Apocalyptic Apologetics

As covid-19 deaths continue to mount, as fires burn in the western half of the States, as injustices against immigrants are compounded, as the jobless numbers accumulate and the economy falters, one might conclude things are not working. Things are not working for the environment, for the poor, for immigrants, for the jobless, for those who are sick and dying, or for anyone. I suppose things are working fine for Jeff Bezos and his kin. Some will thrive on the chaos and destruction but clearly there is a limit, even for those who are benefitting from the destruction. There is a limit to consumption, a limit to pollution, a limit to the “acceptable” number of deaths, a limit to a system which appears to be breaking down. The desired outcome of the present crisis would be recognition of this limit so as to see beyond it. The crisis calls for a conversion of the imagination, for doing things differently, for a different life-style and a different system of values. There will always be those who double down on destruction but the case, an apologetic, has to be made that things are bad because the roots are rotten and there needs to be a holistic conversion.

This is always the conversion an apocalyptic Christianity calls for, as the mode of this apologetic is not reliance on the system, on common sense, or reason alone. This apologetic points to the dystopia, the violence, the failure, the evil, the lie, not in order to justify it or use it, but to transcend it. The old order of apologetics (the one in which I was trained), ontotheology (an idolatrous foundational argument), theodicy (a justification of evil in place of its defeat), moral arguments (which actually point to universal immorality) are, by definition, a grounded vision (grounded in the way things are), but the small points of light, of grace and peace, always stand in contradistinction to the way things are and indicate there is a better way. To transcend the system is to recognize its inherent limits; it is to recognize the evil it entails and the destruction upon which it relies. There has been a rejection of traditional apologetics in many quarters (I believe, rightly so), but this simply follows from the rejection of a limited notion of Christianity. An apocalyptic re-conception of Christianity calls for an apocalyptic sort of apologetics. If this apocalyptic apologetic is correct (correct about the apocalyptic nature of Christianity (a breaking in with a new Kingdom and new system) and correct about the necessity of demythologizing and deconstructing so as to apprehend the alternative order), then it would seem the Christian apologetic is only beginning.  

The holistic critique and demythologizing on the order of the theory of René Girard, demonstrates the sort of movement I have in mind. War and violence were once thought to fit within a rational political frame (“war is politics by other means”). War was once between warriors, knights, samurai, the aristocrats, in the same way sacrifice was once tied to religion. Christianity, according to Girard, removes the safety valve of the scapegoating mechanism (the third way), as the truth of Christ exposes the lie behind the mechanism of sacrificial violence (which once delimited and controlled violence) and the unfolding of this demythologized history gave rise to the total war of the previous century. As a result, a stark choice presents itself.  The choice is to either double down on commitment to inevitable progress, on the possibility of political containment of global destruction, on the consumption and destruction of the environment, or one can become a Christian (of the apocalyptic sort). Girard’s theory might be termed the first holistic apologetic in its demonstration of how violence (in religious myth in ancient society and in “containment” etc. in modern society) is the structuring mechanism of society to which Christianity offers an alternative. Recognizing the destructive apocalyptic reality of the age is the first step in accepting an apocalyptic answer.

The job of Christian apologists is not to refine Enlightenment style rational arguments but it is to demonstrate that the fires, metaphorical and literal, consuming our world were lit, not by some external force, but by the logic inherent to the arguments which would claim to save us. That is, our salvation system (inclusive of the modern sensibility, including modern religion and modern fundamentalism which reads violence as divine will) is destroying our world. Girard’s depiction of religious violence (the scapegoating mechanism, religious myth) turned into secular violence (the “idea of progress,” nuclear containment), locates the human problem in humanity – humans are responsible for their destruction and violence. An apocalyptic apologetic makes the case, first, that we are bringing on damnation, and second, that this fate is not inevitable. There is a vision, a faith, or imagination, which holds out hope. But as Girard puts it, “hope is only possible if we dare to think the perils of our time” (Girard, 2007: 16).[1]

A true Christian apologetic must begin then, with thinking and recognizing the deep perils of our time. This accords with the Greek meaning of Apolegein, which means “to tell fully.” John Milbank imagines the “apo” of the word might be connected to apophatic or a sort of objectivity, but it fits better with the notion that this narrating apologetic pertains, at least in its initial move to “standing apart,” “away from,” the peril of our world.[2] It is not a simple objective detachment. The apology is not an attempt to hold one’s ground in the city, being objective, by the logic of its system.  Milbank’s, mainly harmonious, comparison of the death of Socrates and Jesus seems to miss the stark difference of the Greek apologetic (offered by Plato on behalf of Socrates) and the Christian apologetic. Jesus stands in judgment of the logic of the city (of Pilate and Herod, of Rome and Jerusalem), at the same time he witnesses to a truth beyond the city. The failure and peril of the one, points to the other. Socrates clung to the city, the very reason for his suicide, and could not imagine a world beyond this corporate identity. Jesus literally and metaphorically died outside the city. Not, as Milbank would have it, according to the laws of the city, but beyond their purview as his was a death of banishment from the city, beyond its walls, beyond its laws, beyond its protection. Socrates died secure in his citizenship. The difference is important in recognizing the wall the Christian apologetic cannot accommodate.  The wall of hostility which would separate the inner workings of the Temple, the inner workings of Jew versus Gentile in the city, constitute the law or wall or logic that is undone in Christ.

Millions of innocent victims have been sacrificed on behalf of this barrier, first on the sacred altar and then, more dramatically and destructively, on the secular altar. Christian revelation demystified the role of sacred violence, and according to Girard, if the lie of archaic religious sacrifice had continued, the holocaust of secular violence would have remained bottled up.  The truth of violence is exposed, however, and as Girard puts it, “We are not Christian enough.” Half Christian has turned out to be more dangerous than totally deluded, and thus, according to Girard, Christianity may have unleashed the very apocalypse which would ensure its failure. Now there is scapegoating without the myth (which would contain the violence), and so the Jews must be completely destroyed as in Nazi Germany, the demonization leading to lynching in the American South continues unabated, the “total wars” of the previous century are the new norm, and mutually assured destruction (MAD) is the reigning logic. War and violence are limitless where the minimal exposure, the half Christian, is not completed by an apocalyptic vision displacing this world’s order.

In terms of my own work, traversing the fantasy, recognizing the lie, is not itself adequate.  One can question the law or manipulate the law but there really is no alternative to the law of sin and death (the mode of redemptive violence), apart from its displacement. Exposure of this primordial order, as in Marxism, or its manipulation, as in fascism and capitalism, unleashes an untold and unlimited violence. There may be a recognition that the victim is innocent (as Robert Doran points out, “the very calculated nature of Nazi propaganda shows that its inventors did not completely believe it”), that the object or the lure of our desire will not satisfy, but in the hands of capitalist marketers this exponential desire can be unleashed for total consumption (absolute capitalism).  The minimal recognition of the dystopia of consumptive desire and violence is only the beginning. Insight (the real insight of Hegel, Marx, Freud, and psychoanalysis) may be deployed to control desire and violence or simply to unleash it but it cannot cure it. Without an apocalyptic displacing of the law of the father (the conscience, the punishing superego) with the Father (Abba), without displacing death with life in the Spirit, without ridding ourselves of the image in the mirror with the image of Christ, we are doomed to repetitive violence and death drive. As Doran sums it up, “A minimal recognition that the victim is innocent inflames the passions of the persecutors who thereby seek to validate themselves by seeking out more and more victims.”[3]

Of course, the apocalyptic vision is not limited to rightly viewing the destruction but refers to the breaking in of an alternative apocalyptic kingdom. As in Paul’s demonstration of an apologetic (in Acts 26), the two apocalyptic orders (the dystopic and salvific) have to be simultaneously envisioned. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul depicts his own religion and belief system, when he was simply a Pharisee, as driven by destructive violence:

“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities”

(Acts 26:9-11).

This pursuit of violence and the death of Christians is not simply Paul’s story; it is the culmination of the story of what it means to be a true Pharisee. He is not apologizing for his Pharisaical commitments (as Milbank would have it), he is demonstrating to Agrippa that he once would have stood with those, like Agrippa, who would arrest, judge, and kill. Paul’s Pharisaical world was not a platform he would save and accommodate but it was a world that needed exposure and repudiation, as it was a singular manifestation of the self-destructive world order. Everyone walked according to the course of Paul’s previous world, thinking they served God while subject to the subversive powers of this world (Eph. 2:2). This is not simply Paul’s personal problem. His story contains the universal passage from out of violent darkness into the light:

“While so engaged as I was journeying to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”

(Acts 26:12-15)

The drama of Paul’s conversion is one we tend to locate in inward personal conversion, but Paul is relinquishing one world order for another. Sticking to his former identity, the system of his world, constitutes “kicking against the goads” of truth. To stick to this failing order would amount to a commitment to blindness, to violence, to causing blasphemy. It is the same sort of persecution which killed Christ (and every innocent victim).  The light of Christ breaks into this darkness so that Paul’s former world is undone and this is the passage he pictures every Christian as undergoing – passing beyond darkness to light.

He prays that all may develop a sanctified imagination, with eyes which can envision a different world order: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). The vision which interrupts his journey is the apocalyptic revelation which interrupts, deconstructs, and reconstitutes all who share in his Gospel vision. Paul’s apologetic is apocalyptic in its depiction of this passage through perilous violence to a liberated, transcendent vision. It is an apologetic, as this story and the worlds it entails, both dystopic and salvific, is universal.  

(To learn more, plan to join our upcoming PBI class “Imaginative Apologetics.”)

[1] This is quoted from Robert Doran’s reading of Achever Clausewitz (literally: Completing Clausewitz) in his article, “René Girard’s apocalyptic modernity,” in Comunicação & Cultura, n. 11, 2011, pp. 37‑52, which I am following here.

[2] From the Forward of Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Doran, Ibid.

Progress in Conversion: From Charles Manson’s Brainwashing to Cultivating Discernment

In my last blog (here) I made the point that peaceful non-violence was the goal, but not yet an established or fully worked out ethic in the patristic period. Tertullian could imagine delighting in watching his enemies suffer in hell from his perspective in paradise, though he was adamant that one should not even be associated with violence by accepting a military honor. Origen failed to see that beating slaves was a form of violence unworthy of his explanation of God’s discipline; a form of violence which he otherwise abhorred. This does not mean that for the first 400 years nonviolent peace was not the goal, it simply indicates obvious blind spots. The point is not that the fathers willfully tolerated and accepted certain forms of violence; rather they could not fully discern what constitutes violence. What we can readily identify as unworthy of Christian thought and behavior, they were somehow blind to.

This entails several implications for how we are to go about the Christian life. First of all, there is no golden age in which the Christian tradition is adequate, in which the kingdom of God on earth is a fully worked out reality. Clearly the Constantinian compromise is one in which we are still enmeshed but it is not enough to “get beyond” Constantine. Restoration or return to the practices and understanding of the first Christians is an inadequate goal and a passive notion of salvation (salvation as return, as simply ridding ourselves of innovations, of passively entrusting our mind to the culture of the church) is sub-Christian. Conversion is not a singular moment but a process to be cultivated and applied as part of an expanding reality. Progress in conversion, in passage from being blind to seeing and to continued exposure of blind spots, must consist in cultivating capacities for discernment. This discernment must consist of several layers, objective and subjective, such that our understanding of God and objective reality will be a coordinate working in tandem with subjective experience. In other words, putting on the mind of Christ through the work of the Spirit is not an abandonment of reasoned effort or of concentrated self-reflection.  

Certainly, there is a model to be had in Christ, there is the supposition of guidance through the Spirit, and there is corporate molding in the Church, such that cultivation of dawning insight is not simply given over to rational thought, the power of dialectic, or the phenomenology of mood and emotion. There is also the original awareness in conversion of an enabling capacity to see. What is it precisely though, that one sees subsequent to having been blind? Beginning with the constituent pillars of blindness, its inevitable convergence with violence, its dependence on oppression, I believe it is possible to identify the dynamic of darkness (to name the violence) and to cultivate discernment of the light (to expand upon peace).

 Paul’s conversion from belief in a God who prompted him to kill, to belief in the Father of Christ which prompted him to lay down his life, contains the prototypical elements of every conversion. The sinful orientation to the law posits a punishing authority (call it god, father, the nation, Charles Manson (see below), or simply the superego) which holds out the possibility of life (presence, being, authentic existence, safety) at the expense of masochistic sacrifice (formal religious sacrifice, oppressive self-sacrifice, or sadistic sacrifice of others). Life is to be had in death and the structure of this dynamic of death consists of a perfect absence or a full darkness. The Pharisaical religion but any human religion, any human salvation system or neurosis, contains the same structure.

For example, Charles Manson, nearly illiterate and almost completely unschooled, might be confused with a gnostic high priest or new age guru: “Time does not exist. There is no good and evil. Death is not real. All human beings are God and the Devil at the same time, and all are part of the other. The universe is one and all that is.” In this world, according to Tex Watson (one of Manson’s “family” members), it is fine to kill because human life is worthless. To kill someone is the equivalent of “breaking off a minute piece of some cosmic cookie,” Watson explained. Death is to be embraced because it exposes the soul to the oneness of the universe. How Manson learned to manipulate people is not exactly clear. Some say it was through reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Tom O’Neill suggests that Charlie was trained by the CIA (a seemingly conspiratorial claim that he partially backs up). We know he was introduced to Scientology in prison. The mixture of his manipulative powers, LSD, sexual humiliation, reduced Tex and his friends to obedient automatons who killed 9 people at Manson’s arbitrary bidding. Cult, nation state, or run of the mill neurosis, will serve up the necessity of violent sacrifice, an oppressive depiction of god or reality, and a fundamental incapacity for discerning life.

There is an inverse relationship between what Paul (or anyone) is converted from to what he is converted to in Christ. The difference is that the refinements of death and the emptying out of evil blandly converge on violence (a limited prospect by definition) – there is no art, no refinement of sensibilities, no cultivation of discernment, as one simply learns, in Manson’s phrase, to be a “mechanical boy.” The swami on his bed of nails, the monk emptied of self and transformed into a statue, the soldier trained to stifle his humanity, the neurotic compulsively bound by repetition, or the Pharisee set to destroy his enemies, describes those hemmed in by death. Though this death like experience might be confused with self-transcendence, the isolating fixation within the self and the circumstance is definitive.

It is a more difficult task to describe how one subscribes to life and cultivates love and peace, not because these are less tangible but because here there is an infinite breadth of transcendent possibility. Knowing and loving others and the capacity to appreciate their value is the inverse sign of a developing capacity to judge the self and to escape the confines (the law) of a “given” circumstance.  The New Testament links conversion with a refocusing of values as one’s sense of worth is shifted. The pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in a field brings about an exchange, costing all that one has. The discerning pearl merchant, those well trained in the value of things, perceive what the undiscerning and untrained fail to perceive. One must undergo a “training in righteousness,” not merely to instill a new ethic but to be shaped by a new value and valuation system. To perceive God’s Kingdom, to be shaped by its values, will mean shedding the oppressive top down power of the law for a “power-under” or “bottom-up” perspective in which the subtleties of fine pearls and hidden treasures are exposed.

 A primary difference is that there is a substantive reality to be obtained as this treasure is precisely not an unobtainable object (as with the image of the idol or the ego) but is prime reality. There are substantial realities of love, peace, goodness and beauty, that do not depend upon nor are they ultimately overcome by insubstantial evil. As Robert Doran has put it, “this world is intelligible, things do hold together, we can make sense of the universe and of our lives, we can overcome the fragmentation of knowledge, we can make true judgments, we can make good decisions, we can transcend ourselves to what is and to what is good.”[1] The contrast with blindness gives no substantive or necessary role to evil or darkness but it does demonstrate that perception, sensibilities, discernment, and progress are the entry way into an alternative understanding which we must cultivate.

Maybe it is with this moral sensibility that one might appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s reworked ending for the Manson killers in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Instead of wiping out the innocent goodness of the world, represented by Sharon Tate, a true believer might reimagine a universe in which the good turns out to be the more enduring reality.

[1] Quoted from Byrne, Patrick H. The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics (Lonergan Studies) (p. 29). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.