Incarnations of Evangelicism: Avatars of a New Modernity
by Adam Katz (July 2007)
Back in 2000 there was an interesting argument regarding how to conduct the census. Republicans, hewing close to the language of the Constitution, insisted on a literal counting, one head at a time. Democrats, relying upon social scientific processes of statistical extrapolation, argued for the use of “sampling”: that is, using proportions within a particular group to project probable proportions in the whole. The Democrats’ argument was that the practice of counting in the “old fashioned” way under-counts the poor and minorities (who would therefore be under-represented for the purposes of districting, the distribution of social services, etc.) and that sampling was in fact more accurate—it was less vulnerable to human error, less dependent upon vagaries like the fear of going door to door in certain neighborhoods, more capable of correcting for errors that do occur, and so on. And it is quite possible that they were right on all these counts. Nevertheless, Republicans were still completely correct to insist upon “traditional” counting for the simple reason that, even if the Democrats were right in their assessment, their very approach removed all possibility that we could ever actually know that for sure.
We use, and must use, sampling practices all the time. Not only, to take just one example, has public opinion polling become an indispensable part of our political landscape, but we have not even begun to explore its possible uses (a poll which tries to elicit from interviewees the most popular pervasively unasked questions would provide us all with useful data in this regard). Perhaps I am naïve, but I still marvel at the fact that by interviewing several thousand people, responsible pollsters are actually capable of predicting fairly accurately the actions of tens of millions. Clearly, this deserves the designation “scientific.” In a certain sense, we are always “sampling”: when I see a familiar face on a familiar route, I silently calculate the probability that he or she will greet me; when I am conceiving or considering sharing a joke I similarly calculate the chances that a certain number will laugh out loud, another portion will chuckle, others politely smile, others simmer in offended silence, etc.; and I carry out these calculations based on extrapolations from past experience, which always carries some degree of uncertainty and risk (they laughed at a similar joke last week, but perhaps that means that they have had enough of such jokes, not that they want more; and, for that matter, how can I know whether we share precisely the same criteria for determining what counts as “similar”?) but can achieve high levels of accuracy. What is most important, though, is that I would never accept my own self-assurance that my audience is 93% likely to laugh uncontrollably at my joke as a proxy for actually telling the joke and having them laugh; I would never substitute a high probability of receiving the greeting for the greeting itself; and, we would certainly not accept the results of even the most reliable public opinion poll for the actual election in which everyone eligible, within a specified time period, must carry out (under agreed upon forms of supervision) the physical act (even if it is just a click on a laptop) of entering their vote.
A bit of reflection clarifies for us why this is the case. Sampling itself, in the end, is only meaningful in relation to an actual “population” from which the sample is drawn. It is parasitic, even if symbiotically so, upon what we can call the “indexical” sign—that is to say, any claim about the world assumes that in the end we could “point” to something which would verify that claim satisfactorily for us. Without the experience of actual laughter, what (in my example above) am I “calculating”? Census takers might cut corners, avoid certain neighborhoods, not make the necessary effort to locate certain hard to find individuals, and so on, but we can ask them about all that, and we can develop questioning and investigatory methods which improve our chances of determining the truth of their answers. We can hold someone accountable, in other words. When sampling is in question, we only have the calculations, and for their reliability we must rely upon the methods used in arriving at them; but the only arguments in favor of any set of methods (leaving aside the enormously important questions of the ideological skewing of methods themselves and their necessarily esoteric character to anyone not initiated into the discipline which produced them) is that they have worked (shown a high rate of correct predictions) in the past. Strangely enough, then, moving beyond the narrow issues my discussion has raised so far, the more scientific and innovative methods of sampling contain a strong bias toward confirming what already exists. No method can capture new phenomena because no established method can have a name for those things which must be seen to be believed.
And those things which must be seen to be believed are the most important. The most obvious example here is the utter predictability of the fall of Soviet and East Bloc Communism, at least after the fact and by those ridiculing Reagan’s policies in the 80s for initiating meaningless and dangerous confrontations with a form of society which was clearly going to be around for a long time—after all, it provided the social scientist with lots of indices, sure proof of its reality. For “sampling,” taken alone, the very fact of something’s existence is a powerful argument in favor of its continued existence. The face of the new is necessarily a human face, and we are only ready to recognize it to the extent that we believe that new things are possible, which is to say, we believe in origins and therefore in freedom. This is why, rather than the term “indexical” sign I just used to refer to signs which direct our attention to something immediately available to our experience, I would propose the use of the stronger notion of the “ostensive” sign.
Ostensive signs are those which direct our attention not merely to something immediately present but to something immediately calling for our attention: “Fire!” “Help!” “Man overboard!” and the like. According to Eric Gans’ originary hypothesis concerning the origin of language, the first sign was an ostensive: in the originary event, Gans hypothesizes, the pre-human group, driven to a mimetic crisis aimed at possession of a central object, the convergence upon that object is arrested by the putting forth, first by one, and eventually by the entire group, of the “aborted gesture of appropriation.” This “gesture” is an ostensive sign, which directs the group’s attention to that central object, and “translates” into “don’t touch that!”; or, even more precisely, “untouchable!”—or, God. We gain a great deal by relating—in unequal measures, of course—the various objects we “point” to daily to this ostensive sign, because what such pointing accomplishes is the creation of a common world in which we are all renouncing the immediate possession of objects that must be distributed in some mediated manner. Delegating tasks like census taking and voting to specific individuals under specified conditions are effective and indispensable civil rituals because we can point to the people who are doing the pointing: we need to see the actual acts of people who may be Democrats nevertheless arriving at results that might favor Republicans (and vice versa), we need to see people not merely answering phone calls but participating in a process whose results they will respect even if they don’t favor them. Built into these rituals, in others words, are essential characteristics such as honesty, trustworthiness, faith in one’s fellow citizens, and occasionally even courage. And we only trust pollsters to the extent that we believe that they exhibit the same qualities, qualities which could derive from the polling practice itself (the disinterest of the scientist who only wants the truth) but which are only recognizable to the rest of us on the more originary model of the ostensive sign.
The implication of this analysis is that the simple faith we confer upon the census taker or vote counter is not qualitatively different from the faith we invest in those witnesses to singular events and in particular those events which, whether due to their extraordinary and unprecedented character or the lack (perhaps due to the very nature of the event in question) of “supporting” evidence, leave us overwhelmingly or even solely dependent upon said witnesses. The singularity of certain events set the latter apart, but each event bears within it its own singularity. Before exploring the implications of this observation, though, I would like to address the consequences of a failure of faith in precisely in those simple, everyday acts (and actors); to put it another way, I would like to look at what happens when we (or if we were to) apply the skepticism urged upon us by many critics both of the traditions founded by the revealed religions and of our public institutions across the board.
Faith in public officials—faith, first of all, that they mean what they say—must be our default position. By this I don’t mean that we should believe everything every public official says. I don’t even mean that we should believe most of the things most public officials say. (Or that we should, with any determinate regularity, believe that they believe it.) I simply mean that faith and belief is the norm, and disbelief and mistrust the deviation, regardless of how often either feeling occurs. Even if we have been betrayed by a particular official every single time or have had each every claim they have made convincingly debunked, we take the next thing they say at face value until some more compelling testimony undermines that faith—even if that more compelling testimony arrives immediately after the statement in question. Only another faith in some other witness can displace the one we are pledged to as citizens, and the latter faith must be equally consonant with faith in our founding covenants.
We lose nothing by this default or “naïve” faith because the possibility of greater faith in some other witness or official will always serve as a check; and because the alternative is a presumption of disbelief, the consequences of which are social destruction. If my initial response to any statement or gesture by a public official is something on the order of “I wonder what calculation based upon focus groups, intra-party maneuvering, special groups pressure and polling results led to that statement” then I am led to ask: what convictions, then, inform and animate the special interest groups, the focus grouped citizens, the respondents to polls, and the party insiders? If, here, I am able to say, well, they believe “x,” then I must concede that the political figure could just as easily have believed “x”—in which case, why did we reject that possibility out of hand? Or, we must conclude that all of those figures are equally devoid of convictions and that the focus groups are the products of previous focus grouped ideas, the special interest groups in a mere struggle over resources with other special interest groups, the party insiders involved in sheer nihilistic machinations and even the polled citizens simply spitting back the talking points they have been fed. And if that’s the case, the only reasonable conclusion is it immerse oneself fully in that smarmy environment and become a master manipulator oneself.
Now, it can be and has been the case (perhaps more often, historically, than not) that public life is so utterly corrupt and trust so systematically betrayed that the default position of faith I am describing here would interfere with the very survival of individuals. Under such conditions, alternatives must be created. Leaving aside what would be the most common position, retreat into private life and manipulation of the necessary mechanisms for personal survival, maintenance of faith in public life would then require that one embody and exhibit in one’s own person the virtues and pre-requisites for public life. This approach, for which the dissidents under the East European communist regimes offer the most illuminating examples, this “living in truth” or “anti-political politics,” clarifies my own argument helpfully. First, it lays down the conditions under which such a radical transference of faith is legitimate; second, it provides us with the only acceptable alternative to the default position I have been proposing—not universal and persistent suspicion of all statements of belief and fact, but the simpler exemplification of the “missing” faith oneself. The fact that this has not—to put it mildly—been the preferred position of our current anti-war “dissidents,” who jockey for their position in the political marketplace with the same energy and the same compromises as everyone else, suggests strongly that the default position is far from being exhausted, regardless of how disappointed and outraged each and every one of us must be in this or that (and perhaps most) political figures and ideas presently available.
Once such suspicion becomes “contagious” and reaches a particular critical mass we find what I would like to call the “stampede”: like with massed animals (especially those who are primarily prey) for whom the initial response to perceived danger sets in motion a rapid intensification of normal mimetic activity, with each animal following “all the others” while simultaneously trying to get ahead of all the others, the human stampede is driven by the fear lest one be left alone with the perceived danger, before which one’s panicked reactions has already signaled one’s essential paralysis. The surest sign that a stampede is impending is the ascendancy of conspiracy theories, by which I mean those hypothetical accounts of events that are impossible to dispute because they are constructed in such a way so as to implicate every actual or potential disputer in the conspiracy itself. In other words, if the response to your refutation is something like, “so, they’ve gotten to you, too,” we are dealing with a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are the karmic payback for the skeptic’s “enlightened” lack of faith in existing institutions: instead of trusting those unsatisfactory figures who call themselves our “representatives,” one throws one’s trust unconditionally to whomever shows themselves the most brazen, virulent, uncompromising and inventive in one’s absolute mistrust.
The most dangerous and symptomatic conspiracy theory circulating today is that of “9/11 truthers.” 9/11 “denial,” or more precisely, the belief that the Bush Administration had prior knowledge, if not direct responsibility, for the 9/11 attacks has precisely the same structure and analogous consequences, despite the differing historical scales of the respective events, as Holocaust denial. Just as Holocaust denial is in fact a justification of the Holocaust and incitement to carry out another one, so 9/11 denial suggests that, insofar as Bush (and, by extension, conservatives, or the “right,” or Republicans…or Americans) “in reality” has responsibility through omission or commission for the acts, they really had it coming, and, by pretending otherwise, are bringing such catastrophes down upon themselves yet again. Like all conspiracy theories, 9/11 denial is both a caricature and weirdly logical conclusion of the fundamental Enlightenment distinction between those who are bullied or fooled into believing what “they” (rulers, priests) say, on the one hand, and those, on the other, who “see through” such deceptions and proudly declare the truth.
And yet 9/11 denial seems to be spreading—a recent poll has 22% of Americans and 35% of Democrats signing on: monstrous, terrifying, figures, if accurate. I believe that the numbers are accurate and the trend unmistakable, simply because the alternatives to “denial” are increasingly disturbing to those unwilling to entertain the distinctiveness of Islam. There is plenty of room to debate whether that distinctiveness lies in its unreformability; or in the need for radical reform; or in the transformation of some “moderate” Islam so that it is capable of resisting the “infection” of its viral, totalitarian variant. Either way, at the present time, Islam simply can’t fit any widely (post-Holocaust, post-colonial) shared socio-political frame. Even on the Right, where the debates I have just alluded to are to be found, a substantial portion (realists, isolationists and libertarians in particular) refuse to or are incapable of addressing Islam; in all, a rather small minority wish to talk about all this unpleasantness. But if 9/11 was merely a single blow in what will be, opportunity permitting, a relentless jihadist assault upon Western civilization, it follows that 9/11 must not have happened.
Stampedes ultimately burn themselves out—in the end, they have no real “object” (no one is actually “pointing” to anything) and one by one the members of the herd tire and drop out; some turn against the most readily identifiable instigator; but there is no telling how much damage they will do in the meantime. The possible responses to a stampede in process are limited, though. The most effective response is extermination—wipe out the stampeding horde. But if it’s a real stampede you won’t have enough people left to do that anyway. The only real response is to preserve the existing sites of freedom; and, for our purposes here, we can identify those sites of freedom with spaces organized around the ostensive sign. Those spaces where we will be able to see and hear, point to; allow for others to see and hear and to report credibly, in turn, to others, those who by virtue of such patient participation are capable of finding faith in something new—those are where we construct our walls protecting our civilizational achievements, whether those spaces are still the “controlling” ones, however eroded, or are (like the monasteries of the Dark Ages) islands of faith in a sea of barbarism. My own belief is the former—that is, under the surface and at the margins of our “mainstream” culture there is an emergent architecture of belief and habit that will resist and survive the stampede—but I don’t have to answer this question definitively one way or the other, I just have to look for others trying to help hold the line and collaborate with them in surfacing and completing that architecture.
The novum that I would like to contribute as a virtual locus for the retrieval of an ostensive dimension to culture can be presented as follows. First of all, cultural preservation can never be enough. Cultures are dynamic—they grow and transform or they deteriorate in confrontation with new challenges. The very act of engaging in necessary cultural preservation is simultaneously a preliminary effort at discovering the terms upon which the culture can be renewed. Second, the nature of such transformation is dictated by the particular challenge in question. In our case, I would suggest that our challenge is twofold: more broadly, the threat of totalitarian Islam is one more demonstration of the vulnerability of liberal, Western societies to the “totalitarian temptation” (a vulnerability we must take to be endemic, as bound up with our strengths as our weaknesses); more precisely, the threat posed by Islam, as the resentful latecomer of the monotheistic faiths, as the embodiment of all the tribal, anarchic as well imperial modes of rule marginalized by modernity, as the trawler of the dregs of Western society for those seething with nameless, murderous hate, forces us to actively resist and staunch what not too long ago we could have reasonably hoped to ignore and either assimilate or bypass: the abiding rebellion of the traditional world against the modern.
Such conditions call for sustained reflection upon anthropological fundamentals. What is Man? What account of the human justifies our commitment to the ideals of freedom and plurality? The Islamic argument would be that Man is a slave; first of all to Allah, and then, secondarily, to the tribal or imperial “strong man.” Islam would speak with great authority here, as this is the implicit anthropological presupposition of all hitherto recorded history, with a few exceptions, most if not all Western, and most prominently that represented by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. So, how do we choose from between these presuppositions? The originary scene provides us with an answer. In other words, which provides a better hypothesis regarding the emergence of language and the human: a scene in which all, equally and reciprocally, signified their deferred appropriation of the central object; or one in which one or a few forced the rest to “stand down”? In the latter case, the relation between one or a few and the rest requires nothing new: a hierarchical pecking order has always been the way in which animal groups minimize internal violence. No new sign would be needed. If the crisis were to be restricted to just the few who would then force the rest, we are just shifting the question to another site: how did they defer violence against each other? If it was through a sign, then the equality and reciprocity we require was established and constitutive at least between them, which would in turn mean that even if they then imposed renunciation upon the rest of the group, reciprocity would be anthropologically and therefore philosophically prior to domination. Historical domination would, in that case, always be vulnerable to extensions of the sign which, if it has worked for the few, must with suitable modifications be capable of working for the rest; while the vulnerabilities of a reciprocal or covenantal order would be significant but primarily internally generated and therefore never beyond its own resources to remedy. As human beings, as sign users, we are always capable of generating a new sign or mode of deferral in the midst of a mimetic crisis, and we are capable of doing so with the materials offered by the crisis itself; which is to say, for all their naivete, those theorists of the modern age who proclaimed that self-government more accurately reflected human nature were essentially correct.
The anthropology of domination has, of course, infiltrated Western culture from the beginning—we have some internal sorting out to do here as well. Modernity has been a contest over the results of the discovery precipitated by the preliminary separation of sacred and secular as part of the settlement of the European civil war of the early modern era: this discovery is that the fundamental disclosure of the Judaic and Christian revelations, that man is essentially a beginner, could be diverted from the strictly liturgical realm and applied to all areas of human existence. One “school” then wishes to harness this capacity for the sake of control over the historical process, which now becomes imaginable as a project of “humanity” (of humanity discovering its own “laws” of development); the other wants to enhance and participate in the unfolding of this astonishing new mode of liberty that is all beginnings and no ends. This struggle may never end; it is certainly intensifying once again in our time, with the soft totalitarianism of the “White Guilty” Left feeding into and drawing strength from the “harder” variety of the jihadists. Perhaps we adherents of the second “school” will always be in the minority, but our ineradicable advantage is that we are the only ones capable of configuring and emitting signs that might de-escalate the stampeding and scapegoating. Any such sign must be a further reduction or “minimization” of content in determining the identity of the “beginner,” a deferral of any claim to be able to possess the “essence” of that identity, inasmuch as such possession is the precondition for “harnessing.”
The discovery of the power of science lends support to totalitarian ambitions insofar as it encourages the delusion that struggles between human beings over sacred objects can be redirected toward a struggle with nature to produce enough to divide fairly among everyone—struggles over the sacred would then be revealed to have been nothing more than the mystification of our own powerlessness regarding nature and of our essential poverty, material and spiritual. But the fundamental problem of human beings has always been and remains the deferral of intra-species violence. The reliance upon science—or, more precisely, the class of scientific or “enlightened” thinkers—to resolve conflict leads to the transplantation of the model of domination, appropriate to our transactions with nature, into our dealings with each other. And scientifically justified and applied domination is the most horrific of all. A new mode of deferral must insist, then, upon the fundamental irreducibility of the human being to scientific machinations and our definition of freedom must include this intractable resistance to categorization and classification. To put it simply, our presuppositions regarding each other at entry points to cooperation must be kept to an absolute minimum; in exchange, though, the modes of accountability we instantiate for the “middle” of such processes must be correspondingly elevated. (To use a metaphor from the recent history of higher education in the U.S., this would be an argument for open admission to the culture conjoined to an insistence on yet higher standards; the seeming contradiction is resolved by the consequent proliferation of private and collaboratively managed cultural sites—“preparation classes,” to continue the metaphor—in which people deliberately shape themselves and each other to engage one or another of the overlapping cultural streams. To move from metaphor to example, an immigration policy suggested by this precept might be the following: rather than have the government try to regulate the labor market by setting specific immigration levels, offer temporary, renewable visas to pretty much anyone—excluding known criminals and ideological enemies—and then condition renewal and the possibility of staying in the country upon no criminal or subversive activity, gainful employment, promptness in adhering to the terms of the renewal process itself and, further down the road toward citizenship, sponsorship by individuals, employers and/or institutions. Those in violation of these conditions are sure to show up on the radar screen of one or another level of law enforcement or government bureaucracy sooner or later and word of how difficult it is to meet these conditions will filter back to the various “old countries” inhibiting all but the industrious and civic minded from making the effort.)
Whether one thinks we need to strengthen our “antibodies” to resist the virulent strain of totalitarian Islam; or one hopes to construct “wedges” into the Islamic order so as to effect its transformation or dissolution, the new signs we produce must incorporate both freedom and resolution; both a commitment to witnessing to the new and paying homage to all the modes of ostensivity that we have inherited and now make new styles of witnessing possible. “Evangelicism” is the name I would propose for those of us “working” on these new signs. Evangelicism, the dissemination of the “good news” that humans are constituted so as to be capable of retrieving the sacred, even when all seems lost, pays homage to the Christian roots (and branches and leaves!) of our civilization, while abstracting from Christianity and generalizing the conversion “effect.” For the evangelicist, the most effective and economical way to transform (or, for that matter, sustain) social reality is through conversion: that is, by representing (standing for, embodying, making present, resembling) some truth that is presently despised by the very “world” that it is the truth of. The evangelicist does so steadfastly, cheerfully and “communicably” even as the scapegoating and stampeding intensifies until it finally melts away (only to return with the next evangelicist incarnation). This is, indeed, the only way in which human truths are ever “proven” and we must accept that often the truth goes from seeming the preposterous conviction of a band of enthusiasts to the commonsense of the community without any commensurate intermediate steps, much less a just allotment of credit.
Conversion results from the stunning revelation that the form of our most fervent desires not only preclude their fulfillment but are signs of our unworthiness; this acknowledgment of our unworthiness, meanwhile is in turn a sign of what we might be worthy of, and thus commences our search for an object that would educate and discipline our desire. One individual facilitates the conversion of the other, in that case, by, first, willingly playing the “screen” upon which those desires can be projected and their absurdities made painfully evident; and, second, simply by pointing to what is behind the screen, which is the appearance of everyone else in the same aborted, paralyzed, grotesque but potentially singularly beautiful gesture. Whatever “force” repels us all and dissolves our desires, leaving us parched but clear sighted, is now for us Intelligent Being. There is nothing inherently “religious” about this experience: indeed, much of this description would be familiar to a reader of Marcel Proust or Sigmund Freud. Only our cramped understandings of the relation between “religious” and “secular” prevent this kind of experience, which I would insist everyone has had, or at least glimpsed, from becoming an “engine” in a much needed renewal of modernity.
Evangelicism recognizes that “persuasion” really plays a very small role in changing minds and hearts. Whether we think of persuasion in more “rhetorical” terms or in terms of applying shared canons of reason and logic, one can really only persuade those who are already persuaded regarding the central questions. Persuasion is secondary, that is, it presupposes a shared culture, and this is what we can no longer assume, at least not regarding our politics or civil society. One converts to a liberal, market culture just as dramatically as one converts to Christianity (or, for that matter, to a fervent admirer of the art of Paul Klee; or an inquirer into the intricacies of the DNA molecule; or a new, more “authentic” rock group, etc.): one witnesses courage, illumination and beauty coming together in a completely new way so as to render petty concerns and resentments irrelevant and wants nothing more than to become a witness to that experience for others. In this way we transform our present civilizational strife into a new platform or playing field and we make explicit what is already a global market in faith—while elites worry about offending Muslims or letting “religion” influence politics Muslims and Christians (in particular) are out there competing for the souls of the masses still on the margins of the modern world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America; and even re-opening the question of faith and culture in Europe and North America. We all need to get into the game, and the game is frank discussion of the efficacy or attractive force of the sacred objects and events, martyrs and saints, of all faiths, “secular” ones included. (A simple example: a study of the way in which contemporary Leftism has taken shape around sacred events like “McCarthyism” and the “martyrs” such events have produced would tell us far more about what leftists believe and how they act than all the theoretical tomes taken together.) Let’s all enter the game—and let the best team (that articulation of faith communities and sacred objects most capable of deferring the new modes of violence portended by the crisis in modernity) win!
In an evangelicist culture, we are all trying to convert each other in matters spiritual, intellectual, political, artistic and moral—not necessarily persistently (or annoyingly!), but in the sense that any encounter or conversation might at any time transform one of us into a “screen” for the other. And our wager here is that evangelicists are capable of “modeling” modes of interaction in which differences over the sacred can unfold new sources of sacrality: every one can enter the field in this vast marketplace of faiths (my own pet hope is that Judaism will become, as it once was millennia ago, “evangelical’ and that in the process more Jews come to recognize the real value of their “product”). Our starting point is witnessing to moral and political “abysses”—those sites where change is most needed but also most unimaginable; where everyone can see the right thing to do but no one has the courage to do it; where the clear-eyed observation of intensifying depravity somehow becomes part of that very depravity—where, in short, the paradoxes of our human condition become inescapably practical. Evangelicism creates ritualized practices out of tentative efforts to hold the line around such abysses, to stay close enough to observe and intervene but distant enough to resist the gravitational pull—such practices will emerge out of sustained consideration and the trial and error of trying to figure out how to get others to “see” and “hear” what you do.
The attractive force of conversion has an irreducibly esthetic component. There is a beauty we are all able to appreciate in the individual who patiently and gracefully endures opprobrium and abuse without conceding an inch with the regard to the truth he or she testifies to—even in those whom we oppose. Eric Gans’ originary hypothesis accounts for the origin of the esthetic in the oscillation, on the originary scene, in the attention of the participants, between the sign (the aborted gesture of appropriation) and the object, which is now even more intensely desired in the wake of its prohibition. The object is promised by the sign, but only on the condition of a reciprocal renunciation and orderly, shared consumption; a consumption, moreover, that in its symmetry must leave some spiritual or ideal residue of the object; its sacrality or holiness. The more effectively the sign holds our attention even while (precisely by) keeping the object in view, the more “beautiful” it is.
This means that in the economy of evangelicism, the necessary complement of conversion is what we can only call “seduction,” which, understandably, has a rather bad name in moral and spiritual matters. But seduction is nothing more than the conditioning of possession of some object upon the desiring individual demonstrating mastery of the appropriate rules of deferral. Seduction ending in marriage is rightly enshrined as the quintessential “happy ending” in social matters; and the same goes in moral, spiritual and political matters for seduction issuing in the inheritance of the mantle of responsibility of some admirable model, the imitation of whom implies possession of a “seat” a little closer to the sacred center. Of course, once the inheritance is complete, one realizes that it is in the nature of such possession that it is never complete and that it is only just that things should be so: the whole point of having seats apparently closer to the center is to demonstrate that, in the end, we are all equidistant from it—but seduction never promises that the desired object will, in its possession, be precisely what was desired (how could it be?).
In fact, seduction is only evil when the sign pointing to the object promises precisely that identity of desire and possession. Seduction is always a “boundary case” for the convert: conversion involves the transition from one set of rules to another and in the process there is inevitably a moment in which all rules seem to be suspended: in fact, how could one ever convert if one were incapable of standing outside of so as to weigh both of the competing sacred objects? Seduction must always begin by “tempting” one to break some rule, it must always de-sacralize one object in order to make another visible: as long as one recognizes (and a properly moral seducer assists in this recognition) the relativity and contingency of this situation (like an emergency which suspends the law) the danger is minimal. Meanwhile, the way to sustain this recognition is to represent the object as possessing some residue resisting possession and in this way maintain continuity between the two incompatible objects in the form of the structurally similar (regardless of object) oscillation between desire and object. If the object can be possessed in toto precisely as it is desired, though, desire will have no limits and will therefore give the law to itself in perpetuity. It is here that seduction becomes “Satanic.”
Evangelicism is implicated in the same paradox as constitutionalism and support for the free market. Everyone accepts the Constitution and the market but for the most part only because the very strength of these institutions lies in their minimal demand for overt loyalty and commitment: in both cases, the institutions are sustained by everyone going about their own business, which also implies that very few people will have any compunction about the introduction of protectionist practices which defend their profits or distortions of the Constitution which provide them with an extended menu of rights. The role of the constitutionalist or libertarian, then, is not to stand back and bewail the corruption of all values and the prevailing hypocrisy; rather, it is to participate patiently, make pragmatic judgments regarding permissible compromises, and, at crucial moments, when the opportunity presents itself or everyone recognizes (is dragged kicking and screaming to the recognition) that there is no other way out, patch together a new coalition supporting public commitment to constitutionalist or market principles and do whatever one can to inscribe and enshrine that commitment in public institutions and consciousness. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, evangelicism seeks out the right thing to do, the one everyone might be ready for once they have tried everything else.
I suspect that one of the main reasons for the acquiescence even on the part of believers to the rigid separation of “Church and State” that currently regulates our public life is a fear of public scrutiny of one’s own faith: what will my most cherished beliefs look like to others who have taken other paths to other cherished beliefs? And, then, how will they look to me through their eyes? The fact that Islam is currently making it impossible for us not to examine and reason regarding the various faiths on the market might have the unanticipated and salutary effect of demonstrating (of encouraging those who will take up the challenge of demonstrating) that the arguments of Christianity and Judaism are in fact far less shallow than those of the atheist left. I am sure I’m not the only one disgusted by the utter banality and puerility of the current wave of atheist books and intellectual celebrities—the intellectual, not moral triviality, of these “brilliant” thinkers. Christianity and Judaism are, among other things, remarkably sustained traditions of reasoning regarding the meaning of events which break the plane of normal life while respecting normal life enough to demand that it accommodate those events; all atheism can do is offer simulated events, all culminating in its own self-congratulatory martyrdom. But events are all we have, and any faith that can’t exemplify ways for us to sit together at a table and share something along with the rules for sharing it has nothing to offer. The joke about diplomats arguing about the shape of the table has a serious content: not only are some tables in fact better than others for some purposes but, more important, a procedure by which concessions are matched by reciprocating concessions can only be devised through the process of testing one another’s will and alertness to potentially significant details. For the evangelicist, arguing about the advantages and disadvantages for each of the parties regarding one type of table or another, speculating about some new tabular shape that might satisfy all, exchanging preferable seating arrangements for the preferred table, etc., all provide opportunities to argue about how each of us sees our relationship to each of the others, with each one’s attempt to convert the others signifying one’s own openness to the new and the truths embodied in others including those revealed in surprising ways—for the atheist, such an argument would get less and less interesting as it proceeds. After all, it’s beside the point, which is a fair and rapid disposition of whatever needs to be disposed. The evangelicist understands the force of the gesture, of the ostensive, of the alignment of positions on the scene; the atheist never can, the atheist can only declare and pronounce, which is why he will never leave his own new Dark Age. And, as for the real faith of the contemporary Left, White Guilt, organized around the cult of Palestine and the human sacrifice of the suicide bomber (testimony to the irremediable guilt of the West), evangelicism will allow us to out it as a faith, to demystify its founding traumatic events, dissect its contemptible rituals and diagnosis its disturbed anthropology.
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