Erring: A Postmodern A/theology

Erring: A Postmodern A/theology

by Mark C. Taylor

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"Erring is a thoughtful, often brilliant attempt to describe and enact what remains of (and for) theology in the wake of deconstruction. Drawing on Hegel, Nietzsche, Derrida, and others, Mark Taylor extends—and goes well beyond—pioneering efforts. . . . The result is a major book, comprehensive and well-informed."—G. Douglas Atkins,See more details below


"Erring is a thoughtful, often brilliant attempt to describe and enact what remains of (and for) theology in the wake of deconstruction. Drawing on Hegel, Nietzsche, Derrida, and others, Mark Taylor extends—and goes well beyond—pioneering efforts. . . . The result is a major book, comprehensive and well-informed."—G. Douglas Atkins, Philosophy and Literature

"Many have felt the need for a study which would explicate in coherent and accessible fashion the principal tenets of deconstruction, with particular attention to their theological implications. This need the author has addressed in a most impressive manner. The book's effect upon contemporary discussion is apt to be, and deserves to be, far-reaching."—Walter Lowe, Journal of Religion

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A Postmodern A/Theology

By Mark C. Taylor

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-16943-9


Death of God

Mirror Play: Psychology of Mastery

"'Whither is God?' he cried: 'I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Is there still any up or down? Are we not wandering [Irren wir nicht] as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead, God remains dead. And we have killed him." The death of God is not tragedy passively suffered by hapless and helpless servants but an event enacted and embraced by rebellious and self-confident human beings. But when? How? Why?

With the death of God, a dark shadow falls over the light that for centuries illuminated the landscape of the West. Released from any fixed center, everything is left to wander through seemingly infinite space, erring "backward, sideward, forward—in all directions." Paradoxically, this eclipse begins during the period known as the "Enlightenment" and marks the dawn of what usually is labeled "the modern era." Modernism, I have suggested, involves the effort to overturn the hierarchical structures of domination upon which Western thought and society traditionally have rested. As such, it represents a contest both for and against mastery. Within the sphere of religion, the result of this struggle can be seen in the death of God. This critical event in Western history carries implications for the entire theological network, implications that only now are being realized. To fathom its meaning and significance, it is necessary to recognize that, since the Enlightenment, the death of God has been decisively articulated in at least two contrasting ways. While the modern form of the death of God comes to expression in humanistic atheism, the postmodern form points toward a posthumanistic a/theology. By denying God in the name of man, humanistic atheism inverts the Creator/creature relationship and transforms theology into anthropology. Posthumanistic a/theology, by contrast, maintains that this inversion, though it is necessary, does not go far enough. The humanistic atheist fails to realize that the death of God is at the same time the death of the self. Despite this important difference, these two points of view are inextricably bound together. Carried to completion, humanistic atheism negates itself and leads to posthumanistic a/theology. We can begin to trace the unraveling of the intricate web of Western theology by exploring the formation and dissolution of humanistic atheism.

While humanistic atheism constitutes a significant philosophical and religious departure, it remains closely related to critical developments in theology, science, and philosophy. In some ways, recent humanism reflects and elaborates important elements of Renaissance humanism. Although modern statements of humanism no longer are completely preoccupied with classical culture, they do continue to focus on noteworthy expressions of "the human spirit" such as history, language, literature, and art. The goal of the modern as well as the Renaissance humanist continues to be moral progress toward some form of human perfection.

Less evident, but no less important, is the close tie between modern humanistic atheism and its apparent opposite, Reformation theology. Profoundly distressed by the abstraction and universality of medieval theology and deeply impressed by the concreteness and particularity of nominalist philosophy and theology, Luther started a religious and social revolution by directing his theological attention to the individual believer. Plagued by dread, doubt, and despair, Luther constantly sought the certainty afforded by a personal relationship with God, mediated by Christ. He believed that faith in the free grace of God could provide the security for which believers long. The conclusion of this quest for salvation is summarized succinctly in the theological doctrine implied by the phrase pro nobis. The significance of Christ, Luther argued, lies in the "fact" that he lived and died "for us." Luther himself never lost sight of the overriding ascendancy of divine purpose. Moreover, he always insisted that a person never really possesses faith. Belief and doubt continually contend with each other for the mind and heart of the individual. For many people who were less dialectical than Luther, however, the notion that Christ is always pro nobis signaled a significant shift toward the centrality of the self. From this point of view, the emphasis on individual salvation suggested that human concerns lie at the center of divine, and therefore of cosmic, purpose. As will become increasingly apparent, this anthropological preoccupation grew considerably in the years following the Reformation.

While early modern science was directed to very different ends, it shared many of Luther's concerns. Equally suspicious of metaphysical speculation and theological abstraction, early scientists joined in the effort to explore concrete experience. In its initial phase, modern science was also strongly influenced by late medieval nominalism. The empiricism and experimentalism that were necessary for the emergence of modern science were, in fact, direct outgrowths of the nominalist emphasis on the significance of the individual and the nominalist insistence on the essential role of sense experience in the knowing process. As important as this individualism and empiricism, however, was what seemed to some thinkers to be a scientific analogue to Luther's doctrine of pro nobis. Early scientific investigators argued that all of nature is potentially "for us." In order to realize this potential, the searching scientist had to put nature "to the rack and compel her [sic] to answer our questions." From this point of view, the world is intended to respond to human probing and to serve man's purposes.

Early modern philosophy expanded these theological and scientific developments. The modern period in philosophy is generally acknowledged to have begun with Descartes's decisive turn to the subject. This Cartesian revolution initiated an era of extraordinary intellectual, cultural, and social upheaval, which culminated in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. During the period extending from Descartes to Robespierre, the foundations of Western thought, culture, and society began to fissure. Though ostensibly a revolt against irrational belief and repression, the Enlightenment actually rested on faith and became repressive. Belief in man supplanted belief in God as oppressed servants battled harsh masters for intellectual and political freedom. Throughout this period, freedom was identified with autonomy. The explicit goal of the fight for mastery and against domination was independent selfhood. Through free self-legislation, humanity, it was believed, could achieve the goals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. In the course of this revolutionary struggle, religion and politics became patricidal. Sons struggled against primal, personal, and political fathers. As the result of an unforeseen reversal, however, "absolute freedom" turned into "absolute terror."

Social rebellion reflects and is reflected by intellectual revolution. Descartes, like his theological precursor, Luther, suffered nearly pathological doubt. Descartes's entire philosophical enterprise can be understood as an effort to overcome the insecurity brought by uncertainty and to reach the security promised by certainty. Suspecting that the hand that inflicts the wound holds the cure, Descartes radicalized doubt. He doubted everything until he discovered that which is unconditionally indubitable—the cogito. Then, in a move destined to change the face of the earth, Descartes identified truth with certainty. Truth, in other words, is pro nobis. This modern form of truth "expresses the fact that truth concerns consciousness as a knowledge, a representation which is grounded in consciousness in such a way that only knowledge is valid as knowledge which at the same time knows itself and what it knows as such, and is certain of itself in this knowledge. Certainty here is not to be taken only as an addition to knowledge in the sense that it accomplishes the appropriation and the possession of knowledge. Rather, certainty is the authoritative mode of knowledge that is 'truth,' as the consciousness of itself, of what is known. The mere having of something in consciousness is, in contrast, either no longer knowledge or not yet knowledge."

The identification of truth and certainty is, in effect, a reductio ad hominem. When fully developed, the Cartesian philosophy of the cogito leads to the "theory of the subject," which "lies at the heart of humanism" and forms the basis of humanistic atheism. Within the framework outlined by Descartes, "The ego has put everything in doubt, and has defined all outside itself as the object of its thinking power. Cogito ergo sum: the absolute certainty about the self reached by Descartes' hyperbolic doubt leads to the assumption that things exist, for me at least, only because I think them. When everything exists only as reflected in the ego, then man has drunk up the sea. If man is defined as subject, everything else turns into object. This includes God, who now becomes merely the highest object of man's knowledge. God, once the creative sun, the power establishing the horizon where heaven and earth come together, becomes an object of thought like any other. When man drinks up the sea, he also drinks up God, the creator of the sea. In this way man is the murderer of God." This murder marks a critical event in the development of self-consciousness. To "enlightened" eyes, the shadows of superstition can be dispelled only by the death of God.

Though assuming multiple guises, the God the enlightened seek to slay is essentially the transcendent Christian Creator God. "Master of the exclusions and restrictions that derive from the disjunctive syllogism," this God rules (and is ruled) by the nondialectical "logic of simple negation, which is the logic of repression." Omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, God is the causa sui, the Unmoved Mover who is both the origin of all motion and the source of all rest. "The God who alone is God" is "an identity which is only itself." Such a transcendent deity appears to be completely self-enclosed, totally self-identical, and absolutely self-present. This powerful sovereign forms "the primary embodiment of a solitary and isolated selfhood." The ultimate subjectivity of God does not, however, establish a continuum between divinity and humanity. As the full realization and original ground of selfhood, God is wholly other, is absolute alterity.

From the perspective of individuals who are struggling to establish their autonomy, the wholly other is manifest as the shadow of death—eternal death. "God is thus the proper name of that which deprives us of our nature, of our own birth; consequently he will always have spoken before us, on the sly. He is the difference which insinuates itself between myself and myself as death." "The death of God," therefore, signifies not only the death that God suffers but also the death that is God's or that God is. God is death, and death is absolute master.

Since God is experienced as death rather than life, the death of God enacted in humanistic atheism actually represents an effort to deny death. God and self, master and slave, engage in a life-and-death struggle that is inspired by the "absolute fear" that grows out of "the first encounter of the other as other." This meeting establishes a "specular relation" in which the "eyes" of the other initially appear to dispossess the "I" of the self. The penetrating gaze of the other seems improper, for it disrupts self-identity. In the mirror play of self and other, the self sees itself reflected in the other. This duplication brings self-alienation. The confrontation with the other as other leads to the encounter with the self as other. Facing the all-powerful master, the self realizes that "it has lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being." The slave remains "outside of himself (insofar as the other has not 'given him back' to himself by recognizing him, by revealing that he has recognized him, and by showing him that he [the other] depends on him and is not absolutely other than he)." By forcing the self outside of itself, the disruptive stranger discloses the subject's estrangement.

In an effort to overcome alienation and gain self-possession, slave rebels against master and son turns against father. The subversive activity of the subject has as its goal mastery of the master. By overthrowing the lord, the subject hopes to establish identity, maintain integrity, and protect propriety (as well as property). This struggle for mastery joins affirmation and negation. The self asserts itself by negating the other, which it regards in thoroughly negative terms. Consequently, the rebellious subject embodies a form of negation in which identity secures itself by excluding difference. Instead of subverting the "logic" of mastery, this negative activity merely turns it to its own ends. The self remains caught in the logic of simple negation and bound to the noncontradictory logic of identity, which establishes the noncontradictory identity of logic. Within this "structure of exclusion," every "entity is what it is, the outside is out and the inside in." The servile subject tries to master the terror that absolute alterity provokes by negating the wholly other and enclosing the self within the secure "solitude of solidity and self-identity."

It should be clear that the slave's offensive assertion is undeniably defensive. Aggressive action is actually a reaction that grows out of impotence. "The slave revolt" is not "a triumphant affirmation" but a reaction that "from the outset says No to what is 'outside,' what is 'different,' what is 'not itself'; and this No is its creative deed." The "reaction formation" that constitutes the subject's rebellion against the omnipotent sovereign reveals the deepgoing ressentiment that incites and sustains the agon of the slave. An uncommonly ambiguous sentiment, ressentiment, combines affirmation and negation, acceptance and denial, and attraction and repulsion. Ressentiment is never simply hostile. It carries within itself latent admiration of, and attraction for, the other against whom one, nonetheless, reacts negatively. Ressentiment always harbors envy. Never responding to the other in a merely negative way, the envious person yearns to possess what belongs to the other. The source of the slave's discontent is not only the condition of bondage. Though distressed by subservience, the subject resents not being master and envies the master's mastery. The lord's exercise of power simultaneously manifests his own strength and discloses the weakness or impotence that seems to define the slave. In this way the other introduces a lack, and this opens a gap or creates a void in the subject. The reaction of servant to master is not only intended to upset the sovereign's rule; it also seeks to usurp his power. With newly acquired power, the bondsman hopes to be able to overcome the lack, close the gap, and fill the void, which disrupts identity and unsettles the sense of self. However, the struggle in which the subject attempts to assert itself by negating other and tries to secure identity by excluding difference inverts itself and becomes an act of identification with and incorporation of the other. This reversal uncovers yet another face in the play of mirrors.

Whereas the slave provisionally suffers dispossession when he sees himself reflected in the eyes of the other, he gradually comes to realize that this self-duplication is itself duplicitous. By recognizing self in other, the self also discovers self in other. The subject "does not see the other as essential being, but in the other sees its own self." Contrary to expectation, the specular relation culminates in "Pure self-recognition in absolute otherness." No longer seeing the master merely as his own opposite, the slave recognizes the master as the independent and integral self that he (i.e., the slave) seeks to be. In trying to unseat the master, the subject attempts to become master. If the master is God and the slave man, then man's murder of God is an act of self-deification. It seems that the son always follows in the footsteps of Oedipus by attempting to take the place of the father. Though usually not recognized, "The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God ..., causa sui."


Excerpted from Erring by Mark C. Taylor. Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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