found here. The book can be purchased at Amazon (for an especially great price on Kindle). 

In agreement with the esteemed Tripp Fuller, Philip Clayton’s newest book, The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith, coauthored with Steven Knapp (President of George Washington University) is my favorite book of 2011 and remains nearly unchallenged thus far in 2012. To be honest, the subtitle “Science, Philosophy, and Faith,” would, apart from Clayton’s reputation,
deeply concern me. Those words, put into the same line of type, typically conjure memories of the pack of “Christian philosophers” like Plantiga, Craig, Swineburn, et al who I would read as a conservative evangelical, taking hook, line, and sinker the simplistic proofs for the existence of God and highly questionable scientific theories. After Jesus (or at least John Caputo, Merold Westphal, and Richard Kearney) helped me find my way out of the jungle of chaffing ontotheology, my conception of Christianity’s relationship to both science and metaphysics was transformed. A bit. In short, the objective existence of God as an actual entity in the universe became a peripheral question, as Pete Rollins might say, the existence of God is an interesting thing to talk about or debate philosophically at the pub over some drinks, but it’s not the real issue. The real issue at hand is the role our beliefs play, how we hold them, why they are important to us, how they construct our identity, etc. I think Clayton and Knapp move well beyond “an interesting philosophical debate” and actually craft something that is not only for everybody, but highly relevant to any number of issues we all come across and ways in which we experience and think about the world. Clayton and Knapp speak with a voice that demands attention. Even John Caputo’s (my dear hero).

Predicament of Belief is divided up into 8 chapters, in which the authors set out to identify a novel approach to faith that is fully compliant with the restrictions and challenges of the  modern science, and is able to stare other philosophical problems associated with religion in the eyes and provide a way forward that does not invoke either “magic” or cop out where traditional theological answers historically have (theodicy, anyone?). Perhaps even more importantly, the authors also create a new kind of typology regarding how one holds and is committed to beliefs that experts and non-believers may see no reason to accept or endorse that does not violate rational principles of the believer. This kind of paradigm, I would argue, is the most valuable aspect of the book, given the manachean nature of most debates over God and religion, science v. faith, reason v. belief, and so on. Clayton and Knapp are able, I think, to dissolve these dichotomies, or at least propose something new that is totally absent to the thinking of Richard Dawkins, on the one hand, and any number of Christian interlocutors, like Plantiga, on the other. If you’re having trouble conceptualizing a scheme or not quite buying it, the details will be hashed out in later posts.

In this first post, which I hope has served as a bit of an introduction to the entire book, we’ll also take a look at the first chapter of Predicament that lay the foundation and articulate the questions that the rest of the book attempts to answer.  I apologize for the length of the post, but once the primary questions and project have been established, the proceeding sections and arguments of the book should be much more condensible and intelligible.  Chapter 1, entitled “Reasons for Doubt,” enumerates what the authors contend are the most difficult scientific, existential, philosophical, theological, and historical reasons for calling into serious question the dogmas of traditional Christianity. This is a book of answers, and as stated, Clayton and Knapp do not shy away from speculative hypothesizes, intentionally avoiding (though not invalidating) more common approaches to these difficult questions, like agnosticism, mysticism, or blind “trust” in orthodox doctrines. The aim is “Not to immunize Christian claims from the criticisms of non-Christians… to put it bluntly, typical responses amount to what might be called immunization strategies” (4). What is undertaken, then, is the pursuit of the “question of ultimacy” of the universe, while fully understanding the objections and reasons for doubt “as fully and clearly as possible” (5). The most common objection to “questions of ultimacy” is perhaps science. It is certainly not without reason that science occupies such a sacred position in our worldview, in light of what humans have been able to achieve, especially in the most recent decades. The upshot of scientific development and discourse needs no defense, and Clayton and Knapp claim that the working assumption which makes amazing advancement possible is the “presumption of naturalism.” With a nod to philosopher David Hume, the book makes the simple point that this presumption of the scientific community is methodological and not necessarily metaphysical. That is, the presumption governs how we should think about the world, not as a law which determines what is an is not possible. It might be said that methodological presumptions such as naturalism better describe and are akin to the project of constructive theology, the work of this book, whereas religion typically defines and operates with the currency metaphysical laws (dogma), blindly and adamantly insisting upon what is possible and is indeed the case. The problem with traditional religious critiques of science, then, is that “They jump from the recognition that science cannot rule out the possibility of miracles to the conclusion that science leaves a traditional belief in miracles untouched.” This is a mistake to be addressed in a later chapter.

Second, appeals to theodicy, or the “problem of evil,” are common objections to ultimacy, God, and religion that also fall prey to Christian immunization. Platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason” or “God wouldn’t give us anything we can’t handle” are unfortunately common in in pop culture and religious settings alike. While we often say these things meaning well, or without thinking, the logical consequences of their content is disturbing in light of unthinkable and horrendous atrocities. Traditionally this is called the “paradox of omnipotence,” i.e. if God is all loving/good, all powerful (omnipotent), and all knowing (omniscient) then how could is possibly be that any God who is personal, loves us and “desires our flourishing, as the authors attempt to articulate a theory of, seems untenable. Related to this problem of evil and suffering is the question of religious plurality – if belief in the right God is somehow relevant to our flourishing or even salvation, as many religious folks claim, why would God make it so difficult to choose the right religion? Why are there so many? “If other people believe other things with equal conviction and, as far as we can tell, with equally good spiritual and moral effects, what makes anyone think that her religion is preferable to theirs?” (10)

Lastly historical/empirical evidence does not seem to be in the side of Christian doctrine of such things as miracles and the Resurrection, not to mention the conflicting accounts in the Bible itself, not to mention the late composition dates relevant to events (by our historical standards) and their conflicting, sometimes contradictory content. While I, and I’m sure the authors, are quite familiar with valiant attempts by apologists, even good ones like Greg Boyd , these are not problems that are so dismissible. If we are to believe that the “destiny of humankind turned on the lfie and death of a single human being,” it is disconcerting that many important details of this individuals life are diversely reported! Furthermore, if we are to take on faith that a human being died, ceased to have brain function and blood circulation, more so than any other feature of Christian testimony, is difficult to accept in light of our knowledge of biology and science. “Medical science knows all too well how rapidly cells not only cease to function but actually begin to dissolve; how quickly, for instance, a brain starved of oxygen permanently loses the capacity to sustain even the most minimal operations” (15). And then how could that physical “body” ascend into Heaven? Should we expect Christians to suspend our knowledge of the way the world works in order to accept such claims?

Even in light of these clear problems, and the criticism of  immunization techniques, Clayton and Knapp maintain what they call “Christian minimalism.” They judge the “reasons to affirm Christian claims… to be somewhat stronger than the reasons not to affirm them” (17). It is important to note that the authors articulate two ways in which one can be a minimalist: by believing fewerthings than many others within one’s tradition, or alternatively by “affirming that one’s beliefs are only minimally likely to be true than false.” So, they claim, one may be a very orthodox, in every sense of the term, minimalist in the second sense, while

My theory: The bigger the mustache, the more predisposed one is to disregard traditional religious claims

traditional Christian liberalism has been minimalist in the first sense. That is, in the tradition of scholars like Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann, who sought to bracket, disregard, or reinterpret claims of the Bible that invoked anything the Enlightenment deemed impossible, they sought to find the “kernel” of truth expressed by primitive language by tossing certain things aside or viewing them as myth. So, as the authors point out, classical scholars and contemporary ones like in the Jesus seminar are anti-minimalist at least in the sense of being maximally confident in their methods and knowing “what actually happened.” Clayton and Knapp develop arguments that stand in minmalisms both of these, but I think it is especially their positions that invoke this second sense that is truly unique and intriguing, without becoming “maximally minimalist,” as we will see.

The kind of minimalist we have in mind, in contrast, holds Christian beliefs that are significantly restrained by philosophical objections and contemporary scientific consensus (which distinguishes here from conservative evangelical neo-orthodox believers) but also hold beliefs that, despite these constraints, she has reason to think do justice to the received testimony of the Christian tradition (which sets her apart from liberal believers in the sense just defined) (18).

The awesomeness of this idea, the justification of belief in light of secular constraints, is taken up fully in my favorite part of the book, ch. 7. To conclude, Clayton and Knapp feel obligated to separate this position from a kind of Christian agnosticism, for they are not willing to “decide in advance that no progress can be made in assessing Christian claims” and the “conviction that pursuing the question of what is really the case, what is really true, is not just an intellectual game but an urgent religious responsibility” (19). hopefully, then, Clayton and Knapp are not falling pray to the fidesism that plagues many apologetic pursuits (God of the gaps theories, etc.), as well as the kind of liberal/agnostic who sees this project as futile. What you won’t get from this book

See? Very modest mustache... but still a mustache.

are claims that Christian belief are “properly basic,” as people like Plantiga suggest, and “justified until they meet a ‘defeater'” (20). Rather, the authors of this book are walking a path that has reopened my imagination and interest in not only engaging science and faith (an idea I had jettisoned in the wake of pseudo-scientist Christian writers) but also possessing the non-dogmatic humility and epistemological realism to be honest about strength of even the most cogent Christian claims as not being what will later be called “level one” (or even level two) beliefs, i.e. that rational beings who have the relevant information are compelled to accept them.

In short, the conclusions and theories presented in Predicament keep the door open to both criticism and intellectual honesty in ways

The biggest, most flamboyant mustache of all.

that may rekindle the interest of others like me who have had, up to this point, a certain suspicion of this kind of work not only the wake of bad Christian philosophers, but the serious contemplation of the great “masters of suspicion” like Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and even people like “Ditchkins.” The invaluable nature of this book, for me, is the the redemption of the engagement of science and faith, that does not necessarily forfeit realism claims about the universe, or “ultimate reality,” rather than engaging in religious discourse exclusively on the level of theo-poetics (which I am still entirely for!) which tends to focus on the interpretation of subjective experience. Of course this is not to say that  Predicament excluded experience as a valid form of justification, but it is not by any means the boundary of our God-talk. I hope this book, then has something for everyone, that it can open up space for deconstructionists to do a bit of old-fashioned metaphysics, perhaps it can ask new questions of those who accept purely naturalistic/reductionistic scientific world-views, and it can challenge those who may be a bit too self-assured in their dogmatic faith claims.