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Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism

In his new book, LeRon Shults gives us a very helpful tool to help evaluate religion and politics in the context of Deleuzian “theology” in what he calls the “bio-cultural study of religion, ” which claims that “religious phenomena can be explained by the evolution of cognitive processes [Attributions] that over-detect human-like forms and coalitional process [Social] that over-protect socially inscribed norms.”

[Wayne Schroder, Ph.D., reviews the recent Deleuzian treatise by F. LeRon Shults]

In his new book, LeRon Shults gives us a helpful tool to help evaluate religion and politics in the context of Deleuzian “theology” in what he calls the “bio-cultural study of religion, ” which claims that “religious phenomena can be explained by the evolution of cognitive processes [Attributions] that over-detect human-like forms and coalitional process [Social] that over-protect socially inscribed norms.”

To define terms, Shults gives us a 2×2 matrix of four categories to help us evaluate the effects of religion. The Y axis is constituted along the “sociographic” scale, while the X-axis is consittuted by the “anthropomorphic scale.” Shults calls the Open-Attribution category, to the left on the X-axis, “Anthropomorphic Promiscuity” (readiness to ascribe intentionality to unknown causes, all the way to the left) versus the Closed-Attribution category “Anthropomorphic Prudery” (suspicious about ascribing intentionality to unknown causes, all the way to the right on the x axis). The Open-Social category quadrant of the matrix is thus “Sociographic Promiscuity” (open to out-groups and flexible about alternative normativities, at the top of the Y-axis) while the Closed-Social category he terms “Sociographic Prudery” (closed to out-groups, strict normativity with in-group, at the bottom of the Y-axis).

Shults claims that evolutionary forces have favored Anthropomorphic Promiscuity (Open-Attribution) in being able to quickly detect relevant agents in the natural environment, and also favors Sociographic Prudery (Closed-Social) to adequately protect one’s own group from dissolution.  This combined integration of Anthropomorthic Promiscuity plus Sociographic Prudery yields “Theogonic” (god-bearing) forces and Sacerdotal Theology (strict) which creates in religion strong in-group coalitions and strong belief in a very transcendental God. In political terms, Shults is explicating bio-cultural beginnings for theological formations that inform how our religious practice informs political decisions via our criteria for social exclusions.

The basis for this assessment is to contrast what Deleuze advocates according to Shults, which is Sociographic Promiscuity (Open-Social) combined with Anthropomorphic Prudery (Closed-Attribution) yielding “Theolytic” (god-dissolving) forces and Iconoclastic theology (creative) which creates in religion openness to out groups, flexible normativity and suspicion of attributing intentionality to unknown causes. Shults hammers these categories and forces throughout as a tool to compare and contrast what might constitute a Deleuzian “theology” with confessional and conservative theology, and I think it is one of the strongest accomplishments of his project.

This book is fundamentally an exposition of Deleuze’s “transcendental [not transcendent] conditions for the real experience of creating new values” (p. 15), combined with the bio-cultural understanding of religion in order to “unveil and weaken the power of the Theogonic forces of anthropomorphic promiscuity (Open-Attribution) and Sociographic Prudery (Closed-Social), [and] open up new creative possibilities for theology.” (p. 14).

Shults reviews three major influences on Deleuzian “theology” in the second chapter entitled “Breaking Theological Icons:” Kant and the Genitality [genesis] of Experience, Spinoza and the Vertigo of Immanence, Nietzsche and the Rising of the Simulacra [only difference eternally returns]. In the section “Overturning Religious Figures” Shults relates Deleuze’s point that “Only friends can set out a plane of immanence as a ground from which idols have been cleared,” and that the Figure of Christ has become an Idol which needs to be overturned. In this sense, Deleuzian “friends” must set out to form political coalitions not centered on idol worship, repetition of inherited values, and stable identities, but experimentation and value-creation.

Thought itself has become subject to idols and must be free from the “Dogmatic [Idolizing] Image of Thought” outlined in the section of chapter three, “Loosening Theological Chains.”  Shults eloquently presents Porphyry’s Tree (Aristotle’s logical categories) as the rigid structure of the Same which Deleuze is trying to break down into Difference alone, represented by the rhizomatic (non arboreal) flux of life. The affirmation of difference “in between” clear-cut ontological categories is what Deleuze calls “demonic,” as difference, or life itself, destabilizes and threatens Porpherian categories. Theologically Porphyry’s tree represents the boxes sacerdotal theologians have been rigidly trying to insert Christ into, rather than remaining open to the problem of the finite in the infinite via Iconoclastic theology.

Moving on to discuss “Christ as Logos”, Shults covers issues raised by the Council of Chalcedon, showing how neo-Platonic [Idealizing] efforts to install Christ as Logos was met by appeals to mystery over the centuries. Appeals to mystery, for sacerdotal theologians, become nothing more than hiding the expansive sets of theological gymnastics that would be necessary to cover contradictions and other problems which naturally arise from trying to work out how a being such as Christ can inhabit contrary categories such as the divine and the human. Deleuze warns us of four of these resulting rigidifying, illogical errors of thought: from the top of the tree down–(1) Analogy of Judgment (God is like Christ who mediates), (2) Identity of Concept (Christ as the Same as God), (3) Opposition of Predicates (Christ as union of divine and human properties), (4) Resemblance in Perception (Christ is similar in quality with God).

Chapter four, “Releasing Theological Events” takes us fully into the Deluezian rabbit hole of his “Logic and Sense, ” definitely the deep end of the pool:  Paradox and Becoming, Christ as the Incarnation of God [versus pure becoming], The Aleatory Point [pure becoming], The Line of Aion [vs Chronos], The Metaphysical Surface, Sexuality and Pious Intentions, The Liberation of Acting.  Now I have to read Logic of Sense to understand what Shults said.  He does well to include the theological aspects along the way.

Last is Deleuze’s “Anti-Oedipus” and “A Thousand Plateaus” in chapter five where we run into Desiring-Machines, Christ as the Judgment of God, Theology and the Territorial Machine, Theology and the Despotic Machine, Theology and the Capitalist Machine, and the exciting Theology and the War Machine, and Liberation of Feeling. “It is actually our judgments themselves, our representations of other beings (or ourselves) as valuable based on external, idealized criteria, that block creativity and restrict life, separating us from what it [our will] can do” says Shults (p. 182).

Shults has brought the political in play through the screen of the above outlined sociological and cognitive processes which parallel the theological.  Thus, the combination of Sociographic Promiscuity (Open-Social) and Anthropomorphic Prudery (Closed-Attribution) produce what is consistent with Deleuze’s War Machine, the nomadic and the revolutionary, which parallels the theolytic (versus theogonic, despotic) forces of immanence.

We finally get to the last chapter with the enigmatic title “Secreting Atheism,” the underlying core concept throughout this project, which sounds more like an oozy alien than an intriguing theological/philosophical concept.  So I will insert my own analogy here, taking from a Heraclitian concept of the nature of reality being more like two heavyweight wrestlers standing, locked in each other’s grip: Atheism versus Theism, both giving rise to the meaning of the other.  For bringing this great battle to us while examining our very philosophical, theological, political, and religious foundations, I enthusiastically congratulate Shults.

F. LeRon Shults is professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, and a senior fellow at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion in Boston, MA.  He has also recently published Theology After the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan 2014)

One thought on “Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism

  1. First, thanks to Wayne for his careful reading of and generous comments about “Iconoclastic Theology” 🙂

    I just wanted to mention that although I didn’t write the “preview” I would be happy to respond to any reactions or questions about the book.

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