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Church of the Contradiction: Proclaiming the Unknowing God

4 September 2023



The Gambling God


There was once a pious man called Seamus who was out of work and running out of money. One evening, in desperation, he clasped his hands together and prayed for help.


All of a sudden he heard the thunderous voice of God saying, ‘Seamus, sell everything, take the money and go to Vegas’.


Because he was a pious man, he didn’t hesitate. The next day he sold everything, got on a plane and flew to the city. When he arrived, he looked up to heaven and heard God say, ‘Seamus, go to the first casino you see and play one hand of Texas Hold ‘em’.

Seamus did as the voice commanded, entering the nearest casino, exchanging his money for chips and sitting down at a poker table. Immediately he was dealt 7,2 off. The worst possible hand. But just as he was about to fold, he heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Seamus, go all in’.


He wanted to protest, but summoned up all his courage and put in all his chips. Everyone at the table followed suit. But, against all the odds, the flop gave him a 7, the turn gave him a 2 and the river; another 7. Miraculously he had hit a full house and won the pot.


Relieved Seamus heard the voice of God again, ‘take all your winnings and put it on one hand of blackjack’.


In fear and trembling, Seamus went to the first blackjack table he could see and laid down all his chips. The dealer dealt him 10, 6.


Dejected, Seamus was about to stick when he heard God say, ‘take another card’.


Seamus did as the voice demanded and got an A, giving him 17. Seamus was about to stick again when God said, ‘take another card’. He did, and got dealt a 2, giving him 19. But before Seamus could stick, God said, ‘take another’. Nervous, Seamus asked for final card. It was another 2, giving him Blackjack.


By this time a crowd had gathered around him. He stood up shaking, and heard the voice of God again, ‘take all your money, go to the roulette table and put everything on 7’. Once more, Seamus did as the voice commanded. He went to the roulette table and put everything on 7. The room fell quiet as the ball spun around the wheel, until it slowed down and finally came to rest on the number 7.


The crowd screamed in utter disbelief.


Tears rolled down Seamus’ face as he looked to heaven and cried, ‘I don’t believe it!’


Then he heard the voice of God one last time, ‘I don’t believe it either, you’re the luckiest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen!’


Church of the Contradiction

In 1670, eight years after his death, a set of fragmented writings of Blaise Pascal were published. They were the notes for a never finished work of apologetics. Pascal was one of the greatest minds of his generation. But, while offering innovations in the realms of mathematics and physics, his main passion, at least in later life, revolved around the religious domain. In what is widely considered to be one of the great works of French literature, his posthumously published Pensées offers the reader a remarkable array of reflections on the human condition that foreshadow many of the themes later found in Existentialism and Psychoanalysis. The work itself remains as famous as it is misunderstood - often being viewed as advocating a type of brainwashing of the self, where the reader is encouraged to voluntarily enlist themselves into a series of religious practices, with the aim of eventually moulding their minds and hearts into that of a devotee.


While we don’t have anywhere near the finished product, a careful reading of the fragments he left behind does allow us to construct the main thrust of the apologetic. Employing Pascal’s own three-fold distinction between the Order of the Body, the Order of the Mind and the Order of the Heart we can begin to organize and interpret the notes in a consistent way that shows how Pascal sought to bring the reader to the point where they saw that the Christian faith was both desirable and reasonable. From there, we can see how he devised a powerful argument for convincing his reader that they ought to be receptive to the truth of God. A receptivity that would be evidenced in the embrace of religious practices.


The Order of the Body


Using this frame, we can say that Pascal wanted to start by showing how human beings experience what I will call Ontic Loss. Ontic Loss refers to a type of contingent abyss within us that no finite thing can ever fill. Pascal argues that, because of the reality of Ontic Loss, the human condition is ultimately one of misery, since we cruelly find ourselves wanting what nothing in our finite world can satisfy.

Because of this, we give ourselves over to what Pascal calls ‘Divertissement’, which is his name for the active pursuit of various finite things, in an attempt to stave off boredom, paint over the misery of the human condition and keep alive a fantasy that perhaps some finite thing might actually give us the ultimate satisfaction we crave.


For Pascal, the prime example of Divertissement is the hunt. In the hunt there is an excitement over catching the prey, alongside with a fantasy that being successful might win some substantial fulfillment. But, of course, getting the animal doesn’t offer any lasting pleasure, or fill the existential abyss, and so we have to set up new and bigger hunts. Here we can think of how Hollywood often seems to find itself in the bind of having to dream up bigger, better, more definitive sequels. In a franchise such as Fast and Furious, the action sequences have to get bigger and more unbelievable as each new one is released. We can also think about the way that sports are structured. Each sport has a big finale that the fans can look forward to. But as soon as it is over, the cycle begins again. In football no-one ever wins ‘the football’ (to quote Mitchell & Webb), because such an end would rob us of the enjoyment that the Divertissement gives us, and potentially confront us with a dark truth we’d rather avoid.


It is difficult to find a better example of Pascal’s Divertissement than in the eternal chase that Wile-E Coyote has given himself to in his pursuit of the roadrunner. One might even imagine that Wile-E continues to use the hopelessly flawed company Acme precisely because the products are so bad. It is as if he unconsciously knows that should they actually work, and he were to catch the roadrunner, this success would actually be the worst form of abject failure.


This is brilliantly expressed in one of the cutaway sequences of Family Guy, when Wile-E actually catches and eats the roadrunner. Over the meal his friend asks what Wile-E will do with his life now that the hunt is finally over. This disturbs Wile-E as he realises this is all he’s ever done. Then it cuts to him drinking, watching daytime TV, and working in a diner. Eventually he resolves to kill himself using one of his catapults. What makes the cutaway all the more Pascalian is the way that it ends. At the last moment Wile-E finds religion and starts preaching to his friend.

For Pascal, we find within ourselves all manner of desires that can be fulfilled (such as thirst, hunger and sexual wants). But, in addition to these, we find within ourselves a desire that can’t be fulfilled by anything we encounter in the finite world. It is a desire for a type of eternal bliss. While C.S.Lewis would lean on the same idea to defend what is known as the ‘argument from desire’ - because all the other desires we find within ourselves can be satisfied, there is good reason to think that this one can be satisfied as well - Pascal’s primary interest is simply to draw his readers attention to this central dimension of their existence, and to the misery it gives birth to. This is a misery that exists whether you are rich or poor. For Pascal, the main difference between the rich and poor here is that the rich are more able to avoid a confrontation with the misery, because they have more access to diversions. A King for example, can employ a jester, whose entire working life is spent thinking up ways to prevent the king from confronting the boredom and misery of his existence.

All of this happens at what Pascal called the ‘Order of the Body’. This is the order that seeks satisfaction in carnal pleasures, and yet is haunted by the fact that nothing in our everyday world can give us that satisfaction. The result is a type of contradiction generated by living with a longing for a transcendental satisfaction while never being able - at the level of the Order of the Body - to find it. Divertissement is then the compromise formation - symptom - which arises out of this subjective contradiction.

The apologetic purpose of Pascal’s description of the Order of the Body is to bring the reader to a longing for the Christian faith to be true. They might not believe that God could bring them the joy that is missing from their life, but they can be brought to want it.


The Order of the Mind

If Pascal’s aim with his description of the Order of the Body is to get the reader to the point where they desire the Christian faith, then it might initially seem that the argument he devises in relation to the Order of the Mind undermines any possibility of this longing bearing any fruit. Pascal, in a proto-Kantian way, makes the argument that pure reason cannot in any way give us access to knowledge about metaphysical realities like the existence of God or the beginning of the universe.


While Pascal was a great believer in the power of reason, he argued very poignantly that we are surrounded by mysteries we cannot possibly hope to grasp. In one of his most well known fragments - next only to the wager - he writes of how an abyss opens up at both the macro and micro level. Both the telescope and the microscope open up what appear to be worlds without end.


In a way that mimics the structure of his argument at the Order of the Body, when it comes to the mind, we also find ourselves living a contradiction. This is a contradiction between the hope for certainty and the reality that, concerning matters of ultimate concern, we are left with uncertainty. Here the symptomatic response arises in the form of wagers taken with regards to probability. We may be barred from knowledge, but can still weight possibilities.

For this reason Pascal made various arguments that he believed presented the Christian religion, not as certain, but as a reasonable proposition. While we can never know if it’s true, we can see that it’s claims are eminently reasonable ones. More reasonable, he argues, than the other religious and philosophical positions on offer. Ultimately however, we must acknowledge an epistemological unknowing with it comes to ultimate reality.


The Order of the Heart


If, at the Order of the Body, the Christian faith is desirable, and if, at the Order of the Mind, it is reasonable, then Pascal writes that we should make ourselves receptive to it. For it promises a joy that is longed for at the Order of the Body and a confidence that is longed for at the Order of the Mind.


As a Jansenist, Pascal’s Pensées has some protestant sounding elements. In fact the Jesuits would sometimes deride the position of the Jansenist’s by calling them ‘Calvinists’. This protestant element of Pascal is evident in the way that he is adamant that there is no way for the human being to find faith by their own means. Instead, he argues that faith is a gift from God, and all the individual can do is be receptive to it.

This receptivity was, for Pascal, evidenced in the act of wagering, and this wagering was expressed by the individual giving themselves over to the practices of the saints i.e. those who claim to have experienced the joy and confidence promised by a life of faith.

To sum up Pascal’s argument, we experience an Ontic Loss that results in a life of disavowed misery. As we confront this misery, we are lead to want the Christian faith be true. Intellectually speaking, we cannot know if it is true, but we can come to see that it is possibly true. This leads us to the only reasonable position; namely becoming receptive to its truth. A receptivity that is evidenced in a wager that is expressed in the embrace of religious practices. From the way that Pascal constructs his argument, faith is presented as that which can give us the joy and certainty we long for, at the level of the heart and mind.


At this point Pascal puts himself in the position of the reader and notes that we will should either keep seeking God because we do not find God, or serve God because we do. Anything else is, ultimately, unreasonable.


Ontological Lack and Life After Death


I’ve sketched out Pascal’s argument because it is one of the most beautifully constructed, engaging and compelling descriptions of the religious impulse and the promise of positive religious movements. If we were to try and isolate this promise, we could do worse than follow the later Bonhoeffer in saying that, in both its sacred and secular forms, it is connected with offering an escape from the alienation that we experience as subjects. Generally speaking, religion claims that alienation is either a reality that can be overcome, or an illusion that can be dissipated. In the former, we can often find people who say that we can overcome the alienation by buying the right product, praying the right prayer or meeting the right partner. In the latter we might be told that psychedelics, meditation or better sexual experiences can pierce the veil of illusion. In both, Ontic Loss is posited; a contingent separation that can be done away with, either in this life or the next. With this in mind, we can use Pascal as the perfect foil for offering up a religionless understanding of Christianity.


If religion operates with the idea of Ontic Loss, we can contrast this with the idea of Ontological Lack. Meaning we are marked by an originary abyss that is not the result of some subtraction, but that is fundamental to, and constitutive of, subjectivity itself.


In Confessional Christianity, we often encounter the claim that there is life after death, meaning that, once we die in this world, we must face another. Within the radical theological tradition of Pyrotheology, there is also a claim to life after death, however the death in question does not lie in the future but, at it’s most fundamental level, lies in our past. There is life after death, and we are the result of it.


For brevity I will construct a type of creation myth that might help us see approach this idea. In this myth we begin with a type of prelapserian fusion between the infant and the mother. We cannot properly speak of one without the other. The infant is lost in a private enjoyment that does not require any acknowledgement from another. But the day comes when the infant must separate from the bliss of the breast, and they do this by making use of a tool that pries the two apart - the ‘paternal function’. The result is a fundamental loss - Castration - that will now mark the infant all the days of its life. This also throws the infant into the world of public enjoyment, where they no longer simply get direct pleasure, but also surplus-enjoyment. For instance, while the infant once blissfully suckled at the bottle or breast, with the suckling itself as a simple necessity to gain milk, the child now sucks its thumb, directly enjoying what used to be the part without interest. The infant is also thrown into a world where they not only get joy out of, say, reading a book, but out of people witnessing that they are reading a book (we need only consider Instagram to see how this public enjoyment works).

But, and this is the most important part of our creation myth, there was no subject before the break with the mother, rather the subject is the result of the break itself. They are the sedimentation of the negation. The subject is a Lack that does not know itself as such, and is thus always at risk of seeing itself as a subject of Loss.


This very briefly sketched psychoanalytic myth can help us glimpse how the subject does not preexist the negation. Although, to add another layer, this original negation is itself only retroactively created. If this is the case then we can mark some people’s fear of a future death as a type of ‘primitive agony’, in Winnicott’s sense of the term. In other words, the overwhelming fear of an approaching catastrophe in the future can be seen as evidence of the catastrophe having already happened. It has already happened, but the subject has not been able to symbolize it.; and so it remains as a fragment of the undigested Real.

Instead of some religious promise that we won’t really die, the Stoic indifference, or the Epicurean advice to ignore it because, when death comes, you won’t be around to experience it, the good news - at least from a Pyrotheologcal point of view - is not that you don’t need to fear it because it’s already happened.


Here we can see marked connections with the theological notion of Original Sin. A term that can be read as ‘Original Lack’. It should be noted however that confessional Christianity has never bitten the bullet and read this term with sufficient radically, instead putting the word ‘Original’ in a type of inverted commas. Rendering it into an Ontic Loss that points backwards to an Original Blessing. In this way shoring up defenses against the idea of Ontological Lack. The logic of religion is thus - Ontic Loss points backwards to the reality of Original Blessing and looks forward to Eschatological Harmony. In contrast, if we start with Ontological Lack, then Original Blessing is a retroactive fiction that helps sustain the ideological fantasy of an Eschatological Harmony.


From Misery to Jouissance


If this idea of Ontological Lack is correct, then the human condition is not one of misery, but rather one marked by Jouissance. Jouissance is a technical term in psychoanalysis that refers to pleasurable pain, to exquisite suffering, to the various ways that we enjoy - in both healthy and unhealthy ways - our own alienation.


Pascal was a thinker of contradiction, but his embrace of a dialectic logical had a limit, and one of the results of this was failure to see that, while sacrifice, dissatisfaction and anxiety were the cause of the deepest humans pains, they were also related to the greatest human pleasures. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the most important of human experiences: Love. Love being simultaneously the site of pleasure and pain in all manner of complex and interwoven ways.


The concept of Divertissement leads naturally from the notion of Ontic Loss. It offers a way to understand why certain human activities offer a substitute enjoyment in the face of our ultimate dissatisfaction. We cannot fill the abyss in our heart, but we can repress it, and stimulate fantasies that offer a solution at the level of the imagination. But, from the perspective of Ontological Lack, Divertissement becomes Repetition. Wile-E does not simply enjoy chasing the roadrunner because it diverts his attention, but because it replays a type of fundamental antagonism. The enjoyment arises not because it diverts our attention from some internal abyss, but because it offers us a way to orbit this abyss in our everyday lives.


From this perspective, sacrifice and struggle offer us the pinnacle of both suffering and joy. While it would be impossible to rid ourselves of these things, it is possible to drift close to such a state, and it is here - most evident in the life of the neurotic - that people often self-sabotage, precisely to avoid this type of hellish peace.

To look at human experience, it is hard to avoid seeing the profound ways that people enjoy their suffering and repeat some fundamental lack. But, at the same time, this is an enjoyment that we seek to deny, preferring instead to fantasize ways of overcoming it.


Which brings us to the very heart of ideology. For ideology, at its core, is that which allows us to imagine that the alienation which constitutes subjectivity is in fact an historical and contingent reality, absent from the past and potentially able to be overcome in the future. Ideology covers over the inherently hole-y dimension of reality. Doing so by offering solutions to our alienation, while keeping us fundamentally rooted in the most unhealthy forms of alienation.


To understand how this works we can consider the 1988 film They Live, directed by John Carpenter. In the film, the protagonist, Nana, discovers that aliens are among us, and that they are keeping us passive and obedient by feeding us subliminal messages in magazines, billboards and on TV. When he puts on a special pair of sunglasses, he is able to see both the aliens and the messages hidden in the advertising, movies, magazine and shows. We are then, presented with three interconnected domains. There is everyday mundane reality, which refers to the world of working, eating, sleeping, marrying and reproducing. Then there is ideology, which is represented in all the adverts and films, with their promise of things that will fulfill us. And finally, following the insights of Žižek, we can isolate the final domain as that of ‘Surplus-Enjoyment’. Which evidenced in the stark, black and white messages hidden within the ideology.


What is interesting here is the way that the messages hidden in the ideological billboards is one that reflects the reality that people are already in. For instance, someone might be in a dead-end job where they have to do what they’re told, they look at a billboard which invites them to run away to another country and relax on the beach, but the message hidden in the billboard (seen, but not seen as a seen) is one that demands that they stay in their dead-end job and do what they are told. In this way it would appear that Ideology works in a strange manner, by promising us fulfillment at a conscious level, while providing a way for us to maintain our present state of alienation at an unconscious level. Something that can be seen in the example of anti-semitism, where the fascist is able to blame the Jewish community for various economic and cultural problems, while maintaining their existence so that the fascist community can keep alive the enjoyment of imagining that, where one to get rid of the Jewish community, the problems would disappear. In other words, that the alienation is a contingent thing brought about by an external force, rather than, at root, something primordial. Here we can begin to perceive why we unconsciously enjoy the very thing that we consciously hate. Because it maintains the alienation, while forcing someone else to carry it. A successful ideology then offers a solution to the alienation, while simultaneously preventing us from grasping the solution it offers, so that we are unable to traverse the fantasy that it generates in us.


If we take the example of a prosperity church - or their secular equivalents - there are people who believe the message of ‘name it and claim it’ or ‘manifestation’ works and those who believe it doesn’t. But, what both fail to see is that ‘manifestation’ works precisely because it doesn’t. It works because it can allow the fantasy that some material object would fix everything, while maintaining the sacrifice and struggle that generates some enjoyment - albeit one that is deeply destructive. As Todd McGowan brilliant argues in Capitalism and Desire, the same goes for Capitalism itself. Instead of the arguments relating to whether or not it works, the point is that it doesn’t work in a way that works. The question is not whether something works or doesn’t work, but whether we can make something that doesn’t work in an emancipatory way.


Self-Help and Grace

From this perspective we can see how Self-help is caught up in an ideological and inherently conservative frame. Self-Help offers us a way to get from A to B. B being whatever fantasy we have of wholeness. While the typical neurotic (the story is different for the Pervert and the Psychotic in ways that take us beyond the remit of this essay) consciously wants to get to B, they unconsciously remain wedded to A. While B might offer a better form of life, the fact that it represents an end to alienation (rather than a more emancipatory alienation), means that it is unconsciously avoided. While conscious desires want to be satisfied we have a particular type of desire that desires desire itself (Drive).


This means that there is an inherently conservative dimension to the Self-Help industry. While offering a signpost to lasting change, it simultaneously puts quicksand under your feet.


We can contrast this inherently conservative dimension of Self-Help with the emancipatory potential of Grace. In Grace, we do not move from A to B, but rather experience a form of acceptance that enables us to confront the fact that A does not equal A. In other words, we are confronted by our contradictions as evidenced in the way that we do not want what we want. This confrontation is opened up by a confrontation with our own surplus-Enjoyment, and it is one that can provoke the most profound changes.


This is something we see explored in the work of Alenka Zupančič who tells the following joke in The Odd One In,


A man comes home from an exhausting day at work, plops down on the couch in front of the television, and tells his wife, “Get me a beer before it starts.” The wife sighs and gets him a beer. Fifteen minutes later, he says, “Get me another beer before it starts.” She looks cross, but fetches another beer and slams it down next to him. He finishes that beer and a few minutes later says, “Quick, get me another beer, it’s going to start any minute.” The wife is furious. She yells at him, “Is that all you’re going to do tonight? Drink beer and sit in front of that TV? You’re nothing but a lazy, drunken, fat slob, and furthermore. . . .” The man sighs and says, “It’s started. . . .”


The point here is that the man thinks that he is the passive receiver of the argument, not seeing that he is actively involved in initiating it, and is getting something from it. In psychoanalysis, the analysand, is often confronted with their own disavowed enjoyment within a symptom, and it is this confrontation that can transform the symptom. I recently talked to a friend who was at the end of his rope because his wife was always blaming him for things and he always felt rejected. But, during the conversation, I was able to point out that he loved winning people over in his work and his love life, and his partner loved being won over. All at once he released that they were both enjoying the recreation of that dynamic, but it was being done in a disavowed/unhealthy way. Immediately, his relationship to the dynamic shifted and what, moments before, was a burden, became a pleasure.


From Epistemological Unknowing to Ontological Unknowing


So far I have contrasted Loss with Lack, Misery with Jouissance and Divertissement with Repetition. Now I want to contrast Pascal’s Epistemological Unknowing with Ontological Unknowing.

Epistemological Unknowing does not reference the realm of things we currently don’t know but, in principle can. Rather it refers to the idea that ultimate reality cannot be known in-itself. In contrast, Ontological Unknowing is not simply a failure of knowledge, but an insight into the way that this failure to know is a positive knowledge claim. In other words, as Žižek has so brilliantly argued in books like Less Than Nothing, our own confrontation with a limit is simultaneously an encounter with a limit that exists within everything. A limit, or asymmetry, that means that reality itself is not one, or two, or multiple, but rather not-one. If this is the case, then this not-oneness would manifest itself in all human activities. Something we see in various realms of human life and understanding. For instance, the name of the not-at-oneness of the social body - which generates civilization - is Democracy. The not-at-oneness of the living body - which generates biological complexity - is Evolutionary Theory. The not-at-oneness at the heart of mathematical theory is manifest in the Incompleteness Theorem. The not-at-oneness of physical reality is seen in Wave/Participle Duality and the name for this at the level of the subject is the Unconscious.


With this move from Epistemological to Ontological Unknowing, we confront the idea of a neurotic God, i.e. the idea of the Absolute as a question to itself. Something that is captured in an old joke about an evangelical pastor, a mystic and a fundamentalist preacher who all die on the same day and find themselves at the pearly gates. St. Paul informs them all that there is a little red tape to go through before they can enter heaven. Nothing that they need to worry about, just a quick interview with Jesus. After a little paperwork he then shows them all to a reception room.


After a few minutes, the evangelical preacher is called up and directed to a room adjustment to where the three men are sitting. After about an hour, the preacher comes out of the room. He’s very pale and is shaking his head in disbelief, “how could I have been so wrong” he said to himself as St. Paul smiled and ushered him into heaven.

Next, the mystic is asked to enter the room. Around an hour and thirty minutes pass, before the mystic leaves the room with a smirk on his face, murmuring to himself, “I knew I was wrong” before being directed to heaven by St. Paul.


Finally, it’s the fundamentalist preachers turn. The man is smartly dressed and has a well worn bible under his arm. St. Paul shows him into the room, then takes a seat. Thirty minutes pass, then an hour, then two hours. St. Paul is starting to get impatient. But then, all of a sudden, the door flies open and Jesus himself appears. White as a sheet, he grasps his forehead and cries, “how could I be so wrong?”


Here the mystic and the pastor both express Epistemological Unknowing. The mystic knows he’s wrong, that he cannot fathom the knowledge of the absolute, that the cosmic blueprint is beyond him. The Evangelical preacher is initially shocked. He thought he had the answers, but, when confronted by the absolute truth, has to reconsider everything and make room for doubt.

But what about the fundamentalist? The fundamentalist here is the truly interesting one. While he had no intention of doing so, he interrogated the Absolute to such an extent that he exposed an unknowing within the absolute. Here we come face to face with a radical reading of conversion. When we are confronted with the inherent unknowing/alienation within reality itself (the Real), we can enter into a new, emancipatory, relationship with it. What can be more dangerous and unsettling that the realization that the Absolute itself has unknowing woven into its very heart, and yet this is, in a very precise way, the very heart of salvation. Why? Because one of the primary ways that ideology functions is by positing some non-alienated other who lacks and Lack. Once one confronts the reality that no-one lacks the Lack, because the Lack is inherent to reality itself, then we are confronted by the reality alienation as necessary. As a result, the scapegoat mechanism, which is inherent to ideology, is robbed of it’s power. We can no longer posit some external other who is responsible for alienation, and fantasies about their removal. Instead we must tarry with the reality that we are responsible for our alienation and enjoy it. And in confronting that enjoyment, transform the way we comport ourselves to it.


In the book of Acts the apostle Paul famously visited Athens and engaged in debate with the philosophers of the city. The ancient Greeks acknowledged a pantheon of divinities, and Athens was full of temples and altars built in their honor. Among them all, Paul noticed an altar in that was dedicated to the ‘Agnostos Theos’. A Greek phrase that is translated as the ‘Unknown God’. The Greeks, whose mythology acknowledged many Gods and Goddesses, didn’t want to inadvertently miss any, and so made this altar as a way of covering their backs. This altar, which might otherwise have been forgotten over the passage of centuries, now stands as the very foundation of the first, and most famous, descriptions and defenses of Christianity. For Paul uses it as the basis for his address to the intellectual elite at the Areopagus on Mars Hill. Paul begins by acknowledging the religious devotion of the Athenians and tells the that, in worshiping the agnostos theos they are in fact worshiping the one true God, which he is there to make known.

There is however another way to translate the inscription on this altar that occupies such a central place in the Christian tradition. Not as the ‘Unknown God’, but rather as the ‘Unknowing God. While this was not the intention of the phrase, it could be seen as a more literal translation. And one of the lessons of psychoanalysis lies precisely in listening out for the truth, not in what a person intends to say, but in what they actually do say. Take, for instance, one of the most iconic protest signs of the 2016 US presidential election. At the time it was common to witness Democrats hold up signs at rallies that read ‘Love Trumps Hate’. While the conscious, intentional, meaning of the phrase was that Trump symbolized hatred, and that the loving thing to do would be to vote for Hillary Clinton, many of those who held the sign where obviously extracting a large amount of enjoyment from their expression of opposition. The sign, taken more literally, rendered this enjoyment manifest. Seeing a smiling, excited youth holding the sign aloft, one couldn’t help reading its disavowed message: I love Trump’s hate. Setting aside whether that hate was real or perceived, the belief that Trump represented some existential threat provided many of his attackers with a huge amount of libidinal satisfaction.

This is what is meant by the term Freudian Slip, a slip in which a disturbing truth is revealed, not in what the person intended to say - at the level of the individuals understanding of themselves - but rather in what they did say. A truth that is both revelatory and transformative in the way that it confronts the speaker with a repressed truth concerning their enjoyment. A confrontation which transforms the speaker, by repositioning them as a subject in relation to that enjoyment. This is a confrontation that changes our enjoyment from a reactionary to an emancipatory form.

When we apply this type of reading to agnostos theos, we no longer see it as signifier standing in for some mundane insight concerning our ignorance of a substantive transcendental reality, but rather as a signifier that marks an ignorance existing within transcendental reality. An ignorance that is directly connected to a form of repressed enjoyment that has the potential of become a liberating one.


What we glimpse here is an altar that contains a much more disturbing, and transformative, truth than what is contained in the manifest meaning. One that moves us beyond seeing it as a memorial to epistemological unknowing to the marker of an ontological unknowing. In the terminology of Jacques Lacan, this altar becomes, not a signifier that represents our ignorance of the Big Other, but a signifier that marks an ignorance/lack in the Big Other - S(Ø).

When Paul proclaims that he is standing on Mars Hill to reveal the agnostos theos to those gathered, does he unknowingly end up touching on something much more radical than he, or the church he helped build, could have grasped? Hidden within Paul’s message of salvation, is a more radical salvation being proclaimed? If there is to be a new Reformation within the Christian church, then it will be one that proclaims, not the unknown God, but the unknowing God.


 

For more on Pyrotheology and the Church of the Contradiction see Peter Rollins' YouTube, which includes a joint event with Sublation hosted live in Belfast this week.


This article is also collected in the latest Everyday Analysis pamphlet in a series exploring the relationship between religion, psychoanalysis and Marxism.

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