Review of “Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism”


Review for Cultural Encounters of Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism by F. LeRon Shults. Edinburgh University Press, 2014. 232 pp. $24.03 hardcover. 

Iconoclastic Theology is an unusual book for this category as it attempts to apply the results of the study of the bio-cultural evolution of religion to the philosophy of atheist thinker Gilles Deleuze with the aim of producing an iconoclastic theology that relentlessly advocates a radical atheism. The book purports to be a theology rather than atheist philosophy, because “theology is simply too important to leave to theists” (187), says Shults, a former Evangelical theologian who has now left the Christian faith behind. The book follows a current trend in public discourse to its ultimate logic: the dissolution of god as a meaningful concept. Christians should not disregard this book as written by one fallen away from the faith, but rather as a poignant critique that needs to be engaged if Christian public discourse is to maintain relevance. There is a strong ethical drive behind this book: the axial ritual engagement of religious coalitions (i.e. religions) with nonexistent disembodied entities (i.e. gods) has caused too much harm by inscribing eidetic sameness on difference. What does Shults mean?

The analytical work of the iconoclast theologian is needed to lay bare the innate thought patterns of human beings that give rise to gods. Shults wants to hammer away at these gods skillfully, not in a barbaric way, in order to bring about the theolytical (i.e., god-dissolving) forces that erase them. The iconoclastic theologian deconstructs god-concepts so as to expose the motivations behind them, motivations that often lead to suppression of difference and oppression of the out-group. While aware of the strong theogonic (i.e., god-constructing) forces operational within religious coalitions, Shults is confident his project will eventually succeed because religious “machines,” especially the Christian one, “secrete atheism.” It’s an unstoppable process. Let’s trace the main contours of his argument.

Shults brings two disciplines together: Deleuzian studies (Deleuze is an atheist philosopher of the late twentieth century) and the bio-cultural study of religion (which teaches that belief in god(s) is a natural product of human evolution). Deleuze’s philosophy of “metaphysical naturalism” (190) is highly original and idiosyncratic and therefore really hard to understand, especially in its abbreviated representation by Shults. Deleuze’s main argument will be discussed below. We will first pay attention to Shults’s bio-cultural study of religion. Shults describes two linear continuums perpendicular to each other. One axis moves from anthropomorphic prudery to anthropomorphic promiscuity. The latter term denotes the tendency of the human species to detect an intentional agent (like itself) when confronted with unknown phenomena (like a sound in the woods). This led the human species to postulate invisible gods and worship them. The other axis moves from social promiscuity to social prudery. The latter term describes the tendency of the human species to seek the protection of the in-group. Human beings are thus wired to believe in god(s) (anthropomorphic promiscuity) who favor the in-group (social prudery). These two forces combine to make for strong theogonic forces (or religious machines) that develop along with humanity. This development leads eventually to the complex religions of the axial age. In these more complex societies there are, what Shults calls, retroductive theories that lead to higher ideas about god: god as transcendent and infinite. In Christianity, this idea of God requires a representation in order to make this God accessible for ritual engagement. It is Christ who performs this function of being the icon of God, the eidos to which all believers aspire to resemble.

While anthropomorphic promiscuity and social prudery aided the survival of the human species, the disembodied entities now rather hinder human flourishing. It is for that reason that Shults hammers away at the gods in the hope that the theolytical forces of anthropomorphic prudery (for instance: “The thunder is probably not a god”) in combination with social promiscuity (the embracing of otherness) will secrete atheism.

If this was all Shults’s argument amounted to, it might seem to be lacking substance. But there is much more to his argument. The findings of the bio-cultural study of religion are brought to bear on the thought of Gilles Deleuze. This anchoring in Continental philosophy provides Shults’s work with a decidedly ethical impulse that surfaces in his work again and again. He seeks to disclose “the repressive power of social representations,” and show that “theogonic reproduction is crushing the life out of us while ‘representing’ itself to us as our savior” (180).

This brings us to one of Deleuze’s central ideas. His philosophy is a radical subversion of the Platonic/Aristotelian orientation in Western thought that tends to categorize and represent. We have an innate tendency to devise “psychological and social representations that turn life into a tragedy” by which we “inscribe lack, law, and signification into desire” (p. 6). All of life is ruled by transcendental ideals (Plato) we need to conform to. We do so by repressing desire and erasing difference. Deleuze builds his philosophy from the ground up in order to affirm desire and inscribe difference into the world. It is not hard to understand how this intersects with religion. After all, Plato postulated his highest Idea of the Good just as Aristotle talked about the First Unmoved Mover, pure thought thinking itself. Both offer, as far as Shults and Deleuze are concerned, retroductive arguments about the relationship between the god and the world. Christianity made things worse when, in an attempt to make an infinite God more accessible for ritual engagement by the religious coalition of Christianity, it postulated Christ, the God-Man, both infinite and finite. Christ becomes the icon to which everything has to conform and the Judge who will assign everyone outside the religious coalition to eternal damnation. Behold the Christological eidetic oppression: “‘Christ’ is a dominant example of theogonic forces run wild in the Eidetic framework” (p. 29).

Shults’s entire work is about bringing the theolytic forces unleashed by Deleuzian analysis to bear on the religious and sacerdotal machines that seek to produce and preserve their gods. The mere exposure of the inconsistencies with especially Christ, however, causes these religious machines to secrete atheism, which is a very good thing according to Shults.

This is a starkly reduced account of the argument Shults makes in order to break “icons of transcendence” and pry “apart the dogmatic shackles of thought” (183). Especially the chapter on the different social machines of territory, despotism, capitalism, and war and their interaction with the religious machine, is a worthwhile read.

Do Christians have the guts to interact with such atheist discourse or do they prefer to continue to create syllogistic arguments for the existence of a God who nonetheless ends up being portrayed as an oppressive entity by Shults? Christian engagement with culture will have to move from proofs to passion if it is to receive a hearing. Oftentimes, what drives atheism is not primarily logic but ethics. Shults provides a good case in point.

But this is also where I would like to criticize Shults (although he would probably say with a smirk on his face that I’m offering a typical “sacerdotal defense to bolster theogonic forces”). However, isn’t it simply a fact that the oppressiveness that accompanies eidetic representation is not necessarily genetic to it? To use a Lutheran understanding of sin as cor curvatum in se (the self-inversion of the heart), can’t we say that all forms of thought, because of this condition, lead to oppression, whether we affirm sameness or difference?

Furthermore, while the findings of the bio-cultural study of religion sound entirely plausible, is there not a danger of reduction here? Couldn’t it be that it is exactly through evolutionary traits like these that humanity is on its way to discover the great Other—God? Given the cor curvatum in se, however, it should not surprise us that these theogonic forces typically yield idols rather than truth. I welcome Shults’s critique to the extent that he exposes idols but resist his attempt to throw out God “with the bathwater.” Theogonic forces are not the issue in and of themselves, rather the way they are applied to create idols.

Lastly, isn’t the atheistic erasure of God not the ultimate oppression, an act of inscribing eidetic sameness into the mystery of the world? Serious and transformational reflection on the reality of God has always led us to an Other who is genuinely Other than us and leads us by way of that Otherness to truth, justice, and transformation.

These are but very small annotations to an impressive and daunting work that should not simply be dismissed as a Deleuzian delusion. It deserves to be engaged by Christians everywhere who care about the public witness of the church. A healthy Christianity ought to be willing to let a little bit of iconoclasm come in through the cracks.

Josh de Keijzer

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