Organs, bodies, and political theology: A response to Charley Earp

In Charley Earp´s Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God, there is a lot to parse.  The idea that a new conception of God represents a mode of capitalism seems to confuse modern Protestant pietism with an “capitalist God” seems to be a rebranding of liberal Protestant conception.   We, however, should probably not jump to that point without first looking at some of Charley´s assertions:

It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity.  Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.

This should be read closely:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche is speaking in parable about value, but it is important to look at the even deeper context in Thus Sprach Zarathustra

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

Charley does not go into this and what is the profounder point, instead he shifts to the a claim:

On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.

Whether or not this is true for “modern society” in its religious justifications or theological self-conceptions is hard to know, the subjective nature of Protestant Pietism in US culture and the post-Christianity of most of Europe makes this much more obscured, but it is important to remind the Madman approached the crowd in the market and the crowd does not recognize what it has done.   Nietzsche´s parable makes a point: the overarching system of value that dominated culture has been replaced by a specter of market value which does not even realize what it has killed and continues in obliviousness to the profundity of the shift in values.

It can only be for those who profess belief that no longer live by for whom God is dead.  This, however, is not just atheism.  However, the secular humanist who does not deal or address the cultural origins of his or her values in a Christian development ( as opposed to a Confucian or post-Islamic one) is in the same shape as the pietist Christian who does not recognize that the practice of his or her life is outside of the Christian traditions that developed prior  to such a point as to render God looking like themselves more than the other way around still would haul around such a divine corpus.

For those who never had such a value system, what is dead can never die. Nietzsche would go onto to say at this point one could create a new values system, but only if one is aware that situation in both a material and ideological sense.  Political economy of Jesus–in so much that it ever existed–is not our political economy, nor can it be.  Something recognized partly in the apocalyptic view of the Christian tradition:  giving to the poor was because there was no need for the law to continue when the world was ending.

The turn to make Jesus like a modern socialist is just another re-branding. Looking at Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion that:

In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.

The see the Christians as a proletarian class or for common property is one that we find little evidence for. Monastic Christianity seems to be a third century development and the demand upon the apostles seems to have been not common property, but the abandonment of property all together.  The spread of Christianity en masse is more clearly tied to the first Nicene council and perhaps the Christian persecution in an Empire whose third century almost destroyed it.  (It is important to remember that Judaism in an now nonexistent evangelical form was popular and spreading in Rome prior to Bar Kochba rebellion and that Christianity, whose sayings seem a syntheses of Cynicism and Hillel could have easily been seen to slowly spread in that context with the persecutions as, perhaps an ironically, an advertisement for the religion´s existence).  Whether Luxemburg reading is due to a lack of actual historical context or motivated reading is impossible to say, but we do know better now.

In this I find Charley´s last point to be easily used or read as cynical:

There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.

In such decontextualized readings of Christianity that do not accept the limitations of the various Christian traditions, we have only the vapors and folklore of Christianity draped crudely over the ethics that were birthed from Christian Humanist thinking but does remain in context that one could adjudicate what is or is not heresy.  Both post-Christian readings could be equally valid in absent of the original culture, but then Nietzsche´s question looms: If one accepts this plasticity, why not create something entirely new?

As for my opinion of what one could do with such a Christianity, I feel similarly to how I feel about its popular opposite in feel good pietism of Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen.  A Christian tradition so hollowed out will just reflect the popular opinions in the culture, which admittedly have some Christian origins but are manifestly different from the original tradition, like a kidney and heart removed from a body.  Materially, they are unlikely to be put back in the original body since it is now “dead” from the original, and to be transplanted to a new body without suppressing the very immune system of that body, the foreign organs will likely be rejected if they are the organs of a parent.  Heiddegger was insightful here when looking at attempts at Folklore to serve “revive the folk”,

‘This way of being embedded in a people, situated in a people, this original participation in the knowledge of a people, cannot be taught; at most it can be awakened from its slumber. One poor means of doing this is folklore. It is a peculiar mishmash of objects that have been often taken from the customs of a particular people. But it often investigates customs, mores, or magic which no longer have anything to do with a specific people in its historical Being. It investigates forces that are work everywhere among primitive and magical human beings. So folklore is not suited to ask about what specifically belongs to a people; often it even does the very opposite. This is why it is a misunderstanding and an error to believe that one can awaken the consciousness of of the Volk with the help of folklore. We must above all guard ourselves against being overly impressed by the world “folk.”‘

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Posted on January 15, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “As for my opinion of what one could do with such a Christianity, I feel similarly to how I feel about its popular opposite in feel good pietism of Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen. A Christian tradition so hollowed out will just reflect the popular opinions in the culture, which admittedly have some Christian origins but are manifestly different from the original tradition, like a kidney and heart removed from a body. Materially, they are unlikely to be put back in the original body since it is now “dead” from the original, and to be transplanted to a new body without suppressing the very immune system of that body, the foreign organs will likely be rejected if they are the organs of a parent.”

    You are on to something here. But I would say, “The problem with Christianity is Christianity, not its interpretation.” This for example is a problematic statement:

    “How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?”

    The problem with the Gospels and rest of the New Testament as a foundation of Christianity is that, qua texts, they can be selectively read to justify lots of very disparate things. That is the point, really. For every injunction about the rich man not being able to enter the Kingdom, there is Paul’s injunction of “whoever does not work does not eat” or power wielding the sword against evildoers, etc. There are plenty of proof texts within just the New Testament justifying an oppressive order of things (slavery), without getting into the “Old Testament” or the two millenia of exegesis that came afterwards. I would dispute an “open eye” reading, since I don’t even know what that means.

    The other problem is that of dual loyalty. Anyone who considers herself a Christian by definition believes in the afterlife, spreading the Gospel (whatever that means) and so on and so forth. They are in it for something other than being social workers or revolutionaries. There is almost always “supernatural faith” involved, otherwise, what are they? So the progressive Christian has to think that being “progressive” makes him or her a better follower of Jesus, but the whole point is to be a “follower of Jesus”, “born again”, “saved”, or whatever. Those in power will always use this to steer people into “pie in the sky” traps, and always have. In other words, you can’t be a commie first and a Christian second. Christianity always comes first, and you cannot base a program for mass societal change on it.

    Lastly, I don’t think you could read communism into the Bible at all, since the “progressive” parts of the Christian Bible are arguably not about “sharing the wealth” but the abolition of wealth. When Jesus sees the Temple in Jerusalem, he doesn’t say that it should be expropriated and the wealth should be distributed to the people. He says it should be torn down completely. He didn’t say that the fruits of one’s labor should be distributed “from each according to their ability, et alia” but rather that people shouldn’t work at all (the birds of the air and the flowers in the field, etc.) As the author of this rejoinder points out, some of it is “apocalyptic” in the sense that they thought the “world” was ending, but we can read that too cosmically, as such a mentality didn’t separate cosmology from politics as we do today. The “end of the world” for them would have been the end of the Roman Empire. But what replaces it isn’t some agrarian socialism based on 1st century economic production. It is the restoration of the earth, the resurrection of the dead, the “trust” that God will provide without reaping or sowing, etc. As this reply essay points out, that economy has nothing to do with ours, and if it does, the solutions have more in common with John Zerzan than Karl Marx. That is, if you can even read things that way, and I am skeptical you can.

  2. I’ve been reading Gary Dorrien’s book Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition. It is about the social gospel tradition. The author discusses various influences, including Marxism and socialism. It is interesting to see how some theologians tried to make sense of Christianity over this past century.

    As for Christianity in a larger sense, its history is obvious complex. It’s definitely a struggle to disentangle the threads of early Christianity.

    The earliest followers of Paul (Valentinus and Marcion) were later deemed Gnostics, and the first New Testament canon was created by a Gnostic (Marcion) to demonstrate the Christian and Jewish gods were separate and opposed beings. There was no singular Christianity for there were separate traditions that were later amalgamated, but even before that Christians and the Alexandrian Jews before them were heavily syncretistic (for the simple reason they lived in a diverse culture and many came from diverse backgrounds).

    In terms of Pauline Christianity, it was the original Gnostic tradition that, some have argued, has simply morphed into Protestantism. In America now, many Protestants have sought to reconnect with Catholicism, if only to create alliances against yet other competing monotheisms, specifically Islam.

    I don’t see religion going away. Everything is built on what came before. Christianity was built on Judaism, Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Mystery religions, Isis cult, etc. And are modern world is built on Christianity and monotheism in general. The different influences get shifted and reorganized, but Western civilization has been working with many of the same basic pieces for millennia. The Enlightenment Age was in many ways a reprise of the Axial Age.

    This is why so many socialist ideas were built on or borrowed from earlier forms of religious communitarianism that pervaded early American society and goes back at least to early Christianity. I don’t know that anything is hollowed out. It just gets mixed up and rearranged. That is what a syncretistic culture like ours does. I was reading Newman and Onuf’s Paine and Jefferson in the Age of Revolutions. One argument the author’s make is that many radical Enlightenment thinkers were seeking to secularize Christian values and syncretize them with ideas from other traditions. That was the early origins of American liberalism and progressivism.

    I couldn’t say what this means for those seeking something they consider or hope to be genuinely and fundamentally ‘new’. Still, original revolutionizing paradigms on rare occasions do arise, but the process is a mystery for it appears to happen so rarely.

  3. People, given enough time, are nothing if not pragmatic. Once peoples anxiety about worldly calamities and personal mortality found focus in the idea of god(s) that could maybe be appeased in a way that effected outcomes; it wasn’t long before Societies and the leaders that tried to organize them, as competitive survival units, recognized the utility of religion. Religion has been a primary tool for utilizing the fears of a sizable chunk of any population toward the many and varied, and sometimes contradictory, interests of society at large. As a result religions contain something for just about everybody, including what the people in power deemed to be in the collective best interest of what ever survival unit they were a part of at the time. And since people are quite good at dealing with cognitive dissonance by being selective with beliefs and evidence, the contradictions have not kept religion from being an important asset to the people in society whose business it is to ride herd on the masses. And the outcomes are as mixed as the shortsighted self-interest of past leader would suggest.

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