On the Birth of Messiahs

My research into the Messiah-idea has led me to some strange conclusions and paradoxes. I have come to reject without reservation what I call the “one-man hypothesis”: the idea that the Messiah could be one singular flesh and blood person who would “accomplish” salvation for all for all time, who would be the direct representative of God on earth, who was uniquely chosen according to a plan of salvation, and so on. This hypothesis fails in two basic directions–either the actuality of the Messiah becomes impossible and demands an interminable waiting upon his ever-deferred arrival (roughly the Judaic view), or “one man” is elevated to the status of God-Man and latched onto with unwavering belief, an attachment that, in order to be sustained, demans extreme religious idolization and/or a culture of glorification.

As our secularized Christmas rituals demonstrate, the second option has no problem cozying up to the powers of this world: money, consumerism, materialism, hierarchies, churches, etc. This is not a knock against Christmas, just an acknowledgement that, in most cases, little thought is given to the birth of the Messiah or what it might mean. In that sense, the first option–a waiting that spans the duration of a life–is infinitely preferable, because then at least the question is kept alive–what is the Messiah and what would its coming mean?–a question that, in my view, can and should be exported from its religious heritage and repurposed for a new use,  for a generic humanity that is radically unaffiliated and undefined.

Following a number of thinkers, it thus proved useful to isolate something like “messianity” from out of the religious complex of confusions and mystifications. Messianity can be conceived along the same lines as “humanity,” modifying it or even replacing it. A continual rebirth that surprises us each time, that introduces a profound indetermination into our being, that frees us from the anxiety produced by judgments, predicates, and categories, and that thereby leaves us in peace. In this way, the transformative potential of the Messiah-idea is retained without getting hung up on famous persons, fantasies of divine glory, and dogmatic hierarchies between beings of whatever sort.

(N.B., Jesus’ duplicity is this: although he rightly emphasizes the lowly and humble and the love that they as victims of the world can share, he nonetheless maintains for himself and the Father the necessity of worship and adoration. Simply asserting that his Kingdom is not earthly but celestial does nothing to challenge the logic of lordship and slavery; nor the fetishization, if not of riches, then at least of superiority and regality; nor the central place of the “will” in the economy of action. Sovereignty is suspended or emptied out only to be lifted up, etherealized as heavenly, sublimated in an interior dominion. The challenge he wished to pose to authority was thus doomed to fail through a thousand compromises with earthly power–cf. Roman Empire, contemporary religious conservativism, etc. The messianic break then becomes, on average, just another leveraging tool in the power game. Because glory itself is never interrogated, the core of the messianic message gets lost.)

So, instead of focusing our attention on the exceptional status of one-man (King, Savior, Priest), what if we sought the source and reality of salvation in the “ordinary messiahs” that we are? As suggested above, this would mean focusing on the love that victims of the world manifest for each other, their immanent mode of “overcoming” world-oppression, which love does not so much eliminate as place in a margin or render “neglectible.” A justice that is not retaliatory, but compassionate, attending to the “last,” not the first. A  (non-)activism that does not once again become the puppet of power (of representation, of the will, of duties and commandments, of morality, etc.), but instead assumes the position of any-victim, both undergoing the world and “causing” or letting it go under. It is capable of resisting not just some given object or situation in the world (which provides only the occasion), but the world-form itself, disempowering it and bringing it down. This is the weak power of messianity as a priori defense of humans from the harassment of the world (my interpretation of John 16:33).

This is also probably what the Christmas holiday, despite its perversions, retains: its orientation toward “loved-ones” (where there is still exceptionality, but now it is ordinary, without need of universalization or elevation; it is there only in finite, mortal, singular manifestations); its ability to reconnect us with our own histories in a way we usually overlook, to imbue us with a feeling of generational continuity; its silent and snowy landscape of inactivity and simplicity, lacking any imperative to “do” anything–these are all experiences of eternity proper to ordinary messianity. On this day, the world is supposed to disappear, a message of peace on earth is supposed to reign, and we feel compelled to overlook the minor differences and disputes that have accumulated over the year–to love, forgive, enjoy our common presence, and be thankful for whatever blessings we may have. Beginning with the lived, and with the dead we carry with us in it, thanks to it.

There are of course other things to emphasize about messianity, but in a sense it all comes down to the ordinariness and simplicity of the lived, its power to “bring down” the big structures and strictures of the world–to cherish the local, one says, to dwell in the heart, says another, to credit the meek with the inheritance of the earth, says yet another. All these metaphors are subject to abuse, as is the salutation Merry Christmas. Well, Merry Christmas anyway. May you continually resume the messianity in your human, and find peace in the immanent rebirth.

Timothy Lavenz
Christmas 2016

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3 Responses to On the Birth of Messiahs

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    A merry Christmas to you, also. But what I hope for is a happy New Year.
    As I do not travel the world, I must learn from those I respect from reading their words. What I read is that we, in the U.S., are living out the consequences of a theocracy, and the progress is slow. Much of the rest of the First World has become atheist and that can be considered a trend.
    I grew up believing we had as much time as it might take to learn from our mistakes. With climate change and arms races, that is no longer the case. Time is short. We need to stop making global mistakes. And that requires inspired leadership.
    Simon Critchley tells us that we need a political philosophy. Jean-Luc Nancy tells us that Marxism is passé. Enough Americans, who still believe that government is the enemy, prevent the progressive change we need to cope with the demands of a globalized world. When questioned, Barak Obama replied, “You saw what they did to Martin Luther King.” Heidegger said, “Only a God can save us now.” Maybe, as Derrida puts it, messianity without a messiah. Education, alone, is not enough. I will be grateful for one more happy New Year.

  2. Bryan Carr says:

    If no language was permitted but that which is not subject to abuse, the message would not be of deliverance but of a worse binding yet. Merry Christmas, Tim.

    • tmlavenz says:

      Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year to you too, Bryan. Been some time since we had a good exchange, but you remain present in my thoughts. Curious what you would think of Laruelle’s non-philosophy and his thinking of the One. Anyhow, until then, take care. Tim.

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