The Word in the Flesh in the Word: A true, Postmodern Understanding of the Incarnation

The “pursuit” of a postmodern Christology is something that is inherently paradoxical because on the surface, the postmodern seems to be itself the antithesis of a unified doctrine of the person of Christ. Furthermore, the postmodern is a term that by its very “definition” escapes definition. It may be better to speak of the postmodern in relation to Christology, or the Church itself for that matter, as pursuing rather than being pursued. Such a statement indicates two important details about the current milieu. First, it emphasizes the importance and inevitability of an adaptive theology that is in history and diachronic. Second, it reverses the violence found in the history of the Church of tracking down and subsuming competing worldviews. Both are points I shall develop in this post.

The reason why my attention is focused on the doctrine of incarnation is because it is that moment in particular that provides the most robust understanding of the postmodern recontextualized within Christianity. It is a moment where transcendent and knowable, eternal and contingent, divine and human come together in a way that is both comprehensible and incomprehensible simultaneously. Therefore, the incarnation can be fruitfully understood as a moment of différance in which the divinity and humanity of Christ are in constant tension, neither subverted by the other, both escaping the full grasp of understanding at moments and casting themselves into sharp relief at others and is thus indicative of our human inability to ever completely pin down what divinity incarnate—or full humanity—really are.

My argument will consist of three main parts. First, it is important to get as clear an understanding as possible of what exactly the postmodern is not only from a historical standpoint but also from a historiographical one regarding its history in theology. I will be drawing primarily upon the work of Jacques Derrida to do this. Secondly, I will develop a postmodern understanding of the incarnation and point out the ways in which such an understanding not only highlights important aspects of our frailty as human beings but also how it defeats the violence of metaphysics found within natural religion as well as “modern” Christianity. Finally, I will argue that the nature of the Jesus-event requires that we place our understanding of incarnation into the scope of history, making it diachronic, and formulating it with the knowledge that it is in no way nor can it ever be absolute.

1. The Continental Postmodern Mis/understood

There is resistance among evangelicals regarding an appropriation of the postmodern into their theology, and it is certainly understandable. First, there is the perception that postmodernism advocates an “anything goes” relativism—that because postmodernism has dismissed the search for Truth, it claims that there is none. This has led most evangelicals to see the postmodern as necessarily atheistic. However, as I will demonstrate, postmodernism is not absolutely relativistic.

Secondly, the theology that originally came out of postmodern thought has been anything but promising. The effect of postmodern thought can be seen in theology as early as the 1960s with “death of God” theologians such as Thomas J.J. Altizer[1] and continues through the 1980s with Mark C. Taylor’s Erring in 1984. In short, the argument is that the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth necessarily brought about the “death” of the God of the Old Testament. Taylor writes: “With the appearance of the divine that is not only itself but is at the same time other, the God who alone is God disappears.”[2] However, Taylor, who is drawing primarily upon the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida, misreads Derrida by taking him too seriously. If the God who is God alone, the God fully present, Alpha and Omega, disappears, then what has happened is mere reversal, not deconstruction of the divine event of incarnation. The postmodern at the general level of “Truth” and in the more narrow use of deconstruction and différance needs to be re-examined.

1.1. truth and Truth

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the forefathers of postmodern thought, writes in his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” of the nature of Truth: “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force.”[3] In other words, for Nietzsche, there is no “Truth” with a capital ‘T’ that humans have access to. Everything we claim as a “truth” is really just a metaphor for a larger Truth behind the veil of our perceptions. One way to formulate this, as Merold Westphal does, is, “The truth is there is no Truth”[4]—that seems to broadly describe the conclusions of many postmodern thinkers, though it does not do justice to any of their individual formulations (I will be touching on Jacques Derrida’s formulation of this statement in the next section.)

One might be quick to point out that it seems the statement is contradictory, much like the liar’s paradox: This statement is a lie. However, such a statement is self-referentially contradictory only in the performative sense,[5] meaning it is the nature of the language within the statement that makes it self-referential. In the act of hearing this utterance, in the case of the liar’s paradox, the listener must paradoxically accept the truth of the statement in order to accept its falsity. However, the same cannot be said about Westphal’s T/truth statement. The postmodern claim is not that the Truth, capital T, is that there is no Truth, capital T. The claim itself is still a contingent truth, lowercase t. Critics may then argue that such a truth is no more than a useful fiction; however, the claim is never that there is no Truth—only that we as human beings do not have access to it. Rather than point to the absurdity of the universe and thus lead to a paradoxical absolute relativism, this statement about our inability to access Truth points to our falleness as human beings. We never have knowledge of Truth, for that would be God’s knowledge; our knowledge will forever be in flux, forever slipping.

1.2. Derrida and Différance

This notion of the slippage of meaning is vitally important to the work of Jacques Derrida and a brief explanation of différance will help in developing a postmodern doctrine of the incarnation. In his landmark essay “Différance,” Jacques Derrida attempts to establish a “non-concept” by which he can demonstrate how Western philosophy has been based upon what he calls in Of Grammatology “the metaphysics of presence.”[6] The essential question in Western metaphysics is the essence of being. Derrida points out that, “The formal essence of the signified is presence [. . .] This is the inevitable response as soon as one asks: ‘what is the sign?,’ that is to say, when one submits the sign to the question of essence.”[7] In other words, being itself, in the metaphysics of presence, has no predicate. Being itself, in this case, is transcendent because it presupposes presence. We can more narrowly define Being for the purposes of this paper as an onto-theology, which attempts to describe the essence of God, the First Cause, etc. Both philosophy and theology have shared this as a goal for centuries.

Différance, on the other hand, according to Derrida, is not a word and is not a concept. It is not describable, not even as “nothing.” In order to describe such a “thing,” Derrida writes that one must, “delineate that différance is not, does not exist, is not a present-being (on) in any form; and we will be led to delineate also everything that it is not, that is, everything. [. . .] It derives from no category of being, whether present or absent.”[8] Derrida claims that différance, therefore, defies the metaphysics of presence because its to be, so to speak, is not dependent upon presence. In other words, it is never fully present, never fully absent, always indicating a slippage of meaning and the inability to find center.

This play of language is the epitome of the postmodern ethos. However, we must be careful not to take it too seriously. While deconstruction illuminates the privileges inherent in seemingly “objective” language, this does not mean that we can ever fully escape that language. Derrida, in his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, points out that

[A]ll of these destructive discourses [referring specifically to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud] and all their analogues are trapped in a kind of circle. This circle is unique. It describes the form of the relation between the history of metaphysics and the destruction of the history of metaphysics. There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics.[9]

For Derrida, it is impossible to critique metaphysics by attempting to dismiss its terminology because we “have no language—no syntax and no lexicon—which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.”[10] What Taylor and other “death of God” theologians are guilty of is a reading of différance that suggests the proposition of God as transcendent and universal must be overturned because he “slips” into the temporal and human realm. In other words, they move God from fully present to fully absent, and thus announce His death. They attempt to do what Derrida explicitly says we cannot do in deconstruction—dismiss metaphysics altogether. However, as I will suggest and develop, reading the incarnation as a moment of différance prevents us completely from locating God using either the category of presence or absence. He is both, and he is neither.

2. The Language of the Divine

In order to begin to speak of the divine, we must understand that our language will never be that of the divine. In other words, our language is always contingent, never fixed. As Christians, we can believe that the Bible is fixed, transcendent, inspired, but our reading of it never can be—otherwise someone would have discovered long ago the way to read the Bible. We are always interpreters of everything we encounter. Gianni Vattimo phrases the issue this way: “Interpretation is the idea that knowledge is not the pure, uninterested reflection of the real, but the interested approach to the world, which is itself historically mutable and culturally conditioned.”[11] To understand the incarnation as a moment of différance is to accept the fact that our interpretation of the Christ event can never be fully centered and must always be diachronic and historical.

2.1. The Impossibility of Transcendent Language: The Incarnation

From a postmodern perspective the incarnation represents the greatest point of mystery and tension in the Christian faith. At the simplest level, it seems to represent a classic binary opposition between divine and human, eternal and contingent. However, the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ are much more complex than that. If we affirm, in line with Nicea and Chalcedon, that Christ was one person with two natures, divine and human, then we must ask ourselves what the relationship between those two natures is.

For “death of God” theologians, this event is the inscription of the Word into humanity—the eternal become temporal and thus this relationship “subverts all forms of transcendence.”[12] The incarnation is read as the descent of the divine Word into the person Jesus, an event which cannot be reversed and which destroys the violent God of natural religion. However, as Ted Peters points out, “[A] healthy Christology maintains a parallel tension between the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Never absent is the temptation to relieve this tension by weakening or eliminating one of the poles.”[13] Certainly, the full divinity of Christ is weakened in death of God theology. What does it mean to be fully divine if there is no transcendent God as a referent? Furthermore, there is a contradiction here because the death of God itself an act of violence. To claim God’s death in this event is also to signal the establishment of a new absolute—one of pure absence rather than presence. It is not that Taylor is arguing that God in total is completely gone; he still affirms the divinity of Christ and the existence of the spirit. It is only the transcendent Father who is gone. In other words, as Kärkkäinen correctly assesses, for Taylor, “Without God—since God is ‘dead’—there is no central perspective, no objective truth of things, no ‘real thing’ beyond language.”[14] However, as I have argued, this is not necessarily an accurate postmodern perspective.

If the incarnation is read as a moment of différance, then we have an interplay between the two natures of Christ that cannot be completely understood. Yes, we can say that Christ is fully human and fully divine, but can we describe what either of those actually means? We do not have access to the language necessary to describe what anything is fully. If we did, to use it would be to look over the shoulder of God in order to see what He is seeing.[15] What différance in the incarnation of God in Christ represents is the constant sliding of meaning as we attempt to understand as best we can what it means in Truth for Christ to be one person, two natures, fully human and fully divine. This does not mean that we cannot affirm, in faith, that God is fully human and fully divine. A postmodern reading does not affect our belief in this doctrine, only our knowledge of its Truth. Furthermore, this moment of différance does not follow necessarily from the death of God nor does it lead to the death of God. Such a claim is itself deconstructable, as I have demonstrated above, and an act of metaphysical violence on par with a claim of absolute presence—it does not accurately reflect a postmodern reading of the incarnation.

2.2. The Violence of Metaphysics and the Frailty of the Human Condition

I have used the term “violence” to describe metaphysical claims. In the turn toward the postmodern, we necessarily turn from the violence that metaphysics brings. When I term metaphysics as violent, I echo Frederiek Depoortere who offers this explanation: “[M]etaphysics is the search for a first and indubitable foundation and is therefore inherently violent. The reverse is also the case: violence is the result of metaphysical thinking, of the belief that one has access to ‘objective’ reality, to reality as it eternally is in itself.”[16] As I have argued, the postmodern rejects the violence of metaphysics. Furthermore, the incarnation is also a rejection of the violence of natural religion, which is bound up in the violence of metaphysics in general. Such a religion requires not only sacrifice but violent defense as well. In other words, when one claims to know, to have complete access to absolute truth, one has no reason not to defend it with violence.

The embodiment of the transcendent God in human flesh and his subsequent sacrifice necessarily rejects the violence of natural religion, and the incarnation as a moment of différance rejects the violence of metaphysics. It is a moment that continues throughout history. It defines our experience in the world—différance inscribes anthropology, but

[I]t is a theological anthropology because it suggests that although we cannot talk about God , and have no direct knowledge of Him, neither can we cease talking about God, and having the promise of knowledge about Him. Différance, examined theologically, becomes the play between the presence and the impossibility of God.[17]

A postmodern doctrine of the incarnation throws our frailty as human beings into sharp relief. It allows us to continue to search for the Truth of what it means for Jesus of Nazareth to be fully human and fully divine—to literally know what the adjective fully means in Truth—but humbles us with the reality that to find Truth would be to see as God sees. Graham Ward phrases it thus: “[It] is the possibility for the impossibility of the Word in our words—the possibility not that God himself appears, but in the economy of theological representation that Jesus Christ is the scene for the impossible made possible; the text for the Word made words.”[18]

Conclusion: History as Truth

The tendency in the history of theology has been for theologians to attempt to develop doctrine that will remain untouched by history—to develop doctrine outside of history. While that may not necessarily be the case among contemporary theologians, even those who are not postmodernists, the radical contextualization of theology within culture and history is not always fully realized. The difficulty is in making a distinction between the eternal nature of the text of Scripture itself and our interpretation of it. We must keep in mind that Christianity is a distinctly historical faith. This is not to say that our knowledge comes only through historical fact and not divine revelation; rather, the incarnation “is the claim that history—a specific historical set of events, indeed—is the final, decisive, and complete locus of divine revelation, of the truth.”[19] The history of humankind, played out as the divine drama of God, reaching a pivotal moment in the incarnation is the location of truth. The crucified Christ is the image of human history—a political prisoner, innocent, broken and executed.

That history itself is the location of truth indicates that the attempt to establish a doctrine of the incarnation with the intention that it might be fixed and ahistorical necessitates its “incorrectness.” The postmodern turn allows us to develop a doctrine of the incarnation that is always developing, always diachronic,

For the incarnation could also signal the trace of an otherness that defies ecclesial definition and ownership, and confirms materiality and history as the inescapable context for experiencing the impossible gift. This would be an incarnation of the good, of the gift, that takes us beyond all calculation. It would be the condition of a nondogmatic faith.[20]

Dogmatism is something we have a heightened awareness of in the 21st century and is something the church could perhaps easily avoid with a stronger consideration of the postmodern.

Further study must be done with regard to the postmodern, not only because it is relatively “new” to church culture and mainline theology but because the very nature of it, as I have argued, requires that our interpretations never be absolute and outside of history. We must allow God to be the one both outside and a part of history, lest we claim to look over his shoulder to attempt to see with His eyes.

by Joel Harrison

 

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J.J., The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).

Depoortere, Frederiek, Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, René Girard, and Slavoj Zizek (London: T&T Clark, 2008),

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

—, “Différance” in Alan Bass, trans., Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1982).

—, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Alan Bass, trans., Writing and Difference (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1978).

Edwards, James, “Deconstruction and the End of Philosophy: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and the Hope of Salvation,” in Henry Ruf, ed., Religion, Ontotheology, and Deconstruction (New York: Paragon House, 1989).

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).

Peters, Ted, God—the World’s Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

Nietzsche, Friedrich, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” in The Rhetorical Tradition. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), p. 1174.

Shakespeare, Steven, Derrida and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

Taylor, Mark C., Erring (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1984).

Vattimo, Gianni, “Toward a Nonreligious Christianity” in Jeffrey W. Robbins, ed., After the Death of God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Ward, Graham, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Westphal, Merold, Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2001).


[1] Thomas J.J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966).

[2] Mark C. Taylor, Erring (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 103.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” in The Rhetorical Tradition. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds., (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001), p. 1174.

[4] Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2001), p. 81.

[5] Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology, p. 85.

[6] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 23.

[7] Derrida, Grammatology, p. 18

[8] Jacques Derrida, “Différance” in Alan Bass, trans., Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 6.

[9] Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Alan Bass, trans., Writing and Difference (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 280.

[10] Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” in Bass, trans., Writing, pp. 280-1.

[11] Gianni Vattimo, “Toward a Nonreligious Christianity” in Jeffrey W. Robbins, ed., After the Death of God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 31.

[12] Taylor, Erring, p. 104

[13] Ted Peters, God—the World’s Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 196.

[14] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 218.

[15] Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology, p. 80.

[16] Frederiek Depoortere, Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, René Girard, and Slavoj Zizek (London: T&T Clark, 2008), p. 7

[17] Graham Ward, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.  232.

[18] Ward, Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology, p. 233.

[19] James Edwards, “Deconstruction and the End of Philosophy: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and the Hope of Salvation,” in Henry Ruf, ed., Religion, Ontotheology, and Deconstruction (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 186.

[20] Steven Shakespeare, Derrida and Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2009), p. 170.

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