Review: ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism’

Readers of this month’s edition of the journal Modern Theology can look at my extended review of this excellent book:

A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, Christopher R. Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader

Do drop me an Email if you need a copy.

This book will be a vital resource for those considering theology in light of the various Continental philosophies of materialism and the Real, including the work of Badiou, Meillassoux, Deleuze and Latour, as well as Harman and the programme of speculative realism. For the book listing see here. For a sample of the book itself see here.

Here’s my first paragraph as a sample:

This co-authored book engages with and appropriates a new strand of thought within contemporary Continental philosophy, namely, the re-emergence of the Real as an ontological and material category. Its provocative ambition is to recalibrate, or perhaps even reformulate, Christian systematic theology in the wake of this philosophical development, so as to equip it to engage ‘in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere’ (p.2). The programme that ensues is called ‘relational Christian realism’ (henceforth ‘RCR’). Thus, whilst the book will certainly be of interest to sociologists analysing in an empirical mode the ways in which religion is embedded in human relationality, it ultimately requests (and deserves) to be considered as a programme located within and measured according to the categories of Christian systematic theology.

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Badiou, Latour and Saint Paul

At the very outset of his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Badiou lays out the possibility of a philosophical reading of Paul:

Basically, I have never really connected Paul with religion. It is not according to this register, or to bear witness to any sort of faith, or even anti-faith, that I have, for a long time, been interested in him.(p.1)

Badiou confirms that he has appropriated Pascal, Kierkegaard, Claudel, etc on the same footing. His project is after all one of a very pure atheistic thought. He goes further, however, by characterizing Paul’s specific religious commitments and methods as irrelevant, as so much noise, along with everything else that renders him a particular historical individual:

Anyway, the crucible in which what will become a work of art and thought burns is brimful with nameless impurities; it comprises obsessions, beliefs, infantile puzzles, various perversions, undivulgeable memories, haphazard reading, and quite a few idiocies and chimeras. Analyzing this alchemy is of little use. (p.2)

This, I think, is where Badiou parts company with a thinker like Latour. For the latter, nothing is given in excess of the logistical flows of meaning that are enacted from within the common worldThis is not reductive materialism. It simply denotes an axiomatic philosophical commitment to be open to encounter with a dramatically expanded range of actors. There is no reason why the actor named ‘Paul the religious thinker’ should not be encountered in these terms, unless his being had been prematurely foreclosed by Badiou himself, by means of an external diktat every bit as ferocious as the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics identified by Heidegger.

Latour’s philosophy offers great promise for a re-consideration and re-instatement of theological topoi that have been ‘corseted by too narrow a set of legitimate agencies’ under the aegis of previous epistemological regimes (Latour, 2013, ‘‘Waking up from ‘Conjecture’ as well as from ‘Dream’: A Presentation of AIME’, p.3). ‘All [actors] ask to exist’, Latour writes, ‘and none is caught in the choice—viewed (by the Moderns) as a matter of good sense—between construction and reality’ (Latour, 2010, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, p.56).

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Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, Part 1

Latour’s concept of the ‘crossed-out God’, ‘le Dieu barré, hors jeu’, describes the way in which religion has become illegitimately instrumentalized within the Modern polis. This immediately differentiates his work from attempts at political theory recently developed elsewhere in Continental philosophy, since these are predicated on the attempt to develop a politics based on a very pure form of atheism. This point has been well-developed by Christopher Watkin in his excellent study of the work of Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux, Difficult Atheism.

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Instead, it is more appropriate to propose kinship between Latour’s work and an alternative formulation of the relationship of contemporary politics with religion, namely, Eric Voegelin’s ‘political religion’.

Although it supplies the title of his 1938 book, Die politischen Religionen, published in Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi annexation of Austria, this concept has often been relegated to the status of footnote in studies of Voegelin’s political theory, first on the basis of its supposed contextual specificity vis-à-vis the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, and second on the basis of the author’s subsequent tendency to question its explanatory value in later writing and to prefer alternative formulations for his analysis of the contemporary political situation. For a survey of its use by Voegelin and its reception history in later Voegelin scholarship, a useful article is Gontier (2011), ‘Totalitarisme, religions politiques et modernité chez Eric Voegelin’. For a history of its use before Voegelin, there is another useful article by the same author, that is, Gontier (2013), ‘From Political Theology to Political Religion: Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt’, p.25, fn.2.

However, recent critical re-evaluation of the place and function of this concept within Voegelin’s thought as a whole enables us to reconsider it now in relation to Latour. This re-evaluation is well represented by the essays in Hughes, McKnight & Price (eds.) (2001), Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin. Of particular interest is the contribution by Peter Optiz in this volume, which argues that the structural outline of Voegelin’s entire political theory is found in this early book, which is thus of greater importance than has often been acknowledged in Voegelin scholarship up to now.

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