Christianity, As It Were – By Jonathan Sheehan

Jonathan Sheehan in the Blood Forum

Blood Cover
Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, Columbia University Press, 2014, 464pp., $40

See the Blood: The Element of Christianity Forum page for all contributions.

Political domination, racism, capitalism, nationalism, violence of all form and measure — through all of these runs the blood of Christianity. Gil Anidjar’s audacious Blood is a critique of both Christianity and the nastiest bits of the modern West. Blood is, as Anidjar memorably writes at the end of his book, that “with which, and through which, Christianity becomes what it is … Blood is the name and the thing that does and undoes the significant concepts of the Christian world, the distinctions that divide Christianity from itself: theology from medicine, finance from politics, religion from race, and so forth.” Blood links, blood divides, and blood coordinates, so that all those things we differentiate from Christianity are, in complex ways, also Christianity. “Christianity is, as it were,” that which “delivers and allocates the flow of blood as its element,” through domains as various as “science and technology, economy and industry, politics and literature.”

Christianity, as it were. This subjunctive hesitation runs throughout the book, a hesitation about whether Christianity is something at all. The power of Christianity, in Anidjar’s view, lies precisely in its fluid transformations, its adaptability to circumstance, its ramification through systems that it denies are part of itself. Blood is religion, capitalism is Christianity, and so on. The “is” quivers between tautology, metaphor, synecdoche, and metonymy, never quite settling into a stable figure. For this reason — because the organizing element of Christianity flows rather than settles — Christianity has proven particularly adept at evading critique. There has been no shortage of critiques of capitalism, nationalism, racism, of course, not to mention religion. But in each case, their organizing element, the blood of Christianity, slides just out of sight.

This is a pretty tempting point of view. Not least it is tempting because Anidjar is so attentive to the asymmetries involved in the study of modern religion. Why, he rightly wonders, is there such a scholarly industry dedicated to determining whether Marx or Freud was really Jewish and in what sort of way, and yet one “begins to sound like a fringe lunatic” when one insists that many of the institutions and intellectual heroes of modernity “may suffer from a lingering case of Christianity.” In other words, why hasn’t Christianity been critiqued in this kind of systematic and trenchant way? Why don’t we know it when we see it? Is it not, as Anidjar suggests, because every time we take aim at the Christian thing, it dodges out of the way, saying “but that isn’t Christianity”?

Perhaps this is true. A few issues seem worth discussing, however, first some particulars about the story told, and then a general observation or two. Loosely speaking, Blood does historical work. It asks the question: how did we get here? It answers the question by tracing the historical distinctiveness of Christianity. The story begins with St. Paul, who makes possible the transition from the “flesh and bone” community of the Old Testament to a “flesh and blood” community of the New. What happens between Paul and the eleventh century is less clear (a time, it is worth noting, when at least one major form of Christian community, the monasteries, organized themselves around things besides blood). But in the later middle ages, Anidjar argues, the so-called “papal revolution” generated an “empire of blood,” in which a new Church-State centered in Rome declared open season on those of non-Christian blood. The resultant distinction between blood that must be preserved (Christian) and blood that may be shed (the rest) became, in this view, the foundational principle of “Western, that is to say Christian, politics, and the establishment of the vampire state.”

The historian in me wonders about a story like this — Gerd Tellenbach, whose 1932 (!) Libertas: Kirche und Weltordnung im Zeitalter des Investiturstreits provides much of the narrative skeleton, had a rather Protestant view of the medieval church, a view that emphasized the tyrannical papacy dominating sacred and secular affairs until (one assumes) 1517 or so. More recent research (e.g, that of Thomas Bisson, or earlier John Howe) tends to look lower down the clerical hierarchy, or emphasize the plurality of the church, or the vitality of secular “lordship” in extra-ecclesiastical domains. Would it make a difference to Blood if the Christianity, as it were, of the eleventh century were something different? Let me defer my views on this for a moment.

Continuing Blood’s history, the papal revolution from above would find its popular and lay expression some three centuries later in northern Europe, with the rise of Corpus Christi festivals and the emergence of what Carolyn Walker Bynum has described as the late medieval cult of the wondrous blood. Here blood expands in Anidjar’s story, or perhaps reveals itself as the organizational matrix of the West: “parts for whole, sociology (along with history, anthropology, and biology to boot) has become, naturally enough, Christology … and Christology is hematology.” From this late medieval moment grew, almost naturally, the first statutes on blood purity (Spain) and later the entirely bloody mess that is European history. The chain of equivalences (if that is what they are) established in the late Middle Ages binds us still, all Christian, as it were.

Would it make a difference if the Christianity of the Reformation was organized around spirit and not, or in addition to, blood?

Again, the historian wonders. The Christian affairs of the sixteenth century — the violent establishment of new confessions, liturgies, ecclesiologies, politics, and more — turned in part on the rejection of the late medieval world of “wondrous blood.” Whatever Luther’s occasional comments about sanguinary matters might have been, the name he gave to the thing binding Christians together was not blood but spirit. “We all have the same spirit of faith,” Luther quoted Paul (2 Cor. 4.3) in his 1520 Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and it was as a community of spirit that a true Christian church distinguished itself from a corrupt and venal clergy. Spirit animated the true Church; it bound it together; it distinguished it from the works of the Devil. Would it make a difference to Blood if the Christianity, as it were, of the Reformation was organized around spirit and not, or in addition to, blood? Again, let me defer my views.

A third and final moment in the story. What Anidjar calls the “vampire state” has its most distinctive origin in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes appears in nearly every chapter of the book, and it was his particular genius to redistribute blood in new and powerful ways. On the one hand, Hobbes sought to break the blood ties of natural or “organic community” with the artificial structure of the Leviathan; on the other hand, he reinscribed blood anew, in the field of economy and specifically the state’s dependence on the flow of money around its members. The reduction of value to money, and the relations of exchange this enables, is “as it were the Sanguification of the Commonwealth,” and establishes what Hobbes calls a “natural” parallel with the artificial man that is Leviathan. This affords Anidjar a more general observation: “the bloodless body of the vampire state rules over, it lives with and feeds on a community of blood.”

An observation, then, one that starts with Hobbes and turns back to the questions deferred above. From the beginning, Hobbes insists that we must think of the commonwealth as a person whose soul is sovereignty: “Sovereignty is an Artificial Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.” It is the absence of blood here that seems particularly important to Anidjar. Indeed, the more absent the blood from Hobbes’s political model, the more suspicious he becomes. When it does appear — a “delayed appearance,” we are told — it confirms two things: 1) that “the chasm that still haunts us between politics and economics” is in process of creation; and thus 2) that blood was there all along, indeed was the secret heart of Hobbes’s project, even if a negative one.

The problem is, here, how to evaluate the negative. The view that commonwealth might have a governing soul and a governed body is an ancient one, found in monarchists like Seneca, among others. This was well-trodden ground in Hobbes’s era. So are we supposed to understand the absence of blood in Hobbes’s view of the Leviathan (its ensouled bloodlessness) as a proof of its vampiric parasitism on the blood of Christianity? Or as the positive continuation of an older absolutist tradition that would have no truck at all with the organic communities so cherished by early modern monarchomachs?

Christianity turns out to be both itself and everything else too.

I’m not sure that the question is resolvable, and this has something to do with Anidjar’s “now you see it, now you don’t” framing. When blood, then Christianity. When no blood, there is Christianity too, except even more perniciously (because hidden). Within a few decades after Leviathan, water, not blood, became the analogy of choice for the flow of capital — is this a sign of Christian presence? Or absence? One imagines the former, since, as in the chapter on Melville, everything that flows can be thought of as blood: “what liquid, what fluid fails to be deployed here as a figure for blood?” And yet what criteria might let us evaluate? Christianity, as it were, turns out to be both itself and everything else too.

Obviously this is exactly Anidjar’s point. And yet it leaves me wondering what to do with the questions above. Does it matter to Blood that the “papal revolution” was less the threshold of the modern age than we previously thought? Does it matter that spirit, rather than blood, organized Christian communities well into the period we are discussing? Probably not, I suspect. Once Christianity has become everything that it is, and everything that it isn’t as well — “blood is the name and the thing that does and undoes the significant concepts of the Christian world” — then most of my usual historical evaluative mechanisms fail.

A final thought. In the wake of the French Revolution and its anti-clerical campaigns, an observer remarked how “the social edifice rests entirely on the cross … Religion surrounds us on all sides; everything speaks its language to us … It animates, vivifies, perpetuates, and infuses our legislation. It sanctions our customs … It has formed the great European family.” At the heart of this religion — and by this, our observer could have only meant Christianity — lay blood: “we who blanch with horror at the very idea of human sacrifices and cannibalism, how can we be both blind enough and ungrateful enough not to recognize that we owe these feelings only the law of love that watched over our cradle?”

Blood, blood, and more blood — all is blood to the bottom of all human institutions. It is a curious irony that Joseph de Maistre, likely Europe’s most passionate (and I use the word advisedly) defenders of Christianity, and one of its most passionate contemporary critics, should have so much in common. Defense and critique come pretty close, however, when Christianity sublimates into the soul of Europe itself. Blood shows us, as no other recent book has, both the power of this argument and the risks of its success.