‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 2:II: Theology After Heidegger

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: IntroductionChapter 1, Chapter 2:IChapter 3, Chapter 4:IChapter 4:IIChapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7

In the previous post in this series, I sketched Chauvet’s summary of Heidegger’s challenge to traditional metaphysical thinking. At this point, Chauvet turns from summarizing Heidegger to ask how exactly theology should relate to a Heideggerian perspective.

There should be no confusion on this one point: Heidegger’s ‘being’ is not God. Heidegger regarded philosophy and theology as radically distinct, and mixing the two (whether by forming a Christian philosophy, or by grounding theology in a philosophy) will compromise both (64). The God that such a perverse union created would be a diminished ‘provable’ deity, a ‘supreme value’ and ‘entity of entities’. For Heidegger:

[F]aith is unfaithful to faith when it thus flirts with philosophical ontology: “If I ever wrote a theology, something I am on occasion tempted to do, the expression ‘being’ should not appear there. Faith has no need of the thinking about being. When it does need it, it is no longer faith…” [I]t is “exclusively within the bounds of revelation” that the theologian should stay.

Appealing as Heidegger’s account may sound to many theologians, perhaps especially among those committed to Barthian neoorthodoxy, Chauvet demurs. As Paul Ricoeur asks, why does Heidegger focus on a poet such as Höderlin, rather than upon the Psalms, or the book of Jeremiah when thinking of the relationship to being and the sacred? Heidegger does not sufficiently recognize how distinct Hebraic thought is from Greek thought. Doesn’t such a division of faith from philosophy foster a sort of fideism, and perhaps even, under the guise of respecting faith’s distinct character, lock it into a ‘closed circularity’ (65)?

Chauvet believes that Heidegger’s approach to thinking about being ‘opens up a path for theology’, without necessarily baptizing Heideggerian philosophy in the process. Chauvet begins by asking whether the attitude of those who think about faith needs or ought to be very different from that of those who think of being. Theologians, like those who think being, are ‘not outside their work’, but ‘give witness to that in which they know themselves to be already held.’ Theology begins and proceeds, not by some scientific knowledge, but by openness to the realm of the relationships with God and others within the Church (66).

The Heideggerian might protest that the theologian believes in God from the outset, and thus, rather than truly questioning, he is merely going through the motions. Chauvet responds by asking whether the task of theology is concerned with strengthening some idea of ‘God’ – in which case we are back in the realm of onto-theology – or with relating to the incarnate Christ, in whom God’s self is revealed. It all hinges on what sort of God we are speaking of. In Christian theology, on account of the incarnation, the question of God is quite inextricable from the question of humanity.

Chauvet surveys the state of the hermeneutical theology of his day, and the manner in which it responded to the criticisms raised by Habermas, the structuralists, and more radically by post-structuralists such as Derrida. In the work of such as Ricoeur, for instance, there is a resistance both to the post-structural diffusion of meaning in the play of signs and to ‘romantic, psychologizing hermeneutics’, of which critics of hermeneutical theology should have a greater cognizance (67). Rather than seeking a pre-determined meaning behind the text, or thinking solely of that which emerges from the structure and mechanisms of the text, theological hermeneutics approaches the text as the ‘proposal of a world’, which we can inhabit and make our own. This proposal does not correspond directly either to the structure of the text, or the intention of its author.

Tempered by the critiques raised by structuralism and post-structuralism, theological hermeneutics can respect both the necessary mediation of the letter and the unsustainability of the traditional explication/comprehension dualism (68). Rather than nostalgically seeking for one fixed origin, meaning, or truth underlying the text in the manner of onto-theology, theology’s hermeneutical task involves, starting with the Scriptures, the production of ‘new texts, that is new practices which foster the emergence of a new world’ (69).

Chauvet challenges the common dichotomy between an invariable core of the faith and variable cultural expressions. He quotes Geffré to observe that Christian truth is located in a ‘continual advent exposed to the risks of history and of the Church’s interpretative freedom under the Spirit’s inspiration.’ The idea of some semantic invariability is complicit with an ‘instrumental and vehicular conception of language’. For Chauvet, the ‘hermeneutical circle’ does not exist in abstraction from time, but is the very circle of our historical, physical, and mortal lives, and it is the context of this that the question of God’s identity must be posed and answered.

Between Jews and Greeks

Drawing upon Stanislas Breton, Chauvet argues that the Christian Logos is neither Jewish nor Greek (70), satisfying neither approach to religious consciousness. ‘In the Word of the Cross two excesses thus coincide: “the ‘beyond’ of thought is also the ‘beyond’ of will and self-will.”’ The Apostle Paul thus marks ‘the ‘most real being’ of religions and philosophies with the sign of contradiction’ (71). The language of Christian discourse is characterized by a kenotic humility relative to its object.

The cross exercises a ‘critical function’ relative to our theological language. Although set forth in language, the cross continually strips back and exposes our language in weakness. From the beginning, Christianity had to speak Greek or Hebrew. The cross does not remove us from these languages, but frees us from imprisonment to their power.

Theology can never truly express the message of the cross, but it must ‘nevertheless begin its thinking with that message’ (73). The cross is an ‘empty place, [a] void somehow omnipresent,’ which always jolts theology backwards, ‘disenthralling’ it from itself and ‘reopening’ it.

The theological message can find no way to “say” itself outside of our being grasped by it. It is our corporality which has the responsibility of becoming the very place for this message (72).

The word of the cross cannot find expression in our minds unless it also finds expression in our lives and desires. As God exceeds all being, wisdom, and power, the coming of God’s truth among us involves a historical process of ‘becoming’, as God ‘solicits from us this body of world and humanity’ (73).

A Similarity of Attitudes

If this is the nature of the theological task, then we should be struck by its similarity in attitude to that by which we think about being. In both cases, we find ourselves already claimed by that which we seek to understand, and must engage in a transitive way, involving, not some object or wisdom detached from ourselves, but a ‘pro-duction of our own selves as subjects’ (74).

This amounts to the slow work of apprenticeship in the art of “un-mastery,” a permanent work of mourning where, free of resentment, a “serene” consent to the “presence of the absence” takes place within us little by little. In gospel terms, this is a work of conversion to the presence of the absence of a God who “crosses himself out” in the crushed humanity of this crucified One whom humans have reduced to less than nothing and yet where, in a paradoxical light, faith confesses the glory of God.

Heidegger places being under erasure – Being – trying to express the presence of absence in language. For Chauvet, the crossed-out, or crucified, God is not Being. Whereas Being represents the ‘non-entity’, God’s placing of himself under erasure at the cross represents the ‘non-other’, the one disfigured to the point of being a ‘non-face’. The order here is not that of ‘negative onto-theology’, but that of symbolism: God should be thought of ‘less in the metaphysical order of the Unknowable than in the symbolic and historical order of the unrecognizable.’ Our duty is to hold ourselves ‘in a mature proximity to absence’ (75).

While the content of theology and philosophy differ, they have an affinity of attitude and posture, and also find union in the integrity of the single subject who engages in both of them, ruling out any divorce of the two (76). Theology cannot be disconnected from the believing subject who engages in it, and who constantly finds himself questioned as he asks questions of God.

Theology and Psychoanalysis

As Heidegger argues, overcoming metaphysics involves a movement beyond the subject-object dichotomy: we cannot truly grasp anything without being ourselves grasped by it. The movement beyond this is clearly exhibited in many areas of our society’s thought, not least in the exact sciences, where the connection between observers and what they observe is ever more clearly recognized. This recognition is even more noticeable in the social sciences, but perhaps most powerfully in the context of psychoanalysis (77).

Psychoanalysis has a unique character. It cannot be reduced to a science-like theory, ‘without postulating the non-singularity of the singular individual’ in the therapy (78). On the other hand, even as it moves in the direction of philosophy, it cannot become speculative without losing sight of its object – the unconscious. Psychoanalysis ‘shows by its very history that it is struggling to give birth to philosophy’ (79), and continually overflows into it. However, psychoanalysis does not treat philosophical questions in a philosophical manner, but in its own form, seeking ‘to uncover the concrete psychological processes in which they are embodied’ (80).

It is the psychoanalytic ‘embodying’ of philosophical questions that makes it particularly interesting to Chauvet. Analytic discourse presses the truth of the ‘un-thought’ upon us to a radical degree, and makes us undergo ‘the presence of the question of being, as a question without solution.’

The distance and interrelation between philosophy’s ‘total truth’ and psychoanalysis’s ‘partial truth’ is of great importance, representing the ‘contradiction from which arises the human subject’ (81).

As a discourse that takes into consideration the human characteristic of being-body – its enfleshed signifiers, its “living words” (logoi embioi) – analytic discourse knits together concrete corporality with the philosophical questioning of humans as always unterwegs, always “on the way” toward the word that goes ahead of them. Against all metaphysical escapes, analytic discourse declares that the truth does not come to anyone except as his or her truth, that is, through the incessant labor of passage through mourning, deprivation, absence. But philosophy reminds analysis that the latter would be an imposture if each of us, in trying to fashion our own truth, did not at the same time respond to the truth which is always beckoning us (81-82).

If the crucified – crossed-out – God ensures that theological thought takes an analogical posture to that of thinking about being, psychoanalysis gives this form of thought ‘an anthropological density which embodies it in us.’

It is here that the connection with the sacraments becomes plain. We would like to believe that we can extricate ourselves from, and rise above the realm of the mediation of symbols, apprehending truth and God directly. However, for the theologian who wishes to engage with the crucified God, no such route is available. Rather the way of knowledge of such a God passes directly through us and works itself out in and through our bodies.

The embodiment of God has a scandalous historical reality in Jesus of Nazareth, but also in his body – the Church (83). The Church is most clearly manifested in the sacraments, which can scandalize us by their character, and their incongruity with human wisdom. Consequently, we are always tempted to domesticate them to reason or control, treating them, for instance, as means of the Church’s legitimatization and social control.

The sacraments thus force us to confront mediation – mediation, by way of the senses, of an institution, a formula, a gesture, a material thing – as the (eschatological) place of God’s advent. And so we find ourselves in the end sent back to the body as the point where God writes God’s self in us…

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in My Reading, Philosophy, Reviews, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 2:II: Theology After Heidegger

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