When it comes to thinking, dialectical thinking IS definitely paranormal. There is no other philosophical method that has the ability to show us that what we consider normal is actually not normal at all…that alongside the normal trapped in its web is something more true, more normal yet also allusive. Dialectic is the constant reminder that what we think we see in our world is actually not what we’re seeing…it truly is thinking about the world in such a way that another reality begins to emerge from the stable reality we have created and assumed for ourselves. What makes it most paranormal is that we have seen it and lived amongst it even while we have never noticed it. In short, dialectical thinking contradicts our ideas from within our ideas…no liberal science necessary.
Dialectic is one of those great philosophical words/concepts that is often thrown around but very little understood. Perhaps this is because most folks just don’t see the world dialectically…paranormally. Dialectic doesn’t have any practical import in our daily lives in order for it to be a concept that makes sense; at least this is the perception. For many, the world is not something that requires dialectic to understand it rightly. The world is plain and flat; it’s black and white. The world is what we see and what we see is what the world is. All the while, this view of reality is very much dependent upon seeing the world from “somewhere,” from “someplace,” a “where” and a “place” that we did not create ourselves…a where and a place from which we cannot so easily move. To use the language of Martin Heidegger, we have been “thrown” here against our will and we have been silly enough to think it was our “choice”. We’re such good Americans.
The basic premise that what one sees is what is…and that our sight is the full production of ourselves is itself one of the greatest lies of modernity. It certainly doesn’t consider the place from which our desire to know and understand comes (i.e. The Real)…the place that cannot be assimilated into the symbolic order of our language. It doesn’t take into consideration that no one has chosen the language in which they participate and how that language is organized, which in turn leads to being able to see and interpret what one sees …and it certainly doesn’t take into account that the very premises we all hold dear are also susceptible to corrosion within the ideas themselves.
Phenomenology and Dialectical thinking brings all this to awareness.
As Sean Homer writes in his book on Lacan, “the paradox of dialectic is that the positive always turns into a negative.” But naturally, most people do not want their positive ideas of things or opinions being turned into a negative or shown to not be true. We like to be right and we don’t want to find out that our “right” is really wrong. If this is the case for you, stop reading now. What dialectic does, at its basest most functional level, is couch the ideas of the world that we have (think religion, politics, economics, society, etc) within a paradigm of logic that dares to take logic to its ultimate ends. Dialectic shows that ideas are never the whole story, that under the idea is a another more true idea or form yet to be seen because it lies just beneath the surface, encouched in what we can call dialectical tension. This is a tension that, ironically, once it is discovered, forces us to realize it has really been on the surface all along…thus, revealing the world we apprehend and see to be totally other than what we apprehend and see. At bottom, dialectic is a way of seeing the world as it really is, not a way of seeing the world as we think it to be.
To take this step just a bit further, dialectic is the process whereby all of reality: its concepts, ideas, structures, etc, are displaced in the very ideas that make them what they are. In other words, the very thesis of an idea or an object also contains the counter-idea that shows the initial thesis to be nothing and empty. This may seem like the foundation of nihilistic philosophy, and to a degree it is, yet nihilism actually stretches at least as far back as medieval Christian theologians such as Miester Eckhart. Nihilism, or the nothing that dialectics generally discloses about the structure of the world, is not a philosophy of crude, critical scholars who want to have their cake and eat it too; it is a philosophy that sees nothing in every idea because every idea is inherently unstable in its logic. Ideas (and the worlds built around them as all worlds are) are not impregnable or absolute.
Dialectics is a natural philosophical fit with phenomenology because phenomenology posits that nothing exists functionally apart from the idea of the thing. Idea and object go hand in hand. Phenomenology is the premise that objects do not exist independently from the perception of those things in human consciousness. This was the basic premise of the entire work of Edmund Husserl; it is the attempt to simplify the material world by saying the phenomena we encounter matters.
A classic example of this is Hegel’s “Master/Slave dialectic.” The idea of Master and Slave are lost in reciprocal relationship. In order for the Master to be as such, he must be recognized by the Slave for this signification and vice versa. The Master is then free to live life as Master because he is recognized by the Slave as Master. But dialectics disrupts this “universal truth.” For since the Master needs the slave’s recognition for his identity he can never be a free Master, whereas the slave doesn’t need the recognition of the Master to be a slave because the slave’s status is affirmed through something else: his work/labor as a slave. Thus, if the slave’s identity is independent the recognition of the master for his identity it is not the slave who is enslaved to the Master but the Master to the slave. Subsequently, it is not the Master who is free; rather it is the slave who is free. So the Slave is really the Master; the truth is really a lie.
With dialectics, one does not need to deconstruct an idea to show that it is nothing; its own deconstruction is inherent in its very existence and definition. I hope you can see how this proposal and idea of dialectics can offer a whole other world of theological inquiry than the one that is “mastered” to us via orthodoxy. I’m not so sure what this means about the very famous words in the Gospel of John, 8.32, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” but it probably means these words don’t mean what they seem.
I wish to utilize Hegelian dialectical philosophy as theological method because of the seriousness with which it approaches the material world. Many theologians and biblical scholars avoid dialectics but such has not always been the case.
Dialectic has traditionally been employed within theological circles in very benign, though helpful ways. Indeed, it was the dialectical theology of the mid 20th century that paved the way for neo-liberalism and post-liberalism, two very necessary movements that have shaped theology into the present. A school of dialectical theology was reinforced by larger than life theologians such as Karl Barth, Emil Bruner, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Rudolph Bultmann and to a degree even Paul Tillich. But this mode of dialectics, with the exception of Paul Tillich’s latter Systematic Theology, was content to not push dialectic far enough. Barth, for example, was content with a very simplified definition of dialectic that was employed as a symbol of tension between the world as received and the world as is, the already and the not yet. Barth’s famous, and also very helpful, idea of the Word of God and Word of Man for understanding scripture is dialectical thinking…that in the Bible we have both the words of Man and God…The words of man not being the same as the word of God, yet the word of God being expressed in the words of man. This is dialectic, but it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t take Hegel’s method seriously. It attempts to see the world as it is currently understood within our liberal and conservative biases; it doesn’t seek to see that the world we engage might not be the real world after all.
For a full Hegelian method to be appropriated, one must learn anew that the negative, or nothing, is not something to fear but constitutive of reality. Conservative scholars often say that this theology or philosophy of nothing as championed by folks like Sarte, Derrida, Lacan or Zizek is nothing more than tearing away at reality and faith as we know it. It is argued that all they wish to show is that there is no meaning anywhere so that everything is permissible behavior for a humanist society. But the problem is these characterizations are not true. Most of these critiques are made by those who have never read, or understood, any of the respective thinkers they wish to criticize.
If anything, dialectic is NOT reductionistic. It does not seek to say there is no meaning to life; in fact, it argues for a proliferation of meaning and truth in many places and especially those places where we least expect to see it! Dialectics affirms that life and our worldviews are products of a very complex relationship between object and thought…and that as all objects are somehow the precarious existence of their substance and our thought about them their truthfulness is then necessarily contingent upon our language and consciousness. No “Truth” is able to rise above this logically. The world of ideas presents to us the world in which we live; the only way to change the world we live is to see how very unstable our ideas about the world in fact are. This is the task of dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
All dialectic does is analyze via phenomenological awareness that life is comprised of a constant tension within the very life we think we live without tension. It’s not an attempt to “throw away the faith” or “deconstruct Jesus,” but it does very much show that our world is not as tidy, neat and complete as we think it to be. And the benefit of seeing this opposite/negative in the supposed positives of life is that we can then evaluate ourselves, our faith, our world more carefully and begin to live in more authentic ways.