Tuesday, July 31, 2007

...and taking names (2)

Another of Jamie Smith's remarkable achievements is his fine introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (RO). Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is the best overall introduction to the themes and major figures of RO. An added bonus of the volume is the interaction Smith develops between RO and the continental Reformed tradition. One particular aspect of RO with which Smith expresses some reservation from his Reformed perspective is RO's "participatory ontology."

Whether it is best described as a movement, a school, a sensibility, or a book series, RO presents a politics (socialism), based on an epistemology (illumination), funded by an ontology (suspension). All of this is presented as a counter to a post/modern ontology (nihilism), with its faulty epistemology and agonistic politics. In the programmatic volume, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, editors Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward single out the "suspension of the material" as the turn of Radical Orthodoxy. This turn of RO depends on an Augustinian Platonism, filtered through the Cambridge Platonists. In essence (!), RO espouses a view of the material that grounds every instance of immanence in transcendence. Only if the immanent participates in a reality beyond itself can its existence really be guaranteed. Another way of putting it is to say only a Christian (Platonist) can truly be a materialist without devolving into nihilism. While Smith applauds RO's defense of the project of metaphysics, he is not a great fan of the Platonic ontology RO employs (probably in part because he suffers from the Reformed allergy to the analogy of being, on which see millinerd's post).

At this point I offer only one disclaimer--namely, that I do not intend to defend RO per se. RO does seem to attempt to build the ontology from pagan sources in ways Augustine would disapprove, in a move of a sort of fundamental theology. "Why," the Augustine of De Vera Religione might ask, "when it comes to disputation, are we so eager to mouth the name of Plato rather than to have the truth in our hearts? (iv, 5)" Much of postmodern dogmatic theology (RO and those sympathetic, for instance) often falls into the trap of pointing out how postmodern their theology or Christianity is, as if being postmodern were its own virtue. Likewise, there is a tendency in RO to show how Platonic Christianity is, as if Platonism were also its own virtue. The truth of Christianity cannot be reduced to postmodernity or to Platonism; these are not the legitimizers of truth for the Christian. My concern, therefore, is to examine Smith's constructive critique and in turn critique the alternative he sketches. Perhaps the RO presentation of ontology does venerate Plato too much, but does Smith's critique really offer a more biblical (better: Christian) alternative? That is the question I will address. My critique will be split among two posts (and an interlude post). This first post will largely lay out the substance (!) of Smith's creational ontology.

From the beginning of his "Reformed Caveat" (197-223), Smith wishes to affirm the inherent goodness of the body and materiality. This is really the value that drives the rest of the discussion. The first assumption, therefore, is that the body and materiality should be defended as good. This is by no means an unproblematic assumption from the perspective of the Christian theological tradition. Even so, as I share the sentiment I will assume that the attempt is basically valid.

To spoil the fun of discovery, Smith counters RO's Platonic ontology with what he calls creational ontology, but might as easily be labelled a Leibnizian ontology. Drawing on Deleuze and Leibniz, Smith sketches briefly what he considers to be an ontology more consonant with the biblical tradition than Platonism. Platonism is to be avoided at all costs, for it posits a dualism (between transcendence and immanence, between soul and body) that ultimately denigrates material reality. Writ large, this means that material creation is seen as bad or ultimately to be abandoned. Following Leibniz, Smith rightly understands that such a dualistic Platonism not only defames creation, but by association also spurns the Creator. If the Creator created material reality, but material reality is to be superceded, then the Creator did not create perfectly. Creation is therefore seen as an inferior piece of handiwork, hardly a perspective that properly glorifies God, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. On this account any Platonic ontology that postulates a release from the body or from materiality must be considered decidedly non-Christian. Even Jean-Luc Marion's iconic ontology is faulty on this point. If the icon is only the window to a reality beyond itself, and not the reality itself, then the materiality of the icon is merely instrumental and can be discarded once the transcendent reality is attained. This ontology does not properly value the material, that is, creation, and thereby does not offer to God the full measure of worship due to God's glory. Smith says it this way: "For Leibniz, doing justice to the worthiness of the Creator demands that one affirm the integrity of creation, in particular, the materiality of creation. (212)" In other words, Smith's argument/claim is that Platonism always entails dualism, which in turn always privileges transcendence over immanence. And by means of the Christian doctrine of creation, this means an (at best) inadequate doxology.

So we cannot have dualism. Smith's counter proposal is an ontology of immanence in which the transcendent is already structurally imbued in the immanent. Leibniz was not arguing against a straight-forward Platonism, of course. His task was rather to safeguard against the dangers of occasionalism or absolute autonomy (more loosely and anachronistically, Deism). Occasionalism posited the direct activity of God in everything the transpires in the sphere of immanence. If a person raises and arm, God makes it happen; if a phone falls from a tree into a lake, doing a triple-axel toeloop after calling its mother and kicking the dog, God directly worked in all of it. There are some obvious problems with occasionalism. The most disconcerting problem is that with occasionalism no aspect of creation is really self-animating--that's what most of us call soulless--better yet, lifeless. Autonomy, on the other hand, risks the absence of the Creator. If every aspect of creation is completely sufficient in itself, it has no further need of a Creator after creation, and functions solely on its own independence. This, of course, denies providence or any kind of enduring activity of God in the world. (These are thumbnail sketches; bear with me.) In order to counter both, Leibniz needed a way of positing both the integrity (relative independence and self-functioning) of creation and creation's continuing dependence on the Creator. His solution was enkapsis.

Enkapsis means enfolding. A creative and active form or force, postulates Leibniz, is enfolded into materiality. Leibniz uses the term "monad" to label the basic ontological unit, which is material. "[W]hat is compressed or folded into the monad," explains Smith, "is simply order that inheres in matter. ...The temporal structure of materiality permits the unfolding of this original order folded into the organism. (216)" Smith concludes, "Therefore, not only is the plane of immanence imprinted with a divine order from the beginning, but it is only in this materiality that the original fold of the command can be unfolded; matter, or the body, is the theater of unfolding ad infinitum. (217)" In other words, because matter unfolds itself over time (bodies age, etc.), God's providence can be seen to unfold from the beginning, not from outside, but already imbued from the beginning. ...Kinda like predestination. But not really. (Really?)

Leibniz, therefore, helps move Smith along in his own task to "affirm both the radical dependence of the creation on the Creator and also the goodness of creation as created. (204)" This he does in three moves. First, a creational ontology affirms immanence. "This is precisely because the celebration of the richness of immanence is, as Leibniz demonstrates, a celebration of the richness of its Creator; emphasizing the integrity of creation is a mode of doxology, which indicates the worthiness of the Creator. (219)" Christians should love the material world. Smith quotes Badiou, who remarks on Deleuze's plane of immanence emanating from his "unwavering love for the world." Smith adds, "Certainly, a creational ontology should be characterized by this love for the world and hence must work from a fundamental affirmation of immanence and materiality. (220)"

Second, a creational ontology must affirm transcendence in order to safeguard the Creator/creature distinction. So, transcendence without the loss of immanence. This is accomplished, argues Smith, by means of the referentiality of immanence. Smith here quotes Dooeyweerd: "[M]eaning is the being of all that has been created. (220)" But we must hasten to add that this meaning is not substantial, but the referentiality or expression of an origin. That is, creation/material reality displays its own self-insufficiency, but only in the sense that it points to a Creator. "Therefore, the affirmation of the integrity of creation (or the goodness of materiality) contains within itself an affirmation of transcendence, not as another intelligible world...but rather as that which inheres in the structure of creation insofar as it points to a Creator. (220-1)" Whatever that means. In truth, I wonder where exactly meaning arises. I think an elementary exploration of hermeneutics tells us that meanings are not stable, and the postmoderns will surely be quick to point out that any meaning that inheres in creation, because it is already bound to be infinite in number must lead us to polytheism, not to a One. That is, unless the meaning of material in its infinite permutations is really all one. And then we're left with monism, or as RO names it, nihilism. I suspect this is the Leibnizian peril. But these are only suggestions that do not yet go to the heart of the matter.

The third move of Smith's creational ontology is an affirmation of Leibniz's enkapsis. Or rather, it is the synthesis of the previous affirmations of immanence and transcendence. Such an ontology must begin from the integrity of creation as the theater of the Creator's glory without the Platonic desire to peek behind the curtain, for this Platonic desire assumes that what appears on stage is a farce, a deceptive melodrama distracting us from the real story behind the scenes. ...There is no pristine, immediate access behind the scenes, rather, the invisible is seen in the visible, such that seeing the visible is to see more than the visible. (222-3)"

Sounds good, doesn't it? Let us begin ontology with creation. If only it were that simple, Smith's counter-ontology would be supremely fitting. But there are two ontological events and a whole array of biblical aesthetic that separate us from the original goodness of creation, and, in spite of its Hellephilia, RO's ontology takes these more seriously than Smith's. But since I will have to develop these ideas further, and since I have already covered much screen space in presenting Smith's creational ontology, I am compelled to break off here and continue my critique in the next post.

Next: An Interlude on the ontological significance of sin.


cynthia r. nielsen said...

Nice post. I look forward to your follow-ups.

Interestingly, a good deal of current Platonic/Neoplatonic literature argues against the traditional read of Platonism as dualistic.

Best wishes,

Andy said...

Hey Cynthia,

Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I understand Pickstock is working with that New Perspective on Plato, but Smith argues against Pickstock's use of Plato. He allows that her constructive use of Plato may be valid, but that it doesn't adequately account for the Platonic corpus. That is, as a historical reading he thinks it leaves out some of the data, while as a theological reading it makes sense (well, sort of).

At any rate, one of the questions that the whole discussion brings up for me is whether there is a similarly inconsistent dualistic tendency in (especially Early) Christian thought.

Thanks for reading. Keep posted, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the next moves in my critique.


Larry said...

Interesting and well summarized read of Smith. I couldn't find you second post on the sin and ontology, but this is where I have some questions.

Do you think that Smith's critique of RO is a blanket critique? Elsewhere Smith appeals to Milbank's peaceful ontology (especially in The Fall of Interpretation), so is it possible that his critique of RO's use of Plato is just trying to flush out some unthought aspects of RO's ontology in order to shed light of their use of nihilism and Milbank's outright aggression toward everyone after Dun Scotus?

I also wonder about Smith's use of Leibniz, it seems he wants monads with windows. But I think he would want to argue against any critique that levels his description of creation/materiality with the brokenness of creation by pointing to the "enfolding" of creation as its goodness that isn't lost in the fall but is being mishandled or unfolded improperly, i.e. with hearts of violence. So to make the "fall" structural is a hermeneutical decision that he has judged to be unnessary (even when trying to respect the truly terrifying nature of evil).

Lastly, when you read Smith's view of creation's integrity you seem to suggest that it is naive or too romantic because of the postmodern situation: "In truth, I wonder where exactly meaning arises. I think an elementary exploration of hermeneutics tells us that meanings are not stable, and the postmoderns will surely be quick to point out that any meaning that inheres in creation, because it is already bound to be infinite in number must lead us to polytheism, not to a One." But Smith didn't argue for theism, he argues that language shows and exteriority (affirming the work of Levinas, Derrida, and Marion) and that this anticipates a confession and points back to a (heart) commitment. So I think his point is that language is "already" religious, we don't just have religious and non-religious langauge that is supposed in a so-called neutral ontology.

I really want to hear more on your view of sin and its relationship to meaning. Thank you for such an excellant chance to get in on what is a very important philosophical/theological debate.