Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

God Is a Parasite

The Social Aspect


From Grünewald, The Crucifixion of Christ

From Grünewald, The Crucifixion of Christ

I don't tend to think of God as offensive, and I certainly don't like to think of myself as someone who is offended by God. I don't like to think of myself as repelled by God, as disgusted by God, or as finding God unpleasant. I think this is true of most people.

Here's the flip-side though: I am deeply imperfect. This is not something that will ever change. It is, in fact, constitutive of my nature as a human being. God, meanwhile, is whatever perfection happens to be. As such His ordinances can always be offensive to me. To take some particular examples, it can offend me that, whatever state of self or soul I might attain, this state could never attain to perfection. It can offend me that my successes cannot not determine my worth. It can offend me that Fred Phelps (to pick one example), God rest is his soul, is just as deserving of God's love, wrath, and mercy as I could ever hope to be (and as likely to receive it).

Now, there are certain ways that Christian traditions have of expressing all this. In the Episcopal tradition (in my experience, at least) there is a tendency to talk of God as the beggar, as the hungry, and as the oppressed. These modes of speech are good, true, and have a scriptural foundation. They should not be altered in and of themselves. All the same, it is worth noting that these descriptions all cover groups that the average Episcopalian might be in a position to help, perhaps even hope to eradicate: you can, after all, give money to the beggar; you can feed the hungry, and you hope to end hunger; you can fight oppression, and you can hope to end it. And it is worth noting that, for the most part, these are sanitised notions. The beggar of Episcopal lore is not often an unrepentant murderer; rather, they're the one who could have done perfectly well in our basic system, if only that system had certain pervasive biases exorcised. 

The problem with all this is that it implicitly seeks to understand that which carries the necessary possibility for offence in as inoffensive way possible. In doing so it glosses over the realities of sin and grace, by presenting sin in so palatable a fashion that grace neither seems that important nor that offensive. The fact is, however, that grace offends us. And quite apart from the notions we tend to appeal to when reaching for a concept of the outsider, the sinner too is likely to offend Anglican sensibilities, even and especially as Anglicans are sinners themselves. To see this, instead of the tax-collector let us imagine the homophobe, the racist, the misogynist, the ugly, the greedy, the tax-dodger, the unrepentant murderer, the government torturer. Let us think of that which we cannot sanitise. Let us think of whether or not we would in fact be willing to put up with the smell of our particular modern lepers in our own churches.

The contention is this: that when Christ speaks of Himself in terms of coming to save sinners, He is absolutely not speaking of those sinners who can be thought of as inoffensive in the final analysis; he is speaking of those sinners who are rightly spoken against by the prophets for murder and oppression. Further; that when Christ speaks of feeding the hungry, He is not just speaking of feeding those who hunger for justice. Finally; that when Jesus reveals Himself as the beggar, as the unwelcome, and as the crucified, He does not just reveal Himself as the crucified beggar in Roman society: he reveals Himself as the crucified beggar in all societies. In short: the contention is that the God who reveals themself in Scripture reveals themself to be a parasite. God is revealed as offensive, as repugnant, as fundamentally unpleasant. It is the ones a society hates, any society, that Christ identifies with, no matter how moral that society might be, no matter how repugnant the hated are. And so we can always be offended by God; we can always find God repugnant, precisely insofar as we are moral beings.

The implication of this is, of course, fairly minor. It is that when we speak in our churches of God, of the poor, as the spiritually destitute, we must not speak of ideals, then ground our practise in those ideals. If we promise to love our enemy, it must not be the enemy we can imagine finding it easy to love, if only certain things were different. If we promise to love our neighbour, this must include the neighbour whose smell could make us wretch and who evinces no kindness or love in their actions. And in those times where we look around and see only those approximating a sanitised notion of these ideals in our churches; when it seems as though it is not those in the church in need of a physician, but those outside; when things appear so uniform that the necessary presence of the parasite is forgotten, and God seems so inoffensive to us that His voice might as well be our own; then... 

Then I don't know. But other people might. My guess is that we should go out and try and find the peace of Christ in the context of the very things which we find hardest to stomach, whatever they might be. My guess is that we should do because, just as God is a beggar, so too God is a parasite. 

The Conceptual Aspect

The above is an attempt to describe the social aspect of a particular theological view. It is a theological view derived in large part from a particular kind of conceptual analysis. I'm not sure that the social aspect can be presented without this conceptual aspect (not least because they are more or less the same thing). So, I think it worth giving a brief overview of the potential conceptual underpinnings of this account of divine parasitism. I have put it second, however, because it is far more dense than the social aspect, and probably less accessible. My hope is that this might go some way to pointing to the potential for symbiotic relationship between philosophical analysis and social conscience.

First, let us veer away from a line which it is easy to take in human thought, perhaps all the more so when it comes to the above.  The thought that God cannot be sanitised, and so that no notion of human purity can ever encompass holiness, might seem to be one which fits neatly with a broad idealism. Specifically, it might seem to fit with the kind of idealism which presumes to exclude nothing (c.f. John Lennon). It is the very nature of idealism to exclude that which exists, however, and to exclude it in terms of sanity. By the same token it is the nature of idealism to try and sanitise the parasite before it believes it to be worthy of love. And so if we speak the idea of God as parasite, as that which absolutely cannot be sanitised, we in fact speak against idealism. 

The flip side of this, however, is not a complete non-idealism: we cannot make the step from speaking against idealism to abandoning it altogether. In making distinctions we exclude, even as we do things so basic as drawing certain comparisons between certain things (analogy can, in this sense, be an extremely dangerous tool). And if we wish to speak of a theology, we must distinguish it from others. We must distinguish it in terms of what we take to be true, valid, and good. In speaking of God as a parasite, then, we cannot hope to transcend idealism. If we presume to do this, we'll just be back at John Lennon again.

Where are we to go then? The option that seems to me to make the most sense is the one laid out (I think) by Jacques Derrida in Limited Inc.

Beginning at the relative beginning: the term 'parasite', as it is used here, is in fact derived from this book.  Derrida cites and opposes J.L. Austin's exclusion of parasitical (Austin's word) examples of basic speech acts, such as promises.  The idea is something like this: something is parasitical on a concept if it seeks to fall within its conceptual boundaries without meeting the ideal requirements of those boundaries. The bulk of the text can be described as Derrida's efforts to demonstrate the impossibility and inadvisability of trying to exclude the 'parasitical' from a philosophical analysis of concepts.

He does this in a fashion far simpler than either his commentators or his style would suggest. Across this fairly unique book, he argues primarily for the view that meaning is a function of context, but that contexts can never be utterly closed; rather, there is always the potential for differentiation of and within that context, from both within and without, which can then alter and subvert that which obtains within. As he writes on p.79;

'A context never creates itself ex nihilo; no mark can create or engender a context on its own, much less dominate it. This limit, this finitude is the condition under which contextual transformation remains an always open possibility.' 

Now, strange (or nonsensical) as it might seem, this passage strikes me as supremely Biblical. In speaking of the inability of any human context to either create itself from nothing or close itself off from eventual change, Derrida has gestured towards a powerful implication of the Doctrines of Creation and Redemption; specifically, he has gestured to the fact that all creation is dependent upon God, and that through God all things are possible for that creation. 

Derrida in fact makes this explicit in describing the significance of a (beyond oblique) reference to Descartes.  He writes that 'God [is] here, qua writing, [that which] at the same time renders possible and impossible, probable and improbable, oppositions such as that of the 'normal' and the citational or the parasitical, the serious and the non-serious, the strict and the non-strict or less strict.' (83) Though the language does get a bit tricky here, the basic idea is actually not much more complicated than the idea that God's act of creation is the basis of all human possibility. In citing (a loaded term in Derrida's world) God as writing (the most loaded term in Derrida's world), Derrida points to the fact that the constant stream of differentiation and deferral observable within creation need not be thought of as negative, to be fought and halted, but can instead be understood as the continually creative movement of God in reality. 

This is, in fact, a very incarnational view of God, as far from typical deism as one could get. By 'drawing the name of God into the graphematic drift' (83), Derrida seeks to recognise that, if there is a God, He does not stand aloof from a world of approximate idealisations; rather, He is active in the daily work of time and change. This is a view of God set (half-)against the idea of God as 'the ultimate guarantee of all certitude, all proof, all truth' (83); as well as being the rock on which our lives are grounded, God is here also the rock against which all our ideals shatter. 

This understanding of God as the source of constant differentiation and deferral is what then leads explicitly to an understanding of God as parasite. From where we stand- often with an implicit commitment to reducing the movement of concepts to a relative stasis- that which disrupts and subverts our safest truths is a threat. We tend to seek to exclude those elements which count against our preferred self-understanding, which can manifest itself in the very real creation of leper-colonies, ghettos, and townships. We can segregate ourselves in conceptual safety, tricking ourselves into believing that we are so close to the truth that we just need to tweak a few features of our system. 

It should be no surprise, then, that a disruptive God would appear to us to stand on the fringes. It should be no surprise that God can take our very own presuppositions and turn them to a new end, a process which can seem to us to suggest that His work is parasitic upon ours. It should come as no surprise that the God who makes first things last and last things first, who works with and redeems what we might take to be the worst of creation, can be revealed to all of us as a threat, as repugnant, as made manifest in the person of a body we either ignore or turn our noses away from. It should be no surprise that this God can offend us, all of us, no matter which side of which debates we might claim as our own. 

To try and tie this all together: the absolute exclusion of the parasite- whether we consider ourselves 'progressive' or 'conservative'- seems to me to be the movement of an idealism which has not recognised its subjection to the disruptive movement of the Holy Spirit. It is the movement of an idealism which implicitly seeks to render the command to love one's enemy palatable, by excluding anything which could truly be counted an enemy (that which undermines the ideal) from the category of proper existence. And it is a movement which can be made both by those who stand for and against justice; by those who stand for and against love; by those who stand for and against Christ. Being right does not exclude the possibility of excluding the parasite; and so being right does not exclude the possibility of being offended and upbraided by God.  So we say, along with our praises, within our statements that God is good and God is love, that God is always also a parasite; that God stands always ready to take what we have created and turn it to new ends; to disrupt what we take as normal, and transform our lives to the love of what we really want to hate.

Now: if this is true, all this remains true for anyone who holds it to be true. One cannot call God a parasite and then rest comfortable; this idea cannot be turned into an ideal without falling in on itself. This too is always open to alteration, from within and without, and the notion of a parasite can itself always fall prey to parasitism. By this point, however, the hope is that this thought need not be thought of as cause for despair; rather, it should serve to remind us that no matter what position we might occupy, whether in terms of social ethics or conceptual analysis, we must still always turn our eyes afresh to the Cross, so that we might look upon the face of the pariah whom we call God.  For wherever we stand, we can always look in this direction. And for all that I believe we would do well to see Christ as parasite, and remind ourselves of the potential implications that this has for our identity as a Church, He is still God before He is anything else.