The Promise of Death: God's Self-Inscription of Lack

God said to Abraham, ". . . This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. . . . So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. . ."

Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (Genesis 17: 9-24)

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met [Moses] and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. (Exodus 4: 24-26)

A deferred promise and an attempted murder is hardly what we would expect from God in the founding narratives of the Hebrew Bible. In the first, it had been almost twenty-five years since God had promised Abraham an offspring, twenty-five years since Abraham uprooted his family from their homeland in search of a promise. Now when that promise seems all but impossible, God comes again and demands yet another sign of faithfulness, to which Abraham and all the males of his household submit. The body is marked by a promise even when that promise remains unfulfilled.

In the second, Moses is on his way to a mission he did not choose. It was God who came to him in the desert through the burning bush, calling Moses into his service, rebutting every resistance until Moses finally submits. But perhaps God had revealed too much, perhaps he had shown Moses an intimacy and vulnerability with which he was now uncomfortable. So as Moses journeys towards Egypt, God comes at night disguised as death, striking Moses on the eve of Israel's deliverance.

Of course, we know that Abraham indeed received his promised heir and that that child would become the father of the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. We know that Moses averted death, that he delivered the Israelites from slavery and led them through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. In the process, God through Moses would give the Israelites the Law and lead them to the brink of the promised land. But let us not allow the larger narrative to overshadow what are indeed strange encounters with the divine. The Biblical God is radically unpredictable, at times unreliable, and in those rarest moments, even arbitrarily violent.

In what follows, I will offer a theological response to the work of the radical orthodox theologian, Phillip Blond, from his essay entitled "Theology before Philosophy." [1] The task will be to see to what extent it is possible or even desirable to recover through a 'theological aesthetics' a God uncorrupted by modern and postmodern critiques. It is Blond's argument that through a theological mode of perception, the theological dimension to objects will be made plainly visible. But by keeping the uncommon encounters that both Abraham and Moses had with God in mind, [2] I will argue that this theological dimension, when fully present to (the) all of our experience, leaves us not with a God uncorrupted by philosophical critiques, but rather shows yet again the gaps and fissures Blond hoped to avoid. This is a denial of neither God nor of the value and possibilities of theology, [3] but instead, it is an attempt to continue what Blond leaves undone in his theological project [4] --namely, an honest appraisal of the otherness in and of our experience which eludes conceptualization and which finally calls forth an acknowledgement and perhaps even a celebration of our epistemic undecidability.

I.

According to Blond, our current philosophical and theological culture is suffering from a 'violence of denial.' He proposes a theology where "possibilities abound" which "are presented to those who would care to address them." [5] He argues that "theology merely has to recover its object, discern its own sensorium and locate this dimension of objectivity in the world so that all might see it." [6] He calls this process the development of a "theological aesthetics," which is a theological mode of perception that makes visible the theological dimension to objects. It is also termed a "theological realism," by which he means the affirmation of the religious in and of our experience. [7] While Blond insists that God is the source and origin of reality, he also insists that there is no ground. Therefore, the attempt by theologians to make God the 'ground of being' is a false step and one that unnecessarily implicates theology in ontology's fruitless attempt to account for itself. This inability by the onto-theological tradition to find a ground should instead be seen by theologians as ontology's own betrayal to a theological account of origin.

On secularism in contemporary philosophy, Blond adopts a similar approach. It is not that secularism promotes an untruth as much as it conceals the full truth. He writes that "all secular discourses . . . are not even wrong, they are just weak. Reality is real, but if configured only within the secular or pagan rubric it is reality at its lowest power." [8] In other words, secularism speaks well of the actual, but it is its denial of the possible that Blond laments; it "encloses visibility from its invisible." Therefore, Blond does not advocate a retreat from the surface, but rather a fuller account: "the depth that theology seeks in phenomena is not behind the surface but rather is the inelimanable possibility of the surface which is the appearance yet-to-come and the phenomena which are possibilities yet-to-be." [9] His embrace of the surface suggests the possibility of an "infinite giving origin," a "boundless source," or a "non-noumenal phenomenal plenitude." The theological aesthetics of Blond leads us not beyond the actual surface, but instead to the infinity of the possible which the surface suggests. This theological turn to the surface engenders possibilities other than those already actualized and values outside of those previously conceived. It is both a recovery of the promise of our infinite origin and a discovery of the potentiality lost through the violence of denial. [10]

While there is much to be admired in Blond's reconfigured theological phenomenology, there is also a profound sense of its own denial or reduction of the full implications of the plenitude of phenomena. In a telling passage on the reality of evil, suffering, and negation, he writes:

The Christian response to these events is that they are not the final word. They have no defining role in theology. For there are some events, some death events, that one should never be reconciled with. And what is Christianity if it is not this, this refusal to accept death. . . . The promise and hope of the new rests upon both an acceptance . . . and a refusal of what has passed [italics mine]. [11]

By committing himself to thinking beyond evil, suffering, and negation, does Blond, in effect, not also commit himself to avoiding or denying their full import? In the 'refusal to accept death,' is there not also a misplaced abstraction, one that sees in Christianity a sublation of death by promise rather than the concrete tension between the cross and resurrection? In the 'refusal of what has passed,' has not Blond's theology cut itself off from its own source which is implicated in both the realities of promise and threat? In other words, to the extent that Blond advocates a fuller accounting of the phenomenological plenitude, must he not also acknowledge that the fullness of possibility includes the immanence of death--that is, that we are all beings-towards-death [12] even as we commit ourselves to a theological aesthetic that highlights the other in and of possibility.

Thinking with Blond in order to think what he left unthought, I propose a type of theology which attends to both God's promise to Abraham and his attempted murder of Moses to show that a theological realism, while it still affirms the religious dimension in our lives, also points to the limitations of our thinking and the threat of our very existence.

II.

The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are concerned with grand, mythological themes and legendary characters. Beginning with Abraham, there is a decided shift in the narrative from legend to promise. Abram is told to journey from his homeland to an as yet unspecified place as he is promised that he will be the father of a great nation, and that through him all the earth will be blessed. God is entering uncharted territory through this commitment to Abram, confining himself to the future of a single family. Apparently, Abram does not doubt the promise as he and his family immediately proceed as God had directed them.

During the next twenty-four years, Abram's confidence on occasion would vacillate, but even less stable than Abram's trust was God's presence. In their sparse encounters with one another, there was always tension--Abram questioning God's judgment, God proclaiming his promise, and then years of silence. Then, when Abram was ninety-nine years old, God came again to Abram to reassert himself, his commands, and his covenant. This time, accompanying God's promise of offspring and land, there was also a demand for a sign of faithfulness from Abram, who in this encounter is renamed Abraham. Abraham submits as if he had a choice, though he still laughs in God's face. Through Abraham's submission and in spite of his laughter, the ritual act of circumcision gives a permanent signification to God's sovereignty. [13] In circumcision, Abraham is ritually inscribed with a lack, pointing towards a new understanding and appreciation of the limitations of human existence.

God's relationship with Abraham gives content to the character of God; it shows him as a faithful though still arbitrary God who calls for humanity's trust even in his long periods of silence. Abraham, on the other hand, as the first of the Biblical characters who had such an enduring though sporadic relationship with God, gives content to the human character. In his repeated submissions to God's commands, he portrays both humanity's lack and promise in relation to God's grandeur. The lack is hardly new, though it is newly inscribed by the ritual act of circumcision, but the promise implicates both God and humanity in a new kind of existence, one calling forth a different sort of cooperation and mutuality. [14] Now, if God is to recreate the world, it will be through the faithfulness of a specific people who acknowledge their fundamental lack but nevertheless respond to the special call of promise.

The calling of Moses comes after a history begun with Abraham. Like Abraham, God's relationship with Moses marks a shift in God's dealing with humanity. God not only calls a particular people into a covenantal relationship, but as a result, he must now for the first time act on those people's behalf as warrior, liberator, and finally law-giver. [15] In the process, Moses will become both the mediator between God and Israel, and, increasingly, the intimate friend of God. Moses is also the one who is repeatedly present in the face of the raw holiness of God. This begins with their encounter on the mountain through the burning bush. However, even stranger than a talking bush and a fire that does not consume is the apparent attempt by God on Moses' life. Biblical scholars have tried but failed to reconcile this passage with either an over-arching narrative structure or any conventional understanding of the ways of God.

The story is as follows: Moses is on his way to do a job that God gave him no choice but to do. He has seen God's holiness and submitted to a seemingly impossible task. Walter Brueggemann, a noted Hebrew Bible scholar, writes:

In this odd account, Yahweh seeks to kill the very one who has just been recruited for this singular work of emancipation. . . . There is indeed something visceral, untamed, and hostile about this God. Those who are called by this God to service find on occasion that more dangerous than the task is the danger of Yahweh's own person. [16]

Moses' death, however, is averted by the quick thinking of his wife, as she circumcises their son and sprinkles the child's blood on Moses' genitalia. Why this particular act appeases an apparently arbitrary and irrational God is unknown. What can be known from these few verses hidden away in an epic narrative of liberation is that the God of this text operates in extremes, that he resists conceptuality, and that though there is an obligation in a religious community to tell the sacred stories, there is equally an impossibility to understanding them. [17]

III.

When coming into contact with the Holy, one knows not whether to expect promise or death. The (w)holy uncommon encounters both Abraham and Moses had with the divine were both groundless and destabilizing. This God guarantees neither meanings nor even the literal safety of those whom he calls. In these texts, death strikes on the heels of promise, and the promise must all but die before it reaches fulfillment. This is a theological realism that when truly present to (the) all, contrary to Blond's wishes, shows a God of gaps and fissures. But if gaps and fissures are the condition of our accounting for reality, [18] then God is not excluded, but rather forever inscribed in the experience of the irreducible. Therefore, we can say with these Biblical texts, that God is Holy, and thus wholly unpredictable. God is known as an effect on the surface like the unconscious is known to consciousness. His is a holiness experienced as an irreducible intensity, one doubled upon itself as both promise and threat.

Likewise, our experience of promise is related to our experience of death. Promise relates to death and death relates to promise such that each is seen in and through the other. Remaining within the Hebrew Bible we see innumerable deaths of the promise, but this need not overshadow the promise in death. In the case of Abraham, it was the promise of freedom through submission that allowed Abraham to struggle against, and even laugh in the face of, God. And it was the relinquishment (death?) of the promise through which the promise was fulfilled. In the case of Moses, the promise of deliverance was tempered by the threat of death--having arbitrarily escaped death, Moses was released from death. The release from death led to his submission to, and his taking responsibility for, the promise.

Death and promise are radically opposed, forever heterogeneous, but still inseparable in the light of a Holy God. Finally, to return to Blond and Christian theology's refusal to accept death, this is a truth that is only true in the part, but even more it is an untruth by what it conceals. That is, there is no promise apart from the inscribed lack. The refusal to think death is the repression or subjugation of death, but also its preservation. Any theological realism must think death, it must be responsive to death, in other words, it must be responsible for death, because death is the mark and promise of a Holy God.

As both Heidegger and Derrida point out, each death is an irreducible, and each of us must finally assume the responsibility for our own deaths--that is, we can die for another, or give our life to another, but never in the place of another. Each of us must take on the death we have been promised. The promise of death, then, is the promise of identity. [19] The gift of death is the gift of the irreplaceable singularity which responsibility demands. And the refusal of death by theology is the denial of its distinctive promise. On the other hand, a theology located in the gaps and fissures of our existence, a theology inscribed by a lack and threatened by the promise of a Holy God, is a theological realism that gives death its place and promise. A theological realism can never be exhaustive of the infinity of the possible, but no promise is more secure than the promise of death. Death can no more be denied than avoided. A refusal of death, therefore, is in actuality a denial of the surface, and it betrays a longing for some other that can tame the untamed holiness of God.


Endnotes

[1] Phillip Blond, "Introduction: Theology before philosophy," Post Secular Philosophy: Between philosophy and theology (New York: Routledge, 1998), 1-66.

[2] My use of the Bible in this paper is not intended in the same way in which some recent critics of Postmodernism have employed it. For many of these critics, the Bible evades the force of the deconstructive critique of ontotheology because the God portrayed in the Bible is not the God of Greek philosophy but the personal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While this is an long-standing distinction (e.g., What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?), it is also an oversimplification to suggest that the Bible, and especially the Christian New Testament, is wholly devoid of Greek philosophical influences. For a thoroughly developed argument of the aforementioned position, see Brian D. Ingraffia, Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology: Vanquishing God's Shadow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[3] I hold on the term 'God' because it is a term that is still a meaningful concept for many in our culture as well as in my own experience. First, in the sense of Schleiermacher (and to some extent Blond), the term 'God' appeals to the experience of radical contingency and the realization that in our thinking we cannot account for our origins--the feeling of absolute dependency. Second, no other term quite carries the motivational possibilities as does the term 'God,' which calls forth the possibility of transformation and the realization that things can, and indeed should, be otherwise. I am equally committed to the possibility of a 'secular theology,' because like Simone Weil, I believe that what our age needs most is a thinking of religion that lies outside the conventional dogmatic traditions. In a sense, this a tending of the soil and a making intelligible the possibility of God.

[4] As a model for my approach, see Jean-Luc Marion, Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger, and Phenomenology, translated by Thomas A. Carlson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998). He writes, "For one does not overcome a true thinking by refuting it, but rather by repeating it, or even borrowing from it the means to think with it beyond it. Then even failure succeeds," 3.

[5] Blond, 3.

[6] Ibid., 3-4.

[7] He writes, "To be a realist with respect to God means that one understands that He [God] is the source and origin of all that claims to be; correspondingly this means that every other created thing, however real it might be, is utterly contingent, relying on Him for any substance that it might possess," 7.

[8] Ibid., 27.

[9] Ibid., 50.

[10] Ibid., 54.

[11] Ibid., 19.

[12] See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 219-246.

[13] Jack Miles, author of God: A biography, (New York: Vintage Books, 1996) writes, "Circumcision is not the sign of the covenant in some arbitrary and purely external way as if it were a tonsure or a ritual scar. Abram's penis--and the penises, the sexual potency of his descendants--is what the covenant is about," 53.

[14] For example, see Genesis 17 and 18 as Abram bargains with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.

[15] Miles, 96-126.

[16] Walter Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus," New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 720.

[17] These are the three characteristics of sacred texts as articulated in Kevin Hart's recent essay on Jacques Derrida. See Kevin Hart, "Jacques Derrida: The God Effect," Post Secular Philosophy, 276-77.

[18] See Charles E. Winquist, "Lacan and Theology," Post Secular Philosophy, 305-317.

[19] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, translated by David Willis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 42-45.

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