Kara’s book (with ten digressions)
Thoughts provoked by The Fullness of Time: Jesus Christ, Science, and Modernity, by the Reverend Doctor Kara Slade, Cascade Books (2021), 142 pages.
Once upon a time Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and ﬁdeism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the ﬁres of faith, and even the great achievements of “Greek science” were forgotten until Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness. Then, in the wake of the “wars of religion” that had torn Christendom apart, came the full ﬂowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between “faith” and “reason” and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion.
-David Bentley Hart, from Atheist Delusions — The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies
This is not a book review. The Fullness of Time is a great book. Buy it! There’s the review. But this book stimulated far more than a mere review. And as the title warns, there will be digressions.
During my last trip to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina — very near where Sherry and I lived for twelve years — I was graciously met by Amy Laura Hall, Stanley Hauerwas, and Kara Slade, three people who continue to exercise an enlightening and often corrective influence on how I think about things as a Christian. Kara had been a student of both Stanley and Amy Laura when she studied theology as a ‘mature’ student, after having been a scientist and engineer with NASA.
Stanley was the theological midwife of my own conversion. Amy Laura’s remarkable book, Conceiving Parenthood, was my first deep dive into a thoroughgoing critique of the pernicious myth of ‘progress.’ Kara was my first sustained exposure to a deep critique of Hegel (born of her own engagement with Barth and Kierkegaard — the latter of whom Amy Laura is a scholar). All this, and I didn’t even have to enroll at Duke. They came as gifts.
One upon a time, Kara was on about Stephen Hawking on a Facebook thread. I commented about how one of my first epiphanies of sorts was from Hawking. He described his own failure to produce a Grand Theory of Everything, and in a throwaway remark, intended purely as irony, he said that when some theory appeared that didn’t fall apart an instant after the Big Bang (as his and others’ had), “we would know the mind of God.”
I heard that back when I was a confused Army guy, but I didn’t take it ironically. At all. I didn’t laugh. I was like, “Whoa! Damn!”
It was an admission by one of the high priests of late modernity that somewhere beyond all that arrogance and control freakery there was still an impenetrable mystery; and this was a kind of nascent destabilization of my own casual and self-assured atheism. Not what Hawking intended, I’m sure.
Kara’s new book, The Fullness of Time, disturbed me in a good way, the way disturbing a piece of ground can lead to a blast of fertility and new growth. As I work my way through the book here, I’ll put her and her main interlocutors — Kierkegaard and Barth — into conversation with others, whose thoughts were re-exposed when this ground was disturbed, especially but not exclusively with my own writer-mentor, Ivan Illich. I will apologize in advance for my presumptuousness and for anything I get wrong about Kara’s book . . . or anything else for that matter.
In the Introduction of Kara’s book, she goes back to Hawking — the part with which she had an issue. She described the unveiling of a clock attended by Hawking. Not just any clock, but (drum roll) The Chronophage Clock — a clock with “a large mechanical grasshopper and an irregular movement, designed to impress upon passersby the unpredictability and terror of human existence in time.” (Slade, p. 2) The hours were marked by a coffin with a quotation in Vulgate Latin from the First Epistle of John, which translates “the world and its desire are passing away . . .”
Any Christian who has in good faith tried to grasp the Gospels, or the Bible more generally, then entered into public debates about the meanings therein, has encountered proof-texting — yanking quotations from Scripture completely out of their contexts in order to score points against a debate adversary or support some claim unrelated to the Bible.
The whole sentence from this epistle reads (I’m using David Bentley Hart’s most excellent translation): “And the cosmos is passing away, as well as its desire, but whoever does the Father’s will abides unto the Age.” (emphasis added)
That’s some redemption-subtracting edit there on that Chronophage Clock! I’ve read the Bible, even the tedious genealogies, and guess what . . . there’s not a word in there about ‘heat-death.’
Digression 1: In Mark, the first Gospel written (circa 68 AD), we read: “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbachthani?’ — which, being interpreted, means ‘My God, my God, why did you forsake me?”’
In Žižek’s Hegelian frame, he interprets this to mean, “God became an atheist.” Jesus, the observant Jew, however, was speaking to his followers, likewise observant Jews, who would have known the reference. Jesus was calling them to prayer.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouths of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him —
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him —
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it! (emphasis added)
In Kara’s book, and her description of the partial sentence lifted from John’s first epistle, she gives but one example of how — in order to shoehorn their ‘Christianity’ into the metaphysics of modernity, Žižek-style— they were forced to edit (proof-text) the sentence to remove God’s time and the salvation therein, to bulldoze Kairos (God’s time) and make room for the the idol of Chronos (modern time). Žižek has said more than once, he is “more a Hegelian than a Marxist.” (Marx, of course, was Hegelian, too.)
In the Judaic tradition, as we see in Psalm 22 and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the structure of the story often begins with lamentation about the present — vivid and often horrifying — but ends with the proclamation of God’s steadfast love and salvific power . . . in God’s time.
In the introduction to Kara’s book, the Reverend Doctor Willie James Jennings says, “[Kara’s] book makes her susceptible to being misinterpreted by those who do not grasp a basic theological axiom: time is a creature.” (emphasis added)
Kara’s book is not written for “a general audience.” It is written by and for Christians, calling us to repentance; and it does not — as much liberal theology tries to — work “toward a seamless harmonization of modern science and theology.”
Amy Laura Hall, in her book, Conceiving Parenthood, recounts the history of this attempt at harmonization and its demonic consequences in the origins of the Progressive Movement, founded on the triad of nation, ‘race science,’ and ‘social hygiene.’ She showed how ‘progressive’ (white American) Christians were taken in by the notion of ‘spiritual efficiency.’ Modern Jesus meets Frederick Taylor. Mainline Protestants, inflected by the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, embraced ‘race science’ and promoted eugenics. Eventually even some Catholics, too. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ended up doing the same thing.
They were ‘harmonizers.’
Not Kara Slade.
“[T]his project [her book],” writes Kara, “does not attempt to fashion a coherent account of scientific knowledge and the contested category of religion as a general concept. It is grounded in Christian particularity rather than the category of religion, works in the register of ethics rather than epistemology, and casts a critical eye on the idea of ‘science’ as a monolithic, universal, and ahistorical entity.”
Kara’s book does that; but I’ll say without fear of contradiction that ‘getting’ Kara’s thesis is an epistemologically strenuous journey, even through this slim book, because we are all formed in and by late modernity. Even for those who claim Christian particularity. That particularity, as we’ll see, can easily be swallowed up by an entirely hegemonic modern epistemology.
The “contested” category of “religion” is a perfect example — the submersion of the specificity of any tradition outside of modernity into an encompassed (and domesticated) abstraction.
This epistemological leap is likewise present in Willie Jennings’ declaration in the Foreword: time is a creature. The Creator is not contained inside the time the Creator created.
Digression 2: In Brad Gregory’s superb history of modern secularization, The Unintended Reformation, he points to Duns Scotus’s univocalization of God as a philosophical turning point. Duns Scotus couldn’t abide the ‘duality’ of Creator and creation. This duality is the basis of apophatic theology — the assertion that everything we say about God is inherently inadequate, us being creatures contained inside time, and that God can only be ‘known’ through God’s self-revelation. Tertullian summed this up as the “infinite is known only to itself.”
Duns Scotus wanted to remove the scare quotes from God “exists,” and say that God exists, within Being, humanity’s circumscribed and created ontology. While Duns Scotus (1266–1308) was operating on a rarefied intellectual field in his own time, this univocal God would later be picked up by the fathers of modernity. They would first reduce creation into time-space-matter-energy generalities, and then give birth to Scientific Man. Once God was pulled inside of Being, it was only a matter of time before God was sidelined . . . then dispensed with altogether. This is not to say there’s some straight line from Duns Scotus to now, or even that he was the origin of the human ambition to become God, to become self-creators.
Ivan Illich speaks of a time prior to Duns Scotus, with the articulation by the church of contingency — the idea that all that is can only continue to exist by God’s voluntarism, that is, divine will that keeps everything going. The world would disappear were it not “in God’s hands.” Aquinas was all over contingency, which squared with his own Greek and Arab philosophical influences. There’s nothing wrong with contingency, I believe it, but human beings are sinful — we fall prey to the Deceiver, we take good things and pervert them with pride. Illich, in an interview, said:
Contingency, in this sense, is a precondition for the modern view that each of us contains and possesses our own raison d’etre. But I want to be as clear as I can about this term precondition. I am trying to point out notions which, in my opinion, can only be explained as the fruit of a widely shared understanding of the newness of the Gospel. And I use the word notions, in preference to category, concept, idea, or word, in order to try and convey the involvement of feelings, feelings about the self, the other, and the world, as well as a certain conceptual and linguistic shaping . . . I believe that this understanding of the newness of the Gospel, the coming of this fool who was crucified, is something which goes on over the centuries. There is no other way . . . to explain the way in which St. Thomas Aquinas unfolds the notion of contingency . . . as a digestion and penetration of Gospel truths, truths about Incarnation, the embodiment, the enfleshment and mutuality of love. And I call the discovery, shaping, and full formation of this notion the precondition for modernity, not because modernity was founded on the idea of contingency, but because it was only in a society in which people had strongly experienced the world as lying in the hands of God that it would be possible, later on, to take the world out of God’s hands.
Kara’s book is called The Fullness of Time, and one might expect, upon reading that title, that something Chardinian or Hawkingsian is about to take place. A blog post about the Chronophage Clock was also called The Fullness of Time, and that post claimed the clock was a “theological reflection.” But, as Kara points out, the accompanying Scripture was edited, not unlike what that viceroy of liberal modernity, Thomas Jefferson did, when he rewrote the Bible to remove the “superstitions” to transform Jesus into a liberal philosopher instead of the second person of the Trinity.
Kara’s first chapter is called “Beginnings.” She warns us in the Introduction that this chapter “addresses the question of origins, and of the self-narrating self.” (Oh, the echoes of today’s pop-post-structuralism!)
Her muse in this chapter is Denise Ferreira da Silva, an Agamben-inflected scholar who might be called a critical theorist who is herself critical of critical theory. As such, Ferreira da Silva has leapt over (or dove under) the endlessly divisive and now fashionable and superficial public debate about popular, polemical, largely incorrect, and nonetheless very divisive accounts of ‘critical race theory.’
Don’t be thrown off. Kara’s book doesn’t take critical theory as a starting point, or a beginning. Certainly not as an ending. She’s not a Foucauldian or Marcusian or a da Silvian for that matter . . . she is a Barthian! She states clearly in the Introduction that her employment of critical theory, just as her mentor Barth did with non-Christian philosophers, is ad hoc.
What Ferreira da Silva does in her book, Toward a Global Idea of Race, that co-responds with Kara Slade’s thesis, and with Kierkegaard’s wickedly subtle take down of Hegelian arrogance, is point out how even the critiques of modernity are “haunted” by Hegel’s Big History and Darwin’s Big Science.
Digression 3: I watched an interview recently with Mary Harrington, where upon her statement that she didn’t “believe in progress,” one of her interlocutors asked, “What about longer life expectancy?” To which she responded, “Well, at that point you’ve already begged the question.” Not in the common sense of ‘raising the question,’ but in the formal, logical sense of “to ignore a question under the assumption it has already been answered.” Smuggling conclusions into the premises.
(The distinction between politics and religion is modernity begging the question. The categories themselves determine the conclusions even as they disguise themselves as neutral premises. We’ll come back to this.)
Life expectancy — as Agamben recently pointed out, raising a minor furor in the process — is a modern metric, a metric of “bare life.” The arithmetiction of actual human lives as Life. The very term, metric, is itself an example of this modern colonization and subjugation of language. Because actual lives cannot be reduced to numbers, they must be packed together in this holding facility called life, and reduced to conform them to a clock: bare life measured in bare time. Life . . . expectancy . . .
In 1990, as Barbara Duden pointed out in her book, Disembodying Women, the combined leadership of Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, even the Salvation Army, issued a joint statement in response to the ‘abortion issue,’ which is the basis of my own church’s “consistent life ethic.” In this statement, Duden says, actual women were “eclipsed by something entirely new — life.” At the core of the joint ecumenical statement, it says:
Therefore this declaration deals with the challenges and tasks involved in the protection of earth as a living space and in the protection of human life . . . [Life] a complex ecosystem like a forest, the self-development and transmission of genetic information by a single organism, or the full development of a human being from the fertilized egg cell to the newborn and its further growth.
Duden’s friend and co-conspirator, Ivan Illich, would write an essay called “Brave new Biocracy” in 1994, in which he said:
Physicians in the Hippocratic tradition were pledged to restore the balance — or “health” — of their patient’s constitution but forbidden to use their skills to deal with death. They had to accept nature’s power to dissolve the healing contract between the patient and his physician.
When the Hippocratic signs indicated to the physician that the patient had entered into agony, the “atrium between life and death,” he had to withdraw from what was now a deathbed. Both quickening — coming alive in the womb — and agony — the personal struggle to die — defined the extreme boundaries between which a subject of medical care could be conceived.
In our world, these boundaries have been obliterated. By the early 20th century, the physician came to be perceived as society’s appointed tutor of any person who, having been placed in a patient role, lost his own competence.
Physicians are taught today to consider themselves responsible for lives from the moment the egg is fertilized through the time of organ harvest. They have become the socially responsible professional manager not of a patient, but of a life from sperm to worm. Physicians have become the bureaucrats of the brave new biocracy that rules from womb to tomb.
In societies confused by the technological prowess that enables us to transgress all traditional boundaries of coming to life and dying, the new discipline of big-ethics has emerged to mediate between pop-science and law. It has sought to create the semblance of a moral discourse that roots personhood in the “scientific ability” of bioethicists to determine who is a person and who is not through qualitative evaluation of the fetish, “a life.”
What I fear is that the abstract, secular notion of “a life” will be sacralized, thereby making it possible that this spectral entity will progressively replace the notion of a “person” . . . “A life” is amenable to management, to improvement and to evaluation in a way which is unthinkable when we speak of “a person.” The transmogrification of a person into “a life” is a lethal operation, as dangerous as reaching out for the tree of life in the time of Adam and Eve.
Oxford Reference (Giorgio Agamben): “Bare life refers then to a conception of life in which the sheer biological fact of life is given priority over the way a life is lived, by which Agamben means its possibilities and potentialities.”
Stanley Haeurwas, in “Reflections: Suicide and Euthanasia,” wrote:
Christians must rethink our relation to modern medicine. For we have been taught that natural death means the death that occurs when doctors can no longer do anything for us, but it may be that we must be willing to die a good deal earlier. For we may well have accepted in the medical imperative a Promethean desire to control death or extend life that is finally incompatible with our Christian convictions.
“Life” ends, for many of us now, attached to machines. Loved ones are called upon, when there is naught left but machine-mediated ‘life,’ to ‘pull the plug.’
In 1991, Pope John Paul II opened a meeting of the Cardinals with words from a Latin hymn that ,translated, means, “death and life are involved in a momentous conflict.”
How did we get there? Where death is no longer an inevitable part of life, but it’s antagonist? As Christians? Becoming what Duden called “spiritual warmongers?” Is ‘life’ now reduced to perpetual risk management which surrenders our personhoods and our community life to a circus of optimizing technicians?
The big guys
Big Time, I’m on my way I’m making it, big time, Huh!
Big time, I’ve got to make it show yeah, big time
Big time, so much larger than life
Big time, I’m gonna watch it growing, big time
Big time, my car is getting bigger Big time, my house is getting bigger
Big time, my eyes are getting bigger
and my mouth
Big time, my belly’s getting bigger
Big time, and my bank account
Big time, look at my circumstance
Big time, and the bulge in my big big big big big big big big big big big big big big big, hi there
-Peter Gabriel, from the song, “Big Time”
In Kara’s book, the first chapter deploys Ferreira da Silva’s criticism of “the Hegelian and Darwinian figure of homo modernus, the “world-historic and scientific man.” I’ll leave readers to get hold of Kara’s book to follow her explication of Kierkegaard — one of the best I’ve ever seen, reflecting her association with that other Kierkegaard scholar, Amy Laura Hall, whose book The Treachery of Love first helped me to understand that second ‘melancholy Dane.’
Kara’s first chapter uses the lens of Kierkegaard to focus her light into a white hot point and set fire the “Hegelian ladder of paradise” which we’ve come to call Progress. The hellscape of Progress is with us now, burning its way through the tundra, uprooting whole populations, and our internalized question-begging, Ferreira da Silva’s ‘haunting,’ tells us that the solution is more Progress . . . because we are running out of time.
If Big History shows us anything in spite of itself, it’s that, for all its pretensions otherwise, modernity is the most violent of epochs, because of this universalizing urge. As this is being written, we’re witnessing a potential nuclear standoff in a Eurasia that had supposedly been pacified by the ‘post-war’ new world order.
Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “[W]ith Hegel, it is only in time of war that the state achieves its true universality.” (“Should war be eliminated? A Thought Experiment,” 1984)
Big History (Hegel) and Big Science (Darwin), Kara’s book shows, conjured the Unitarian impulse. The Bigs also conjured the “self-generating, self-narrating human,” what Ferreira da Silva called the transparent “I.”
Ferrieira da Silva digs underneath what she calls “the sociologic of exclusion” that animates most late modern ‘antiracist’ talk, and shows how racialized subjugation (not mere ‘exclusion’) was built into the very thing from which people are being being ‘excluded.’
As she explains, the scientific self that is transparent to reason is also the self whose “bodily and social configurations” signify its own transcendence. The distinction between white, Western homo scientificus and other human beings, then, is not merely a matter of cultural difference that can be overcome by liberal rhetorics of inclusion. It is the chasm between the transcendental and the immanent, the mark of the creature who has placed himself in the position of the Creator. (Slade, p. 21)
“Kill the Indian, and save the man.” Inclusion. “Their problems are rooted in their theoretical structure.” (p. 23) (emphasis added)
When members of the Catholic hierarchy and many of the ‘liberal’ Protestants in Europe surrendered the Jews to Hitler’s Big History fantasies, it was Barth who stood against the Nazis. For Barth, theological ethics had to be derived from Christian doctrine (first-order discourse), not ‘the world,’ and certainly not the world forged by modernity, with its star chamber of homo historicus and homo scientificus ‘heroes.’
The fashion mavens
Kara’s book acknowledges the differences between Barth and Kierkegaard — her two principle interlocutors on the subject of Time — but she shows their substantial overlap on this question, wherein time is a creature, and the Creator is the Trinitarian God, not the transparent I of modernity with his view from everywhere and nowhere. Barth, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer (another Christian who opposed the Nazis . . . to his death) rejected the subsumption of the Christ — “the Lord of Time” — into modernity, because it led to “an excessively cheap Christianism.”
One version of cheap Christianism is ‘respectability.’ The passive-aggressive enforcement of transient bourgeois secular norms. She quotes Kierkegaard’s “assistant professor,” from The Concept of Anxiety, which is prescient about cheap Christianism (and its Gnostic, woketivist step-children today).
When it comes to human authority, I am a fetish worshiper and will worship anyone with equal piety, but with one proviso, that it be made sufficiently clear by a beating of drums that he is the one I must worship and that it is he who is the authority and imprimatur for the current year. That decision is beyond my understanding, whether it takes place by lottery or balloting, or whether the honor is passed around so that each individual has his turn as an authority, like a representative of the burghers on the board of arbitration.
Hegel, using Dr. Slade’s ladder metaphor, systematically built his ladder from the ground-up, from earth to heaven. Like the Tower of Babel. Kierkegaard narrates a ladder down, from heaven to earth.
The first few times I tried to read Kierkegaard, I was an addled infantry veteran just back from Vietnam. I was drawn in by those who named him ‘the father of existentialism,’ and I’d come to identify with the post-war continental philosophers, Sartre and Camus. I was in a state of constant confusion with Kierkegaard, though. I failed to realize that he was responding in a nineteenth-century contemporary way to his bête noire, Hegel, and that he was an intentionally unreliable narrator.
If Kara’s book does nothing else — and it does a great deal else —it clarifies Kierkegaard not as ‘the father of existentialism,’ where he’s dragged into a modernist frame by his hair, but as a Christian crossing the desiccated and denuded landscape of modernity.
God destroyed the Tower of Babel which men, in their ambition and arrogance, built toward heaven. God crashed through infinity and descended from heaven, to a land and people under imperial military occupation, to become a helpless unborn child in the belly of a Judean teen. Ladder-up. Ladder-down.
During the liturgy, we say, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Christ came down. Christ went up. Christ is coming back down. The Fullness of Time. Past, present, and future, encompassed by Christ — the Lord of Time
Kara’s book doesn’t carve Christians away from ‘the world.’ It insists that Christians, in order to follow Jesus of Nazareth, have to center Jesus in their ‘world’ views, over and against the Big Stories of modernity.
She doesn’t play the ‘science versus religion’ game. She is a scientist . . . and a priest. She engaged in the practice of science. That’s not Big Science. Big Science is an ideology, not a practice, and the ‘fundamentalist’ reaction has been a counter-ideology which adds new category errors to old ones.
Christians in the modern West have resorted to two polarities that are produced by the same modernity to which they respond. It is easy enough for the proponents of dogmatic atheism to point to contemporary “creationists” as an object of ridicule. But is is far too easy for Christians to respond in the same terms, to merge evolutionism and a doctrine of creation into a seamlessly coherent worldview. (Slade, p. 31)
We can so easily go back, like a dog to its own vomit, to the univocal God, pulling the Creator into Creation as one of its components, wherein the salvific God becomes the therapeutic God, whose purpose is to keep us ‘well adjusted’ to the secular world.
The constant factor is not time, but God. Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, irrupted into time and irreversibly changed it in doing so. (Slade, p. 32) (emphasis added)
Quoting Barth, she writes that Christ is “not only the time of man, but the time of God, eternal time.” Jesus is “the Lord of Time.” Cribbing Kierkegaard’s ‘confession’ about fashionability, she shows how ‘natural theology’ attempts to trim Jesus in order to stuff him into the modern delusion of Big Science.
Digression 4: On fashionability. The quote from David Bentley Hart all the way at the beginning of this reflection was from Hart’s Atheist Delusions — The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. He goes on to say (and show) that everything he said in that screed . . . is wrong.
What makes that quote stand out is that it is the basic shared assumption of liberals and leftists, in the vein of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. I’ll leave you to Hart’s book to discover how and why this story of ‘Enlightenment’ is false through and through; but I will point out that Dawkins is a present-day eugenicist and the late Christopher Hitchens, a ‘leftist,’ became a champion of Bush II’s ‘civilizing’ wars in Southwest Asia.
The desire to ‘fit in’ is a perpetual temptation. We’ll even kill to do it.
I take it to be crucial that Christians must live in a manner that their lives are unintelligible if the God we worship in Jesus Christ does not exist.
Christians constantly falter in our denial — Peter-like — of the history-twisting strangeness of the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection.
It is perhaps no coincidence that contemporary American debates centered on science and Christian faith tend to cluster around questions of creation rather than redemption. While creation can be argued about from a standpoint of detachment, the crucified and risen Christ encounters us and demands a response. (Slade, p. 37)
The ‘theologians’ of ‘the future’
Back during my first four-and-a-half year break in military service, I took some college classes as an ostensible English major, That’s when I read Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel about a middle class realtor and Chamber of Commerce-style civic booster, who saw himself and those like him as ‘the future.’ He imagines himself as something much more interesting than he is, blissfully unaware of his and his cohort of fellow self-important rotarians’ intellectual mediocrity . They are men who display a remarkable lack of curiosity about the world beyond their own insular and self-assured preconceptions.
Lewis and others of his day were puzzled and a little chagrined by the emergent political potency of this petit bourgeois archetype, a post-war ‘respectable’ counterpoint to outbursts of cultural rebellion and war-forged cynicism. Some of us still feel that puzzlement today, after having survived the chaotic four-year reign of a sketchy, ‘self-made’ real estate scammer, who likewise is unaware of his own intellectual mediocrity — a man with a remarkable lack of curiosity about anything but himself, Donald Trump. We have an ingrained sense that ‘leaders’ ought to have some sweep and depth, even though a close reading of ‘democratic’ history suggests that sloganeering nitwits are the rule, and the depth-and-sweep folks the exception.
Kara’s book begins her third chapter with The Game of Thrones and its dreadful apokalypsis, “Winter is coming,” which she connects to Steve Bannon, of all people.
Bannon, for whom Donald Trump was a useful idiot, is heavily influenced by a book called The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. I knew nothing about this until I read Kara’s book. Strauss and Howe apparently used the “winter is coming” ‘meme’ [Memes are a Dawkins invention] and added, “again.” Winter is coming, again. These guys are the self-styled ‘prophets’ of something called “generational theory,” according to which there are repeating cycles in history of “four turnings,” each ‘turning’ lasting around twenty years. Get Kara’s book, and she’ll break down this bizarre ‘theory’ for you. The significance of Bannon and his prophets is that they present us with a teleology and a kind of pseudo-eschatology, with a fascist-like accent which underwrites what Dr. Slade identifies as “neo-reaction” or “Dark Enlightenment.”
I’m very grateful to her for the way she has reorganized the ever-more-archaic mess that are popular political-philosophical taxonomies: neo-reaction, Dark Enlightenment, radical centrism.
Strauss and Howe, she explains, were themselves the intellectual captives of Mircea Eliade, a Romanian far-right philosopher. Eliade refashioned Nietzsche’s nightmare concept of ‘eternal reccurance’ into a pseudo-mystical mishmash that reflect in many respects the romanticized masculinist ‘histories’ and sanguinary eschatologies of fascism, Nazism, Hindutva nationalism, Zionism, and other authoritarian, ethno-nationalist movements . . . like the one that Bannon encouraged the narcissistic Trump to front for with his MAGA movement — the attempted muscular restoration of some mythical American past.
Strauss and Howe contend that in such a crisis as the United States will soon enter, or has already now entered, the cohesion of the social body must take precedence in the moral order. This is a period in which “great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life” and leave only “one simple imperative,” that “the society must prevail.” (Slade, p. 55)
This omelette, of course, requires breaking some eggs.
Just as floods replenish soils and fires rejuvenate forests, a Fourth Turning clears out society’s exhausted elements and creates an opportunity for fresh growth. (Strauss & Howe, p. 21)
Alongside these forms of neo-reaction, Kara’s book describes other, sometimes overlapping, eschatological tendencies, beginning with the aggressive social Darwinism of Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) and his racially-coded ‘Christian-socialism.’ She follows with explications of Walter Rauschenbusch, Teilhard de Chardin, and today’s ‘transhumanists.’
Digression 5: If you want to find the common thread running through these guys, it’s the notion of self-creation. If you want to find the common thread in their self-creationist fantasies, its eugenics. If you think that eugenics died with Hitler, think again. It’s practiced every day now, but it’s been privatized.
One of Kara Slade’s mentors is Amy Laura Hall. One of the books that was as impactful for me as Kara’s was Barbara Duden’s Disembodying Women — Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn. On this digression, I’m putting Amy Laura and Barbara Duden into a conversation with one another, and with Kara.
And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then then seized him and slew him in the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites.
-Judges 12: 3–6
Recalling Mircea Eliade now, he was an ‘historian of religion,’ which he understood instrumentally, as a kind of mystical glue necessary to hold together the higher good, culture. In Chapter 17 of Duden’s book, entitled “The Pink Disk and the Blue Disk,” referring to the first photograph of a ‘fetus’ inside the womb and the first picture of the earth taken from a satellite, she unpacks Eliade’s theory, which actually does identify certain features of that abstraction (Hey, Heidegger got some things right, even though he became a Nazi). Eliade’s ‘religious science’ theory states that cultures require icons. Illich described icons as thresholds between the here/now and what lies beyond our horizon, differentiating icons from idols. Eliade called an icon a sacrum, or in particular instantiations, the to hieron.
. . . a sacrum , a material object, will always be found at the center of culture. In, through, or around this object, the culture’s hierophany takes place. Here, the rootedness of reality in the beyond can be experienced. Here, the embeddedness of everyday experience in another dimension can be celebrated. The sacrum can be a rock or a tree, a mountain or a man, a here and a there. For this reason, to hieron is neither an image nor a likeness, neither symbol nor metaphor; it is threshold rather than arrow. It is a frontier at which one can wait, a doorway to the beyond, a window. Several anthropologists have accepted Eliade’s ideas, some postulating a sacrum as a necessity for the existence of culture. They argue that a society rests on the existence of normative assumptions that are neither right nor wrong, true nor untrue. These assumptions appear categorically (emphasis added) in the sacrum without losing their transcendence, and it is this latter which vouches for their validity here and on the other side . . . Precisely at the moment of unacknowledged decline , the American republic needs a sacrum more credible than its flag. And what would be better for that than the American womb? I cannot think of a more straightforward explanation for the obsessive attribution of life to a fetus than to see in it the hierophony of a secular dream about flesh reduced to an object . . . If the fetus is the sacrum of our time, it is a sacrum of a new kind. In our world, where we increasingly live not among things we see but among appearances we are shown, the modern sacrum also has the character of a media event . . . A fetus is organizing itself within the field of the mother. More and more, it is viewed primarily as a new cyberntic state that can take the form of a zygote,, embryo, or child . . . The reduction of the uterine event to the level of immune subsystem has extinguished the womb’s sensual characteristics and transformed it into a digital desert. Sprouting in this digital desert, the fetus reveals itself . . . as “life.” . . . It would be silly to consider this idolatry of life a consequence of noisy disputes about Supreme Court decisions, Constitutional amendments, and congressional proposals. The growing ecumenical consensus about the sacredness of life is better understood as an aspect of a surreptitious shift in social and medical management concerns about the importance of “survival” . . . The idol of the fetus has only one competitor at present, and that is the Blue Planet. Just as the sonogram of the fetus stands for one life, so the TV satellite picture of the earth stands for all life. As the pink disk of the zygote appeals for the maintenance of one immune system, so the blue disk of the biosphere appeals for the survival of the entire global system. Both disks act like sacraments for the “real presence” of life, for whose continuation a global “we” is made responsible. This, a misplaced concreteness, which makes the fetus into an object, creates the sacrum in which the futile pursuit of survival overpowers contemporary consciousness. (Duden, pp. 108–110)
These modern shibboleths, or sacra, Duden shows, in her history of the experience of pregnancy, have disembodied women, taken them outside of their proprioceptive, enfleshed experience and into a state of self-objectification that turned pregnancy into a managerial exercise for experts with an obsessive focus on “risk management” (and privatized eugenics).
Amy Laura Hall, in Conceiving Parenthood, reviews the history of American Protestantism and the racialized teleologies of twentieth-century managerial forms. Amy Laura, like Barbara Duden, focused on the power of images in the promotion of what Kara Slade identifies as the “self-generating, self-narrating human.”
Before I go further into this, in Durham where Amy Laura lives and near where we used to live, the Life and Science Museum is a big draw for people with kids and grandkids. Sherry and I took both our children and our grandchildren there. It’s an interactive place where the bairns can make massive soap bubbles that surround their whole bodies, roll pennies into centripetal force funnels, and watch a machine make mini-steam-tornadoes. After doing these things briefly, though, and left to their own devices, the kids always default to chasing each other through tunnels and over rope ladders, banging on gongs, poking their fingers and hands into the animal cages, and pestering you for sweets at the snack bar. As soon as you start trying to “teach” them the science lessons the museum intends, their eyes glaze over and they haul ass back out to the playground or the petting zoo. Kids always know.
Returning now to Amy Laura’s book and its images . . .
Two images stand out in her chapter, “The Atomic Age and the Genomic Revolution.” The first is the cover on a brochure jointly produced by General Electric and Walt Disney for the 1964–5 World Fair, advertising General Electric Progressland, with a hygienic, respectable white family happily approaching a big pavilion, and listing the features of Progressland, including “Thermonuclear Fusion.”
The second exemplary image in that chapter is from a mural at the Health Adventure Museum in Asheville, North Carolina. It has a globe — like the blue disk — being embraced by a cosmic double-helix belt. Bear in mind, this was from a health museum.
In this chapter, Amy Laura writes about the Progressland brochure:
The family life of tomorrow would be entertained and enhanced through the marvels of domestic technology, appliances, and such brought to them by General Electric, fueled by the nation’s projected reliance on a previously unfathomable source of immeasurable power. [Note: fusion reactors are still not online.] The central exhibit in the pavilion of Progressland, the heart of “progress” itself, was the virtual nuclear reactor, from which would emerge periodically a brilliant light show. The brochure called this the “climax” of the exhibit, and the term seems quite apt . . . The projection of a more wholesome, happier, nuclear family was unquestionably a crucial piece of this narrative. If the center of progress was nuclear power, the central recipients of that progress were the normatively beautiful and configured families who could afford to attend the fair. The pictures situate the newer, leaner, modern family as the focus of the viewer’s eye. The father, in a business suit, beckons his fashionably dressed wife forward. Their two children enter the world of tomorrow, thanks to Mr. Disney. (Hall, p. 359)
With regard to the mural at the Health Museum, she writes:
[T]he mural itself cues museum visitors that the future contribution of North Carolina to the wider world is focused around medical — in particular, genetic — technology. The globe is wrapped in the current icon of scientific progress . . . The “Genomic Revolution” is the title of one multimillion-dollar exhibit of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Financed through federal, state, local, and pharmaceutical sources, the exhibit went on international tour, appearing first in the epicenter of the biotechnological New South, a region known as the Triangle [Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill]. Visitors to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh could, for a small fee, introduce their children to the future — a future in which “A Midlife Crisis Will Start at 75” and “Suddenly, the Question ‘Are you a Man or a Mouse? Actually Requires Some Thought.” This is how two poster announced the exhibit, the first featuring a hipster, gray-haired couple in black leather, with the women in the driver’s seat, riding through the desert Southwest on what appears to be a Harley-Davidson. No stay-at-home, free-babysitting grandmother here. The future looks bright for those who hope, in retirement, to get their motors running and head out on the highway, looking for a biotechnologically enabled adventure. (Hall, p. 364)
Amy Laura’s book begins with the history of two, conjoined social movements: progressivism and eugenics. As in Kara’s book, she laments the participation of Christians in these modern narratives and movements, and warns Christians that Progress is a dangerous idol. One theologian named by both women in this regard is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918).
The fear of “indiscriminate fecundity” — the words of Margaret Sanger, pioneer of the American birth control movement — was fueled by apparent reproductive chaos in cities and rural areas. Some of the leading voices in favor of eugenic control embraced the movement after trying to bring solace to a desperately poor and growing immigrant population in major industrialized areas. Sanger and Walter Rauschenbusch both worked among the poorest of New York City during a era of unparalleled poverty and exploitation there, and both believed eugenics was necessary for industrialized America to truly progress. (Hall, p. 240)
“The road to hell is paved . . .”
Kara Slade writes:
For Rauschenbusch, the survival (emphasis mine) of the West depends on the efforts of Christian men of action, whom he calls to seize the wheel of history and steer it in the direction of the civilized kingdom of God.
In a contemporary era that recalls the first Gilded Age in which Rauschenbusch was writing, the temptation is strong to recover the reformist energy of the Social Gospel for the present day. Yet, this is an ultimately false path toward incorporating concerns for economic realities into Christian witness. The emphasis on evolutionary incrementalism, as well as the focus on an eschatology of human effort, limit the promise of the promise of the Social Gospel’s theology. (Slade, p. 47)
Rauschenbush was a proponent of the myth of progress who referred in one quote to “some Gibbon of the Mongol race.”
Digression 6: Points of confusion here. Present-day ‘progressives’ often also identify as ‘anti-racists,’ Anti-racism has even become a cottage industry for liberal charlatans who’ve learned to cultivate liberal white guilt for fun and profit. One may ask, “Hasn’t ‘progressivism’ progressed beyond the social Darwinism of the early twentieth century? Hasn’t genetic science undermined the old racial theories with its percentages and dissolving boundaries?” This, of course, begs a lot of questions with regard to what people think of as ‘race.’ Kara Slade’s reference to Ferriera da Silva points out how ‘scientific race’ is neither a fixed category nor a prime mover, but only one form of the naturalization of ‘scientific man’s’ desire to “catapult himself outside of time to envision time and history on the most massive, Hegelian scale. From there, the authority of science and of scientific man is deployed to arrange other human beings on a developmental scale of primitivism and progress.”
The kulaks weren’t called a race, but they sure fell prey as much as any ‘racially’ subjugated people to the claim of ‘backwardness.’
Progressives have simply transferred that naturalizing rationalization, that “developmental scale,” to ‘non-racial’ others, reminding me of the thought of Paul Virilio — who suggests that transhumanism is leading us into a new kind of hyper-racism.
There is an apocryphal story about Virilio, a massively underappreciated cultural critic, being invited to speak at the opening of a science and technology museum. He assented, as long as he could speak not only about the advantages accrued by science and technology, but also about the catastrophes. He was thereupon dis-invited.
Virilio, who paid special attention to the phenomenon of the accident, said, “With the invention of the ship came the invention of the shipwreck.”
Virilio, a Catholic in the vein of Ivan Illich and Michel De Certeau, had his thinking forged in World War II Europe. He reminded people, against their wills, that progress was the history of technology, and technology was the history of war. The church got into bed with the Empire; then it got into bed with war; then it got into bed with war’s child — progress. He also spoke about the eugenic subsoil of the progress-myth. In a 2002 interview, we read:
Sylvère Lotringer: More than twenty years ago you warned against the militarization of knowledge. At first mobilized to protect humanity, science is now in the process of destroying it.
Paul Virilio: For fifty years now — but those of our generation know it well — we have been witnessing the militarization of knowledge. Not simply with Nobel prize-winning scientists involved in the Vietnam War, but in all research we’ve seen it. The fruit of this is the three bombs: the atomic bomb, the cyber bomb — we know where the internet comes from — and now finally the genetic bomb which is in the works: they are all the fruit of this militarization of science. That’s why I was able to speak of the ‘politics of the worst’ today with regard to cybernetics.
SL: It all follows logically from what we had developed in Pure War.
PV: Yes, unfortunately. Still I recall that this desire goes back to the Futurists and thus to fascism. You would have to reread Marinetti. We must not in any case forget what he says about bodies: he says that the body must be nourished on energy, nourished on technology, etc. Marinetti is a prophet of fascism, not only the fascism of Mussolini but also the eugenic fascism of Mengele. And he foresaw it. Futurism foresaw internal flesh-eating prostheses, the revolution of transplants, technology inserted on the inside of the body, this sort of cannibalism of man which causes him to feed himself on implants such as the pacemaker, all the way to additional memory, to microchips, and incorporated telephones.
SL: That is the first offensive. The other offensive is not to penetrate a body that is already there, but to construct one.
PV: The other aspect is genesis, the possibility of the industrialization of the living being, the industrialization of the species itself. It will no longer be a question of the eugenics of relative performance, Galton’s eugenics of artificial selection, or Mengele’s for that matter. It will be a question of informational selection. In effect, one would go right to a total, an absolute eugenics, a eugenics of the perfecting of creation itself.
SL: It is no longer a modification of the body according to selection criteria we label ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ — eliminating the handicapped or reinforcing the carriers of good genes — but a programming, pure and simple. They produce a new human object from nothing.
PV: In that case, it is the program that would be the essential and not the culture. In my opinion, artificial selection and informational selection cannot be separated because I believe that both are quite simply aberrations. Behind them, there is obviously the idea of an improved humanity, not to mention a post-humanity. You can imagine human species no longer the human species in the singular, but human species in the plural.
SL: By altering the map of the human genome, you could create high-performance men, but also under-men.
PV: Behind the idea of the super-man, Galton’s idea that was taken up by Mengele, there is inevitably the idea of the under-man.
SL: The idea of the under-man did not have to wait for the genetic revolution. It’s the history of colonialism.
PV: But this world misfortune was not programmed in a factory. Whereas, in this case, with genome modification, it would be an industrial program as in Terminator. The whole question of the control of the living being is the contraception of the human species.
SL: And that raises again the question of racism…
PV: Or rather of super-racism. The biggest racist knows that there exists a unity of the species. Even the degraded are degraded within the unity of the species. He says ‘inferior,’ but it is a man or a woman. Through all its excesses, its massacres, its horrors, racism remains within the unity of the human species. It is relative to this unity. However, through transgenetic research, through chimeras or hybridization, through eugenics, they have raised the question of multiplying human kinds. The racist was yet preserved from his excess by the fact that there was only one human kind, and different races — blacks, whites, etc. But I am saying that the genetic bomb risks exploding this unity for the multiplicity of the human kind, and then racism will become exponential.
SL: It would be a transhuman racism.
PV: This is transhuman racism, whereas the other was endo-human.
SL: The heterogeneity of races will make the old racism impossible…
PV: …whereas heterogeneity will be a racism beyond the human kind. And that is the unthinkable.
Which brings us back to Kara’s book, and the next theologian of “the future,” the Jesuit transhumanist prophet Tielhard de Chardin.
Dr. Slade writes, “Tielhard created a a vision of the future in which the progress of creation would eventually be brought to its fulfillment through a continuous developmental trajectory of becoming.” (p. 48)
Honestly, I don’t worry about the transhumanist delusion bringing some hyper-controlled Brave New World. The kind of control they envision is only possible in a few enclaves, and they’re still dealing with embodied human beings. That’s not to say they won’t cause a great deal of suffering out of sight of their shiny, stylized, imaginary metaverses (which are sales pitches, really). Nazism failed to achieve its goals, but it created plenty of ‘collateral damage.’
The Fullness of Time cites the actually-existing precursor to Virilio’s transhumanist terror in Charles Murray, the infamous author of the Bell Curve, a man obsessed with another question-begging artifact of modernity, ‘intelligence’ testing. When even his own metrics were undermined by substantial numbers of white people (‘white trash’), he did the classic dodge of premise-shifting from pseudo-biology to the shared favorite of liberals, progressives, fascists, socialists, and transhumanists alike: pseudo-temporal sorting, aka stages of development. Kara’s book cites Murray’s Coming Apart (2010).
[Murray] warns that working class white Americans are increasingly living in contexts that resemble African-American communities, and less like those of middle- and upper-class white communities. From virtues such as industriousness, honesty, and religiosity, to the rates of marriage and unwed pregnancy, Murray finds contemporary poor white Americans lacking in the virtues and behaviors that united an earlier generation of white people across social classes. Instead, he argues that their actions and attitudes have increasingly come to resemble those of African-Americans. In short, white people are in danger of losing their whiteness. (Slade, p. 79)
When Hillary Clinton referred to working class white people as “a basket of deplorables,” she was perfectly synchronized with old Charlie Murray’s pseudo-temporal sorting, and her liberal supporters, white, black, and other . . . were silent as the tomb.
Voters weren’t. This comment, combined with her glaringly obvious disdain for the ‘lower classes,’ led to her defeat at the hands of a carnival barking real estate crook.
(I wonder what Murray would think of our own ‘military creole’ family.)
The other individualists
Eugenics and other futurisms are collectivist movements. Let’s turn back for a moment to Tielhard de Chardin.
“For Tielhard,” Dr. Slade explains, “humanity as the object of faith is also humanity that must be controlled and improved en masse, as a precondition of its eventual unification in the divine Omega Point.” (p. 51) One of her extended quotes from Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man (pp. 282–3):
Eugenics applied to individuals leads to eugenics applied to society . . . Reflective substance requires reflective treatment. If there is a future for mankind, in can only be imagined in terms of a harmonious conciliation of what is free and what is planned and totalized. Points involved are: the distribution of resources of the globe’ the control of the trek toward unpopulated areas; the optimum uses of powers set free by mechanization;the physiology of nations and races; geo-economy, geo-politics, geo-demography; the organization of research developed into a reasoned organization of the earth. Whether we like it or not, all the signs and all our needs converge in the same direction. We need and are irresistibly being led to create, by means of and beyond all physics, all biology and all psychology, a science of human energetics.
Kara’s book goes on to point out that Tielhard was warmly received by Ernst Benz, a Nazi theologian who is still well-received by transhumanists. Benz hated Kierkegaard, who set up an ‘individualist’ counterpoint to Hegel and, by inference, to the rest of the futurists.
(Again, I don’t believe transhumanist fantasies can ever come to fruition. It’s mostly bunco-artistry on a grand scale; but, like Virilio, I have concerns about ‘movements’ and scams and their ‘accidents,’ especially on a grand — let’s say globalized — scale.)
These “theologians of the future” are not all transhumanists, which is an outgrowth of metastatic liberalism. Bannon and his prophets are trying to fulfill some pseudo-Neitzschean vision of cyclical Big History. The reason they all trend toward eugenics and biotech is a function of their restless desire for control, their unspoken drive to become like God. It’s not new. Take a close look at Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, or the American exceptionalist’s claim to be the New Jerusalem.
Of all the things they most want to control, and over which they have the east control, the most desired object is time. They want to take hold of a hallucination called The Future. Ivan Illich publicly said “to hell with” two things: good intentions and the future. Sacrificed to both are actual individual human beings, the ‘eggs’ that have to be broken to make the omelette called The Future.
Progressive thinkers like Rauschenbusch and Tielhard de Chardin share with the representatives of neo-reaction the tendency to elide any human being — whether you, me, a child we love, a parent we remember, or a neighbor we do not understand — in favor of a social body as a whole. (Slade, p. 65)
Kierkegaard and Barth, she shows, offer an anti-liberal ‘individualism’ as antidotes to this universalizing poison.
“For Kierkegaard,” she writes, “Christianity is a matter that addresses itself to the ‘single individual,’ to whom is then addressed the divine commandment to love the neighbor.” (p. 62)
For Barth, she writes, “There is an irreducible duality in human relationships, just as there are between the creature and God: the duality of I and Thou addressing each other. (p. 65)
Going back into my Catholic register, Illich — in explicating the Parable of the Samaritan — says the friendship that emerges between the Judean and the Samaritan was not from a category, but a call. The Samaritan doesn’t perform a duty; he answers a very personal, very embodied call. In the Greek, it says the Samaritan feels the call in his slagchnon, his belly, his guts. Of course, there is a revolutionary scandal involved in this story, with Jesus’s announcement that this I-Thou can leap across the boundary of the ethnos, but the problem Illich identifies with our subsequent interpretations of this parable is institutionalization and its disembodiment.
Disembodiment, which really seems at first sight absurd — to speak about disembodied people — is reaching a second level which I can only call algorithmization of mathematization. People annihilate their own sensual nature by projecting themselves into abstracta, into abstract notions . . . We are in a situation in which the disembodiment of the I-Thou which has led into a mathematization, an algorithmization, which is supposedly experienced. (Illich, Rivers North of the Future, pp. 221–2)
Christian (embodied) personalism is not liberal (abstract) individualism. A call is not a norm, but the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The I-Thou is not a contract, but a covenant.
Barth reminds readers that a Christian eschatology can never be a disembodied eschatology, and that the kingdom of God comes in the body of Jesus Christ and not from human effort, either outside the church or within it . . . In a culture where technological utopianism is ubiquitous, the temptations to offer Christian counterpart to this thinking are ubiquitous as well. Yet we are called to risk the strangeness of a scriptural eschatology that confesses that in the end, the end is not up to us. (Slade, p. 68–9) (emphasis mine)
Digression 7: Modern collectivist metanarratives always submerge actual persons into preordained categories. Perhaps the most ambitious and frankly stupid version of this is epitomized by ‘universal Darwinism.’ This goes a step beyond even Murray’s pseudo-science.
Murray uses the language of genetics to make a purely political argument based on scientific knowledge that does not currently exist, but which he hopes will exist one day. (Slade, p. 80)
The question-begging fallacy on parade.
In my own book, Mammon’s Ecology, I noted about the ‘universal Darwinism’ of crackpottery-modernists like E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins,
The universal Darwinists, in trying to break everything in the universe down to its evolutionary utility, evade these problems by claiming that they simply haven’t yet identified the whole train of cause-and-effect. In other words, their theory is correct even though it hasn’t yet been scientifically demonstrated to be so, because it is correct. (Goff, p. 78)
The UD’s want to boil all of creation (they’d be loathe to call it that) down to chains of effective causation, beginning at the sub-atomic level. Here (there is no ‘here’ of course) they believe they will know, then become, “the mind of God.”
The little white man
Murray’s deviant American . . . can only be temporally marked as domestic barbarism because the figure of the foreign barbarian exists. (Slade, p. 82)
Digression 8: Empire is not just a moral category, it is a structural, material one. Whether it refers to first-century Rome or eighteenth century Britain or the present-day United States, one feature of empires that appears to be transhistorical is what John Friedmann called, all the way back in 1963, the “core-periphery” dynamic. If you like, we could also call it the center-margin dynamic. For that matter, the embryo of empires were city-states, centers which extracted value from the rural margins. One might say empire is a matured form of an even more transhistorical phenomenon, this core-periphery dynamic. (The first book if the Bible is, in this sense, anti-urban, and the last book of the Bible is anti-empire.)
Jesus began his ministry in the margins — the peripheries — and worked his way toward the center, the core, at Jerusalem.
Friedmann was talking about international relations in 1963, but it took an anti-progressive feminist to identify many of the fractals — similar patterns at multiple scales — of this, let’s call it, colonial dynamic. The ‘cores’ flourish through a constant inflow of goods produced by ‘peripheries,’ and the anti-goods (Virilio would say “accidents,” economists, externalities) are exported back to the peripheries. That feminist scholar is Maria Mies.
Mies begins by noting a key difference in this dynamic between pre-modernity and modernity, and that is what Carolyn Merchant called the Death of Nature, the objectification of the non-human world, which was seen in pre-modernity as organic, as infused with life and spirit.
In Maria Mies’s groundbreaking book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, she showed how colonial extraction and domination were epistemologically linked as the conquest of nature, colonies, and women. The Big White Man is epitomized by Francis Bacon with his ‘conquest-of-nature,’ seen as a (conquered) woman, and contextualized by Bacon’s position as the Attorney General of Elizabethan England during a period of aggressive colonial expansion. The Big White Men were the captains of ‘natural resource’ appropriation and extraction; but by the nineteenth century, the newly organized bourgeois ‘nuclear’ family (monogamous, co-residential, and circumscribed) became the model for the Little White Man after wage work became generalized, whereupon women were “housewifized” (Mies’s term); that is, employed without pay to add value to the post-subsistence, nuclear household.
Thus, the Little White Man also got his ‘colony’, namely, the family and a domesticated housewife. This was a sign that, at last, the propertyless proletarian had risen to the ‘civilized’ status of a citizen, that he had become a full member of a ‘culture-nation’. This rise, however, was paid for by the subordination and housewifization of the women of his class. The extension of bourgeois laws to the working class meant that in the family the propertyless man was also lord and master. (Mies, p. 110)
This transformation of the family required an epistemological accompaniment, which Mies described as women and colonies being defined into (an objectified) Nature where they could legitimately be conquered. Ferriera da Silva, who Kara Slade cites, said that colonized/conquered peoples, ‘savages,’ were seen as governed by Nature, and as yet incapable of the ‘reason’ achieved by ‘transparency,’ by the exteriorization of the mind (disembodiment).
Race, as noted above, only came into its epistemic own as an adjunct to the perceived material necessities of conquest, extraction, and control. Nikhil Pal Singh wrote that “war making is race making.” In Vietnam, my first post in the Army, we called the residents “gooks” (race-making) and Vietnam “Indian country,” a cultural trope that referred back to US westward expansion and its conquest of the ‘savages.’
Kara’s book cites Ann Laura Stoler’s Race and the Education of Desire, and Stoler’s account of how the race-making of colonialism was forced to adapt itself as a category to the ‘savages’ within — in Stoler’s instance, working class white women, and in the American case, ‘white trash.’ These narratives inevitably center on ‘family’ and sexuality.
One thing the Big White Man and the Little White Man share is an obsession with controlling the sexuality of “their” women. Racial pogroms in the US have always been fueled by panicked appeals for the protection of ‘white womanhood.’
Controlled womanhood is propagandized as a joy for the Little White Man, who can find a sense of peace not unlike the plantation owner having a moment of Buddha-shanti tranquility as he sits on his porch, sipping his mint julep, and watching the ‘darkies’ come in from the fields. Kierkegaard, who Kara quotes on page 88, speaking as the petit bourgeois Judge William, says:
If, when I am sitting in my study and time is dragging for me [time, again], I slip into the living room, I sit down in a corner, I say not a word for fear of disturbing her in her task, for even though it looks like a game, it is done with a dignity and decorum that inspires respect . . . a top that hums and buzzes around and by its humming and buzzing makes matrimonial music in the living room.
The tranquil, approving, petit bourgeois male gaze. Beware! If there is any perceived threat to this little pedestal, our character will react with fear and ferocity, and racialism won’t be far behind.
The racially-panicked Charles Murray and a host of those of the same mind see in the lower classes the constant threat of a “societal slide toward primitivism” (Slade, p. 85). They don’t state it as openly as they did back in the fifties and sixties, but ‘race-mixing’ constitutes the lion’s share of this moral panic. Race and sex, in this episteme, are recombinant and inseparable; and this has been coded (and dog-whistled) as respectability.
‘Religion’ serves an instrumental function to maintain ‘respectability.’
Murray’s notion of “religiosity” is based on the moral and social benefits of church attendance. The content of these beliefs is, in itself, unimportant. For Arnold White, the role of the Church of England was similar: “to create and maintain, through all ranks, a high standard of decent and moral existence.” As he explains, “So far as the Church of England increases morality, and raises the standard of public conduct, it is an instrument of efficiency.” (Slade, p. 86)
The radical centrists
Woodruff Smith, in Consumption and the Making of Respectability, documented the emergence of cleanliness, respectability, and progress as a constellation of meaning in affluent modern Western culture and showed how consumption was part of that movement, tangentially understood but materially essential to it. This constellation of respectability, progress, and cleanliness was inscribed on a worldview that drew a borderline between the civilized imperial cores and the barbaric (we now say “under-developed”) peripheries. Women were charged with upholding civilization through domestic respectability. They promoted progress via domestic femininity, including the provision of an appropriate environment for raising children. Theodore Roosevelt, the great Progressive, emphasized the role of white women as breeders, producing vigorous white citizens and soldiers. After WWI, public relations amplified notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority, a providential United States tutoring its colonies, and of progress, in order to conform the ‘white’ American public to the postwar buildup of a ‘white’ industrialized nation.
In Kara’s book, the term “radical centrists” occurs in the sub-chapter “Christianity without Christ.” I’m tempted to launch into a tirade about the necessity of ‘stability’ for the business class to continue generating profit, but The Fullness of Time is posing Kierkegaard and Barth against the modern epoch, not Marx from within it; and her concern is for that assembly of God-botherers who claim to follow the risen Christ — church. Her interlocutors, Kierkegaard and Barth, are each relentless in their own ways — Kierkegaard in his wickedly sly critique of self-satisfied petit bourgeois pride and of Hegel’s self-satisfied and prideful metanarrative, and Barth in his uncompromising christocentrism.
She quotes Samuel Huntington in this section — a guy I had to teach West Point cadets as we indoctrinated them to become, not joking here, “managers of violence.” Key word, managers. Huntington was a big believer in the entitlement of a managerial class to run the ship of state — a belief held today by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the ‘radical centrists’ of our period.
America’s civil religion is a nondenominational, national religion and, in its articulated form, not expressly a Christian religion. Yet it is as thoroughly Christian in its origin, content, assumptions, and tone. The God in whom their currency says Americans trust is implicitly a Christian God. Two words, nonetheless, do not appear in civil religions statements and ceremonies. They are “Jesus Christ.” While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ. (Huntington, “Who Are We” p. 106)
Kara Slade writes in reply:
“Christian doctrine and Christian Scripture has been eliminated, and what remains is merely a series of decontextualized moral precepts closer to the words of Benjamin Franklin than those of Jesus Christ . . . The problem with these forms of civil religion is not only that they represent a deformation of Christianity. The problem is they tempt Christians to accept such a deformation in the name of making the faith relevant to civic discourse and societal improvement.” (Slade, p. 86–7)
Christ swallowed up by Babbitt.
When I read “Christianity without Christ” and spotted the reference to “radical centrism,” I was immediately reminded of an American ruling class political ritual: the National Prayer Breakfast. The NPB is an annual, bipartisan, multinational convocation of ‘leaders,’ that is, corporate CEOs, Generals, politicians, and rich religious leaders, who pretend to pray while they network and put on performances for the public. One Bible quote that is never mentioned there is Matthew 19:23–24.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I tell you that it will be hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of the heavens. And again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to enter in through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. (DBH translation)
Biblical shit-house-lawyers have bent themselves like pretzels on this one, claiming this refers to a small gate in Jerusalem, or some other nonsense, even though in the DBH New Testament’s very word-by-word, literal translation, the reference says “a needle, not “the needle.”
But, of course, the NPB is an exercise in “Christianity without Christ,” so that Jesus guy’s discomfiting words are eliminated, Jefferson Bible-style.
Digression 9: Order, rules, respectability. In the Introduction to Rivers North of the Future, Charles Taylor writes that Kierkegaard, Barth, and Illich have something in common (I’d say they have a great deal in common, but).
Jesus repeatedly transgressed . . . boundaries, not just with Samaritans but with all sorts of people whose status ranged from marginal to completely taboo: tax collectors, women of doubtful reputation, the mad, and so on. He broke religious rules, and even questioned the primacy of the family. All this represents, for Illich, a glorious revelation of the freedom to turn in love towards the other, whoever it may be. What Jesus calls the Kingdom of God stands above and beyond any ethical rule and can disrupt the everyday word in completely unpredictable ways. . . . On this point, I see a strong resemblance between Illich’s argument and Kierkegaard of Fear and Trembling. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his unfinished Ethics also makes the point that Christianity can never be reduced to a system of rules . . . What is revealed in the New Testament, according to Illich, is a summons beyond all cultural and religious containment. “[F]aith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross,” he says, “is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science.” . . . Here Illich shows an affinity with, among others, Karl Barth. In his Church Dogmatics, Barth portrays revelation as “the abolition of religion” and denounces the attempt “to foist a human product into the place of his Word, to make our own images of the One who is known only where He gives Himself to be known.” (RNOTF, pp. 30–31, with notes)
In an apocryphal story about Ivan Illich not long before he died, he was doing a workshop in New York with a bunch of businessmen. His approach, unsurprisingly, was not ‘connecting’ with them, and his ex-Dominican friend Lee Hoinacki suggested during a break that when they resumed, Illich ought to (paraphrased) ‘tell them about himself” and ‘where he was coming from.’
Illich returned to his mediator position after the break, and said, “It’s been suggested I tell you a little bit more about where I’m coming from,” whereupon he recited the Nicene Creed.
The system builders
It’s become fashionable to attack ‘evangelicals’ nowadays; and it’s easy to do, given that so many self-described evangelicals subscribe to outlandish nineteenth century heresies. Anything that’s too easy, however, can easily become cheap. Kara Slade’s book levels its critique against a much more formidable target, the liberal church, the church of the professional managerial class.
The liberal church doesn’t sport bumper stickers that say, “God, Guts, and Guns Made America Free.” The liberal church member’s bumper sticker would more likely say, “I believe in science,” as a kind of put-down of the unenlightened.
At the tail end of the chapter titled “Between,” Kara Slade writes:
The rhetorical tactics of temporal distancing and of the denial of coevalness . . . are not only an unfortunate artifact of scientific hubris, or limited to the histories of colonial domination. Rather, they are a symptom of a profound political and moral distortion, rooted in the past but all too pervasive in the present. While a reading of Kierkegaard and Barth provides a sharp word otherwise to those who would distance themselves in time from their neighbors, its political implications extend far beyond the anthropological or the philosophical realms. The problem that these thinkers diagnose is not only a problem of thought or scholarship, but also of political speech on the most mundane of levels. Indeed, the aforementioned temporal maneuvers can also be found in the popular rhetoric that surround political debate, especially insofar as that rhetoric emerges from Western liberalism itself.
Rather than argue against a policy on its merits (or on the lack thereof), many political activists focus instead on the perceived temporal reversion it represents, painting it as a step backwards into the past and away from contemporaneity. In this form of liberal rhetoric, the backwardness of a political position in and of itself functions as self-evident proof of its wrongness. (Slade, pp. 97–8)
She begins the next chapter, “Beyond,” with a series of quotes, one from Kierkegaard that says,
Too bad that Hegel lacked time; but if one is to dispose of all of world history, how does one get time for the little test as to whether the absolute method, which explains everything, is also able to explain the life of a single human being? In ancient times, one would have smiled at a method that can explain all of world history absolutely but cannot explain a single person even mediocrely.
Systems builders, real and imaginary — we’ve said it — are control freaks, who assume a God’s-eye point of view, or “the view from above.” From this point of view, Kara says, “we can also determine, control, or manage the time of our neighbors as an undifferentiated totality.” (p. 100)
She cites her own church’s Catechism of Creation (2005) as a prime example, which claims as its purpose to differentiate Episcopalians from (ugh, backward!) creationism, and secondarily to “outline a theological basis for environmental stewardship.” This all sounds perfectly reasonable, because it is perfectly fashionable and perfectly aligned with the intelligentsia and influencer-culture of late modernity, the systems builders. It also aligns, the author shows, with the universal Darwinism of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, which Kierkegaard (just above) exposes as just another universalist mystification . . . and a dangerous one at that! In the end, it always reverts to “population” panics (“teeming masses” of the unwashed), and (sigh) eugenics.
I looked up this Catechism, and sure enough, on page 12, there is an affectionate reference to Charles Kingsley (1819–1875), the same who wrote:
Physical science is proving more and more the immense importance of Race; the importance of hereditary powers, hereditary organs, hereditary habits, in all organized beings . . . She is proving more and more the omnipresent action of the differences between races, ho the favored race (she cannot avoid using the epithet) exterminates the less favored, or at least expels it . . . and, in a word, that competition between every race and every individual of that race, and reward according to deserts is (as far as we can see) a universal law of living things. (Kingsley, “Natural Theology of the Future,” p. 324)
The same Episcopalian document unabashedly claims that the story of Adam and Eve, as stewards of a garden, is a story about (undifferentiated) our responsibility to become “stewards of the earth” (meaning not a plot of soil, but an entire planet).
Of course, Genesis says no such thing. This is post-1960s blue-disk/pink-disk territory, folks.
Kara proceeds from this Catechism to an explication of the thought of Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), the German physician, zoologist, and eugenicist — an intellectual forefather of Nazism (race theory and Liebensraum), who nonetheless had his work banned by the Nazi Party for his philosophical monism and ‘freethinking.’ The Haeckel quote that stood out for this reader, given the thesis of Kara’s book, was an excerpt from an essay called “Eternity,” published in 1914 by the New York Times. From his imaginary perch “[s]tanding on the high watchtower of pure reason and surveying the world in general,” wherein he could “feel reasonably confident that [the idea of evolution] will also succeed in leading suffering mankind out of the chaos of the present insane world war up to a higher stage of civilization and happiness.” Nineteen years later, Adolph Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany.
In [E. O.] Wilson’s theory of consilience, as in Haeckel’s all-encompassing theory of monism, science functions as as the authoritative source of a system that explains and governs all of existence, with scientific man as the progenitor and proclaimer of that system. (emphasis added) (Slade, p. 113)
Digression 10: Ivan Illich, as an historian of perceptions, reckoned that around the thirteenth century, an increasing emphasis on instrumentality gave rise to a new generalization: tools. Prior to then, a hammer was a hammer, a broom was a broom, a wagon was a wagon, a kettle was a kettle, and a scythe was a scythe; but they weren’t merged in the prevailing social imaginary as ‘tools.’ Accompanying this notion, eventually, were increasing preoccupations with ‘means of production’ and ‘management.’ ‘Tools’ were finally conceived of as ‘technologies.’
Illich then hypothesized that around 1980, the prevailing metropolitan social imaginary shifted into systems-thinking. The systems-epoch displaced the epoch of tools. Of course, systems thinking was around prior to then, but it was around 1980 or so that systems-thinking took root in the popular imagination as sine qua non, as axiomatic. This transition occurs as more and more people come to ‘use’ systems and therein become captives of them.
[This] becomes visible in a full-blown way in an event like the Gulf War [1990, Illich died in 2002], a computer war which showed people at the same time their utter powerlessness and their intense addiction to the screen on which they watched it. (Illich, RNOTF, p. 157)
“In order to use a tool,” Illich told David Cayley, “I have to conceive of myself standing apart from the tool, which I can take or leave, use or not use.” (Ibid., p. 158) We are now living inside our technology.
Obviously, Kara’s book relates to Hegel and subsequent systems-builders, and not to that point around 1980 to which Illich refers in which we lose the last vestiges of personhood as we are incorporated cybernetically into electronically-supported systems; but she — as well as Kierkegaard — are already on alert to the ways in which systems-builders depersonalize us. David Cayley writes, re Illich:
Modernity had continually eroded boundaries but had not challenged the boundary of the human person. Personhood, Illich says, is the idea in which Western humanism and individualism is “anchored.” A person is a unique, bounded, and irreducible entity. The idea, for Illich, rests finally on the imago dei, the image of God in which we have been created, but it continues to inform Western humanism long after this creator God has been rejected and the divine spark extinguished. But, in the age of systems, Illich believed, the boundary defining the human person has been breached and erased. Systems recognize no such boundary. This breach was not made all at once at some arbitrarily chosen point in the early 1980’s. Ages overlap, and, once the idea of a new age is accepted, antecedents and precursors, auguries and portents can be discerned throughout the middle years of the 20th century. All Illich claimed was that for him this new age was sufficiently well established by the early 1980’s that its premises had become obvious and largely irresistible.” (Cayley)
“Th[e] ‘elevated’ position of speculation,” writes Kara, “leaves no room for involvement with the thinker’s own situation.” (p. 113)
Her complaint is not about science (the practice), but about the presumptuous and intellectually vacuous, non-scientific speculations of these ‘men of science,’ whose conjectures drift far afield of practical science and into one category error after another.
“Electricity is everywhere,” she writes, “but no one believes that Ohm’s law explains the poverty of Haiti or the pitfalls of marriage. Popular accounts of evolutionary biology, however, have been far less circumspect in the limits of its explanatory power.” (p. 114)
When Illich remarked on our cybernetically-induced powerlessness with regard to the 1990 invasion of Iraq and the war-of-systems, he couldn’t know about the 2001–3 invasions, which went terribly wrong for the instigators, precisely because they knew jack-shit about the lives and culture of the places they invaded.
Systems-builders cannot grasp the relation between the believing creature and her Creator. They can’t even grasp the creature.
I won’t spoil Kara’s finish, so I’ll close my own response with the response of Willie Jame Jennings, from the Foreword.
Twenty-first century scientific modernity pathologizes people who refuse its alchemy of time. Sadly, too many Christians have accepted its diagnoses and have thereby yielded to the real pathologies of our time. This means that the serious work that must yet be done is convincing Christians that they do in fact live in a different time, that is, the actual time bound up in God’s eternity. We live from the middle having out beginning and end brought to us through Jesus Christ. This is the insight of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We touch time, our hands freed from the illusion that we carry it, knowing that God holds time, graciously keeping it from collapsing back into the nothingness out of which it came. Touching time for us means grace, always grace in which we live in the exitus et reditus, the going from and returning to God. [Kara] Slade invites us in this powerful reflection on time to deepen our liturgical awareness of time that is not simply the wisdom of how to live but an insight into actual life: We are in God’s time that is also our time.