In the Beginning was Hermeneutics – Pt 1

In the beginning was the Word. (John 1.1)

And because the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics, or, interpretation. Words are just noises that we make or scribbles on a page unless we first attach meaning to them and after that interpret them as a whole. Words require interpretation. Interpretation is the art of turning words into thoughts, beliefs, and actions. That interpretation is a primal event and undertaking is the assertion that Richard Kearney puts forward throughout his own philosophical project. This also seems to be the reasoning of Abraham Heschel when he refers to the Torah, the word of God revealed through the prophets, as a “call for continuous understanding.” (GSM, 273) What I am interested in doing is looking at how Heschel’s “continuous understanding” and Kearney’s hermeneutics affect how we understand the biblical text (or any sacred text for that matter).

In a three-part CBC Ideas interview featuring Kearney discussing his book The God Who May Be, and his overall interpretation of religion, Kearney begins with the statement from which I derive the title of this post.

In the beginning is [hermeneia], interpretation in the beginning is the Word. Not a stone. Not a certitude. Not a God you can put in a bottle and bring out every so often on festive occasions to prove that you’ve got the absolute truth and nobody else has…and as we know words are dialogical and you’ve got to listen and to respond.

Interpretation is perhaps one of the most primitive human acts. Before there was written and spoken language, there were symbols. Communication was through imagery and gestures. Progressively communication could be accomplished through utterances and more specific symbols. But in each situation, meaning had to be created in order for there to be any sort of coherent communication to take place. Of course, this meaning was not perfect and thus interpretations could vary. Whatever the case, interpretation became necessary. Communication became possible only through interpretation. And it remains that way today. You will read these posts and will interpret them. You are engaging in hermeneutics.

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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.

I am Who May Be – Pt 1

My aim is to identify and address the hidden crux of this enigma: the extraordinary phenomenon of a deity which appears and disappears in a fire that burns without burning out, that ignites without consuming, that names itself, paradoxically, as that which cannot be named, and that presents itself in the moment as that which is still to come. (20)

Kearney invites us to creatively re-imagine the familiar story of Moses at the Burning Bush in light of his understanding of persona and eschatology.

In Exodus 3.14 Moses meets his maker. Leading his flock to the desert mountain of Horeb, he happens upon a voice speaking from the midst of a flaming thornbush. From this transfiguring fire which flares up without being extinguished, the voice of an angel calls and Moses answers ‘Here I am.’ The voice bids him to stand back and remove his sandals. And revealing himself as the Lord of his ancestors–of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–God says he has heard the cry of his people and has come to deliver them from bondage.

But it’s not enough for Moses. Standing there under the midday sun, he wonders if this is not some mirage, some hoax. Perhaps the voice is an inner demon prompting him to a fit of madness. After all, wasn’t it just such a strange angel who appeared to Jacob late one night and shattered his hip, before disclosing the name of Israel? And wasn’t it another elusive voice which summoned Abraham to Mount Moriah to murder his own son? That was a cruel command. A trick of course. Only a test of faith. He must tread carefully. Moses wasn’t quite sure he wanted to do business with such a mercurial God: one who sent visitors to maim you in the middle of the night and command blood sacrifice (even if he wasn’t really serious). Every angel was terrible in a way wasn’t it? (20-21)

Moses approaches the Burning Bush and asks two questions. First, likely afraid of angering this unknown divine presence in the bush, Moses asks “Who am I…that I should go unto Pharaoh and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God responds: “I will be with Thee.” Take note of the word ‘will’ which in general usage, expresses a strong intention or assertion about the future (Dictionary). Kearney imagines Moses thinking that this Other he is encountering in the bush is unlike any Other he has encountered, unlike any of the Egyptian deities or tribal deities. Perhaps this is a “God of advent: a promise for the future.” (21)

Moses then asks a second question: “When I come unto the children of Israel and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them?”

“I am he who is…I am has sent me to you”

God names himself by not naming himself. God names himself by, Kearney remarks, a riddle. This ‘name’ of God is rooted in the Hebrew word for ‘to be.’ However, Kearney seeks a mi-lieu between ontological and  eschatological interpretations. The ontological interpretation, the traditional rendering of the words of God as “I am who I am” or “I am he who is,” is strongly influenced by Greek concepts of the One being the fullness of being. The eschatological interpretation is a postmodern interpretation, “I am he who is not,” pushes God beyond being, to the point of no-being. Kearney asserts that both interpretations are extreme and as such, he desires to render God’s words as “I am who may be.” (22)

Ontological Interpretation of God’s response

Traditionally, Christian theologians have held to an ontological interpretation of God’s response to Moses which would render his words “I am he who is.” This has led many to conflate the God of the Exodus with the God of Greek metaphysics which argues for Being-itself as the Ultimate Reality, a “timeless, immutable, incorporeal” self-subsisting ground of all being. Augustine writes, “…he is Is, that is to say God is Being itself, ipsum esse, in its most absolute and full sense…” (23) Augustine easily unites the God of Abraham and Isaac with the ousia (substance) of Platonism, a substance that is not bound by time or space, a substance that is unchangeable. For Aquinas, the ‘name’ of God in Exodus “is the principal name of GOd and the highest formulation fo being.” (23) Being (with a capital B), for Aquinas, “is being that is eternal, immutable, simple self-sufficient, and the cause and principle of everything.” (23) Being is God’s essence. God is “without movement, change, desire, or possibility” Kearney writes. (23)

The significance of the ontological interpretation is its heavy reliance on Greek thought. “Without the encounter of Greek metaphysics with biblical religious thought, philosophers ‘would have never reached the idea that Being is the proper name of God and that this name designates God’s very essence.'” (Kearney quoting Ricouer; 24) Kearney and others have called this conflation onto-theology. Others might call it the analogy of being. The difficulty faced, however, is to associate God with some vague, unknown, and universal Being who never changes and at the same time, affirm the personal God of the biblical narrative. A close companion of onto-theology is mystical ontologism, which Kearney believes collapses the universal Being into human consciousness.

Eschatological Interpretation of God’s response

Onto-theology, though it is the dominant interpretative tradition, is critiqued by eschatological interpretation (‘E’ for short). The E-interpretation posits a different interpretation of God’s response to Moses with a specific focus on the “ethical and dynamic character of God.” (25) One of the initial differences between the O-interpretation and the E-interpretation is that the second interpretation renders God’s words as “I shall be what I shall be.” (Kearney quoting the Jewish commentator Rashi; 25) And when God repeats himself again, he says “I will be has sent you [ Moses].” Kearney argues that “Rashi interprets the ‘name’ in terms of mandate and mission.” (25) Rashi writes, creatively imagining the words of God

…the vision that you have seen at the thornbush is the sign for you that I have sent you–and that you will succeed in My mission, and that I have the wherewithal to save you. Just as you saw the thornbush performing My mission without being consumed, so too, you will go on My mission and you will not be harmed…(25)

The significance of Rashi’s interpretation is that God is offering himself as a promise of constant co-operation with Moses and ultimately with the children of Israel. The future is of as much concern to God as the present. But this future is “wide open–nothing is predetermined. It is up to us to remain as faithful to God as God promises to remain faithful to us.” (26) The reason for this openness can be seen, according to Rashi, in God’s instruction to Moses to tell Pharoah that God “happened upon us” (Ex 3.18) in the desert. Us, being the children of Israel represented in the person of Moses. Rashi notices that this phrase connotes a “chance occurrence.” (26)

The eschatological interpretation of God’s self-revelation, Kearney writes, “means reading the formula [of God’s ‘name’] in terms of function rather than substance, in terms of narrative rather than syllogism, in terms of relation rather than abstraction.” (26) God’s ‘name’ is less about being known as Being-itself, and more about the promise of co-operating with Moses in the liberation of Israel and the hope of the Promised Land. Kearney believes that there is a  problem that apophatic theology faces in reacting to the O-interpretation. Apophatic theology tries to affirm the unknowability of God to the point that God becomes beyond Being, a no-Being. The difficulty faced by apophatic theology is that “if God is devoid of all historical being, is He not then also deprived of the power to act and call and love–a God o distant as to be defunct?” Does apophatic theology result in such a negation of being that God is so distant from the world that he cannot live and act within it in any meaningful way?

In the ‘name’ of God

Kearney offers a really interesting insight into the Near Eastern religious context of Moses’ era and the effect of such a context on our interpretation of God’s ‘name.’ Near Eastern religions were grounded in the significant power of the name of particular deities. These gods had names that humans could use, but there was a final, ultimate, and hidden name that was believed to possess “enormous power.” (27) Relying on Andre LaCocque’s analysis of the Burning Bush story, Kearney sees Moses trying to obtain this secret name of God, probably because he knew that in order to free the people of Israel, he would have to duel with the Egyptian magicians who would summon their deities’ powers. God had other ideas:

Moses’ request, on this reading, is for such a name of power; and God’s response to his request may be read accordingly as a refusal of this request. The very circularity [think of a circle when you hear the words, ‘I shall be what I shall be’] and indeterminacy [ambiguity] of the nameless name…confounds the attempt to glean magical profit from it…[God] resists…being reduced to the status of an idol. (27)

God is thus seeking to not be co-opted into some religious scheme that sees the Divine as a means to an end.

Others have translated the ‘name’ of God in similar ways:

  • Martin Buber – “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every time.” (27)
  • Rosenzweig – “I will be there as I will be there.”

Kearney comments:

These commentators share the view that what the suffering Hebrews needed from Moses was not some metaphysical proof about the existence of GOd as ipsum esse [Being-itself] but an assurance that He would remain close to them. The promise of the speaking GOd which begins with the word ‘ehyeh, ‘I shall be,’ means a pledge to his people that he will not abandon them. It is not, Buber observes, the self-exposure of some occult magical power but a clarification of the kind of GOd he is, an indication of the eschatological ‘meaning and character of a name (YHVH).’

The Israelites were not looking for some ‘five-proofs’ for the existence of God. In some way, God’s existence of was no concern to them. Whether God was Being-itself or some other metaphysical reality was of no concern to them. What was of concern was knowing that God cared about them, and that God had a special intention for their liberation from injustice. The Israelites were looking for assurance, promise, presence, justice, love, and hope. God’s promise is also a promise of return. For it is likely that the Israelites believed they had been abandoned. God’s initial promise to Abraham and their forefathers seemed to have been broken. But Moses’ encounter signaled a reaffirmation, a renewal, of that promise.

I do notice two glaring issues with the E-interpretation. Kearney argues that

the God revealed in Exodus is more, however, than a demystification of pagan tendencies to invoke divine names as mythical powers. It also marks a step beyond the capricious deity inherited by the Hebrews themselves from certain ancestral narratives recorded in Genesis–in particular the ‘sacrificial’ account of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 or the burnt sacrifices performed by Abraham in Genesis 15. Exodus 3.14 may be read accordingly not only as a biblical critique of other mystery-rite religions but as a self-critique of such traces in biblical religion itself! (27)

The first problem is Kearney’s argument that God’s ‘name’ is an attempt to co-opt any use of his ‘name’ as a means to an end. Moses repeatedly invokes the name of God, Yahweh, in he and Aaron’s battles against Pharoah and the Egyptian sorcerers. The second problem I see is that Moses’ encounter with the ‘nameless’ God is some how a critique of the “capricious” deity that commanded sacrifice. What do we see in Exodus? Plagues. The sacrifice of the Egyptian first-born for the Israelites’ freedom. Moreover, the ‘nameless’ God of the Burning Bush, which Kearney believes to be different from the God who called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, is also the same God who returns to make a covenant with Israel giving law after law after law with clear-cut definitions of what sort of punishment will happen if someone breaks a law. And this is later the God who, upon entering with the Hebrews into the Promised Land finds it necessary to purify the land of all who oppose the Israelites.

In other words, Kearney seems to be applying his E-interpretation to this one narrative event and I see a lack of interest in what extends beyond the meeting of God and Moses at the bush.

More on this later.