Apocalypse as Overcoming the Deception of Misenchantment

It has been suggested (here), from a variety of sources, that the problems and solutions posed within an apocalyptic theology (hereafter “AT”) are either contradictory or ambiguous. The unified difference of AT with contractual theology or a salvation historical approach, focused as it is on cosmic bondage and liberation rather than personal guilt and payment, is clear but what, exactly, constitutes the cosmic element of this bondage and liberation? Is it literally demonic or does the demonic serve as a metaphor for the systemic nature of a humanly generated enslavement and, in either case, does the demonic serve in place of articulation and understanding? What role is there for faith or human agency in a system that puts the emphasis on superhuman agencies (demons and God). AT has been accused of being so cosmically minded that it is of no individual good? So, what role for faith and individual agency and precisely what power is it that Christ defeats and how?

I have suggested that the ambiguities and questions raised by AT might be addressed in development of the notion of self-deception, which, in the abstract, may seem either unlikely, or if duly considered, may seem inescapable. That is, to claim that we are fostered in deception and darkness might seem to be a religious abstraction of such magnitude that it is a sort of meaningless metaphor, but then descriptions of how we are captive to culture or to capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, might paint a picture of inescapable determinism. This parallels the proposal of the demonic in apocalyptic theology: it may seem unlikely that satanic forces (literal or metaphorical) control the world and if they do, best leave that mysterious predicament to an equally mysterious in-breaking of God. The recognition that this enslaving force consists of the elementary principles of the world, thrones and political powers, spiritual and human forces, the very way we think and are constituted in our thinking, might result in the counter-inclination to claim this matrix constituting the Subject is impenetrable and irredeemable. In describing the problem, however, isn’t there already the sense that we may have become enmeshed in a lie which does not have us completely in its grip, as we have named it and, by extension, through our own agency we may be part of its generation.

To illustrate how self-deception might help negotiate the problems posed in AT, let me propose the work of Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, as an example of the machinations of a cosmic-like deception and active human agency. McCarraher’s starting proposal is that the world is the “sacrament” through which the power and presence of God were meant to be mediated. This opening recognition simultaneously approaches how it is that a failed religion or a failed imagination might “misenchant” the world, as the power of God is assigned to subordinate or created powers (as in Paul’s description in Romans 1), and how it is that this failure is overcome only through rightly recognizing God.

McCarraher is following and refuting the story of Max Weber, in his supposition that capitalism and secularism have disenchanted the world, so that in ridding the world of spirits and deities, reason and science now rule. Haven’t we broken the shackles of dutiful worship, the subordination to the past, the slavish subjection to this vale of tears in hope of a future reward, so that now we are set free to fulfill the self? In the words of Michael Lewis, capitalists are “practitioners of liberty” who “do not suffer the constraints of their private ambition” and who “work hard, if unintentionally, to free others from constraint.”[1] Has capitalism evacuated sacredness from material objects so that the enchanted forces which were once revered no longer structure our devotion and desires?

McCarraher musters a long line of witnesses to suggest there is no difference between the enchantments of mammon and religion.  Journalist Naomi Klein writes of the “the contemporary religion of unfettered free markets” and claims, “corporate business has always had a deep New Age streak,” with branding as the most advanced form of “corporate transcendence.” These neoliberal totems of enchantment (the Nike swoosh, the Starbucks siren) indicate, in the estimate of Barbara Ehrenreich, that despite its reputation for focus on the bottom line, corporate business is “shot through with magical thinking,” inspired and mesmerized by New Age quackery and bunkum. Jesus Christ, Lao-tzu, Buddha, or Carl Jung, provide the keys to the “seven habits” or “four competencies” or “sixty-seven principles of success,” as arcane as end-times prophecy. According to David Brooks, acquisitiveness stems from a “sacramental longing,” a desire to enter “a magical realm in which all is harmony, happiness, and contentment.” Or as historian Steve Fraser puts it, in the stampede for consumer goods slumbers “a sacramental quest for transcendence, reveries of what might be.” Thomas Carlyle, speaking of 1840’s industrial England, perceived “invisible Enchantments” which left owners and workers alike, “spell-bound” by “the Gospel of Mammonism” in which money possessed and bestowed its “miraculous facilities.” Marx and Engels wrote of the capitalist, in The Communist Manifesto, as “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world he has called up by his spells.” In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes of “the fetishism of commodities,” and of the attribution of human or supernatural qualities to manufactured goods. Even Weber, after tracing the supposed disenchantment which arises with the Protestant Reformation, writes that “many old gods ascend from their graves” avatars of the “laws” of the market animated by the spirits of “the gospel of Mammonism.” Capitalism, Walter Benjamin informs us, is a “cult” with its own ontology, morals, and ritual practices whose “spirit . . . speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.”[2]

McCarraher maintains this is not hyperbole or metaphor but that capital bears similar enchantments to a world animated by spirits and deities. He proposes that that capitalism, with its perversion and parody of enchantment is not a disenchantment but a misenchantment. As he explains, capitalism is its own sort of cult with its own liturgical codes and high priests, or those who have mastered the arcane art of the deal.

 Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies— the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design.” Capital is “the mana or pneuma or soul or elan vital of the world, replacing the older enlivening spirits with one that is more real, energetic, and productive.[3]

Though “secularists” imagine they are free of the enchantments of ideology, in Slavoj Žižek’s estimate, which accords with McCarraher, there is a very particular reason that the world, sacred or secular, glows with the same ideological enchantment. He maintains that in capitalism and not religion, resides the “archideological” fantasy, in that one might imagine he can simultaneously play this game and withhold commitment. Where the religionist may bow down in fear before his gods, the modern ideologue imagines that his is a voluntary consent to enchantment.[4] Žižek argues that the most successful ideology makes room for this “distancing” (even the religious sort). We all know money has no intrinsic value, but this supposed distancing allowing for an “inward conscious freedom,” is itself part of being fully interpolated into the ideology. In religious ideology there is an obscuring of the origins of the idol which closes off the supposed freedom of choice. Like Aaron’s explanation to Moses, the golden calf was not shaped by human hands, it miraculously emerged from the fire and all were forced to worship. Where religion played the role of obscuring the reification of the symbolic, capitalism proves the lie still works even when exposed.  Everyone may know that money has no intrinsic value but, according to Marx, “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.”

The fetishist knows full well that the shoe is only a shoe, but this does not dissolve the need or pleasure of the fetish. In the Matrix, Cypher knows that the Matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality but this does not subtract from the pleasure of his virtual steak or for his desire to “be someone” virtually important in the virtual world: “someone like an actor.” The Matrix is the big Other, and in the end, there may be nothing more satisfying than to be reinserted into a warm vat of embryonic fluid and to once again become part of its ordering of reality. To be “somebody” in the Matrix will mean being literally reinserted (interpolated) into its energy of enchantment.

In the Lacanian version of misenchantment, misrecognition (méconnaissance) of the self is engineered through the register of the symbolic order (the law, the father). One “sees” himself, the ego or “I” as an object through the matrix of the Other or the symbolic order. Whether this Other is God, the Party (as in Stalinism), the People (as in communist China), or the State, the Subject is only constituted in the struggle to be recognized by this agency. (The struggle before the law described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7.) To be interpolated into the law or to find satisfaction through whatever “master signifier” one may serve, is the peculiar form of human enslavement. This master signifier works by holding out the glow of enchantment (its being, its significance) to its Subjects, but this god must be obscure, unknown, or mute as the master signifier works by simultaneously withholding and promising meaning.

To be a Subject in this order is to “make one’s mark,” to leave a legacy, to accumulate significance, whether that of zeros and ones or just the accumulation of numbers (Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction makes direct appeal to both money and a heavenly calculus in which there is a limited space creating a quantifiable amount). Though they “do not know what they do” in a first order of belief or understanding, the significance of enchantment is that the Other (God, the heavenly calculus, the symbolic order) knows and sees. The worshipper presumes the priest understands the Latin of the mass/matrix, and if neither priest nor laity comprehend, the magic/enchantment still registers with God/the big Other. Every society depends upon this structuring symbolic order, whether it is presumed to be ordained by God or “secular” powers is not determinative of the degree of misenchantment.

If knowledge, whether self-knowledge or knowledge of God, is to be freed from ideology or misenchantment, it must be freed from the dualism between self and Other or between the ego and law/superego by knowing the unified Subject of God.  Where alienation is the structuring principle of the failed Subject and her world, knowing God as the living, personal Word, cannot accommodate this mute deity. Knowing God overturns this impenetrable Other and its alienated subjectivity. The true Subject, the self-communicating God, in the act of communication frees from the bondage of dualism – the servitude of striving to be interpolated into the law – as there is no distance between the subject and object of knowledge. God as the object of knowledge is also the Subject who knows, first in Christ but in all who are “in Christ.”

Do we learn this truth, Kierkegaard asks, as if we are constituted a learning Subject prior to the founding of this subjectivity? This knowing does not reason to the truth but from the truth. The truth determines the form of reason. The truth, Kierkegaard concludes is in the relation to God, who constituted the whole relation, and falsehood or the sickness unto death is to imagine that this one who relates would found the relation within himself. In Lacanian terms he would create a subject-object relation within himself through the Other of the law. Kierkegaard comes closer than any other thinker prior to Lacan, in The Sickness Unto Death, in laying out the empty death dealing nature of this relationship to an empty Other. At the same time, he points to the apocalyptic nature of knowing God. His so-called “fideism” is simply the refusal to subject God’s self-revelation to a method incapable of receiving knowledge of God. God has acted in his Self-revelation to make us (complete?) Subjects, so that this revelation is the act of reconciliation and this soteriology is an epistemology.

As Thomas Torrance describes a Barthian approach to AT, both “how God gives Himself to be known” and “how one receives and knows what is given” are revealed in Christ.

“In short Jesus Christ is Himself both the Word of God as spoken by God to man and that same Word as heard and received by man, Himself both the Truth of God given to man and that very Truth understood and actualized in man. He is that divine and human Truth in His one Person.”[5]

If, as Samuel Adams puts it, “we prioritize the theological sense of ‘apocalyptic’, then we (methodologically?) subject all worldviews and contexts to the freedom of God’s sovereignty over his own self-revelation. This event of self-revelation is the apocalypse, in subjectivity and objectivity, of Jesus Christ.”[6]

The alienated subject/object relation is a misenchanting lie, empty in both poles of the relation, and only overturned and filled out by Christ. This seems to clarify the hue of the supernatural (the seemingly demonic) in every form of human enslavement while tracking human agency in the generation and overcoming of the lie through the truth.

[1] Eugene, McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon (p. 3). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] McCarraher, 3-5.

[3] McCarraher, 5-6.

[4] But even this description is not entirely accurate or always the case. It is very doubtful that an upper-class Roman of the first century directly believed in the Roman gods, anymore than a modern-day Japanese directly believes in his religion. He does not believe it, but he does it anyway as it seems to work.

[5] T. F. Torrance, Theological Science, 50. Quoted from Samuel Adams, The Reality of God and Historical Method: An Examination of Theological Historiography in Critical Dialogue with N. T. Wright.

[6] Adams, 124.

Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death

One of the key confrontations in human thought (philosophy/religion/psychology. . .) occurred in Denmark with the clash between the thought of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (or SK). In that Hegel is summing up the possibility of human thought (not only the history of thought in philosophy and its various forms but its future) and SK is positing his own Christian understanding as the alternative to Hegel, it might be said that one has the choice of either being Hegelian or Christian.[1] Overlooking for the moment the questions this might raise, I would like to blunder along with the two-fold assumption that Hegel sums up the possibility of human thought and potential under a fallen perspective and SK provides a summation of the Christian diagnosis of the problem (represented by Hegel) and the alternative to Hegel (authentic Christianity).  Hegel, in this reading of SK, is not simply wrong but is a summation of how we have all gone wrong and of how Christ addresses the primordial human problem (represented and articulated best by Hegel). At the same time that Hegel offers deep psychological insight gone bad, SK builds upon this insight – providing at once an alternative analysis and resolution. We are sick (with a sickness unto death) and we need to be clear about the diagnosis so as to understand Christ’s intervention into the disease through his death.[2]  At the same time, the contention between Hegel and SK is over the meaning of the death of Christ – Hegel’s understanding poses the problem as the cure and SK sees the cross as specifically confronting the Hegelian cure. Continue reading “Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death”