In the previous two posts I have attempted to outline something of Satre’s position on ‘bad faith.’ As an existentialist, Satre is convinced that we are utterly free; he is also aware that who we are as human beings is suspended in the paradox of our facticity: we are in a way the sum of our actions, and our transcendence: we are human beings precisely because we are not just the sum of our actions.
Slavoj Zizek puts the same point across in The Monstrosity of Christ – a textual dual with theologian John Milbank – when he writes:
I am here as part of substantial reality, and what I am I am at the expense of others, demanding my share of reality. But this is not what makes me a unique person. […] What distinguishes me are not my personal idiosyncrasies, the quirks of my particular nature, but the abyss of my personality.
Satre used the examples of a waiter, a homosexual, a woman on a date. But what can we learn from his thoughts about our denominations of ourselves? Perhaps we might call ourselves ‘Christian’ or ‘British.’ Are we in bad faith simply by doing so? I would say we need not be, but that our human nature is to be tempted to into such a position.
Just as with the waiter, by denominating ourselves as ‘Christian’, we inevitably set up a play with others about what that means. They perform around us in ways that they feel they ought around a ‘Christian’ and we begin to play the role of ‘Christian’ as we feel we should. We go to church to practise this role and to be coached in what the role should look like. In this way, far too often the paradox of our ‘non self-identifying’ selves is collapsed into pure facticity: we are a Christian in the way that a table is a table, because we act in the ways that a Christian should.
Alternatively, we might collapse the paradox the other way and denominate ourselves as Christian, but refuse to act in any way that supports that denomination, thus emphasising the transcendent ‘abyss-mal’ side of ourselves.
I think we can read in the gospels Jesus critiquing both of these positions. He is scornful of the Pharisees, who are pure facticity, defining their very identities by their lists of actions and properties, and those who claim to know God but refuse to act in any way that supports that claim. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one example of this.
Instead, Jesus lives within this paradox, and refuses to collapse it in either direction. It is on the cross that we perhaps see this best exemplified: the facticity of his pain, of his mocking denomination as King of the Jews, and yet his transcendence: staring into the abyss.
Interestingly, Zizek continues:
This is how man is made “in the image and likeness of God”: what makes a human being like God is not a superior or even divine quality of the human mind. […] It is only at the level of person, […] this abyss beyond all properties, that man is “in the image of God.”
It is a well-worn cliche that ‘Jesus didn’t write a book, he started a community.’ However, we must be clear that, even if he did start a community, he certainly did not give it a name. I think this was entirely deliberate. To name, to denominate, is to risk people naming themselves as part of something by facticity or transcendence. Both are in ‘bad faith’; neither are Christian positions.
What then do we mean by our decisions to call ourselves Christian, or otherwise?
I’ll attempt to discuss that in the next, probably final, post.