Saturday, September 4, 2010

I. The First of Five Wounds/Five Desires: the Wounding of Our Desire for God

Theological Mashup. 
Wound/Desire 1: The absence (of God, peace, dwelling, self, truth) and desire for transcendence

We start with anthropology - the human condition, and posit first of all that at the heart of this human condition is a desire for the absent God - or the God who is made present by a felt absence. 

Peter Black speaks of eros (desire) as a form of “lack,” and the search for “completion.” (Black, 108-109)

"Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him." (Luke 24:13-16)

The experience of desire funded by absence, in our context today, seems to be driven most fundamentally by otherness and multiplicity, rather than historical or existential crisis. The experienced absence of God does not come to us so much as an experience of existential separation - modern industrial humanity’s alienated existence estranged from essence. It is not so much the experience of longing for reconciliation, acceptance, and return - existential lack and anxiety that creates a deep need. Neither does it seem driven by despair over the fate of progress within history. Instead, desire (eros) is experienced in the separation implicit in the idea of infinity, difference, or otherness, in all its multiplicity. 

Desire, as we will speak of it here, is desire for that which is, by definition, other - that which is unattainable and beyond fully knowing or possessing. According to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, this infinity “requires separation, requires it unto atheism, so profoundly that the idea of infinity could be forgotten. The forgetting of transcendence is not produced as an accident in a separated being (Tillich); the possibility of this forgetting is necessary for separation.” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 181). We see, therefore, in the absence of God, the possibility that is produced by the idea of infinity, or radical otherness itself.

Wendy Farley makes a few key observations about absence. “True life is absent” 1) “from totality itself, which is “structurally incapable of encountering the mystery and beauty of particular beings,” 2) metaphysically, that is beyond grasping, comprehension, or possession, and 3) within the self – in the absence of self-sufficiency and our “capacity for relationship.” (Eros for the Other, 70-71)

David Klemm asserts  “the very act of negating also makes being present.” “The withdrawal of being from thought” if an “ironic presencing of the primordial.” (Klemm, 459, 461). He then speaks of a “wound,” and the “loss of primary immediacy…to be and not to be in the presence of religious reality.” (462 ff. 466).

The advent of postmodernity heralds a shift from historical crisis to a crisis of reflexive existence, to reflexive “otherness.” We migrate from Barth’s “Krisis” of “negation” (unknowability of God) as a result of proclamation, and Heidegger’s “Krisis” of “inauthentic existence," the result of a forgetting of Being in an over rationalized and technologized world, to the crisis of the self's desire for itself-as-other - the reflection of the self on the self reflecting on itself on the self reflecting on itself........, and the self's desire for the self's other (the mystery of alterity in all of its forms).

In this context we encounter sociologist Wade Clark Roof’s “seekers.” And as Lyon puts it in his book Jesus in Disneyland, “…not only in America, but in several European countries, a vague, inchoate, but seemingly serious religious quest is in evidence.” Robert Wuthnow identifies “a shift from religious life as “dwelling,” to “seeking.” (see Lyon, 88)

Consider among seekers the crisis of self/other reflexivity noted above, coupled with the “malleability” of desire (Ludlow, in Laird, 509). As the self de-centers endlessly, desire shapes itself in many ways. It can be mimetic (and potentially violent) (Girard), consumerist (Lyon, Ward, Bauman), eroticized, spiritual, etc. In all manifestations it seeks transcendence. 

Bill Friskics-Warren, in I'll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence, asserts that much of popular music is oriented toward various forms of self-transcendence (through beauty, compassion, sex, sheer volume, community, exorcism, etc.)  

Paul Tillich says it this way: “each person is locked up within himself, and each desires to transcend himself through the power of eros.” (in Black, 113)

See also Laird on Nyssa, and the “clenched fist of desire” when turned in on itself. (510)

According to Tillich religion is the “depth” dimension of the human spirit (ultimate, infinite, unconditional). (Theology and Culture7), and his statement that “the religious and secular are in the same predicament…both of them…are rooted…in the experience of ultimate concern.” (9)

Charles Winquist goes in search of desire and lack in theological discourse. According to Winquist “The unrestricted desire to know is part of what is semantically given in explicating a theory of theological discourse. It is a characteristic of theological text production.” (Winquist, Epiphanies of Darkness, 102) In other words, to be a theologian, and to write theology, or to be a seeker, and to read theology, is to give expression to "the unrestricted desire to know." 

In this regard, Winquist exposits the work of theologian Thomas Altizer. Altizer focuses on faith “as the fullness of speech,” but by that he means a “fall” from “the quiescence of silence.” (Winquist, ED, 111) Speech, then, is a kind of essential difference – the beginning of meaning and identity. Like Derrida, “the origin of identity is the substitution of a signifier, a name, for the transcendental signified, and a displacement into a network of signifiers.” (ED,111) In Derrida, this is an act of difference, a “deferring that is also a differing.” (ED, 111) The naming of God, then, is experienced as “an exile,” an exile from God. In our context today, we are hyper aware of this exile. And the more the name is named, and reified, and familiarized, the more the person on the street cringes – the familiarity, the proliferation of names, locations, systems, etc. seems to increase the exile – create a pornography of God – a proliferation of pictures that only yield a surface, increase a lack, and perpetuate an unquenchable deferral of the thing itself. And yet, it is not simply a matter of becoming silent. We know that God “has an identity through difference” in all of this speaking and naming. Traces of God are there in the rubbish of names. So emerges the creative urge to subvert the names…to speak transgressively…on behalf of God.

So Dave Tomlinson in his book The Post-Evangelical, speaks about a group of seekers meeting in bars and coffee houses while talking of God. (see for instance Moot at And Tomlinson argues that living together before marriage, or without marriage, may not bring the system of God to a screeching halt. We're in a situation in which there is a broad “No saying to the name of God” even as a resounding “Yes” is said to an eschatological God who is coming, or emerging.

Is this the death of the God of totality and a(nother) birth of the God of infinity, the death of the God of the text and the birth of the God who peers at us through to gaps in the text? For Altizer, the negation of this God “is the realization of faith.” (ED, 114) According to Altizer, “there can be no real parousia of God, no real final and total presence of God, apart from a negation of every other presence and identity of God.” (in ED,118, Altizer, Total Presence, 49) Perhaps we are stumbling into kenotic Christianity, in which incarnation and eschatology will be the prevailing doctrines. The incarnation as “a fall into experience.” And eschatology as a radical proclamation of the Kindom of God in the middle of experience that completely reverses religious consciousness?

Or, from another perspective, of John of the Cross’ “dark night” of the spirit, according the R. Williams, “on the cross…the Father, we might say, has ceased to be in any way a graspable other for the subjectivity of Jesus. … In the life of God, love is always deflected from the ‘object’ that would close or satisfy, that would simply be the absent other imagined as the goal of desire; the other is always engaged beyond, engaged with another otherness. So to be included in the love of the Son for the Father is to participate in a love without satisfaction or closure – an endless love; and for us as creatures, that can only be felt as pain and privation before it is recognized as freedom….Divine love is most free in Jesus at the moment when the Father is no longer a determinate other over against him but an absent love that will not stand still to be consolingly viewed.” (in Davies and Turner, ed. Silence and The Word, 121) 

This sounds a lot like the desire that is invoked when the “named” God recedes – is parodied, lampooned, shadow-boxed, exorcized, in postmodernity.
In all of this, the first wound - an absence of God creates a desire for transcendence.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Caveat 1: Limited scope

We cannot critique desire (and in this case religious desire) apart from its manifestations in particular practices or habits at the experiential level. Let's not pretend that the five experiences below are comprehensive. I have chosen five experiences:

absence of the transcendent,
and ecclesial marginalization

which correspond to several key lived experiences that promote significant religious desire in today’s context. Within each of these experiences of the human condition, desire manifests itself in particular ways, some problematic, and some bearing within them great possibilities for theological invention and action.

Caveat 2: The vulnerability of desire.

It is important to assert, at this point, the vulnerability of desire, what E. Farley calls its “tragic” quality.
Vulnerable because constituted to some extent by a lack or non-fulfillment. (GE,109). Vulnerable therefore to subsuming itself as lack, losing its positive, eschatological aspect.
Vulnerable because “subject to the biological, historical, social, and even subjective influences.” (109)
Vulnerable because interdependent, and interdependence “can undergo alteration, decline, and distortion.” (109)

Caveat 3: The referent of desire

Do the desires that emerge in and through these experiences imply an “eternal referent?” Is the goal of a practical theology of desire to “fill in the blanks?” I presume not. This would be to undermine desire by making it desire attached to a specific object or referent. It would deny the “infinity” of the resource that desire seeks to encounter, and close the horizon of desire altogether. But we affirm that desire is not unrelated to the question of God. It does not necessitate or lead to the deduction of God, or to the denial of God as a projection of desire. It is, as W. Farley puts it “that feature of the human agent apart from which there could be no question of God.” (EO, 113) This eternal horizon does not redeem or “found” this desire, whether as a “passion for reality” or as “the other yearned for by interhuman passion,” to use Farley’s language, until it occurs as “an actual presence,” in the “presencing of the sacred,” the “creative ground of all things.” (EO, 113) This, of course, leads to the threshold of theology’s door. The goal of a practical theology of desire is to recognize the contours of desire in its deepest and most potent forms, to analyze its structure, pointing to both demonic and redemptive possibilities. Then, some form of religious imagination must be construed that will meet both the demonic and redemptive challenges set forth, including habit of the heart and practices.

Caveat 4: Our “Cognitive Style”

Let's assume a cognitive style that builds on E. Farley’s “reflective ontology." This style of thinking assumes that contextualist and deconstructive critiques of ontology are “relative rather than absolute,” and are ongoing ways of opposing “distortions” rather than “constituents” of reality (GE 17). In other words - let's not allow ourselves to get stuck in deconstructive double binds and dead ends. According to Farley deconstructive critique is not a “direct rejection of presence, representation, and ultimacy but a transgressive disruption of unhistorical modes of thinking these things.” (GE, 17) Reflecting on the “being” of things phenomenologically, therefore, can be “regional, epochal, and historical…to explore the being of (human) reality is to explore what shows itself as enduring.” (GE, 25) In other words, deconstruction cannot be grounds for a positive practical theology…it remains primarily a “therapeutic.” (See GE, 25) We need, however, to consider what we mean by ontology at this point.

Ontology via Edward Farley: There are three spheres of human existence, the interhuman, the social, and the personal. The interhuman is primary for ontological inquiry because it “engenders the criterion, the face (Emmanuel Levinas)" (GE 29) or ethical awareness the other that is the ontological ground for all religion. This remains the deepest substratum for our reflection, which will move back and forth from the interhuman level to the social and personal spheres where the depth ethical criterion of the face gives way to a "presencing" of desire, in its many aspects. (see GE, 97ff)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Join me in a theological mashup

Theological Mashup: Desiring God: A Postmodern Practical Theology

Join me in a theological mashup. The beginnings of this mashup are below (likely above, given how blogs work). Please add your comments - and the section you want your comments inserted into, and I'll "edit" them in. Apologies for not being media savvy enough to insert some kind of "wiki" gadget to accomplish this. This comment style may work better, however, since I want eventually to produce a more polished theological mashup.

Consider yourself, as I did in producing this mashup, as a DJ, or mixologist, grabbing vinyl out of crates and incorporating theological "breaks" into this mashup, or pulling theologically attenuated "samples" out of a file or loop browser within a digital audio workstation such as Acid Pro, Logic, Garageband, or Pro Tools and trying it out in the mix.

The focal point of this mashup (for starters) were these three books:

Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (WHD) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Wendy Farley, Eros for the Other: Retaining Truth in a Pluralistic World (EO) Pennsylvania University Press, 1996.
Edward Farley, Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (GE) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

You don't have to have read these books or the books and articles below to continue. I've incorporated "breaks" from these resources and will try to make them understandable. Feel free to add other resources in your comments.

As a theological DJ, the complete list of books and essays I have pulled from my bookshelves and added to my crates to throw onto my turntables (so far) are listed below. Each book is dog-eared with breaks underlined and ready to go.

In the Crates

Robert Adams, “Pure Love,” Journal of Religious Ethics 8 (1980): 90-98.
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (LM) Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2000.
M.M. Bhaktin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Peter Black, “The Broken Wings of Eros: Christian Ethics and the Denial of Desire,” Theological Studies 64 (2003): 106-26.
Anton T. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World: A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962).
Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayol, The Practice of Everyday Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Rebecca S. Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (WHD) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
____________, Eros for the Other: Retaining Truth in a Pluralistic World (EO) Pennsylvania University Press, 1996.
____________, “Emmanuel Levinas: Ethics as Domination or Desire,” in Arlene B. Dallery, Stephen H. Watson, E. Marya Bower (eds.) Transitions in Continental Philosophy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994.
Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic. (FB) London: Ashgate, 2001.
____________,Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (GE) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Musicians Might Learn a Thing or Two from Theologians

This is a two-way street, or at least I hope so. While popular musicians and artists have the edge by way of inventive practices and techniques of composition (sampling, looping, remixing, etc.), theologians who have studied within a religious tradition have something to offer. At the very least, they offer depth and complexity, which can help those within the networks and flows of popular culture better navigate the resources available to them. How can these more complex ideas be best presented? And how can they be placed into creative juxtapositions with other religious  "breaks" and "beats" within mashup religion, in order to invent theological ideas that are potentially helpful?

Theologians Might Learn a Thing or Two From Pop Musicians

For many people in developed nations, the religious life takes place at the intersection between religious traditions, religious or quasi-religious ideologies, and popular culture. Religious resources, which in the past were the sole property of traditional communities of belief, are disseminated widely through popular media such as the Internet, radio, and television. For years, sociologists have been heralding this shift, showing how traditional religious resources now take their place alongside a huge range of resources minted within the networks and flows of popular culture.

In this context, lived religion resembles a mashup. In the world of popular music, a mashup is a song consisting entirely of parts of other songs. Usually, the work of one musical artist is sampled and broken into bits. These bits are placed into juxtaposition with sampled bits of music created by several other artists. The result is a musical pastiche that, in the final analysis, becomes something very different from its original prototype. By analogy, people who “do religion” today tend to take the ideas within particular religious traditions and mash them up using ideas gleaned from many other resources, some religious and some not. In the process, for better or worse, they invent new theological ideas and models.

In the context of mashup religion, theologians are losing their inventive edge to other forms of cultural production. Musicians and other popular artists are using new technologies in the service of artistic invention, and in some cases in the service of theological invention. Whereas some theologians use newer technologies to spruce up the presentation of traditional ideas, they do not use them to aid in the invention of new ideas. Theological lecturers and preachers use presentation software to project pictures and video-clips to help them teach the same ideas they’ve taught for years using handouts and slide shows. Religious journalists and bloggers use the Internet to present and disseminate preconceived ideas. Most Contemporary Christian and Praise and Worship musicians use recent music technologies to dress up conservative evangelical theologies in the rhythms and sounds of pop music.

What goes missing are the ways recent technologies, and the inventive practices they foster, can help theologians, in a variety of contexts (higher education, ministry, journalism, music, activism, etc.) in the actual invention of new and useful theological ideas.

 (the paragraphs above are from the Introduction of my forthcoming book, Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (Baylor University Press, forthcoming, Fall, 2011).

This blog is devoted to investigating and resourcing some of the ways theologians can learn from these resources within popular culture