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The Fate of Theology after the Speculative Turn

Troy Polidori


It will be our contention that the religious turn in continental philosophy has little to offer the domain of theology, despite the resurgence of interest in the latter on account of the historical trajectory of the former, and that, consequently, speculative theologians should welcome Meillassoux’s ‘critique of Critique’. We will come to see that Meillassoux’s work has opened up a space for theological discourse, albeit one limited on polarized ends: on the one hand, Meillassoux's rejection of dogmatic pre-critical metaphysics, and on the other, the judgment that contemporary continental philosophy of religion is an historical error based on the faulty reasoning of post-Kantian epistemological finitism. The former pole guards against the vampiric return of classical metaphysical theology, and the latter warns of the dangers associated with various contextual theologies, stemming as they do from the “religionizing of reason”. Our proposal will be that a specific form of theology can find its way through this narrow passage, and that a thorough rapprochement with Meillassoux’s critique of religious and theological thought in After Finitude can be had without completely abandoning theological discourse.

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1According to Meillassoux, correlationism has developed into two distinct strands: the transcendental (represented by Kant) and the speculative (represented by Hegel). In Meillassoux’s own words:

[…] the correlation can be posited as unsurpassable either from a transcendental (and/or phenomenological) perspective, or a speculative one. It is possible to maintain the thesis according to which all that we can ever apprehend are correlates, or the thesis according to which the correlation as such is eternal. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 10]

2The former of these two types of correlationism falls directly under the critique of the ancestral: if the thought-being correlation is understood to be logically primary, then the ancestral cannot be known. However, it is the latter of these two that seems to escape this inconsistency:

In this latter case, which is that of the hypostasis of the correlation, we are no longer dealing with correlationism in the strict sense of the term, but with a metaphysics that externalizes the Self or the Mind, turning the latter into the perennial mirror for the manifestation of the entity… the ancestral statement presents no particular difficulty: the metaphysician who upholds the eternal-correlate can point to the existence of an ‘ancestral witness’, an attentive God, who turns every event into a phenomenon, something that is ‘given-to'. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 10-11]

3 For our purposes, we will call this the ‘theological account for the ancestral’. This account has two main theses: 1) Along with correlationism, the thought-being correlation (being-as-givenness) is logically primary to all other relations; and 2) Over against the sciences, there has never been a period anterior to givenness. As Meillassoux makes clear, the eternal-correlate is able to sufficiently think both the arche-fossil and ancestrality. However, the fallout of this consistency is that the correlation itself must be hypostatized – it must be given flesh. In the religious tradition, this hypostatization generally owns the title 'God'.

4 From the theological perspective, it is easy to see how God can fit this role. It follows naturally then that whenever God is understood philosophically as the hypostatized absolute term that governs all knowledge, any and all forms of materialism are rendered impossible:

Thus, the rivalry between the metaphysics of Life and the metaphysics of Mind masks an underlying agreement which both have inherited from transcendentalism – anything that is totally a-subjective cannot be. [Ibid., p. 38]

5 Further, this de-absolutization of metaphysics has led to a strict fideism in contemporary philosophy. Contrary to what is often supposed, in rejecting any final knowledge of the absolute, correlationism does not reject absolutes tout court. It is well known that one of the Counter-Reformation’s central arguments against translating the Bible into the lingua franca of the day was the inevitable sea of interpretations that would arise without the authority of the Church acting as boundary marker. Much like this critique of early Protestantism, correlationism proliferates the quantity of absolutes by removing any pre-set rational limits:

Correlational reason thereby legitimates all those discourses that claim to access an absolute, the only proviso being that nothing in these discourses resembles a rational justification of their validity… by forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the religious. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 44-45]

6It is Meillassoux’s claim that we must reconstruct the ability to again think the absolute without falling back into ideological dogmatism (in our particular case, classical metaphysical theology). In this way, he proposes that we, like Kant, must move beyond both the dogmatism of the ideological absolute and the skeptical fanaticism of various fideisms.

7 This as-of-yet unpresented third option works itself out through immanent critique. In a sense, the dialectical movement made from Kant to Hegel needs to be re-made. Just as Hegel’s (and all other strong correlationist’s) critique of Kant ended in the absolutization of the very principle critiqued (i.e. the antinomy between the in-itself and the for-us is absolutized into One entity), so the contemporary philosopher must absolutize the very principle that marks out strong correlationism from its Kantian heritage: in this case, the absolute, radical contingency of the in-itself. As Meillassoux explains,

[…] instead of construing the absence of reason inherent in everything as a limit that thought encounters in its search for the ultimate reason, we must understand that this absence of reason is, and can only be the ultimate property of the entity. We must convert facticity into the real property whereby everything and every world is without reason, and is thereby capable of actually becoming otherwise without reason. We must grasp how the ultimate absence of reason, which we will refer to as ‘unreason’, is an absolute ontological property, and not the mark of the finitude of our knowledge. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 53]

8 But what prevents the correlationist from making the same criticism of this absolutization as they did toward that of the metaphysical dogmatist (e.g. Leibniz or Descartes)? The agnostic correlationist will simply claim that this speculative thesis on contingency is no more certain than the naive metaphysics of the dogmatist. For Meillassoux, the answer to this quandary must come from within the correlationist circle; that is, in the fact that the agnostic correlationist, while disallowing the knowability of any objective scenario, must allow its thinkability. Meillassoux elaborates:

The correlationist does the opposite of what she says – she says that we can think that a metaphysical thesis, which narrows the realm of possibility, might be true, rather than the speculative thesis, which leaves this realm entirely open; but she can only say this by thinking an open possibility, wherein no eventuality has any more reason to be realized than any other. This open possibility, this ‘everything is equally possible’, is an absolute that cannot be de-absolutized without being thought as absolute once more. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 58]

9The correlationist’s epistemological ‘nothing’ of the in-itself is thereby transformed into a positive ontological ‘something’ – the absolute possibility of any thing. The correlationist is caught in the trappings of her own circle:

[…] one cannot think unreason – which is the equal and indifferent possibility of every eventuality – as merely relative to thought, since only by thinking it as an absolute can we de-absolutize every dogmatic thesis. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 59]

10 With this absolutization of facticity intact, Meillassoux charges the reader to risk his bold claim: we must reject the Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason, and subsequently affirm its negated predicate. Instead of “everything exists for a reason X”, we must state “everything exists for unreason, or for no reason whatsoever.” As Meillassoux explains,

We are no longer upholding a variant of the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there is a necessary reason why everything is the way it is rather than otherwise, but rather the absolute truth of a principle of unreason. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 60]

11This means that every thing must be understood as having no exhaustive or principal reason for its being the way that it is – and that it must be able to be otherwise, again without reason. Consequently, our query becomes: can theology take hold of this charge?

12 It will be our contention that theology must make this forward movement toward a reconceived metaphysics if it is to last beyond the described speculative turn. The absolutist dogmatics of scholastic theology have been defeated by Kant and his progeny, and the various fideisms of post-critical theologians from Hamann to Von Balthasar have ultimately proven ineffective in attempting to ground the reality of science and knowledge (i.e. they are poor metaphysics). If theology is to move beyond this impasse, it must, like Meillassoux, affirm the radical contingency of everything - a theoretical move that is simultaneously critical and speculative (i.e. takes the lessons of the Enlightenment critique of dogmatic reason seriously and moves beyond to a speculative reason based on the absolutization of facticity). In theological terminology, it must think the contingency of God. All traditional Christian theology has affirmed that the world is unnecessary for the being of God. Through a monstrous reading (an almost formal Žižekian term) of Karl Barth’s doctrine of election, and a supplementary detour through the work of Eberhard Jüngel, our assertion will be the converse: God is unnecessary for the world.


13 In the beginning of his now famous article “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” Bruce McCormack argues that

When the history of theology in this century is written… I am confident that the greatest contribution of Karl Barth to the development of church doctrine will be located in his doctrine of election. [McCormack, 2000, p. 92]

14Without a doubt, McCormack’s exegetical intentions may only be said to be tangentially related to our specific purposes (that is, a proper exegesis of Barth’s theology is only a peripheral concern for us), and Barth’s surely even less so; nevertheless, for our project, it will suffice to sat that it is Barth’s theological ontology which has provided the groundwork for the potential construction of a new kind of metaphysics in line with Meillassoux’s speculative reason, all the while undertaken from a theological vantage point – something we wish to see actualized. In short, neither Barth nor McCormack ever intended a brand of speculative realism or materialism to be constructed from within their work, their doctrines of God playing the lead role – our research is simply a divergent perlocutionary effect of the work they left behind. In this section, we will follow the trajectory of this divergence to its end, following up in our final section by evaluating the possibility of applying Barth’s theological ontology to the standards of Meillassoux’s absolute.

15 For much of scholastic Protestantism, the question of election pertained to membership: who is elect and who is not? While the issue of membership is still a key question for Barth (although seen from a sort of christo-anthropological parallax), the crux of divine election is theology proper: “the question, ‘To whom does election apply?’ is, from Barth’s point of view, a secondary question. What is primary is the question, ‘Who is the God who elects and what does a knowledge of this God tell us about the nature of election?’” From this vantage point, it is easy to see how, according to McCormack, “Barth’s revolution is finally a revolution in the doctrine of God” [Ibid., p. 93]. It is God who is the heart of election, because it is God who is both the elector and the elected. This is the principle thesis of Barth’s doctrine of election: Jesus Christ is both the Subject and Object of election, both the electing God and the elect human. In this way, Barth changes the query concerning election from the anthropocentrism of the scholastic doctrine to that of an inquiry into theology proper. It is in this contrast between 17th century scholasticism and Barth’s revisionism in which McCormack finds the historical backdrop for understanding Barth’s thought anew.

16 McCormack describes the scholastic problematic as a predominantly christological one:

The Logos ‘became flesh’; it is one and the same Logos (a self-identical Subject) who was ‘without the flesh’ (asarkos) and who now, through the incarnation in time, is ‘within the flesh’ (ensarkos). [McCormack, 2000, p. 94]

17Reformed theology has traditionally expressed this through a distinction between the Logos incarnandus (the Logos ‘to be incarnate’) and the Logos incarnatus (the Logos ‘incarnate’). This distinction was made in order to logically distinguish between the Logos in eternity past and the Logos in the economy of salvation in time and space.

18 Barth’s confrontation with the ‘indeterminate Logos asarkos’ boiled down to a condemnation of the so-called extra-Calvinisticum, a quasi-pejorative Lutherans used against the Calvinist doctrine that the Logos was simultaneously omnipresent and localized in the man Jesus. For Barth, this doctrine poured yeast into the speculative dimension, allowing undue conjecture as to the nature of this ‘unknown God’ to proceed from the pre-temporal realm and into the entire theological corpus:

[T]here is something regrettable about that theory insofar as it could lead, as it has to the present day, to disastrous speculation about a being and activity of a Logos asarkos and, therefore, about a God who could be known and whose divine essence could be defined on some other basis than in and from the perception of his presence and action as incarnate Word. And it cannot be denied that Calvin himself (with especially serious consequences in his doctrine of predestination) went a long way in falling prey to the temptation of reckoning with such an 'other God'. [Barth, 1973, p. 181]

19Barth located the root of this predicament in the order of the decrees. As McCormack makes clear:

For classical Reformed theology, the decree to elect some human beings and to reject others (i.e., election and reprobation) precedes the decree to effect election through the provision of a Mediator (viz. Jesus Christ). [McCormack, 2000, p. 97]

20This is the heart of the anthropocentric element of scholastic Calvinism. In this view, since the decree to elect via a divine Mediator is derivative of election/reprobation proper, the role of Mediator becomes exactly that: a function, a role to be played – the eternal being of the Logos is never directly implicated. This intricacy burrows a destructive path all the way down to the core of the doctrine of God:

The question which such a view raises in dramatic form is: how coherent can one’s affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ be if his being as Mediator is only accidentally related to what he is as Logos in and for himself?” [McCormack, 2000, p. 97]

21Accordingly, we may come to no other conclusion than that Barth’s reconfiguration of election be understood as a revolution in the theological understanding of the being of God – the divine ontology.

22 After setting the stage, introducing the players, and raising the stakes (all in all, the negative portion of Barth’s argument), we must now set out to illuminate the positive vision embodied in Barth's doctrine of election. Against the Logos asarkos of scholastic Calvinism,

The electing God, Barth argues, is not an unknown ‘x’. He is a God whose very being – already in eternity – is determined, defined, by what he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ; viz. a God of love and mercy towards the whole human race. [McCormack, 2000, p. 97-98]

23Election teaches us that the God we find in the economy is not mere role-play. Instead, the decision of election is an event within God’s own history that effectively situates and determines the eternal divine identity itself. The metaphysical repercussions are obvious:

[…] the reason ontology is very much to the fore in Barth’s thinking is that the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment, precisely as a human experience, is understood by him to be an event in God’s own life. [McCormack, 2000, p. 98]

24Negativity, in an almost Hegelian fashion, is taken up into the divine life. The human experience of death is fully assumed into the being of God and its power over the world is eclipsed. Unlike much of the radical death-of-God theology of the 1960s, however, Barth’s God

[…] is not changed on an ontological level by this experience for the simple reason that his being, from eternity, is determined as a being-for this event” [McCormack, 2000, p. 98].

25In the end, as we have argued from the outset, this is a battle between competing ontologies – namely, an essentialism which requires ontological instability in reference to the Incarnation, and an actualism which allows a particular event to be determinative for the divine identity.

26 The ontological essentialism so transparently epitomized in the scholasticism of 17th century Calvinism is, fundamentally, a pre-occupation with the epistemological register. It is nearly proto-Kantian, as it considers the transcendental conditions of possibility (i.e. knowability) to be the ground of theological knowledge. What matters most in this equation is the question of how do we know? (who is elect? does God exist? which god is God?, etc.). As McCormack makes plain: “…divine ‘essence’, on this view, is something hidden to human perception and, finally, unknowable” [McCormack, 2000, p. 98]. There is a certain parallelism in the relationship between scholastic Calvinism and post-Kantian finitism, and that parallel is ontological essentialism and its epistemological complement.

27 Over against this essentialism, McCormack argues for a Barthian ontological actualism. For Barth, this means that the divine identity is not constituted by a substantial something without which God would not be God (e.g. the divine perfections), but through intrinsically voluntaristic categories such as decision and election: in this case, the decision to be the God of the economy and the election of both Christ and mankind. However, it bears pointing out that ontological actualism still contains a constitutive element – it is not metaphysical anarchism:

Barth, too, knows of an ‘essence’ (a self-identical element) in God, but for him ‘essence’ is given in the act of electing and is, in fact, constituted by that eternal act. [McCormack, 2000, p. 98-99]

28Essentially, Barth simply replaces substance with event as the constitutive element in the divine ontology:

Most importantly, if the eternal being of God is constituted by His eternal act of turning towards the human race – if that is what God is ‘essentially’ – then God’s essence is not hidden to human perception. It is knowable because it is constituted by the act of turning towards us. God in himself is God ‘for us’. [McCormack, 2000, p. 99-100]

29For Barth, God is a God to and for us. There is nothing behind the veil - no wizard behind the curtain of the God constituted in election.


30Given the preceding analyses of Meillassoux’s notion of contingency and Barth’s doctrine of election, we must return to our original query: can theology take hold of the charge set forth in the principle of unreason? Is theology, a discipline founded on the confessional knowledge of a purportedly necessary being, capable of following through on the promise of the speculative turn in philosophical thinking Meillassoux has described? Surely, given the dogmatic stance of Barth’s own theological intentions, an answer would ostensibly be a resolute “No” (a refrain with a conspicuous history in Barth’s own writings). The innovations found in the doctrine of election were clearly meant by Barth to prevent any undue theological wanderings around the divine ontology (such as in the extra-Calvinisticum), and to guarantee the identity of the Logos as fully God. However, this does not mean that we cannot see in these wrinkles and permutations new avenues opened up for novel thought, whether intended or not. All thoughts are tangled threads, and it is the duty of readers of great thinkers to find the knots most amenable to interesting consequences, and to pull.

31As determined earlier, Meillassoux’s speculative turn resolved that any philosophy tasked with making sense of the thought-being correlation must first accept the Kantian critical moment as doctrine. There is no doubting that the dogmatism of pre-modern metaphysics, based as it is on the principle of sufficient reason, died a necessary death. There must therefore be no return to speculations of that kind. This means that any theology following in this wake must feature a critical moment. At the same time, Meillassoux principally calls for a decidedly speculative turn, meaning that the principle of unreason must be utilized to surpass the limitations found in correlationism. There can be no blind acceptance of the epistemological finitude and religionizing of reason highlighted by much of 20th century continental philosophy. This means that our theological move must also feature a speculative moment. The critical and the speculative: these are the two horns of Meillassoux’s own absolutization of the principle of facticity. For us, these will be the principal fronts on which we establish the doctrine of the contingency of God. Our question must therefore be: in what sense is Barth’s theology commensurable with these moments?

32The critical moment in Barth can be found in McCormack’s previous diagnosis of the root disagreement between Barth and the theological tradition (its figurehead being the extra-Calvinisticum). As we have seen, it is the divine ontology, and not some refrain on the finitude of the human episteme, that is at stake. This is ultimately what separates Barth from a thousand other reformists, for it was his novel idea that it is God’s action, both in the eternal decision of self-determination to be God pro nobis as well as in the history of the divine economy, that determines and constitutes the divine essence. In the truest sense, this placement of election as foremost among the divine decrees fits Tillich’s definition of theological correlation, where a philosophical move is made (ontological actualism over essentialism) in order to escape a seemingly inescapable theological difficulty (that ontological change occurs in the Godhead). But what consequences does this contingency in the divine personality have for our purposes? Primarily, it means that if the divine ontology is dependent upon the decision and action of the divine being, then things could have been otherwise.

33 What do we mean by the phrase “could have been otherwise?” This contingency of God’s being-as - what kind of contingency is this? Theologian Eberhard Jüngel has been noted for reflecting on the notion that necessity should be considered an alien concept to theology proper. His own thought is built upon an actualist ontological register, such as in the ode to Barth’s own theology of God’s self-revelation found in the brief but magisterial God’s Being is in Becoming. However, it is in his work God as the Mystery of the World that Jüngel infamously agrees with modern atheism that God is not necessary for the world. Jüngel asserts that the proposition “God is necessary” is “not worthy of God” [Jüngel, 1983, p. 25], since, in this formulation, God’s existence is based on a relationship of necessity with the world (as necessity is an inherently relational category). When construed in this fashion, as humanity comes of age, it slowly realizes that it no longer needs God to perform its primary functions, and eventually this ‘God of the gaps’ is dismissed altogether (e.g. Laplace’s dictum, “I have no need of that hypothesis”). In this way, “proof of the necessity of God is the midwife of modern atheism” [Jüngel, 1983, p. 19]. As many modern materialists have noted, only within the realm of philosophical monotheism was modern atheism born [Zizek, 2007, p. 25]. Paradoxically, then, for Jüngel, atheism is correct in asserting the possibility of human existence without God.

34Jüngel's argument is primarily based on his theological analysis of the interplay between the divine attributes, chiefly love and power. Classically, he argues, it is the power of God which is understood as the primary attribute, with love and mercy relegated to functions of power. Hence the dominant concept of a 'baseline deity' who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Against this, Jüngel crowns love as the principal divine attribute, and interprets power only through the lens of God’s loving action in the economy: “God’s mightiness is understood as the power of His love. Only love is almighty” [Jüngel, 1983, p. 22]. In line with Barth’s ontological actualism, Jüngel contends that it is God’s action in the world that constitutes the divine identity.

35It is in this context that Jüngel argues that God must be understood as non-necessary for the world. God is not the being who transcends the world, or who delivers from the world, but the one who is found in the midst of the world, specifically in the contradiction of being and non-being where human consciousness finds its defining moment. Thus, no necessity can be predicated of God, for the divine is not born within the context of this world. As Jüngel states,

Therefore, to use the language of theology, God is experienced only on the basis of self-revelation. God comes from God. If God reveals himself as the one who distinguishes between being and not being and decides in favor of being, then he cannot be placed within the category of the necessary. [Ibid., p. 34]

36Here, Jüngel has made clear that a God whose nature is dependent upon his loving action in the world must be construed outside the bounds of necessity. In this way, we connect the ontological actualism of Barth’s doctrine of election with the thinkability of the contingency of God, and thus define the critical moment of our project.

37But what about the speculative moment in Barth? Where do we find the analogue to the absolutization of facticity, or at least an open door to its pastures? To see this, we must first return to the ontological problematic between actualism and essentialism. To quickly recapitulate, essentialism argues that being is defined by an intrinsic, timeless essence, and that the categories of action and decision are related to the former through a relation of expression. That is, events in the world simply express the internal essence of a being. Actualism, on the other hand, argues that it is actions and events, specifically those which define a being most thoroughly, that constitute an essence. The latter must therefore hold that essence is a mutable category, for new events may ruffle the feathers of the stale dialectic with novel, unforeseen moments of negativity. Actualism consequently identifies a relation of determination between event and essence. Lastly, this equivocation between 'action' and 'event' is crucial. We use the term 'determination' to designate the relation between the actual and the essential in our ontology (and clearly there is a bias in theological thought to emphasize the divine action as if made in a relational vacuum), but this does not mean that we are forced to assume the classical divine perfections such as immutability and impassibility. In fact, it should be considered a feature of our argument that these notions be rejected as manifestations of the traditional Aristotelian categories of the metaphysica specialis from which Barth wished to wean theology.

  • 1 This is a reference to Alexius Meinong's ontological concept of the realm of non-existing entitie (...)
  • 2 A word concerning speculation is due. It should be noted that Barth's own worries about speculati (...)

38Given the above analysis, we find an immediate theoretical aporia in our ontology: if we reject the idea that essence regulates a being’s action, and entertain the thought that self-determinations may, in a dramatic reversal, direct the composition of an essence, then what do we say about a being such as the contingent divine previously analyzed that possibly does not exist? Can anything be said about this being? Or is such speculation simply a fool’s errand into Meinong’s jungle?1 Meillassoux provides us with one such answer in his analysis of the category of the virtual2.

39Meillassoux's ontology posits a separation between the concepts of potentiality and virtuality. The former is based on a set of cases already given and pre-determined, where potentialities are the non-actualized components of the given set (such as the potential of rolling a six or three on a die). Virtuality, however, given the rejection of the principle of sufficient reason, is

the property of every set of cases of emerging within a becoming which is not dominated by any pre-constituted totality of possibles. [Meillassoux, 2007, p. 72]

40Virtuality does not determine the probability of rolling one side of a die, but of bringing it about, ex nihilo, that this particular set of possibilities (such as a six-sided die) emerges in the first place, without its emergence being based on a previously determined set of possibilities. The chaos of becoming is therefore given the ability to not only actualize the remote potentialities of a given set of possibles (say, rolling a six a dozen times in a row), but of creating, modifying, and negating the laws that govern the potentiality/actuality relationship itself. Crucially, all of this leads, contrary to its usual theological interpretation, not to the necessity of a transcendent Other pulling the strings of ultimate reality, but to the simple rational insistence of a boundless becoming capable of even the strangest manifestations.

41The virtual, as we have seen here, transcends our aporia of the essential and the actual. If this God is contingent, non-necessary for the world in the same sense that classical theology conceived the non-necessity of the world for God, and the thinkability of atheism as a possibility for the world has been attained, then it is in fact possible for us to speak of the character of this divine ontology, except only in its virtuality. This is because, given the hypothetical stance of the actualization of the possibility of atheism, the existence and self-determination of a divine being would still be thinkable in its virtuality, even if its theoretical possibility is foreclosed (assuming that no man-made God, via artificial intelligence or some other means, would qualify as 'divine'). The aporia found in the essential/actual is thus overcome, as virtuality enables us to think the character of a virtual divinity neither existent nor possible given the constraints of the understanding. Election, in our monstrous reading, must therefore move from a theo-ontological determination based on the christocentricity of the divine action, and instead become the teasing out of this virtual divine character.

42 Whence the necessity of this theological evolution? Does a mutation of this magnitude hold out any hope other than as a philosophical correlation meant to satisfy the liberally-minded and theologically curious? It will be our contention that not only does the contingency and virtuality of God satisfy the conditions of the predicament found in After Finitude, but that it also may act as a panacea to the greatest theological problem of all: the problem of evil.

43 Meillassoux labels Spectral Dilemma the concomitant impossibility of both theism and atheism. According to Meillassoux, theism and atheism both posit two theses regarding what he calls essential spectres, or those individuals who have succumbed to horrendous evils. Theism, on the one hand, posits that essential mourning is possible:

Essential mourning assumes the possibility of forming a vigilant bond with these departed which does not plunge us into the hopeless fear – itself mortifying – that we feel when faced with their end, but which, on the contrary, actively inserts their memory into the fabric of our existence. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 262]

44Theism bases this notion on the fact that there exists a divine being capable of guaranteeing justice for these spectres. Atheism, on the other hand, denies the first point, that essential mourning is possible – not that it is or is not desirable, but simply that there exists no being capable of guaranteeing essential mourning. In so doing, atheism renounces the eventuality of justice for the dead and the existence of a God able to bring about the latter by divine fiat.

45 Atheism’s charge goes beyond these simple denials, however. It states not just that a divine being does not or could not exist, but that the simultaneity of the divine and essential spectres is utterly unthinkable. If we invite God into thought as the means through which to achieve essential mourning, then we necessarily invite the most hideous of moral contradictions, for any God capable of creating or allowing such evils must also be condemned for them, let alone denied the praise for their reversal. Such a reversal would be

a promise of a spiritual death infinitely worse than a merely bodily death: in the presence of God, I will cease to love the Good, for He would have the power to make me love Evil as if it were Good. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 265]

46According to this seemingly insurmountable divide, then, our choice is only in which manner to despair for these spectres: “either to despair of another life for the dead, or to despair of a God who has let such deaths take place” [Ibid.]

47 This theological aporia is at the heart of the classical problem of evil. Theism makes us despair at the shadow-side of God, while the former’s rejection, seemingly necessitated by the moral conscience, produces only further despair that justice for the dead is an impossible dream. But in the midst of aporetic struggle, what dreams may come? Is it perchance possible to think both the possibility of essential mourning for the dead and a divine being capable of bringing this about without responsibility for said horrors? According to Meillassoux,

resolving the dilemma comes down to making thinkable the statement conjugating the possible resurrection of the dead – the religious condition of the resolution – and the inexistence of God – the atheistic condition of the resolution. [Meillassoux, 2008, p. 268]

  • 3 In Barth, the act of divine self-determination in question is understood as an eternal decision. (...)

48In a synthesis worthy of Hegel, Meillassoux makes the case that there is an avenue open for combining the two necessary conditions for essential mourning: 1) the possibility of justice for the dead and 2) the inexistence of God. This pathway is opened by thinking thusly: God may exist. This is not in the subjunctive sense of an actualized possible (i.e. in a possible world, God currently exists), for in this case God would still be culpable for horrors. The “may” here is posited in a futural and virtual sense. Concisely, we are stating that we must make thinkable a God who comes to be at some point in the future and brings about, by divine fiat, justice for the dead3.

  • 4 The sense in which this virtuality is able to ground normative concerns is obviously an important (...)

49It may be asked: what gives us the right to think such a possibility? This retort comes in two guises, both of which we will attempt to answer. First, what theoretical justification do we have for such a supposition? Our theoretical justification derives from Meillassoux’s concept of the virtual, itself deriving from the radical falsity of the principle of sufficient reason, and the consequential arrival of the principle of unreason. If absolutely anything may occur for no reason whatsoever, and if any and all delineated potentialities may be overturned at any moment due to an immediate revolution in natural law, then such an occurrence is clearly thinkable, if nothing else. Second, why this virtual God? Why not the virtual flying spaghetti monster, or the virtual malevolent deity who purposes only to torture the innocent? Our justification for thinking this particular virtuality derives from its relation to our initial premise: is essential mourning possible? Flying spaghetti monsters and malevolent deities are simply not proper conditions for this virtuality. This is not to deny that these and others are virtualities all their own, it is just to say that, when considering events which are impossible according to currently conceived potentialities, and which are by definition non-probabilizable, certain conditions are necessary for grounding the normative considerations involved with something like essential mourning, and this virtual God is one of them4.

  • 5 Beyond this, however, the key role for Barth will be in future analysis, as we will quickly sketc (...)

50At a certain point, we must respond to the lingering concern: what is the use of Barth in this scenario? Why not simply utilize the materials of death of god theologies, or simply Meillassoux alone? In other words, why theology? To quickly recapitulate, Barth was in essence arguing two main points: 1) that theology needed to safeguard the divine ontology from the theoretical problem of a split Logos (that is, that the Logos could have been simultaneously enfleshed and without flesh), and 2) that a philosophical move on the order of ontological actualism was necessary for this safeguarding. Our argument is simply a more exhaustive version of Barth’s: 1) that theology needs to protect the divine ontology from the theoretical problem of divine culpability for evil, and that 2) a philosophical move on the order of a virtualist ontology like that of Meillassoux’s achieves this measure. While Barth’s conclusions are not in the end our own, and while his immediate intentions may clash with ours, it can at least be stated that we exist on the same theoretical and intentional plane, and that Barth’s theology has given us the tools to think the possibility of this virtual God5.

51 It must then be asked, which tools are these that Barth has provided? First, we must remember that Barth's doctrine of election and the ontology derived from it allowed us to understand the sense in which God's being is a being-for a particular event (for Barth, the event of Christ determined in election). For us, then, the virtual God must likewise be a being-for a particular event – an event which, through a moment of divine self-determination, becomes constitutive of the divine identity itself: justice for the dead. Like Barth's God of self-revelation, knowledge of the virtual God moves beyond the preoccupation with epistemological finitude found in the various stripes of correlationism, and journeys ahead to a divine known (and itself constituted) purely through virtual self-revelation – ultimately, a God who says “Yes” to life.

52 By way of our theological excavation of Barth, and through an alchemical process of binding the latter to the concerns of Meillassoux’s speculative metaphysics, we have created the infrastructure necessary for theology to make sense of a world so obviously devoid of benign governance, while making thinkable the reality that this need not necessarily remain the case. However, this is only the theoretical scaffolding for much more important work to be done. This more crucial task lies in re-developing the doctrine of election into an adequate description of the event of the virtual God detailed here. This will mean not only detailing the decree of election (the act of self-determination to be the God who brings justice to the dead), but also the mode of address inherent to the act elected. It is important to distinguish the latter from the former, for it is in this mode of address that we might find a ground for a universal hope, and in that hope a universal, pluralistic, and non-exclusivist ethics.

53The ontological possibility of the virtual being who has elected themself as God (that is, the one who brings justice for the dead) is thus derived through reason alone (via the absolutization of facticity). This God is therefore an immanent God, only omnipotent or omniscient in the sense that they are willing and capable to bring about this justice (and not from abstract notions of the classical divine perfections). This virtual divine act must also, in line with Barth’s own innovative ontology, be an act of self-determination. To reiterate, latent within Barth's thought is the idea that the divine ontology must be actualist, and not essentialist, for the latter produces unsolvable problems when considered in light of the Logos. Likewise, our virtual God must also be considered in light of the event of this God’s appearance and action in the world. Unlike the deity of classical metaphysics, there is no “essence” of this virtual God which the latter must express by virtue of reason. It is only in the act of self-determination to be the God who brings justice to spectres that this being becomes our virtual God. In this way, we keep in line ontologically with the Barthian revision even in pushing the temporal dimension of the divine act in question into the virtual future.

54And yet we must admit that none of this must necessarily happen. If it occurs, it occurs spontaneously and without cause. So what does this mean for us today? Is there utility in engaging with speculations of this sort while actually existing horrors build around us like an ocean storm? The question might be levied: is not our own anxiety the birth-pangs of a God yet to come?

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Karl Barth et al., Church Dogmatics, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1973, 2nd ed. reprinted 2004.

Paul Dehart, Beyond the Necessary God: Trinitarian Faith and Philosophy in the Thought of Eberhard Jüngel, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1999.

Eberhard Jüngel (translated by Darrell Guder), God as Mystery of the World (1977), Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983.

Eberhard Jüngel (translated by John Webster), God's Being Is in Becoming (1986), Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” in John Webster (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Quentin Meillassoux (translated by Ray Brassier), After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London, Continuum, 2008.

Quentin Meillassoux, “Potentiality and Virtuality” in Robin Mackay (ed.) Collapse II: Speculative Realism, Urbanomic, 2007.

Quentin Meillassoux, “Spectral Dilemma” in Robin Mackay (ed.) Collapse IV: Concept Horror, Urbanomic, 2008.

Slavoj Zizek, “Towards a Materialist Theology?” in Pelagia Goulimari (ed.) Angelaki 12.1, Routledge, 2007.

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1 This is a reference to Alexius Meinong's ontological concept of the realm of non-existing entities, objects that have a 'being-so' without 'being-as-such'.

2 A word concerning speculation is due. It should be noted that Barth's own worries about speculation were centered on the possibility of a God thought outside the confines of the latter's own self-revelation (e.g. the extra-Calvinisticum). Seeing as the virtual God about to be sketched is similarly understood through an actualist register, we can see that Barth's denunciation of speculation would be ours as well; namely, that any speculation about this virtual God purportedly based on a concept like necessity would be considered out of bounds. This is where Jüngel's contribution comes into full view.

3 In Barth, the act of divine self-determination in question is understood as an eternal decision. As previously discussed, the designation of “in eternity” as the temporal dimension in which the decision of election is made was considered necessary in order to safeguard the divine ontology from mutability. Of course, this is not our concern, so we will not spend time dealing with the problems inherent in such a determination. Suffice it to say, by placing the divine act of self-determination in the future, we avoid those specific problems.

4 The sense in which this virtuality is able to ground normative concerns is obviously an important topic. It should be noted that this is the aspect toward which Meillassoux directed much of his unpublished dissertation, L'Inexistence Divine. As we will argue, election is concerned with precisely this grounding.

5 Beyond this, however, the key role for Barth will be in future analysis, as we will quickly sketch in our conclusion.

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Troy Polidori, « The Fate of Theology after the Speculative Turn »ThéoRèmes [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 19 juin 2014, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Troy Polidori

College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita, CA USA

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