Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Process, not Progress: the Myth of Disintegration

In the world we live in, persistence and progress are everything. If the world cannot become a better place, life is meaningless. If that better world does not persist, life is meaningless. We cling to persistence and progress out of desperation. We cannot let our world crumble. Or rather, we strive to put it back together, after we believe it to have fallen apart. We live within the myth of disintegration.

It is fascinating how the myth of disintegration can take a myriad of forms. On one hand, the Garden of Eden comes to mind. Once upon a time, the world was ideal, our locality was a utopia. Evil was non-existent. Then everything fell apart. An act of disobedience occurred. The ideal shattered. The story of that ideal was passed on. Even as the world fell apart, the story makes us yearn for that ideal. If our utopia disintegrated, it is our responsibility to put the world back together. The puzzle may have fallen apart, but we have the exact plan necessary to put it back together. We appeal to what the world once was as an authority. The myth of disintegration becomes a blueprint for integration. For one thing, according to the traditional myth of Eden, there was once a time when women were subservient. The ideal has disintegrated. Humanity has fallen into sin. It is up to the myth's listener (or teller) to reintegrate the world. The sins of the present must be stopped by the ideals of the past.

Before any secularists nod their heads, however, they should consider that the myth of disintegration has persisted beyond Christianity. While the traditional myth of disintegration in the west (the Garden of Eden) had a very low theological anthropology (i.e. humans are sinful beings now), the modern rendition of the tale has a very high theological anthropology (i.e. humans are basically good). I've been told that the pieces for the modern rendition began in the Renaissance, but I'll confess I'm more familiar with its incarnation in the modern era. Beginning with figures such as Locke, Smith and Rousseau, a philosophy of progress had found breath. Hegel's later philosophy of progress was simply an extension of what had come before him. For all four, humans were naturally good until corrupted by entering restrictive society. For the Garden of Eden, freedom was the sin. For modern philosophers, restriction was the sin. Regardless, we had fallen from our former freedom, and only by embracing innate human goodness could we return to that freedom. Freedom was before us, just as for Eden, it was behind us.

An interesting byproduct of the myth of disintegration on modern thought is the way historical arguments function. It is a common event in modern historical studies to search back through the archives for more earlier actualizations of values we have today. The question of primacy (what came first?) only makes sense within a myth of disintegration - whatever came first is the ideal, the utopia. Consider a modern historical claim such as "hunter-gatherer communities were equal, before the advent of agriculture" and it will become clear that an ideal is being expressed within the historical claim. It is also important to note that outside a myth of disintegration, issues of primacy hold no weight. Within the moment, why should it matter what came first?

One might claim that because of the freedom/restriction dualism, the modern myth is quite different from the traditional myth. If one searches further however, chilling parallels reveal themselves. The absolute past is an ideal. The more immediate past is a state of disintegration. One way or another, progress must be made. The utopia of a past world must become a present reality. Moderns are open about the ability for humans, out of their goodness, to re-present a past ideal. Progress from our state of disintegration can occur. Christian Disintegrationists are more subtle about their claims for progress. After all, to Christian Disintegrationists, humans are sinful. We cannot make progress alone. But we still have a myth; we still have an ideal. As a Christian Disintegrationist might utter, with God's help, we can still find that ideal. Heaven is before us.

After all, isn't heaven the ultimate utopia, the ultimate fruit of progress? Heaven is a place where evil no longer exists (and for some, freedom no longer exists). Heaven is not instantaneous. Heaven persists for eternity. The myth of disintegration has come full circle. The ideal of the absolute past has become the ideal of the absolute future. Disintegration can be reintegrated. An ideal afterlife is before us (at least those that live into God's progress). Once the myth of disintegration has been fulfilled, once our ideals have been actualized, that they would persist is natural. And in our modern world, isn't the individual valued above all else, above freedom, above money, above one's country? We yearn so much for our own persistence.

The myth meets tragedy. The moment is born. On one hand, the sharer of the myth of disintegration would have us believe that the myth began with tragedy - began with an act of disintegration, of a locality ceasing to exist. On the other hand, tragedy itself is a myth. Tragedy did not pre-exist the story; tragedy is the story. That tragedy begins with our unfulfilled ideals. That tragedy begins with the fact that we, as individuals, die every moment. Nothing persists. There is nothing deeper than our ephemeral world, our locality of vicissitudes. There is nothing more tragic than the fact that our ideals are not absolute - no matter what chronology we place them on, past or future, our ideals have yet to remain actualized. They are potential and nothing more.

The irony of calling heaven a utopia is the double-entendre behind the word. On one hand, eu-topia can mean good-place, a good locality. On the other, u-topia can mean no-place, or a non-existent locality. Heaven is always before us. We cannot reach back to our absolute past for justification. We must not yearn for an absolute future. Progress is never made. All victories are momentary. The myth of disintegration provides a chronology. For the momentary potentialist, chronology itself has disintegrated. Persistence is an illusion. Our ideals are fragile, dreams we can be awoken from. Dreams that can change localities in an instant. Dreams that can become nightmares. Dreams that haunt us.

I have placed my cards on the table. Here is one place where I break with traditional Christianity. The only heaven, the only afterlife, is a no-place, a flickering potential. Here is one place where I break with process theology. The Hegelian underside of process theology, namely its metaphysics of progress, I can have no part of, no matter how much I wish to. Here is one place where I break with modern liberalism. No matter how much we wish it otherwise, our envisioned potentials are momentary. We cannot improve the world (which is not to say we shouldn't try). This is the place I stand within, the topia that gives birth to u-topia, the locality that gives birth to potential. This is the place I dream, the place I am haunted.

We live in a broken world that was never broken, a disintegrated world that never disintegrated. There never was an event of disintegration. The future will remain disintegrated. There was no absolute fall, nor will there be absolute salvation. We are haunted by these tragedies. Ghosts live within the moment. But let us not exorcise these ghosts by absolutizing them. Specters do not haunt the past, nor can we escape those specters before us. The myth of disintegration is an exorcism, a removal of the tragedy of the moment, of the ghostly potential envisioned. Our state of process is not about whether humans are good or bad. Process is not about absolute freedom or absolute restriction. Process is not progress. Process is the moment. And the moment is about letting ghosts speak. Let silent ghosts speak.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pregnant with Potential

My apologies for it being such a long time since my last post. Lent has been more a season of reflection than production for me; hopefully that reflection will bare fruit. I have a number of posts planned for the upcoming month or so. First, however, is my overdue, promised post on beginnings.

I have been in a conversation with my cousin Joy (an English prof) over Facebook for some time now, with our conversation mostly circling around christian theology. In her most recent response, she brought up Mary and mentioned something I hadn't considered before - "Mary is... the moment of possibility into which that awareness can come... the mother-potential." For those of you familiar with my terminology below, you'll notice that my notion of a "locality" is similar to how Joy is understanding Mary by way of metaphor. I had considered using the metaphor of a womb with my concept of a "locality" before, but had never specifically considered Mary. I was particularly excited by this since I hadn't discussed with Joy anything about my momentary/potentialist approach. Apparently Momentary Theology need not be such the singular oasis I had originally perceived it to be!

In the context of my post on Christmas about Christ's death, and my promise to post on the birth of Christ on Easter, I had hoped to tie narrative beginnings to narrative endings. A story is contained within every moment, every moment of a cross, every moment of a birth. In my Christmas day post, I wrote about the tragedy of the cross, the unresolved tragedy of a broken world, a broken humanity. I also wrote that in the face of such tragedy, we must refuse to give up. One might wonder: why must we confront tragedy?

Before hearing from Joy, I had considered writing on Mary's Magnificat. The hope of Christ is contained within a "promise," a promised birth. Much is often made of Mary's faith in the face of possible crisis. A stranger comes to her door. She is told that she is pregnant out of wedlock. And yet, she still praises God. Mary blindly trusts God's mysterious ways, or so the story goes.

The story I wish to tell here is not nearly so simple. Mary is not so blind as to be ignorant of the potential before her. For Mary, God's ways are not so mysterious. The Maginificat, after all, is not simply an expression of praise for God; it is a recognition of potentiality. In Mary's own words: "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," (Luke 1:51-53). God's promise is one of upheaval. The potential before Mary is the birth of justice within a world of tragedy. God stands for the oppressed.

Keep in mind that the Magnificat is in the perfect tense - God's promise is not a past, present, nor future event. Potential is truly momentary. The (event of the) birth of Christ is omnipresent as long as Mary is mother-potential, as long as, in the face of tragedy and oppression, we take a stand. As long as we sing potentialities with Mary.

One cannot justify such a song in the fact of our lack of stability. Just like the confrontation with nihilism, the Magnificat, the song of reversals has no grounds. Out of this undecidability is born responsibility, and out of that responsibility is born potential. Christ has been born. To this extent, Mary's words are an act of faith - but not blind faith. Mary sees just perfectly. And that is why Mary speaks. That is why Mary sings. Potential comes with a soundtrack. Or, every beginning begins with music.

Ultimately, this is no theology of essentialized powerlessness. The powerless do not need to remain powerless in order to remain on the side of justice. After all, every act of potential is an act of transformation. Every song is a promise. The potentiality for justice must become the act(ualization) of justice. Not because it will succeed. Often times our acts will fail to become actualizations. Tragedy is inescapable. Rather, we act because it gives music to our words.

The mystery of God is, in the end, retained in the story. Or, perhaps, I should say in the beginning. We are told that Mary is greeted by the angel Gabriel. Mary does not recognize Gabriel; he is a stranger. Regardless, scandolously, she lets a male into her house at night. She receives him with open arms. Mary is open to the other, to God as stranger (Gabriel is just the messenger, a stranger for a stranger). It is only because of this openness that the potential before Mary's eyes is born. Christ has been conceived within a moment. The impossible has become possible. The impossible has always been the art of the stranger.

Somewhat ironically, Gabriel has become the modern icon for law-driven justiciars. When we read the story of Mary carefully, the stranger before Mary is a very different figure. Gabriel's last words to Mary before he departs are: "For nothing will be impossible with God." Gabriel is not the angel of law. Gabriel is the angel of hope. Hope amidst the tragedy of the world. An impossible event that breaks in upon our fragile visions.

So, our story brings us back to the beginning. The rest of the story has yet to come, shepherds, magi, tale of ancestry. The end told, we still remain in the beginning. In the beginning we find a stranger and Mary. In the beginning we find the other, a promise and a determined mother. With tragedy before her, tragedy behind her, Mary sings. The mother-potential opens herself to the impossible becoming possible. Or perhaps, I should say that on this Easter day, in the end, we do have our songs. And there our potential lies.