Monday, December 29, 2014

The Ark of Hebrews

The New Testament document known as the Letter to the Hebrews has both an unknown author and unknown audience. Its content is fascinating if not bewildering, and its reading of scripture is as aggressive as the NT gets. The letter is obsessed with priesthood, but does not mention the Eucharist directly, despite its appeal to the sacrifice of Christ as messianic priest par excellence (Psalm 110), "in the order of Melchizedek." The Catholic reading of the letter, by directive of Nostra Aetate and other pronouncements, must veer away from notions of supersessionism or abrogation of the 'old' covenant, though the letter seemingly invites (if not exhorts, cf. 13:22) the reader to such conclusions (8:13). I would propose that the letter, far from a supersessionist document, is all about continuity; even its technique is at play with time and space.

Perhaps the first clue that the letter is up to something extraordinary is its retelling of the Abraham story.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. [Heb. 11:17-19, NIV]

The letter retrojects faith in the resurrection onto the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham, through reason, knew Isaac would be restored to promise. "Figuratively," Isaac was resurrected from the dead to more life (not unlike the Johannine Lazarus) by the staying of Abraham's hand by the Angel. This spectacular anachronism certainly bends time toward the sacrifice on Calvary, and the time of that sacrifice toward the sacrifice on Moriah (Gen. 22:2). Typologically, there is a laying atop of the NT sacrifice upon the OT, but allegoresis is not hierarchical, and its alterations are not paradigmatic, but syntagmatic. Hence, supersessionism need not be the effect here,  but democratic simultaneity and continuity. Time, bent and twisted as it is in this letter, imposes no superiority of later occurrences over previous ones.

The most telling clue in the letter that turns it away from abrogation of the old Law is its play with matter and space as it retrojects the Eucharist into the Ark of the Covenant.

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.  A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. [Heb. 9:1-4, NIV]

The "consecrated bread" in v.2 signals the Eucharistic element of v.4, "the gold jar of manna." There is no tradition apart from the letter itself that locates either the jar of manna or the staff of Aaron in the Ark. Neither Exodus, 1 Kings, nor Numbers (cf. 17) permits the tablets of the Law to have any company in the Ark; but this letter would have the 'manna' already in the Ark as a type of the Bread of Life, the bread of the Last Supper and on the Road to Emmaus.

The letter's deconstruction and reconstruction of the past does not have the effect of abrogation or supersessionism, but rather an effect of an allegoresis of surfaces in which neither past nor present dictates pride of place. The rod of Aaron is shown not in apostasy, but "budded," in the bloom of living faith, and a validation and continuity of priesthood into the 'New' Covenant. Jesus and his singular, priestly sacrifice on Calvary, does not place the Old sacrifice under erasure, but, if 'erasure' is a theme of the letter, it is an erasure that insists on whatever is underneath to come through quite clearly.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nathanael's Figs, or the Case of the Fickle Ficus

Nathanael's amazement parallels that of the woman at the well, and leads him to utter his high christology:

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” [John 1:48-50, NIV]

Just what Nathanael was doing under his fig tree is up for speculation. Some say the fig tree is the Torah and a man under it is under study and contemplation, and messianic expectation. If so, then Nathanael's declaration has a context unspoken but very real. Regardless, the scene is one of thematic discovery; belief results from something hidden becoming revealed, identity clarified by supernatural knowledge. But Jesus, in a Jolsonian gesture, responds to the declaration of identity with teasing expectation: μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ (you ain't seen nothin' yet).

Jesus (and perhaps biblical divinity) has an interesting relationship with fig trees. They are a gift of God, as Nathanael himself, or a gift that takes away. They punctuate the Synoptic Olivet discourses, and get themselves withered, just for being out of season. If Jesus had his way (and when it comes to fig trees he often does), there would be no cover under the ficus: tree, fruit, or leaves. 

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”And his disciples heard him say it. [Mk. 11:13-14, NIV]

There is a more compressed Matthean disposition of this episode as well (Matt. 21:18ff). In the Marcan version, the cleansing of the temple intervenes before the discovery of the withered and cursed fig tree. This fig tree, whose only fault is to be seasonally out of sync with Jesus's hunger, will not only bear no fruit again (and be useless to punctuate the time of tribulation), but will wither away in short order, and provide cover or contemplation to no one. Nathanael will need to search out another tree.

The fickleness of the fig tree is not unprecedented in scripture. Whether the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil or the Tree of Life were themselves of the ficus is purely conjectural, but the man and his wife took cover under aprons of fig leaves, and there would be no little poetry in those leaves coming off the tree that started the whole business. The Lord taketh and the Lord giveth. But whatever those two were trying to cover up-eth, Jesus would have none of it. He strips the fig tree in order to recreate it, to make it new, a sign, a mark of what is to come. The new fig tree is something discovered and restored to its primal meaning, reconfigured as a sign of the times which, deconstructed and reconstructed, Jesus can then use to parabolically punctuate the discourse on an emerging world.

He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. [Luke 21:29-31, NIV]

The cleansing of the temple strips out its corruption and prepares it for a new time, a time of the Kingdom. The withered fig tree punctuates the purge in the temple and the reconstruction of sacred space as the new fig tree, sprouting shoots and leaves, heralds the summer of a sacred time. The meat of the Marcan sandwich is the flesh of fresh figs. 

The Matthean Jesus, too, is about a new space and a new time, and a reconstruction of proper relationships.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. [Matthew 19:4-8, NIV]

And there it is: sklerokardia. Hardness of heart is at the heart of the hardness of Jesus toward the fig tree. The advent of the Kingdom, of tribulation and the terrible day of the Lord, rides on the tender young shoots and leaves of the new ficus. Metanoia, the softening and making fertile the hardness of hearts of stone, is the event harbored in the saturated phenomena of the cursing of the tree and the cleansing of the temple. Biblical personages and readers are not somehow transported to 'the' beginning, but are renewed in the potential space of a Kingdom come. Everything is new, the fig leaves come off, the tree is restored: a sign of things to come.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Saturated Phenomena and the Nativity of the Christ

I am not as sanguine with Jean-Luc Marion's signature concept of the 'saturated' phenomenon as perhaps I should be. It seems to me, that to start, Marion suggests the analogy that simple objects are to saturated phenomena as occurrences are to events. And while I might very well be manufacturing that analogy as a grappling hook to tame the complexity in Marion's thought, I do think that getting a hook into this concept is worth some effort.

Though this blog post is likely to be little more than notes to myself, I do not hesitate to spill out some of my thoughts on this interesting matter. So, if Marion is describing some kind of inversion of intentionality and intuition when one moves from objects to saturated phenomena I come up with something of a 2-term dialectic:


The play is in the dotted line, of course, and the porosity of terms speaks to their own excess.

Because saturated phenomena are immense (and by this I mean immeasurable, unquantifiable), their very excess mocks intentionality, which is overwhelmed, deluged, and can do nothing but spill over in response to what is given to intuition. Objects do not overwhelm intent, but lend themselves to sequential evaluation, even summation.

Yet, the concept of saturation also contains a sense of limit, a sense of decreased possibility, a decrease in valence, a decrease in the number of points of interaction: this is certainly present in the idea of saturation in chemical properties. Beauty becomes gaudy, flavor become cloying: more is less. I find this an interesting paradox within the paradox of saturated phenomena.

The saturated phenomenon as event seems to approach the aporia of limit and excess. Merold Westphal, taking Marion's lead, has looked at the Synoptic Transfiguration pericopes as exemplifying a saturated phenomenon ("Transfiguration as Saturated Phenomenon," in the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, 1:1, 2003), and his discussion is provocative and illuminates Marion's concept. In this same vein, I would consider the Lucan nativity narrative in  terms of saturated phenomenon as event.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. [Luke 2:4-7, NIV]

Verse 7, in the GNT, captures better the texts sense of limit on space:

διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι

The phase can be rendered in English as 'because there was no place for them in the lodging', or more loosely as 'there was no space for them at the table.'

We can imagine a place too small to contain what must have been a large influx of people. Confusion, crowding, and the inability of of the town to contain the birth of a child, cause its parents to spill over into the setting of a manger and nearby fields where shepherds work the night. Mary and Joseph overwhelm Bethlehem's capacity, saturated, as it were, with Davidic travelers coming home for the holiday. Though they believe they migrate in response to the needs of a census, they could have hardly understood that they were called to bring forth a great progeny of a promise long held and hoped for.

This event harbored in Bethlehem's bursting excess is the precipitation, out from the saturated town, of the Nativity, the realization of the Incarnation and the Kingdom. From messianic expectation abuzz in the city of David emerges the Messiah in the flesh. Unlike Peter (experiencing the Transfiguration), who, as Westphal has noted, "wants to prolong this event"(29), the shepherds receive the event as event, find the child as the Angel of the Lord told them they would, and do not tarry but instead, hand down the gospel [Luke 2:17-18]. The shepherds thereby invert the movement of excess from manger to 'all who heard,' ostensibly those who found a place at the table in the town.

It seems to me, upon some reflection, that Marion's saturated phenomena meet Caputo's criteria for the event. Both thinkers are bound by the middle voice in which the response to a call makes a difference.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Discovery and the Beloved Disciple

John 9 tells a story of a man born blind, a story of discovery, a story of not seeing and seeing, a story of the seen and unseen. Elsewhere, I have written about the special case of the man born blind (MBB), not only because his was the first case of someone being 'born' blind and then given sight, but because he is the only other character apart from God in scripture to use the divine signature, ego eimi (ἐγώ εἰμι): I Am . Though no historical critical scholar has suggested it, I would fancy the MBB to be not only the 'beloved disciple' but also Jesus himself. This kind of discovery is the grammar of apocalypsis in the 4th Gospel.

That the MBB is Jesus himself (or at least a profound reflection of him) hangs on the purloined signature, ego eimi. It is a provocative phrase in the mouth of the MBB, and in the hand of the 4th evangelist. Unlike those hearing Jesus himself utter the phrase in the previous chapter (8:58), the MBB's audience misses it, as they are more interested in some detective work of a different sort. The MBB's sight is given in short order, but the crowd and the Pharisees undergo a slower process of discovery, of finding something out, finding a truth: the 'light of the world' [9:5]. Who is this light? Jesus has just said it is he, but, narratologically, the MMB, in a Jesus-like manner, opens the eyes [9:10;17;21;26;30;32] of the Pharisees, though they refuse to see, despite their reluctant acknowledgement that the man was indeed born blind.

Interestingly, this eye-opening pericope is the only instance in the NT where both parents of someone given a sign by Jesus appear, and here, as witnesses. They testify to their son's history, but take flight in Egypt: they defer to their son to tell his story. In the face of the Pharisees, the MBB tells them how amazed he is that he now sees and they still cannot see whence Jesus came [9:30]. That remark is nearly as biting as Jesus's own account of the Pharisees whose sin remains because they will not see [9:41].

This ironic merging of Jesus and the MBB is perhaps something of a Johannine 'infancy narrative.' It is the 4th evangelist's account of Jesus's own emergence, his coming into his own as the 'lamb of God' [1:29-36], taking on his mission: seeing all that must come to pass, and what must become of him, as the Baptist saw of himself before Jesus came to fulfill his own ministry of signs. The Johannine Jesus is a remarkable figure, one very different from the Synoptic Jesus (the 3 synoptics in the 4th Gospel are, of course, Jesus, the MBB, and the evangelist himself). There is never really any question about how the Logos operates in the 4th Gospel. Whatever it does not imbue with itself it brings to itself. Ego eimi, the shape of the Logos in Jhn. 9, is the light and lens, sound and sense of the Johannine literary project. "I Am" informs every trope, every image in this narrative. Indeed, the Gospel itself is system of surfaces and predicates in liminal interface, its logic that of borders grazing and tracing each other (cf. Mark C. Taylor's Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology, especially pp. 116-118 , where he characterizes all of scripture as a "divine milieu" of time-space bending, liminal logic).

Could the evangelist have manipulated time and space in Chapter 9 as I have suggested here? Do Taylor's remarks on the divinity of scripture apply here? I think so;  the evangelist seems to have no difficulty using time and terrain in his service of his community (e.g., the Lazarus pericope). If so, there would be no better candidate for the Beloved Disciple than the MBB. That would put a wrinkle in Beloved Disciple investigations, and would go a long way in explaining the stunning visuals in the 4th Gospel, especially in the passion narrative, where every visual sensation is shocking and new to recently opened eyes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Toward a Philosophy of Being at the Bedside of the Living and the Dying

And now for something completely different...perhaps...

I have been giving consideration lately to the conceptual framework of therapeutics, a philosophy of therapeutics, which I don't think necessarily equates to what passes for philosophy of medicine. The philosophy of medicine seems to me more of a game, a nodding of philosophy and medicine to one another, an exchange of a knowing smile. I am loathe to jump into the naturalism/normativism, objectivism/constructivism (these pairs are, for the most part, synonymous) debates right now,  though I acknowledge the value in these 'discussions,' so long as they don't get too dogmatic.

So, my ophthalmologist (yes, doctors do see other doctors, though we deep down don't trust doctors) told me recently that my eyes are normal and healthy, as he was writing down my diagnosis of 'cataracts.' I laughed at this, and his response was telling and refreshing: cataracts are like your gray hairs: are they not normal and is your hair not healthy? Your vision is fine and your hair looks good. This is living a life. Or words to that effect...

Apparently, my diagnosis described something other than disease. I imagine if I couldn't drive at night because of oppressive glare and visual compromise, I'd have been invited to the operating room to remove those cataracts. Treatment depends on 'what's going on,' and diagnosis is a statement of 'what is.'

If anyone has high blood pressure she pretty much carries diagnoses of Stage A heart failure and and Stage I chronic kidney disease (please, no one panic; I don't--and I have high blood pressure, too). Often, treatment is an interpretive gesture, and its nature depends on the meaning of 'what is.' Meaning often gets its punch from context, and not all diagnoses mean the same thing. A diagnosis of cancer, for example, identifies a potentially lethal process that requires treatment. Many of us don't want to be told we're normal and healthy with a diagnosis of cancer, nor would we expect non-urgency to inform treatment; unless, of course, context doesn't punch so hard. I don't know who would want their prostate or breast cancer treated with harsh, often intolerable therapies if such a person were 96 years old, with dementia and frail. 

Sometimes value systems enter the fray. The presence of a diagnosis, even an objectively ominous diagnosis, does not necessarily demand an aggressively toxic course of therapeutic action. The meaning of the diagnosis must align with the meaning of treatment in a rational approach to therapeutics, and therapeutic action is as much determined by diagnosis as it is by the values that determine quality of life.

Deconstructing normativism does not lead to naturalism, nor is the converse the case. Deconstruction leads to freedom and assertions of meaning, and lives on the bar between what I am calling objectivism and constructionism, here;  and between what we call disease and health. Such deconstruction leads to discovery of what events are taking place in diagnosis, what is going on when doctors treat, and what is going on when patients present for 'treatments' for 'what is', even when 'what is' is neither a diagnosis nor a disease.

Although such treatments could be part of 'esthetic medicine'--medical/surgical procedures that treat the perception that one is getting older, wrinklier, and less attractive, I am thinking more of the treatment of symptoms regardless of the underlying diagnosis. Bracketing off whether or not medicine should be in the business of beautification, I consider what is happening, for example, at the end of life, when aggressive, disease-focused therapy is irrelevant, in which risk outweighs any benefit. Such symptom-driven, non-curative, palliative treatments enhance quality of life by reducing suffering caused by troubling and disabling symptoms such as pain, or shortness of breath; they might also lessen anxiety caused by such symptoms and impending death. Such treatments rarely manipulate the causes (primary causes) of suffering though of course they can ameliorate final causes.

Sometimes diagnoses are not descriptive of malfunction of statistically determined normal processes. Sometimes they just state 'what is,' what the symptom is: pain, confusion, shortness of breath, and the existential suffering of the impending loss of life. What is natural or normative, what meets criteria for objectivism or constructionism, becomes secondary if not obscene at the bedside of the dying. Opening the therapeutic relationship to the event, to healing, matters more than formalization of concepts. The event can lead to more living among both the living and the dying.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Certitude, Embarrassment and the Impossible

On the face of it, there appears to be an unholy alliance between Tertullian's certum est, quia impossibile (referring to the Resurrection--'it is certain because it's impossible') and the criterion of embarrassment. The historical critical method validates authenticity when an occurrence in a pericope embarrasses the early church or faith. Certitude gains verisimilitude (and traction) in the face of the impossible. Though the assertion that De Carne Christi offers a valid argument because Tertullian embarrasses today's Christianity (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will have none of that brazen fideism) has no purchase, its very premodern appeal to the impossible does indeed resonate with postmodern attempts to recover 'the impossible' for theology: we need look no further than David Tracy's 'incomprehensibility' and 'hiddenness' of God, or my assertion of the 'radical absence' of God. Credibile est, quia ineptum est, but ineptum must be translated very loosely, something like 'anarchic,' peut etre, or 'eventive.' We should therefore look further, into Derrida and Caputo.

What we might have here is an embarrassment of riches and nothing unholy at all. The only palpable certitude in religion is where one lands after taking a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, which comes from a hope in the impossible; but this certitude trembles and fears in the face of an incomprehensible, hidden and absent God. What is getting itself done in this kind of impossibility, in the impossible situation of seeking to know God as he is? Perhaps we can know God through the resurrection with the certitude of 'the perhaps.'

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.   "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.    But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'     Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. [Mk. 16:5-8, NIV]

This fascinating sequence of empty tomb-alarm-resurrection-flight-fear knocks on the door of the impossible. Incredulity seems to win the day here, as the visitors believe neither their eyes nor ears, and are bewildered into silence. Yet, the event harbored in this occurrence at the tomb seeks its release in the promise of the impossible: 'there you will see him, just as he told you.' This is as much as the evangelist is happy to record (the rounding out of Mk. 16 by vv. 9-20 by a redactor wants to establish a conventional certitude not envisioned by Mark). His audience knows full well what happened next, and its certitude is a foil to silent fear: the audience is certain because the visitors' fear is impossible.

An interesting question is not so much that the evangelist is done in v.8, but why he added the verse at all. I would surmise that Mark wanted to release the event harbored in chapter 16 at its every reading and hearing. Mark seeks not to inculcate an uncritical belief in the words of  the 'young man dressed in a white robe,' but to foster a faith in a living event in every presence of his text. The very promise of the impossible breaks through fearful silence, getting Mark to write and the evangelist and his community to say something to everyone. All were called into existence through the event in the empty tomb and the radical absence of the Nazarene by the insistence of something 'risen...just as he told' them.

And there is a certain embarrassment in all that, even as Tertullian flirts with getting some kind of pass not for his fideism, but for accounting for the impossible.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Horse, A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse

I've spent some time with Levi Bryant on his Larval Subjects blog today. He has written a fascinating piece on 'writing' and 'inscription', "Bergsonian Reflections on Writing" .

He describes writing as the 'spatialization of thought'. Though I rarely comment on articles in other blogs, I very much wanted to weigh in with how writing and speaking my thoughts pass through a maelstrom of interferences that batter the thought, leaving an inscription that is only an approximation of the thought itself. So I left a comment.

Levi's piece put me in mind of my latest project of synthesizing some of John Caputo's theological notions and the Catholic Tradition.

If Caputo were a horse, he would have to be [w]ridd/tten into Catholicism by David Tracy, spurred on either side by Jean-Luc Marion and Karl Rahner.

I will let that image settle in. Thank you, Levi, for your provocative
'post-human' reflection. I'm off to do some spatialization...