An hypothesis to live by

Alain Badiou
Two things always strike me at this time of year. The first is the mad, dysfunctional spending that goes on even as most consumers know they are burdened by increasingly unsustainable personal debt and this year also facing the very present danger of loosing their jobs or, at the very least, loosing the basic kinds of social and economic security they once thought they had.

The second is that the Advent and Christmas season is a powerful reminder of how strongly I remain committed to the explicit use of Biblical language and ideas and remain faithful to what we might call the extended Christian event explored in the New Testament texts and that of the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth-century. Given that, as many of you know, I do not subscribe to the old orthodox metaphysical claims of Christianity, as I reflect upon this in the cold light of the New Year this can, and often does, make me somewhat uncomfortable and makes me question again what it is I think I am doing.

As I pondered these things in the run-up to the New Year I began to realise how intimately these things are connected. To show why, necessarily involves some consideration of recent left-wing political thinking with which, I am aware, some of you may not be personally sympathetic. Acknowledging this I offer two lines of defence.

The first is that, as I said above, this church stands in the radical-Reformation tradition, a left-wing movement which was always politically and religiously concerned about the emancipation of humanity, desired justice for the poor and dispossessed and also that their well-being and possibility of full flourishing (spiritual and material) was also ensured. Recall here our reading from the Epistle of James (Chapter 2 vv. 1-7) - a key text.

Additionally, and of huge import it seems to me, our church's historical commitment to an hypothesis which affirmed the humanity of Christ can be taken as the beginnings of a radical and developing protest against the conception of an absent all-powerful transcendent God enthroned in heaven in favour of an egalitarian earthly kingdom (even republic) of heaven in which God becomes man; what we once called God is now understood definitively, and irreversibly, to dwell amongst us in some way. Two thinkers who have followed this basic Christian hypothesis through in an atheistic fashion that I, personally, am taking with increasing seriousness are Ernst Bloch and Slavov Žižek. (I feel it's only right and proper to make it absolutely clear here that this is *not* to go in the direction followed by either contemporary pluralistic Unitarian/Universalism or even classic Unitarian Christianity.)

The second thing I'll add in my defence is that I have discovered in my recent reading that, in the light of the complete failure of the attempts in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries to set up and sustain just socialist and communist societies, the questions currently being asked by some thinkers on the Left strongly resemble the kinds of questions we are being forced to ask in the liberal religious circles we mostly inhabit.

These two things make me feel justified in taking the risk of citing one particular left-wing philosopher, Alain Badiou, so openly today from this lectern. Please bear with me; as our final hymn says 'help this prophet to be bold'.

(At the very end of this post is a note about this hymn - both its full, original content and its extraordinary author. I didn't mention any of this in the 'live' giving of this address as it would have been too much of a diversion. But it is an example of silent liberal re-writings which seem to me deliberately to obscure our church's very radical roots. It's not that I think we should be slavish about clinging to all our earlier ideas and expressions but what worries me is the pretence that they never existed in the first place. The end result is that we simply do not really understand how we are who we are and we fail to see that our communities were created by people who were completely committed to a great idea - something I'm now going to speak about.)

Since the financial crash of 2008 and the consequent attempts to save the whole sorry show by pouring into the banks trillions of pounds, euros and dollars whilst, at the same time, beginning to inflict increasing financial pain and distress upon the poorest in our societies (and all whilst continuing to reward and protect those who contributed so much to this catastrophe) I have spent a great deal of time and effort revisiting my shelf of my once well-thumbed Marx, Gramsci, Bloch and Lenin as well as reading some of the new thinking in this area - particularly Žižek, Eagleton and Badiou.

Thinking about possible alternative approaches has to be done when you discover that you really can no longer believe that the way we are carrying on is working. Given this I, like everyone else, am forced to ask, well, 'What is to be done?' But, before one can even get to the possibility of any kind of actual 'doing', one has to have been captivated by an enabling and inspiring hypothesis.

However, one of the most effective strategies of late-capitalism has been to remove from the field of play all alternative hypotheses that are capable of challenging it. It has done this for the most part by silently seducing the members of its societies (us) into believing that, despite its faults, on balance it is the best of all the possible models on offer. Alternative hypotheses are neutered by making them matters wholly of private concern. It says to us, 'if you must hold such a hypothesis you must only hold it as a sort of eccentric hobby to be kept, mostly, well out of sight.' 

It goes without saying that those of us who have benefited most from the system's increasingly global development (and there are, of course, many people in the world who have not only never benefited from it but who have, in fact, suffered at its hands) are highly predisposed unquestioningly to buy into this approach. After all there is no doubt that this system has given us pretty comfortable lives and many wonderful things - and I am not being ironic here, I really mean this. It should come as no surprise that none of us who have this comfort and these things like to think about loosing them. Late-capitalism's hold over us all is, therefore, not precisely ideological but rather material. This factor, and many others, simply reinforces in us the feeling that we must fix *this* system thereby protecting the basic status quo - if we only keep calm and carry on, all will be well. This general way of proceeding has led supporters of the system to claim in various ways that it has, thereby, been bringing about an 'end of ideologies' - a claim which has also run alongside another that there was also 'an end of history'.

But, as the global financial crisis unfolded, many of us on the inside of the system have now caught a glimpse of something very disturbing about it and as Alain Badiou suggests:

'We can now see quite clearly that the only reality behind their so-called "end [of ideologies]" is "Save the banks"' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, p. 99).

This leads me to concur with Badiou that now:

'Nothing could be more important than rediscovering the passion for ideas, or than contrasting the world as it is with a general hypothesis, with the certainty that we can create a very different order of things. We will contrast the wicked spectacle of capitalism with the real of peoples, with the lives of people and the movement of ideas. The theme of the emancipation of humanity has lost none of its power' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, pp. 99-100).

Now, remember I began this address with a point about my continued use of Biblical language and how I can sometimes be somewhat embarrassed by this. Well, Badiou is acutely aware of something similar in his own circles. This is because he has to communicate to others his preferred hypothesis and to do this he only has his inherited language of Communism. As he does this he is painfully aware that the attempts to instantiate the Communist hypothesis during the last two centuries ultimately failed but, he says:

'[W]e have to try to retain the words of our language, even though we no longer dare to say them out loud. In '68, these were the words that were used by everyone. Now they tell us: "The world has changed, so you can no longer use those words, and you know it was the language of illusions and terror." "Oh yes, we can! And we must!" The problem [of our world/society] is still there, and that means that we must be able to pronounce these words. It is up to us to criticise them and give them a new meaning. We must be able to go on saying "people", "workers", "abolition of private property", and so on, without being considered has-beens. We have to discuss these words in our own field, in our own camp. We have to put an end to the linguistic terrorism that delivers us into the hands of our enemies. Giving up on the language issue, and accepting the terror that subjectively forbids us to pronounce words that offend dominant sensibilities, is an intolerable form of oppression' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, pp. 64-65).

Now, whatever you think about Badiou's Communist hypothesis I hope you will be able see how the foregoing issues relate to us in the present situation as a church standing in a radical-Reformation tradition.  

As we meet today at the beginning of a New Year and consider the mindless and self-destructive shopping madness going on but a few hundred yards from this church we are all aware how unsustainable is this way of proceeding and we know something has to be done - for the sake of humanity and the planet in general. (Of course, even if the political and social will for change doesn't win out we will, in the end, all be forced by natural forces radically to change our ways anyway.)

The thing that we are to do must, surely, be related to our tradition's founding events and general hypothesis which has stated, amongst other things, that no one has the right to lord it over us or has the right to bag and barn up for themselves the fruits of the earth and our labour. Where and whenever this unjust behaviour is occurring we have had the vision and courage, in the past at least, to be prepared to help turn the world upside down (cf. Acts 17:6-8) certain that we can create a very different order of things.

And we, too, - especially in post-modern liberal religious circles - are constantly told that 'the world has changed' and that, therefore we can no longer use our inherited religious language because Christianity - even the kind of radical Christianity we have espoused - is clearly the language of 'illusions and terror'. But as Badiou points out it is up to us to criticise these words and give them a new and relevant meaning - primarily because our particular Christian hypothesis which uses those words still has the power to offend the dominant sensibilities that are presently doing so much damage to our world and its peoples; the dominant sensibilities I have in mind are global capitalism and all dogmatic institutional expressions of religion, particularly Christianity, which have all too often eagerly supported such unjust systems. Because of this, and despite my embarrassment, I think it is vital to continue to insist on using the 'offensive' radical Biblical language of, for example, liberation, grace, incarnation, resurrection, the body of Christ, universal salvation and the like (again, see Bloch and Žižek on these things).

As Badiou puts it with regard to the communist hypothesis, and to which I would add the radical Christian hypothesis I've pointed to above:

'[I]n a nutshell: we have to be bold enough to have an idea. A great idea. We have to convince ourselves that there is nothing ridiculous or criminal about having a great idea. [. . .] Too many people now think that there is no alternative to living for oneself, for one's own interests. Let us have the courage to cut ourselves off from such people. [. . .] I am a philosopher, so let me tell you something that has been said again and again since Plato's day. It is very simple. I am telling you as a philosopher that we have to live with an idea, and that what deserves to be called real politics [and I would add real religion] begins with that conviction' (The Communist Hypothesis, Verso Press 2009, pp. 66-67).

If we abandon our conviction and fidelity to our own foundational events and basic hypothesis - our great idea - it seems to me that we will have begun to believe that the unjust and destructive madness we are seeing in our contemporary societies is our future and that we are powerless to create a very different order of things.

But I, for one, refuse to abandon such a protest. "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir. Amen." - "Here I stand; I can do none other, so help me God. Amen."

Here is the original lyric of the hymn mentioned above.
Here is a link to some information and articles by the author - Louisa Bevington.


Anonymous said…
The importance of a great idea (or hypothesis) is that you must be in “love” with it; this is of course not the love of “Clinton cards” or not to be mistaken for the lust of not having enough possessions. Once you are in love you will be able to give reasons for this love, the teachings of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven were meant to be used as the foundation on which we act and not an obstacle to acting. This is of course the great tragedy (note not cynicism) of both Christianity and Socialism that we must act to know how chained we all really are, and once we have a great idea and realised the barriers that we face in actualising that idea only then do we realise an emancipation of humanity is needed; and we fall in love.

Dan Cooper