Here is the third of five engagements around Pete Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God.
It is by Geoff Holsclaw, co-pastor of Life on the Vine, who is preparing for a Ph.D in theology and ethics, investigating the intersection of liturgical theology and far left political theory. Geoff can also be found at for the time being.
“If the Lord is Risen, why can’t we see Him?”
…From Post-Metaphysical to Sacramental Theology
by Geoffrey J.D Holsclaw
I don’t know about you, but I like it when people just tell me where we are going. So here it is. After an appreciative summary of Pete argument in Part One of How (Not) to Speak of God, I will offer an immanent critique (a critique internal to his presuppositions) of his project. After this I will outline what I see as a continuation of his project be other means, via sacramental theology, attempting to answer the question implicit in the story of the Road to Emmaus, “If the Lord is Risen, why can’t we see Him?”
So read in the order you desire: if you haven’t read the book, start at the beginning; if you just want the critique, go to the middle; if you just want my augmentation of Pete’s project, go to the end.
beyond the conceptual idol
At the very beginning, Pete offers this summary of the contours and trajectory of his book, making a distinction between “right believing” and “believing in the right way.”
“Instead of following the Greek-influence idea of orthodoxy as right belief, these chapters show that the emerging community is helping us to rediscover the more Hebraic and mystical notion of the orthodox Christian as one who believes in the right way—that is, believing in a loving, sacrificial and Christlike manner…Thus orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world.” (2-3).
Pete makes this distinction because he is concerned not only with what we believe, but also how we believe it, taking sides with what he construes as the more Hebraic ‘how’ of belief against the more Greek ‘what’ of belief.
He makes this distinction as way of acknowledging the important postmodern critique of knowledge supplied by the hermeneutics of suspicion and the ‘critique of ideology’ (spurred on by the works of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud). With this critique of knowledge we have come to better see that all our reasoning is culturally situated/mediated rather than objectively neutral, and this includes our conceptions of God. In the wake of this critique emerge two side of the same coin: there is either the conservative reaction denying the mediated status of knowledge/belief, asserting the objective nature of truth, or the liberal reaction of giving up on all God-talk as merely the echoes of the human voice. Pete hopes to offer a third alternative.
Pete hooks up this ideology critique to the biblical critique of idolatry, which includes both the visible fashioning of God in an image and the invisible representation of God in a concept. By this Pete reminds us that this type of critique is internal to our own biblical narrative, and ought to be taken seriously not only as a check against theological speculation, but also as a resource of faith, spurring us beyond our cognitive complacency into a vital relationship with God, because “the God we are in relationship with is bigger, better and different than our understanding of that God” (19). .
With the dual blades of Ideology and Idolatry, Pete hopes to cut through the thicket of metaphysical speculation, opening a space from a true encounter with God. As Pete says, theological discourse comes on the scene in the aftermath of God. Theology comes into the clearing after God has been there, attempting to speak about that which speech cannot contain, because God can never become a mere object for language or comprehension, but rather is always excessive of language and thought. Because the encounter of God is always excessive, theology is properly a/theological as the site of speaking of God while recognizing that speech fails to define God (21).
Pete outlines several ways our God-talk is a/theological. 1) God is always Subject, never Object: Our theological discourse can make God into an object. But because God can never be a mere object of reflection, but rather is a subject of interaction with whom we relate, our discourse is inevitable atheological, a misspeaking of God. Because God is always a Subject, our object based discourse must therefore be a/theological. 2) God as hyper-present: Against the theological discourse that attempts to make God present in concepts and representations, and against the atheological discourse postulating the absolute absence/death of God, a/theology speaks of the hyper-presence of God. God is not absent, but excessively present, for “God not only overflows and overwhelms our understanding but also overflows and overwhelms our experience” (23), exploding the opposition between a fundamentalist reduction to conceptual presence and a liberal resignation to absence. 3) God as hypernymous: We do not lack information concerning God’s identity, making God anonymous. Rather we are overflowing with information and sensation of the God who is both utterly transcendent yet immanent in all we do/have/are. God as the hyper-present, hypernymous, and always Subject, is therefore the God beyond metaphysics, exceeding the comprehension, articulations, and definitions of human intellect.
In this a/theological discourse affirm we “our view of God while at the same time realizing that that view is inadequate.” So consequently,
“we act as both theist and atheist. This a/theist is not some agnostic middle point hovering hesitantly between theism and atheism but, rather, actively embraces both out of profound faith…” (25). “This a/theism is thus a deeply religious and faith-filled form of cynical discourse, one which captures how faith operates in an oscillation between understanding and unknowing” (26). “The point is not that our beliefs are inherently problematic but only that they become problematic when held in a manner that would claim more than some provisional, pragmatic response to that which transcends conceptualization.” (26)
This a/theistic approach does not exclude or undermine faith, but rather allows us to maintain an unflinching belief in God (as one believes in a person one trusts) while maintaining humility when attempting to describe what exactly God is” (26).
transformation of truth
All of this leads back to Pete’s central concern regarding the need for a transformative relationship through “believing in the right way” over merely “believing the right thing.” This “believing in the right way” leads Pete to reformulate the typical understanding of truth as “descriptive claims concerning the Real or reality” with the more “Judeo-Christian view of truth is concerned with having a relationship with the Real (God) that results in us transforming reality. The emphasis is thus not on description but on transformation… To know the Truth is thus to be known and transformed by the Truth” (56).
Immanent Critique: all too metaphysical? top
Now it is quite fashionable these days that when you are attempting to refute someone, you point out how they are really participating in the discourse they are attempting to escape. This is the typical deconstructive moment. And I confess I am going to continue this gesture, but not to simply refute, but to move through and farther. I am sincerely grateful for Pete’s articulation of this position (which I think has been rightfully helpful to many people) and I hope that the space he has cleared for a new theological discussion will be fruitfully filled by many voices who not only speak of God, but through whom God speaks.
Critique #1: As Heidegger said of Sartre, and Derrida said of Levinas, to negate a metaphysical statement is still to make a metaphysical statement. Or, to speak against the Greeks is still to be speaking Greek. I raise this critique not because I think it is overwhelming, but to highlight the difficulty and awkwardness of attempting to overcome metaphysics through the use of superlatives (hyper-, excessive, overwhelming, overflowing). And setting up a polemic between Greek (what to believe) and Hebrew (how to believe) mentalities does not really help the situation. “What” to believe and “how” to believe it are inescapably related. But more importantly…
Critique #2: Through his book Pete opts for the Hebrew side of the Greek/Hebrew polemic, yet I would suggest that he reads his Hebrew mentality through Greek conceptions. We can see this in his coupling of ‘ideology’ and ‘idolatry’. Pete does this by linking the Greek usage of ideology as the (conceptual) speaking/logos of the essence/eidos, with idolatry as the (aesthetic) showing of the essence of God (12). But in this Pete reads the Hebrew thru the Greek, making everything about concepts and representation, which seems to be against his project of returning from the Babylonian captivity of Greek metaphysics to a Hebraic relationality. Pete puts the emphasis of idolatry on speaking/showing rather than relating/worshipping. Emphasizing the latter instead of the former would be the more adequate reading of Hebrew idolatry. Idolatry happens in two ways: worshipping a false god, or worshipping the true God falsely. The issue is that of praise/worship, not merely of thinking/seeing. The ‘essential’ issue from the Hebraic perspective is not merely that one cannot (ought not) conceptualize God, but rather that one ought not worship God wrongly, which puts us squarely on the inter-subjective (recognition) plane rather than the merely informational (cognition) plane. Of course, I think this is the very point that Pete hopes to make, but his post-metaphysic polemic obscures it.
This emphasis on worship leads me to my last concern.
Critique #3: The opposition that Pete sets up between the Greek “right belief” and the Hebraic “believing in the right way” is centered on his rendering of ‘orthodox’ according to the Greek etymology of ortho- as ‘right’, and –doxa as ‘opinion’ or ‘belief’. Therefore, ‘orthodoxy’ is about “right belief.” Seems simple enough, right?
But the problem is this excludes any kind of Hebraic appropriation of the word ‘orthodoxy’, and instead reads the Greek etymology into the Hebrew usage. Instead, we need to read the Greek through the Hebrew. If we do this, then we look at the Greek translations of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), and notice that doxa is consistently used to translate the Hebrew word kabod, which means “glory”, typically in reference to YHWH’s glorious, and Theophanous, presence (see passages such as “the kabod/glory of God was on Mt. Sinai” or the “kabod/glory of God passed by Moses in the cleft of the rock”, Ex. 24:16, 33:22). Doxa in this Hebrew usage, is always about the terrible, overwhelming, Event of God’s nearest, manifested here on Earth. Or, to continue, we could look at the more common word doxology which in Christian liturgy signals the saying of high praise at the end of a service (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”) and which literally means “glorious (doxa) words (logos).”
The real problem that I see (as expressed in both critiques #2 & #3) is that Pete makes the problem of theology principally about “belief” coupled with a concern for knowledge and definitions, instead of flowing from a more inter-subjective perspective of prayer and worship (…and I think Pete’s goal is really to get us back to prayer). Pete argues from a rejection of “right belief” toward a “belief in the right way”, but both of these take “belief” as their normative components rather than being conditioned by ‘right worship/praise/prayer.’
Now, I offer these critiques not because I want to show that the “emperor has no clothes” and go my merrily way, congratulating myself on how smart I am. I offer them because I generally like Pete’s theological wardrobe, but, being the conscientious consumer that I am, I’m concerned that some items might have been made in sweatshops rather than in fair trade factories, and that we need to be discerning about how we dress ourselves.
But moving on…
From Post-Metaphysical to Sacramental Theology top
Now what I want to briefly suggest below is not a refutation by any means, but a pushing farther into what I believe are implicit trajectories in Pete’s thought, especially the concern to move from a informational/descriptive perspective to a personal/transformational perspective concerning theology. Concisely put: Instead of making the transition from informational descriptions to interpersonal encounter culminate in an apophatic, mystical theology, we should attend to the resources already found in Christian liturgies and sacramental theology. To do this I will rely on the sacramental theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet, in Symbol and Sacrament.
Briefly stated, Chauvet fully embraced the critique of ontotheology as expressed in the works of Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida. Part One of his book outlines the shift he hopes to accomplish from a metaphysical sacramental theology to a symbolic understanding of sacramental theology. His book is over 500 pages long, so I will just hit the highlights.
Along with Rollins, Chauvet accepts 1) the critique of ontotheology, 2) the view that reality is always already mediated through language and culture, 3) and that language both builds a ‘reality’ to live into and also alienates us from the ‘Real.’ All of this Chauvet calls the ‘symbolic order’:
This symbolic order designates the system of connections between the different elements and levels of a culture (economic, social, political, ideological—ethics, philosophy, religion…), a system forming a coherent whole that allows the social group and individuals to orients themselves in space, find their place in time, and in general situate themselves in the world in a significant way. (84)
But lest you think this is all so rosy, Chauvet also pulls on board the typically post-structuralist move that the ‘symbolic order’ simultaneously generates the ‘person/subject’ (as in give her a place to talk about reality, articulate relationships and events, narrate histories and so forth), all the while being the place of utter alienation from oneself. This alienation is constitutive because we can never escape mediation, there is always a gap between who “I” say I am, and who I really am; I can never become myself. Because of this essential mediation, the “person” is never completed or finished, but is always in a state of becoming. The human “subject” is always in a process of becoming itself, consenting to the presence of the absence, and persisting in a mode of perpetual mourning.
But, “the condition of being always on the way, which is the fate of the human subject, is not an aimless wondering in a desert waste without landmarks” (99). The emergence of human subjectivity (the ability to inhabit a world and relate to other subjects) is essentially an inter-subjective process, which has a type of logic to it.
To elucidate this process we must make a distinction within language between cognition and recognition. On the level of cognition, language is used to refer to objects, assigning them traits and definition, always moving toward a certain level exactitude. This use of language is exemplified by scientific discourse. However, on the level of recognition, the “function of language is not to designate an object or to transmit information—which all language also does—but first to assign a place to the subject in its relation to others” (119). Or again, “every discourse can be read on two different levels: either on the level of the symbol, as a language of “recognition,” foundation of the identity of the group and individual, and agent of cohesion…between subjects within their cultural world, or on the level of sign, as a language of “cognition,” aiming at delivering information and at passing judgments.” So the language at the level of cognition concern “things,” while at the level of recognition concerns “persons.”
The emergence of the ‘subject’ is within this level of ‘recognition,’ which is that of the ‘symbolic order.’ This emergence happens through a process of ‘symbolic exchange.’ Against an understanding of ‘market exchanges’ based on the value of things and objects traded to meet needs and desires (which exists on the level of cognition), there is the place of ‘symbolic exchange’ where “the true objects being exchanged are the subjects themselves…[In this exchange] subjects weave or reweave alliances, they recognize themselves as full members of the tribe, where they find their identity in showing themselves in their proper place, and in putting others in their ‘proper place’” (106).
the symbol made flesh
Now all of this might sound extremely abstract, but Chauvet wants to emphasize that it is not, but in fact the ‘symbolic order’ (and the ‘symbolic exchange’ which constitutes us as human persons) is as close to us as our very own skin, our own bodies. Again, drawing on cultural anthropology as well as Heidegger and Derrida, Chaubet outlines that there is an essential corporality of the ‘symbolic order’ which unites our very bodies with cultural and cosmic existence. Each person’s body exists only as woven, inhabited, or spoken by the triple body of culture/society, tradition/ancestral, and natural/cosmic. Our daily existence with our own bodies is an intersection of these three bodies (cultural/traditional/cosmic) integrating and situating the whole person within a network or relationship with their own selves, other people, the tradition of their parent/ancestors, and with the gods. (And, men, if you don’t think any of this is applicable, then just ask a woman about the issues she or her friends have with their own bodies.)
From Symbol to Sacrament
Everything I have laid out so far is in a sense merely prolegomena for Chauvet. But it is a theoretical approach, which when augmenting Pete’s project, help clarify issues and moves forward, issues which I will outline in a second. From this anthropological perspective Chauvet begins his theological reflection concerning the sacraments which I will only briefly outline using his reflections on the stories called The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the “Necrotic” temptation (the temptation find the dead body of Christ).
The basic question of this story is, “If the Lord is Risen, why can’t we see Him?” The answer of the text is that Jesus is found in the stories and gestures of the community he began. At the beginning of the story the disciples cannot see Jesus, something is preventing them. Yet Jesus opens up the scriptures to them and explains how the Christ must suffer before entering into his glory. But it was not merely with scripture that Christ revealed himself to them, but around the table, the Eucharistic table. Only when they entered into his gestures and practices (his ministry of table fellowship) that he had invested with his own body (“This is my Body), did they SEE him. But then he vanishes. Christ is no longer present with them. But he is not exactly absent either.
As we saw above, just as the human subject is always in a process of becoming because of the essential mediation of language/culture (the Symbolic Order), so too the Christian is always in a process of becoming, of coming into faith. And this process is not accomplished without mediation, but through the symbolic saturation of sacramental practices, which is principally in the Church, the primal sacrament, which is the symbolic body of Christ.
I could go on and on (as we all could I suppose), but I will end it here. My basic suggestion is that while we certainly must be suspicious of language that seeks to make God into and object, merely on the level of cognition, but must embrace that language functions not merely as a medium of relation between “things,” but more importantly is a medium of recognition between persons. This medium in which we persisting in the perpetual process of coming into belief through participation in the symbolic exchange of recognition principally within the Eucharist, and generally in the sacraments, where the presence of the Absent One nourishes us.