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.

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