Towards a Kenotic Anthropology Part 2

Within this post I conclude the piece I posted yesterday. I wrote this over four years ago now, and probably wouldn’t express my position in quite the same way today. However, I think that there are some things worth exploring here.

The Foundation of the Subject

Something analogous to such a death can be seen at the foundation of humanity. The man Adam is placed in a deep sleep and part of his body is extracted. The rib taken from Adam is fashioned into woman. Awoken from sleep, Adam receives himself back in the other (Genesis 2:21-24). Adam loses an important measure of self-identity in the creation of Eve. Henceforth, Adam must ‘ex-sist’, as his being is rendered to him by the woman. Adam’s being itself is ‘othered’.

Adam dies to the state of being alone and rises again to the more glorious state of fellowship with his wife. It is through the kenosis of Adam that Eve is formed. A genuine separation of Adam from himself must take place if his relationship with his wife is to be more than an exalted form of narcissism. The splitting of Adam from himself represents a genuine loss and the death of the old self-identical Adam, but this death (which occurs through a death-like sleep) is followed by a more glorious ‘resurrection’ as God brings the woman to Adam and Adam lives as one flesh with her. This pattern may be fulfilled in the blood and water that flows from Christ’s side at his crucifixion (John 19:34), the blood and water through which the Church is formed.

In both of the cases mentioned above, the gift of the self reconstitutes the giver and constitutes an Other, whose being is received as a gift. The unity and self-identity of the giver is broken. The giver relinquishes his grasp on his own being and receives himself back as he is rendered to himself by the Other.

In Ephesians 5:28 husbands are instructed to ‘love their own wives as their own bodies’ as ‘he who loves his wife loves himself.’ Accustomed as we are to the opposition between self-love and love of the other, such injunctions — as with the call to love one’s neighbour as oneself — can perplex us. Once we recognize the true nature of the self such commandments become more understandable. The self is so constituted by relationship that any individualistic form of ‘self-love’ that would exclude the other strikes out at the self. The theoretical opposition between self-love and love of others already presupposes the ontological alienation of the self from the other that founds individualism. The only true self-love is love of the neighbour; it is in loving the neighbour that we truly love ourselves, for our being is not something that we possess as individuals, but is rather that which is rendered to us by others.

Conversely, purely disinterested love for the other should not be set forth as the ideal. In his article ‘The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice’, John Milbank critiques the notion that the idea of unilateral gift or self-sacrifice without return grounds the ethical. Making dying for the other the ultimate good subordinates the person to ‘an abstract moral principle’. The gift of self-sacrifice must rather be performed in hope of resurrection and the reconciliation that resurrection promises. We lay down our lives for each other because we desire communion with each other. Only such an approach takes seriously the uniqueness of the person (including ourselves as persons). As Hart observes:

In simple human terms, a love that is inseparable from an interest in the other is always more commendable, more truly selfless, than the airless purity of disinterested expenditure, because it recognizes the otherness and delights in the splendour of the other.

Other approaches, such as that of Levinas, risk reducing the person to an ‘anonymous opacity’.

The idea of a split at the foundation of the subject is one explored in the work of the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. The subject is formed as the self cuts itself off from engagement with its world. The self expels the world out from itself and it is the void that remains that constitutes the subject. The subject is ‘the gap between nature and the beings immersed in it.’

Žižek relates this to the being of God. For God to attain freedom with respect to the ground of his being, he must first establish a distance from it. This distance is achieved as God expels the ground of his being from himself in an act of ‘madness’. Through this heterodox account of divine subjectivity Žižek illustrates his approach to subjectivity in general. The subject, for Žižek, is formed ‘by the removal of itself from itself’; formed through this externalizing of itself the subject is seen to be ‘the object outside of itself’. The distance that establishes God’s subjectivity is that of the generation of the Son. The Word — which in Lacanian terms corresponds to the Symbolic — is the ‘othering’ of the Real. This ‘cut’ in the Real of the divine being enables God to relate freely to the ground of his own being.

The void of the subject is later filled by the Self, which weaves a particular identity out of the material of the Symbolic order, an order founded upon the loss of the immediacy of the Real. The subject is irreducible to the Self, as the subject is the lack that the Self tries to fill.

Similar points are made by Karl Rahner in his ‘Theology of the Symbol’. He observes:

[A being] gives itself away from itself into the “other,” and there finds itself in knowledge and love, because it is by constituting the inward “other” that it comes to (or: from) its self-fulfillment, which is the presupposition of the act of being present to itself in knowledge and love.

We must render ourselves ‘other’ to truly own and know ourselves. Thus, the Father knows and possesses himself in the Son that is eternally begotten of him.

It is in terms of this definition of the subject that Žižek articulates what he refers to as ‘the act’. The act represents a return to the founding gesture of the subject. It is ‘a form of Symbolic suicide’ in which the subject rejects its Symbolic substance and returns to the state of being a void. Through such an act the subject can be reborn. It is by striking at, or cutting oneself loose from, the thing that is most precious that the subject can gain ‘the space of free action’.

Žižek argues that this is exactly what the Father does at the cross. The Father surrenders his Son — the one most precious to him. Through this act a new subject can be formed, a subject freed from the bondage of the old Symbolic order (the Holy Spirit). Žižek’s reading of the crucifixion, presupposing as it does a tragic impotence on God’s part, is not one that we find satisfactory. Nevertheless, there is much that we can gain from engagement with him.

In willingly and obediently going to the cross, Christ undertakes an act of ‘madness’. He ‘shoots at himself’, and thus renders the existing Symbolic order powerless over him. As Frederiek Depoortere argues, the self-emptying of Christ is his willingness to be ‘stripped of all his particular characteristics’ and become the ‘man as such’, to be thoroughly ‘disgorged’ from the Symbolic order, to become as a piece of excrement. This becomes the founding act of a new order, beyond the existing Symbolic. Christ’s kenotic reduction to the excess of the socio-symbolic order establishes him as the location where the socio-symbolic order can be transcended by others.

To summarize, kenosis is the way in which the subject can be first formed through the creation of a distance from itself, by rendering itself as other. As Balthasar has argued, the kenosis of death as a sacrificial self-rendering and ‘self-destitution’ can be grounded in the eternal processions of the Trinity. The Father eternally begets the Son and thus eternally gives up his own self to receive it back from an Other. In rendering himself to the Father the Son is eternally and completely sacrificed in his fullness. These Trinitarian ‘kenoses’ ad intra provide the foundation for all of God’s self-giving actions ad extra, whether in creation, redemption or perfection.

On account of these kenoses, God can always be the ‘God of the gaps’: the Trinity itself provides the basis for the ‘gap’ that constitute the difference between the creation and the Creator, and the ‘gaps’ that constitute the multiplicity of creatures. As Jenson maintains, the otherness of creation from God is ‘enabled only by and within the otherness of the Son from the Father.’

Kenosis is also the way in which the subject can be freed from the constraints of its present social and Symbolic substance and re-establish itself on a new and free footing. This further dimension of kenosis is particularly significant for understanding the death of Christ. It is through such a kenosis that Christ overcomes the realm of Death and Flesh, rendering it to God.

Kenosis and the New Society

In Colossians 3:10-11, Paul describes the ‘new man’ as ‘renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.’ The significance of such a description does not merely lie in the essentially social nature of the new man, but in the negation of particular characteristics that renders such a new society possible.

Alain Badiou contrasts the law and that which exceeds the law in terms of ‘two types of multiplicity’. The law circumscribes the ‘particularizing multiplicity’, giving everything its place and its due. In contrast, ‘universalism’ is enabled by the multiplicity that, by virtue of ‘being in excess of itself precludes its being represented as a totality.’ In such a multiplicity the multiple is considered ‘not as a part, but as in excess of itself, as that which is out of place, as a nomadism of gratuitousness.’ The self that identifies itself with the excess of grace is no longer circumscribable by the laws of the realm of the Flesh. Within this excess of grace the differences established by the law and the Flesh can be overcome. The person retains their properties, but is no longer defined and partitioned off by them, but is what it is by virtue of what is becomes through the excess of grace.

As Badiou observes, the message of universality in grace is always addressed to particular persons with particular characteristics and differences. These differences are not abandoned, but are traversed and transcended in various ways. In fact, our differences become the means by which we are able to carry that which is universal. However, these differences can never be permitted to qualify the universal itself.

Similar points are made in the work of Žižek, who speaks of it in terms of ‘uncoupling’. This is the process whereby we are ‘unplugged’ from our social substance. Each person is evacuated of that which regulates and defines their social and symbolic identity and is ‘reduced to the singular point of subjectivity.’ This is similar to the point that Zizioulas makes when he claims that

…the Christian ethos of otherness does not allow for the acceptance or the rejection of the Other on the basis of his or her qualities, natural or moral. Everyone’s otherness and uniqueness is to be respected on the simple basis of each person’s ontological particularity and integrity.

Love does not merely involve the emptying of oneself to receive the other, it also empties the other of his self in order to love him truly. It is for this reason that ‘hatred’ of the other and of ourselves (defined in terms of our places in the socio-symbolic order) provides the precondition for genuine agape. It is only through the ‘violent’ act of emptying the Other of his or her qualities that we are enabled to truly establish a genuine relationship of love, on the basis of the uniqueness of their person.

It should perhaps be noted that such a form of kenosis already finds precedent prior to the Fall, in the institution of marriage. The man must be uncoupled from the social substance that he shares with his father and mother in order to be joined to his wife. The fact that the ‘good’ social substance of the family is something that should be left behind suggests that kenosis is a movement of maturation, moving from the good towards that which is perfect, each mini-death being followed by a mini-resurrection into a more glorious social substance.

For Žižek it is important that we appreciate what this ‘uncoupling’ is not: it is not the mere adoption of a position of detachment, but is the work of love through which a new community is formed.

In light of this, the particular characteristics of Christ are not to be focused on. Žižek remarks on just how indifferent Paul seems to be to the particular acts, teachings and qualities of Christ as an historical figure, ‘ruthlessly reducing [Christ] to the fundamentals’. Paul’s focus is almost exclusively on Christ’s death and resurrection as the event which provides the foundation for the new society. Žižek argues that Paul was particularly suited for this task because he was never a member of the inner circle. Consequently, he was not tempted — as the other apostles might have been — to let his knowledge of Christ ‘according to the flesh’ obstruct the true knowledge of Christ according to the Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16).

This process of ‘uncoupling’ ought to be understood in terms of kenosis. It is just such a kenosis that we see in Philippians 3: Paul, though remaining a Jew, willingly suspends this identity, in order that he might exceed himself, that by grace he might be permitted to ex-sist in Christ. As Paul exceeds his Jewish identity he is enabled to minister to people from all backgrounds (1 Corinthians 9:19-22). Paul becomes the universal man.

The kenotic act that forms the new subject of grace is baptism, which is always baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:11-12). In baptism the baptizand is ‘unplugged’ from old solidarities in order to ex-sist within a new society where old divisions of the flesh are transcended (Galatians 3:27-28). The baptizand must leave father and mother, wife and children and even his own self behind in the waters of baptism (cf. Luke 14:26). As Oliver O’Donovan writes, ‘the church is entered only by leaving other, existing societies.’

The kenosis that founded the alternative community of the Church is participated in by all of its members. This kenosis is not a merely formal concept of kenosis, but the particular event of the kenosis of Christ. Our self-emptying is a self-emptying in and with Christ.

Within the Church kenosis — which is involved in some sense in the formation of every true self and symbolic order — is not merely the ‘vanishing mediator’ (in Žižekian terminology the ‘vanishing mediator’ is something that mediates the transition from one form to another form and then disappears — in this case, the ‘vanishing mediator’ being referred to is the void of the subject) that it is within the socio-symbolic order of the world. Kenosis is rather a central feature of the Church’s ongoing life. Žižek writes

As every true Christian knows, love is the work of love — the hard and arduous work of repeated ‘uncoupling’ in which, again and again, we have to disengage ourselves from the inertia that constrains us to identify with the particular order we were born into.

In order for the Church to be constituted as universal it must be constituted by kenotic love. The reborn subject must be continually kenotic, characterized by a repeated sacrificing of its particular substance for the sake of the ex-sisting gracious excess that now constitutes it in Christ.

Through this kenosis the subject is re-incorporated into an economy of gift, ultimately grounded in the life of the Triune God. The ecstasy of man’s being is re-established. The loaf of the self is broken and cast onto the waters of Others, being received back in the many surprising returns of abounding grace. Through this entire process the image of God is restored in man, as man begins to reflect the cruciformity of the Triune God.

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.
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4 Responses to Towards a Kenotic Anthropology Part 2

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  4. Reg says:

    Am I very wrong if I attempt to summarize Kenosis in the following way. First, I need to define what Jesus’ sinless ness involved. Don Carson, talking of what happened in the fall, talks of sin as de-God-ding God. I suspect based on 7 decades of my life, that every time I have sinned, this definition fits perfectly.
    Now I come to my suggested meaning of what Jesus emptied Himself of while on earth. I suggest He was fully God with all His attributes (even though I don’t understand how He could be omnipresent … But that’s our word that may not be accurate) and fully human
    What Jesus gave up while on earth was His human right to decide not to obey His Father. Many times Jesus reaffirmed that He did obey His Father
    And He was obedient, even to death on the cross
    Praise the Name of Jesus!!!!
    Reg Munro
    Lay person
    Cape Town

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