Idolatry, Opression, and Negation of Negation

I was thinking about negation as a philosophical move this morning, and I started to think about negation-of-negation as it might relate to reading Hebrew prophetic texts.  Algebraically, of course, a negation of a negation is the same as a positive statement, but as Hegel points out in Phenomenology of Spirit, if the negation itself has content, then the two might be equal mathematically but quite different because of what the first negation changes in the original.  In other words, negations might cancel one another, but they still happened.

To move it out of the abstract for a moment, I’ve heard and read (and indeed taught) that one of the biblical prophets’ functions was to call Israel to worship the one true God and that another is to call them to justice.  Such statements are true, but they do not constitute the entire picture.  In fact the situation into which the prophet speaks is one in which Israel has already strayed, and a return is never the same as innocence.  Unlike Milton’s Eden (but very much like a postlapsarian reader’s experience of hearing of Milton’s Eden, but that’s for another essay), whatever lies in Israel’s future must necessarily include a memory of failure and an awareness of a former way of life quite pleasant for some (notably prophets of Ba’al and Cows of Bashan–look in 1 Kings for the first class and Amos for the second) and framed in resentment for others.  Thus the good news of justice’s and faithfulness’s restoration will necessarily be bad news for those who benefitted most from faithlessness and injustice.

I wonder, then, whether Dante cheated when he put the classical river Lethe in between Purgatory and Paradise.  Granted, those who cross that river in Dante’s afterlife do remember objectively that they are saved rather than innocent, but such a separation of memory of objects from the remembering subject (in other words, a situation in which one does not remember what it was to be a sinner) seems sometimes like a sophistic trick.  But then again, it is Paradise, and Beatrice does make him feel like a lump of dirt before she lets him dip in that river.

But Paradise is never what the prophets promise Israel; while they walk the earth, they bear with them every memory of every failure, and to negate that failure is not to return to innocence but to progress to something new, something turned back on itself rather than erased from the record.  Nobody denies that walking faithfully with their God is better than apostasy, but even so such a turning back always carries with it the residue of false gods and their false sacrifices.

And with those falsehoods come the gods’ perversions of justice.  Ezekiel famously compares Jerusalem to Sodom not because of any tales of traveler-rape or sex-with-angels but because both cities neglect the poor and oppress the widow.  Amos cites not the false gods of the kingdoms surrounding Samaria but their war crimes, and Samaria herself falls under judgment partly for false worship but mainly for the practice of usurous lending and all of the misery that such lending causes the poor.  (One reading of Amos would see in the lenders taking their interest in the form of sexual favors from debtors’ wives and daughters–perhaps in the same day.)  And when justice comes, whether by repentance (as in Nineveh’s case in Jonah) or by the terrible Day of the Lord (as in Joel and Amos), the same reality holds: there’s no getting back the years of oppression, and even the most promising future that the prophets can imagine cannot erase that reality.

I know Miroslav Volf argues for redemptive forgetting, and were such a thing possible this side of Lethe, I might be with him.  Even Volf, however, seems to advocate not an amnesia but a living-as-if, an ethical stance reproducing rather than naively assuming a state of innocence.  Since this is a blog post and not a book (certainly not anything approaching The End of Memory), I’ll end with a question for readers to ponder, namely whether my account of redemption-with-memory makes any sense and how your own theological/philosophical tendencies resonate (or not) when you consider such things.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Idolatry, Opression, and Negation of Negation

  1. Okay, let’s see if I can take all this into my essay-addled brain: as I read it, you’re positing that the memory of sinning remains after redemption, that the negation of it by grace does not erase the recollection of sinning by the sinner. If I have that part correct (doubtful), then that makes sinning a lesson to be recalled by the sinner when presented with a potentially sinful situation in the future.

    Redemption, then, eradicates only the spiritual smudge of sin, not the sin itself. Sinfulness, then, isn’t just a state of spirit but also of state of mind that, once recollected and appraised by the mind, becomes a lesson of how not behave in the future.

    Do we, spiritually, sin in the present moment, but only understand and repent it in the past/after the fact?

    Fire away.

  2. You actually articulated the inverse of what I had in mind, but that might be precisely the point. I would imagine, in your terms, that even as the sin itself ceases to bind, the spirit still bears its smudge insofar as one remembers being a sinner. And although I don’t deny the pedagogical value of such a reality, I had more in mind something akin to existential alienation from a state of innocence that can only be imagined, and then only analogically (as much Paradise Lost criticism attests).

    I’m certain this reflection stems at least in part from recent conversations I’ve had with Michial Farmer (who comments here with some regularity), my Christian existentialist friend. (Yes, El Ick, I do tend to fall in with the Kierkegaardians.)

  3. Hmm. So actual purity is a purely speculative, imagined state, and the memory of sin still sullies the spirit. Furthermore, Christians don’t even need the memory of specific sins to be sinful; one is born into it.

    Cripes, that’s a rough line to tow.

  4. It is, but I can’t think of any that are more adequate to human experience, and I think our blind poet was decidedly onto that. The only alternatives I can think of are a sort of Perfectionism (the heresy and the personality flaw) or a determinism that rules out even the speculative possibility.

    I do think that Dante and Milton both had to cheat as poets (one in the afterlife, one in prelapsarian life), and I don’t blame them for that, but I do think that their cheating points up an important reality.

  5. Absolutely; their problems/reasons-for-cheating were not due to lack of intellect or imagination; rather, they were hyper-aware of their own inadequacies.

    I think Marx ran into a similar problem when trying to describe a post-Communist revolution world.

    Hmm . . . how much of their problem was one of language and not of categories? Or can we really separate language and what it signifies? (Oh, I’m veering off.)

  6. I’d be inclined to say that they were hyper-aware of the inadequacy of intellect, but I’m just being a self-impressed know-it-all at this point. 🙂

    With regards to language and categories, the more medieval theology and post-Kantian philosophy I read, the more I suspect that a bit more awareness of the history of philosophy would dispel the strong divide between “modern” philosophy and the rest of it.

    I do agree with Macintyre that modern philosophy fatally separates sociology from ethics, but I think that such a separation is a bad move inside a common tradition, not a radically separate practice.

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