Strategies for Not Succumbing to Reduction

Elliot Wolfson, a philosopher of religion centered in Judaic studies, has specialized in longitudinal efforts by Jewish thinkers over the past several centuries to avoid theological and philosophical idolatry by rooting out even the most subtle anthropomorphizing language from their efforts to know God. Wolfson provocatively calls this phenomena “theomania.” When that arguably incurable human tendency is applied to theology—and indeed, even to apophatic theology, whose entire enterprise is premised in not making positive declarations about deity—the ensuing problems imperil the basis for one’s entire work.

Wolfson’s recent book Giving Beyond the Gift centers on this problem in the thought of four twentieth-century Jewish philosophers: Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas. He also examines the way that two other, even more radical apophatic philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Michael Wyschogrod, brought their strategies of deconstruction and denegation to bear on this concern. Wolfson’s meditation on Heidegger’s use of the terms “gift” and “givenness,” in a significant contrast to Jewish and Christian theological constructs around those words, rounds out the book.

Because Wolfson is also a gifted poet (and someone who knows the world- creating risks of poetry), the following passage from his book may help us shed light on our antihero and his commitment to “empire building”:

Apocalyptic hope is cast in post-Heidegerrian terms as the legein of aletheia, the gathering of truth, the disconcealment concealed in the nothing of the future revealed as the event that is always to come, the promise of the not yet inundating the present with anticipation of what cannot be anticipated except as unanticipated, the calculation of the incalculable that releases one from the sense of futurity dictated by the temporal density of the past. To attend the invocation of this promise—the promise fulfilled in the abeyance of its fulfillment—one must be awakened to the fact that there is no gift to receive but the gift of discerning that there is no gift other than the giving that gives with no will to give and no desire to be given.12

With this, we have unquestionably moved into discourse about a postmodern universe in which both Werner Heisenberg and Walter White/Heisenberg can hold court. Quantum mechanics, as paradigm-shattering moment in human knowledge, means that linear models of the universe, including and perhaps especially religious narratives, begin to look more like quaint artifacts than valuable tools on which we can depend.

There is much in the telling of Walter White’s story that decenters not just a reliable God from the scope of what is certain, but any kind of final linearity or certainty. Newtonian physics continue to operate: in Breaking Bad, a bullet shot will still predictably pierce flesh with the reliable formulae, constants, and coefficients of standard ballistics. But two passenger jets colliding in the sky directly over the house of the man who, not immediately but beyond any doubt, brought about their destruction is either how our world works or it isn’t. White is not prepared for the uncertainty and non-linearity he has ushered in. In an unexpected moment in Season Three’s “Green Light,” Walt attempts to throw a large potted plant through Ted Beneke’s office window as revenge for Beneke sleeping with his wife Skyler, and the pot unceremoniously glances off with no impact: perhaps one of the most anticlimactic moments ever captured in cinema or TV. Equally strangely, the rising drug kingpin of Albuquerque seems to be a magnet for the repeated destruction of his car’s windshield.

Most thoughtful people who observe the world as it actually functions— especially the fast-paced version of that world of today, when daily life contains statistically more variables—will recognize the intrusion of mystery, strangeness, antiteleology, and non-linearity into what seemed predictable and sure. We tend to expect gifts that we have no claim to, and ignore the blessings and gifts immediately in our midst. Ironically, our Heisenberg, a man who should be comfortable with uncertainty if he is to live up to his namesake, does not seem to recognize its a priori status in his world. He adapts to it better than most would, but surely does not seem to expect it.

We might take a different path than Walter White does. Even if God does not play dice (as Einstein remarked in some vexation over the implications of quantum mechanics), dice nonetheless somehow are certainly being played all the time. In a universe that permitted the Holocaust to take place, one ripe for environmental, nuclear, societal, or myriad other collapses or apocalypses, surely new conceptual vocabularies, languages, and strategies for living are warranted.

Walter Blanco, Metastasis, and

 
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