Deconstruction on the Mount

During the Saddleback forum, when Obama was asked about evil, he replied:

Postmodern ObamaEvil does exist. I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil – sadly – on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. And I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. And one of the things that I strongly believe is that we are not going to – as individuals – be able to erase evil from the world. That is God’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process. And we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil. Because a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil, in the name of good. And I think one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t mean we are going to be doing good.

Then during the televised postmortem, Charles Krauthammer referred to this remark as “postmodern.” Funny; I thought it was Christian.

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11 Responses to Deconstruction on the Mount

  1. Dennis August 18, 2008 at 7:27 pm #

    It would have been even better if Obama did break out some fun cultural theory, like Slavoj Zizek or something.

  2. Kevin August 19, 2008 at 8:21 am #

    When I saw that comment, I thought to myself, “Now I knew Krauthammer was a monster, but I see now that he’s also an idiot.”

  3. Araglin August 19, 2008 at 9:00 am #


    Have you read Zizek’s essay lauding G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy? In general, there has been a fascinating turn within continental philosophy towards a (selective) retrieval of Christianity: Zizek, Alain Badiou, William Desmond, etc.

  4. Dennis August 19, 2008 at 10:22 am #

    No, I haven’t. It would probably make a good read. Do these philosophers argue for the existence of God? Or merely the merit of certain aspects of a Christian worldview?

  5. Araglin August 19, 2008 at 12:11 pm #


    “..Do these philosophers argue for the existence of God? Or merely the merit of certain aspects of a Christian worldview?”

    Well, those that do argue for the existence of God, attempt to clearly differentiate that God from the post-scotistic god of what Heidegger termed onto-theology, where God is simply one being (if perhaps an infinite one) within the field of being, as defined univocally.

    A number of trendy French neo-platonists (such as Boulnois and De Libera) came up with the idea that a certain strand of the Platonic legacy is beyond the reach of Heidegger’s damning critique of onto-theology. On this view, then, the peril of nihilism which arises out of the failure of Foundationism, may be successfully guarded against by a retrieval and re-configuration of the more theological metaphysics (or ‘theo-ontology’) of Plato, pagan neo-platonists (Proclus and Iamblichus), as well as certain Christian neo-platonists (the Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, John Scotus Eriugena, Thomas Aquinas – though not the Thomas of the neo-scholatics, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa).

    This is somewhat related to the existential Thomism of Etienne Gilson, who sought to sharply distinguish Thomas’s thought from the overly-essentialit receptions of Aristotle which gained in currency after the Paris Condemnations, which were taken up by Bonaventure and Scotus, as well as the voluntarism and nominalism of Ochham.

    Similarly neo-platonically tinged work was also done among by Eastern Orthodox theologians, Bulgakov and Florensky.

    This is broadly the tradition within which people like John Milbank, William Desmond, Jean-Luc Marion, and David Bentley Hart are working.

    Zizek, on the other hand, is more concerned with the way in which the Christian legacy is worth fighting for, in reference to its affinity with Leftist socio-political concerns. I believe he is currently trying to work out a kind of open, non-reductively-materialist ontology, and while continuing to denominate himself as “atheist” (and also “Stalinist,” but that’s more of a joke) is surprisingly interested in and respectful of people like Chesterton, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and the like.

    Alain Badiou has written a book on St. Paul, which seeks to abstract out from the life and mission of St. Paul (from his road-side conversion to his evangelization of the gentile world) a new universalism of the “Event,” which in his view is linked to questions of Science, Love, Politics, and the like, but not is neither Christian nor even theistic in any received sense (and is frankly closer to Maoism). Since, however, Badiou’s earlier works enunciate a kind of mathematical ontology, there are all sorts of interesting, if unacknowledged, points of tangency with Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and the strand of Christian theology earlier mentioned.

    Unfortunately, all of these thinkers besides Zizek has an extremely limited online presence…


  6. Dennis August 19, 2008 at 4:02 pm #

    Thanks, I will look into some of these pieces (though neither Platonism nor neo-Platonism are really my thing.) Despite my confident atheism, I do respect certain strands of religious philosophy.

  7. Araglin August 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm #


    No problem. I appreciate your interest (and also Professor Long’s patience with having me litter my own preoccupations). I certainly remember feeling less than impressed with Platonism in the past – mainly because I viewed it as “otherwordly” (denying the goodness of temporality, embodiedness, difference, the material order, etc.) and recommending totalitarian bio-political disciplinary practices by the ruling elite.

    As for the former concern, it’s not really even strictly true of Plato himself (I’m thinking here of the Sophist, the Symposium, and the Phraedrus, and some of the other dialogues that didn’t really arrive in the Latin West until the Renaissance), but there are admittedly certain bits which, when ripped out of their dialectical context, would seem to argue in favor of this view.

    Still less is this bad “other wordliness” so of the Neo-platonists I spoke of, Proclus and Iamblichus. Because of their doctrine of the “fully-descended soul” and their related concepts of theurgy and material synthemata, they tended to be much more against the idea that the body is a prison or contamination or whatnot, and that the material order is always already a kind of “fallenness” into evil, which you might get from the Phaedo (if I remember correctly), and which was taken up by Plotinus and Porphyry. These latter, on the other hand, tended to be obsessed with the intellectual to the exclusion of other ways of being, doing, etc.

    As for the latter concern, I don’t want to deny it altogether, but I think the sort of Popperite view that Plato leads straightforwardly and inevitably to modern totalitarianism is quite absurd. Also, one gets a much better picture in the Laws than in the Republic. Part of the reason for Plato’s more statist committments is discussed by Robert Nisbet in his Quest for Community, in terms of the breakdown of other institutional structures, and the like.

  8. Administrator August 19, 2008 at 6:59 pm #

    I guess this piece of mine is relevant to “onto-theology.”

  9. Araglin August 19, 2008 at 7:26 pm #

    Professor Long:

    Thanks for the link. Also related to onto-theology was this other great post responding to a question from Rad Geek:

    For accounts of Being v. beings (the so-called “ontological difference”), particpatory metaphysics, the relation between the one and the many, and developments of the foregoing topics from Plato through to Aquinas and beyond to something truly awesome in the final paragraphs, here’s a great article by David C. Schindler (the father, I think, of a Wendell Berry-type agrarian):

    I’ve always wanted to see traditional apophaticism about God (as deployed by people like Augustine and Aquinas in the West and the Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor in the East) compared and contrasted with the philosophical “therapeutics” of Wittgenstein. Is this the appropriate place to enter a request for a future post?


  10. Bob Kaercher August 20, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    Hmmm…I have to say, professor (recognizing that I may be wading into waters a little above my head when it comes to such matters), that I’m a little skeptical of your assertion in your 2004 post that it’s possible that the theist can identify “God” as the logical structure of reality.

    Judeo-Christian scriptures, for example, make it quite abundantly clear that the God being portrayed in those scriptures is literally—explicitly, in fact—a personified being of will. It may be true that Aquinas asserted, based on his own thinking, that this god does not really possess such attributes in a literal sense, that they’re only “analogous”, but doesn’t Aquinas (or anyone else making such a claim) place himself in an impossibly synoptic, divine vantage point, since the implication is that he claims to know A.) *what* attributes are or not analogous to God (since that itself would imply a presumption of knowledge of what God is in the first place, in order to know what is or is not analogous to him) and/or B.) what the authors of biblical scripture did or did not *literally mean* when they wrote of “God”?


    “The atheist too can grant that the logical structure of reality possesses properties *analogous* to personality and will. It is only at the *literal* ascription of those attributes that the atheist must balk. No conflict here.”

    I have to disagree with your assertion that there’s no conflict here. On the contrary, I’d say that’s quite a major conflict. Even if the atheist can see how certain properties of the logical structure of reality can be in some respects analogous to human personality and will, those properties *must* conform with certain objective laws intrinsic to reality itself, whereas a human being must *consciously* act and has the capacity to *choose*. By *literally* ascribing such human attributes to the logical structure of reality, wouldn’t the theist (or anyone else) then be asserting that the logical structure of reality is therefore *subjective*, rather than objective? It seems to me that for the atheist to object “only” to the literal ascription you mention, it would be the source of *much* conflict with the theist who identifies their personified God with the logical structure of reality.

    (Now, I *think* the last two paragraphs of your ’04 post at least somewhat addresses this objection, but it isn’t clear to me *how* or *why* the theist/atheist dichotomy is necessarily a false one if the realism/antirealism dichotomy is false. Or do I need to pick up some Wittgenstein to fully understand how that bridge is constructed?)

    I’m not necessarily opposed to any atheist-theist reconciliation per se (there may indeed be some value in it that makes the possibilities for it worth exploring), it just seems to me that your proposition is a rather thin reed on which to hang such a reconciliation.

    Or am I totally missing your point and thinking and talking (typing) out of my ass?


  1. Life, Love, and Liberty » Blog Archive » Short Post of the Day - August 19, 2008

    […] Roderick Long’s latest post reminded me of Emma Goldman’s essay titled The Failure of Christianity. […]

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