Tuesday, August 30, 2005

John Milbank on Postmodern Religiosity

Just as there were strange modern modes of religiosity, so there are strange postmodern modes of religiosity. Two of these are worth mentioning. First of all, academic exponents of relatively Marxist versions of postmodernism are fond of giving a Spinozistic twist to their atheism. The plane of immanence is seen as the sphere of active, productive forces, which manifest themselves in human terms as desire and love. The still-beckoning communist future is seen as an apocalyptic refusal of negative, resentful, tragic, and death-obsessed emotions. These emotions are unnecessary, and hitherto were imposed upon us by alien oppressors. Something of Spinoza's "intellectual love" or his Deus Sive Natura persists in all of this -- there is to be a joyful reception and active contemplation of the immanent totality. For indeed, once oppression is surpassed, liberated nature-going-beyond-nature fully appears.

The second example is at a far more popular and widely dispersed level ... the phenomenon of "new age" religions. These religions all stress that salvation is to be located in a higher self, above the social, temporal, remembered self. This self can put one in harmony with everything, with the whole cosmos. This position ... takes modern individualism to an extreme and seems to advocate retreat within an absolutely private, interior space. But this position shares with the Spinozistic one an assumption of immanence -- of a self-regulating cosmos.
is located
in a higher self in harmony with
the whole cosmos

Moreover, its higher-self-merging-with-the-cosmos is really rather like the ironic remove of the Spinozistic subject from its own process in flux. It is akin also to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, able to speak of what belongs to the subject as somehow standing impossibly outside the "all" of things that can be spoken of. There are also parallels to Emmanuel Levinas's and Jean-Luc Marion's tendency to demote the graspably visible world counter to this totality, which consists in the pure, never visible interior of matter manifest as auto affection. Thus, in post-modernity, alongside the stress of fluid and permeable boundaries, we have a new affirmation of the sanctity of an empty mystical self, a self able to transcend, identify with, and promote, or else refuse, the totality of process in the name of a truer "life" which is invisible...even organized religion gets infected today with this kind of "spirituality."
John Milbank, "The Gospel of Affinity" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity. eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg. (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdman's, 2004), 156-157.