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Monday, October 1, 2012

Of God, monsters, enemies, strangers, or friends?

My position on current tensions surrounding questions about religion and secularism is heavily influenced by Nietzschean outlooks (by way of the works of Foucault and Derrida). It was Nietzsche who (in)famously proclaimed the 'death of God'. This proclamation is sometimes adopted in popular discourses as an atheistic statement. But this would be a grossly inadequate reading of Nietzsche, for he would not make such a determinate metaphysical proposition. In fact, it is precisely such a habit of craving metaphysical certitude that he was warning against. 

For Nietzsche, the death of God signalled a profound cultural crisis, the advent of a ‘historical period during which humankind establishes new gods—science, technology, race or nation—to worship, new foundations upon which to slake its thirst for metaphysical certitude’ (quote from this interesting essay on the aesthetic and ascetic dimensions of Nietzschean and Foucauldian thought). Hence, he says:
God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. – And we – we still have to vanquish his shadow too... (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 108, p. 167)
From this perspective, whilst current atheistic criticisms are to an extent necessary to defuse the discriminatory, and sometimes violent, effects of sedimented approaches to theism, I think it ought to be asked if they are in their own way staging a play of shadows. For Foucault, Man (and it is precisely such a gendered term) is the biggest shadow left behind by the death of God, hence his (in)famous declaration that we ought to also welcome the death of man—which is not a call for the end of humankind as such, but to invite us to go let go of a historically contingent form of subjectivity, a non-essential way of relating to ourselves as a transcendental authentic subject who is capable of knowing the truth about ourselves and the world solely with objective Reason. Anyway, all these reminded me of the following bit from Khyentse Norbu's film The Cup (Phorpa):    

video

The story of the rabbit and other creatures raises an interesting question about how we relate the self to self and distinguish between enemies, strangers, and friends. I think this nicely illustrates Levinasian ideas about ethics that inform my work via Derrida (see my other posts on hospitality). The story stages what could be called an 'inaugural scene' which finds expression in all major sacred traditions. In Buddhism, the would be Buddha is said to have had four such encounters before renouncing his princely life to embark on a search for Awakening. Here's a nice gloss of how Levinas' ethical philosophy about responsibility towards the other raises the question of how we distinguish between enemies, strangers, and friends (from this radio show 'Saint, Strangers and Enemies' with Kevin Hart and Richard Kearney):

Kevin Hart: The face of the other, proximity, as Levinas says, is the sense of the desolation and vulnerability of the other, it's got nothing to do with the visage, the actual physical face of the other. It can be the smell of the other person as much as anything; the smell of fear, the smell of dirt, indeed, anything that pierces us. Now, it's true, we do have a sense in liberal secular democracy these days that I should be able to do anything as long as it doesn't impinge on someone else, and the other person is just fine as long as he or she doesn't impinge too much upon me. That is fine at the level of society, but that is not ethics. Ethics which, for Levinas, is something which comes before our social being is a much more primal thing, whereby the other person impinges on me directly in some way, that I am responsible for that person without that person ever forming a contract with me. Anyone who comes across my line of vision, for Levinas I am responsible for, and he says this is a phenomenologically basic idea, which is probably if not true very close to the truth. 
Richard Kearney: In most languages, and particularly in European but others too, the word for stranger can be read as a guest or as an enemy. This goes for xenos in Greek - it's our work xenophobia, xenophilia, and xenia was the word for community and hospitality. Hostis, which we have in our own language: hostility and hospitality, both come from the same root, and the word hostis could mean a stranger, but a stranger who is a guest, once you allow the stranger into your home and trust in the stranger and bring out the good in the stranger and offer healing and hospitality to the stranger. Or the stranger can be an enemy and can kill. 
So it's not a question, as I say, of naive, all-inclusive you-come-in-ism, but it is a question of learning constantly to try to discriminate between the stranger as guest or as enemy, and where possible convert the latter enemy into the guest. 
I'm just very impressed by Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker and was devoted to opening hospitality houses in down and out areas, slums of American cities. And at one point she said, you know, working through the night, there's a knock on the door. And somebody asks for refuge and sanctuary and food and water. Do you think, you know, Matthew 25, I was a stranger who asked for food and drink and you didn't give it to me. And the word "stranger" is repeated five times in Matthew 25 by Jesus. I was the stranger, the one you didn't recognise. And she said, "Is this Christ the stranger, or is it Jack the Ripper? And how can I tell the difference. And if I don't make some judgment call in this difficult call of wanting to welcome the stranger absolutely and unconditionally, I may be letting somebody in who could be a rapist, a murderer, an abuser, who could put further in danger the people I've already let in: a battered woman, a child abused," and so on. 
So there's always this difficulty. And yet the wager is, where possible, to see the good in the person and to respond to that goodness. But sometimes you may have to close the door. So yes, one can't be naive about welcoming everybody, but let me give some more examples. And funnily enough it's in stories I think we find precedents for helping others in this kind of situation. 
Going back to the very beginning of all wisdom traditions, there is an inaugural scene, or primal scene, where someone is approached by a stranger and opens the door or closes the door, or goes back and forth in sort of an oscillating moment. Examples in the Abrahamic religion, we have Abraham and Sarah who are in their tent when suddenly three strangers arrive out of the desert. What are they to do? Are they to close the doors of the tent and batten down the hatches and resist, or kill them - treat them as hostile enemies? Or they going to welcome them into their hearts and homes? And Abraham looks at the strangers and decides - it's a wager of interpretation - I will give them food. And if I do I will convert them from being ostensible enemies into God. And in effect that's the opening story of Abrahamic religion, where he says yes and they enter the home, Sarah and himself give them food, they eat under the Tree of Manna and the impossible becomes possible, namely, hospitality is won from hostility. The three strangers reveal themselves as the Divine and they say to Sarah, who is barren, "You shall be with child." And she laughs, because that's what you do when you're faced with contradiction and paradox and impossibility. You laugh. It's ridiculous. the child, Isaac, is born nine months later and he's called Isaac because that's the Hebrew for laughter. 
A similar situation - I won't go into the details - happens in Christianity when Mary says yes to the stranger. She ponders. The phrase in Luke is "She is troubled and ponders and says it's impossible." But the stranger says what is impossible or seems impossible to you, ie that this hostility - because she recoils in fear from this stranger - could actually become hospitality, and indeed the inauguration of a new birth, a new child, Christ. She then in a moment of grace moves from fear to grace and says yes, and the impossible becomes possible. 
So there again, the ostensible hostis, the hostile stranger, becomes Gabriel, the Annunciation of a new child. And I think this goes on and on down through the history of religions, if one looks at Islam also with Mohammad and the cave - but we won't go into that.



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