Monday 21 October 2013

Religious transcendence: Bug or Feature?; Secular [REL]?; [REL] is an amalgam?

I just finished reading chapter 11 of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.  Wow, it was hard work!  (And I started his book Rejoicing today too - no rest for the wicked...)  There's a huge amount to say about the chapter but I think the main thing to ask is this: is religious transcendence a bug or a feature?  That's what it comes down to.

Latour insists that it is the former, that what religion (or Christian religion, anyway) is 'really about' is the immanent process of proselytisation, of converting others by translating the Good News, thus bringing them closer together and thus making them into 'persons.'  This process is intrinsically transformational both in terms of the words used and the subjects involved.  If either words or subjects fail to be transformed then REL atrophies and its institution is gradually lured into 'belief in belief' - the apparently crazy supposition that religion is a set of tenets that its believers 'hold' (and hold still, static); referential beliefs about how reality is (i.e. 'there is a God; homosexuality is a sin', etc.); doxa qua ontology.  The idea that prior to the scientific revolution the declarations of plump religious authority figures were all people had as reference to the far away (and that reference wasn't superimposed on something else as a category mistake but was simply outcompeted by a far better model) isn't considered.

The suggestion is that Jesus was put on the Earth to do this work (or kick start it) and at some unspecified point in the past (presumably beginning from some time shortly after the year 0 and extending an unknown number of years) there was a Golden Age where this is what the institution set up to nourish this value - namely, the Church - did: proselytise, immanently and without reference or belief.  I'm not an expert on the history - I'm not even really an amateur on the subject - but this strikes me as largely bullshit.  Correct me if I'm wrong.

Here's the thing: Latour's philosophical nemesis, the godfather of the Moderns died a full four centuries before Jesus was even born.  Yes, Socrates.  It seems to me that he pretty much is 'Double Click' [DC].  Moreover, the Church has had strong Platonic influences from its very beginning.  So when was this age when the values were nourished and the oh so obviously false allure of transcendence was kept at arms' length?  This 'empiricist' philosophy has no answers.

The other major issue is the fact that, taken at an analytical level, at the level of technicalities, the institutions of religion do not seem to 'own' the REL mode.  A couple's assurances of love constitute 'personification' in a sense that Latour articulates and then uses to define the REL trajectory - acts of REL personify similarly; REL is love writ large is the suggestion (but only that).

So, on that level it seems perfectly possible that while religion may typify REL - that is, Christian proselytisation may be the archetypical, classic instantiation of the mode - it does not own it; that secular religious talk, secular personification is possible.  However, the entirety of the rest of the argument utterly buries this possibility.  The whole mode is constructed out of purely Christian (and largely Catholic) words and concepts (even though, allegedly, REL must be reproduced always using new words! it must never stay the same!...).  No further mention of any kind of REL outside of religion is given.  By the end the idea seems entirely implausible.

There are two possibilities: either (a) secular REL exists or (b) it doesn't.  If (a) then why not mention it?  Why build the entire mode out of one institution's iteration of it (and an institution that is admitted to have done a very bad job of looking after it over the years).  That would be a monumental failure of diplomacy.  But then if it's (b) then there are two further possibilities; either (1) the non-religious, since they don't participate in the rituals, don't get to be people, or (2) the non-religious are personified by REL without knowing it, somehow.  The latter is seemingly impossible for any Latourian metaphysic; the former is either a tremendous insult to the non-religious or becoming a 'person' isn't all that important after all.

None of those options seem like especially good ones.  Are some humans deprived of personhood?  And if so how come nobody noticed until now?  Does it even matter?  And if not why take up such a large chunk of my Sunday making me read all about it?  (Why sum up the chapters on REP and REF so wonderfully succinctly and then spend oh so many pages saying basically the same things over and over again on the subject of religion?  Am I meant to be converted out of sheer boredom?  'Yes, please, make it stop, I'll accept Jesus into my heart just stop talking!')  Maybe I'm personified because I was Christened (against my will, naturally) as a small child.  However, I have, in adulthood, distanced myself from all churches as far as possible (I am still regularly accosted by Jehovah's Witnesses in the street but that's seemingly unavoidable), so is personhood a lasting quality?  If so, how?  Nothing else is.  Am I personified by love?  Rather a kitsch idea.  And there are certainly times where my personhood would have scattered like so much dust in the wind were that the case...  I'm sure that I'm not alone in that (at least).  Are orphans who have not experienced romantic or familial love not people?  Certainly they often suffer from self-esteem issues and have difficulty forming relationships but that's not the same thing. I'm clutching at straws, I know, but that's all I'm left with.

All in all, a complete mess.

Regardless of the fact that I wildly disagree with most of it there is far too much packed in to one mode.  What has personification (as Latour describes it) got to do with the eternal?  What has any of that got to do with 'accessing what is close at hand' as opposed to 'far away'?  For a chapter that set out to reach some conclusions that a '7 year old' could understand it must surely be considered a failure (or I'm not as clever as I think I am - that's always a possibility).

It seems to me that REL is an amalgam.  It's a poorly conceived mode.  It seems to come more from wish fulfilment than from any ontological, empirical necessity.  In fact it has to fight bitterly against experience just to get a foot in the door.

I suppose we could say that this chapter isn't really 'for' me - it's for the religious, it's addressed to their needs, their values, their insecurities - but then it isn't much of a 'diplomatic' effort, is it?  I'd quite like to be a person, please.  So I really have to pay attention to this mode, whether I like it or not.

There's one good thing I can think to say about this chapter: I like the idea that there may be values within religion as it was practiced before the scientific revolution that have been lost and not replaced in contemporary, secular society.  That idea is excellent.  However, this articulation of it is terrible.

Yes, I'm a 'tough sell,' for sure.  I can't even begin to understand what the purpose of religion without transcendence is.  It's a deflated balloon, without form or content.  Take away the promise of Transcendence and Truth (and with that Power and Authority) and the churches will empty and fall into disrepair in a matter of weeks.  They'll revert to what they currently are in most British towns and cities: places for Scout troops to meet, yoga lessons to take place and homeless people to sleep.  Oh, and weddings.  A provider of draughty, crumbling local infrastructure.  The Bible would be just another work of literature.

Religious transcendence: it's not a bug, it's a feature.  It's the only reason anyone's ever heard of a Jesus of Nazareth.