Having indicated my suspicions that a Leibnizian-Deleuzian ontology offers itself to as many slippery slopes as a Platonic one, it is now time to turn attention to the heart of Smith’s creational ontology. I indicated that the basic attempt at a creational ontology is brought into question by two ontological events and an array of biblical aesthetic. Before I arrive at these three, let us consider the most valuable element of Smith’s argument against Radical Orthodoxy (RO).
The real value of Jamie Smith’s argument for creational ontology is that he attempts to affirm the goodness of the body, which has suffered at the hands of many theologians. The current spike in interest in theology of the body is welcome, even if the scholarship is a bit flat. One does feel that there is often a rather uncritical acceptance or else a deep paranoia of the body and its passions in Christian theology. It is not often that one finds a middle ground. Although I did not grow up in a fundamentalist tradition, a mutation of Reformed evangelicalism did exercise its influence at a crucial point in my faith development. Often enough in such a tradition the body, especially the sexual body, is feared or otherwise to be tamed and broken for the sake of the [s]pirit. Smith, having grown up in similar circles, has exactly this kind of negative appraisal of the body in his sights when he loads the ammunition for his creational ontology. One gets the feeling that it is not so much materiality, but the body in particular (as proposed microcosm of the entire material order) that drives Smith’s campaign. And so it seems the closer we come to this issue the more we penetrate to the core of Smith’s argument.
The human person is the “test case” for these ontological musings. Now, whether we really want to install the human person as ontological test case for the whole of creation—a kind of reversal of Plato’s Republic, incidentally—is questionable. But since Christian anthropology begins in Christology (a contentious claim, I’m aware), we’re going to allow it here. In that case, of course, the foregoing interludes (on Donne and Herbert) raise some questions immediately. And so we come to the first ontological event to trouble Smith’s creational ontology: the Fall. "The Fall" I take as shorthand for the perception of Sin in the world. With "the Fall" sin and death entered the world, or maybe with the perception of sin and death, "the Fall" entered our lexicon. Either way, in the "drama" of salvation, the Fall looms as the blemish on the perfection of creation. Now if we lived in an unfallen world, Leibniz's ontology would be a fine explanation. This is precisely the (hyperbolic) argument of Voltaire's Candide. Leibniz does not take evil, nor especially sin, seriously enough in his ontology. If time were the only mark of transcendence, then we could not really talk about sin and evil, only of the perception of sin and evil, which is really the inability to acknowledge that we live in the best of all possible worlds. (Though, see David Hart's defense of Leibniz's theodicy against Voltaire in The Doors of the Sea.)
Voltaire's arguments bear some truth from a philosophical point of view, but from a Christian perspective sin is not really the consort of evil, but of death. Death and decay is the curse of a fallen world, not least the fallen children of Adam. Speaking of Adam, let me quickly engage in some diatribe against an imaginary interlocutor. Someone may say, "Adam was never intended to live forever." That is unclear from the creation narratives. In Genesis 2, Adam is told not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only after they eat from that tree is the tree of life removed from them. It's a thorny narrative, but after they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "they shall surely die."
So, death. Enfolded from the beginning of creation? I suggest not. Therefore, we have to decide whether Leibniz had in mind a pre-lapsarian or post-lapsarian ontology. I really do believe that the introduction of death and decay substantially (ha!) changes ontology. It is this cleft in ontology that makes the body both enemy and temple. The question is not well considered by Leibniz, nor I suggest, by Smith. In short, Smith seems to make the same mistake he rightly criticizes in Pickstock: "[He] seems to ignore the temporal qualifiers for such claims. (203)" Whereas Pickstock leans on Plato such that "all these claims in Plato are made with respect to what we might call a postlapsarian/pre-eschatological state--a time between fall and consummation when materiality is granted a certain remedially redemptive role," Smith's ontological musings seem to refer to a purely prelapsarian situation. And I suggest this is due to a lack of eschatological imagination.
I'll say it again, although Christians use Plato, they are not bound to an "authentic" reading of Plato. Christians use Plato (as all "secular" philosophy) to their theological ends, but their interpretations are all centered on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Where the Gospel overrides Plato the affinity ends and the correction is advanced. The eschatological end Pickstock has in view is the beatific vision. Smith takes arms against this because, "the model of the beatific vision as immediate intuition seems to require a negation of the embodiment of those who would experience such a vision. Insofar as discursivity is linked to physicality, a suggestion of an immediate, nondiscursive intuition for human beings must entail the assertion of a disembodied existence. (203)" In other words, being in the immediate presence of God requires the absence of body, and this the Reformed tradition must reject. I agree. But I am not convinced that the beatific vision must be bodiless, nor that embodiment need imply discursive non-immediacy.
I am aware of Smith's argument in The Fall of Interpretation, in which he argues that Paul's "face-to-face" eschaton (1 Cor 13.12), cannot be nondiscursive immediacy, but it does not convince because it does not fully understand resurrection. (I confess that I have not had the opportunity to review the book since the only library to which I have [limited] access does not carry the book. I confess myself disappointed that it is not in the collection here. If Dr. Smith or anyone else would like to "school me" on this point, I will happily listen.) The resurrection body is not the same as this body, though it is consistent with it. "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. ...So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. ...Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this moral nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15.36-38, 42-44, 51-57)" (Sorry, but it is worth quoting at length.)
In other words, the second ontological event that bring's Smith's creational ontology into question is the resurrection of Christ. Christ's resurrection, as the firstfruits and pattern of the general resurrection (according to Paul elsewhere in 1 Cor 15), again alters the possibilities of ontology. It could be objected that the ontological event in question is not Christ's resurrection, but rather the incarnation. As if they could really be separated. It is true that the resurrection would never obtain without the incarnation, but the incarnation is untrue without the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The incarnation is the promise of a new ontology, the resurrection is its seal (as/and the first concrete instance of the new order), the eschaton is its consummation.
And so we reach the eschaton, in which a bodily existence subsists, but not our current creaturely body. This body is but a seed, which when it dies will yield in the life to come a much more extravagant and beautiful, in fact glorious, body. This corruptible body will put on incorruption. And who knows the hermeneutical limits of that body? Who knows the discursive or nondiscursive activities of the soma pneumatikon (spiritual body)? Indeed, it will be a body, not simply a spirit, but it will be a transformed body. We will all be changed! In that life, who is to say that face-to-face cannot be nondiscursive? Who is to say that the beatific vision cannot be at once immediate AND bodily. After all, God now has a body. The risen Christ ascended bodily, the risen Christ is God. (Ok, now I'm asking for debate.) But consider that the witness of Scripture testifies both to the bodily resurrection and that God will be all in all. With only the former we would seem to have little more than an everlasting resuscitation of this world, a cleansed political order; with only the latter, we have apokatastasis. But with both together we have a new embodiment in which God will be all in all and yet we will all have bodies. Will we be inaugurated into the very body of Christ? I cannot say, and that may come close to heresy. But it is certain that just as Christ's resurrection body was unimaginable (walking through walls, etc.), so perhaps our resurrection bodies will be more permeable and less ours than we can currently imagine. My point: I do not think the resurrection body necessarily entails discursive non-immediacy; that is, I think the beatific vision and the bodily resurrection can coincide.
Not to belabor the point, but we see that even in our current state most clearly in the liturgy and, to take an example from Smith's own repertoire, in icons. It is probably true that Marion's iconic ontology eventually eschews materiality. But true icons do not. Jesus is not the icon of the Father in that he is transparent and eventually to be done away with. That's actually modalism, and is in fact, a heresy. But Jesus is the true image of the Father, precisely in his embodiment (the feminists will disagree--I mean his resurrected body, which I think is more fluid sexually than our current bodies; consider, for example, that Jesus said the resurrected neither marry nor are they given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven [Mk 12.25]). Icons are windows to a transcendent reality precisely in their materiality. That is, the only way through them is in them. One must accept and embrace the icon's materiality to find that which lies behind and above and through the material. In this sense, one could say the transcendent is enfolded into the material of the icon, not to be revealed over time, but rather in faith and grace and glory.
I did also mention an "array of biblical aesthetic," which I have already touched on lightly. What I mean is that with Smith, as with far too many theologians these days, the apocalyptic has fallen out. Now, this is my thesis about a great deal of theology, which, incidentally, is very hard to sell to Ph.D. programs. I do not mean imminent expectation or violence or crazy imagery. Those are symptoms that I think are merely tangential to the core of apocalyptic. At the very center is the cleaving of the heavens and the earth in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Two worlds were born of the apocalyptic perception, partially because of the expected return of Christ, but also by the access to the heavenly realms Christ inaugurated. I suspect one will find, if they will only listen, the apocalyptic voice throughout the New Testament. The book of Revelation, sure, but also in the Gospels, also in Paul, also in Hebrews. The revelation of Jesus Christ puts a question mark to our existence, not in a Tillichian or Heideggerian or Sartrian quandary, but by the revelation of the glory of God. The light of God shines in the darkness, and by the light we know the darkness. This is apocalyptic. This, I suggest, is the gospel. The creation, the fall, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection. These are the apocalyptic plot line, the gospel plot line. (Someday, I'll maybe get all of this published and then it'll have a more fair hearing.) Where do we find the apocalypse in Leibniz or Deleuze?Smith wishes to affirm both the radical dependence of the creature on the Creator and the original goodness of creation qua creation. I would first say that there is a great number of paths one can trod to answer the question of the creature’s dependence on the Creator that have no direct reference to ontology. In this genre I cite the ancient and noble religion of Judaism, whose primary foundational myth (ontology) is not the Creation, but the Exodus. A good hard look at Judaism could incite someone to build a covenantal ontology (as did Barth) rather than a creational ontology, and this describing indeed the creature’s dependence on the Creator/Savior, though through salvific event. Is it any wonder the exodus is a type for redemption in Christ among early Christians? Our dependence is not simply on the Creator, but also on the Redeemer, who saved us from what we had made of creation. (Whether human sin caused the entire curse of creation or some other evil, I remain ignorant.) That there should be sin and evil--and yes, death--in the world is not due to an imperfect Creator, but to a perfect creation gone awry. Herein lies Leibniz's error.
While Smith's creational ontology has good aims, I am afraid it falls short of its goal by overemphasizing the creation and underemphasizing the so-called drama of salvation. All that is, is not as it once was, nor as it will one day be. And since with Jesus Christ that one day breaks in on us (as Pannenberg would have it, proleptically), we occupy two worlds, and we acknowledge more than an ontology of immanence.
Next up (and hopefully last in the series): Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism and ecclesiology.
Disclaimer: Due to the need to move along in my other projects and the stretched patience of some of my readers, I regrettably publish this bit a little prematurely. I welcome corrections of inaccuracies and other well-meaning and helpful remarks.