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Against the Simulacra

The vocabulary of soteriology has been applied by theologians to the contemporary realities of the nation-state, capitalism, consumerism, and globalization. The basic case is that the political arrangements that have arisen out of the modern nation-sate have an intrinsically soteriological pretension built into them. The modern nation-state, and the market of global capitalism that has emerged from it are here to “save” us. And chiefly, of course the modern nation-state is here to save us from that fanatical practice that is religion!

Following William Cavanaugh and others who have taken this tack in critiquing the modern nation-state, I would agree that a theological narration of globalization and consumerism through the lens of soteriology is indeed possible, and I would add essential for the church today. The current realities of globalization, consumerism and visual media are best understood theologically as the embodiment of a false soteriologybuilt upon a pseudo-theology falsely masquerading as a “secular”, “neutral” reality. These global realties, driven as they are by their false soteriology seek to subvert any social body which would claim to embody an alternative vision of human redemption. It is in this context that these global forces have sought – and largely achieved – the fragmentation and compromise of the church.

The soteriology of global consumerism is in large part the culmination of the project of the modern nation-state in which the soteriology of global consumerism had its genesis. This soteriology centers around two key foci, that are, I would argue, parodies of central elements of the church and its narrative. These parodies are embodied by (1) the displacement of Christ in favor of a messianically conceived nation-state and (2) a totalizing global market economy in place of the church catholic. Corresponding to this, the three central practices of the church, the radical reorientation of life brought about in baptism, the sustaining consumption of the Eucharist and the proclamation of the Word are replaced with allegiance to the nation-state, consumerism and the indoctrinating word of propaganda through pervasive visual media.

I think it would be helpful to examine precisely how these parodies take place in contemporary culture. Is the contemporary political configuration in the West truly a simulacra of the body of Christ. How is allegiance to the nation-state (patriotism) a parody of baptism? How is consumerism a parody of the Eucharist? How is the ubiquious nature of visual media and propaganda parody of Christian proclamation of the Word? Doe these correspondences hold up under scrutiny? I invite any comments on this.

6 Comments

  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I like this, Halden.

    I think they do hold under scrutiny. However, I think it becomes difficult for many to see how they correspond at all. The mindset that Christianity is a private faith that has nothing to say about the way I spend my money is extremely pervasive. In order for Christians to resist the false soteriology of the nation-state, capitalism, etc., we first must identify it as such. More importantly, we must learn again how baptism, the Eucharist, and the proclamation of the Word, can constitute more than just sentimental practices of some all-too-detached past time. Unfortunately, the church has become just another association of civil society and is on the decline as such. Going to church usually does not interfere with one’s interest in capital or consumer goods. Much less is consuming the Eucharist seen as the alternative to the over-consumption of sweat-shop manufactured goods.

    In order for these false soteriologies to be identified as soteriologies at all, the church must learn again the totalizing meaning of the things we do as the church.

    I think this is the most important issue(s) for Christians in our time.

    Thursday, March 22, 2007 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  2. david wrote:

    Along these lines of the nation-state standing in for Christianity, I find it interesting the idea that the nation-state also has its own eschatological hope. While science is pushing our ideas of creation from an anthropocentric idea back to a cosmological world view, we still seem to retain the idea that Reagan was such a proponent of: that this is still the bright dawn of America and how we can go out into the frontiers *conquering* all.

    Yes I did develop this from some Metz reading, but I find it very telling and interesting none the less – that the state fits in to all aspects, even the aspect of hope of which love for the state (patriotism) undergirds all – how Roman.

    Thursday, March 22, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I bet a study would turn up quite a correlation between eschatologies (both Christian and secular) and different political formations and actions.

    After all, I think its pretty undeniable that versions of postmillennialism (or Hegelianism) were significant parts of the driving force behind the divinization of different cultural political movements like Manifest Destiny and Nazism.

    Friday, March 23, 2007 at 1:26 am | Permalink
  4. Derrick wrote:

    Halden
    Wow very provocative post! I think the “simulacra” argument of a soteriologically based interpretation off the modern “secular” environment is an incredibly interesting thesis to explore. I have to admit, actually, that this is the first I have heard of such an idea, though I am instantly taken to it! I do have a couple questions for you though:

    1.) How would this account for the relationship between “theological” discourse and “secular” discourse (e.g. with science, philosophy, economics…) I often, for example, find Radical Orthodoxy to be too distrustful of supposedly “secular” knowledge, as if “theological,” knowledge somehow stood as unaffected or not always/already embedded in greater contexts or horizons of understanding (a very broad generalization, to be sure.) Your thesis does account for the relationship between “theological” and “secular” knowledge, but I have to ask, on this account, would any “non-theological” discourse automatically stand as a “competing narrative,” or a defatigation of an original “Christian” narrative, or could the two “realms” (at least potentially) stand as more dialectically interconnected?

    2.) Regarding your two specific observations, one of the messianic nation state, and the other regarding the totalized global market as the catholic church: for the “displacement of Christ” by a messianically understood nation state, I wonder if this needs to be tempered by the rampant distrust and impiety the populace has for governmental authority and jurisdiction? The nation-state might present itself as “messiah,” but I think that an account like this could benefit from the poor relationship between the people and the polis. What are your feelings on that?

    Perhaps one could say that the parody of Christ in the messianic-conditioned nation state has its own parody of messianic refusal? Interestingly enough this could gain ground parallel to your second idea of the totalizing global market economy: where the nation state, like its “archetype” Christ, is rejected by the body of people within which it is constituted as the “savior,” it is also that this rejection of the “messiah” opens the way for the “gentiles” or, in this case, America gives way to the global economy. One might even read this secularized messiah-narrative as the dying of the “old-self” (in this case American national identity) with the dying of the Messiah (i.e. America) so that the “new man” (i.e. the Consumer) might be put on with the “transformed Messiah” (i.e. the global economy). Hence maybe the two categories are really becoming one by the force of their own logic as soteriological parodies? In this case, if anything I have said is even remotely accurate (who knows…) an interesting question arises as to who is giving the secularized narrative? If the concept of the city’state, or more specifically America, as the messiah is giving way to a more globalized messianic focus, then its probably not the American government, if this is indeed a possible narrative reading, but economicists and political theorists, and indeed scientists. Or if it is (also) the American government (which is more likely the case) then there also seems to be competing secular narratives within the scope of your simulacra-soteriological theory.

    All of this has been off the cuff, so to speak, so how true this all is, well lets just say I could be talking out of my ass (which is, unfortunately, always a live possibility). But it does seem, in many ways, that the basic “secular” narrative, as it stands, appears to be marshalling its forces in just this direction to maintain its own power, because “morality,” no longer seems to be located within state legislation, but rather within the balancing of economic and party interests. Even if we are to continue to account for America as the parody savior, which is indeed a strong possibility, this appears to be becoming sublimated into the terminology of economics rather than straight “politics of the people.”

    3.) It is interesting how your theory of the secular soteriology can really account for the fickle nature of a market-driven life. With the catholic church (catholic in its general sense) God stands as messiah over against and within the church as a transformative force. Within the secularized version, “God” is located not above, but precisely within the assembly of peoples that would constitute the entity of “messiah,” and hence it seems that the secular narrative become immanently existential, and suffers the same problem as Bultmann’s eschatology: there is always a non-specific location or entity that stands as the eschatological “goal” precisely because the “goal” as the “messiah” can always only be defined by the compilation of peoples constituting it. Hence the secular narrative, apparently, can only say, with Bultmann, the eschatological or soteriological concept is “radical future openness to being radically open to the future,” which means, of course, that “progress” really does become a myth whos underlying truth is not “we achieve” only “we move.”

    Well anyway, Ive written too much. looking forward to hearing your opinions!

    Friday, March 23, 2007 at 2:27 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for extensive reply, Derrick! Here is my initil response(s):

    1) On the relationship between “theological” and “secular” discourse: My point is not that “non-theological” discourses can never get anything right. Rather, my point is that everything is theological, whether is presents itself as “sacred” or “secular”. There is no such thing as an empty shrine, as much as the modern nation-state bills itself as being just that.

    I’d also say that I’d resist the idea that theological discourse is embedded in a wider field of discourse, or at least I’d want to frame it differently. Historically, I’d say that most of the academic disciplines that exist today came to exist beause of the intellectual and moral context engendered by the Christian tradition. So, I’d reverse the statement and say that so-called “secular” discourses are embedded within a theological horizon of understanding, or at least they had their genesis in that horizon and have since moved toward new theological horizions, while only continuing from the inertia they recived in their genesis in the Christian theological universe of discourse.

    I wouldn’t rule out the possibility interdisciplinary mutuality between Christian theology and secular discourse, but I would put it in the same realm as inter-religous dialogue. There may be commonalities and convergences, but always within a more fundamentally determinitive divergence.

    2) On the specifics of the messianism of the nation-state: Those are some interesting observations that I’ll have to think about more. Perhaps a better way to think of the whole thing is to render the discussion in a more explicitly ecclesial context. If the global economy corresponds to the church’s catholicity, perhaps the primacy and power of the state conforms to the church’s apostolicity, it’s being sent to participate in a divine mission. Now, certainly Christ is central in this as he is the head of the body, much as the nation-state is the “head” of society.

    Now, as the issue of dissention within America and how that relates to its messianic pretensions. Good point. I’ll have to think about the idea of a parody of messianic rejection. Then you have America really as a parody of Israel with America’s “divine mission” as a parody of the Son’s divine mission. And of course the America-Israel comparisons are horrifyingly common in our history.

    I do think, though that dissent is built into the structure of American democracy in such a way that it doesn’t matter. There may be distain and protest for a given administration, or even America itself within the populace, and yet everyone continues to drive SUV’s, drink Coca-Cola, and eat fast food. As long as the populace remains docile and supportive of the nation’s prosperity, they are free to write books and bitch about the system, but they remain firmly in it (i.e. this blog is really no threat to George Bush!).

    What I think this whole dynamic reinforces is the American mythology that it is the “reluctant superpower.” That’s the common narrative that is put forth and has always been put forth in American history: We didn’t ask to be put in this position of global power, it was forced on us by destiny. So, with 9/11 this came out again. We were sitting around minding our own business and then all of a sudden these fanatical terorists (read: Satan) just started blowing shit up! Destiny is calling us to reluctantly flex our military muscle and save the world for evil! All of that was common discourse and remains such. There is clearly a theological messianism going on here. America exists, to “rid the world of evil”.

    Now, this shows how dissent builds itself into the very structure of the nation-state’s messianism. It helps to retain a polarization that is almost apocalyptic in nature. Either you are on the side of America, democracy, and freedom or you are on the side of tryanical dictators, terrorists, and relgious fundamentalism. It’s a wonderfully inverted version of the Christian apocalyptic sentiment of either being part of Babylon or the City of God.

    3) On the fickleness of the market economy: indeed. One of the central things about the “secular theology” (if you will) is its thoroughgoing immanentism. “God” is fully encapsulated and embodied in the works of the nation-sate who has God on its side. All of this seems designed to rule out the possibility of the state reciveing prophetic critique.

    Also, to really get the info on this whole frame work I put forth here, you need to read William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination. It’s a world-rocking type of book.

    Friday, March 23, 2007 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Hmm, that should say “from evil” up there. That might have been a Freudian slip!

    Friday, March 23, 2007 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

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