The Shape of Love in the World
‘I teach the blatant Latin language. I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. Dominus! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus! Lord Salisbury. A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek!...Kyrios! Shining word!’
(Joyce, 1922, p. 169, para. 2,3)
The celebrated twentieth century novelist James Joyce, who wrote the words above, sometimes took up the cause for his fellow Irish people over and against their English colonisers. That is what he is doing here as he likens the English to the Latin conquerors of ancient Greece, and the Irish, along with ‘all the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar’, to an annexed Hellenistic culture and civilisation. (Joyce, 1922, p.169, para.3) In Joyce’s historiographical précis the Greeks (read also ‘the Irish’) are conquered but still lending their literature, theatre, religion and manners to the Romans (read also ‘the English’) who are caricatured by this polemic as little more than a successful army.
But whether he meant to or not Joyce was also making an argument for an alternative Christology. In this endeavour he puts forward a Christology done from ‘from below’, positioning itself as post-colonial. He, interpreting from the standpoint of a colonised Irishman, understood the words ‘Lord Jesus’ as occupying the same kind of cultural space in the English language as heard by Dubliners as the words ‘Lord Salisbury’ and even as the image of ‘a sofa in a westend club’. He wanted that conflation of terms, which he viewed as a travesty of their Christological meaning, exposed and undone for the imperial lie he believed it was.
The James Joyce quote is a productive place to start an essay dealing critically with the challenge to hermeneutics that emerges in the context of post modernity. Firstly it highlights that concepts of ‘the Christ’ might accrete meanings in one culture that are heard as, in this case oppressive, in another culture. Secondly it makes the case that these accretions accrue discursively. Twentieth century philosopher Michel Foucault held that syntactical expression itself is always inevitably a culturally construed representation of reality. What governed the construction of a sentence was what he called ‘discourse’ (see for an example of Foucault’s argument for the existence and effects of discourses, Foucault, M. 1982, p. 208 para 4 – p. 209 para. 1). A particular discourse communicates power relationships as well as knowledge by circumscribing what is conceptually and linguistically available to the expressing subject. Furthermore, if conceptual thought depends on syntactical construction, a powerful discourse renders some things inconceivable. Here Joyce questions the dominant discourse, which he diagnoses as ‘English’, and he is able to do so by questioning the very linguistic terms of its Christology. English language; the language of ‘English’ political and cultural hegemony, the language of ‘English’ market forces, the language of ‘English’ Christology ─ all these are questioned by Joyce’s pithy invective. He re-circumscribes the argument by juxtaposing imported Christological terms (from what he regards as sufficiently alternative discourses, the uses of which are not themselves without a certain Joycean irony) so that a new discourse about Christ is called for, a discourse that can more adequately express a Christology for the Dubliners of his time.
Without this cognisance of the post-colonial context, any Christology that is articulated runs the risk of being a re-iteration of Christ as a powerful cultural icon yes, but powerful icon only of the dominant culture. Michael Welker warns against an unreflected upon, unthinking appropriation of Christ by culture when he writes that ‘Jesus Christ as powerful cultural icon goes hand in hand with a widespread weariness of or even aversion to Jesus’ (Welker, M., ,2002, p.133, para. 4). Welker is not saying that Jesus has no resonance, but that the resonance he has today as a cultural icon strikes all the wrong notes; that it makes people tired and creates an aversion. Here, in our example from colonised Ireland, what makes people weary is servitude (‘we serve them’ Joyce p. 169, para 2). When Christ’s rule is brought to bear to help legitimate colonial rule (or any rule), then the mention of his name also gives rise to the phenomenon of weariness attendant on servitude. The imperative in a post-colonial, post-structural world is obvious: if Christ is not distinguished somehow from a culture that would rule us, then Christ will in some commensurate way be dispensed with as colonial rule is sloughed off.
Responsible meaning making:
Hans-Georg Gadamer said that the hermeneutic is inescapable, universal; that interpretation goes ‘all the way down’. That is to say, there is no irreducible ground of being or knowing we can arrive at after critical inquiry that cannot itself be shown to be mediated by interpretation. One thing that is exciting about this understanding for a person seeking Christian understanding is that it kills off idolatry. Working against our tendency to construct an idol – that which is not God but which pretends to be God – it works in this way: It reveals that as soon as our doing theology attempts to describe God, it is shown to be automatically a description of our God. In as much as description, critical study and method is in some measure our description study and method, that is to say we as interpreting subjects are personally and hermeneutically involved in the construction process, then to this degree the resulting description is understood as a description of God that does not allow ‘him’ to be, but instead one which circumscribes God in our own terms. It is a creation of ‘a god’. It is idolatry.
I think we have to let God be who God will be. In this sense, which is of course impossible without encounter with God, God is the subject and we are the objects. Our subjective ‘knowing’ of God will always be provisional as long as we are embedded in the semiotic webs of the world. If we can look forward to a moment when ‘we will know even as we are fully known’ that moment is not yet. I’m excited about that because it means that there’s always something more to find out about the one who evades our attempts at finally knowing, for finally knowing always means a loss of fascination, an emptying of the future of any promise; a loss of innocence for the one who feels that they know finally now.
There’s also no need to panic about the apparent universality of interpretation. It needn’t cause a total disorientation and a giving up on quests for meaning so that even provisional meanings are abandoned. That is to say, accepting that interpretation goes all the way down doesn’t mean that all possible meanings therefore have equal merit. It seems that some methods and critical tools prove themselves more suitable to hermeneutics than do others. These more suitable tools are, it seems, the methods and frameworks which take the phenomenon of interpretation into account when postulating possible meanings. As can be anticipated this very often means that the meanings that are generated by these methods are expressed in a way in which an acknowledgement of their provisional nature and contingency is included. Sometimes this acknowledgement is explicit, sometimes it is implicit. For an example of an implicit acknowledgement of contingency in hermeneutics, the proposed meaning may be expressed in a form in which it is generally understood that more than one meaning will be allowed or even encouraged. Metaphor, imagery and parabolic language fulfils this requirement. In these literary forms one or more things stand for other things, so that some things are included in the simile while other things are excluded. That is to say the reader is taken seriously and may find things in the ‘said’ or the ‘written’ that the speaker or writer did not consciously intend. Prose can also be made to include the ‘space’ for contingency and further interpretations to the meaning being offered. It seems to me to make sense that the best academic writing in philosophy and theology should aim to be this kind of ‘meaningful but also spacious’ writing. The best sermons – the only ones that really interest me – are written and spoken in this way. Its not ‘saying nothing’ – why say anything if nothing of any meaning may be said – but its certainly not pretending to ‘say everything’ or a final word.
Critical questions about religious language arise. For instance, why then does religious language appear to make such universal claims? And, are these universal claims equivalent to a positivist summative statement?
‘In his later and more developed work, [Ian] Ramsey appeals to the logic of metaphorical language. He recalls the contemporary understanding of metaphor not as a substitute for literal meaning but as an emergent meaning occasioned by the tension or interaction between various “literal” words’(Tracy, 1978, p. 122) For Ramsey ‘odd’ personal disclosures need ‘odd’ i.e. non literal language. ‘To articulate ‘odd’ personal disclosures, either poetic, ethical or religious language may prove appropriate.’ Within the group ‘non literal language’ religious language is uniquely appropriate to certain situations. Drawing on the work of Ian Ramsey, David Tracy writes that ‘the empirical place of religious language involves not only discernment or disclosure but also a total commitment and a claim to universal significance. What kind of language would be appropriate to such situations? Ramsey’s ingenious response is that a language with a particular kind of “qualifier” is needed. We find the need to qualify our normal object language to the point of infinity in order to express a total commitment and a universal significance. (Tracy, 1978, p. 122) But is Ian Ramsey’s conclusion that religious language is expressive of a universal commitment and a universal significance concomitant with positivist assumptions and positions about the nature of doctrinal claims which we have critiqued here as idolatrous? I think these terms are not concomitant if hermeneutics are taken seriously. For example, the universal claim that God is infinitely loving uses the ‘odd’ object-referment for that which is past our knowing. God is a ‘limit’ concept, where ‘limit’ indicates a concept at the limits of human language in which words are signifiers and therefore work by means of making comparisons. The theological statement ‘God is infinitely loving’ uses the word ‘God’ which is, strictly speaking not an object beside other objects, but an object besides ‘no-thing’ of our direct experience, and then the empirical qualifier ‘infinitely’. So far hermeneutics has not much to interpret but then comes the rich word that gives description to one of the deepest existential longings known to our experience: ‘loving’. What does it mean to be loved? Well that depends on where you are standing when you are standing in need of love. Are you ashamed, or are you poor, are you strong, weak or brutal? Are you a man, a woman, a child, or a person of transgender? Are you straight or are you gay? Are you young or are you old? Are you tired and empty after a life-time of giving your love to others, or have you hardly been able to love at all? In this analysis the universality of the theological statement is directly derived from the universality of hermeneutics itself; the diversity of possible meanings and permutations of subjectivities. It applies precisely because it allows a proper plurality of interpretations and applications.
I feel that the useful following of the hermeneutical unravelling of positivist certitude is something along these lines: We cannot be absolutely sure of saying anything for others as well as for ourselves, but, that said, we may be able to be surer about some things than we are about others. Its important to know what you can, or even what you want to be surer of. I am, or at least want to be, surer than I am of saying most other things of saying that ‘there is no human violence in God’; that the real God, whoever he is, has nothing to do with human violence. The reason I offer that I am reasonably sure that ‘there is no human violence in God’ is that that is the first position I come to from a critical analysis (let’s say a phenomenological analysis) of contemporary human experience. From this first position it is possible that I can infer that ‘God is Love’, particularly as I also conduct a hermeneutical phenomenological analysis of Christian texts, but it is not the first conclusion that is drawn.
In an analysis of contemporary human experience I know that human violence is very often done in the name of God, but I also notice that every time, seemingly without exception, the God that is named is precisely one of those ‘not God’ constructions that, in the terms of the phenomenon of hermeneutics, qualify as a false God; an idol. From this I can conclude that whatever ‘the real God’ is, wherever this real God is, he/she or it will always be somewhere out of the reach of human appropriations involving violence. This is important both methodologically and for the import of the conclusion about violence and God. Methodologically it allows us to say that, whilst God is unknowable in a final sense, it may be possible to say with some degree of confidence something about what God is not. This is a circumspect and useful way of doing theology. One related method in the Western Latin tradition has been called the Via Negativa – the negative way, or negative theology (as apposed to ‘positivism’ which seeks to find irreducible things to say about what an object ‘is’). In the Eastern Orthodox tradition it is called apophatic theology: something along the lines of, ‘we cannot adequately express the ineffable using human language, but our task is to spend our lives approaching making more and more adequate expressions’.
But we need to critique what we have done using our own framework. In ruling out violence have we, seemingly, limited God. Have we not prevented God from acting how he pleases? And is this itself an imposition on God, an image, an idol? Well, yes, but only if violence is something. We might be able to theorize that violence is, in fact, ‘no thing’, that it is not a thing in and of itself, but that it is only the negation of something, a desecration of the divine image found in human beings, and a distorting of something else that is; violence is uncreative action. In this case saying that God is never violent would not be to limit who God can and cannot be for us, but to free the concept of God from the finitude and drudgery of violence. Violence in this interpretation becomes a losing of something; losing one’s temper, losing control, losing love, etc. Here we are saying that there is no violence in God in the present tense. This does not limit God to an entity that never can be violent, but understands that, should he become violent, he will become something different, something less than he is now for us. Should he choose to do this, which freedom to be who he will be would allow him to do, he would at that moment surrender his being as it is given to be and assume a different being, a being that is now more limited, a being circumscribed by the limitations of being violent. This is not saying God has no capacity for violence, it is saying that he may or may not have the capacity, but we do not see evidence of his involvement in human violence. This means that saying ‘God is’, or to use the self designation of God, ‘I am’, gives rise to the logical corollary ‘I am love’. Love is being, violence un-being, and so on. The fact that an ardent atheist would point out that that’s precisely because we do not see evidence of the ‘real God’ in the world makes no difference at all. Here, tellingly, authentic no-idolatrous faith looks as close as is possible, while still maintaining some belief, to atheism. Belief in a God like no other god is very close to belief in no God at all. If, however, there is a real God, by our reasonably rigorous hermeneutic we can find absolutely no evidence that he is complicit with any of the phenomena associated with human violence.
In this parsimonious ground I plant a mustard seed of faith: There is no violence in God, I say! But look what flows from this. If there is a God, it seems that his assiduous avoidance of involvement in our violence is carried on even at the cost of being less available to our senses. Indeed, if there is a God, it seems to me that the most important thing to ‘him’ in the world is not ‘being known’ but ‘being known properly as infinite love’. This imanifests itself as the scrupulous distancing of himself from our various and endlessly mercurial interpretations of force, coercion and violence so that, in order to avoid being conscripted into one side or another of our conflicts and rather than become inscribed in the various imperial languages we concoct to keep ‘our shows on the road’ he goes on almost without being known.
My friend Kim Thoday, who was a student of Athol Gill, heard Athol reflecting about a trip to the newly re- united Germany just before Athol died in 1992. Having studied in Switzerland under Eduard Schweizer as a younger man, he was keen to see some of the sites of historical interest that had previously been inaccessible to him behind Europe’s ‘Iron Curtain’. Gill described visiting the site of a former Nazi death camp. As Athol Gill described the experience of reflection on the history of the holocaust, Kim reflected on the too often dystopic consequences of ideologically informed social arrangements in the twentieth century. ‘You can’t organise goodness’, Kim said, ‘goodness can only come into the world through spontaneous individualistic acts of self sacrifice.’
Perhaps, then, God works in erasure. His work cannot be triumphalised or institutionalised without corrupting it. He ever evades our attempts to triumphalise or imperialise projections of our violent selves onto him. To the God of this interpretation it may be more important for him not to be involved in hurting us than it is important to him that we are able to subjectively know and therefore love him. If there is a God, this self effacing behaviour, this apparent preparedness to remain unknown in order not to be complicit in our committing of spiritual abuses (that is exactly what happens every time someone more or less successfully convinces themselves or someone else that God is ‘on their side’), this putting up with being forgotten, this is exactly what unselfish love looks like. I will conclude that the ultimately unknowable God is all Love after all, all gratuitous Love. Hallelujah, thanks be to God!
Foucault, Michel, (1982), (first published in French in 1969), The Archaeology of Knowledge , N.Y: Pantheon.
Joyce, James, (1960), (first published 1922) Ulysses, Gr Britain: The Bodley Head
Tracy, David, (1978), Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology, N.Y.: The Seabury Press
Welker, M, (2002) ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’ in Harvard Theological Review. (95), pp. 129 - 146