The following was originally published on my old site on January 8, 2015.
When something truly terrible happens, the temptation is always to act on impulse. But the impulse that arises from a tragedy is usually not a good one. It is often hateful and fearful, and I think that the world could do without these things. A few years ago, America’s ‘War on Terror’ was precisely the result of acting too quickly in hatred and fear. It was all John Wayne, bombs, guns and even more tragedy. Turns out fighting fire with fire simply makes more fire. So, sometimes we need to override impulse and try to see the tragedy in the light of a new day.
The attacks in Paris yesterday, by Islamists on satirists, exposes the reality of fundamentalism in its purest (and therefore most frightening form). Some have suggested that those guns were targeting free speech, which I suppose is partially correct, but to suggest that this is the main issue at hand is to suggest that fundamentalism is primarily an issue of one ideology versus others. And it really isn’t. It’s not even an issue of religious exclusivity versus liberal inclusivity; nor is it an issue of religion versus irreligion for, after all, atheistic fundamentalism follows the same structure as religious fundamentalisms.
The primary issue is a conflict between the literal (the systematic) and the symbolic (the parabolic or dramatic), which is really a conflict between certainty and real faith. The fundamentalist doesn’t need faith, because he knows. This is why Slavoj Žižek writes in God in pain that “in the opposition between traditional secular humanists and religious fundamentalists, it is the humanists who stand for belief, while the fundamentalists stand for knowledge — in short, the true danger of fundamentalism does not reside in the fact that it poses a threat to secular scientific knowledge, but in the fact that it poses a threat to authentic belief itself”.
With this in mind, fundamentalism is easily defined as a rabid refusal to understand what it means to dwell in language. Fundamentalism is, to use Lacanian terms, foreclosed from the symbolic.
Religion — that is, true religion or authentic belief — originates in the symbolic. The religious idea springs from something like an observation of a thing that is beautiful or awe-inspiring, like the sun, and then hopes that it — the sun in this case — has a meaning that is beyond its literal self. That meaning, the pagan might think, could be the sun god. “Very often,” GK Chesterton writes, in an early draft in his The Everlasting Man (1925), “one fancies, the god exists first and is given the sun for a crown. Anyhow, [the pagan] does not so much clothe the sun with godhead as clothe his god with the sun.” The idea is that the personality of the god perfects the sun with significance, not the other way around.
Of course, the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — of our day do not speak of gods, but of God: a singular source of all that is diverse. (I wish creationists would realise this instead of wasting their time arguing for what is in effect still just another demiurgic small-g god; creationism is atheism, but that’s another issue).
Anyway, even the revelation of that capital-G God began, historically speaking, precisely in the profound awareness of the limits of material reality and also in the limits of language when confronted even with that reality. Something in us hunkers after something more than us. This is not something we can help. Even the most committed atheist is still out there figuring out how it all fits together and what it all means, which is why Nietzsche connected the very grammar of language to the fact that we can’t seem to rid ourselves of God. God persists.
Nevertheless, if you follow the history of philosophy and religion, as Karen Armstrong for one has done in her book The Battle for God, you discover some very interesting twists and turns that have resulted, gradually, in the disintegration of the symbolic order, and the dis-integration of belief. Gradually, humanity moved away from the transcendent. The transcendent had, people thought, served its purpose, which was to spur us on to what Coldplay calls ‘questions of science, science and progress.’
The irony of this is that the world has become, not simpler, but far more complex. Our obsession with the literal and empirical has not brought greater clarity, but greater conflict and confusion. And the opinions around us breed like flies, proliferating in all directions, causing further rigidity and therefore also further conflict. Without the ability to think symbolically, we find it harder to navigate the world, not easier. Why? Because the symbolic allows for mystery and uncertainty, which (if you haven’t noticed) is what most of our human experience is comprised of. It allows one to “fit one’s head into the heavens” as Chesterton says, instead of trying to fit the heavens into one’s head, which will only cause one’s head to explode.
The result of this failure to access the symbolic is that people want more and more certainty. And so they pick sides, and doctrines — whether from their holy books or from Darwin — and find reasons why their side is right and why everyone else is wrong. And everything in the world is then painted in black and white, with neat in or out categories, even though we know that this just makes us look colourblind. From a psychoanalytic perspective, though, this failure to access the symbolic is the essential characteristic of psychosis: the inability to move from the signifier to the signified. It is, diagnostically speaking, insane.
And, if you’ll forgive the simplification, the only proper response to insanity is sanity. And so it seems appropriate to me that so many of the responses to the attack on Charlie Hebdo have been from cartoonists (like Ruben Oppenheimer, whose image I’ve included here), who are permanently living in the world of the symbolic. Their world, unlike the world of fundamentalists, allows for ambiguities and humour; and it is precisely the kind of world that we live in. It’s precisely the kind of world that religions have traditionally been so good at navigating, but which, under the spell of scientistic literalism, have started to falter.
It turns out that the symbolic is actually part of the very same mechanism that allows us to empathise with different perspectives (Mirror neurons have been connected to our ability to understand metaphors, as James Geary writes in I is an Other). If you, for instance, take a metaphor like Shakespeare’s famous “Juliet is the sun”, you are more profoundly confronted with Romeo’s perceptions of Juliet than if he had said “Juliet is about 5-foot-eight and has auburn hair”. The symbolic opens us up to another person’s perspective far more than the literal, and often in fewer words. The literal is a trap. It is a cage. And, yes, I’m speaking metaphorically.
Still, my basic argument, which is very poorly outlined above, is that we actually need more of the symbolic. We need more good stories and images. We need the stations of the cross more than we need the doctrines of St. Paul. We need parables more than systematic theology; more Catholicism and less Protestantism. We need, if you will, more fiction and fewer facts. Because facts, when torn away from the symbolic, are inevitably just violent.