Three Thoughts on the Kenostic Singularity

In my last post I suggested that there is an impulse in Christianity, an Other before Self ethic, that can lead to paradox. Let me playful coin a term to describe this: The kenostic singularity. "Kenostic" referring to the "emptying of self," the Other before Self impulse. "Singularity" for the term in physics describing the collapse of a star to form a black hole. Three thoughts about the kenostic singularity.

First Thought:
The kenostic singularity seems to be the radicalizing impulse within Christianity. In living the Christian life there exists a continuum of choices leading smoothly to the singularity. There are no clear guidelines letting us know where to "stop" along this continuum. Wherever we stop to plant and live a life there is a more "radical" option just to our left. Why not reach for it? I think this dynamic crystalized in my mind when a speaker addressed our bible class about the life of simplicity. He made the statement that people, in the pursuit of simplicity, tend to get in "a race to the bottom," trying to live with less and less. The speaker himself confessed at having tried to race to the bottom. His conclusion after years of trying: "You can't win that race." But the fact that the race exists in the first place means that deep in the Christian consciousness there exists a radicalizing impulse: The kenostic singularity.

Second Thought:
The kenostic impulse struggles mightily when Christians are "in charge." This is a source of much conflict between Christianity and the State. Specifically, Christianity articulated its ethic when it was a marginalized and powerless group. Not holding power, it was easy for Christians to eschew it and leave the governing of the world to the pagans and Gentiles (the Roman Empire). The ethic of the Sermon on the Mount was well suited to this subjugated and marginal group and many of the images of the Sermon imply a power asymmetry. (For example, some speculate that when Jesus says "When someone strikes you on the right cheek" his words here are very precise. That is, assuming most people would strike with their dominant hand, most often the right hand, how is someone being struck on the right cheek? It could be a blow from the non-dominant left hand. But some think the better explanation is a back-handed blow from the dominant/right hand. The point being that a back-handed blow isn't a blow one delivers in an actual fight. It is a blow delivered across status lines where a more powerful person (Roman solider, master, husband, parent) strikes a less powerful person (Jew, slave, wife, child). If so, the "turn the other cheek" passage nicely parallels the occupied nation interpretation of the "go the second mile" passage.)

But when Christianity became the state religion through the actions of Constantine it was thrust into power. Suddenly, the kenostic ethic was mismatched to its situation in the world. How are Christians to turn the other cheek when Christians are in charge of keeping law and order? In this milieu a "Constantinian Christianity" emerged, one that held to kenostic themes but had to reconcile itself to power.

Looking back, those who wish to restore the Sermon on the Mount ethic see clearly that something was lost when the Christian ethic was modified to allow for a Christian empire. Something pure seemed contaminated.

Mark Lilla describes what happened, calling Christianity "The Accidental Empire", in his book The Stillborn God:

"The political theologies of Islam have had an enormous impact on world history, thought not because of the inner theological tensions that have marked Christendom. Islam conquered its empire self-consciously with a confident tradition of political theology that provides a rich legal tradition for governing social life. Tensions within that tradition have emerged only more recently, with the disappearance of political empire. Christianity, by contrast, acquired its empire accidentally and was forced to derive the principles of its political theology under the press of circumstances..." (p. 40)

"In the centuries that followed, Christian political theology tried to make sense of the empire the Christian faith had accidentally acquired. As evocative as [Augustine's] image of the 'two cities' was, it offered little guidance for governing the strange quilt of political and religious entities making up medieval Europe and reconciling their competing claims of authority." (p. 44)

In short, Christianity, when it came to power, had few theological resources in place to articulate how its ethic was to be realized in the modern Christian state. And as Lilla articulates, this problem remains. Christians, after 2,000 years of being in power, still have no broad consensus on how to manage relationships with the State. Truly, Christianity is just totally flummoxed on this issue. All the Bible provides by way of help is the image of a poor, homeless, single, non-violent Messiah living in an occupied land. Worse, this Messiah is believed to articulate the moral norm. This puts the middle-class, husband and family man who works as a police officer in America in a bit of a moral pickle. To say the least. Can this man even be called "Christian"? And if so, in what sense?

But, of course, this man could begin the journey toward the kenostic singularity: Renouncing wealth, family, and nation. But where does he stop? He might make it all the way into St. Francis territory. Is he Christian then?

Third Thought:
It seems to me that we have to reframe the kenostic impulse to avoid these crazy paradoxes and "races to the bottom." Here is one thought.

In a world of hunger and violence a focus on individual piety leads to the kenostic problems. That is, why should I eat when people are hungry? Why should I opt out of violence when the world needs policing? But there are no kenostic problems in a world where everyone has enough to eat. There are not pacifistic dilemmas in a world where there is no violence. In short, the way past the kenostic singularity is to by-pass the focus on the self and to focus on the world that creates the moral paradoxes. The problem isn't how much food I should consume. The problem is that there is hunger in the world. The problem isn't whether or not a Christian should serve in the military but that there is violence in the world.

What I'm suggesting is that when the Christian ethic is pietistic, focused on the individual, it becomes untenable, incoherent, and guilt-inducing. But if the Christian ethic is focused globally it can leverage us, as a world community, toward a better future.

A kenostic, individually focused piety just burns people up. Wastefully so as I, as a single person, don't eat enough to offset world hunger. Starving myself might make me look holy and morally unassailable but it doesn't do a whole lot of good. But if I focus my efforts globally I can begin to work on the large-scale problems that actually do cause world hunger. Me skipping on a cheeseburger does less than me working to change (via whatever consumer or political I weld) the systemic issues plaguing the world.

True, this change of focus doesn't resolve the kenostic paradoxes. I can always ask the question, How much are your contributing the the cause? We can do more, right? But I think the shift away from piety to social action is a better starting point in thinking about what it means to be a Christian.

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7 thoughts on “Three Thoughts on the Kenostic Singularity”

  1. This is a nice discussion and raises a lot of issues especially when considering the church sect typology in the sociology of religion. That is to say, there seems to be a very strong connection here between your term and the sectarian movement towards primitivism. I can't help but think of the film The Village in this regard (which I use with my students to discussion the problems with living a utopia versus making a utopia a goal to live by).

    The other strand of through I was thinking of as I read your constructive suggestion is how to apply critical praxis especially in terms of Habermas communicative discourse. What Habermas sketches in his Discourses on Modernity is a trajectory in philosophy that became overly-focused on the rationality of the self's ego development (my description) at the expense of a rationality that puts the communal properties of our rationality as logically prior.

    So I wonder what this kenotic singularity looks like in a non-sectarian sense where the community is held at logically prior to individual rational development? Might not even be possible. My questions always hover around what does it look like and how do I live it...

  2. "What I'm suggesting is that when the Christian ethic is pietistic, focused on the individual, it becomes untenable, incoherent, and guilt-inducing."

    The reason is that kenosis described as acts of piety or self denial is not kenosis at all. Kenosis should be the ridding oneself of a self concept. Acts of piety for the sake kenosis is just aggrandizing the concept of self. Look at me. This is who I am. I'm humble and rarely eat. What good does that do? It's just a focus on a person or personality.
    Kenosis should be about community. The individual becomes smaller so that the group can become enhanced. As I see it, the genius of the gospel was to include everyman into the community.

    I may not believe in the gospel message as the ultimate, literal truth but I do think the world would be a better place if Christians would practice kenosis as a concept of ridding themselves of barriers to community. Barriers such as objection to science as an attack on the Bible and their view that same sex couples are an affront to God. What about getting rid of the nonsense that wealth is the result of being blessed by a pleased God. These are barriers that are derivative of the opposite of kenosis and are all a result of concepts and ideologies that reflect an insular group that is full of themselves and their self and group concepts.

  3. Richard, can you elaborate briefly on your scope of the word "piety" in context of Xn kenosis? I want to make sure that we're not reducing faith to an entirely outward focus. Tks.

  4. Hi John,
    I'm defining piety as "the individual pursuit of holiness." In my faith tradition the acts of piety were church attendance, bible study, prayer, and alms. For a Catholic it would be things like going to Mass, making confession, participating in Lent, and so on. More broadly it can be any individual pursuit of the "spiritual disciplines": Fasting, prayer, silence, solitude, simplicity, etc.

    Your concerns are valid, but I think Western notions of autonomy have elevated acts of personal piety to a place that is unhealthy. Pietistic spirituality is something that I, alone, do to "improve" myself, spiritually speaking. My point isn't to reduce faith to a sole external focus but to expose that fact that the pursuit of piety can, too often in my experience, degenerate into a kind of spiritual "rat race" that doesn't much benefit the world.

    But your point is well-taken, an exclusive external focus can lose its passion, soul, and direction if disconnected from the believer's experience of the Living God.

  5. Guyon described a synthesis of these three thoughts. She described a state on the continuum of emptying-self at which the smooth continuum continues to exist, but some valences change, so that co-operative effort turns from actively seeking emptying, over to a state in which Jesus does all the further work so long as we don’t say, “no.” It’s sort of as if Jesus works on habits of standing permissions. We rest. The final stages aren’t possible for us to attain without this transition to the predominance of Jesus working inwardly; our not saying “no” and holding in silence means that we’re not in charge, except to opt out, and our not saying “no” subdues any impulse to do anything, no less race to the bottom. She seemed to feel that introspection still worked. I don’t think she played a heavy hand with normative “thou shalt’s.” I take her testimony as grounds to try. She didn’t find a void; but, Intimacy. Or, Intimacy found her. I otherwise love Kundera: "Intimate life .. understood as one's personal secret, as something valuable, inviolable, the basis of one's originality." Kundera’s “originality” can become a problem to which we cling. Guyon would let that go. Her reception itself ranges the continuum you sketched: her condemnation by ecclesial judges didn’t stop many Catholics from loving her even more, nor the Quakers from picking up her love of silence.



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