Friday, June 19, 2009

A Relational Ethic

The father of modern atheism, Ludwig Feuerbach, is relatively unknown today. He wrote a book once considered the "Bible" of atheism (The Essence of Christianity). He was also seen as the heir to Hegelianism. His claim that all religion was a projection of human values deeply influenced Freud and the future of psychology of religion. By the end of his life, however, his popularity had slipped. His drop in popularity was not because of a resurgence of orthodox Christianity. Hegelianism, too, was still popular in the form of Marx. No, rather, Feuerbach lost popularity, as Max Stirner put it, because Feuerbach was "too religious." The question remains: how could an atheist be too religious?

I recall my first impression as I read The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach sounded haunted. One could tell that he spent his life in the archives, leaving no book unread. In fact, Feuerbach was the premier Luther scholar of his day. In Essence, he quotes Luther more than anyone. Feuerbach was driven, was on a quest. Feuerbach was on a quest to exorcise the ghost of God. And so, as I read Feuerbach, more than anything, I felt the presence of specters.

Feuerbach's primary argument against the existence of God is a simple one. Feuerbach claimed that it was fairly evident that we ascribed our highest values to God. For example, if an individual valued intelligence, their god would be perfectly intelligent. The same would be true of strength, love, etc. Feuerbach claims that the culture, age, sex and race of god for a believer is typically simply a reflecting pool. Rather than ascribe existence to a reflection, it would be best to recognize that the ideals exist in the viewer. Perfection lies in humanity. For Feuerbach, our religious beliefs are mirrors before beholders. We are our own paragon.

This is what caused Barth to condemn Feuerbach. But his words were not a simple condemnation of Feuerbach. Barth wrote that modern theology was corrupt with high views of humanity, triumphalist views of human kind. Barth claimed that these views conflicted with revelation, where humans are depraved creatures. Writing during and after the world wars, it is hard to blame Barth for his views. One can see some irony in Barth's claims about Feuerbach, however. Barth's words are not a simple condemnation of Feuerbach, but rather they wield Feuerbach as a weapon. A dualism is created. The Gospel or Feuerbach's false triumphalism. Revelation or false idealism. Truth or lies.

The irony runs deeper than this, however. There are specters beneath Feuerbach the weapon, beneath Barth's shallow reading. One of Feuerbach's favorite words is "Phantasie." For Feuerbach, religion is pure phantasie. Phantasie is an insult. There is what is real, and there is "pure phantasie." Revelation or realism. Truth or lies.

Or perhaps not. Feuerbach's theory of projection is fairly complicated. After all, Feuerbach cannot simply claim that religion is the projection of values. Feuerbach must explain where those values arise from. Whence come values?

Values arise from our experiences of humanity. Or more simply put, we value what we value because of our experiences with others. Value is a matter of relationship. And in the end, we are what we value. We are our relationships. We are a nexus of value-imbedded relationships.

Those values are not simply a beginning, however. Feuerbach claims that we project our values on others, even while they arise out of our experiences with others. Our ideals become part of our relationship. Our values become part of the other. Values are both our beginning and ending. And yet, our values do not exist. Values pull, values push, but they are not a matter of being. Values are not presence. Values haunt. "Ghosts blow where they choose, and you hear the sound of them, but you do not know where they come from or where they go."

Truly, Feuerbach was more clever than Barth led modern theologians to believe. Religion is "phantasie." This does not mean religion is false. Rather, religion is a haunting, a matter of phantoms. Feuerbach was cognizant of the fact that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to live with our ghosts. So, Feuerbach attempted to exorcise our specters. Feuerbach recognized that our values do not exist, and yet they still hold great power (the only power) over us. All we can do is follow our ghosts. This is why Feuerbach was condemned for being "too religious." Within Feuerbach's failed exorcism, Feuerbach more subtly acknowledged his own haunting. Materialists have no place for ghosts.

While it is unclear whether Feuerbach recognized this or not (my guess is that he did), the practice of exorcism is not exactly possible. Feuerbach claimed that once one recognized that religion was all projection of one's own values, one should internalize those values and remove the projection. We will have power over our ghosts if we bring them within ourselves. Our values can no longer be a matter of relationship. Rather, values must be, strictly put, selfish. We must remove the power of our ghosts. We must transform the persuasive, pleading power of our ghosts to the coercive power within ourselves.

(At this point it is important to point out that Feuerbach was a humanist in the strongest sense of the word. Feuerbach did not believe that values could arise out of experiences with non-human others, nor did he have a particularly helpful view of nature. However, it seems possible to extend Feuerbach's philosophy beyond the human-other. It is not a leap to consider the animal as other, or even nature as other. We would be wise to consider that we have many ecological ghosts - ghosts we should bear witness to).

However, no matter how hard we try, we cannot internalize our ghosts. For our specters are always external and internal - ghosts live within our act (of value) itself. As Derrida recognized, the other is a ghost of a sort as well, a ghost beyond our presence. The stranger as specter. And as Feuerbach recognized, values arise and blend with our experiences of others. Values live within relationships - there are no purely internal values. Once we value, those values have become part of our relationships. The only way to internalize our values would be to destroy our relationships. The end of our relationships would end our values. The only internal values are non-existent values. The only escape from ghosts is death. Even then, one more ghost is born.

This is why Feuerbach lost his popularity. Our desire for peace and tranquility pleads that Feuerbach's enterprise succeed. We pray that Feuerbach succeed in exorcising ghosts. Instead, within his failure, we are simply reminded of the haunting we so desperately wish to escape. Feuerbach becomes one more ghost, one more specter, haunting us to our limits. We cannot escape our ghosts.

So, then, Feuerbach discovered a dilemma without discovering a solution. Or, perhaps, there is no solution to be dis-covered. Perhaps the solution is in plain sight. Perhaps our ghosts are visible. The solution does not lie within Barth's unwieldy weapon. The solution does not lie within an act of impossible internalization. We cannot internalize what is already part of us. Remember, we are our relationships. Our values, our ghosts, already are who we are. If we are to live, we agree to be haunted. Life is value. And within that life, we agree to live with ghosts.

Practically, what does this all mean? A while ago, I asked if momentary theopoetics would create a completely arbitrary ethic. Can we discern any semblance of right and wrong? Is preference anything more than preference? Should we hold some values as opposed to other values? Is life completely arbitrary? Is life completely relative?

Feuerbach's in/out-sight was that there is a difference between the two last questions. Feuerbach (and I) would answer the first question with a negative - life is not arbitrary. However, Feuerbach (and I) would answer the second question with an affirmative - life is relative. One of the modern problems has been equating the two. Relativism has received a bad name. At its roots, though, relativism is not absolute arbitrariness. In fact, relativism, at its heart, resists absolutes. Relativism is the insight that ethics is a matter of relati-onship. Ethics is relati-onal. Ethics is consideration of values. Values are relationships. By living, by valuing, we are within relationships - we are our relationships. Ethics is not a matter of objects or subjects, of static entities (self/other). Ethics is not the consideration of how we should treat ourselves or others, as such. Instead, ethics is the art of considering the direction of our relationships. Ethics is the consideration of how we should live within relationships. Relationships are primary.

Relativism has been slandered. However, we should not give up on the power of words. I am a relativist. I am not a nihilist, nor am I an arbitrary-st. As we consider ethical dilemmas (what values should we hold? how should we follow our values? how should we resolve conflicts between our values?), we should be honest with ourselves. Every ethical dilemma is born from our values - what our relationships are at that moment. That is the entire point behind the gesture of momentary theopoetics - every decision, every act, every event is momentary. Every moment is a locality of relationships. To remove ourselves from the moment is to separate ourselves from our locality, is to sever our relationships. In the end, we cannot exorcise our ghosts. But we can kill them. We can kill them with our own death. Suicide. We would do best to remember, however - justice never rests in the grave.

Even the choice of life and death is driven by values. When we confront the void, we face a decision. At that moment, with the temptation of isolation before us, even then we are not alone. Our ghosts (values, others, god?) are always with us. And, at that moment, we will consider several questions. Or, perhaps, we will hear the almost silent whispers of ghosts. Will we live with our values? Will we live within our relationships? Will we live in a world of phantasie?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Camusian Haunting

As promised, below is another recent work of mine. This time, it is an essay I wrote for a recent class I took on Camus. While some familiarity with Camus' works will help with understanding the essay, the gist (and point) of the essay should convey just fine to everyone. There are actually two essays below (two prompt questions), and the essays were written in class on a time limit. As such, the essays are a bit rough. I really enjoyed writing them however, and I think they have some worthwhile things to say. It'll be pretty obvious how this connects up with my thoughts in this blog. Enjoy!

A Camusian Haunting

Everything in the philosophy of Camus is a matter of relationship. The relationship between humankind and the world gives birth to the absurd. The relationship between a desire for happiness and a lack of hope gives birth to consciousness. In the relationship between a witness and oppression, duty is born. Relationships are fundamental. For Camus, however, perhaps the most relational term, love, is a term that resists pregnancy, resists giving birth to anything. Or, perhaps more properly put, Camus resists love - love (like God) is a ghost that haunts Camus. An entire list of specters could be conjured up within Camus' works - love, women, God, etc. However, these ghosts, and love specifically, are not challenged apart from any relation. Rather thematically speaking, these ghosts support Camus' philosophy from beneath - below Camus' ontology is a hauntology. It is Camus' relationship with his ghosts (namely love) that gives to Camus' philosophy. As such, it is a given that Camus' characters, as aspects of Camus, will be haunted by love as well. It is the claim of this essay that love is made difficult in Camus' works because within the willful interplay between subjects (love), Camus' entire philosophy is born.

A shallow reading of Camus might lead one to believe that Camus' goal throughout his work is to exorcise his ghosts - women, God and love (we are never haunted by just one ghost). However, an interesting passage in The Plague reveals that Camus recognized he was haunted and did not desire for the haunting to end. In Rieux's conversation with Tarrou about God, Rieux states that it is best to act out of duty, even while a silent God watches the tragedy of the world. Camus does not desire to kill God, for God is already dead. Rather, it is the silent, haunting ghost of God, the God that is love (1 John), that Camus recognizes and lives with. It is no surprise, however, that love and God play a similar role in Camus' hauntology. The difference, of course, is that women, typically, can speak, and as the embodiment of love for Camus, love too can speak. God remains silent.

Consider another instance from The Plague, a fascinating case because the speaking woman is a ghost from the past. Grand's desire and constant failure to write the perfect sentence, to hit the mark with the right "marks," is given born from his past tragedy, by his wife leaving, by Jeanne walking out and leaving Grand with a ghost to write upon (perhaps not unlike how Camus wrote). The few words the ghost Jeanne utters are telling - "saying how happy she was." Happiness and love are often not far from each other in Camus' works (although they should not be equated). Love is the ghost's "voice," the nostalgic "voice" that gives the ghost power, that gives the ghost the power to hold up Camus' philosophy. This is because, like God, love is dead (or dying) - and yet love still speaks from beyond the grave, as it does to Grand staring through the shop-window. That is where he hears Jeanne's voice. It is this tension, this tragedy (that we do not have freedom from our ghosts) that gives us the pain that we suffer from. And yet, it is this "loveless world" (that once had love), a "dead world," that "duty" is born from, that the absurd is born from, that consciousness is born from. It is the "crav[ing] for... a loved face... a loving heart," that is the ground for Camus' philosophy. Love is challenged, properly speaking, because we cannot resurrect out ghosts - the rebel's path is endless (Sisyphus). But on the other hand, it is the fact that that challenge has voice - a non-present, non-ontological voice - that the duty so present in The Plague is born.

We might also consider the case of A Happy Death, where Mersault cannot utter the word "love" to his wife (as Meursault in The Stranger cannot to Marie), cannot give voice to his ghosts. However, the ghosts still have voice, even if it cannot be given. For love is born from the interplay between subjects. To some degree, one might say that a ghost of love exists between Mersault and Catherine as well (a ghost Camus could not fully exorcise from his work, as it was part of an earlier draft). However, there is definitely love between Mersault and the sea (another subject), particularly within their act of lovemaking toward the end of the novel. This is the climax of the novel, Mersault's peak moment of consciousness, and yet it is conceived from an act of lovemaking between subjects. But even there, "harmony" is lost, a "ice current" disrupts the act of love. Love cannot persist fully in the present - it is a ghost born between subjects. And, to modify a Derridean phrase, "The sea is every bit other." That otherness of the ghost of the sea simultaneously conceives love (and Camus' philosophy built upon it) and provides the terms such that the moment it is conceived it dies and becomes a ghost. Love is difficult in Camus' works because it must be. - it must be a ghost for Camus' philosophy to live. Love is aborted.

Finally, one can consider another interplay between Camusian ghosts - this time between women and love. In State of Siege, the climax of the play finds Diego embodying duty and Victoria embodying love. Fascinatingly, a twist occurs - Diego dies and Victoria lives. However, duty lives on with the consciousness of the fisherman, where as love dies with the death of Diego (hence Victoria's pain) - for love is a matter of relationship. And as Diego states, Victoria has something to teach - she (women) are integral to consciousness. In order to teach, one must have a voice. But this voice is a ghost. For the relationship is dead, and so love becomes an un-exorcisable ghost. But we should be glad that Camus "failed" in exorcising love from his works (if that was ever his intent at all). For that failure gave voice to ghosts. And it is within that difficult haunting that Camus' philosophy is born.

* * *

Pain is a tragic thing to build a work upon. Still, we build from what we have - from the one truth we know (Camus on the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus). While one might be tempted to pinpoint Camus' work on comforting terms such as the sea or the mother, that comfort becomes what it is, becomes necessary, because of pain and suffering. In other words, for Camus, suffering is fundamental. But rather than suffering being fundamentally ontological, it is fundamentally hauntological. Ghosts hold up Camus' works, and it is pain (and loss) that are at the heart of ghosts - ghosts haunt because of past tragedy (consider the case of Hamlet). In a survey of Camus' works, pain is critical, and a study of this pain reveals "haunting" is also fundamental to Camus' work.

While the term itself "pain" is critical to all of Camus' works, it is particularly present in Caligula, The Plague, and The Rebel. In Caligula, while Caligula denies it, we constantly find the characters stating that Caligula's irregularities are from the loss of his sister - and Caligula flees upon her death (and cries later in the play). Whatever the relationship, it is this loss that is the trigger for Caligula's consciousness, this pain that gives birth to Caligula's revolt. In turn, Caligula inflicts heavy suffering on others; more pain, more ghosts, more consciousness. In the case of The Plague, it is the plague itself that embodies pain, particularly unjustifiable pain (in the case of the death of the innocent Magistrate's son). From pain, from the plague, duty is born. Rieux begins to rebel, even if in the end he only writes death certificates. In the case of The Rebel, we find the theoretical support for pain being fundamental. The rebel is born from a slave's desire to gain what is basic - what is just - in an act of rebellion. That is his/her protest - and that protest is born from pain. For in order to gain, one must have lost (even if not historically) what one is due. And in the end, loss and pain are the same. Pain is the loss of presence - of the ontological becoming hauntological - presence becoming absence - and it is from this absence that revolt is born. This is why pain must be evaluated in Camus' works, because pain leads to ghosts, and ghosts lead to revolt. And for Camus, revolt is everything.

While the fundamental nature of pain changes little in Camus' works (loss can be seen vividly in A Happy Death and The Plague), what ghosts the pain leads to does "evolve" from work to work, since the pain changes. Within A Happy Death, pain leads to happiness. Within The Plague, pain leads to revolt. In The Stranger, the simple pain of being under the hot oppressive sun eventually leads to consciousness. Of course, all of these terms are critical to Camus' philosophy, and all of them are related. Regardless, the emphasis is different because the pain is different for each character - every ghost is unique.

Which brings us to a new word for Camus - Camus hardly ever speaks of ghosts explicitly. However, when one considers the fundamental nature of pain in Camus' works, and the philosophy of the Absurd that arises from that pain, a relationship between pain and Camus' revolt can be seen - and that relationship is a haunting. Camus is haunted by God (through the existence of pain). Camus is haunted by women (through loss and the subject as other). Camus is haunted by love (through pain). These ghosts drive Camus' philosophy of the absurd - drive Camus' philosophy of futile revolt, of Sisyphus' futile stone-pushing. For our ghosts (of pain) drive us on. We hear their voices - even in their silence. Even God is present in absence, has voice in silence for Camus. We cannot escape our ghosts. Nor should we try. Rather, we should let our silent pain (ghosts) speak. We should live with the Absurd, live within revolt. We should live within our haunting.

Monday, June 8, 2009


After my last few posts, I recalled a poem I had written that connected well with the topics I have been considering. I had originally posted the poem on facebook, but after a few edits, I feel like it is much more presentable now. As I mentioned in my first post, I am not a poet, but I enjoyed working on this poem, and the themes expressed in the poem follow up my last post well. I also have a few old essays I'm hoping to post at some point as well. For now, enjoy the poem!


Chronos devoured real by
Zeus, stone, shards
The spoil of war,
Death washes anew and
Fire baptizes
Rising the chariot falls
Scattered through the stars
Broken phoenix
Fractured by Apollo's hand
Flash, no more eternity, photons
Follow, no more moon
The surface rough
Eidos defaced
The ends of man.

Envision nothing to see
Nothing not no thing
As a prism
crushed - light ended
Runs through the streets
An imagination deranged
"Dreams are dead
God lives

Tau, dying
God haunts
Rustling, trees lined by roads
And life
ink spread out on ice
blood collecting on our windowsill
Dry - skin left, by tears, laughter
Can we look into a void we live in?

The father died
Three days ago
If only time had

Friday, June 5, 2009

Haunted by God

Let me begin this post by telling a story told in Mark Yaconelli's book "Contemplative Youth Ministry," (page 188). At one point, Mark was a youth pastor in Portland, Oregon, and befriended several girls who would regularly cut school to smoke on a downtown corner. Most of the girls had been abused and abandoned. They were also open about how they didn't believe in God. One day, Mark asked them to try an experiment - reflect, take in the sights of the street corner, and just for a moment suspend disbelief and believe in God. He asked them, where would God be in this moment?

One said that God would be in the sleeping drunk across the street, waiting for a place to sleep. Another mentioned the birds singing, unnoticed by the busy pedestrians. The last one Mark mentions is also the most powerful. The girl said "If God exists, he would be in the seeds of the grass that are still waiting for the sunlight, waiting to grow, underneath the pavement and cement," (189).

I remember reading this passage for the first time and stopping dead in my tracks. The story still stops me every time I consider it. God is within tragedy. God is not redemption of suffering, the sanctification of tragedy, nor even the salvation from our pain. God is impossible possibilities, the fragile (in)actualizable potential before us, the grass trapped beneath cold cement. "Waiting to grow..." Beauty on the brink. Tragedy for what is lost. God is a ghost.

I've spent a lot of time storytelling about potential. Potential is not being or non-being. Potential doesn't exist-as-such, nor does it not-exist. Potential is in relationship with existence and non-existence, is dependent on our locality, but it is not our locality. Potential is a ghost.

I have also mentioned several times the possibilities of overlap between potential-language and god-language. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is to come, God is messianic, God is before us. God does not exist for us, in the moment, as an "entity," as other "objects" like chairs, tables, etc. God is potential. God is a dream. God is a ghost.

Allow me to tell another story. Once upon a time, within our culture, God existed. Meaning and Value had grounds. Our paradigm of knowledge was different. Givens were allowable. And one given was God. But then came a paradigm shift. The Enlightenment.

Givens were no longer allowable. Justification was necessary. So, starting with Descartes, the (in)famous tradition of foundational justifications began. Can we start with nothing and prove our foundations? Can we discover ground beneath our feet? God had no grounds, so the existence of God flickered out. God could not fit within our scientific paradigm. So, as Nietzsche infamously put it, God died. And contra normal-belief, Nietzsche was in a state of mourning about that fact.

Of course, the story becomes more complicated. Because the Enlightenment was a wolf with an insatiable appetite, a wolf that began to devour itself. Even science had groundless foundations. And so, the wolf devoured itself.

However, while the ground might have been revealed to be no ground at all, the buildings were already built upon it. The structures already had form. And so, without support, the structures were in free-fall.

The problem, of course, is quite insidious. For any attempt to build a new foundation is doomed to fail from the outset in our paradigm. After all, if you are in a structure in free-fall, building downwards isn't going to help. Structurally, the building was built with God beneath it. And now, God is dead. We cannot escape our foundationless structures.

But the signs of God are drawn all over the structures. For the structures were built upon God. And, by that, I don't mean that God built the structure. Rather, I mean we built it upon God. God's writing is all over the world because we put it there.

We cannot build a new foundation because we remain haunted by God. For while God is dead, we have failed time and time again to exorcise the ghost of God. We have failed to exorcise the ghost of God, because the ghost is a ghost of the house, of our house in free-fall. Remember, God's writing is all over the house. And tragedy is omnipresent. The only way to exorcise God would be to destroy the building (and the builders, i.e. ourselves). The only way to exorcise God is to step into the void. Otherwise, God will continue to haunt us. The world is full of potential whether we like it or not.

This is a dangerous story. It is precariously close to a myth of disintegration. The difference, is that unlike a myth of disintegration, this story does not pretend that the past is a guide to our future, at least in the traditional sense. The past is a context, is a provider of our locality, but it is not a solution, the past is not potential. This is where I break with the many traditionalists in our world today. We live in a predicament of our own making, of our own moment. The past will not save us.

That said, I do not present this story as a history, but rather, as a story of our moment. I don't pretend to claim that certainty was a thing of the past. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that God, too, was a ghost for the ghosts of the past. The point of this story is not to say something about what happened in the past. The point of this story is to say something about God. God is dead. But there is hope. For God is also a ghost.

Many would have us believe that there are only two sides to the debate about God. On one hand, there are those that are convinced that God is dead. The tomb of God is undisturbed. God cannot haunt us, because God is not even before us, as our dreams, as our potential. Death of God theology (Altizer) was famous (briefly) in the 60s and 70s for claiming that theology was possible in the wake of the death of God. I agree. Altizer was wrong, however, in his belief that God was dead for good. God is to come as a ghost. We live in a haunted age.

On other hand, there are theologians who are convinced that the death of God has corrupted everything. One of my theologian friends, Dan Peterson, told me once that nearly every recent theology is merely an expression of Death of God theology. I took Dan to mean this as an insult. Dan decries that God is contingent today, that the transcendence of God has been lost. I won't disagree. God is dead. But resurrecting God is not in our ability. The foundation is lost. We can no longer build downwards. We cannot make God an entity once again. We can and should mourn. But we cannot walk backwards. Instead, we should be open to our haunting. We should let our silent ghost, our God(s), speak. With the help of ghost(s) we can still create, we can still build, even upon our foundationless home in free-fall.

There was a heresy that was condemned in the ancient church called Patripassionism. The heresy was the belief that God (the Father) died on the cross. For three days, the world was without God. For three days, there was no resurrection. There was no atonement. No redemption. Just God, dead, on a cross. We are in those three days. We cannot escape them. Can we live in the wake of the cross? With tragedy before and behind us, embodied on the cross, God is a ghost. Can we live within the haunting?

God is "in the seeds of the grass that are still waiting for the sunlight, waiting to grow, underneath the pavement and cement." God is a ghost, the potential that speaks of what could be in a silent voice, a voice under concrete. Such fragile potential. Within that fragility is tragedy. Mark continues his story. Years later, he inquired about the girl who spoke of God as the seeds of grass under concrete. He found out she had become addicted to heroin, contracted AIDS, and disappeared. The girl became a ghost. There is no redemption in such loss. But perhaps we can find the strength to live within our haunting. Perhaps we can listen to ghosts. And perhaps, we can start pulling up pavement.