My plan is for today’s post to be significantly shorter than those of the last two days. Although another AfL’23 participant gave me great feedback on my Žižek writings and found them helpful, smithying them wore me out. I don’t know if today’s reflection will be lighter fare, but even if it’s not, I hope to write less. If only for my own self-preservation.
Today we’re looking at ALL THE THINGS (that doesn’t bode well for “shorter”) through the lens of one Dr. Todd McGowan, Professor of English at the University of Vermont. McGowan is a full and cultural theorist who does his analyses via a psychoanalytic framework. He and Dr. Peter Rollins, Our Fearless Final Guru, swim in the same radical theology waters.
Our material comes from Cadell Last’s podcast “Philosophy in the Real,” in which McGowan discusses his book Emancipation after Hegel. This book seeks to rediscover German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s relevance for the 21st century, and Peter describes it as clarifying for pyrotheological considerations. One of McGowan’s aims in the book is to think through Hegel’s views on contradiction: reconciling with contradiction instead of trying to overcome it.
As an example, McGowan offers the idea that in a relationship between two people. In any relationship, there are problems, conflicts…contradictions. His suggestion via Hegel is to see these contradictions not as obstacles to overcome on the way toward a healthier relationship but as sign of an already healthy relationship. This resonates hugely with me. Since the earliest years of our nearly 25-year marriage, the husband and I have agreed that as long as we are handling our conflicts in mature and loving ways, those conflicts are a sign of our closeness, our honesty with ourselves and with each other concerning our needs. Some of the unhealthiest relationships are the ones in which there’s never any conflict at all — because it means somebody’s not telling the truth somewhere.
Conflict is healthy. It’s what seems to undo the relationship, but it actually sustains it. It’s like using a piece of a virus to inoculate a body against the virus. The lack of conflict — or the unhealthy explosion of conflict into all-out war — is the refusal to vaccinate, allowing the virus to run rampant, to destroy, and to kill.
CAVEAT: none of this applies, however, to abusive relationships. An abusive relationship is like a body ravaged by virus. If you are in an abusive relationship, GET OUT. Do it as safely as you possibly can and with the help of people you trust, but GET OUT.
Back to McGowan. To emotionally integrate this “contradictions as a sign of health” concept is to create a different type of human than what our history and our contemporary culture promote. When Hegel sees difference, he sees it as hiding a contradiction; and he developed his concept of contradiction out of his idea of love, so it applies to more than just romantic partnerships. It’s a transformative notion that, if nourished and allowed to grow, will alter a person’s entire manner of approaching life. Life is filled with contradictions, obstacles that seemingly tell us “no, not you.” Instead of descending into helpless frustration, anger, fear, depression, and eventually despair, what if we learned to appreciate the contradictions as a sign of our life’s health? What if they are just the things that draws us in and draw us forward?
McGowan also discusses how all of this applies to religion. Hegel rejected the idea of withdrawal from the world, advocating intentional entering into the world (as opposed to monkish isolation) from a position of love and willingness to connect with others. This is what Hegel liked about Christianity. Christ’s death on the cross in absolute humiliation indicates just how far God is willing to go in entering into our world and connecting with us — contradictions and conflicts notwithstanding. Today’s Christianity, says McGowan, doesn’t look much like that, but it certainly was the original meaning of the Christstory. Hegel maintains that ordinary people don’t have enough time to sit around reading the science of logic, so religion is the way they philosophize. What’s more, if they experience Christianity correctly, they’re experiencing the conjunction of the Beyond with the here and now.
Hegel says we run into contradictions when we think things through to their logical end. The universe and being itself are contradictory; this is an ontological proposition, an idea concerning the nature of being. Contradiction is built into the whole universe as part of its being. Can we tarry in this idea? Can we tarry in the idea that contradiction is the end of all our ponderings? Can we expand to tarry in the contradictions themselves?
To understand contradiction as universal is a way to reconceptualize all of our struggles: relational, philosophical, religious, political. Humanity searches for some sort of perfect, harmonious identity, a clear identity. But that’s not something we will ever achieve, and all we do to in the process is make ourselves miserable, depressed, and anxious. We need to abandon this particular search and learn to see contradiction as enlivening; our contradictory nature is our clear identity. Yet another of my beloved paradoxes.
There is a way in which we want to include ALL THE THINGS in our search for knowledge. But we have to lose it all before we can find it. We have to make friends with loss, specifically with the loss of hope that we can resolve our contradictions. They’re built into the whole thing. Contradiction is written into the DNA of the universe; the universe lacks resolution for contradiction; we must acquaint ourselves well with this lack. We must embrace this lack…for it rests and functions at the heart of our very being.
The call is coming from inside the house. Fight for the contradictory revolution!
ADDENDUM: In the last five years since I first became aware of Pete’s work, I’ve really come to resonate with the idea of embracing contradiction/lack. The way McGowan talks about it in today’s reflection feels very accessible to me.
My problem, as ever, is the *how*. What’s the practical side of this? Can I turn tarrying with contradiction into something that’s more than a mental/meditative exercise? Practices such as AfL do, in a strange way, “recenter” me to remaining decentered. (When I’m truly destabilized is when I run back to old habits of stabilization. YAY PARADOX.) But I need more than a yearly Lenten practice. I need a daily or at least weekly “Sabbath” of pyrotheological decentering, something that grows me into true satisfaction with and enjoyment of the lack.
I don’t expect anyone to offer answers here, I’m really just thinking out loud. Not quite rhetorically, but also not quite asking for how-tos. Have 2,000 years of “clearly” delineated Christian habits just programmed me to want a manual when I don’t actually need one?