Here is a helpful passage* from David Tracy that ties in to what I’ve been exploring with others about Paul Hessert’s book Christ and the End of Meaning, the second chapter of which contrasts (1Cor 1.22-25) human ways of meaning-making through the use of ‘power’ (Jews demand signs) and ‘rational systems that seek total explanations’ (Greeks seek wisdom) with the abandonment of this structure of meaning that faith calls us to in Christ.
Beyond this early Romantic groping after ‘fragments’ which helped to challenge the stranglehold of the Enlightenment system lay the two greatest unveilers of modernity’s secret dream to be the logos of its own secret, ontotheology – Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Is there anyone, even today, better than Kierkegaard at exposing the bizarre drive to totality of almost all modern rationalist, idealist systems including Christianity become Christendom? What Kierkegaard showed is that Christendom, not Christianity, is an attempted triumphalism, a triumphant totality system that could not and cannot survive any experiment with authentic Christian living. Philosophy should abjure its modern pretensions to a total understanding of life, the individual, art and religion and learn to think anew from the new forms for dialectical though invented by Kierkegaard in two of his greatest works; the works by Johannes Climacus, entitled Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He left us what? Fragments and inconclusive postscripts. Both are fine forms indeed to challenge Hegelianism, the then reigning totality system of Kierkegaard’s culture. As several post-modern thinkers now argue, Kierkegaard’s fragments smashed not only Hegelianism with its temptations to totality. It is Kierkegaard, in several of his works, who first begins to use the category of the “Impossible.” He strove, through Johannes Climacus, not for the actual, nor the possible, but for the Impossible. In nearly all his work, on how religion – both religiousness “A” and religiousness “B” (Christian religion for Kierkegaard) – showed how to render what would otherwise be consider Impossible.
Kierkegaard will do almost anything to break the reified ice of what he considers modernity’s hold on all our thinking or Christendom’s hold on Christians…He will forge a new and indirect discourse for the sacred to undo any claim to adequacy of direct discourse in the idealist version of totality…But then what about this breakthrough into a form for the Impossible, into grace?…Kierkegaard did not have the calling to preach…Therefore he invented form after form to render present the one content modernity denied—the reality of the Impossible—grace, Christ, God.
Kierkegaard’s paradoxically anti-Christian double, Nietzsche, plays the same fragmentation role for Christendom and Enlightenment modernity alike, but now with a hammer. When Nietzsche’s hammer becomes too blunt a tool against Christianity as well as against bourgeois modernity, he too, like Kierkegaard will try any form, any genre, any intellectual strategy to try to break out of any totalizing system. He forged style and style just as Kierkegaard forged genre after genre. Form Nietzsche’s early essays to his quasi-gospel genre in his great Thus Spoke Zarathustra to genealogical analysis through aphorisms piled upon aphorisms to fragments juxtaposed to fragments, Nietzsche organized in what seems to me in an increasingly desperate attempt to recover…not merely the controlled rhetoric of Aristotle’s topics but the out of control rhetoric of the tropes, especially the trope of irony careening with joy at the very edge of what he saw as an Abyss or Void opened up once the totality systems collapsed.
For those familiar with Hessert, compare Hessert’s exposition of culture’s false attempt find the world “meaningful” (per the ancient Greek’s search for “wisdom,” 1Cor 1.22) to Kierkegaard’s attack upon modernity’s “systems of totality” and its “dream to be the logos of its own secret.” Achieving a single logos, a single, all-embracing system of rational explanation that can reduce the cosmos to a fixed account of the whole is not what Christianity is about. Any truly Christian attempt at a rational account of things will necessarily be ‘fragmentary’. It can be logos. It can never be Logos. But oh how we balk and complain about ‘fragments’. So as Tracy said, faith is necessarily a way to live with fragments, and we need a ‘theology of fragments’. This is not to say faith does not locate all fragments (all logoi, however imperfectly understood) in the One (unfragmented) Logos who is Christ the God-Man. We may have only fragments, but each is a small mirror that reflects, in its limited capacity, Christ who is in all things and in whom are all things.
*“Form and Fragment: The Recovery of the Hidden and Incomprehensible God” in The Concept of God in Global Dialogue, eds. Werner Jeanrond and Aasulv Lande (Orbis Books, 2005).