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Anthropocentric gnosticism and the Grand Inquisitor

April 15, 2012

Though the subject of contemporary Jewish philosophy/theology isn’t of special importance to me, I’ve recently been following the blog Jewish Philosophy Place, I suppose because it offers something like a reference point for my own (Catholic) philosophical/theological interests. It often proves an interesting exercise, as in this book review. The issue is the immanence v transcendence of God; the book’s claim, that the Deteronomists suppressed a “fluid” understanding of God in favor of a completely transcendent deity. Roughly, “fluid” = God doesn’t have a solid body but permeates the ark, the temple, etc; “transcendent” = those things are just symbols, and God has a body but it is completely apart.

What interests me is the following criticism:

I found D appealing. I’m not sure Ben [author of the book in question] does.But what Ben does do, I suspect unintentionally, is to let us see in D[euteronomist] the skeptical and cautious side of religious institutional authority. Religious authority and establishment theology tend to get bad raps in our secular and post-secular age. Viewed more coolly, however, I think it’s fair to say that very often religious authority tends to be rational. It seeks to keep a lid on all kinds of genuinely nasty things. It demands evidence, proof, argument before jumping to theological conclusions. Think about how the rabbis sought to check the phenomenon of prophecy and miracle. Think about how the Vatican carefully vets (most) claims to sainthood. This caution has its place in a rational world, assuming you are not going to accept every claim made by fanatics and lunatics who proclaim that this place or this body or object is touched directly by or manifests the gods or God or this or that attribute of power or grace. By restricting God’s place in the heavens, a more critical space is opened up for the rational exercise of religion. This does not free religion from power, as if anything ever does or can. In this, I have a soft spot for D, Caiaphas, the rabbis, and Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. [emphasis mine]

I’ve recently found myself wanting to make an argument against “authenticity” and in favor of authority; and doing so has made me, too, feel strangely like the Grand Inquisitor. What I somehow hadn’t noticed until today was the intimacy of the connection between (1) the rejection of an external authority in favor of “authenticity”; and (2) the replacement of a transcendent deity with something like a “transcendent immanence,” something I find in a lot of 20th century philosophers and poets (JPP speaks of “the new immanence”, which may or may not be related). Sometimes “transcendent immanence” is basically pantheism, but in its most appealing form there’s still such a sense of hidden knowledge, agonistic struggle, and escape from a prison that turns out not to exist, that I want to call it something like “anthropocentric gnosticism.”

Stanley Cavell, for example. Cavell is in a strange place theologically, being in origin Jewish but often writing as if there’s a relatively straightforward progression Judaism -> Christianity -> Art/America (America representing an ideal of liberation). Though the final phase remains in some sense “theological,” the problem of the other has replaced the problem of God, and “transcendence” is not a real possibility; it’s an illusion which we have to escape in order to achieve the only connection with the other that is possible, namely, acknowledgment of the other’s separateness. (God, too, may not be dead, but he’s withdrawn himself so we can grow up, and we can’t get to him on our own. Though I think that’s just poetic language on Cavell’s part.)

This story is inextricable from Cavell’s two-part account of modernity. In the first part we reject fixed conventions: art replaces religion and the private individual ascends to prominence. In the second, the resulting uncertainty terrifies us: we retreat into ourselves, becoming skeptical, irresponsible, and loveless. We can escape only by acknowledging our position as one “I” among others, tasked with improvising a community anew in each present moment. Most of Cavell’s work has to do with how this community is improvised, aesthetically and ethically.

Being Catholic, of course, I want to have it both ways–transcendence AND immanence, authority AND authenticity. With each new dichotomy it becomes a more baroque position to maintain. In particular, I find it somewhat uncomfortable to half-defend the Grand Inquisitor; he’s so clearly wrong, and so clearly what Dostoevsky thinks Catholicism is. I’d always thought that was just based on a gross misunderstanding of the Church, but now I can see the force of his argument.

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