Monday, October 24, 2011

A rather associative and inquisitive journey to the dead center of the earth (and beyond)

Communism as a loss of center? “...we are right in the middle of the middle that connects us.” This reminds me of the famous thesis of the heretical Dominican and priest Giordano Bruno, to the effect that in an infinite circle the center is everywhere. Impressed by Copernicus' discovery that the universe revolves not around the earth but the earth around the sun, and on the basis of the hypothesis that our sun is only one star among many other stars, Bruno arrived at the idea that the universe is infinite and consists of many solar systems similar to our own. To compensate for the earthly loss of the center position as it were, Bruno implied that the earth is still in a sense the center, because “we can assert with certainty that the universe is all center, or that the center of the universe is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere.” (1584)

Isn’t this a comforting thought? The center is here and now. I am the center of the universe. Everything revolves around me. And yet everything revolves not around me but around you and him and her and them... At the same time the center is always elsewhere. Wasn’t it because of this revolutionary idea that Bruno was burned as heretic at the stake? Officially, he had to burn for the heresies of docetism (the denial of Jesus' humanity) and pantheism. But didn’t his Copernican heliocentrism and decenterment of the earth play some rol in his condemnation by the Church, as is often suspected? That the earth – and hence man – is not the center of creation was something the Church could not accept. Thus, however, the Church ignored the essential ambiguity of Bruno's thesis that in an infinite circle the center is everywhere – so always elsewhere, but also always here. The center position is shared with others – and that's exactly what the Church could not and still can not do: share the centre. Or is my reading of Bruno's thesis too hippie-like, too multi-cultural, too positive, too optimistic, too communist (shared ownership of the medium)? For how can the center be both here and elsewhere? Is this not the same thing as saying that there is no center at all? Isn’t Bruno’s thesis the beginning of the modern “loss of the center” which in later centuries has been and still is so regretted by conservatism? Because - oh Lord! – without a meaningful, powerful, commanding, controlling transcendent center so-called “permissive society” degenerates into the chaos of anarchy! Just read Yeats’ The Second Coming:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

The empty throne in modern art In fact, I never really understood the conservative jeremiad about the loss of the center. Of course, I also see that our society is in serious difficulty: on the one hand there is shocking self-enrichment, on the other hand there is poverty, hunger, war, alienating individualism, loss of self in drink and drugs... “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” indeed. But is this due to the loss of the center? I doubt it – and I doubt it especially in the context of Christian conservatism, where the topos of the lost center originates. One locus classicus in this regard is the book Verlust der Mitte (1948) by the art historian Hans Sedlmayr. In this book he analyzes how the central position of man – religiously founded in the divine status of the man Jesus – slowly disappeared from modern art. Was every art form until the 18th century part of a sacred Gesamtkunstwerk in which divine man occupied the central place (a Gesamtkunstwerk formed by the complex of church and palace), in the following centuries the various art forms gained a life of their own: they became ‘autonomous’ by breaking away from the sacred and humanistic context of Christianity. Harking back to Blaise Pascal – “Leaving the middle means leaving humanity” – Sedlmayer analyses this development as a dehumanization of art. From then on, the inhuman comes to the fore in modern art: the indifference of nature and matter, the rapacious development of technology and industry, the self-reflective and abstract forms of autonomous art. In this way, Sedlemayer says, art reflects a broader social process of  loss of the center, the downfall of Christian humanism. Art is not able to reverse that process (with respect to underlying social processes, art is powerless). Nevertheless, according to Sedlmayr, modern art has the crucial task of keeping the memory of the lost center alive for future generations: “Then at least the awareness must stay alive, that the lost center is the throne left empty for the perfect human, the Godman.” [1]

I must admit that I find this a beautiful, fascinating image: the lost center in modern art as an empty throne – a throne that by its very emptiness refers to the missing king. But it is also this image which for me manifests the paradox of Christian conservatism. For the lost center as the empty throne of the divine man? Is this not par excellence the empty cross, referring to the removed, dead body of the Godman Christ? Is this divine throne not Golgotha, the “mountain of skulls” on which the crucified Jesus throned, crowned with a wreath of thorns? (And this in turn reminds me of the negative theology of the Indian logician Adi Shankara, who paints a picture of Nirguna-Brahman as a God without attributes, sitting on a mountain of negations. Isn’t Golgotha that mountain? Isn’t the cross of Jesus precisely the cross of negation, referring back to the crossed out being of his mortal flesh?) A picture means a thousand words, they say. Is this not true here? Doesn’t the picture of Golgotha make clear in one stroke that the center as the throne of the divine man must be empty, that this emptiness necessarily follows from the core of the Christian doctrine? For was the sacrifice of Christ as Mediator not necessary to eliminate human sinfulness, to reconcile man with God and thereby with his fellow man? Is the loss of the center in this sense not precisely the condition of the unity of the Christian community, its unification in the Holy Spirit?

Hegel on Christ In this regard Christian conservatives should have listened better to one of their heroes, namely Hegel (who could sublate all earthly contradictions in the thought of the Absolute Spirit, thereby in practice leaving everything as it was, to the delight of the Prussian regime). In the Geist des Christentums Hegel explains that as long as Jesus lived among his followers, he formed a “dividing wall” (“Scheidewand”) on the one hand between the followers themselves, and on the other between them and God:

“As long as he lived among them, they were only believers; for they were not based on themselves; Jesus was their teacher and master, an individual center on which they depended; they did not yet have their own, independent life; the Spirit of Jesus ruled them; but after his removal this objectivity, this dividing wall between them and God, also fell away; and the Spirit of God was able to revive her whole being.”[2]

In this regard Hegel was undoubtedly one of the German children of Luther, who deprived the Catholic priest of his mediator function in order to make the relationship between believer and God im-mediate. In this Protestant sense, Jesus is portrayed by Hegel as “the good priest” who makes himself superfluous and disappears into the relation between God and man (in other words: the only good priest is a dead priest, or in terms of Yeats: the only center is a good dead center). But one would underestimate the importance for Hegel of Jesus as vanishing mediator if one sees here only the influence of Luther. In fact, the concept of the vanishing mediator is an intrinsic part of Hegel’s dialectic, which is after all the atoning mediation of opposites. To truly bring opposites together, the mediator must – like Jesus – disappear from their midst. This is clearly argued by Herbert Scheit in his book Geist und Gemeinde: Religion und Politik von Zum Verhältnis bei Hegel (where I encountered this link between Hegel’s dialectic and his conception of Jesus for the first time). Concerning the above passage of Hegel on the necessity of Jesus’ disappearance, Scheit notes:

“This applies to every mediation, if it really wants to earn that name: mediation implies not just a third, a middle, it sublates itself in the unit of the mediated ones, which is then a “mediated immediacy”.”[3]

Vinculum vincolorum For Hegel, then, the goal of every mediation is what he calls “mediated immediacy”, the synthesis of opposites between which the mediator has disappeared. In that sense one can say, referring to Hegel, that the vanishing mediator is a universal given, or rather a universal absence, a disappearance that is ‘active’ in every process of mediation. In the light of this universality of the vanishing mediator, should we not also say – to return to Bruno’s thesis – that the center of the universe is not everywhere but nowhere, as a constitutive loss that connects everything? In that respect it seems significant that physicists refer to the four basic forces underlying the universe (gravity, electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces) preferably as “interactions”. This is because the “forces of nature” alsways manifest themselves as interactions between objects, reciprocal mediations in which energy is exchanged. If we take the idea of the vanishing mediator seriously, should we not say that these interactions, which form the causal network of the universe, presuppose just as many vanishing mediators? And should we not also say that these mysterious media are as many incarnations of God, the dying middle that holds everything together, precisely through his death? Do we not arrive here at a Christological cosmology, in which Christ – the dying God – acts as the universal mediator? As Paul says about Christ: “In him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1: 17)

This is admittedly not a very original idea. To my knowledge, a similar cosmological interpretation of Christianity can already be found in the work of the French Catholic-pragmatist philosopher Maurice Blondel, who in this context spoke of “panchristism” – an idea that only rarely shows up in his published work, however, and exercised little influence on other thinkers (an important exception is Teilhard de Chardin). From the little that Blondel has written about it, it becomes clear that he assigns to Christ a cosmic function: without the intervention of the Incarnate Word, nothing in the universe can have a stable existence. More interesting than Blondel’s rather vague and inchoate ideas about panchristism, however, is his reference to Leibniz in this context. Blondel used Leibniz’s notion of the vinculum substantiale – the substantial chain – to denote the cosmic, connecting function of Christ, who is the vinculum vincolorum, the chain of chains.

The God of Leibniz and the surplus value of Blondel For Leibniz, the vinculum substantiale is the extra relationship added by God to a collection of monads to forge them together into one substance.[4] The fact that Leibniz had to resort to such an emergency measure – for that’s what it is, of course – has to do with a peculiar aspect (a weakness, if you ask me) of his philosophy, the monadology. On the one hand, one finds in Leibniz the famous thesis that every monad reflects all other monads. In that sense, every monad exists only in relation to others, and for Leibniz this interrelationship constitues the harmony of the universe. Thus Leibniz: “Now this coherence or congruence of all created things with each other […] means that each simple substance has relations that express all others, and that it is consequently a perpetual living mirror of the universe.” [5] On the other hand, one finds in him the equally famous assertion that the monads are windowless, because they are the basic units of reality and are as such timeless, unchangeable and therefore closed off from one another, incapable of mutual influence (because that would imply change in the monades). “The Monads have no windows through which anything can go in or out.” [6] The difficult question then arises, of course, how – if communication between monads is impossible - they can nevertheless stand to each other in harmonious relationships, to mirror each other and form connections in compex substances. Here Leibniz invokes God as the solution (always useful, such a miracle worker). According to Leibniz, it is the Super-Monad God who establishes all relations between the monads. As he writes in the Discourse on metaphysics: “Hence God alone brings about liaison and communication of substances, and it is through him that the phenomena of the ones meet and agree with those of the others and consequently that there is reality in our perceptions.”[7] In short: God is the universal medium of communication! But doesn’t Leibniz make a category mistake when he interprets this mediating God as a Super-Monad? Although God is by His omnipotence distinguished from all other monads, He basically remains for Leibniz a monad among monads, their primus inter pares. Should we not, on the basis of the universality of the vanishing mediator, say that God can perform this mediator function only by escaping the order of the monads? Should we not make an ontological distinction here between on the one hand the ontic order of (complex) substances and on the other the transcendent order of the vanishing mediator, which is constitutively lacking from the ontic order? Isn’t this the surplus value of Blondel's panchristism, his identification of Leibniz’s vinculum substantiale with Christ, the Godman who died on the cross?

[1]  SedlMayer, Verlust der Mitte, 1948, p.248.
[2] Hegel, Geist des Christentums, p.384.
[3] Herbert Scheit, 1973, Geist und Gemeinde: Zum Verhältnis von Religion und Politik bei Hegel, München und Salzburg, Verlag Anton Pustet, p.183, n. 207.
[4] Leibniz developed the idea of the vinculum substantiale in particular to explain transubstantiation. During the Eucharist, the bread turns into Christ's flesh and the wine into His blood because at that moment God simply changes the vinculum substantiale of bread into the vinculum of Christ's flesh and the vinculum of wine into that of His blood.
[5] Monadology, thesis 56.
[6] Monadology, thesis 7.
[7] Leibniz, 1968, Discourse on metaphysics, Manchester, Manchester University Press, p.54.

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