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The Opening of Divinity in the Opening of Arms: A Cruciform Phenomenology of the Humanity and Divinity of Christ

Before I joined this blog as a contributor, the final post on my previous blog–Theopoetry–was shared as a guest post on this blog. I have decided to republish it with a few minorPostmodern Christ edits here.

Open arms are a gesture of the body reaching for the other. They are a sign of discontent with my own self-enclosed identity and a code of desire for the other. I do not want to be myself only; I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other.” –Miroslav Volf

For two thousand years Christians have debated over how to intelligibly conceptualize and reconcile two descriptive categories of Jesus in the canonical Gospel traditions on philosophical grounds. One category meets us in the immanent and ordinary dimension of existence: the humanity of Jesus, a life-trajectory that begins with birth in a feeding trough and terminates in a bloody death on a wooden cross, complete with all of the sorrow and joy of life in between. The other category meets us in mythical transcendence: the divinity of Christ that arrives to us in the power and impact of Jesus, whose life-trajectory discloses through enacted parable the character of God, exploding through Resurrection as the transformative consciousness of an expanding community named by Saint Paul the ‘Body of Christ.’

Several councils met throughout the first five centuries to accomplish a reconciliation between Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Two schools emerged–one in Antioch and one in Alexandria–one emphasizing humanity over divinity and the other emphasizing divinity over humanity. The Antiochene School taught the sublation and truncation of divinity under a totalization of human essence, positing that Jesus was a human person uniquely created and empowered by God to reveal God’s wisdom and intentions through the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Conversely, the Alexandrian School posited that the divine Creator took on fleshly form/appearance so as to accomplish our salvation through transforming human flesh, thus truncating and sublating Jesus’ humanity beneath and within a divine totality. The ongoing tension between Antioch and Alexandria terminated in compromise with the acceptance of an unresolvable paradox at the Council of Nicaea: Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.

But what if this paradox only manifests itself within an outdated metaphysical framework? In both the Platonic and Aristotelian paradigms of the early church age–the former grounding Alexandrian Christology and the latter grounding Antiochene Christology–incarnation was a major philosophical problem. The divine essence was seen as completely distinct from human essence and thus incapable of being mixed with it. But we now know, by way of quantum physics, that all ‘matter’ is composed of energetic relationships where the Higgs Field cools down. The old problem of incarnation is how two essences can occupy the same space. But from the contemporary scientific perspective, incarnation is ubiquitous if God is understood as “light” (a mythic archetype for divinity), which in physics amounts to pure energy: the very basis of matter. God then must be incarnate in all being as its very ground and future. The new question then is not how God’s incarnation in Jesus is possible, but how it is unique.

If we thereby presuppose that incarnation is a universal reality, the incarnation of Jesus would have to be different by degree, not kind. What then is this degree? My own position is that it is Jesus’ ecstatic unity with the divine through the wisdom of agape that makes him fully human, and it is his full humanity that makes him fully divine. In this way Jesus becomes triumphant over the multifarious forms of alienation in human life. Jesus is not other than human but more deeply human. [Side note: One may ask, does this mean that only a human person can be fully divine? My answer is no, because the realization of divinity is simply the realization of the full positive potential of any given genus in its respective habitat. What follows is simply my thoughts on the divine in human form.]

Unlike the Antiochene Jesus who becomes superhuman by making a special claim on the being of God that you and I cannot, and unlike the Alexandrian Jesus who is the God-in-flesh who makes a special claim on human being that we cannot, the real and actual and weak Jesus opens his arms toward both poles of being as a meeting space. With one arm reached toward divinity and one toward humanity, he simply makes himself a space of near-nonbeing—an open convergence between the divine and the human. He becomes not a demigod but a space between being itself–an opening of emptiness that is simultaneously a fullness.

The symbol of Jesus spreading out his arms is found on the cross itself. On a hill called Golgotha–the ‘place of the skull’–a cursed ‘outside’ where tribal identities no longer persist, Jesus becomes subject to nonbeing and otherness. In this place of self-emptying, he opens his arms toward the other, welcoming the other into a cruciform way of life where identities are crucified and transformed so that each person may embrace the other in authenticity and love.

Through the self-forgetful embrace of the other, self-alienation is dissolved into holistic self-completion. It is here that one may become fully human. And it is only as one becomes fully human that she may become fully divine, for the divine is disclosed for us in the space of nonbeing where being leaves itself to join with the other toward the creation of fuller Being. It is the sacred and ecological space of emerging wholeness wherein alienation is traded for loving embrace, and it is finally the sacred, differentiated unity of beings in love as a collective manifestation of the divine Life.

Christ hangs at the intersection of two lines: one is vertical divinity, and the other is horizontal humanity. As such, the cross is the place of intersection, staked into the very ground of nonbeing and nonidentity. The cross crosses out tribal identity insofar as it honors the human as human, allowing us to flourish as more fully human and thus become more fully divine.

For it is in the cruciform embrace of the other that divinity and humanity converge as one voice whereby the earthly and sacred are inseparable and mutually completing.

Transdivinity

There must be a great sort of dissonance when you are convinced of some inner reality when others believe the exact opposite of you. Imagine being Jesus: maybe he was born with the knowledge of or experience of his own divinity (as coupled with his humanity), maybe he grew to discover it. But I suppose that neither of those axioms would really matter to you, oh Jesus.

You grow up, proclaiming things like “The Father and I are One” and insinuating that you–yes you!–are the divine one. You are the transcendent one. You–who was born of a woman, healed on the Sabbath, forgave sins, touched the unclean, cast out demons, and was crucified–are the one that the prophets spoke of???? And yet the tradition contradicts all these things! How dare you forgive someone’s sins! Touching the unclean? Go perform a cleansing ritual!! Atone for your sin of violating the Sabbath! Even the Muslims know that the Messiah of Israel cannot be crucified!! You blasphemer! Repent of your sin immediately! How dare you claim to transcend our clearly demarcated boundaries!!!!

Now imagine you are a trans woman. Maybe you were born having known or experienced your gender differently than people treated you; maybe you grew to discover it–5 years into life…14 years….21 years….50 years….80 years…. But, again, I suppose that these axioms might not matter all too much to you, oh Queer One.

You grow up and begin proclaiming things like “I am not a boy!!!” or insinuating that you–yes you!–are among those who cannot concede the gender everyone else imposes on them. You are the transcendent one. You–who was born with a specific set of genitalia, played sports, dressed in typical boyish garb, responding to your male name and male pronouns–are the one the tradition warns about. “God created them male and female!” they press. “A woman must not wear men’s clothing,” they insist, “nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.” So you figure, “hey, maybe I’ll start wearing women’s clothes then!” Your wit does not woo the nay-sayers of life. Do not repent. You need not cleanse yourself. Christ has not atoned for you, for you have not sinned in gender. What nonsense!

Suppose that we were once wrong about Christ–we denied him. Suppose we were wrong about trans people–we denied them as well. And look what happened.

Thank you for transcending boundaries with me.

Check out the Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Network Videos

Unfortunately, the comps process does not lend itself to very consistent updating of a long-form blog. So I apologize for the increasing irregularity of my posts. That being said, I have been anything but un-busy for the past few months. To see one of the projects that has been taking up some of my non-blogging thought and effort, check out the videos from a few of the public lectures that my organization — The Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Network — has released. Topics include: the phenomenology of poverty, the post-anthropocene, and passion. Be sure to stay tuned for two other videos in-process (to be released asap): one on the failure of phenomenological realism, and one on the non-phenomenological side of Merleau-Ponty.

Tom Sparrow at the East End Book Exchange

Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Network

Don’t miss our third official Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Network lecture next thursday (March 20th) at 6:00pm at the East End Book Exchange. We are thrilled to announce that  Dr. Tom Sparrow of Slippery Rock University will be offering a lecture and discussion based upon his paper “From Lived Bodies to Plastic Bodies.” Want to go deeper? ThePittsburgh Continental Philosophy Reading Group will be be discussing his paper in preparation for the lecture, on Tuesday at 6:00pm (also at East End Exchange). Why not come to both events and get a double dose of Sparrow? The official Facebook can be found here.

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13 Books from 2013

My top 13 favorite reads of 2013…

13.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
12.) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
11.) Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View
10.) Richard BauckaumJesus and the Eyewitnesses
09.) Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being
08.) Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics
07.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
06.) Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitute
05.) Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain
04.) Jacques Derrida, Given Time
03.) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
02.) Edmund Husserl, Ideas I

And the grand finale…

01.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption

The Gift, Christ(mas), and the Claus(e) of Prohibition: Re-membering the Divine Economy of Mary and her Infant King

Forewarning: I do not intend to use this post to propagate some sort of worthless “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Let’s end the war on Christmas” folly. This is a hermeneutical discourse on the internal paradoxes of the language employed around this holiday and how they present an ethical aporia for, most of all, Christians.

Jesus was born in a feeding trough. What that means is that pigs ate from it. Jesus’s newborn, fragile body was birthed and first laid in a structure made for pig food…as the story goes.

Whether you interpret the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives as literal or symbolic, the symbolic point of reference here is the beginnings of Jesus in poverty. The historical man who came to be propped up as the very incarnation of God in flesh–he dwelt among the lowest and basest of created things. Furthermore, he lived his life touching lepers and hanging out with prostitutes, teaching unconditional love and giving.

That’s right. Jesus taught unconditional love. This means that the Gift, when unconditional, is given without expect of return or reward. There was no prohibition given by Jesus in terms of the Gift. No exception. This is the divine economy: to give on the basis of love for the other alone–worthy in his/her own being as such–without any exceptions or conditions. An impossible and difficult thing to do, but something to be strived for anyway.

Christmas has been proclaimed to be, by many Evangelical Christians, a season for honoring and remembering the humbly-born Christ. But they quickly forget that this humble Christ taught us to practice a divine economy. They claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but they do not celebrate the radical generosity he taught. Sure, they will give nice gifts to family and friends. But only on this occasion, and it is no Evangelical imperative that one should make a regular effort to give gifts of sustenance to the poor.

Evangelicals may claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but it would seem that they believe more strongly in a Santa-figure (as representative of the Divine). Santa’s economy can be summed up by the following lyric: He’s making a list and checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. 

Santa’s economy is one of prohibition. Santa’s gift is not unconditional but depends upon whether one obeys the prohibitions given by the Big Other. But Christ’s God, unlike the Big Other, does not give this way. Rather, Christ’s God makes the same rain fall and the same sun shine on both the righteous and unrighteous (Mat. 5:45). Evangelicals tend to see God as the Big Other, rewarding and punishing according to proper faith or deeds.

But this is not what Christ taught. If Evangelicals want to truly proclaim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the solution is not billboards or media annoyance. Rather, they ought to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus and the divine economy he taught. For to remember Christ is to re-member the divine economy that has been broken and obscured by Christendom.

(Then again, when did you ever get coals in your stocking when you were bad? We all know the big secret: Santa doesn’t actually follow his own rules…he gives unconditionally to all. He just says those things to get you to be nice to your brothers and sisters!)

Guest Post – The Opening of Arms Toward the Other: A Cruciform Phenomenology of The Humanity and Divinity of Christ

Today I am happy to offer yet another wonderful guest contribution from a friend over at Theopoetry, Michael Dise!

* * *

Open arms are a gesture of the body reaching for the other. They are a sign of discontent with my own self-enclosed identity and a code of desire for the other. I do not want to be myself only; I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other.” –Miroslav Volf

For two thousand years Christians have debated over how to intelligibly conceptualize and reconcile two descriptive categories of Jesus in the canonical Gospel traditions on philosophical grounds. One category meets us in ordinary immanence: the humanity of Jesus from birth in a feeding trough to bloody death on a wooden cross, with heaps of sorrow and grief in between. The other category meets us in mythical transcendence: the divinity of Christ that arrives to us in the power and influence of Jesus, exploding through resurrection and transforming the consciousness of an expanding community called the “body of Christ.”

Several councils met throughout the first five centuries to accomplish this reconciliation. There was the Antiochene School consisting of those who sublated the divine aspect through totalized humanity, arguing that Jesus was created and specially empowered to reveal God’s wisdom and intentions through the indwelling Spirit. Then there was the Alexandrian School where advocates argued that the divine Creator took on fleshly form to accomplish our salvation. The ongoing tension terminated with the acceptance of an unresolvable paradox: Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.

What if the paradox only exists in an outdated metaphysics? In both the Platonic and Aristotelian paradigms of that age, incarnation was a problem. The divine essence was seen as totally transcendent of this world by necessity. But we know now, via quantum physics, that all matter is constituted by relationships of energy. The old problem of incarnation is how two essences can occupy the same space. But from the quantum perspective, incarnation is ubiquitous if God is understood as “light” (a mythic archetype for divinity), which in physics amounts to pure energy: the very basis of matter. God then must be incarnate in all being as its very ground and future. The new question then is not how God’s incarnation in Jesus is possible, but how it is unique.

The incarnation of Jesus would have to be different by degree, not kind. What is this degree? It is Jesus’ full unity with the divine that makes him fully human, and it is his full humanity that makes him fully divine. This stands over and against the multifarious forms of alienation in the general anxiety of the human life. Jesus is more human by degree, but not other than human.

How does he accomplish this union? Unlike the Antiochene Jesus who becomes superhuman by making a special claim on the being of God that you and I cannot, and unlike the Alexandrian Jesus who is the God-in-flesh making a special claim on human being that we cannot, Jesus spreads open his arms toward both poles of being as a meeting space. With one arm reached toward divinity and one toward humanity, he simply makes himself a space of near-nonbeing—an open convergence between the divine and the human. He becomes not a demigod but a space between being itself.

The symbol of Jesus spreading out his arms is found on the cross itself. In Golgotha, a cursed “outside” where tribal identities no longer persist, Jesus becomes subject to nonbeing and otherness. In this place of self-emptying, he opens his arms toward the other, welcoming the other into a cruciform way of life where identities are crucified and transformed so that each person may embrace the other.

Through the embrace of the other, self-alienation is dissolved into holistic completion. It is here that one may become “fully human.” And it is only as one becomes fully human that she may become “fully divine,” for the divine is the space where being leaves itself to join with the other toward the creation of fuller Being. It is the sacred space of emerging wholeness wherein alienation is traded for loving embrace, and it is the sacred, differentiated unity of beings in love.

Christ hangs at the intersection of two lines: one is vertical (divine), and the other is horizontal (human). As such, the cross is the place of intersection, staked into the very ground of nonbeing and nonidentity. The cross “crosses out” tribal identity insofar as it honors the human as human, allowing us to flourish as more fully human and thus become more fully divine.

For it is in the cruciform embrace of the other that divinity and humanity converge as one voice whereby the earthly and sacred are inseparable and mutually completing.

The problem of “Religion without Religion”

The contemporary “return to religion” has resulted in some seriously fecund food for thought, particularly among the philosophically-inclined theologians (of which I would count myself). Of central importance to this turn, at least in the deconstruction camp, has been the work of Jacques Derrida (on one side of the aisle) and John Caputo (on the other). Yet, I nonetheless hold considerable reservations regarding some of their postmodern variation of the themes of religion, most notably their “religion without religion.”

Jacques Derrida

This structure–of the “X without X”– is a particularly common Derridean formulation . We find (in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism), for instance, a reinterpretation of Marion’s “Dieu sans l’etre” as “being God without being God.” Elsewhere, Derrida proposes a designation of Justice as a “messianicity without messianism.” This latter formulation is particularly helpful in unraveling the intention underlying Derrida’s playful disruption of the law of identity. There, Derrida wishes to maintain the forward-facing posture of messianism–understood in the modalities of hope, openness, and responsibility for the incoming other. Yet, at the same time, Derrida wishes to distance himself from the concrete messianisms of the various world religions. As Gschwandtner writes, “he refers to the messianic as a ‘general structure of experience’ concerned with the coming of the other and justice, which does not refer to any particular religion or ‘determinate revelation’.”

Martin Heidegger

What we find, therefore, is a return to the pseudo-transcendentals of Heidegger. Just as the essence of truth is found in a-lethia, the  uncovering or manifestation of Being, and the essence of modern technology in technicity, the reduction of all beings to “standing reserve,” Derrida here reduces the essence of messianism to the incoming of “the other and justice.” But (and I have chosen the language of “reduces” intentionally), it must be asked, what is reduced in this reduction, what is lost in the transition from the concrete messianism to the transcendental messianism? Or, returning to my initial concern, what is lost in the reduction of concrete religion to the transcendental “religion without religion.”

John D. Caputo

The answer, I might suggest, is concrete historicity. The reduction of religion to “religion without religion” seems to be an underhanded attempt to exempt oneself from the historical contingency of one’s religious traditions. For Derrida, the problem with such a move is attenuated by his own pseudo-atheism, as he writes, “I rightly pass for an atheist.” But the same can certainly not be said for Caputo, whose works are unambiguously situated in the Christian tradition. It is true that this move is situated within the context of “radical theology” and its abandonment of ontotheology, and it should certainly be applauded for that. But, by publicly distancing himself from the concrete historicity of the tradition, by advocating a “religion without religion,” Caputo is not merely abandoning a literalist or ontotheological interpretation of that tradition, but rather, seeking to whitewash his own theology, to extract his own thought from the turbulent and violent history of the tradition, while also seeking to maintain access to its riches and insights. Can we really have it both ways? Can we get the good without the bad (have our cake and eat it too)? Is it even possible to extract the good from the bad, the transcendental from the concrete, or is Caputo merely falling into the old Husserlian trap of the pure eidos?

In the end, I wonder if the deconstructed “religion without religion” might merely be the academic version of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” An academic incarnation of a Neoliberal cafeteria-style religiosity, with all of its faux-decontextualized and colonialist baggage.

 

SPEP 2013 Program

SPEP has released the program for this years conference. Check out page 31 for me (presenting under the SPHS, which meets in conjunction with SPEP) My paper is entitled “The Eckhartian Genesis of Michel Henry’s Philosophy of Praxis” (or, if you are SPEP, “… Michael…” since, of course, a conference program once again spelled Michel Henry’s name wrong…) and continues my ongoing investigation of Michel Henry’s reliance upon the German mystic Meister Eckhart.

Micro-Reviews #10 Jean-Luc Marion’s “God without Being” (Second Edition)

Overall Rating: 7/10

I should begin with the confession that I entered God Without Being with a bit of trepidation. On the one hand, the text is somewhat foundational for my own field (phenomenological theology), on the other, I find myself consistently disappointed by Marion’s explicitly theological texts (he makes a better philosopher than theologian, I would suggest). On top of this, I also had the strong suspicion that, having been so foundational to phenomenological theology in the 90’s and 00’s, that this text would say nothing that I hadn’t already heard. All that being said, I was nonetheless pleased with the reading, and though at times it tends to bog down in the very dense specifics of Marion’s reading of Heidegger, I would still suggest that it is a significantly valuable text, specifically the second edition, for reasons that I will explain below.

The main focus of God without Being is Marion’s attempt to theologically sidestep the Heideggerian critique of ontotheology. By ontotheology Heidegger intends, primarily, the theological or philosophical move wherein a greatest being or super-being (i.e. God, the Good, the One, etc.) is posited as the foundation of all other beings. Without going into considerable detail, I will leave that for Marion, Heidegger contends that this move fails to recognize the fundamental nature of ontological difference (the difference between beings and Being). Simply, for Heidegger, the foundation of all beings must be ontologically dissimilar to the beings it grounds (beings can’t pull themselves up by there own ontological boot-straps). Or again, the absolute foundation of all reality must be of a completely different nature from the reality it is said to found.

To his credit, Marion does not begin by attacking this notion of ontotheology, but rather, fully embraces it, re-articulating it under his notion of idolatry. For Marion, to think God as a being among beings is, not only to fall victim to ontotheology, but to furthermore commit the crime of idolatry. This redoubling of Heidegger’s critique culminates in his notion of “conceptual idolatry.” For Marion, any attempt to delimit God under the guise of a concept, is already to subsume God under the reign of Being, and therefore ontotheology; the “true” God, the God without Being, must also be a God beyond conceptuality.

In order to make the case that Christian theology can bypass this critique, Marion attempts to articulate his notion of a God which is “beyond Being,” that is to say, is completely dissimilar to created beings. For this task, he draws upon a variety of sources, most notably the Neoplatonic tradition of Christian theology inaugurated by Pseudo-Dionysius. For these mystical thinkers, God surpassed, not only all beings, but also Being-itself, even, they would add, Nonbeing. God, for Marion and these mystics, cannot be rendered as an object, either physical or conceptual, but instead surpasses all objectivity, all beings, even being itself. God, in this thought, is radically transcendent.

The obvious critique of this position is built upon the question of evidence. If God is beyond both Being and conceptuality, than how can this God be known, experienced, or verified? Marion’s creative solution to this problem, one which points to his latter work in Being Given, is to think God, not principally as a being, but as a giving (and as charity). God, for Marion, is defined by self-revelation. His principal case study in this notion is the Eucharist which, he argues, permits the presence of the absolute Otherness of God to manifest as the ultimate gift. More strongly, and revealing an indebtedness to the work of Michel Henry, he argues that this gift of presence is also the gift of the present, that the eucharistic presence of God cuts through the negative irreality of the past and future and offers the only true access to the present now.

The great addition to the second edition of this text is the inclusion of an additional essay “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theology.” In some ways more interesting than the primary text itself, Marion here pits Aquinas against Thomistic theology, arguing that while the latter falls victim to ontotheology, that this turn is only prepared by a misreading of Aquinas himself, who never subjugates God under the categories of Being.

Overall, I would recommend this text to anyone interested in the relationship between continental philosophy and theology, scholastic thought, or ontology, but would caution casual theologians or those who do not already possess a background in Heidegger as they may find themselves lost in his extended engagement with Heideggerian phenomenology.