Christology without Capitalism

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Christology antedates capitalism by a good twelve centuries, yet, today, no social form plays a more central role in how Christians experience and critically reflect on Christ than the value form of the commodity. Both the ease with which the value form is lost in, but then transcends the bodies it occupies, and the highly differentiated, quasi-personal, rational, and universal character of the value form grant to it pseudo-Christological qualities that Christian thinkers are more than ready to mistake for their Lord and Savior. Only once we clearly identify the historical emergence of this peculiar social form and come to appreciate some of its more salient characteristics can we also clearly differentiate this form from its divine twin.

I attend Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, where our priest in charge, Rev. Blake Sawicky, is attending a conference hosted by Pusey House, Oxford. His attendance at the conference has provoked some thought.

Although I am trained in European History and teach Economics Theory at UC Berkeley, some of you may remember that I was first trained as a Church Historian and that, long ago, I counted myself a left-wing Barthian. Barth was actually my fourth theologian. My first was Lewis Sperry Chafer, among the founding thinkers of US fundamentalism. My second was Jean Calvin, which I read before my residency at Francis A. Schaeffer’s L’Abri. So that my third was Herman Dooyeweerd. I started reading Barth’s Dogmatics at L’Abri and finished all nine volumes before my Sophomore year at Wisconsin. From there I branched out to Jürgen Moltmann, Dorthee Solle, Wolfhart Pannenberg. By the time I reached seminary, I had already reached a dead end. So, after earning my M.A., I set off for the University of Chicago to study history.

There I learned what I was looking for. Something strange — even bizarre — had turned the course of religious experience not in the fifteenth, but the fourteenth century. When capitalism was born in Ghent in 1324, the explosion it generated continued to build for the next seven centuries, all the way to and through the present. Put simply, when the abbot of St-Pierre instructed fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently constructed there, it set in motion a revolution in time and value that has made a world of difference (Landes 1983; Le Goff 1977; Lough 2006), not least to Christology. St Thomas’ Summa is available everywhere on line (e.g., http://www.newadvent.org/summa/). Thomas’ Summa makes clear that as late as 1274, the theological challenge was not to explain how God could become flesh, but rather why all flesh was not divine (see pars. III).

Between 1274 and 1517 Europeans came to experience their worlds in qualitatively different ways, such that a relatively unproblematic doctrine — the two natures doctrine — suddenly dominated the stage. Why?

It would be a mistake to draw our lines between constructed and natural, since all human experience is constructed — that is how we are made. What makes sense, for me, is to reflect critically on how spiritual practitioners experienced and described their encounters with the divine prior to the emergence of the capitalist social form and how they experienced and described their encounters as capitalism spread throughout Europe.

To make my aim as transparent as possible from the outset, my aim is to show how the directionally dynamic, two-fold character of the value form of the commodity established itself at the base of contemporary Christology, beginning not with Luther, but with John duns Scotus and William of Occam. Here I intend only to establish the plausibility of this thesis. Its proof would entail a book.

Again, in order to be as transparent as possible, should this prove plausible, then it would also call into question not only Jürgen Moltmann’s invocation of GWF Hegel, but also, I would argue, the line of Kantian epistemologists from Rickert to Whitehead and so, from there, to Pannenberg and outward. Because the radical isolation of bodies from logic and logic from bodies is at the core of the good abbot of St-Pierre’s discovery in 1324. In what did that discovery consist?

The escapement mechanism entered Europe from China over the course of the thirteenth century. It solved a huge problem: when Frère Jacques should awaken his brothers for prayer. During Europe’s mini-ice age, water clocks were out of the question. Ropes and candles, though used, burned unevenly. Sundials required daylight, impossible during winter Hours. The escapement, driven by weights or by a spring, freed Europe’s cloistered communities from reliance upon unreliable methods. A notch in the gear lifted and then dropped a small bell, alerting Brother John that it was time to ring the larger, manual bell, for prayers. And, so, during the thirteenth century, the escapement captured Europe’s cloistered communities.

The others, it merely annoyed. Since wages and prices were governed by the principles of “just wage” and “just price,” thoroughly dominated by an “unholy” alliance between trades and the clergy, there was as yet no hint of the working day apart from the variable rising and setting of the Sun. This meant that bells were ringing well after the rising of the Sun in Summer, but (more annoying) well before the rising (and well after the setting) of the Sun in Winter (and Summer).

When, following the good abbot’s lead, ever more employers took their cue from the church bells, this led to a clash between those who defended “natural” (i.e., variable) time, and those who enforced “unnatural,” fixed clock time.

What has this to do with Christology? Everything.

We can think of it this way. Absent the escapement mechanism, John duns Scotus and William of Occam are no more than crackpot nominalists, such as have always gained a hearing from time to time. The escapement mechanism and its gradual colonization of western European experience made all Europeans practical nominalists, capable without much forethought of differentiating bodies from values, time from eternity, necessity from freedom. Thus, while the two-fold character of Christ had been acknowledged at least since the third century, it only became transparent over the course of the modern period, when bodies were once and for all deprived spiritual status and when spirits lost their bodies.

GWF Hegel has proven central to contemporary Christological discussions in large measure on account of his unforgiving, immanent critique of I Kant’s transcendental account. Here is GWF Hegel:

It is the Kantian  philosophy which has not only felt the need for this point of union, but has also clearly recognized it and brought it before our minds. In general, as the foundation alike of intelligence and will, Kant took self-related rationality, freedom, self-consciousness finding and knowing itself as inherently infinite. . . .  But since Kant fell back again into the fixed opposition between subjective thinking and objective things, between the abstract universality and the sensuous individuality of the will, he it was above all who emphasized as supreme the afore-mentioned opposition in the moral life, since besides he exalted the practical side of the spirit above the theoretical. Having accepted this fixity of opposition recognized by the thinking of the Understanding,  he was left with no alternative but to express the unity purely in the form of subjective Ideas of Reason, for which no adequate reality could be demonstrated, and therefore as  postulates, which indeed are to be deduced from the practical reason, but whose essential inner character remained unknowable by thinking and whose practical fulfilment remained a mere ought steadily deferred to infinity (Aesthetics, “Introduction,” 7(i)).

GWF Hegel, by contrast, developed what he along with others took to be an incarnational ontology-qua-epistemology, in terms of which fully knowing the body is knowing the spirit enfleshed.

Kant’s view is that ‘the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form but concerns only Ideas of Reason which, although no adequate representation of them is possible, may be aroused and called to our mind precisely by this inadequacy which does admit of sensuous representation’ (Critique of Judgment, 1799, p. 77 [§ 23]) (Aesthetics II.2).

To this GWF Hegel contrasts his own position:

This outward shaping which is itself annihilated in turn by what it reveals, so that the revelation of the content is at the same time a supersession of the revelation, is the sublime. This, therefore, differing from Kant, we need not place in the pure subjectivity of the mind and its Ideas of Reason; on the contrary, we must grasp it as grounded in the one absolute substance qua the content which is to be represented (Aesthetics II.2.)

I would argue that this is an improvement over I Kant’s disembodied, moral Christology. And, yet, because its underlying logic is the logic of the value form of the commodity, it invites us to read Christology eschatologically, as the foretaste of a state that has not been fully revealed. This misled G Rose to propose an ever present repetition of bodily destruction as a quality, if not of divine being, then at least of Christian experience (see J Lough, “One Absolute Substance” forthcoming). More broadly, it has brought us to seek the divine sub contrario absconditum — in its opposite (as though flesh were opposite the divine.)

By contrast, a Christology without Capitalism would, not unlike St Thomas, neither seek a violent mortification of the body by the sublime nor the elimination of the body in pure spiritual contemplation, but would take the body itself as revelatory of what it is. This, of course, raises the sticky question of Christian experience. If we are thoroughly shaped by the capitalist social form, then to what extent can we encounter a Christ Who is not either transcendental or Hegelian? To which I would provisionally answer: whenever we join ourselves through the sacraments to Christ’s living Body, our Baptism casts the capitalist doppelgänger in stark relief. Or . . . these bodies point beyond themselves to their Kantian original.

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