idolatry


This is always an issue in bushfire season – more than 100 fires are burning in NSW alone at the moment. So what would you take with you if you had to evacuate in the path of a fire? My mother, for instance, needs a truck, which could be loaded speedily, up and down the 60 stairs, as the embers fly in. As for me, I’m a frugal type. Basically what’s in my shorts: a memory stick, wallet, keys and, most importantly, my pocket watch.

I hear this one in myriad variations:

‘Badiou’s use of Paul is merely as an example of his preconceived system’.

‘Does Negri need Job? No’.

‘Those Americans are not really exegetes’. (They are probably not many things, but exegetes?)

‘Is that really what Calvin is saying or is that you?’

And perhaps the best of all: ‘Do you need Ezekiel?’

On the surface they may sound innocent enough: we need to read carefully and attentively, exegeting the text for its true meaning. But beneath that are deeply held theological and autocratic assumptions. Earlier I had a dig at the theological side of things, but let’s look at the autocratic assumptions. The text and ultimately the author is the autocrat with the supreme authority; the task of scholars is to discern the autocrat’s meaning and will; in doing so, leave all of your petty preconceptions at the palace door. Here too theology is not far away, for autocracy traditionally argues: one God in heaven, one ruler as his representative on earth. Of course, the problem is which autocrat do we mean? During the period of absolute monarchies, myriad rulers – Russian, Prussian, Danish, papal … – claimed to be God’s sole representative. The implications for texts should be obvious.

 

 

(ht er’s father)

Not a few people will have noticed the wordplays running through the UK’s student protests last week (I arrived in London just after these events). To begin with, students targetted Tory headquarters in Millbank:

Give or take an ‘l’, we all know that Milbank is a pseudonym for Alasdair MacLagan. However, the students seem to have taken a dislike to Alasdair, offering a more vigorous form of argumentation:

It was not that long ago that Maclagan and his protégée, Phillip Blond, were touting the virtues of ‘red toryism’. Other terms come to mind these days, like Tory Pigs:

Or Dickhead Tories:

The only things red about them, as AA suggests, seem to be the flames of burning effigies:

All the same, it is great to see the return to community values, the ‘big society’, the moral economy and popular custom, touted by Blond, Maclagan et al.

Of course the timing of this has nothing to do with Easter, but the Turin Shroud Center in Colorado has conned someone into giving them a shitload of money in order to recreate the face of Jesus from that 13th century forgery:

I don’t know about you, but he looks remarkably like those traditional pictures of some dude with a beard. But hey, why not use the Turin Banana:

Or perhaps the iron:

Or the KitKat found next to the shroud:

Or the Turin Dog’s Arse:

But the real question is: what would Jesus do in response to all of this speculation?

Or maybe …

Update: with thanks to Sean Burt.

I have just read an insightful piece by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian concerning the rolling crisis over paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church. She traces the way each denial and defence has collapsed: it is a few bad apples; it is an Anglo-Irish problem; it is no worse than in society in general. Instead, it is systemic in the church and far worse than in society outside the church. In the end she argues that the priesthood, bolstered, defended and centralised in Rome, is a fundamental problem, and that for two reasons: a) it is assumed that a man changes ‘through the grace of God’ when he becomes a priest and can resist his usual sexual urges; b) he becomes a figure of enormous authority and trust for the faithful and even the not-so-faithful. In other words, what has bred and fostered a culture of paedophilia is a system of unchecked authority and deference. I would add a third: the need for the show to stay on the road. Those of a Reformed background call this ‘churchiolotry’, embodied in the RC doctrine of ‘no salvation outside the church’ (and indeed in Radox’s argument that ‘true’ theology comes only from the church). But I have found it in any and every church. Talk to someone whose identity is determined by the church, who has committed his or her life to the church, and you will find that the church is the prime object of faith and devotion. Once that happens you begin to hide its mistakes and injustices and enhance its status in the world. That is precisely what seems to have happened on the matter of paedophilia. If a church, any church, can achieve global dominance then it is worth any cost.

This is fucking crazy (forgive my Bulgarian) and just slightly idolatrous:

[The church] is the continued event of the ingestion of the body of Christ

And yes, it’s the desperately frenetic Alasdair Maclagan (who knows deep down that Theology and Social Theory was his only good book)  slagging off against Adam Kotsko of An und für sich. Actually, the worst of it is the sign of someone well past his prime dismissing any new work as worthless and unable to recognise, graciously, something far smarter than his own limited capacities.

Update: The Dunedin School has taken this to its reductio ad absurdum to argue: a) this means that the church is Christ’s poo; b) that theology, since it can arise only from the church, is therefore the poo that comes from the poo of the church. However, at this point, the DSs get it wrong, arguing that Christ is the final step of this scatotheology. No, Christ is the source, the original nourishment that produces excrement in the first place (the church), of which theology is thereby the secondary product.

Every now and then I come across the comment that the world has become disenchanted. Once upon a time, we had a lovely enchanted world, full of magic and wonder, but now it has become drearily disenchanted. The reasons are various: capitalism, industrialisation, Protestantism (a position taken, among others, by that pious dickhead, Kevin Hart)… So the solution is some form of re-enchantment, usually with a traditional Roman Catholic angle. More hocus pocus, not less, is the cry. Unfortunately, some greens follow a version of this argument, arguing that the cause of our environmental problems is a spiritual crisis, a  loss of the sense that the earth is sacred, vibrant and filled with spiritual wonder.

But do we really want to believe once again that aubergines are deadly for Christians or that the devil pisses on blackberries? If you are going to re-enchant the world, then go the whole hog. In that medieval golden age so beloved of radical orthodoxy, Alasdair Maclagan, eco-spiritualists, and muddle-headed theologians, the devil does indeed piss on blackberries. You see, you need to pick your berries by 29 September (in the northern hemisphere at least), since on that day the devil has an almighty leak and makes them inedible.

At a deeper level, the whole narrative of enchantment-disenchantment-re-enchantment is skewed. As Marx in his early comments on fetishism argued, it is more a case of profane-sacred-profane, the enchanted or profane moment being an anomaly in the story. On that matter, he shares this argument with the biblical polemic against idolatry as found in Isaiah 44.

At last it is time to respond to Colin’s post from a while back on idolatry etc, which was actually a response to my earlier one on the same issue. I argued that the ban on idolatry in the Hebrew Bible is actually an effort to block what I called the signifying link between the object made and god. The logic goes as follows: someone uses a symbol to act as a reminder of their god, as a finger pointing to that god.  However, someone else (a biblical prophet, a monotheist or an atheist) comes along and points out that the god in question doesn’t exist; therefore, the object points to nothing and all that is worshipped is the block of wood, piece of stone or metal statue. In other words, you now have an idol; the definition of idol is therefore a broken signifying link between symbol and god.

Further, the second commandment forbids the making of any graven image. Why? Is it just the construction of idols that it in question? Is it the risk that someone will say, ‘hey, let’s make a nice figurine out of this drift wood and that will be my god’. No, the problem is that someone will make a symbol, something that points to God. That is what is forbidden: nothing may represent even the one true God. But why should that be forbidden? The making of a symbol relies on the construction of signifying link between symbol and God. And once you have that link, it too may be broken. Someone may well say: you believe all the other gods don’t exist, but why does the same argument not apply to your god? You too worship an idol. So the second commandment blocks the possibility of a signifying link between symbol and god so that such a link cannot be broken.

Now, Colin replies by noting a paradox: symbols are banned but human beings cannot avoid symbols. What are we to do? Colin makes a distinction between symbol and idol:

But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols?  This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me.  Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah.  The idol is a representation of the deity.  It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself.  But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god.  The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine.  There must be symbols to point to the Divine.

An idol seeks to capture the deity, contain God in this or that object or indeed person, but a symbol does not do so, for it points to God. Good argument, but in reply let me point out that much turns on the perspective one takes – granting the distinction between symbol and idol. What is a symbol to an insider is an idol to the critic. My symbol is your idol, and vice versa. In my discussion I attempted (imaginatively) to see the situation from the perspective of the so-called ‘idolater’: for him or her it is not an idol, but a symbol. My symbol is your idol and vice versa. To the Reformers, the saints and icons and images of the Roman Catholics were so many idols, but to the Roman Catholics they were symbols. To the Christian, Christ is the ‘son of God’, but to the Muslim that makes a human being an idol. The distinction between idol and symbol is not as watertight as it might seem, leaking all over the place. For that reason the ban on images makes no exceptions. I must admit to being very sympathetic to the ban, especially in the way Theodor Adorno made it into a leitmotiv of his philosophy. But that leads us into discussions of utopia.

Slowly this new blogsite is being unpacked, but now I need to go to Canberra via Sydney – travelling by trains for the next three days – so the boxes will be opened more slowly. Meanwhile, I want to write:

a) a reply to Colin Toffelmire on idolatry

b) an argument for an unethical and unmoral position, since ethos (Greek) and mos (Latin) mean custom, habit, what is assumed to be the proper way to do things in society. That is, leave the class structures alone, don’t ruffle the status quo, grease social relations so they run more smoothly, in short, be ‘ethical’. Not for me, since I want an unethical and unmoral politics – aethikos and praeter more.

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