This week's buzz on the hip Christian blogs are basically two events in, I think, the following order of importance - (a) the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States (b) the American tour of Irish "ikonic" neo-Derridean phenomenologist cum emergent pastor phenomenon Pete Rollins. If, unlike this old horse of many different colors, you happen to be under 30 and qualify as what the demographers have dubbed as a "millennial," this was indeed your week. This was your time, as the saying goes, and you had a lot to do with bringing it about. I myself watched a lot and wondered even more. Maybe that's why God scheduled things so I would just barely miss everything, although of course I could always watch it on CNN (in the first instance) or read about it all on the blogs (in the second instance).
As it turned out, I got into Chicago for the American Academy of Religion meeting a few hours too late to hear Jack Caputo and Rollins start up a whole new conversation in the ongoing pomo conversation. Rollins, in case you're not completely familiar with him, has taken the former's Derridean prayers and tears and turned them into the hottest new style of "post-Christian" Christian teaching, preaching, and Existenz since maybe Thomas Merton. I know, I know, who's Merton? All I can say is "google 'im." Andrew Jones really likes him, and Andrew Jones really likes me, and I really like Andrew Jones, so I guess I can really say I really like Pete Rollins, though I've never met him and I didn't get to hear him. And I'm going to also be a day late in being Dallas when he comes to Dallas this week, which is where I live, but I won't be there, because I'll be teaching philosophy and religion in Denver, where I do my work, even though I don't live there, though of course I once did live there . Hey, I think I'm getting it down. I quote Rollins on the front end of his homepage: "We must avoid confusion between remaining silent and saying nothing. For while the former is passive the latter is active. By saying nothing we endeavour to speak of that which manifests in our world as a no-thing, as an absolute mystery which infuses our world with light and life."
Say nothing and carry a big shtick. That the no, not, nothing of Derridean apophaticism that's been on the scene since Derrida authored On the Name two decades ago and it was through a reputedly (not true, though) "atheistic" deconstructionist French philosopher that a generation rediscovered negative theology and Buddhism. Christian Buddhism. That was Merton's shtick, and he carried it well during the Vietnam era. Merton was a trappist monk, theologian, and scholar of comparative religions with a special interest in Buddhism. He found the profound meaning of not saying anything, or saying no-thing, from the study of Buddhist meditation and the ancient Madhyamika philosophy of South Asia rather than any deconstructive readings of Medieval Christian thinkers, or taking Marion "to church", as Rollins does.
Oh, yea, about Obama. I don't know anybody who's not excited, although there's a lot not to be excited about, such as the world depression into which all the nations are currently spiraling. The first thing Obama said in his post-election public statement was that we had to lower expectations. I guess he meant all that "messianic" stuff which he himself didn't really seek to promote but now had to deal with. Messianism without a messiah. Sort of like religion without religion. Or God without God. You get the picture. Not! Welcome to the new millennium. By the way, I also missed Obama's Grant Park speech by less than a day. The AAR was over the day before election day and I couldn't change my plane ticket, unlike someone else I knew who didn't have to teach on Tuesday night in Denver and had a non-refundable fare paid by the university. I keep missing all the important events, even though when 9/11 happened I could say proudly, "I was always there". September 11 is my birthday, even though before 2001 it was one of the most inconsequential days on the planet. Call it living "in not quite such a time as this."
When I talked last week to my young, millennial friend who is studying in Boston all things emergent along with all things Continental and philosophical, I was amazed, however, that he never once mentioned the election of Obama. He was excited, however, about the American tour of Pete Rollins. I think he was rather disappointed when I had to inform him that I missed him in Chicago, and that I would again miss him in Dallas, since he perhaps was hoping to experience him through my experiencing him and thus commenting on him. The phenomenology of Pete Rollins who urges us to say nothing!
What does my young friend saying nothing about Obama but all the while saying a lot about the non-American post-Christian non-theological Continental philosopher who wants us to say nothing at all ("actively," he emphasizes) say about what we all are saying these days? Post-phenomenological tongue-twisters, anyone? Rollins' most important book, by the way, is How (Not) To Speak of God. It was published about two years ago and has been both praised and damned - praised by Andrew of course for challenging us, which it does, and damned by others for engaging in all dat damned Derridean deconstructive de-speaking, which they claim just says nothing. Of course, that's exactly the point.
Unlike Brian McClaren who has double-digit names for his "generous orthodoxy" (I won't rehearse here all his "Why I Am a...Christian" sobriquets that subtitle his book ), Rollins has only five modifiers: "iconic"," apocalyptic", "heretical", "emerging", and "failing".
The first term really captures what I think Rollins is (not) doing, as I will explain in a minute. The fourth is purely gestural - like postmodern. The third is the ceremonial academic version of kitsch, or what I call "high hackneyed," as anybody who says anything, or nothing, that doesn't sound like it was sound-bite-engineered is deemed heretical these days, not by the authorities, who don't really care, but by us academics ourselves who like to believe everybody out there is intellectually afraid of us. The second is a term I myself will fight for intellectual property rights over, since I was in Berkeley in the late 1960s and was one of a trifecta that founded The Eschaton Society with the aim of bringing down the apocalypse once and for all, as was everybody else actually in those days. We will be celebrating the 42nd anniversary of the apocalypse next spring. All are welcome. The fifth is, well, about why you have to say nothing at all after all, because any attempt to speak amounts to the f-word. As Lao-Tsu put it, "those who say do not know, and those who know do not say." I learned that in Berkeley.
The iconics of failure. We need to develop a sense of where all this not-talking is headed, because sometimes it seems that Rollins' appropriation of the Derridist strain in postmodern thought is a bit gamey. Unfortunately, that is the case with our current infatuation with Derridean apophaticism. As less sophisticated critics of the emergent movement have carped, there is so much emphasis on what's not right rather than what's right - less in say in Paul's idiom Christ's "righteousness". The apophatic moment is sometimes underwhelming, because it comes across as nothing more than simple critique. Critique qua critique can get boring after a while. There is a tendency to stand back, to weave in and out of predicating because "we don't want to sound like those worn-out Christian proclamationists, those heavy-handed gospel-plumpers. So we say nothing. Our negative word-space, our language sous erature, is not a pregnant silence but a barren one.
That has become the fate of the apophatic for the most part in the academy. It is not not-saying, but having nothing to say. I hope that Rollins' exposure to the US during this Obama-moment will be far more meaningful. In reality, his "silence" is, as I understand those who've taken part in his performance, or what he calls "transformance," art, rather than listen to him theologize, in Ireland is breathtaking. I quote from the self-definition of what he does on one of his websites. "Inhabiting a space on the outer edges of religious life, we are a Belfast-based collective who offer anarchic experiments in transformance art. Challenging the distinction between theist and atheist, faith and no faith our main gathering employs a cocktail of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre, ritual and reflection in an attempt to open up the possibility of a theodramatic event."
Rollins does not derive the strange trope of the "theodramatic" from either Caputo or Derrida but from Marion. But it is playful Marion, joyful Marion (is that an oxymoron?), a God-without-being that is more a Nietzschean, Zarathustrean becoming, the chaos/creativity that gives birth to a dancing star. One does not need to say anything when one dances instead. Deconstruction is the elision of the concept. The dance - Nietzsche's Fröhliche Wisseschaft - is the liberation of the sign. Worship amounts to what Rollins terms "iconics." Here we have to dig back into Marion to think Marion, as Heidegger might say, that Marion himself could not think.
Consider Marion's analysis of the icon. The icon is the visible "sign" as opposed to the "idol," which is the visible representation. The idol entices the noetic gaze, arrests it, and encloses the infinity of the divine within a visible framework, similar to Heidegger's Gestell, that cannot penetrate any further. The icon, in contrast, allows the divine to "saturate" the visible. The icon allows the gaze to roam across the boundless spaces of the unpresentable. It defies re-presentation. The idol is an image/concept. The icon constitutes an image/sign. Thus Marion's approach amounts to what we might term a pure semiotics of the visible. It is the somewhat loose architecture for an explication of what the painter Wassily Kandinsky, the theoretician of the "modernist" aesthetic which prefigures a postmodernist semiology, dubbed the "spiritual in art."
The noetics of iconicity, as I have argued in my admittedly difficult earlier book Fire and Roses, can ultimately be discerned not in the chains of signifying discursivity and webworks of intertextuality that require a yes/no, a saying/not saying, but in moments of performance. God is disclosed not in the Not, but in the event we call incarnational. Can there be nothing more "postmodern" and "performative" than the Incarnation? We do not speak silence so much as we ourselves live and "incarnate" in our bodies and our signifying praxis the sign of signs that is the logos/sarx that can only be called a "theosemiophany." Sometimes we offer up our theology by dancing to loud music.
That goes beyond even what Rollins terms "failure." Rollins illustrates failure as a kind of theosemiophany in his parable of the accused person who does not convince a court to convict him because of his Christian "convictions." "In a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity you have been accused of being a believer, arrested and dragged before a court," Rollins begins. All the evidence is presented. The accused has been to church, done good things, expounded in terminably the reasons one should be a Christian, a Christian adherent, a "convinced" Christian. But the judge court itself not convinced. Much to the shock of the defendant, who was preparing himself for martyrdom perhaps, the court acquits him with these reasons: "we have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christ-like endeavor to create it. So, until you live as Christ and his followers, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then my friend, you are no enemy of ours." The iconics of failure is about disclosing the emptiness - indeed the nothingness - of convinced posturing, of hard-hitting evangelical apologetics, of orthodoxy-pushing. It is the revelation of such failure, such as when Jesus got scourged and crucified, that counts as real revelation. I call it empty tomb eschatology, as in the original text version perhaps of the Gospel of Mark. Where did you go? Nowhere. Whom did you meet? Nobody. What did you say? Nothing. But what about this? "Be gone, I never knew you."
I appreciate profoundly the sentiment of this now pervasive anti-orthodoxy, anti-fundamentalist, anti-establishment apophaticism. But I ask: is there nothing anymore to be deconstructed? You can only have a revelatory negation when there is a position to be negated. That is Hegel's ongoing dialectic, not the kingdom of God. We forget about the total surprise of Easter morning after the long Saturday, not mentioned in Scripture, of anxiety. When the theatarical rockers of the late 1960s and early 1970s started smashing guitars and beheading babies on stage for a season, it was sensational. But it now bores. The day the music died in theology was when "they" discovered deconstruction as an arcane form of philosophical baby-beheading. Derrida as dada. Deconstructive dadaism. Derri-dada. Nada Dada!
I will say something that hopefully will outrage, but when all outrages have been "outed" for the sake of finding the new and improved episode of the outre and the outrageous, I am not hopeful. Dada is dead! How can heretics be burned when there are no inquisitors left? It's kind of like the puzzled look of one of my students who last Wednesday was celebrating the election of Obama and the inevitable banishment not only of the metaphysical melodrama of Darth Vader Republicanism but also of the evil Christian right, the miliatary-mongering American imperial exceptionalism, and the now-we- are- the- world-again sort of globopomo feelgoodism. His question. Now what?
Perhaps they'll be back. But as we go into week 2 we realize we are in a funk. Perhaps my young theological friend didn't mention the election because he realized it was time to move on. But to what? If we no longer are not saying, but just for now, is there anything left to say? Can Christians be burned for the sake of salvation when there is nothing left to resist, or to ridicule?
I like Pete Rollins. I like what he is trying to do with his "transformance art," though I wish he'd, as the French say, "forget Derrida." Time to move on, or to await the judgment of the court.
After postmodernism there is one passage in the Bible - it's actually the one is the Book of Revelation - that continues to trouble me. It's not about the gospel as non-gospel. It's about what John the Seer isn't the spiritual always about how we see? - calls "the eternal gospel." But it's neither about dancing nor silence. "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, 'fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.'" (Rev. 14:6-7, NIV).
Now that's transformance art!