Prayer — being at a loss for words

Evagrius speaks of the highest form of prayer (“pure prayer”) – as having three qualities: (1) It is “unceasing” (1Thess 5.17), (2) it is “imageless” (forms no image of God in the mind), and (3) it is “wordless” (it passes beyond the limits of finite words and concepts).

My guess is that “images” and “words” are linked. “Words” are inseparable from “images.” When we reach a communion with God that is outside the mediation of all images, that communion will be wordless as well, ineffable (not an experience of God ‘in’ and ‘through’ and ‘in terms of’ relating to words and their meanings). That’s my sense of what Evagrius means by prayer being “free of thoughts.” To say X is to take a step away from X. Think about it. So long as our experience of God consists in saying things to God about him, we remain a step removed from being (experiencing ourselves as) immediately present with/to him. When you think about it, the same is true of intimacy with other people. If you mouth is open and you’re spouting words, you’re not as intimate as you might otherwise be.

Not to be misunderstood, Evagrius advocated praying with words too (using the psalms, praying Scripture, etc.), a lot. So it seems imageless/wordless communion with God was for him the goal, but we must use words to get there. “Wordless” prayer isn’t something we just up and decide to ‘do’, i.e., it is not a refusal to use words. Rather, it is where one arrives from exhausting language (not refusing to use it) in the contemplation of God, experiencing transcendence as one comes to an experience of oneself in/with God that words can neither comprehend nor express (“joy ‘unspeakable’ and full of glory”?). Denys Turner says it well:

…You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God.

…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….

…the ‘way of negation’…is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

Language ends but we keep going, not because language is false or untrue, but because there’s more to us (and God) than words. One still exists, just on the other side of the limits of finite images and words. This is why prayer is ultimately a subversive act in the world; it refuses to derive one’s essential value and identity from the politics or the market. “We” are more than words, so words have to fail at some point. For Evagrius, I think, it is only words in prayer that can get us to wordless prayer (the ineffable communion of the soul with God).

What I wonder about (and hope is true – because I love words and don’t want to give them up!) is whether when our experience of God escapes the confines of finite images and words, when we are comfortably wordless in God’s presence, we are still able to employ images and words to share, teach, celebrate with others, etc. Obviously this must be the case. That’s why mystical language (and poetry – and theology, at its best) strains the capacities of language so.

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The risen Christ as saturated phenomenon—Part 2

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I’m nearing the end of Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection. Wonderful book. I’m slow, so it will take me a second reading through, and a third for some portions, to process what are theologically rich and practically challenging insights. In Part 1 I presented a portion of Robinette’s appropriation of Marion’s notion of the ‘saturated phenomenon’ as a way to understand the resurrection of Christ. In this Part 2 I’d like to finish that summary. Robinette’s comments are indented. Mine are not.

[T]he resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the saturated phenomenon par excellence in being unforeseeable, unbearable, unnamable, and unconstitutable by the subject [Marion’s four marks of the saturated phenomenon]…

Unforeseeable: The Resurrection as Unexpected Fulfillment
Jesus’ resurrection is the fulfillment of salvation history, the eschatological fruition of creation. And yet Easter does not always conform to prior expectations. Its truth comes by way of transforming our expectations, by opening up hitherto unknown horizons of possibility and meaning. The revelation of the risen victim is a reality to which we must accustom ourselves. It summons us. It offers new expectations and desires. What it would teach us is something we cannot fully grasp on our own, even if we may glean aspects of it here and there. To put a fine point on it, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is something we must learn. The gospels consistently present Jesus’ appearances as events that catch their recipients off guard, in various modes of misunderstanding, surprise, and sometimes fear. However much enthusiasm attended the early Christian proclamation “He is risen; he is not here,” its initial in-breaking upon the hearts and minds of Jesus’ earliest followers came as a jolt that initiated a shift in understanding. This shift is evident in the story of scripture itself. Though eventually regarding by Christians as the fulfillment of salvation history (the ultimate antitype to the exodus), the irruption of Easter was not wholly foreseeable but only subsequently seen as “necessary.” As Marion puts it: “The phenomenon of Christ gives itself intuitively as an event that is perfectly unforeseeable because radically heterogeneous to what it nevertheless completes (the prophecies).”

Robinette does foresee certain objections to the idea that the resurrection was not foreseeable. The earliest Christians regarded the resurrection as the fulfillment of scripture. Christ was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures” (1Cor 15.4). That doesn’t look like the resurrection was beyond anticipation. He also addresses at some length Jesus’ explicit anticipations of his own resurrection. Surely Jesus’ resurrection was not unforeseeable to him. But even at this junction, Robinette wants to maintain some openness and ambiguity to Jesus’ expectations. Robinette explains:

…Jesus’ resurrection is not…the inexorable outcome of a prior narrative context. Neither is its meaning exhausted by the preceding metaphorical elements that nevertheless help us to make sense of it…[A]s the early Christians searched the scriptures for illuminating the meaning of this novum ultimum [ultimate new thing] in terms of creation, exile, and restoration, they were very much reinterpreting these terms from the new perspective given by this novum ultimum. The resurrection established for them a new hermeneutic that helped them to creatively re-envision the governing plot of the Jewish scriptures.

What of Jesus’ own expectations regarding his vindication? Here Robinette recognizes the link in Christ’s teaching between the Kingdom that he preached and his own personal destiny. The Kingdom’s arrival and eventual fulfillment, Jesus believed, are inseparable from his fate. Robinette:

…though there are good reasons [to be confident] that Jesus believed his death and hoped-for indication were central to his Kingdom message…the passion predictions…faithfully portray Jesus’ own sense, however, inchoate, that his personal fate was utterly bound up with the Kingdom of God—that his person was intimately connected to Israel’s final restoration from exile…

But even if we take a maximalist position on this issue and argue that Jesus explicitly hoped God’s vindication would take the form of his resurrection, and furthermore that this unprecedented act would deliver God’s eschatological judgment and salvation for Israel; even so, his resurrection—its actual occurrence, its incident and attestation to others, its impact and history of effects—would necessarily remain unforeseeable to Jesus himself. Let this be properly understood.

…This, according to Marion, is “expectation without foresight”… Jesus may hope, even expect this vindication via resurrection, but such expectation was without foresight, for its intention could have no perceptible terminus. It could only extend indefinitely into the non-doing and non-being of death, and ultimately into the silent incomprehensibility of the Father. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

I’m less convinced that we have to subject the scope and depth of Jesus’ own insights into his fate to the precise limitations of his disciples. Jesus does not come to faith or a genuinely new perspective or awareness of himself on the other side of his own resurrection. That is, the resurrection is a saturated phenomenon for us to whom Christ appears and who by faith live in and to its fullness. That’s not to say Jesus sustains the same relationship to his own resurrection. I appreciate Marion’s point here – viz., as Christ approaches and endures the Cross, his consciousness cannot be so supernaturally flooded with certitude regarding his vindication that he has no need to ‘trust’ and ‘hope’. As the representative human, Jesus endures the Cross by faith. But this is said easily enough without supposing his faith and hope could not have taken the shape of an expectation of vindication close at hand. Given the convertibility in Jesus’ mind (and not his disciples) between the ‘Kingdom’ and his ‘personal fate’, shouldn’t one assume Jesus expected vindication rather immediately? Could Jesus have imagined the Kingdom advancing indefinitely in his absence? I should think not.

blindUnbearable: Easter and “Bedazzlement”
The eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be borne by those who are its witnesses, but saturates and “bedazzles” their capacities of perception and comprehension. “In terms of quality, writes Marion, “the figure of Christ obviously attests its paradoxical character because the intuition that saturates it reaches and most often overcomes what the phenomenological gaze can bear.” Easter’s unbearable character is evident in two related modes: the empty tomb and the appearances.

The Empty Tomb as Christological Apophasis
In the empty tomb stories, the saturation of intentionality (the “gaze”) occurs through a striking absence. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel (16.1-8) we are told that upon their discovery of the empty tomb the women were seized by ‘terror and amazement.” Instructed by the mysterious “young man” in a white robe to tell the disciples in Galilee what they see, or rather what they do not see, they leave post-haste, saying nothing to anyone “for they were afraid”…

The narration of bodily absence in Mark is constructed to provoke its readers. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (v. 6). It may be, as Robert Gundry observes, that Mark’s Hellenistic-Gentile audience would have been sufficiently impressed with an immortalizing of Jesus without bodily resurrection. “But no, compensation for crucifixion demands and gets more. The [soma], ‘body’, and the [ptoma], ‘corpse’, that was taken down from a cross and entombed has been raised to new life with the result that Jesus is going ahead of his disciples in re-embodied and therefore visible form.” The ostensible crudity of such bodiliness “is exactly what Mark wants his readers to understand”…

But this “nothing” the women “see” is no mere lack. It is the negative impress of an excessive “something” that cannot be borne by intentionality. In verses 6 and 7 we are introduced to an oppositional structure in which geography functions as a kind of phenomenology. “He has been raised; he is not here…But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The “there” of Galilee, which is where the risen Jesus is, is opposed to the “here” of the tomb in Jerusalem, where Jesus is not. What stretches from Jerusalem across to Galilee is more than a geographical distance. It is a perceptual and affective distance, a “space” that elicits anticipation and yearning, an attitudinal openness for beholding the as yet unrecognizable form of the bodily risen Lord…

Francis Watson warns against reading the fragmentary character of this “ending” as somehow accidental to Mark’s overall meaning. Helpfully, Watson calls for a style of interpretation that reads all of the resurrection narratives “precisely in their fragmentariness, and not in spite of it.” Such a view, so closely aligned with my own, presumes that the narratives and the traditions from which they stem are “included within the sphere of the event itself, so that the generation of an appropriate testimony to itself would be integral to the event.” In the case of Mark 16.1-8, the reticence in not narrating the resurrection is complemented by the non-narration of the post-resurrection encounters. The story of the women at the tomb is thus framed by two non-narrated events – “events” that nonetheless stand as the gospel’s climax. What we are left with is not an “object” that would satisfy intentionality but the hollowing out and intensification of desire for the crucified-and-risen One who becomes “present” by “going ahead” of them. That is to say, we are left without stable images or concepts that would comport with the capacities of the intending subject, but only the phenomenological attitude appropriate to an event that manifestly overwhelms those capacities—“terror and amazement.”

The Appearances as Christological Kataphasis
If the empty tomb story in Mark performs a contemplative and critical distance, we should not conclude that the appearance traditions, which narratively permit us to “see” the transfigured Christ, enclose or negate this distance. If the Marcan empty tomb is more apophatic in character, and the appearances more kataphatic, we should understand both of these modes as very closely linked. They are distinctive yet complementary attestations to the one eschatological Gift of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Just because the risen Jesus becomes communicative and interpersonally “present” to Mary Magdelene, the disciples, Paul, and the five hundred, revealing himself in ways that include visual, auditory, and even tactile aspects, never is this presence something ready-to-hand or fully comprehensible. For all their diversity the appearance traditions are remarkably coherent in articulating that the witnesses “see” and “touch” precisely in the midst of their “not-seeing” and “not-grasping.” They recognize the risen Jesus as a “stranger.” They identify him through a process of mis-identification, frequently coming to faith through doubt, and thus through the purgation and transformation of their surface desires. In each of these vignettes, and through the sum of them, the risen Christ becomes epiphanous while overshadowing their perceptual and cognitive horizons. The perceived absence here is the result of an excessive presence, and extreme surplus of givenness that cannot be anticipated or absorbed by those who will nevertheless become its transformed witnesses…

But we should not understand this “both-and” dynamic as implying some sort of equality between these two sets of terms. The relationship is not linear, as though presence stands “side by side” with absence in equal measure, or with the same significance. The mis-understanding and mis-identification described in the narratives result from an unreservedly positive givenness that, by its antecedent and extreme intensity, produces a “negative” impress due to the perceptual limitations of the witnesses who cannot fully absorb it. Like the blindness that results when unadjusted eyes are flooded with intense light, the appearances of the risen Christ in his glorified corporeality “bedazzles” witnesses. The perceptual obscurity here is the subjective correlate to the objective surplus of givenness. Apophatic “formlessness is a modality derivative of the inexhaustibly beautiful “form” of Christ. This in essence is what Jean-Luc Marion means by “bedazzlement”…

On the one hand, the empty tomb and appearance traditions together will not permit us to speak of the risen Jesus as simply returning to his former state of existence. The resurrection is not resuscitation. That Jesus first appears as a stranger, as one not limited by the partitions of ordinary space-time existence, as one who ascends from view in glory, etc., reveals the error of this extreme—one that would simply annul Jesus’ death. The resurrection is more-than-historical. It cannot be plotted within history without remainder.

On the other hand, the risen Jesus has not been transposed into a reality completely discontinuous with this embodied history, as though his humanity were only the penultimate stage in his bid for a formless eternity. His resurrection is not a disembodiment but the admission of his total historical-embodied humanity into eschatological fullness. The empty tomb tradition makes this point abundantly clear. That we are instructed to speak of continuity in the midst of discontinuity is evident in the narratives’ insistence on the familiarity and tactility of the risen Jesus, in ways that even include the identifying marks of his death.

Jesus’ resurrection is and is not historical, and this requires simultaneous acts of saying and un-saying. With this “both-and” structure, the narratives present us a set of grammatical rules to help us speak of the resurrection with relative adequacy, with proper ballast. We are not granted a stable and definitive mental picture that would allow us to identify the risen body’s quiddity. But this we do not need, nor should we expect it…

Though it may be difficult to grasp, the risen Lord is “simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord.” As James Alison observes, “the resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death at the same time….[T]he resurrection life…is able tot include both the life and death which concludes it, precisely because it is the free giving and giving back of both”…this simultaneity is exactly what makes Jesus’ resurrection God’s definitive and non-violent offer of forgiveness. It is also what makes the resurrection God’s victory over death as opposed to its mere negation. But what Jesus’ resurrection and ascension most radically mean is “the introduction of a novelty into heaven: human nature. Being human was from then on permanently and indissolubly involved in the presence of God.” This insight, which is the very boldest of Christian insights, means that the body, particularly the flesh (caro) is the hinge (cardo) on which salvation turns….

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Unnamable: The Resurrection Pluralizes Horizons
As I have argued thus far, the empty tomb and appearance narratives are “eschatological signs”: historical vestiges and afterimages, revelatory traces of an “event” which, because of its historical and trans-historical reality, leaves its impress upon history, imbuing it with eschatological promise and dynamism, yet transcending the historical effects it continually shepherds. Such a reality could only be signified with relative adequacy to the extent that it includes complementary acts of saying and un-saying, rendering while not-grasping, disclosing while self-effacing. The presence-absence structure of the narratives echoes and analogizes the historical aporia of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. Their style of presentation (their form) is marked unmistakably and uniquely by the sui generis “event” they seek to reveal (their content). Far from reflecting a deficiency in the risen Christ’s self-attestation, the tensions, ambiguities, and plurality of the resurrection narratives result from a brimming excess that produces harmonic, serializing patterns in the oral and textual traditions that enshrine without ever encompassing it.

While it is customary for apologetic defenses of the resurrection to emphasize the points of convergence between the resurrection narratives, no doubt because non-contradiction and multiple attestation are regarded as among the most important criteria for historical attestation are regarded as among the most important criteria for historical reliability, the differences and asymmetries between the narratives are just as important for appreciating their peculiar nature. Certainly patterns across the traditions do emerge. For example, most of the appearance traditions describe a process that works something like this: (1) the disciples find themselves in a state of desolation and shattered expectation; (2) Jesus appears to them, typically under the aspect of initial obscurity and shock; (3) Jesus greets his followers, offering them a word of shalom; (4) the disciples come to recognize him, sometimes worshiping, sometimes still doubting; (5) Jesus gives the disciples a word of command and/or mission; and, finally, (6) Jesus withdraws from their field of perception. Despite this general coherence, however, important differences emerge, just as they do with the empty tomb narratives…While some of these differences are open to some harmonization, overall the various traditions resist a single sequence. This is by no means a concession to incoherence, as if he sometimes-irreconcilable aspects of the narratives yield unreliable testimony. Indeed, several critics have noted that the divergences and disagreements serve to support their reliability, historically speaking, since they show the witnesses are not in collusion to make it up…this is what eyewitness testimony looks and sounds like. And in such cases the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened; rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion… [E]ven in their final redactions, the gospel writers allow the asymmetries to stand “warts and all: this was how their community had told the story from the very first days.” But this plurality is more than a consequence of surface factors of historical and textual transmission. We will find in it a deeper theological significance.

In the Philippians hymn, God is said to have exalted Jesus, giving him “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2.9). As Marion observes, this exaltation above every name reproduces “the property of God himself admitting all names and refusing each of them…the property of summoning an infinity of nominative horizons in order to denominate he who saturates not only each horizon, but the incommensurable sum of the horizons.” Christ, just as the Father, cannot be properly named within a single horizon, or the sum of them, but draws all perceptual and linguistic horizons towards himself, transcending and pluralizing them. His Kingdom remains “not of this world,” even if it is always irrupting within and through it. He neither conforms to our categories, not do the christological titles finally manifest his essence. Citing the end of John’s gospel, where we are told that the whole world cannot contain the books necessary to describe all that Jesus did (21:25), Marion points to the plurality of the gospels and christological titles are traces of an eschatological excess. If the New Testament canon is “closed,” it remains internally diverse and inexhaustible…

The incommensurability of the gospels may create certain difficulties for their historical valuation, at least the kind of valuation that is the hallmark of so much modern criticism, but no independent substrate can be extracted. No homogenized version of the gospels is possible, even if it were desirable. Such pluralization does not however lead to deconstructive undecidability, as through the differences in scripture result in endless différance. Viewed post-critically, and in recognition of the semantic surplus involved in all interpretation, the plurality within the canon is theologically pregnant. In the multiplicity of textual bodies that arise in the “space” of a gracious withdrawal (Christ’s bodily “resurrection” and “ascension”), we glean something of the boundless fecundity of their ultimate referent. The multitude of imagines in the appearance traditions, rather than providing different pieces for a single, puzzle-like image that would work together to satisfy our desire for conceptual stability, instead generate an ungovernable turbulence that renders each and every image incomplete and overexposed. Here apophasis and kataphasis are virtually indistinguishable.

paulUnconstitutable: Resurrection as the Giving of a “Self”
We have at last reached the fourth and final characteristic way Jesus’ resurrection reveals itself as the saturated phenomenon par excellence

The fourth and final aspect is directly related to the first three, but allows us now to focus more clearly o the ecclesial and apostolic dimension of the resurrection narratives. We may put it this way: Easter faith is not constituted by the “subject” who believes, but rather gives birth to a new “self” that may be received only in hospitality to the crucified-and-risen Other. The emergence of this new self follows a process of conversion within a new contextual setting, a new habitus in which Jesus’ resurrection is embodied through proclamation, worship, and ethical praxis. This habitus is the church—the “body of Christ.” And it is only in the realm of the church, through participation in the community’s mission of “being sent” into the world, that Jesus’ resurrection “makes sense”…

Coming to know Jesus as risen implies participation in a social-theoretical-practical space where Jesus is already affirms as the risen One and were the act of knowing Jesus as risen is sourced through a constantly renewed memory, materialized in performance, and propagated through the instruction and “showing how” by its more competent members. In short, knowing Jesus as risen means knowing ecclesially, as church.

A theology of fragments

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere 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 it’s “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. And oh how we balk and complain with ‘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).

Abacus theologica

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Work forces man to use measurements. He works eight hours a day, and for this work a certain average result is expected from him. The number of a certain kind of item a worker is able to make in a day, week, or year is fixed. Also fixed is the amount he needs to support himself and his family (if a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs cost such and such…) and the amount he needs for pleasure (the cost of a ticket to the movies or to a soccer match). His entire existence is saturated with numbers, and each presents a certain measure. When something in the mechanism breaks down, he stands there helpless. For the most part, it has an unpleasant effect. When as a worker he imagines the work schedule of his superior, he sees that he has more holidays, a higher salary, and therefore different pleasures. The superior, however, does not organize his time with any less precision, since he probably also has more work to do and greater responsibility.

If a man gets completely accustomed to the idea that everything can be measured, then he loses any sense of eternity. His horizon does not reach farther than the measurable, passing time, and mortal existence. Everything he measures constantly brings him to limits: there lies the point where what he has planned comes to an end; beyond it begins something else to measure. The life of an individual passes away between such ends and new beginnings. He gets on top of what he has measured; it has been incorporated within the compass of his life. He is ruled by the law of numbers, and he in turn rules over it. The measurements are handed over to him already complete, and yet he preserves a small amount of freedom in relation to them. He can compare things (for example, the price of milk); he can also save; he can give up things that he would have a right to in order to enjoy others. He accustoms himself to this freedom in the midst of measurements as though behind bars.

This also influences his thinking. He thinks within fixed categories that have become so natural to him that he hardly ever questions them. On the contrary, he simplifies them more and more.

However, if he meets someone who lives from faith, he encounters in him God himself. Something adventurous breaks into his limited existence. He does not know whether he is thereby weighed and measured. One thing, however, is ceritain: his measurements do not suffice to determine these dimensions. His conventional categories, time schedules, and simplifications cannot cope with the phenomenon. He had arranged a plan for himself that would allow him to advance in his job in order to be able to afford certain things when he reached the age of fifty or sixty. If the Christian truth is valid, God could frustrate all his plans; he could perhaps even require him to give up his position. In any event, God could demand from him his advance calculations and small arrangements, with now appear to him as countless reservations against God. Who could place conditions on God? This belongs to the most difficult aspects of faith: to let go of the narrow boundaries and divisions we have worked hard to put in place. We must give them up when we encounter the limitless and unmeasurable. Even time can no longer be measured by years and months, but only in terms of the entirety of a life – and the length of a life is unknown. Everything that was measured according to one’s own advantage must now be held in contempt. God offers no measures that man could get used to or for which he could use his own system of calculation. The prescribed time for prayer, the commandments of the Church, and the demands of loving one’s neighbor strike him as hard, and he does not know how to cope with it. On the surface, the circumstances remain the same: time remains time. Interiorly, however, everything has completely changed: time is now something in which eternity wants to find a place; and measure is now something in which the unmeasurable must be sheltered. Thus everything becomes quite uncomfortable…

…The hardest thing required of the believer is to place himself at the disposal of something incomprehensible, something that begins to make sense only through love. Until now he was collecting, gathering, counting, and disposing; now he is meant to open himself in such a way that the hands he holds out to collect have to remain apart. He is embraced by God in such a way that he is no longer capable of embracing anything. He must keep himself as vessel, and he cannot guarantee what this vessel will contain. He no longer knows it because he must allow what he had once well protected and thought through many times over simply to flow into the infinite, according to a rhythm that God alone determines.

(Adienne von Speyr, Man Before God)

We are all wardrobes—Part 1

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I wonder if the univocity insisted upon by advocates of “relational theologies” doesn’t actually suppress human aspirations for the relational by corralling it within the limits of what can be said determinately. The relational becomes a real experience only when we’re able to “say it” because we only really experience what we can describe given the laws of univocal apprehension. But I think we know the sequestering of experience to determinate language is impossible, and attempting it ends in despair, or perhaps it’s motivated by despair. We fear losing our identity, our very self, to an undomesticated infinite. So language domesticates God and we become happy the way a child addicted to playing the same pinball game again and again is happy with an endless repetition of the same – same game, same features, same distances. God will not – cannot – offer us this kind of happiness. There are no predictable borders to the ecstasy of knowing God, and I suspect that in our most honest moments of reflection, we realize that this is what we truly want. The indeterminacy of language is where and how that divine adventure calls to us. We are all Lewisian wardrobes, and only the childlike find Narnia.

Recent conversations I’m enjoying have focused on the well-worn problem of theological predication, which is shoptalk for how our language apprehends God, how it captures and expresses the truth about God. It’s a very old conversation that few master. Anyone remotely familiar with the conversation knows that it concerns the relationship between God’s transcendence and the reach of our concepts.

The standard options on the menu are three:

Univocity (in which “Being” is predicated of God and creatures in the same way. “Love,” for example, has the same sense predicated to God that it has when predicated of creatures.)
Equivocity (what is predicated of God and creatures is predicated with entirely different senses)
Analogy (what is predicated of God is predicated analogously to what is predicated of creatures)

Equivocity is yoked to univocity as its contrary mode of predication. Both represent options of a single all-inclusive understanding of predication that supervenes upon a single reality, ‘being’, whether we’re talking about divine or created being. Analogical predication (itself a slippery concept prone to endless qualification) represents the ancient and, say classical theists, only viable alternative to the facile reductions of a univocal theology. I’m assured by people who know better than I that these options exhaust the possibilities, and while I appreciate and agree with various concerns expressed by those who argue these approaches, I’d like to suggest a completely different way to approach these concerns – an approach that’s performative and functional.

On a recent out of town visit to my sister-in-law, she reminded me, “The water here is hard.” As we know, hard water is water that has a high mineral content. The phrase “hard water” lodged in my brain and set me thinking of how strange, almost illusive, language is that a word like “hard” can mean so many things. Take for example:

“Possesses high mineral content” used of water
“Dense or resistant to change” describing the mass of a physical object
“Intellectually challenging” of solving a math problem
“Stable in value” used of stocks or commodities
“Not prone to displays of sympathy or affection” describing a strict or severe father
“Potent or powerful in effect” of liquor
“Harsh or unpleasant” of a long and cold winter

272_-_words_as_artSome of these meanings are more closely related than others, but taken together they form the semantic field (the scope of possible meanings) of the word “hard.” Several interesting points this observation yields are that (1) there is no one meaning to the word “hard” (or to all but a small number of highly technical terms). There are only possibilities of meanings. And (2) the possibilities are contextually and socially determined, and they all describe aspects of our experience of the world. Language never escapes this existential grounding and social context. It is an attempt (and never more than an attempt) to map our experience of ourselves in the world we inhabit.

This grounding in experience is crucial to me because I’m going to suggest that existentially speaking, the distinctions between univocity/equivocity and analogy disappear (or it might be that they converge) in one and the same attempt to make sense of the experiences we have. Instead of assuming that language is our immediate reality and then adopting a deflationary view of our experience, let us explore the possibility that our experience is the more fundamental reality and that we should take a more deflationary or circumspect opinion about the adequacy of language to capture reality – whether the reality we’re talking about is God or the world. It seems to me that language fails at rendering both finally determinate.

I’d like to explore this debate and its subject (theological language and predication), then, from an entirely different approach, one that sidesteps the three standard options (univocity, equivocity, and analogy) and suggests a fourth, which I’ll call:

Functional

Or we might say that language predicates of God:

Functionally-teleologically

Theological predication is functionally related to theosis – to empowering, facilitating, and sharing the experience of God to the end that we become finally transformed in and – carefully said – into Christ. Christ-formation (in one’s self and the extent to which one is instrumental in empowering it in others) ought to be the measure of the success of our God-talk and not particularly which theory of reference one might adopt to express that transformation. Keeping this point central gives us a different vantage point than the standard options from which to think about our God-talk.

Let me state up front in this post a tentative conclusion and then explain in a Part 2 what reasons I think I have for taking this view. Simply stated, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as univocal predication when it comes to God-talk (and probably when it comes to talk of anything at all for that matter, but I’ll leave that for now), that analogy is probably the only thing we have but that as it is argued in the context of this debate, analogy also ends up failing. The chief reason I think these all fail is because they tend to excuse themselves from certain irreducible existential givens that define all human experience and end up becoming just theories of language and reference.

csm_asawa_bmc76_nd-1_7ffa4cfd83As strange as it may sound, I do mean to say that even univocal theories of theological language fail to take proper account of certain existential givens, which explains my opening paragraph. I mention this because proponents of univocity will appeal to the fact that we do experience God – not an analogy of God – for a view of reference that seeks to secure the integrity of this encounter but whicch ends up being very uncomfortable with the possibility that there is might be no conceptual horizon within which God can be circumscribed. I will agree we truly experience God within the givens of our finite, created capacities, but I’ll also agree (with Pryzwara) that all our experience has an irreducible transcendence about it to begin with which we never overcome or exhaust whether it’s the experience of God or the world around us that we’re describing. Because our capacities bear the image of God and are grounded and sustained in God, they remain irresistibly open to forever expanding our experience and enjoyment of God, an experience of one’s own self as unbounded and uncircumscribed.

Transcendence is experienced as an overwhelming presence to which our created natures answer with existential (never linguistic) fulfillment and ecstasy which at the same time perfectly anticipate the unknown the way awakened desire knows what it anticipates and anticipates what it doesn’t know. As far as one explores outwardly or inwardly, one finds no horizon that draws a final end to the possibilities of the ever-new, ever-surprising, and ever-enticing beauty of God which will not permit us to speak with finality. Language does what it can, and because we create our languages to map our shared experience, and new experiences (like the transforming ecstasy of experiencing God) will always stretch and exceed language.

The vantage point from which I’m suggesting we consider the purpose and function of theological language is a ‘functional’ view of language – functional relative to the “formation of Christ in us” (Gal. 4.19). The concern for language, then, ought to be about the success to which our language serves to increase conformity to Christ—period. From this vantage point, proponents of the standard alternatives – univocity and analogy – are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. Why do I say this? Because proponents of both agree that we truly experience God, not an analogy of God, and that our natures are fulfilled and perfected as Christ is truly formed in us. This agreement I believe makes irrelevant to a large extent theories of predication. Disagreements between these theories become a bit like arguing over whether the words “red” and “round” apprehending an apple univocally or analogically has anything to do with the experience of enjoying its sweetness when eaten. I’m suggesting the experience of the apple transcends (surprise) that entire disagreement.

Filling in the frame of our destiny

esotericDwayne shared some interesting thoughts on purity of heart from Harvey Egan’s (SJ) An Anthology of Christian Mysticism:

“The mystics insist, however, that the mystical life is more than heroic virtue or service to the world. These are the outward expressions of their union with God, the sacramental expression of their mystical lives. They are socially and often politically active because they seek God and God alone. Only this—not ‘experiences’, not a transformed personality, not serving the world—gives the mystical life its ultimate value.

“Nonetheless, the mystics are the most impressive servants of humanity the world has ever seen. These deified, christified, spirit-filled persons are the amplifiers of every person’s more hidden life of faith, hope, and love. Their lives help us bear the interior whispers and see the faint flickers of divine truth and love in ourselves and others. The Christian mystics point the way to fully authentic human life by illustrating what it means to be a human being, what life means: eternal union (which begins here) with the God of love.”

And from Dag Hammarskjold:

“We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours. He who wills adventure will experience it—according to the measure of his courage. He who wills sacrifice will be sacrificed—according to the measure of his purity of heart.”

And as well:

“To have humility is to experience reality, not in relation to ourselves, but in its sacred independence. It is to see, judge, and act from the point of rest in ourselves. Then, how much disappears, and all that remains falls into place. In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way. Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud, a revelation, each man a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple, but it opens to us a book in which we never get beyond the first syllable.”

Erich Przywara: Analogia Entis

erichReading through an introduction to Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis: Metaphysics (1932), I had to post a couple of paragraphs. Przywara (of German-Polish decent) was a Jesuit priest and scholar who exerted profound influence upon his contemporaries, an influence that looks to grow through a recent English translation of his Analogia Entis.

The quote is part of John Betz’s introduction to Przywara’s book, and I’d like to include Betz’s opening paragraph:

“As he [Przywara] puts it, recalling the theme of divine infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, ‘Even if we were to have the most sublime experience of mystical union, would we then have any right to come to a stopping point and dream of having finally attained a state of ‘immediacy’ or a state of ‘maximal knowledge’ or a state of ‘ultimate proximity’?’ He answers with a single paradoxical phrase from Augustine: Invenitur quaerendus! [‘He is found in order to be sought!’] In other words, with respect to God, ‘Even the greatest finding is but the beginning of a new searching’. Przywara beautifully makes the same point a few years later in a lecture from 1926:

Thus all our wandering in Him and to Him is itself a tension between an ineffable proximity and an ineffable distance. Every living thing…everything that happens, is full of His presence. ‘He is not far from us; for in Him we live and move and have our being’. But we grow in our sense of His fullness only in the measure that we do not equate Him with any created thing or circumstance, that is, in the measure that we stand at an ultimate distance from every particular shining of His face. He is the one who lights up before us when we stand at a distance, and who lights up before us to urge us on. He is the infinite light that becomes ever more distant the closer we come to Him. Every finding is the beginning of a new searching. His blessed intimacy is the experience of His infinite transcendence. No morning of mystical marriage is a definitive embrace of His fullness; no mystical night of despair a detachment from His presence….He compels us into all the riches and changes of world and life in order that we might experience Him anew and more richly as beyond this world and life. And, ultimately, this indissoluble tension of proximity and distance to Him is but the innermost revelation of His own primal mystery, by which He is in us and beyond us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, such that we love him as proximity itself, and, yet again, farther away from us than any other distance, such that we revere Him with trembling as distance itself. God in us and God beyond us.

Here again we see the basic point of the analogia entis, which Przywara reiterates throughout his early work: there is no genuine natural or supernatural experience of God that does not give way to reverent distance and silent adoration…As he puts it in 1927, What is meant by analogia entis is precisely this: that in the very same act in which the human being comes to intimate God in the likeness of the creature, he also comes to intimate Him as the one who is beyond all likeness.”