A subversive and democratic Christianity

Chris Watkin

Christianity is both democratic, subversive, and exhilarating, Chris Watkin, an expert in modern philosophy, told an audience at UNSW’s New College, which is part of the Sydney Anglican diocese – often thought of as a conservative group.

But Watkin offered a radical critique of how Western individualism works, how the market commodifies identity, selling us products to give us a sense of self.

Especially online “Each of us are, if you like, presenting ourselves as our identities as commodities to be bought and sold and negotiate,” Watkin told his New College audience, decoding a General Pants ad that offered personal identity along with the merchandise.

Retracing Watkin’s steps, this writer finds General Pants’ YouTube channel with copy like

Another place, another world. Another dimension. Going nowhere and everywhere. Open your mind and freefall. Immerse yourself in the endless. We are Insight. We Are Free.

The act of determining a “Possessive identity,” or constructing an image of who you are, has been linked to the market economy in today’s society. “Essentially, it doesn’t really matter what identity you offer to the market; the market always wins, always incorporates every identity you might choose to float,” Watkin said. If you rebel against the market, the market will start to offer a version of your new radical movement.

Watkin says three options are open to us. “I suggest with three broad identity options available to us. The first one we might call a sort of broad dominant market identity. It is sort of the default option today. And in this first option we build ourselves according to the symbols and meanings that are readily presented to us in society. The different brands of clothing, the different advertisements that we see all around. We curate a cluster of these and we express our identity in terms of this cluster of symbols that we’ve picked from the shelves of the superstars in our particular area.”

Or we rebel. But that means we are part of the same system. “You can’t escape this logic simply by not being part of the dominant set of style symbols because the indies and the alternative array of style symbols are equally indicative of this way of being.”

Or there is the third, sadder option of being disoriented, of being left out because the system requires money and time.

Self-identification, building a self-image, used to be an aristocratic pursuit, Watkin points out – using at one stage the Maquis de Sade, who had the inherited wealth needed at the time to construct his life of sexual libertarianism. But in our late modern world, “everybody is now described within this story that we need to define for ourselves who we are, define our sense of what the meaning of life is for ourselves and to make ourselves if you’d like from within.”

To describe how Christianity subverts this system – Watkin digs deep into Galatians 2:20, a verse in the Bible that has long troubled this attendee at Watkin’s lecture. ” “Paul writes the following, I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in, the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Hold on, Paul, so you no longer live? Yes, that’s right, but the life you now live, you live. Yes, that’s right.

“And so the logic here is that Paul’s sense of self is passing through the same stages of death and resurrection that Jesus tries himself and endure. There’s a sense in which the self dies or dies to himself and is reborn in a way that’s inextricably entwined with the identity of Jesus. If you remember from that quote, the life I now live added by Paton, God, there’s a rich inextricability now to who Paul is and who hrist is. Those two can’t be pulled apart anymore. And again this is raking open those barriers of the self. Again, the strict wall between me and not me is being transgressed and traversed here. So is it me or is it Christ? Yes., says Paul, it certainly is.”

Watkin traced the journey of how a thick wall between ourselves and others, the creation of a “bounded identity” has been built up from the day in “a small heated room where a philosopher is first of all keeping himself warm in the cold Scandinavian climate and secondly, trying to think very hard about how to ground a sense of knowledge.” René Descartes sat in his room”and eventually after about 4,000 words of writing, presumably a few logs on fire as well, he comes to this what really has become an epochal moment in the development of modern philosophy where he writes, ‘I am thinking therefore I exist.’

Late modernism offers a story that the Bible subverts offering us an identity of being inextricably (a word wielded goriously by Watkin) linked to Christ. And a wider picture offered by Christianity opens up “in order to understand who human beings are, you need to look beyond human beings to the God who’s image they are. It’s not a self-contained property, if you like, of identity. It’s always this; dispossessed of itself.”

Watkin cites the book fairly called the first biography written in the form of a quest for meaning, St Augustine’s Confessions. “Let me just read you the opening lines … ‘You are great love and highly to be praised,’ quoting Psalm 46. ‘Great is your power, and your wisdom is immeasurable,’ quoting Psalm 146.

So what is Augustine doing here? He’s finding in himself by going outside of himself in praise, in doxology to God. And there’s a really interesting passage in the confession that, for me was the penny drop moment here. Now this really resonates with me, it may or may not with you … but I find this incredibly helpful. This moment [when] Augustine says ‘I am scattered.’

” So he’s talking about himself, he looks in himself, and he basically says, I’m all over the place. I’m a mess. I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, And then he goes on to say it is by looking to God that the scatteredness is gathered together.

“And the sense here is if I think I simply look inside myself and try to make sense of the cauldron of all my different desires and impulses and loves and everything that’s in here, I don’t find coherence.

“I find clashes and tensions and differences. And on one day, I’m feeling this way, and then I wake up on the next day, and I’m feeling very different. And some days, I’m incredibly bitter, and I could go and punch someone, and then the next day I know sweetness and light, and I love everyone. I just don’t make sense within myself. There is no internal coherence.

“And Augustine is saying I do find coherence, however, when I look away from this … world inside of me towards God and it’s by in a sense forgetting myself and losing myself in praise of God that I find who I am – not by looking inside myself.”


Asked in a question time about attempts to commodify Christianity – in the form of “indulgences, megachurches or voting,” Watkin responds that commodified Christianity ultimately loses authenticity. “Whenever attempts are made to commodify Christian identity, it cuts against the grain of that identity. But when attempts are made to commodify possessive individualism, possessive identity, it cuts with the grain of those modes of identity.”

Image: Chris Watkin, Credit: Monash University