And then, instead of going to church, I come to my office and write, or I run errands, or both, because to be perfectly honest I don't need another "worship set" of sentimental Jesus-songs or three points on how to be a better middle-class suburbanite. I don't want to go, and I don't. This is part of a constellation of things that have got me thinking maybe my run at some kind of "genuine" faith (whatever that means) is pretty much over. No, I'm not exactly an atheist -- I remain a theological non-realist, which is not the same thing -- but in the spirit of Derrida I rightly pass for one.
So I submit to you my three witnesses: the first is myself. I'm tired of church, tired of arguing theology (which is not to say I'm tired of talking about theology; I'm just tired of pretending I have a coherent theology I'm willing to defend as such). I tend to roll my eyes at theological pontifications. A lot. I try not to let on. Actually, maybe it's better to say that I enjoy trying to understand the theological conversation, as it is taking place right now in parts of the Christian world, but I don't have a dog in the hunt of getting theology right.
My second witness is the redoubtable John Milbank. He wrote this in an interview with the Immanent Frame:
I don't exactly agree; I don't think what Milbank is railing against is somehow not theology, especially inasmuch as we can't really escape the theological anyway. And I don't accept the logic that says if this is the case, then we're all just parasitic upon (orthodox) Christian theology proper and should get back to the real deal. Just because Western thinking is still colonized by Christian theological thought-forms doesn't mean we have to tow the party line.
If you are going to be an atheist and nihilist, then be one. Only second-raters repeat secular nostrums in a pious guise. Such theology can never possibly make any difference, by definition. It’s a kind of sad, grey, seasonal echo of last year’s genuine black. All real Christian theology, by contrast, emerges from the Church, which alone mediates the presence of the God-Man, who is the presupposition of all Christian thinking.
Nevertheless, Milbank's words here hit me rather powerfully. They seem to be saying: stop pretending. Be what you are (become what you are?). I don't read this in the sense of a misguided quest for "authenticity," as if there's a "real me" apart of from the circumstances in which I find myself, and I certainly don't think every one in every circle of my life needs to know everything I'm thinking all of the time. But the truth is that, as far as I can tell, I'm something of an atheist and nihilist. The problem is that once you describe yourself as one of those things people totally get the wrong idea, and/or they seem to immediately know what you should or shouldn't be about. It's not much different, I suppose, from being a Christian or an anarchist (which is related to what I've been trying to be).
The third witness is actually me again. I realized, in a conversation with some Facebook friends, that my latest attempt to come to terms with my relationship with the Christian faith was essentialistic. I was trying to find some essence of Christianity, some secret key, that I might actually be willing to believe in. This would have the two benefits. It would allow me to flesh out that core belief with the contents of the Christian narrative, those bits I don't believe anymore (at least not at face value), reanimating them now that I've found the secret. It would also give me bragging rights -- if the essential secret is, say, anarcho-pacifism (that's the angle I was working), then I could be more Christian than those people who signed off on the other stuff but weren't properly anarcho-pacifist, if I myself were willing to fully embrace it. The problem is a) I'm not sure I really was, though it sounded cool, and b) this is a philosophical move that I would not assent to in any other area of my thinking. It is a rather bald form of essentialism, though I hid it from myself.
[This is not to suggest that all Christian anarchism is reductionistic in this way, or essentialist. What I was doing is not the same as having a robust faith that also happens to look like anarchism.]
There is no essence of Christianity. There is only Christianity as it manifests in a given time and place practiced by people who are always already themselves contextually situated. Even things that look like internal reductions -- Jesus' take on the shema, or his invocation of the Golden Rule, or James' "true religion" of looking after widows and orphans -- are set deeply within a particular sociopolitical/religious context, birthed within a particular milieu. Whatever it is that I might find interesting about Christianity, or worth hanging onto, is irreducibly bound up in all that stuff I find less tenable. Even Jung realized that Christianity was something of a package deal.
I'm not suggesting that there is no room for critique; in fact, internal critique is largely what has been generative of Christianity's sacred texts, not to mention its history and even its origins as a Jewish apocalyptic sect. Nor am I suggesting that there's no room to forward some idea of what might be getting said through Christianity even if that doesn't line up with what the authors of its text were (or have been) intending. In fact, that's just it: I can do any of those things --those moves are available -- but what I can't do is pretend to be assessing the "truth" of Christianity on the basis of something outside the Christian narrative that is "more true" and thus able to validate it.
I'm off track, however; what essentialism is and why it's a problem are not the issue here. The issue is that I was indulging in a philosophical luxury I deny on other fronts. I realized this as I was typing a comment; seeing it print made the structure suddenly clear to me, and there was the sound of squealing brakes and breaking glass. This was disconcerting to me, and then, eventually, freeing. No, I haven't been liberated from the bondage of religion nor have I cast off the shackles of skepticism. I'm not "post-Christian," which implies I've somehow gotten over Christianity; I'm just a garden-variety apostate.
No, I'm just free now to call things as I see them. Is this the way things are? I have no idea. But I think I can honestly say that I'm fascinated by theology even though I don't believe much of it. I still bear a connection to the faith of my youth and most of my adulthood, and pretty much because it's the faith of my youth and most of my adulthood. I'm not trying to be a pacifist, though I don't like violence, and I'm not trying to be an anarchist, though I have no idea how to run a nation-state and am suspicious of the whole enterprise. I'm not even trying to be an atheist, though if I pass for one that's fine with me (I have no idea how one would try to be a nihilist; I assume it's not that hard).
If I might invoke Zaphod Beeblebrox: I'm just this guy, you know?