In light of the non-theistic characterization of grace I've developed thus far, I want to say a few words this week about how porting grace into such an ontology may affect or clarify our conception sin and salvation.
You may recall that last week employed Bruno Latour's "principle of irreduction" as a key to describing those characteristics of a non-theistic ontology that would distinguish it from a more traditional approach. I summarized this principle as follows:
Given an original multiplicity:
(1) no multiple can be entirely reduced (without remainder) to any other multiple or set of multiples, and (2) no multiple is a priori exempt from being reducible in part to any other multiple or set of multiples.
I summarized this principle in terms of "resistant availability." Because an assemblage cannot be exempt from the possibility of reduction to other multiples, it is characterized by an unavoidable availability. However, because it can also never be entirely reduced to other multiples (even those that compose it), it is also characterized by an unavoidable resistance.
It is my claim that grace, in a nontheistic ontology, should be understand primarily in terms of this "resistant availability."
Finally, I deduced several consequences from this identification of grace with resistant availability, one of which is particularly important for what follows: to say that grace unfolds as the exceptionless universality of resistant availability is to say that grace guarantees the universality of passibility or suffering.
To be is to suffer, and this in two senses. Outside of theism, suffering characterizes both activity and passivity. Unavoidably available for relation, every assemblage passively suffers its passibility to being enlisted, entrained, or re-distributed by other assemblages. Second, even in actively influencing other multiples, an assemblage suffers their irreducible and unmasterable resistance.
In short, grace is the name for that which we suffer.
To get a handle on this, I need to first more precisely define suffering. To this point, I have used the word “suffering” as synonymous with a more general, ontological passibility. However, in order to make sense of sin, I will hereafter use the term “suffering” only to refer to that kind of passibility that is unique to human beings. Sin is a uniquely human affair and it is rooted in the uniquely human experience of suffering.
What is unique about human suffering? While all beings (alive or not, sensible or not) are subject to the double-bind of resistant availability, only human beings appear to be aware of this bind and experience it as such.
Let’s give this definition. Suffering: the uniquely reflexive experience of passibility that is peculiar to human beings.
Another way to say this is that humans are flesh. Now, I don’t want to entirely set aside the provocative resonances of the term “flesh,” but I want to use it here with some precision. By “flesh” I mean the human capacity for auto-affection, the human capacity to not only feel but to feel ourselves feeling. Flesh names our human ability to not only receive but to receive ourselves as receptive and receiving.
For example, when undergoing a minor medical procedure, we may not only feel the cool, thin blade of a surgeon’s scalpel when she makes a small incision, but we will also feel ourselves feeling this feeling as we respond with fear, indifference, or relief. Human suffering is unique in that it bears this compoundable reflexivity. Love, joy, peace, compassion, gratitude, agency, etc. all depend on the way that human experience folds over in such a way as to touch its being touched. Flesh names the site of our human reception of grace as a grace.
What, then, of sin? Sin is possible only for those who have flesh. It intervenes precisely at the site of this reflexivity. Sin is a refusal to feel ourselves feeling our own passibility.
Sin does not want to be unavoidably available and it does not want to experience the world as irreducibly resistant. Sin, as pride, wants mastery. It does not want to be impinged upon by a grace that it did not request and it does not want to be dependent on a grace that it cannot control.
Sin, afraid to suffer the grace of life, attempts to withdraw from feeling. In particular, it attempts to withdraw from feeling itself feeling, from a reception of itself as that which receives, or, in other words, as that which is graced.
We could say a great deal about the nature of sin’s attempt to withdraw from the double-bind of resistant availability and the strategies it employs to this end, but it will be suffice for our purposes to sketch in a very broad way what is at stake.
In general, sin attempts to refuse grace and suffering by screening experience in terms of its perceived “desirability.” Some things are reflexively marked as desirable and so we hunger for them and fantasize about them. Some things are reflexively marked as undesirable and so we flee from them and worry over them. Some things are reflexively marked as neither, and so we ignore them. Sin refuses to suffer by dividing the real up into what it wants, doesn’t want, and doesn’t care about.
The results are predictable: cut off from bulk of what is real, we are filled with dissatisfaction, fear, and anxiety and we, intentionally past feeling, are effectively dead (or, at best, “undead”). Zombie-like, striving after the gnat of pleasure, straining away from the sting of pain, we ignore the bulk of life and wonder at our own morbidity. Failing to be where we are, to feel what we are feeling, we fantasize instead about what has not come, fret over what has already passed, and are bored to tears by the grace of what is actually given.
Fantasy, fear, and boredom: the hallmarks of sin.
In this light, we might further characterize sin in relation to gratitude.
Gratitude names a particularly powerful reflexive affect because it arises precisely in connection with our willingness to feel ourselves feeling. Gratitude is the auto-affect par excellence: it not only feels itself feeling, it affirms with a solemn “amen” its reception of itself as available for receiving — even when what it receives is painful, undesirable, unexpected, or “uninteresting.” Gratitude affirms what is given as whatever kind of grace it is — even if the only thing gracious about it is its confirmation of our availability for reception.
It is obvious, then, that gratitude is precisely what sin forgoes. As a refusal of grace, sin refuses to affirm (via gratitude) its unavoidable availability. As a refusal of suffering, sin refuses to affirm the ubiquitous resistance of everything around it, overlapping with it, or internal to it. Forgoing gratitude, life denies the double-bind that is constitutive of the real and condemns itself instead to the lifeless prison-house of its own, endlessly empty fantasies of mastery, exceptionality, and control.
A final definition of sin. Sin: the correlation of grace with any reflexive affect other than gratitude in the absence of gratitude.
It is simple enough, then to alternatively define the nature of salvation.
Salvation: the correlation of grace with — minimally, though not exclusively — the affect of gratitude.
Gratitude frees us from sin because it affirms our availability for relation and rejoices in the graciousness of our flesh. Grateful, life feels itself feeling. Grateful, we are born again, we come back to life, and we are begotten sons and daughters of a God who is himself filled to overflowing with gratitude. Here, no longer confined by the impassibility of traditional theism, God himself would be free to gratefully affirm his own unavoidable availability, the world’s ubiquitous resistance, the absolute requirement of work, and the reception of grace.
Allow me to conclude with a brief summary of some of the key points I've worked out over the past few weeks. Even granted that the above experiment is relatively rough, compressed, and schematic, what can we say about grace in a non-theistic context?
1. Grace, rather than being associated with God’s theistically exceptional supernatural transcendence, is associated instead with the diffused plurality of transcendences that characterize the world’s differential immanence.
2. Grace, rather than naming an unknowable macro-force operating mysteriously behind the scenes, is operationalized as the self-organizing work of everything that is.
3. Grace, in light of the principle of irreduction, is the double-bind of resistant availability that characterizes without exception the being of every multiple or assemblage, God included.
4. Grace is not opposed to but identified with the resistant availability that is characteristic of work.
5. Grace is unavoidably intertwined with passibility.
6. Grace, because there are no exceptions to passibility, guarantees the universality of suffering.
7. Grace, as the double-bind of resistant availability, is the mark of the real.
8. Grace, with respect to human experience, unfolds in the auto-affective reception of ourselves as receiving what is given. That is, grace unfolds for humans in connection with the flesh.
9. Grace, as what prompts sin’s refusal of suffering, is anterior to sin. Grace is not a response to sin. Rather, sin is derivative and secondary with respect to grace.
10. Grace, in order to avoid sin, must always be minimally correlated with the affect of gratitude.
11. Grace, in relation to the compoundable reflexivity of human experience, can be infinitely amplified by our grateful affirmation of whatever has been given.
This list, then, though brief, is, I think, good evidence that the experiment begun here may be worth pursuing with greater care, rigor, and attention to detail.
Grace, wherever and however it may arise, calls for our attention.
* Note: the image of the "Suffering Servant" is by Marcella Paliekara (Paliekara@yahoo.com).