The Limits Of Transcendence

Creation, from the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel

Creation, from the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel

As I noted at Reflections On, I’m reading the long introductory essay to a new edition of Theodor Adorno’s essays on music.  A key feature of Adorno’s criticism of late capitalism is the limitations placed on such a criticism precisely because of the totalitarian nature of capitalist ideology.  Because it pervades and insinuates itself in to all aspects of human life, one cannot stand outside, above, or beyond it in order to get what Hegel might have called “an angel’s eye view”.  Adorno did not exclude his own criticism, remarking that it was just as flawed and limited as all others for the same reasons.  Adorno insisted the effort was necessary, however, precisely because of the demands of justice, heard in the voices of the suffering, voices history (as viewed through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of Historyinsists of quieting in the name of progress.

Culture, or as Adorno called it “the Culture Industry”, is no different.  The possible transcendent beauty of Michaelangelo, say, or a piece of music is always compromised because of the demands of late capitalism, the commodification of all objects in the pursuit of exchange, what Adorno referred to as the demands of the bottom line.  The distinction between what some analysts insisted was “high” and “low” culture was false precisely because it was a function of the market demanding distinctions to drive sales and profit.  Something as beautiful and significant as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel becomes little more than a thing valued only for the price reproductions can achieve in the market.  So, too, a piece of music, even something as inventive and new as Gru’s “Djent”- inspired guitar instrumentals, can only take one so far precisely because it is nothing more than a product, created by an Industry to fill a particular market niche for the profit not of those who produce it but who market and sell it.

I believe this same limit applies no less to our churches than to anything else.  After all, consider how too many of our fellow Americans (to use one national example among many) consider it perfectly appropriate to “shop around” for a church that “fits” them, that “fulfills their needs”.  It is nothing for many people to hop from a Baptist Church to a Lutheran Church to a United Methodist Church, perhaps even then to a Roman Catholic church, never once considering the vast differences among them, the doctrinal and theological divisions – some of which have resulted in wars and death and terror in the past – meaning little to those for whom “religion” is a market no different from any other: something to fill a need, to satisfy an individual need.

So much of the discussion within denominations these days revolve around these very issues.  How do we “market” our churches to get the word out to the people to “choose” ours over another?  As individuals consider churches as something to fill a need (often artificial, created by the larger religion-culture-industry), churches too often neglect the reality that they are there for God, to bring people together before God, to do God’s work in the world.  Whether or not that fills any individual or even collective need is irrelevant.  Yet, this transcendent position is limited even its truth-value precisely because it is no less embedded within the society of late capitalism, with its totalitarian demands.  Like Adorno, the churches cannot not continue their appeal to the Gospel, to the transformative possibilities of a life lived with Christ, in the Spirit, for the Father, even thought understanding and lived out this will never be fully what it we claim it could or would be.  Thus the struggles in the emerging post-Christian America for an identity among denominations that strikes the balance between our mission and ministry and appealing to the needs of people for whom religion is just another product to be purchased in order to fill a need.

Part of the current struggle within the United Methodist Church over the status of sexual minorities is a result of precisely this: the extremes both claim absolute, transcendent truth is on their side.  The middle, represented by the Hamilton-Slaughter “Way Forward” proposal is a market-driven solution to what is essentially a theological problem that cannot be resolved within theological language.  Thus, we are at a standstill unless we take Adorno’s position: the plight of the suffering of those history demands we forget in the name of profit and progress should be our guide to be as clear as possible, even though we know we can never be as clear as we should be.  Our work in the world is for God, a God of justice, a God for full human life, a God whose love for creation demanded Divine self-sacrifice to the injustice that pervades our world in order to overcome it.  We cannot escape the pervasive dehumanization and commodification of capitalism.  We can, however, work hard to offer hope that, like all totalizing ideologies, it too will be seen through for the lie that it is.   It creates the conditions in which understanding takes place; it creates the vocabularies through which language becomes intelligible.  Through these means, it sets the limits, including the absolute limits, on any claims to transcendence.

The best we can ever hope for is to point this out, and repeat the Gospel message the we serve the God who is a God of grace, a God of justice, and the God for whom the lie of the whole is part of the sin of this world that we can at least partially overcome in this life.  We must never forget, however, thanks to Adorno, that we are compromised, and our claims to transcendence limited no matter how hard we try.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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