Tag Archive | Apophatic (Negative) Theology

Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

Telos or Eschaton?

Any attempt by our consciousness to grasp the telos as a fixed or complete object fails, for the goal of meaning is forever escaping us, immer wieder. The telos is always beyond us (God Who May Be, 85)

Christianity is interminably after its own telos. Otherwise said, we seek to richard-kearney1know what is true and good. We desire to know how to live and pursue God in all we do. Yet even if the Christian rightly insists God’s truth is absolute, it is questionable how adequate the Christian can represent God. Truth is not so neatly packaged after all. One’s theology is always contingent upon one’s socio-historical location. This has been the emphasis of liberation theology for so long now. Richard Kearney’s point in differentiating telos from eschaton is that telos presupposes we’ve got it right; that we’re on the right path headed for the right destination. Eschaton, on the other hand, disturbs our ideologies and suprises us like a thief in the night. The best we can do is wait passively and patiently for God to break into our world and reveal himself on his own terms. To do so is to renounce our own mastery and control on the issue.

What characterizes the exhatological notion of persona, by contrast, is that it vouchsafes the irreducible finality of the other as eschaton. I stress, as eschaton not as telos (i.e., a fulfillable, predictable, foreseeable goal) (12)

New Traditionalists

A theological discussion I have been following recently includes the criticisms against Hauerwas, MacIntyre and Milbank – together lumped under the category “new traditionalists” – and the responses these theologians have given. These writers are caricaturized as having a penchant for over-generalizing heterogeneous terms and epochs, such as liberalism or democracy, thereby fabricating them as straw enemies that can be polemically refuted and dualistically supplanted with a pure theological politics and narrative. By instating these binary boundaries the new traditionalists are perceived to be inflexible in dialogue and transformation since hypothetical conversations with other traditions have been obviated by a Christian telos that predetermines the outcome of conflicts before they ever take place. This approach of smoothing over conflicts and maintaining a distinctive witness has been criticized as an example of ecclesial totalitarianism which unifies a plurality of people through indoctrination by education. Furthermore, this pedagogical strategy presupposes a singular, self-evident and pure Christian church and narrative which have never existed. More accurately, there are many Christian narratives, each corrupted and dependent upon other narratives, thereby rending the ongoing Christian historical tradition more messy and complex than projected. The new traditionalists acknowledge these ambiguities but are still convinced there is sufficient continuity and consistency to our particular tradition in order to name what differentiates us from unfaithful practices and knowledges. The spectrum of belief we name orthodoxy does not inhibit dialogue nor requires us to boil it down to the least common-denominator but fosters ecumenical debate and charitable listening; including a vulnerable receptivity towards outsiders. Interpreted within this catholic orientation, the pugnacity and roughness of the new traditionalists has been invoked to involve others and stimulate discussion rather than occlude it.

Graven Ideologies

In Bruce Benson’s book Graven Ideologies the topic of idols, all that takes the place of God and separates us from true faith, is extended beyond material objects to include images and concepts. We create idols. We project our aspirations and ideas onto a divine plane believing we have represented God but in fact have only represented ourselves. The outcome is we create a god we can possess and master.  Benson’s point here is that theologies can become idols just as much, if not more so, than their material counterparts. On this path theology and philosophy alike are vain attempts of gaining a God’s eye perspective of the world. But since idols reflect us, we end up worshiping ourselves. The obvious alternative sought after by Christianity is to worship the God who breaks into our world and disturbs our ideologies. This is precisely the observation made by apophatic theology: we cannot speak about God adequately. But such caution perhaps is too cautious.

There is a strange logic at work in both positive and negative theology. One affirms something but denies it, because to affirm it too strongly would be heretical and to deny it completely would also be heretical (153)

Hence at the very least there is, or should be, proper tension between dogma and interrogation. And this properly belongs to everyone, recognized or not, because we all stand in a multitude of traditions. In other words, everyone has a dogma. Perhaps the most helpful Benson gives us is the distinction between the icon and the idol. With the icon we look through the image or concept to something beyond but with the idol we look directly at it and mistake it for the object of intention.

The problem with all icons is that they have a tendency to morph into idols. Properly speaking, of course, it is not their tendency so much as our tendency to take icons and turn them into idols (193)

The danger is that icons can easily turn into idols, but the reverse holds true as well. The point of clarity for avoiding this transgression lies in our letting go of a ‘masterable’ God. In other words, receiving the overwhelming experience of God in praise and knowing that his disclosure is always partial; never a full presence.

Evils and the Limits of Theology

theodicyIn perhaps the best theological piece on theodicy I have ever encountered Karen Kilby shows that “Christian theology ought neither construct theodicies, nor ignore the kinds of problems theodicies try to address” in ‘Evils and the Limits of Theology’. Theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering, deals with the quandary of how/why evil exists if God is loving and all-powerful. It happens to be a leading argument against theism, even if a relatively new one (a product of the Enlightenment when God-talk became abstracted and separable from tradition). Her basic thesis, even though not a “particularly gratifying one”, is to recognize theological questions regarding evil and suffering as legitimate ones but also recognize that we have no legitimate answers. Her reasoning behind this is due to the influence of Theology and the Problem of Evil and The Evils of Theodicy written by Kenneth Surin and Terrence Tilley respectively. Their argument is that by constructing theodicies we are essentially explaining evil away (reconciling ourselves to it) rather than deal with particular evils in their fullness. By shifting our gaze to the abstract theoretical level we are ignoring particular kinds of evils – explaining it makes it not so bad – especially if we think God permits it for the greater good (best of all possible worlds argument). The “moral dimension” to this is that we become complacent and apathetic towards particular sufferings and evil.

Kilby goes on to elucidate the uncomfortable argument of Marilyn McCord Adams in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God who states that there are some evils that are so horrendous that they cannot conceivably be for a greater good of the individual or the globe; such as the suffering and death of children, genocide, rape, disfigurement, mutilation, torture, betrayal, incest, cannibalism, and the use of nuclear weapons on innocent populations. (We might also add that those who go through the “furnace of discipleship” don’t always come out with improved characters. Soul-making goes both ways). Even justifying evil by citing that at least the creator is suffering along with us is unhelpful for those who are actually suffering. It is just another theory attempting to get God off the hook and “diminish the scandal of evil”. Provocatively put by Kilby,

If I mistreat my children, then the fact that I mistreat myself as well does nothing to make it acceptable

As Christians we believe God will ultimately redeem evil and that good can come out of it, but this does not work as an explanation – primarily because it doesn’t always work that way. As shown, the mystery of God and the mystery of evil reveals how limiting and pathetic our explanations are. Why there are ‘answers’ out there, they end up doing more harm than help.

Christ on Trial

Rowan Williams’ Christ on Trial is an illuminating commentary on thchrist-on-the-crosse trial of Christ represented in each gospel. A trial, in general use, is the method we use to investigate truth and trustworthiness. Job, for instance, put God on trial begging the question why he suffered so, but was answered by God that there is no common language shared between Creator and created. Instead God has demonstrated his faithfulness over time and does not need to use words to defend himself when silence is a more appropriate form of speech. The trial of Jesus before Pilate unfolds the same way.

A commonality through each gospel is Christ’s reticence on trial. Williams interprets this silence as a withholding from competing on the same level as his accusers who are powerfully in control. It is not until the world has decided his fate by sentencing him to death that Jesus identifies himself as God. Stirpped of all traces of power, Jesus cannot be mistakenly identified with power. Jesus overturns our expectations by identifying himself as God when is a prisoner awaiting death. Therefore we are forced to withdraw our projected standards and aspirations upon him. Jesus does not guarantee rescue, success, assurance, or results. Even in our faithfulness, we often make choices that make no difference in the world and have no effective outcome. The very things we wish to associate with God, such as security and success, are the very things that Jesus overturns.

Matthew is particularly interesting in its relation to the authorities of the faith; the priests. Jesus holds the High Priest accountable to the history of Wisdom he inherited and is asked to judge for himself it if is God who stands before him on trial. The priest, in condemning Jesus, embraces power and excludes wisdom. The trial of Christ therefore is not a pronouncement of suffering and destruction on those who crucify Christ, but on the clergy who are the guardians of the faith. Often we work against God when we assume that we are working for him. The bottom line is that we can never gain mastery over God’s Wisdom. Oftentimes it is the guardians of faith who are at fault of closing themselves off from truth that comes from improbable sources. (We could insert here, and Williams does so, the genealogy of Jesus at the opening of the text that includes insignificant and strange persons).