Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Reflections on an Obscure Hope

Today, of all days, I began what will be my first significant archivable contribution – however meager – to the store of human knowledge. Today, of all days, I put finger to keyboard and electronically inscribed text, some of which will – hopefully – make it to the final form of my doctoral dissertation.

I find it worth registering and archiving this moment, this day, not in order to make any promises about the quality or importance of the work that I will – hopefully – one day complete. I single out this moment, this day, because the work that I began today cannot really be begun today.

I planned to compose a chapter on the relation between history and redemption – a relation that is, in fact, a non-relation. I planned to explore what Gershom Scholem calls a “theory of catastrophe.” This is a theory whose practice would seem exceedingly problematic, if not terroristic. The fact is, however, that this theory of catastrophe has no practice, properly – historically – speaking. This theory of catastrophe only names a transition, or a lack of transition, between the temporal and profane movement of history on the one hand, and the end of history on the other.

History can be thought of as the temporal flow that many would like to believe is carrying us toward a redemption that is immanent, calculable and implementable – what we could call a theory of “progress.” It is only from this perspective, from the perspective of the ideology of progress, that the end of history appears to be a “catastrophe.” That is, from the perspective of history, redemption (and redemption is still a category of modern “secular” politics) would be the completion and fulfillment of human progress and not its interruption.

But should, indeed, can redemption be forced to produce and endure such a “progress.” History as progress is, in one sense, an archive of human knowledge and accomplishment. But it is one that has been purchased at the price of innumerable atrocities. It is thus, a “document of barbarism” and an archive of violence. Would not redemption better be thought of as the “end” of history in terms of the dissolution of violence and barbarism instead of its “end” as its telos and justification? Would not redemption be the interruption of history…maybe even today?

This seems to me, or it seemed to me before today – and probably only for today – to be an important category of historiography, and of politics. But today, and – hopefully – only for today, the archive of human progress has displayed itself one-sidedly: in honor, despite its shame; in peace, despite its wars; in freedom, despite its slavery. This is not to say that what we have witnessed today is honor, peace and freedom, but it has displayed itself as such. This is a spectacle, no doubt, but it is a spectacle that in some oblique way – hopefully – points to, promises, that which exceeds its own immanent progress and escapes its ineffaceable violence.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008


Proper 15 (20) Year A - Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.
11:2a God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
11:29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
11:30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,
11:31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.
11:32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Strange choice: to break up a section of text, leaving a rhetorical question hanging – thus making it cease to be rhetorical and to become a question of knowing or not knowing. So, “do you not know?” Whether or not one knows, what will be clear to the hearers of this week’s text is that of the total irrevocability of a promise.

The final verses are dialectical in their reasoning: the total negation of innocence in order that this negation of innocence might be negated. Mercy is the result.
Nothing, it seems, is outside the totality – no innocence in guilt, no guilt in innocence. No remainder, no remnant.

But the remainder or the remnant is precisely the trope that sustains the argument Paul is developing here (in the occluded verses). It is not a totalizing or dialectical co-implication of guilt and mercy. Total guilt is thwarted by a remnant of the just and mercy is possible because of the minimal continuity of this thin thread of justice. This reasoning is not dialectical and the totalizing that does emerge is a totalizing that is absolute: it is that which absolves itself from any dialectical movements of history. If the eschaton is history’s telos, it is, from the perspective of the historical – the “profane” in Benjamin’s terms – not its completion or its supplement, but its (catastrophic) end.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Theological Death Drive

Lent 3: Romans 5:1-11
5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
5:2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,
5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
5:5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
5:7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.
5:8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
5:9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
5:10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
5:11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The Lectionary doubles back and returns to Romans 5, 2 weeks later and 11 verses earlier. The excess of grace is again (or already) given in comparative terms: “much more surely…” The limit between abundance and superabundance, between grace as gift and grace as gratuitousness is the limit between death and life. This limit is doubly significant. It is significant eschatologically: As proleptic, Christ’s death and resurrection is the possibility of our resurrection – death is already our “ownmost possibility” (according to Heidegger) – death will ultimately loose its grasp. But it is significant also in terms of historical action. Participation in the eschatological resurrection is deferred by a temporal interval and a historical demand. Death is no mere natural fact. If Christ’s death is the paradigm, then death is a political act. But, of course, death can only be understood as a political act if resurrection is considered a possibility. Further, the historical iteration of the death of Christ takes “symbolic” form. Both in terms of a certain withdrawal from the symbolic order (from the demands of the big other) and in terms of the liturgical (re)citation.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Iterability and the Christ Event

Lent 1: Romans 5:12-19

5:12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-
5:13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.
5:14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
5:15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.
5:16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.
5:17 If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
5:18 Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
5:19 For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

Why is the Christ here figured as a type, as the iteration (which means a repetition that includes both difference and deferral, that is, the general structure of differance) of someone who has come before? The Christ event is here still just that – an event – but it is not absolutely singular, it is not without precedent. Does this thereby diminish the eventfulness of the event? Does it mean that Christ is somehow just the provisional name of an archetypal form? Or, is this a purely hermeneutical/rhetorical move?

A certain principle of iterability does seem to be at work here. Derrida implores: “Let us not forget that ‘iterability’ does not signify simply…repeatability of the same, but rather alterability of this same idealized in the singularity of the event…” (Limited Inc, 119) The event is not diffused in the light of the revelation of its iterability, it is simply re-imagined. The singularity of the Christ event does not lie in its purely arbitrary divine origin, but in its adherence to and, at the same time, divergence from a previous moment. The grace that the second Adam unleashes is gratuitous. But gratuitousness is still a measure: it is “more than…” it is “in excess of…” The singularity of the grace inaugurating Christ event is here thematized in terms of small displacements – “much more surely.” In this way the aphorism – a condensed Talmudic image – that claims that when the Messiah comes there will be only a “slight difference.” But, this is a small difference that makes all the difference.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Production of a Mourning Machine

Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-172:1
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-
2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
2:15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
2:16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
2:17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"

I find two things interesting in this text. The first is a not so surprising surprise, as it is a kind of tradition in its own right: it concerns the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord, here as in Amos, is not the day of redemption, but the day of judgment – and the prospects for a positive judgment are grim. This is not a day to be awaited with hope, but the day to be anticipated with dread.

The second issue is the universalism that this judgment occasions. There is a call to public worship that does not discriminate; and there are no exceptions that would exempt one from service. All are called and instrumentalized, to some degree, in that call. It is something like military conscription: the nation is at war against an enemy too great to be defeated by normal means, a volunteer army will not do. Each is called to do their part, but the equality is absolute. The part of each is the same as every other: they are all to weep and plead for mercy. This “state of exception” has occasioned a universal interpellation of each individual into a national mourning machine. The prospects are not as dark as they look, however. The universal conscription in the face of universal judgment will result, soon enough, in a universal redemption: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” (2.28)

An analogy: The scandal of having my 1 year old daughter marked with ashes – a mark that signifies both transience and penitence, a feeling all too obvious (in the former) and altogether inappropriate, or better, inappropriable, for an infant (in the latter) to warrant its physical inscription. “You’re the youngest person I’ve ever put ashes on” said my priest to my daughter (i.e. to me). In other words, “how could you do that to an innocent child?” How could I conscript her in an act that was not hers to appropriate? But after the ashes came the bread of heaven – the sign of eternity and redemption, a sign both inappropriable and obvious to my daughter and to me.

The repetition of a cycle, now, that institutes another practice of time, the inscription of another temporal order. If the fiction of individual agency is betrayed, the truer fiction of eternity is commemorated.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

On the Promise (Epiphany 3)

Isaiah 9:1-4
9:1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
9:3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
9:4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

The promise of a new tomorrow, a new and better future. This is not a utopia – a “no-place” – or an abstract wish. This glimmer of new life shines among the concrete ruins of a “historicized” and thoroughly geopolitical reality – Assyrian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah. And this divine future represents no escape from the geopolitical context. Assyria is not pure enemy, but also an instrument of divine judgment: “Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury!” The shards of the promise of a messianic future are interspersed amongst a decaying present and do not represent a clean break from it; such that the present would not be somehow essential to the future hope.

What happens is that promise as promise is set to work in the present, opening it up to a new future and thus a new configuration. “And a promise,” as Derrida says in Specters of Marx, “must promise to be kept, that is, not to remain ‘spiritual’ or ‘abstract,’ but to produce events, new effective forms of action, practice, organization, and so forth.” (112) Promise – that of a divine future or even the dialectical becoming of a classless society – lodges a device within the present that is charged with explosive possibility. The present cannot remain simply given, it becomes and remains fractured and haunted by the future that it cannot contain. The (liturgical) rehearsal of the promise, the repetition of its potentialities in forms of life, are conducive of an energy that charges this device to the breaking point; in which case there would not be simply “the present” but a performatively multiplied series of presents.

The present, therefore, would not be captured by the indicative mood – “it is how it is” – but by the subjunctive: every assertion about the way things are is read under the sign of the conditional or the contingent. Rosenzweig names the imperative as the mood characteristic of the present, in the sense that it is bound to the moment of Revelation, of the commandment to love. But in either case – subjunctive or imperative – the present is put into question. This questionablness of the present and of humanity’s place in it is illuminated by Jurgen Moltmann in his Theology of Hope.

Christian theology has one way in which it can prove its truth by reference to the reality of man and the reality of the world that concerns man – namely by accepting the questionableness of human existence and the questionableness of reality as a whole and taking them up into that eschatological questionableness of human nature and the world which is disclosed by the event of promise (94).

Promise is the possibility of the future and the condition of the present.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent Reflection 3: Isaiah Isaiah 35:1-10 & James 5:7-10

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."
35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

It starts to feel gratuitous, like fanning the flames of a forest fire, the recurrence of hopeful expectation. To make my intervention, this year, at the advent of Advent, is to miss the ups and downs – particularly the downs – of the liturgical year. Even if we are officially at the “beginning” of the year (Year A), liturgical time cycles, repeats, iterates itself. So to be at the beginning is also to be in the middle and even at the end. Into what suffering does this word of hope speak? The texts of the church’s calendar address themselves to two moments: the interpretively constructed moment of the lectionary – now we read Isaiah with Matthew instead of Jeremiah with Luke – and to the singular moment of the reading subject or community. The nature of my intervention cuts me off from the first moment; what of the second? Perhaps the images from nature offer hope to a planet whose finite “resources” are being quickly used up, to a creation who longs for redemption. Perhaps the lack of predatory creatures offers a vision of a world without predatory nation states.

James 5:7-10
5:7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.
5:8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
5:9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!
5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Some differences emerge when we get to James. First, the expectation is given a more circumscribed referent: the church. Second, the (equivocal) content of the prophecy is slimed down to its most basic element: “The Lord is near.” Another difference is that the prophecy is not meant to bring an unbounded hope but it is accompanied by an explicit demand: “be patient.” Finally, in another “formalization” of the prophetic message, what a critical idealist might call a “purification of the mythical content,” the prophet is held up as a figure of patience and suffering, not as the bearer of a more important truth.

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