The God Who May Be – Pt 4

The God Who May Be – A Via Tertia (third way)

In contrast to the radically transcendent theologies of negative theology and mystical postmodernism, Kearney proposes his interpretation of God as the One who is not nor is, but may-be. Onto-theology and negative theology, that is, a theology of God as Being and a theology of God as non-being, are the two extremes that Kearney wants to avoid.

Kearney mentions that Philo’s translation of Exodus 3.14 is particularly important for in it “he insisted that God here reveals not his content (whatness-essence) but only that he exists…” (35) He then details Meister Eckhart’s commentary on Exodus 3.14 which postulates a God who is distant, yet present. This was a very muddy section for me, so I can’t really comment too much on it. Unfortunately this is where Kearney’s poetic writing style gets in the way of clarity (and for the most part, I really enjoy Kearney’s style and find it easier to understand that some other authors…this section being the exception).

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The God Who May Be – Pt 3

The ‘Monstrosity’ of God

Kearney continues his discussion of the critical role of negative theology and conceptual atheism in thinking about the God Who May Be by looking at another form of what he calls, mystical postmodernism. This form of postmodern thought “challenges attempts to reduce divine alterity (Otherness) to the level of human hermeneutics.”

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The God Who May Be – Pt 2

ego eimi ho on / I am the one who is misses too much of the original dynamism of the Hebrew expression, and concedes too much to Hellenistic ontology. (28)

Kearney wagers that the Exodus 3.14 revelation of God’s ‘name’ is not so much about the revelation of God as “an ontological substance.” Rather, the revelation of God’s ‘name’ is one that emphasizes an utterly novel mode of relation” that places the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ in dialogue with one another; Moses (and thus the Hebrews) in dialogue and co-operation with God. The name of God is also a relation of the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou:’ the ‘I’ of the past is present with the ‘Thou’ of the future. “This is why the Name is both theophanic and performative.” (28) God’s name is a promise of presence in the future of the Hebrews. God’s ‘name’ is a “promissory note” (“You have made your promised word well above your name,” Ps 138; 28) that accompanies Moses’ mission to the Hebrews, and the subsequent liberation of the people from Egyptian bondage.

The importance of understanding God’s ‘name’ as a promise for the future also lends to us an understanding that God and Moses are engaged in a mutual relationship that “carries a dual responsibility not to be come too distant or too familiar with God.” (28) God’s presence is immanent, here, now, but this presence is also transcendent, requiring Moses to bare his feet in reverence as he stands at a distant. Kearney even poetically considers God’s words to Moses, come! but not too near! as a two-part affirmation of the future. Come God, make your justice present! But it is not too near, it still needs to be brought forth. Already. Not-yet.

Here God commits Himself to a kingdom of justice if his faithful commit themselves to it too; the promise of Sinai calls forth a corresponding decision on behalf of the people. To phrase this otherwise: the I puts it to the Thou that the promise can be realized only if those who receive it do not betray its potential for the future. (29)

Both God and Moses, and the Hebrews by extension, bear responsibility for the outcome in the future. What happens will be the responsibility of both parties. The mission of Moses is a co-mission by and with God to bring about liberation of the Hebrews. Without Moses, no Exodus. Without God, no Exodus. This is not to say, Kearney posits, that God’s promise of liberation is some how conditional: “…the promise is granted unconditionally, as pure gift. But God is reminding his people that they are free to accept or refuse this gift. A gift cannot be imposed; it can only be offered. A gift neither is nor is not; it gives.” (29)

The God Who Comes – Historical Mandate

With the relation of his Name, God says of himself something like ‘with you Moses–and with Israel throughout history–I stand or fall!’ Exodus 3 is the proclamation that God has invested the whole of Himself in his emissary’s history.

The “utterly novel mode of relation” that God reveals to Moses in Exodus 3 is one “of fraternity, responsibility, and commitment to a shared history of ‘becoming.'” (29) God is not simply a static Being who has constructed the whole history of the world and is now simply watching it play out like a pre-programmed movie at a cosmic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. God is becoming. God is not nor is, but may be. For Kearney, the Exodus promise is not a static covenant, but a dynamic pledge from God to the Hebrews that puts forth the challenge of acceptance and participation. God is a dynamic actor in Israel’s history:

YHWH is now revealed as affected and vulnerable , showing himself henceforth as one who wrestles with himself (Hosea), laments (Jeremiah), regrets (Samuel), seduces and forgives (Psalms). Here we witness a God who persuades rather than coerces, invites rather than imposes, asks rather than impels. This God of Mosaic manifestation cannot be God without relating to his other–humanity. And seldom has this wager been so dramatically expressed as in the following midrash [Rabbinic commentary] on Isaiah 43:12: “If you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God. (30)

Likewise, the Hebrews are called by God to accept or reject this promise that Moses delivers to them. (And it is quite apparent through the history of the OT, of the Israelites rejection and then acceptance of this promise.) God’s promise “solicits action from the addressee.” (30) God is not so much a “being who is” but a “God who does.” (Kearney paraphrasing Moses Maimonides; 31)

Critical Considerations

At the heart of God’s revelation in Exodus is “an ingenious wordplay which heralds an eschatological transcendence: a transcendence with the wherewithal to resist the lures of logocentric immanence.” (31) By this Kearney means that “I shall be what I shall be” proposes God’s promise to be present in the future of his people while at the same time remaining unnameable, unseen, unknowable and ungraspable. God’s essence is not the issue for the Hebrews; God’s action, his energies are. Thus, God remains transcendent, yet accessible. Unknowable but recognizable. This is the paradox of the persona: appear-disappear; the Bush burns without being consumed; God is in the bush as-if he is really there. God is not reducible to a name that can be co-opted for magical purposes (thus, logocentric immanence).

Kearney is keenly aware of the problems that come with the extremes of transcendence and immanence and of thinking of God as Being or Non-Being.

I removed entirely form historical being, God can become so unknowable and invisible as to escape all identification whatsoever. (31)

Jean Luc-Marion is cited as a key contemporary negative theologian. While there is a long history of negative theology in the Christian tradition (and in other religious traditions), I think Kearney chooses to focus on Marion because Kearney still sees important value in the negative theologian’s understanding of God as utterly unnameable and unknowable. Yet Marion argues that ‘naming’ God is a distraction from the reality of God as “pure giving“: “to subordinate the God of love to speculative distinctions of being and no-being is to resort to principles of reason which God radically transcends.” (31) Getting caught up in the technicalities of metaphysics and philosophical debates about Being causes us to miss the whole purpose of God: love. Again, the concern is not so much what God is, but that God is present and alive int he world, deeply concerned with the subtleties and particularities of everyday human existence.

Moreover, Kearney highlights Marion’s belief that “conceptual atheism” (a la Nietzsche and Heidegger) is essential to any talk about God: it is the “best weapons against the ‘conceptual idolatry’ of onto-theology.” (31) Critiques and pronouncements of God’s death, the death of the God of the philosophers, the death of the God of metaphysics, can open new space for a return to the God o Exodus.

While these are two points that Kearney appears to latch on to, and appreciate, he also finds problems with Marion’s understanding of “unspeakable Word” that was present in the Burning Bush. This Word, a pseudonym for the name of God, is “already given, gained, available,” Marion argues, and as a result, Kearney observes that “the transfiguring Word…does not depend on us in any way. It does not really need our response in order to be more full fulfilled.” (32) If the Word becomes present to us in phenomenon like the Burning Bush, or in other signs, “there is nothing further for us to think, say, or do, to make the Word more fully alive in this world.” (32) This obviously is a problem for Kearney who has argued that the Word is not a fully actualized reality in the world. The Word has already figured everything out for us, it is already actualized, all that we must do is sit back and wait: “We have little or no part to play in the transfiguring mission of the Word–e.g. the quest for historical justice.” (32)

For Marion, negative theology is a “theology of absence.” The absence of the Word is reversed in the “saturated phenomenon” whereby the Word becomes “flesh” as it were. The primacy of the revelation of the Word in everyday life is in a mystical communion with the Word in the Eucharist. It is necessary to encounter the “Word nonverbally” in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; then and only then can one know, or interpret the unknown God. This limited area for encounter with the Divine does not appeal to Kearney who prefers to be radically open to the Stranger (the Divine) in places least expected.

The Eucharistic encounter with the Divine is made possible by a “superabundance” of the God beyond all being. There is a “hyper-excess” of transcendence that overflows into the “saturated phenomenon” of sacraments. Kearney questions whether or not this superabundance that is present in saturated phenomenon is really a good thing. How can we determine that what we are encountering is the Divine and not something more sinister? “Who is it that speaks when God speaks from the burning bush?” (33) Rather than adhereing to a blind, mystical super-communion that Marion advocates because of the unknowability of the Word outside the context of the Eucharist, Kearney advocates for a “Pauline sobriety” that remains “awake” and “sober” to the reality that there does exist darkness which can invade the world.

Okay, English please. In summary, I am thinking that Kearney is asking a very important question that has probably perplexed apophatic theologians, not to mention people who read theology. That question is: If God is unknowable in his essence, but is somehow accessible in energies, how do we know that the energies we are encountering are of God and not of evil?

(Recall essence is what God is. Energies are what God does.)

How do we know that the God that we know is God? How do we know we are not mystically unifying ourselves with something that is not of God?

All pertinent questions I think Kearney is right to ask.

Marion is but one of the thinkers Kearney interacts with in this last section of his chapter entitled “I am Who May Be”

More later.

Toward a Phenomenology of the Persona

Chapter 1 of The God Who May Be addresses the concept of persona primarily in light of the act of transfiguration.

Figure of the Other – Persona

Kearney begins by defining persona as “that eschatological aura of ‘possibility’ which eludes but informs a person’s actual presence here and now.” (10) Okay, time to break this definition down. First, what might be helpful is to consider what Kearney says after this: “I use it here as another word for the otherness of the other…” (10). Kearney appears to be using eschatological as another word term for transcendence. Next, Kearney describes persona as “all that in others exceeds my searching gaze, safeguarding their inimitable and unique singularity.” (8) Persona transcends our consciousness and refuses to be limited by our consciousness “here and now” and also by our imagination. Language cannot speak of the persona literally, so figurative speech must be employed, using imagination (metaphor) and interpretation (narrative).

Levinas also uses the term persona and calls it la trace d’autrui (literally, the trace of others); Derrida uses alterity or otherness.

Kearney writes that when we meet the Other, e.g. a Stranger, we “configure” them in our minds; we “shape or put together” the Other into something or some idea. In other words, when we meet someone we are seeing them, paradoxically, as transcendent and immanent; “both incarnate in flesh and transcendent in time” (10). This is the idea of persona. The human person is flesh, body, while at the same time being soul, having an identity.

What happens when we meet someone is that we are faced with the reality of them being before us, but at the same time being elsewhere (in the sense that they are not literally, 100% right in front of us. There is a part of the person that is still not present in some fashion). Humans are not just bodies. Persona it would seem flies in the face of any sort of naturalism that sees the human body as full contained in and of itself. Human beings are animated by something more, something transcendent.

When we meet the Other, we may be tempted, Kearney suggests, to reduce them to being understandable. We assume that we can fully comprehend this person that stands before us: “What you see is what you get” and nothing more and nothing less (10).

For if it is true to say that we do somehow ‘see’ the persona in the face of the person, we never get it. It always exceeds the limits of our capturing gaze. It transcends us. (11)

The flip side of all of this is to make the Other so vastly different from us that we “mistake the other’s persona for an idol” (11). I suppose here Kearney is cautioning us against divinizing the human being as a god of some sort. Then the Other becomes no longer present, but just a shadow of some other reality. Kearney uses the example of the pop culture cult in which “Madonna replaces the Madonna [the Virgin Mary].”

In short, we disregard others not just by ignoring their transcendence but equally by ignoring their flesh-and-blood thereness. (11)

The middle ground between the two extremes of encounter the Other allows us to acknowledge that this person stands before me as a physical being who has veins, a heart, a brain, eyes, hands, feet, ears, etc. but that the whole reality of this person cannot be captured in just acknowledging these natural faculties. There is something more.  

Persona as Eschaton

For Kearney, eschaton does not mean a determinable end, a clear goal to be achieved at some predetermined time, or the ‘End Times.’ Eschaton, instead, is “an end without end.” So the an eschatological persona is one that acknowledges the “irreducible finality of the other as eschaton.” That is, the Other is an end in and of themself, but they are not the end. Paradox. The Other cannot be made less than an end. Perhaps then, an Other cannot be a means to an end, for they are endless ends in themselves.

What happens when we encounter the eschatological persona is that we are made powerless in their presence because we cannot grasp them fully, we cannot hold them in the palm of our hand, we cannot figure them all out, we cannot comprehend them. Nous ne pouvons plus pouvoir: “we can no longer be able”  (Levinas). But we are not left without the possibility of being able to do something. It is precisely the Other who “re-enables” us who says “Even though you are powerless, I believe you can do this.” (12) The Other has so many possibilities in its future, but we cannot know these or have power over these. The Other’s possibility, their “may-be” cannot be made into “my set of possibilities or powers: my ‘can-be.'” (12) We cannot make the Other’s possibilities our actualities.

Otherness is not our possession. If we posses and hang onto an Other’s persona, that is, their essence, then they are just illusions that we have created because we cannot grasp their reality, their essence, their what-ness.

The Persona and Place

Persona takes the place of no-place; but it does not itself take place. Yet it does give place to the person and without it the person could not take its place. It is the non-presence that allows presence to happen in the here and now as a human person appearing to me in flesh and blood. (13)

Persona is uncontainable yet it still makes possible the bodily presence of a person. Persona is abstract but at the same time concretely realized in the skin and bones of human beings. The Other in the here and now, concrete, fleshly, physical, before our eyes, is inseparable from the transcendent reality of persona and vice versa.

The persona is there to remind us that there is always something more to flesh and blood than flesh and blood. (13)

Kearney exemplifies all of these points in the context of a romantic human relationship:

Time and again, lovers seek to appropriate each other’s persona as if it could be magically conjured in its present-at-hand thereness…; they fall for the lure of fusion, that is, for the illusion that some ecstasy or addiction might make us one with the other. But it cannot. The other will never be me, nor even like me. Whence the shock, for example, of a spouse reading his partner’s private diary and discovering he never really knew the person (i.e., persona) he lived with for so many years. Whence also the post-coital tristesse [sadness] that derives from the awareness that no amount of intimacy can ever grasp the other. We do grasp something of course–the other person, in their delectable giveness–but not the other’s persona. (13-14)

One’s persona is their own unique, singular, reality that differentiates themselves from every other human being in the world. While we may all share common characteristics, on biological, psychological, and other levels, our persona is unrepeatable. The human body is the place in which the persona is made flesh. Incarnated.