Historiographic Sophistications: Marcionism as a Genealogical Category

For better or worse I am best known as someone who has argued for the return of Gnosticism in the speculative discourses of modernity that suggest themselves to be precisely the refurbished forms of Christianity or post-Christianity that can exist in a modern world grown weary of Christianity’s confessional forms and become convinced of their obscurantism and general intolerance.

For any number of reasons, I do not want to repeat what I have said elsewhere. It is not only that making the argument is complex (it is), but also that one needs to have a larger array of genealogical categories in play, if one is to understand the various ways in which the discourses in modernity do not so much reject the scriptural and creedal discourses of Christianity in toto, but instead sometimes in altered form present them to the secular world (and even Christians) as what Christianity was and always intended to be, but which by historical accident and/or authoritarian machination it was not.

More specifically, in a highly abbreviated form, I want to present the candidacy of “Marcionism” as a genealogical category, that is, to present the way in which ancient Marcionism called out by Irenaeus and Tertullian can be perceived to return in discourses that either redescribe and/or substitute for historical expressions of Christianity with the aim of having in the modern world something like the same authority, only this time, persuasive rather than coercive authority.

Genealogy in Catholicism

Needless to say, in a popular venue all I can do is provide a sketch of a sketch. Thus my apologia for a piece devoid of interesting detail, and lacking in anything that could be counted as evidence. Still, schematic as it is, I would like to speak (a) to the conditions of the return of Marcionism in modernity, and (b) to its two particular forms, that is, its Kantian or post-Kantian form, on the one hand, and its Romantic and post-Romantic form, on the other. Before I get to my somewhat peremptory declaratives on these fronts, however, as a preliminary I should like to say something about genealogy and how Catholic thinkers engage in it.

If we identify genealogy solely with Nietzsche and latterly with Foucault, then we might say that Catholic thinkers do not engage in the enterprise, since generally—albeit to different extents—they are committed to tradition being a bearer of truth, even if more than occasionally mixed in with falsehood and distortion. In addition, Catholic thinkers—for example, Newman, MacIntyre, de Lubac, and von Balthasar—go to considerable lengths to present the dynamic of the Catholic tradition and/or traditions, even as they suggest that modern discourses find their antecedents in ancient skepticism and rationalism as inscribed in Arianism (Newman), medieval nominalism and voluntarism (MacIntyre, Dupré), apocalypticism (de Lubac, Balthasar), Gnosticism (Balthasar), and Marcionism (Balthasar).

Genealogy then speaks of repetition—surprising repetitions—across historical periods and especially across the so-called hiatus between the modern and premodern world. In the hands of Catholic thinkers genealogy is a form of unveiling and uncovering, in this instance, of a deep relation between later forms of discourse and a much earlier form of thought found to be problematic in premodern Christianity. Genealogy is then a reduction, in the sense of leading back, to the roots, only just the obverse of tradition, to the poisoned roots. It is different from the genealogy of Nietzschean/Foucauldian stripe not only in that the discourses, practices, and forms of life of the Church are not in principle the object of suspicion, but also in the refusal to take on board as interpretive universals “interest” and “power” that make impossible drawing any line, however dented, between what is true and what is not.

Importantly, however, genealogical activity is not only in principle secondary in Catholic thinkers—though not always in fact—to retrieving and developing the tradition, but it is usually a defensive action or reaction. In terms of genre it belongs to the polemical side of theology. Furthermore, as practiced in the last two centuries or so, the main Catholic genealogical discourses can be typified as responses to the provocation of aggressively secular anti-Christianity narratives in which Catholicism is the contingent result of historical circumstances in which dogmatism, power politics, and an ethos of subservience fortuitously came into alignment. While there is no doubt that these accusations were adduced in Protestant polemics, they were taken over by and developed by Enlightenment thinkers and achieved any number of iterations.

Yet, if one felt obliged to lift up an Enlightenment iteration that has shown particular stamina and continues to remain relevant, then it would have to be the form given to it by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789). Catholic genealogy then emerges when the attack on Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular either directly or by implication has achieved such a level of cultural prestige that it requires answering, even if this means suspending temporarily the ongoing task of receiving the tradition and where necessary developing it. Catholic genealogy almost always expresses itself as a counter-narrative intended to undermine the Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment genealogical narrative that would negatively frame Catholicism and thereby dismiss it.

Reflexively, it leads back these genealogical discourses to a putative origin and exposes the conceptual inadequacies that have been covered up, whether one is talking about an Enlightenment progressive narrative, a Nietzschean narrative of decadence and its Foucauldian variant, a Marxian construction of Christianity as ideology, or a Heideggerian narrative of the violence of Catholic thought that betrays itself in the correspondence theory of truth, blind acceptance of a system of thought and practices in equal parts complacent and consistent (and theoretically and practically committed to a view of reality split between the eternal and the temporal, truth and illusion). Catholic genealogy of recent vintage is then a species of polemical theology committed to making level an unleveled playing field in high cultural circles in which Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives enjoy prestige, are embedded in educational institutions, and operate as if they were mere commonsense, and thus are not really questioned. To use a Charles Taylor shorthand: Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives about Christianity are now part of the modern “social imaginary.” Wherever we find it, whether in Newman, MacIntyre, de Lubac, or Balthasar, Catholic genealogy attempts to shake up the modern social imaginary and deprive it of its complacency.

Not all Catholic genealogists avail of categories that were prominent in the heresiological discourse of the early centuries. Neither MacIntyre nor Dupré do, and Newman only does so on an ad hoc basis, largely preferring to stick to “Liberalism” as the term of obloquy for secular forms of Christianity. Still, at least at points, Newman avails of “Arianism” to cast as illegitimate the kind of rational religion that has become the ascendant form of Christianity in the modern period. Yet, figures such as de Lubac and Balthasar obviously do when they speak to the trajectories of Joachimism in modern thought as this religious thought has now been secularly rinsed and readied to be dried in theological discourses that lift up the values of spirit over institution and the universal over the provincial. Though Balthasar does not offer an absolutely clear set of criteria for using “Marcionism” and “Gnosticism” to describe modern discourses that either critique historical Christianity or outnarrate it, he has no compunction about using them throughout his career as disclosing what these high culture discourses should mean to those moderns still invested in the Church and her traditions.

Of course, when Balthasar uses the labels of  “Marcionism” or “Gnosticism’” he does not understand that the discourses he is outing as mere counterfeits of genuine Christianity repeat exactly what can be found in the phenomena of the early Church from which they have acquired the names. The discourses so named will have bought into many of the assumptions of modernity (e.g. the prerogatives of reason, autonomy, etc.). We are talking then about continuity in discontinuity. Equally importantly, Balthasar understands better than most religious thinkers that the modern discourses so named—and thus the object of refutation—are not necessarily discourses whose native home is theology. Often their native home is that of philosophy and/or literature, even if these discourses achieve such broad social and cultural appeal that they make their way into theological thinking in due course, although sometimes migrating from one Christian confession to another.

General Conditions for the Return of Marcionism and How You Might Recognize It

In the spirit of Balthasar, whose genius lies in intuition rather than argument, it is apposite to set out some very general conditions for the application of “Marcionite” to influential modern discourse that are religiously aspirated, even if they are not theological in the strict sense. At the very least the following should be stipulated. For a modern discourse to earn this label, there must be a sense that confessional forms of Christianity have failed in much the way that its Enlightenment critics suggest, but also that individual aspects of it can be saved for a modern public that can no longer buy into confessional forms of Christianity whole cloth. What has to be abandoned are any and all versions of Christianity based uncritically on the Bible or Church authority, any view of a creator God who is distant from the world and who deals with it in a capricious and oppressive way through commandments, and any view of the created order based on suffering the social and political status quo, rather than on the desire to transform the world in light of the human ideals of freedom, equality, and flourishing.

Though the newly minted discourses of this type do not have to be theological in the strict sense, nonetheless, in all cases there has to be some connection to the Christian narrative, though the accent falls almost entirely on redemption. Interestingly, even when there is some fundamental questioning of the incommensurability of the Bible and the insinuation, which sometimes rises to an actual claim, that there may be other discourses in the past or present that rival it, the critique of Protestantism is far more muted than the critique of Catholicism, although strict forms of Calvinism are subject to broadsides.

Moreover, to the extent to which there is a critique of Catholicism as the historical form of disenlightenment and oppression, the fate of Catholicism and Judaism tend to get linked. In fact, the standard genealogical operation is to reduce Catholicism to Judaism, now defined by its arbitrary punishing God and the laws that regulate religious practices, forms of life, and self-understanding. Although these discourses are to a significant extent detached from the law-gospel paradigm that operated in the magisterial Protestant confessions, the genealogical maneuvers against Catholicism, repeat the basic structure while historicizing it. The reason why Catholic Christianity is a deformation is that it was never able to “overcome” Judaism. Such an overcoming is necessary if one is to acquire an authentic religious sense—possibly post-Christian—that can save religion in the modern age.  

Now in terms of ascription, the contrast between “Marcionite” and “Gnostic” discourses in the modern field should be noted, even if practically speaking they are related and in some cases the one evolves or devolves into the other. With the prescient texts of Tertullian and Irenaeus as precedents, we can say that as with their ancient historical correlates, modern species of Marcionism function by subtraction, modern species of Gnosticism by addition. More specifically, the modern species of Marcionism, supposedly constructed at a critical distance from the Christian churches and their confessional squabbling, is entirely about redemption, albeit redemption inflected by eschatology, since redemption is as much a task as an event.

In this sense, as with the reticence of the historical Marcion to speak to the origin of the divine creator and lawgiver in and through a speculative myth, or to go into details about the created order that might involve pros and cons, for “Marcionite” discourses in modernity, the creator lawgiver God is considered to be insufficiently divine and the created order regarded as an extension of this illegitimate pretender God the subject of invective. Whether avowed by Jews or Christians this God has the properties of the God of the Hebrew Bible. In contrast, like their historical antecedents, exposed by the heresiologists and now copiously illustrated in and by the Nag Hammadi Library, those speculative discourses in modernity that might incline the genealogist to label them as “Gnostic” speculations enclose the biblical narrative of creation-redemption-eschaton in a larger, more tightly configured, narrative that effectively revises the standard ecclesial meaning of each of the narrative episodes. At the same time, it presents the altered narrative as the truth of Christianity and as the alternative to the Church-bound versions, faithful to the Bible, the dogmatic tradition, and the self-understanding of the Church as the vehicle of the saving action of God in liturgy, in prayer, and in a life of responsible service to the world.

Two Forms of Modern Marcionism: The Kantian and the Romantic Form

There are essentially two forms of modern Marcionism, that is, the Kantian rationalist ethical form and the Romantic form. It should be understood that we are dealing not only with Kant, the philosopher of Königsberg, and the stars of German and English Romanticism, but also with their respective influence in broader society because of their prestige and the ways in which they have entered theological thought or at least come in for theological consideration. Of the two, the former is the easier of the two to track in terms of its theological influence, despite the fact that at all points Kant was anxious to distinguish between the prerogatives of philosophy and theology, and argue not only for the validity of the former, but in cases of conflict its fundamental priority. In short, then, just the opposite of what was enjoined by Aquinas.

To the extent to which there is a pivotal text in Kant’s opus that would justify the ascription of “Marcionism,” it would have to be Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793). There you find Kant interpreting the biblical narrative, but precisely as a philosopher rather than as a theologian whom he thinks can really offer only an external and historical analysis rather than get to its intrinsic meaning and truth. Kant may well be a Christian believer, but for the purposes of this particular book the Christian narrative is an allegory of the task of autonomy and its individual and social complications. He translates the Christian narrative into its true referent, which is that of flawed human beings who are not all that they could be because of their failure in every instance to obey the moral law. Kant prosecutes his analysis by presupposing rather than articulating the order of creation, foreshortening the fall as backdrop to a story of self-saving, which if it has Christ as its archetype, has as its asymptotic goal the fashioning of a community of ethical selves. 

While it goes without saying that the historical situation of Kant is that of an inheritor and promoter of the Enlightenment, a number of structural features of classical Marcionism are to the fore. First, in Religion the Christian narrative is translated into ethical categories. While this is not what precisely happens in ancient Marcionism, nonetheless, there is an analogy in that Marcion’s culling of the scriptures is motivated largely by ethical concerns about whether the God of Hebrew Bible—who obviously does get recalled in the texts that make up the New Testament—is in fact a god of mere justice fundamentally at odds with the love that is central to the Christian message declared in the letters of Paul and in selected passages in Luke. Second, and relatedly, though Kant positions himself as a philosopher-translator and thus outside the Protestant injunction to interpret the text in terms of itself, Religion sets the standard for so-called dispassionate assessments of Christianity by insisting that:

  1. Christianity is the supreme religion in that it is the bearer of freedom and reason even if only in external form;
  2. Protestant Christianity represents the realization of all that Christianity can be, whereas Catholicism is beset by institutionalism, legalism, and a culture of blind faith and authoritarianism—a species of Protestant polemic philosophically buffed and buffered by a so-called critical thinking;
  3. The degenerate state of Catholicism discloses a deep affinity with biblical Judaism which illustrates exactly those properties.

Kant offers the hint of a historical thesis that would have it that Catholicism staged the subversion of the genuine Christianity of freedom and reason by regressing into biblical Judaism and specifically by making constitutive the God of the Hebrew Bible who does not pass ethical scrutiny and who with respect to human beings functions in a legalistic and authoritarian fashion. The historical move, however, is made explicitly by the early Hegel who pillories the Catholic form of Christianity as being the product of Christianity’s Jewish roots which it unhappily was unable to overcome. Thus, the repetition of the hostility towards Judaism found in Marcionism of the first centuries of the common era to go along with the Protestant aftereffect of hostility towards Catholicism defined by institution, doctrine, and rules for living the Christian life.

It can hardly be denied that the Kant of practical reason in general and the Kant of Religion in particular sets the terms of a significant part of liberal Protestantism in the nineteenth century (e.g Albrecht Ritchl) and beyond. Of course, few of these followers admitted that the profile of their Christianity was Marcionite, largely because they were reluctant to take into their more philosophically sanitized religious discourses theological categories and even less heresiological categories. This would cede too much to the theological tradition and, arguably, specifically too much to the Catholic tradition that was favorably disposed towards such categories. Though Schelling in his dissertation on Marcionism (1795) suggests that he is prepared to think of Marcionism as a cover term for a renovated religious philosophy that will go beyond as well as save Christianity, one has to wait until Adolf von Harnack to see a historical theologian brave enough to see a revisionist liberal theology go hand in glove with an animated historical retrieval of Marcion that amounts to nothing less than a recommendation.

The second and, from my point of view at least, far more interesting form of Marcionism is provided by some key figures of English and German Romanticism who in turn exert influence in philosophical and religious thought of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Speaking very generally, while both English and German Romantics largely accept Enlightenment criticisms of confessional forms of Christianity as being moribund and oppressive, as a group they are reluctant to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Both species of Romanticism exhibit a deep suspicion of the Enlightenment’s narrow view of reason and are skeptical regarding the definition and range of human freedom. Perhaps even at a deeper level again they share an anxiety as to whether the new dispensation of reason will actually provide a live alternative to the community-building historically provided by the Christian Churches. Thus, the recognition that while Christianity cannot survive whole cloth, perhaps fragments of it can, though these fragments might be advised to go under an alias rather than proceed under their original Christian name.

At the risk of trivializing summary, we can see in Goethe, Schiller, Novalis and Hölderlin, in Blake, the early Coleridge, and in Shelley concerted attempts to disconnect Christ from the so-called “God of Jesus Christ,” the Jewish creator and legislator God, and his inhibiting credenda and moral and ritual laws that emasculate human beings and render them servile. Thus, essentially the dialectical structure of Nemo contra Deum nisi Deus Ipse. The true God Christ—or his substitute Prometheus (Goethe, Shelley), Los (Blake), or Dionysius (Hölderlin)—is involved in a mortal ideological struggle with a powerful negative force redolent of all that is warped in individual and social existence. The motivating existential question is whether and how human beings can move forward towards the kingdom of knowledge, freedom, but above all love. This view is taken up by Hegel in the Phenomenology which is ground zero for a death of God theologian such as Altizer who, even if his heyday is long-passed, once upon a time exercised extraordinary influence in American theology.

Of course, the replacement of Christ by other divine figures with a more human profile—whether belonging to the Greek pantheon or a pure construct of the imagination—is but one of the substitutions. The other, as Abrams and other scholars of Romanticism have pointed out, is that of Nature regarded as irreducible to matter, and thus sublime. Or, otherwise put, nature elevated above itself and now a complex unity of nature and supernature, rather than the irresolvable dualism of ontologically contrastive realities. One can see how both of these views made their way into American consciousness through Emerson and became background assumptions that found expression in Whitman and Royce and the process thought of Whitehead who wanted a closer connection between matter and spirit than typically avowed in the confessional traditions of Christianity. One can also see how Romantic modes of thought have had their effect in various modes of ecological theology—in the absence of coherent confessional Christian takes—and even in some forms of feminist theology.

While, quite literally, dozens of theologians come to mind with regard to each, and in any event by now both have rich histories, perhaps Jürgen Moltmann represents a good example of the former in that creation is truly creation only as redeemed and come to fulfillment in the eschaton, and Catherine Keller a good example of the latter considering her commitment to a unified cosmos of energy and novelty that will not be stayed or ruled by a legislative, controlling divine. This is not to deny that there are significant differences between these theologians. It is simply to make the point that prior to any disagreement is the agreement that the sovereign God of Hebrew Bible, absolutely distinct from the world even in his very creating, preserving, and governing, has no place in our modern or postmodern consciousness. Unlike biblical Judaism, and unlike Catholicism which by and large adopts Aquinas’s position that the direction of dependence between God and the world is one way, like German Idealism and process thought, both Moltmann and Keller subscribe to the position of co-dependence of God and the world. God would not truly be God unless he/she/it were pure self-emptying into and as matter, which in consequence, therefore, can no longer be conceived reductively as matter without remainder.

Now, if Romanticism in general can be thought to be a post-Enlightenment construction that unrubbishes Christianity of creed and rule and loosens the connection to scripture, there are any number of complications. Most of these cannot be gone into here. Yet, I would be remiss not to mention two. The first has to do with the relation of Romanticism to Catholicism; the second has to do with the question as to whether at its limits Romanticism gives way to forms of speculation that seems to require a switch in genealogical category.

I begin with the first. To make simple a very complex case, one would not err were one to distinguish here between English and German Romanticism when it comes to their relation to Catholicism. In the case of English Romantics such as the early Coleridge and Shelley, what one sees most clearly is a rejection of strict Calvinism, especially its God of wrath and judgment and the corresponding drama of penal substitution by the Son. Correlatively, what is constructed is an aesthetic-religious replacement in which the Christ-figure, who opposes the tyrannical creator-legislator God, sets up the requirement for the transformation of the world into the kingdom of freedom, knowledge, and love. Newman was right to think of English Romanticism as a Protestant phenomenon, indeed, a Protestant argument with itself in which Catholicism essentially plays no part. This, for historical reasons. Specifically, the English Reformation is predicated on the exclusion of Catholicism, whereas the Reformation on the continent is predicated upon arguing with it.

In contrast, German Romanticism has a more complex profile, not only because some Romantics are Catholics (e.g. Schlegel brothers) and others sympathetic (e.g. Novalis), but because there are attempts to revision the medieval period as a model for integration of self and society that has been a casualty of the modern age which, arguably, found its roots in the Reformation (e.g. Novalis). Similarly, one comes across the recovery of a Catholic figure such as Mary as suggesting the abiding proximity of the divine (e.g. Hölderlin) that has been lost in the modern age and the flight of the gods from the world. In the case of Hölderlin, however, it should be pointed out that the retrieval by no means suggests a favorable view of Catholicism. Just as the early Schelling who vouchsafes Marcion affirms the heretical Bruno whose fevered pantheism was too much for Catholic authorities and led to him being burnt at the stake in 1600, so also Hölderlin who recovers Mary pleads the cause of Vanini (another Catholic pantheist) who suffered a similar fate. This suggests the general rule that the recall of Catholic figures is motivated and is intended to construct Catholicism not only as the bastion of superstition and violent authoritarianism, but also as a Christian confession which only accidentally makes a contribution to the cause of immanence which for a poet such as Hölderlin is the cause of causes.

The second complication I underscored folds back on a remark I made earlier concerning how the two types of Marcionism can be seen to evolve or devolve into each other to create hybrids. So, for example, if we think of the political-theological tracts of the early Hegel, it is obvious that he has complicated his fealty to Kant’s view of religion (including his anti-Catholicism), by saturating it in a Romantic fashion with his return to ancient Greece as providing a paradigm of individual and social wholeness that was the aim of Schiller and his then friend Hölderlin. Other cases could be cited, though it should be reminded that Romanticism fundamentally authorizes Enlightenment critiques of historical and confessional Christianity even as it turns on the Enlightenment and thinks of it at best as a transitional phase with respect to the world that would be fully humane. 

Yet, it is not simply that we can see movement from one type of Marcionism to another at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. We also can see forms of Romanticism that become so speculatively excessive that they demand another label altogether. The paradigm case here is William Blake. Blake’s capacity to mythologize, indeed, invent his own mythology, is unparalleled. He clearly has animus towards confessional forms of Christianity, particularly Calvinism, and advances his own poetry as nothing less than a religious cure. The transumption of Christianity, however, goes far beyond vituperative critique of historical Christianity and its epistemic, existential, and social deficits, a decrying of the creator-legislative God whom he explicitly calls the God of the Jews, and even within the overall agonistic structure of God against God, the replacement of Christ by an enlightened and enlightening God (Los [light]) raised against the tyrannical and obtuse Urizen.

The step beyond consists of Blake providing the genealogy of the creator-legislator God, something that is almost unique to Blake in Romanticism, even if one can see a trace in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Blake’s boast—to paraphrase—I must employ a system otherwise be contained by someone else’s, is pertinent here. Ultimate resistance to the perfidious world and the malicious God that rules it demands an explanation that accounts for all becoming and especially all our suffering and failure to thrive, as well as the god who is responsible for it. It requires a genealogy that goes back before the beginning, that is, before the genesis of the creator-legislator God who is a transcosmic mistake. This truly counterfeit God is just one item in the systematic correction of the entire Christian story including the story of God before the creation of the world.

In the beginning there is a fullness of the divine and a balance of powers; the balance is upset; the result is the production of Urizen (the god equally of the Jews and the Enlightenment) who in turn produces a material creation and is oblivious to the fact that human beings are capable of spiritual perception and insight. Though lost in the ideological fog of the materialism of Locke, Bacon, and Newton, Blake holds out hope that poets or seers can recover or remember who they really were, that is, part of the “human form divine,” which is no less than Blake’s replacement for the mystical body of Christ. I would suggest here that since we are talking about a transgressive interpretation of the entire Christian narrative, what Harold Bloom would call a “strong reading,” then “Gnosticism,” rather than “Marcionism,” is the more adequate label.

At the beginning of this essay I suggested that the key distinction between Marcionism and Gnosticism is that the former truncates the Christian narrative and the latter includes the Christian narrative in a larger narrative which reinterprets each episode and thus the narrative as a whole. The distinction is especially helpful when it comes to Blake who has to be regarded as something of an outlier in Romanticism. Here I see the mutation from “Marcionite” renditions of Christianity into speculative “Gnostic” re-readings that claim a kind of divine knowledge invulnerable to argument and refutation. Though Irenaeus and especially Tertullian can see the distinction, it is true that often they bundled. But even this should not lessen our enthusiasm for either of these inceptual Christian thinkers. Their bundling suggests that both forms undermine a Christianity faithful to the order of creation as well as redemption. Perhaps also in their very opposition to the Christianity that has been passed on, despite the difference between Marcionism and Gnosticism, they have a capacity to mutate from one form into another. If that is not clear in their time period, I would submit that it becomes much clearer in the modern period.

Genealogy and Resistance

Questions explode. Why complicate things so? Why go through the detour of genealogy, more specifically a genealogical venture that returns to the original, understood as primal scene and providing archetypal form? One reason why Marcionism and Gnosticism loom so large for a genealogist who affirms the Catholic tradition is that these two challenges to emergent Christianity are fundamental in that they pose questions of Christianity’s very identity. Should either have succeeded Christianity would either have been aborted or become a very different reality. To deploy the category of “Marcionism” as a genealogical counter is to suggest that with the Kantian and Romantic trajectories in modern religious thought we return in effect to the primal scene in which the very definition of Christianity is at stake. Going hand in hand with such a return, however, is a seeing, specifically the seeing of a pattern or Gestalt through the apparent Rorschach quality of both of these complex phenomena that have different historical conditions and ideological presuppositions than the Marcionism of the early Christian period.  So, however different a Catholic genealogy is to the Nietzsche/Foucault type, it is intended as an intervention and an act of resistance against a way of thinking about Christianity that has become in high culture a kind of commonsense, and thus remains unquestioned and well-nigh unquestionable.

To conclude, I would like to compare (all too briefly) the mode of Catholic genealogy outlined and performed here with another “Catholic” mode of historical analysis that evinces marvelous competence regarding the two trajectories that have been at the center of this essay. I am speaking of Charles Taylor, and in particular of his monumental A Secular Age. Whatever cavils a reader might have concerning Taylor’s prolix magnum opus, they are unlikely to be about his understanding of how these discourses affected the self-understanding of Christianity or how the Reformation, which really is a revolution, made both possible. Taylor certainly can identify with Christian believers who feel that this is not “old-time” religion, and can to an extent empathize with their sense of loss. Yet, while there are wistful tones throughout the book, nowhere does Taylor sanction nostalgia or provide it with a retreat.

The intellectually responsible Taylor, the historicist-inclined, sociology affirming, Taylor judges that the change is irreversible and that whatever Christianity might be in the future—indeed if it has a future—it will have been permanently shaped by the discourses that we have been speaking about, as well, of course, by other modern discourses that have not come in for discussion. We will not, indeed we cannot, go back on autonomy, reason, and moral responsibility that are the goods of the Enlightenment any more than we can renounce Romanticism’s reminders of the importance of affect and sentiment, human wholeness, and our common responsibility for the physical world.

One would be hard-pressed to come across in Taylor’s masterpiece a single prophetic moment, that is, a moment of resistance on behalf of the Christianity that is being displaced and replaced. Operating as an unveiling Catholic genealogy of the type practiced here is a discourse of resistance. If its models are provided by Irenaeus and Tertullian, this form of Catholic genealogy is decidedly modern or better postmodern. It self-consciously operates within the secular space that has come to envelop all life, practices, discourses, while refusing to accept its rules. From a tactical point of view, it is perfectly comfortable borrowing from Foucault, even if it leaves aside the French thinker’s Nietzschean nihilism and suspects that his conceptual apparatus may be far more beholden to the Enlightenment that he execrates than his admirers would assume.

Without denying the intellectual force of Kantianism or the aesthetic force of Romanticism, resistance takes the form of unveiling them as counterfeits of Christianity. It is a matter of intellectual honesty. It is also a matter of hope that history does not proceed in an irreversible line that is written into the Hegelian conspectus of A Secular Age. Perhaps hope against hope, or maybe hope in the impossible. Which I take to mean that Catholic genealogy practiced in the current moment is not only prophetic, but also a form of apocalyptic thought.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This lecture was delivered on 9 December 2020 during an online Genealogies of Modernity conference.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan