‘Love’ and ‘God’
God the Father and Angels, unknown artist, ca. 1750–1800
Various contemporary continental philosophers have taken an interest in espousing some form of a ‘return to religion’ but one devoid of actual, material religious belief and practice (e.g., John Caputo’s ‘religion without religion’ or Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘deconstruction of Christianity)’. But actual, empirical religion, post-9/11, has been flourishing in our globalized world, where belief and religion are not devoid of their meaning, permanently cancelled out philosophically, as it were, but are as loaded as ever with the charge of tradition and sense. This is the context wherein Gregg Lambert develops his notion of the ‘return statement’. The latter phrase, appropriated from computer programming, indicates the exit from a particular subroutine, i.e., something like a paradigm shift in philosophical terms. Lambert invokes it in order to indicate contemporary continental philosophy’s desire to leave behind the various embodied religious forms we see before us every day in its own, more abstracted ‘return to religion’ that would serve perhaps to cancel out the religious altogether.
The problem with contemporary philosophical accounts, in Lambert’s analysis, is that they are too beholden to those deconstructive, negative theological accounts of representation that would see a specific ontology crossed-out but not replaced by anything with its own ontological substance. There is therefore a lack of an ontological form that arises in the face of these various philosophical ‘fundamentalisms’ that he is keen to frequently critique. In essence, there are too few actual commitments to actual persons, communities, bodies or ‘life itself’ — all terms that Lambert sees taken up in abstract philosophical terms without actually invoking their all-too-real material counterparts. If we have witnessed philosophically the ‘return of religion’, then what kind of religion are we talking about if not an actually embodied, ‘material religion’? What new philosophical fundamentalism is being adhered to in this movement? Lambert’s book, which is really a collection of essays and talks given over the course of a decade, seek with a ‘Voltaire-like acerbic tone’ along with some ‘Swiftian satire’ (p. 12) to undermine the paradigm dominant at the moment in contemporary continental thought. Following Foucault’s efforts to critique modernity’s flawed but persistent attempt to escape from every system or tradition, Lambert wishes ‘simply to test the validity of each “return” against my own human, inevitably “all too human,” experience of our shared contemporary reality’ (p. 17).
Lambert’s immediate reaction to Caputo’s most basic claims about trying to locate a love that cannot be contained within any historical, institutionalized religious tradition, is that, in doing so through an approach that would bracket both ‘love’ and ‘God’, Caputo leaves out the possibility of such a violence being done in the name of love. Does this act, Lambert wonders, repeat the word’s original meaning or jettison it completely? He charges Caputo with avoiding the necessity of obligation, while concealing demands within what appears to be a non-demanding injunction, of confusing the Good with love. Lambert prefers more psychoanalytic accounts of love, such as found in Lacan or even Spinoza, who detect something very much ‘not good’ at work in our demand for love, and which is, he claims, absent in Caputo’s account. He speculates that ‘Perhaps the Love of God should be weak and nonconstraining in order to prevent hatred from entering into the world from the same source [the Good]’ (p. 54), though such an account does not take stock of the darkened sacrifices that this God seemingly demands of us.
Lambert’s hat is thrown in with Bataille and Lacan on this score; jealousy, possession and fear are always mixed in with our love, he contests, and this very human nature of love becomes, at times, a form of self-hatred in love that rivals the mystics who did a certain violence to themselves in order to draw closer to God.