The Emperor's New Clothes - a short circuiting of the incarnation

Jesus said: 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' 

Matthew 5:17–20


'A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network - faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the networks smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion) and read it in a short circuiting way, through the lens of a "minor" author, text or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood here in Deluze's sense: not of "lesser quality", but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a "lower", less dignified topic)? If the "minor" reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions. This is what Marx, among others, did with philosophy and religion (short-circuiting philosophical speculation through the lens of political economy, that is to say, economic speculation); this is what Freud and Nietzsche did with morality (short-circuiting the highest ethical notions through the lens of the unconscious libidinal economy). What such a reading achieves in not a "desublimation", a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its "unthought", disavowed presuppositions and consequences. . . . the reader should not simply have learned something new, the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another - disturbing - side of something he or she knew all the time.'

(Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ,  Slavoj Žižek and John Millbank, MIT 2009 pp. vii-viii)


Last week I noted how easy it was to remain committed to certain ways of thinking because they appear to offer us coherence - they help us make sense of the world and our place in it. Our various religious and philosophical traditions bequeath us a certain way of thinking in so  silent fashion that, for the most part we do not know about it. I'm not intimating the existence of same Dan Brownesque plot here - it is simply the case that we are born into already existing ways of thinking and talking about the world which do not contain - in obvious ways at least - ways of thinking and talking about a world view outside its own.

For most of us, for most of the time, we don't notice this inherited way of thinking and its power over us but when, for whatever reason, we come to believe we have see something different, something new, we quickly discover that there are no inherited terms or conceptions that can speak of it appropriately in the new way - we are forced to use old words to do something that appears radical, shocking and, from one point of view, plain wrong. Another way of putting it is to say that if we want to communicate this new insight to our culture we are forced to short-circuit words, ideas, conventions and concepts. Jesus and the early Christian tradition were experts at such short-circuiting and I'll return to this point at the end.

But first a closer look at Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale of 1837, "The Emperor's New Clothes", will help me explain what I mean better. I'm sure you all remember the basic story:

An emperor of a prosperous city who cares more about clothes than military pursuits or entertainment hires two swindlers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they tell him, is invisible to anyone who was either stupid or unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot see the (non-existent) cloth, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime. The Emperor then goes on a procession through the capital showing off his new "clothes". During the course of the procession, a small child cries out, "the emperor is naked!" The crowd realizes the child is telling the truth. The Emperor, however, holds his head high and continues the procession.

When I first heard this as a kid, although I remember laughing and being encouraged to learn the headline lesson - that human pride can stop us from saying things that might make us appear stupid or unenlightened - I also distinctly remember being utterly puzzled by the fact that everyone in the story was SO stupid and proud that they could not say from the outset to the swindlers, "Whoa, I'm sorry chaps but this suit is non-existent." Half the fun was and is, of course, knowing that you know - after all one can always laugh a little easier really knowing you are not stupid and unfit for the job. But this realisation only reinforced my need to question how come everyone in the story was SO stupid - everyone except that is, that one child.

I only slowly discovered that the reason for my question was that the story is told to us from this side, that is to say from the point of view of a world that has developed clear terms and concepts to proclaim (or sing with Danny Kaye) "The king is in the all-together"; to say that the suit of new clothes really does not exist. But for the story to work, really work, we must have an intuitive understanding - even if we don't often consciously realise this - that there are ways of seeing the world and talking about it that are so ingrained in a culture that most people within it simply CANNOT realize that they are perpetuating falsehoods. It is very important to realise - in Hans Christian Anderson's little universe of the story - that for most of the characters the Emperor was NOT naked - he really was wearing a really existent suit of clothes that they could not see because they were either too stupid or unfit for their positions.

It is worth entertaining the thought that even the swindlers may have still thought they were making a real suit of clothes that they, too, were too stupid or unfit to see. Not possible? Then just think of the many priests and ministers who go on honestly proclaiming a God - or an understanding of God - whom they can no longer perceive or believe in and who feel this is the case because they think they are too stupid (sinful) or unfit for their position.

Anyway, absurd though it may seem to us, for the characters in the story the thought that the suit really 'did not exist' was simply not available to them. The suit was for them a really existent suit but one invisible to those who were too stupid or unfit for their position.

What the child does - a "minor" character in both the popular sense of the word and Deluze's sense of being a voice marginalized and disavowed by the prevailing culture - what the child does is short circuit things so that the smooth running of the system is compromised. Here's is how Anderson ends his story:

'But he has nothing on at all,' said a little child at last. 'Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,' said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. 'But he has nothing on at all,' cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, 'Now I must bear up to the end.' And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist."

So, recall now Žižek's words, ' . . . the reader should not simply have learned something new, the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another - disturbing - side of something he or she knew all the time.'

The "minor" character of the child in his or her short circuit of the whole system brings to light, not only something new - which is that the invisible suit of clothes really DOESN'T exist - but he or she makes us aware of another, disturbing, side of something we knew all the time which is, that the king is naked but we now understand he is naked in a different way to how we once thought. There is a difference between the word and idea 'naked' when it is used to point to your stupidity and ill-fittedness to you role and when it is being used to point to the Emperor's actual, empirically verifiable nakedness.

In the light of this new understanding of the word 'naked' we can then see another disturbing thing which is that many powerful people in our world will carry using words and concepts in the old way even when the old way of using them can be shown to be, at least doubtful, if not downright wrong. That's what makes the last sentence of the story so chilling for not only did the Emperor decide to carry on to the end but 'the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist.' Is not much of our religious thinking and acting really only carrying a train which does not exist? It's worth some thought.

Now as I noted at the outset, Jesus was a great short-circuitor himself as was the tradition that developed under his influence - early Christianity as we have it recorded in the New Testament and various other 'apocryphal' books. He used the language of his own faith, Judaism, as did those who followed him, to do very similar things as Anderson's child. He pointed to the law to help us to understand these same things in a different, short circuited way that did not abolish but, as he and his followers saw it, fulfilled it. The old law remained but Jesus and his followers made his contemporaries aware of another - disturbing - side of this law that they knew all the time.

As we have inherited it in the four and a half centuries old Socinian/Unitarian tradition what the short circuit revealed was that the transcendental, up-there, judgemental (if just) creator and law dispenser was, in truth walking with them, amongst or within them. Jesus was to them a tangible expression of God - the word made flesh. That was the shocking, short circuit being made - that God was made man and, by extension fully part of creation and so part of us.

But as Christianity institionalised and became the religion of Empire, it quickly rowed back on the full implications of Jesus' short circuit and it stopped things dead by claiming that this incarnation was uniquely experienced in Jesus alone and then, instead of empowering the people with a sense of their innate divinity, set up systems to mediate and dispense the power such a thought brought through themselves alone.

But this deeper revolutionary seed of Jesus' short circuit was irreparably sown in the New Testament texts - the simple idea that God is best understood not to be definitively distant and an object solely of rational knowledge but to have emptied 'himself' fully into creation and so known only through lived lives. Unitarians were amongst those who continued to see the full implications of this and one of the great Unitarian theologians of the late nineteenth century James Martineau summed it up succinctly for us:

'The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine' (cited in J. E. Carpenter James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

What I find very interesting is that this idea - of God's full incarnational implication in the world - is today in various ways being recaptured and run with very effectively by some of the most exciting and provocative modern philosophical and political thinkers on the left. It is a tragedy, therefore, that so many modern Unitarians have, in abandoning the language of Christianity, also abandoned one of the greatest contemptory tools by which they might contribute to the re-empowering all people of goodwill to struggle with genuine hope against oppression and injustice. This is especially so in an age which has made a decisive turn back to the religious.

I think that as religious liberals we can recapture the central claim of Christianity "that God became man" if we can also summon the courage to short circuit the way it has been appropriated by institutionalised Christianity.

But remember, just as the Anderson's child showed us two ways to understanding the word 'naked' (one being used to say 'I'm stupid and unworthy' and the other being used as an expression of the power of empirically driven thought to help us to a clearer understanding of the world) when I suggest we might do well to reconsider the scandalous language of the incarnation and of Christian language in general I mean this in a radically short-circuited way - a way that does not leave us feeling stupid and unworthy but rather freely empowered to commingle fully in our world as true sons and daughters of God doing justice loving kindness and walking side by side, hand in hand with God who is nothing less than our neighbour.

(In the conversation immediately following the giving of this address I was asked a question about what was the new thing I hoped to bring into the present situation given through such a short circuit of the idea of the  incarnation since it has been so thoroughly appropriated by orthodox theistic Christianity - rather than the Heglianesque/atheistic reading Zizek (and in fact I) might wish give it. In short my reply centred on how it might help modern liberals to overcome the vast skeptical distance that exists between their theories about the world and their actual being in it. I'll expand on this another time otherwise this will never get posted.) 




Yewtree said…
Excellent post. This is why we need anthropologists from other cultures to scrutinise our culture.

Regarding the incarnation in everyone, that made me think of John Storey's lovely carol about it.

I expressed the same idea about the incarnation-in-veryone in my address, What is a Messiah? I'd be interested in your comments on it.
Thanks for your comment Yewtree. Sorry for my lack of response to your other comments over the past couple of weeks - catching up with stuff after my vacation, the start of teaching and a wedding and child dedication/baptism has rather filled all available space. Will read your piece on "What is a Messiah?" Hope all is well with you.

The problem is that each position can be, for others, another set of Emperor's New Clothes, so that the Socinian position is itself a set of Emperor's New Clothes, and the abandonment of the language of Christianity is because it is finally seen as a piece of cloth so thin that there is no point wearing it.

I think you are trying to reconstruct using Christianity from a non-realist perspective, and this is indeed very invisible cloth.

I'm not sure, either, about your use of short-circuiting, especially if it is John Milbank commenting on Freud and Marx. I haven't read it, but I would have thought he would have been opposed to such short-circuiting. Isn't Radical Orthodoxy an example of wrapping something in layers and layers of non-existent clothes? He would not want to short circuit that.
I'm certainly not advocating a 'non-realist' project - I think a 'Sea of Faith' type approach is profoundly problematic - rather, to nick Zizek's term - to explore something like a theological materialism.
Yewtree said…
Hi Andrew

No problem, the life of a minister is always busy, I gather :)

I just finished reading "Doubts and Loves: what is left of Christianity" by Richard Holloway (I think that is where you got the 'bend in the river' quote from?) I enjoyed it very much and will be posting a review soon. I would certainly recommend it to Adrian as a review of what is essential in Christianity, or what remains of it after rationality has set in. This is a bit cheeky as I'm not a Christian, though I am an admirer of Jesus. I certainly think Holloway's approach closely resembles Unitarian Christianity (or Christian Unitarianism), as far as I can make out.