When? Thursday, November 9, 6:30-8:30
Where? BookBar, 4280 Tennyson Street, Denver, CO 80212, 303-284-0194
BookBar “is a bookshop for wine lovers. A wine bar for book shoppers. And a fabulous cafe, too”.
The questioning of religion is the beginning of a flood, one that cannot be contained and will soon drown every theological, political, economic, and cultural orthodoxy that pledged its allegiance to a sinking cause. We are in just such an era of revolt, and those with eyes to see are learning to interrogate motives.
When we are told of an idea that cannot possibly be true, the most immediate question is this: does the speaker so very foolishly believe their own words, or is the person a cynic who knows perfectly well how they manipulate the truth?
As individual personalities transform into a collective drive, the aftermath is a brutal mix of motives, fictions, and anxieties. The Cynic & the Fool explores theology and politics through the lens of our unconscious motives, our clever repression, and our deceptive denial. In nine chapters interspersed with nine parables, DeLay unites psychoanalysis, philosophy, and theology together for an accessible yet critical theory of culture.
There could not be a more crucial moment to settle these questions. Why do we feel such anxiety over the most abstract orthodoxies, what conflicts of interest are we facing, and why we are commanded to see the world a certain way?
At a time when vicious partisan politics has replaced the wars of religion with their odium theologicum of bygone ages, Tad DeLay‘s The Cynic and the Fool is a must-read for thoughtful people, regardless of their ideological persuasion. Through story-telling, personal anecdote, and frequent flashes of magisterial pedagogy, DeLay entices us into confronting the knotted tangles of our own “political unconscious” and offers us hope that we will eventually know the truth and that it might free us, even if we are in a so-called “post-truth” era. – Carl Raschke, University of Denver, author of Critical Theology and Force of God.
Tad Delay holds a Ph.D. in religion from the Claremont School with concentrations in continental philosophy and philosophy of religion as well as an M.A. philosophy and an M.A. theology. DeLay’s work explores the intersections of continental philosophy, theology, psychoanalysis, critical theory, and politics. He lives, writes, and teaches in Denver, Colorado. Delay is also the author of God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis & Theology (Wipf & Stock, 2015). His third book, a critical investigation of American Christianity and the recent politics of populism, will be published in 2018 under the working title “Resonance Machines After the Criticism of Heaven.”
The following is an interview that CRI did with the author Tad Delay in advance of the BookBar event.
Why did you want to write this book at this moment?
Whenever I talk about this book, I always clarify the date. It feels strange to write a book that becomes so accidentally timely. Open any political opinion piece in the last year, and you see this subtext of “Is the latest news the result of calculating manipulation or blundering foolishness?” But none of these developments were on my mind. I finished the rough draft of The Cynic & the Fool a single day before a new figure would descend from his tower in New York to announce his campaign for the presidency, which would dramatically change the way I felt about my project.
I had a chapter in God Is Unconscious on “The Knave and the Fool.” I took it from Lacan, of course. For Lacan, the leftwing leader plays the part of an honest fool who constantly provokes and who directly believes the world can and will get better. Rightwing intellectuals say precisely whatever they are paid to say and, when pressed, admit they are crooks. I received so much positive feedback on that being a helpful way to think about psychoanalysis and inter-personal dynamics. I ultimately ran with the more common word “cynic” instead of “knave,” though I use cynic not in the skeptical sense but in the way we call a politician cynical—the one for whom people and positions alike are always means and never ends.
God Is Unconscious was precisely what I needed to write at that time, but it was too difficult for many readers. That project was for me. A book is a symptom put in writing. I was writing out of a traumatic and chaotic period of life. I figured it might be too opaque and inaccessible, so before it even hit the shelves I resolved to follow it with a more accessible book. Not all academics have a responsibility to write for multiple audiences, but it’s something I feel I must do. I had all this research accumulating for my dissertation as well, and I wanted to reach more than just my committee or the academic community. I wanted something my former congregations or current students could read. So I built the book around the simplest question I could imagine to elucidate the unconscious: when we hear a claim that cannot possibly be true, (1) is the false claim pouring forth from the misinformed but honest fool, or (2) is the claim being twisted by a cynical nihilist, a charlatan who knows perfectly well how to manipulate and mislead?
So you were writing about 2017 in 2015?
I was still editing the final text here and there over the last year, but yes, I was writing on what I saw American Christianity doing in 2015. You expect the religious crowd to lag behind the times, but when a society regresses, the revanchists are the future. But I kept stumbling through examples which seemed perfectly irrelevant at the time but which seemed important to me. I wrote of delusional news stories, media bubbles, and how conspiratorial thinking operates. But aside from the birther conspiracy theory centered on Obama, who cared? I briefly covered theories of populism, fearing it was wasted page space since America hadn’t had a massive populist movement in decades. I had some combination of the Tea Party and Evangelicalism in mind, but I had no premonition of Trumpism. I wrote about the drive of white supremacy and the desire for cruelty in American religion. I said the theological investment we put into empty gestures leads us to prize hypocrisy as a virtue rather than a vice. For the first time, I publicly wrote my story of losing a job as a pastor when my understanding of the LGBT community matured. I talked about student loans and our drive for lower pay, fewer services, and more disciplinary measures. I described how widespread apocalyptic belief ensures the world will burn not from the fire of heaven but instead from carbon. Following Connolly, I wrote about the Evangelical-capitalist resonance machine and of the former’s enjoyment in being the puppet of the latter. Following McGowan, I said we are not subjects who desire knowledge but instead subjects who desire. I hesitated over so many arguments and examples I feared would seem unnecessary at best or paranoid at worst.
You are investigating unconscious drives in theology and politics. Why not choose one or the other—how are you blurring the distinction between those disciplines.
We navigate personal meaning and group cohesion through these discourses. We’ve just passed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so we know something about how an individual’s neurosis erupted into a theology which triggered a massive political reorganization in Europe. The blend of religion and folk superstitions of that era have always fascinated me. I recently came across an article about a house burning down in the 16th century, and all that remained unscathed was a portrait of Luther. So villagers began affixing his image to their walls as a form of preventative fire insurance. To me, this is the essence of religious and political rituals—there’s a payoff regardless of whether it actually works when we take the eucharist or join a protest. I’m thinking of Tillich on anxiety and symbolism here. What matters is the way rituals channel anxiety into production.
Lacan and James said it about shamanism—what’s fascinating is that magical thinking works. At least, it does what it’s supposed to do, and that’s what we must explain. You can call it a placebo effect if you want, but symbolism, rituals, and political movement channel affect into production (often with cataclysmic consequences). We start seeing ritualistic behavior in our ancestors even before we were homo sapiens—this stuff isn’t going away. In early hominid species, religious behavior seems to evolve from death rituals and fertility rituals. It’s not just about personal meaning but about group cohesion (which is proto-politics). We can’t afford to be naive about this. When compared to the personal spirituality, the political dimension of theology is far more sophisticated, socially operative, and unfortunately ignored. We expect the priest, the pundit, and the politician to have something intelligent to say, but what generates security is the social cohesion, not the explanation’s veracity.
You write this book from the perspective of an older millennial. How do you see the spiritual temperature of our times?
We are in trouble. If ever there was an age of ressentiment, we are witnessing it now. In Nietzsche’s parable, the madman knew he’d announced the death of God a bit early. But we are watching the slow death now, and the remainder left over after divine decay is the persistent desire for a hell. Rousseau had that line about how when the poor have nothing left to eat, they shall eat the rich. That’s not quite right though; we are brutally sadistic because we are also carelessly masochistic, and we should learn to interpret the counter-intuitive sources of destructive enjoyment. Deleuze and Guattari put it best: the most salient political question today is why we stubbornly desire servitude as if it were our salvation.
To be a millennial today is to have watched your parents’ and grandparents’ generations betray every value they ever claimed with their recent votes. You get gift cards during the holidays from relatives who fully believe you should be burdened with lifelong student loan debts. God is bleeding out for us, and we don’t feel too warmly toward capitalism either. We see the anger provoked when someone says black lives should matter. We see people we know and love calling us terrorists for protesting. We know we are the most educated generation in history, and we have barely a fighting chance. To be a millennial is to live with a profound sense of inter-generational warfare, and I bet the current political crisis will not conclude until things have become much worse. We want to believe more than ever after the death of God, but the spiritual temperature of our time is very cold.