Theopoetics of the Possible
Theopoetics of the Possible
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter uses radical and ontological metaphor to illustrate the different senses of the possible. It compares theology to a cartography that creates maps to plot a course towards divine revelation and the discovery of God. As Gregory affirms, the progressing along various chosen ways to God, always occurs over rugged topography with steep grades. Yet, if theological maps are drawn and read in the dark, then the journey takes on an even more problematic character, given that reading and writing in the dark results in a dimming of hermeneutical lucidity. In other words, as Charles Winquist insists, theology addresses the knowledge of God by engaging language about God, which in turn demands interpretation. Theological language may strive to realize more specificity or rigor, but it always remains a second-order vocabulary dependent upon the first-order religious language of avowal, that is, the language of faith, testimony, and attestation.
The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed, and difficult to climb.
Gregory of Nyssa
There are two things on which all interpretation of Scripture depends: the mode of ascertaining the proper meaning, and the mode of making known the meaning when it is ascertained … a great and arduous undertaking [opus magnum et arduum].
Augustine of Hippo
Theology is a cartography (that is, an attempt to create maps, to mark out, to graph, or to plot a course or courses) that will lead to a place, a topos, where divine revelation may occur and knowledge of God may be discovered. At these various places (topoi) and through its various topics, theology concerns the “way”, the right way, the proper way, the way, or one of many ways that can lead individuals to know something about God. Yet, as Gregory so honestly affirms, the journey to such knowledge, the progressing along various chosen ways to God, always occurs over rugged topography, an oftentimes “mountainous region” with steep grades. Even with a good map, one will find the journey difficult. Ironically, the trek is exacerbated by the fact that although one might have a map and, thereby, “know” the charted course, one can proceed up the way of ascent only by (p.242) faith and not by sight; one searches for sites of divine manifestation in which new insights into God might be experienced, but the search takes place as if one were blind, unable to read the map clearly.
Yet, if theological maps are drawn and read in the dark, then the journey takes on an even more problematic character, given that reading and writing in the dark results in a dimming of hermeneutical lucidity. In other words, as Charles Winquist insists, if theology is writing, then it addresses the knowledge of God by engaging language about God, which in turn demands interpretation.1 Even were one to possess the perfect map that leads up the face of the mountain to the very face of God, one would still have to interpret it, to read it, to decipher its semiotic and semantic implications. Consequently, theology is not only cartographical and topological, it is also topological, concerned with the “ways” of language, with linguistic “tropes” (tropoi) that twist words and turn phrases. Theological language may strive to realize more specificity or rigor, but it always remains a second-order vocabulary dependent upon the first-order religious language of avowal, that is, the language of faith, testimony, and attestation.
Such first-order language for Christian theology derives from the texts of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, texts composed of a multiplicity of literary tropes, including figures of speech such as symbols, metaphors, and narratives that compose the plurality of biblical languages. Here, Augustine comes forth as the one to warn us how daunting a task it is to seek to interpret those languages, and in doing so, reprises Gregory's symbol of the difficulty in doing theology. Augustine insists that ascertaining and communicating the Bible's “proper meaning” requires a project both “great” and “arduous,” a “magnum opus et arduum.” But arduum is Latin for “steep,” so here again the way one might choose to arrive at proper biblical interpretation, the path one might walk in order to arrive at the hermeneutical destination of clear understanding, is, indeed, an upward journey, one fraught with danger and demanding hard work.
Imagination at the “Heart of the Theological Enterprise”
As a form of imagination, faith is not an immediate knowledge. To apprehend the image of God in faith is not to have the unmediated vision of God; to be able to imagine God rightly is not to see God face to face…. Imagination belongs, therefore, in the language of traditional (p.243) Christian dogmatics, to the regnum gratiae, to the present age between the times, in which believers look forward in expectation because they can look back to the decisive event of salvation.
Can we desire God without some recourse to narrative imagination? Without some appeal to tradition(s)? Without some guide for the perplex?
Richard Kearney certainly appreciates Gregory's and Augustine's perspectives on the difficulty in making one's way toward understanding God. Although he humbly claims that the theological and exegetical tasks necessary for scaling the steep slopes leading to knowledge of the divine lie beyond his competence, he nonetheless sets out on that journey and blazes an interesting and creative trail leading to a postmetaphysical, perhaps even more biblical, linguistic point of view (GMB, 9). Although his route follows along some of tradition's well-marked trails, he is not reticent to step off those usual paths and wander transgressively over different topographies. Ray Hart claims that “tradition” is theology's technical term for the “linguistic debris” that accrues as each generation searches for the “proper” method and language for doing theology.2 He goes on to state that when “theology recognizes that it cannot think the same thing the tradition thought without thinking that thing in a different way, the question of method has inserted itself into the heart of the theological enterprise” (UM, 391; my emphasis). If Hart is correct, then not all of theology's linguistic debris is incinerated or buried in some methodological landfill, but is recycled into new conceptual networks and new linguistic strategies through which the substance of theology gets thought in a different way. In agreement with Hart, Kearney insists that in the postmodern, postliberal, postcritical, and postsecular cultural contexts, theology must think both with and against the tradition, that it must adopt what Derrida calls a “filial lack of piety” toward its linguistic detritus, and that it should salvage, through the supplementation of a refiguration and a transfiguration, the biblical language that imaginatively limns the revelation of God.3
Working with the dialectical attitudes of a hermeneutics of trust and a hermeneutics of suspicion, Kearney prescribes an itinerary for thinking God that includes a couple of steep segments, specifically (p.244) excursions up Mount Sinai with Moses in order to receive the Ineffable Name of God and up Mount Tabor with Jesus in order to do a projective phenomenology of the eschaton. He contends that at the summit of these mountains, one engages theophanies that call into question traditional interpretations of how one should envision and inscribe God. These manifestations of the deity actually reimage God and reimage images of God, and in doing so, necessitate a serious reappraisal of the creative language of Scripture, of those linguistic images, literary tropes, imaginative narratives, and fertile lacunae that signal transcendence, mystery, and divine sublimity. Such refiguring and transfiguring figures of speech lead him to reconfigure the theological methodology that best prosecutes the biblical theistic models.
In order to isolate Kearney's central theological methodology, one needs only to ascend the second of the above-named summits, Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration. As Kearney undertakes a “phenomenological-hermeneutic” of the transfiguration of Christ, he deciphers a specific moment of metamorphosis, the moment when the eschatologically glorified Christ is proleptically revealed, demonstrating Jesus' role as a mediation of God, as a passage or “way” to God. Yet, Jesus mediates God not in the sense of full presence or as a closure to the revelatory process, but as a “figure,” or cipher, of the eschaton yet to be fulfilled (GMB, 39, 43). Consequently, the transfigured figure of Jesus bespeaks an openness that cannot be decisively deciphered, an “ontological incompleteness” and an eschatological infinity that demands constant re-interpretation (UM, 135). In other words, Jesus as the transfigured phenomenon of the “way” (pores) is a way that both reveals and conceals the way, discloses and closes the way; therefore, one might say that the transfiguration of Christ functions as an aporia (a-poros) that gets in the way of anyone who hopes to reach the final revelatory destination. Kearney asserts that this revelation with/out revelation means that the Christophanic event's ineffability becomes the motor of its fability— its translation into a variety of accounts, testimonies, fables, narratives, and doctrines ranging from the initial versions of John and extending down through the entire “effective-history” (Wirkungsgeschichte) of Christian theology (GMB, 47).
These resulting genres of translation, these mappings and remap-pings, inscriptions and reinscriptions, however, have either implicit or explicit ties to the imagination, the creative faculty through which order and novelty are discovered, produced, and/or synthesized in (p.245) human existence. Kearney directly references the centrality of the imagination for construing the eschatological implications of this narrative by citing the Apostle Paul's refiguring of Jewish messianism and prefiguring of the Kingdom yet to come. Paul glosses these issues through an “iconic” Christology in which Jesus serves as an image of God, and Christ's followers reflect the divine glory as mirror images, awaiting the day when they shall repeat the imago Dei and be like God in an eschatological imago Christi. Paul's lexicon of symbols— “figuring,” “imaging,” and “reflecting”—derive implicitly from a context of imagination (GMB, 44–45). Consequently, one can postulate that the story of Christ's transfiguration inspires the imagination to witness the alterity of the event, the singular Otherness that breaks into the disciples' reality and offers to extend the transfiguring power of God through an existential metamorphosis of their persona, their “eschatological aura of ‘possibility.’”4 But the alterity of the human and divine personae demands that they be spoken figuratively, that language should deploy “imagination and interpretation to overreach their normal limits in efforts to grasp [alterity]— especially in the guise of metaphor and narrative” (GMB, 10). Kearney contends that the metaphorical, narrative imagination seeks “to interpret the images of the other and to transfigure one's own image of the world in response to this interpretation” (PI, 188). Yet considering that he esteems the narrative imagination as a sine qua non for expressing a “desire for God,” one might contend that Kearney's le-gislating “way” (hodos) for following after (meta) God and for doing theology is the way of imagination (GMB, 77). The imagination, therefore, addresses both the methods (meta-hodos) for interpreting God and the aporia (a-poros) that ensure the asymptotic character of every theological endeavor.5
Although Kearney nowhere explicitly prosecutes the idea of an imaginative theological methodology, for two decades or more—at least since his published dissertation, Poétique du Possible, in 1984—he has given significant attention to the central role of imagination as the creative power in a “poetics of the possible” and to how such a poetics relates to different narrative configurations of self and of God. As a result, one might say that his theological method does, indeed, rest upon the productive power of imagination; that is, for Kearney, theology is an imaginative construction, a creative mapping of theological topics as poetic expressions of the Inexpressible God. His method, then, correlates at significant points with Gordon Kauf-man's thesis that theology is an imaginative endeavor to construct the (p.246) concept of God. Actually, Kaufman contends that theologians imaginatively construct two primary ideas: the “world” as the unified context of experience and “God” as the limit to that unified context. In a somewhat Anselmian fashion, he considers God to be that imaginative construct than which nothing greater may be imagined.6 The theological imagination operates at the interstices of the effable/ineffable, and of the imaginable/unimaginable, not only to construct (narrate, transfigure, poetize) the idea of God but also to analyze, criticize, and reconstruct traditional images of God (ETM, 43). As such, Kaufman posits that knowledge of God is mediated through imagination and is never intuited immediately within the context of some naïve theological realism.
Kearney would agree with Kaufman's basic reading of the theological imagination as productive and liminal. He makes it plain throughout his work—again in agreement with Kaufman—that the theological imagination must not be defined according to the colloquial understanding of imagination as a faculty for reproducing images of absent objects. He certainly criticizes any reductive explanation of imagination as limited only to perceptual remnants, such as Thomas Hobbes's theory that the imagination “is nothing but decaying sense.”7 Although Kearney admits that the imagination does have the reproductive function of evoking absent objects and constructing material forms in order to represent real things, his theological interest lies in the productive power of imagination, in its relationship to possibility, variation, and creative language. This understanding of the productive imagination betrays several key influences. The distinction between the reproductive and productive imagination indicates a Kantian influence (PI, 50–51), while the idea of imagination's intimate participation in the projection of possibility manifests Hesperian and Heideggerian phenomenological influences (PI, 16, 31).8 Heidegger, in particular, fleshes out the phenomenology of imaginative possibility when he applies the Kantian model of the productive imagination to the grounds for Dasein's “being-in-the-world” as “hermeneutically prefiguring one's world horizon as that towards which one projects one's possibilities” (PI, 53). In other words, Heidegger identifies Dasein as “a poetics of the possible” (PI, 54) and, in good Kierkegaardian fashion, states that “possibility stands higher than actuality” (EPG, 182).9
Yet of all the influences on Kearney's theological imagination, two take precedence: the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures and the phenomenological hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. Kearney's “biblical” (p.247) interpretation of imagination centers on the Hebrew word yetser, a word that derives from a root meaning “to create.” Although the Hebrew terms tselem and demuth mean “image” and “likeness,” and would, therefore, appear to be the terms most associated with imagination, they actually do not function as the primary nomenclature for the productive power of imagination. Instead, the notion of yetser carries with it the connotation of mental purpose or impulse, that is, the passion to project the future and anticipate a different mode of being (WI¸ 40). This passion is a product of the imago Dei in that God grants human beings the power to participate with God in creation—to be a “creative vicar of God” (WI, 65). But in granting humans this ability, God creates the risk that they will either misuse the power by seeking to usurp God's position as creator or fall into idolatry through vain attempts at creating imaginary replacements for God. Kearney contends that Adam's first sin results directly from a misuse of the imaginative passion, so that the first exercise of the gift of yetser was in the context of disobedience through which Adam and Eve gain ethical knowledge (the distinction between good and evil). This “fallen imagination,” in turn, produces both the “knowledge of opposites” and the “birth of time,” such that east of Eden, human beings confront the distinction between good and evil and the distinction between past and future. In other words, yetser“is the freedom to prospect a future of good and evil possibilities where [one] may choose to complete the Seventh Day of Creation … or choose … to lapse into idolatry of false images by locking [oneself] up in idle fantasies” (PI, 2). This duality comes to expression ethically as the yetser hatov and the yetser hara, the impulses toward good and evil, and comes to expression temporally as the narrative imagination, the ability to structure a story through memory and projection. Kearney determines that when taken together, these two expressions manifest the uniquely human capacity to project oneself into the “unreality” of the “different” and the “not yet,” a capacity that he terms the “passion for the possible.”10
It should be said that nowhere does Kearney explicitly tease out of his understanding of yetser the possibility that it might have something to do with divine revelation. There are, however, a few indications that he might embrace the idea that the imagination functions as a point of contact between God and humanity. For example, in questioning how to describe the indescribable God, he wonders what “metaphors or figures, what images or intimations … might we deploy to speak of [the] unspeakable enigma?” (GMB, 101). Again, (p.248) when addressing the Talmudic understanding of yetser hatov as the dynamic propelling humans to participate in the ongoing task of divine creation, he writes that it “opens up history to an I-Thou dialogue between [humanity] and [its] Creator” (WI, 47). Using concepts such as “figures” and “images” in tandem with an interpretation of yetser as an “opening for dialogue” suggests strongly, if implicitly, that the imagination functions theologically as a medium and/or milieu for divine disclosure. At this point, Kearney's theology of imagination appears to track that of another theologian, Garrett Green, who contends explicitly that the imagination is the “point of contact” between God and human beings. Under the influences of Kant and Thomas Kuhn, Green develops a theory of the “paradigmatic imagination” as the formal principle for divine/human contact and correlates it with the material principle of the imago Dei.11 Although he would agree with Kearney that the paradigmatic imagination has been marred through sin by becoming an unfaithful imagination falling into fantasy and idolatry, he argues from a Christian perspective that God seeks to redeem the imagination through the imago Christi, specifically, through the imaginative narratives of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. By divine appeals to the imagination and by revealing in Christ and Scripture a different “being-in-the-world,” God offers individuals the possibility of faith, whereby they might “imagine God rightly.” Green insists that by soliciting the imagination, God may summon individuals to redemption and obedience while simultaneously ensuring their freedom to respond (IG, 147). That is to say, God may effect a divine influence upon individuals through the imagination without that influence deteriorating into coercion or manipulation. When individuals respond by accepting God's call, their imaginations are redeemed and may then serve as the basis for analogical understanding, centered not on mimesis and what God is, but on the hermeneutical “as“ —the “copula of imagination”—and what God is like (IG, 93, 140). From the perspective of a theological cartography, therefore, Green's method charts theology as principally hermeneutical and, therefore, as a way of articulating and comprehending “the grammar of Christian imagination.”12
Kearney would certainly agree with Green on the point of correlating imagination, theology, and hermeneutics. This agreement results from the second significant influence on his theological imagination, the hermeneutical philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. For Ri-coeur, theology develops out of the linguistic matrix of metaphor and limit expression, which, in turn, characterize the originary poetic language (p.249) of faith.13 This originary language purports to be a response to the creative word of God and attempts to name God through various textual genres that depend on the creative ability of figurative language to open new semantic fields.14 The test case for this poetic dynamic is the metaphor, which Ricoeur centers in the imagination's ability to encounter the semantic impertinence of the metaphorical predication and to “see” new combinations of meaning and reference developing out of that impertinence through semantic innovation.15 Of course, this means for Ricoeur that one cannot reduce the imagination to the traditional psychologistic or imagistic definitions, whereby imagination is nothing more than conjuring faint representations of absent or past objects. Instead, the imagination must be understood as linguistic, working in and through linguistic tropes and texts to create and discover new possibilities of meaning and existence. The semantic imagination exploits the polysemy of words and the plurivocity of texts in order to call into question the status quo and to project alternative worlds as possible ways of restructuring reality. By suspending literal descriptions of first-order references and replacing them with poetic redescriptions that mediate new meanings through second-order references, the imagination undertakes an “ontological exploration” that “sees” self, world, and even God in new and different ways (TA, 231). Through these “imaginative variations,” the individual escapes the hegemony of the present and anticipates new possibilities in the future. Consequently, just as poetic texts in general present “models of” and “models for” reality and entice the reader to appropriate those models, so the poetic language of Christian theology offers models of and for self, world, Christ, and God.
The poetic energy of originary religious language and the play of the linguistic imagination specifically reference the theme of revelation. Through various creative genres of literature, such as wisdom, prophecy, hymn, parable, and eschatological sayings, one encounters a “call, into the heart of existence, of the imagination of the possible.” This call of revelation manifests the “grace of imagination,” the surging forth or exploding of new possibilities, resulting in the gifts of freedom, hope, and a redemption through imagination (TA, 237). Consequently, Ricoeur's “grace of the imagination” is a passion for the possible, or in Kearney's idiom, a “poetics of the possible.” But precisely at this point, Ricoeur agrees with Garrett Green that the imagination offers the “point of contact” between God and humans in that it supplies the site of the confluence of divine revelation and (p.250) human receptivity. Like Green, Ricoeur argues that revelatory language appeals first to the imagination in a nonviolent manner, and never coerces, but respects the individual's freedom to accept or reject God's self-disclosure.16 God's revelation does not immediately demand a decision, an exercise of the will, but first gives to the imagination possibilities of a new reality, a new world, and a new self in the linguistic projections of God's new kingdom (FS, 44).
Given the importance of Ricoeur's philosophy for Kearney, one may again conclude that he, too, would accept that imagination forms the focus of revelation between God and humanity, that theology must, therefore, be an imaginative discipline, and that the “way” theology should be done must fix on the relationship between God and possibility. Kearney calls his theological way a via tertia, a third way, a way between ways, a metaxology or middle way, traversing a path down which one muddles through “with the help of a certain judicious mix of phronetic understanding, narrative imagination and hermeneutic judgement” (GMB, 34; SGM, 187). “Metaxology” is one of three “methodological pseudonyms” that Kearney employs, the others being (1) dynamatology, the preeminence of possibility; and (2) metaphorology, the necessity of poetic language (GMB, 6–8). Each of these “pseudonyms” references the imagination in one form or another. Consequently, Kearney's imaginative theological method works with and against various traditions, always within a context of suspicion, and extrapolates from them and against them certain new possibilities for imagining God, specifically for imagining God as Peut-Être, as the God Who May Be, a God of/as Possibility.
Possibility, Kenosis, and the Desire of God
Suppose … that “God” is stationed not on the side of arche and the principium, or of timeless being and unchanging presence, of the true, the good, and the beautiful, but on the side of the anarchic and subversive, as the driving force—the agens movens— of a divine subversion?
John D. Caputo
This is a God who puns and tautologizes, flares up and withdraws, promising to return, to become again, to come to be what he is not yet for us. This God is the coming God who may-be.
(p.251) In order to examine how Kearney exercises his imaginative theological method, one need only make the journey up the steep slopes of Sinai along with Moses and experience the miraculous phenomenon of the burning bush. This mountaintop experience, as with the one on Mount Tabor, narrates a particularly enigmatic revelation of God, almost a révélation sans révélation, a disclosure that closes off any presumption on Moses' part of having attained direct and controlling knowledge of who God is. Of course, “who God is” is, indeed, the focus of the igneous interview between the God of Abraham and this son of Abraham. Moses experiences a “nominal” theophany, a manifestation of God that centers on the issue of naming. God knows Moses' name and summons him from out of the bush by repeating it, “Moses, Moses,” and Moses responds with “hinneni,” “Here I am” or “Here I am now.” During the ensuing dialogue, however, Moses discovers that God has him at a disadvantage, for although God knows his name, he does not know God's name. He determines that he cannot go to Israel in the name of some Nameless deity; therefore, he requests that God “show” him some identification. God responds to Moses with “ehyeh asher ehyeh”—“I am who I am”—“tell them that I am has sent you.” But that answer seems to be a “non-answer”; it sounds as if God gives Moses a name that is, indeed, no name. If YHWH is God's name, it is a nameless name that ensures that the unnameable deity remains unnameable. Consequently, calling God by this name will forever remind any who call upon this name that God's self-definition remains undefinable and that the God recognized by this name remains incognito.
How should one hear the cryptic name of God? How should one translate the surplus of meaning in the “ehyeh asher ehyeh”? What are the tense and the mood inherent in the divine voice as it speaks this Nameless Name? The plurivocity of this narrative text and its tradition of conflicting interpretations intrigue Kearney. He distills that tradition down to essentially two different readings that have legislated over the customary hermeneutical perspectives taken on this passage: (1) the ontological and (2) the eschatological. The first reading comes from philosophers who have removed their shoes, knelt before the burning bush, and confessed that in the voice of God, they hear the voice of Being itself. The God of Abraham, when speaking philosophical Greek, translates his name as ego eimi, ho on, “I am that am”; consequently, the Sinai theophany manifests a deity who identifies with the ontological structures of traditional metaphysics. To walk with Yahweh along the way enlightened by the burning bush, (p.252) one must accompany Parmenides and his goddess on the way of truth, the way that leads to Being itself, which, as reason teaches, can only “be” and cannot “not be,” can have no truck with motion, mutability, or multiplicity.17 One must join Aristotle in his archaeology of motion as he sifts through the loose layers of causality until he reaches the bedrock arche of the Unmoved Mover, whose perfection demands the absence of any dynamism or any unactualized potentiality. As Being itself, God is “timeless, immutable, incorporeal, [and] understood as the subsisting act of all existing” (TH, 22). God must be Eternal in the sense of atemporal, must be pure act having no potentiality, must be impassible and unable to be affected by any other outside of God, and must be the cause of all that exists as the causa sui, the Self-Caused One.
Kearney demonstrates that Western theology with its interpretations of classical theism has accepted the conflation of God and Being and developed what has come to be known as ontotheology. Augustine, for example, reads the burning bush narrative as indicating a functional distinction between God pro nobis and God in se. Pro nobis, God manifests Godself as the God of Abraham and Isaac, a “more historico-anthropomorphic” deity; however, that is not what God is in se. God in se is the “I am,” the ipsum esse, being itself as an immutable, atemporal ousia. St. Thomas continues this dual citizenship in Athens and Jerusalem when he writes, “Deus est actus purus non habens aliquid de potentialitate”— “ God is pure act with no potentiality for potentiality” (GMB, 23–24). Of course, unless one mistakenly limits ontotheology to the Catholic tradition, one needs only to read a Protestant expression of the divine credentials in a document such as the Westminster Confession: “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible.”18
Kearney claims that the philosophical traits of Being and the biblical narratives of God significantly disconnect. The stories about God in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures offer an alternative imaginative variation of the divine ego, a different figuration of who the God of Abraham is and how that God acts and interacts with creation. The second interpretation of the divine name, the eschatological reading of Exodus, strives to remain faithful to the biblical materials and to understand God's name as the name of one who promises a new future, who commissions individuals and communities to journey toward the future, and who commits the divine self to accompany (p.253) them along the way. The God of Abraham, unlike the God of Aristotle, enters into covenants with human beings, obligates the divine self to remaining faithful to those covenants, opens the divine self to the conditional reciprocity inherent in such covenants, and limits divine action to responding to the response of the covenant partners.19
For Kearney, the relational aspects of the eschatological God come into distinct focus when one situates the divine naming in the context of God's encounter with Moses. Here again he depends on Ricoeur for guidance, since Ricoeur emphasizes the “vocation” motif of this narrative. God calls Moses to a mission, a mission that Moses reluctantly but finally accepts. In voicing the “Here I am,” Moses vocalizes a promise, a commitment on his part to be faithful to God's charge. Moses commits himself in the present to a potential future, claims that he “is” now an individual who “will be” obedient to God's direction. Ironically, God enunciates something structurally similar to Moses's response. When asked for a name, God replies with a variation of the “Here I am”; “I am that I am” functions, then, not so much in a nominative and constative fashion as in a verbal and performative fashion. The “ehyeh asher ehyeh” may be translated as “I will be who I will be,” and serves as an eschatological prolepsis through which God commits the divine self to a future fidelity. That is, the divine name expresses a divine promise (pro-mittere), gives God's “promissory note,” a pledge to “be” with Moses and Israel wherever and whenever they need God (GMB, 58). God “is” in each moment the God who sends forth (pro-mittere) into the future a potential “being” that awaits an eschatological actualization.
The eschatological reading establishes ethical grounds now for the divine/human relationship. Moses and Israel have a responsibility to obey God's directions and follow God's leadership. Along the liberating journey of redemption, God will reveal to Israel the Torah, those principles of justice and mercy that should characterize all who “name the name” of God. Israel will have the obligation to exercise its yetser hatov and participate with God in realizing a Kingdom of love and righteousness. Yet, Kearney insists that God also immerses the divine self in this ethical context. God gives God's promises as gift, though not without conditions, conditions not only under which Israel operates but also under which God vows to operate. In other words, Kearney contends that God reveals Godself at Sinai as a God who has entered history in a genuine way through the divine promises of love and acceptance. God makes Godself vulnerable to the (p.254) other, dependent on the other as to how the future will evolve, and in the vulnerability of divine obligation allows the other to affect who God may be in the future.
Kearney sums up in a fascinating and subversive translation of the Tetragrammaton the eschatological understanding of God as an engaged God, a God of and in history, a God of love, a God who calls and commits, and a God who promises and risks. In Kearney's lexicon, God does not name Godself as “Being itself” or as the “One Who Is in the Eternal Now,” or as the immutable and impassible Greek deity; God names Godself as “Posse,” as the Divine “Perhaps,” or better as “Peut-Être,” the “God Who May Be.”20 The biblical God is in actuality the God of possibility and God as possibility—the possibility-to-be—or “Possest,” a term Kearney co-opts from Nicholas of Cusa, who creates it by combining posse and esse and uses it to name God as absolute possibility. In doing so, Cusa offers a counterpoint to traditional metaphysical theology and emphasizes the necessity of imaginative language as a way to move from the nameable to the Unnameable.21 Cusa recognizes that God as absolute possibility so transcends human actuality that only through the creative dynamic of figures of speech and literary tropes may one say something about the Unsayable. For Kearney, this means that the God Who May Be functions as a limit to reality, so that any encounter with this God will be a limit experience, for truly possibility limits actuality by calling into question its finality and completeness (SGM, 213). By offering the limitless possibility of an open future, God supplies the dynamic that moves history forward, that subverts any grounding principles, and that establishes a sacred discontent that anticipates what cannot be programmed or predicted—what eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor what has even entered into the imagination.
The naming of the God Who May Be in the book of Exodus complements the naming of the God Who Will Come in the book of Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8; emphasis added). Here God associates Godself with Being and with Coming, naming Godself once again with a verbal sign, a sign of the always “to come,” the always “coming one.” Kearney reads this eschatological “coming” of God according to Juürgen Moltmann's distinction between the eschaton as futurus and as adventurus (PP, 38). Moltmann contends that the French avenir and the German Zukunft do not translate the Latin futurus, meaning “what is going to be,” but adventurus,“what is going to come.”22 For him, the eschatological (p.255) God-to-come is present in the word of promise, the divine vow that commits God to arrive always as the “adventuring” God, who both “is” (ontological) and “is not yet” (meontological).23 Although essentially agreeing with Moltmann with regard to understanding the divine future as one of advent, Kearney will not express that future as a meontology, as a “nonbeing” in the sense of a “not-yet-being.” He intends to move beyond being and non-being with his kinetic language of God's “coming.” Yet, he functionally engages in a “May”-ontology when he describes God as Peut-Être, as the God Who May Be.
Yet, Kearney's Peut-Être need not necessarily be construed onto-logically, at least according to Jacques Derrida, who translates it in a more “eventful” manner. One should not consider bringing Derrida into the discussion a non sequitur, given that he has emphasized for years that deconstruction concerns a passion for the impossible, for the advent of the future as the coming of an unprogrammable event, as a gift event—yes, even as a messianic event. Indeed, Derrida's interpolation of the concept of “perhaps” within the broader milieu of the coming of an impossible future has directly influenced Kearney's theology of God as possibility (GMB, 93–99). In the context of teasing out his deconstructive reading of “perhaps,” Derrida broaches the issue of the singularity and uniqueness of “event.” An “event” occurs only within the structure of the impossible, since a genuine event must have an aleatoric, essentially unpredictable, quality to it. It cannot be merely an actualization or fulfillment of something potential in reality, something programmable that evolves without novelty. Consequently, event as a messianic interruption is an impossible possibility or a possible impossibility.24 One cannot predict the event; one can only remain open to receive it when it comes (advenire), not prevent it but affirm it as l'invention de l'autre, the inventing of the other when it breaks out (e-venire).25 In the contest of these interpretations of event, Derrida defines peut-être as “it may happen,” not as “it may be” (AIP, 344). Of course, Kearney contends that the God Who May Be reveals Godself as the God of/as “event,” specifically “as a self-generating event,” and as the in-coming (in-venire) of the Wholly Other who calls and promises.26
Now, given the complementarity of their views on event, Derrida's translation of “Peut-Être” contributes significantly to Kearney's theology. Perhaps one could read the Exodic naming, the “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” as “I am who will happen,” “I will be an event,” or, better, “I will come as event.” Such a reading further removes God from the (p.256) conceptual network of ontological language and confirms God's transcendence as the coming one who cannot be reduced to possible fore-structures of anticipation. Yet, from another perspective, Kearney is not so intent on avoiding ontological language completely. Although he does critique the traditional onto-theological reading of the divine name and does embrace the eschatological reading as a more valid and more biblical interpretation, he does not wish to remain solely on the side of the eschatological. His imaginative theological method as a via tertia, a third way, is the third way that synthesizes both the ontological and the eschatological expositions of the Exodic naming (GMB, 34). He refuses to separate God completely from the structures of being for two primary reasons. First, to do so would disallow any genuine historical and temporal interactions between God and humans. He disagrees, for example, with Jean-Luc Marion's contention in God Without Being that one must remove God completely from ontological categories in order to avoid the conceptual idolatry that reduces God to the metaphysical level of being (GWB, 31–33). Kearney certainly appreciates Marion's desire to free God from the claustrophobic categories of traditional metaphysics; however, he claims that a total separation of God and being would result in a divine alterity or transcendence that would lock God into the ineffability of the absolute and deny any genuine relationship with humanity. Although he claims early on that God does not interact with individuals as “another being,” but as “otherwise than being” (PP, 231), Kearney insists that God's interaction has a reality to it, an empirical concreteness through which God reveals that God is not “so distant as to be defunct” (GMB, 79). Without some connection to being, God ceases to interact in history and in time, and to relate genuinely to humans in the reciprocity of promise and love.
Kearney's second reason for stipulating that God cannot be completely removed from ontology concerns the necessity for evaluating multiple instantiations of alterity. Kearney rejects any nondiscrimination policy with reference to experiences of alterity and difference on the basis that significant distinctions may obtain among various Others. He wants to establish functional categories that enable some sort of discernment by which one adjudicates the benevolence or malevolence of every Other who impinges upon an individual's experience; that is, whenever one entertains the Other, one may be welcoming an angel or a devil unawares (SGM, 67). Knowing the difference can be pivotal in determining the proper response. The (p.257) need for such evaluative criteria escalates when the question of Otherness moves into theology. If one receives the Other as God when the Other is not God, then one might be receiving a monster and not a Messiah (SGM, 107).
Kearney addresses this fear specifically in response to the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida and the radical hermeneutics of John Caputo.27 Based on his interpretation—and, one might add, misinterpretation—of their perspectives on the “theological” implications of desire, hospitality, undecidability, and khora, he concludes that they end with no benchmarks whatsoever for adjudicating among putative experiences with God. He laments that “the powers of human vision and imagination [may be] so mortified by the impossible God of deconstruction” that experiences with God will be both blind and empty (DG, 127). In lieu of the impossible God of deconstruction, that extreme deus absconditus, Kearney wants to posit the possibility of a God who passes through Being and gives some ontological signs or guidelines for adjudicating among various divine encounters.28 He recognizes, of course, that Derrida and Caputo are correct in claiming that one will never reach absolute certainty, develop definite criteria, or achieve total transparency of vision; however, one needs some approximations of these before saying “yes,” and “come,” and “thy will be done” to some imaginary God (GMB, 76). He maintains that one must leave open the possibility of discerning between idols or demons and the God of love “who takes on very definite names, shapes, and actions at specific points in time … [and] who comes to bring life here and now and brings it more abundantly” (74). After all, Moses did see the burning bush and heard the nameless name; Jacob did grip the mysterious wrestler; and Jesus did offer his hands and side to Thomas (DG, 125). According to the texts that narrate these events, they occurred existentially and phenomenologically within the historical, temporal context of being, and enabled the individuals involved to recognize God.
For Kearney, recognizing God through the structures of being need not be construed in the sense of a premature closure, of a legislating metanarrative, or of a logocentric reductionism,29 but may be understood as imaginative variations of the divine ego, as transfigurations of the creative dialogue between the God Who May Be and human individuals who respond to that God.30 In agreement with Meister Eckhart and his contention that God reveals the divine being as iconoclastic and extravagant, Kearney wants to maintain that God's passage beyond being entails God's passage through it, and that (p.258) by passing through being, God transfigures and redeems human beings. God, then, comes into being as the God who is not yet but always will be, as the God who comes as the one yet to come, as the God who may be other and different, while remaining the same as pure gift and real passage (GMB, 36–37). In this way, Kearney imagines a God Who May Be through the imaginatively theological third way of “onto-eschatological hermeneutics,” which he declares to be a synonym for a” poetics of the possible “(GMB, 37). This poetics depends upon the possibilizing power of a God who is and who is not, who neither is nor is not, but who May Be, and may be as the God who involves humanity in creation, who awaits the creature's response, who does not predetermine the future Kingdom, but who beckons toward the Kingdom to come as a Kingdom of justice and love. This possibilizing God is the messianic God of resurrection and the dynamic God who gives the Holy Spirit in order to empower the church (GMB, 81; PP, 251–252). This God Who May Be comes after metaphysics as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. This God as named in the poetic texts of Scripture reveals possible worlds of existence, imaginative variations of every status quo given— promised—unconditionally through a theopoetics of the possible.
The “onto-eschatological hermeneutics” of God is what Kearney expresses most recently through the nomenclature of the “fourth reduction,” also known as the “Prosopic Reduction,” an ad hominem, ad feminem, and ad rem return to the faces of other persons (prosopon) and to all of the factical milieux within which persons exist. This reduction to the vis-á-vis is a hermeneutical wager that the God Who May Be manifests Godself in the incarnate structures of created being, in the enfleshed Other who receives and returns one's gaze, especially the Other who is the “least of these” in need of clothing, or food, or love. Such a God of the theopoetics of the possible may be encountered through a “second naïveté,” a humble belief that God is present in the actual as the absent God of the possible, the possible that lures reality ahead to an unfinished and imaginative reality.
Kearney insists that imagining God through the fourth reduction as the One Who May Be results in a more biblical theology. The God of ontotheology, the God of pure act, self-subsistent being, and immutability, impassibility, and omnipotence, does not cohere with the revelation of God in the texts of Scripture, where God is portrayed as wrestling with Godself, as lamenting, as regretting, and as being grieved in the heart (GMB, 30). The God of ontotheology certainly does not seem to be revealed in that most essential image of (p.259) God, Jesus Christ (GMB, 48). Kearney is particularly taken with St. Paul's explosive image of Jesus' incarnation as a process of kenosis, of divine emptying and disappropriation. Christ “empties” himself and transforms himself into the form of a servant, enfleshes himself, and enters into the temporal process of history precisely in order to reveal to humanity the very heart of God, in order to manifest the grace and forgiveness of the God who comes as one calling all people to receive the gift of redemption. The incarnation, God's passage through being and flesh, models the kenotic, self-giving love of a God who opens Godself to the sinful other, who accepts the risk of rejection and suffering, in order to possibilize the continual process of ushering in the Kingdom of justice and truth. Kenosis does not result from some external necessity being placed upon God, nor on some inherent lack or weakness within the divine being. Instead, it is a potentiality actualized freely by a God who loves so deeply, so infinitely, and so inexplicably that God is willing to sacrifice the divine self in order to actualize the potentiality that individuals might respond to the call of salvation with an obedient “yes.”
Kearney affiliates God's kenotic love with Posse by utilizing Heidegger's ontological language of Vermögen des Mögens—“loving potency” or “possibilization of love.” He claims that although Heidegger speaks of being and not God, this phrase captures something of the essential dynamic of God as a kenotic “May Be” by playing off of the similarity between “loving” (mögen) and “making possible” (vermögen) (PP, 226). This notion of “loving potency” not only overcomes the metaphysical prejudice of actuality over potentiality, but it also permits a renewed sensitivity to an eschatological interpretation of “the grace-giving posse of the Creator.” Yet, following Heidegger, Kearney insists that eschatology should be conceived “topologically” or, better, “utopologically,” as the “no-place” (utopia) that does not recapitulate the homogeneity of the actual but creates the unique event of the impossible possibility of an unforeseen future. God constantly creates the possibility of this “no-place” and comes to this impossible site “in hitherto unimagined ways” (SGM, 227–228). This divine possibilizing, however, always betrays the kinetics of a kenotic love of a God who always comes as the God Who May Be.31
Understanding God as this kenotic Posse helps to avoid three traditional antinomies associated with classical theism. First, it offers a way of explaining the contiguity of divine power and human freedom. If God's creative and redemptive power centers on the efficacy (p.260) of possibilizing and not actualizing reality, and if in creating human beings as imago Dei God endows them with the gift of freedom in order to invite them to participate in the diachronic dynamism of creating the future Kingdom, then there is no inconsistency in holding both divine power and human freedom. Second, kenotic Posse addresses the problem of theodicy, for if God gives freedom to individuals such that they might participate with God in possibilizing the future, they also have the freedom to refuse to participate. God takes the divine risk that human beings will not receive the divine love, will not remain faithful to their promises, and, consequently, will not allow God's love and grace to be actualized in the structure of reality. Third, God as kenotic Posse offers a better image for comprehending and communicating a God who is intimately involved as an active power within history, as a God who truly loves the other and desires love from the other. In other words, God as the eschatological “May Be” avoids the tension between a doctrine of divine aseity and the ruling Christian metaphor “God is love.” The traditional notion of aseity parallels an Aristotelian metaphysical explanation of God's engendering love as a human potential without actually loving human beings themselves. That is, God's perfection necessitates that God must be “Love-Loving-Itself” and not ever truly loving the other. On the contrary, however, the biblical God loves the other, not just God-self in the other. The God of Jesus is the loving Father, who through self-sacrifice risks vulnerability, allows the other to affect God, to wound God, to anger God, but also to love God and bring God joy (PP, 225–230). In other words, by doing his imaginative theology of the Christomorphic, kenotic God Who May Be, Kearney does a theopassionism, a postmodern theology of the suffering God.
The promise made to Abraham that his people would have a salvific relation with God is an inexhaustible promise … as such it opens a history in which this promise can be repeated and reinterpreted over and over again—with Moses, then David, and so on. So that the biblical narrative of this “not yet realized” promise creates a cumulative history of repetition.
I have the feeling there is loss when I know that things don't repeat and that the repetition I love is not possible; (p.261) this is what I call loss of memory, the loss of repetition, not repetition in the mechanical sense of the term, but of resurrection, resuscitation, regeneration.
So what does Richard Kearney imagine when he imagines his God? He imagines an unimaginable God who should not be imagined according to the metaphysical categories of ontotheology with its semantically pertinent vocabulary of actus purus, ipsum esse subsistens, and causa sui. Such linguistic figures defigure God into either a stationary deity, lacking the kinesis of temporality and relationship, or some circulating deity whose only vector is the curvatus in se of thought thinking itself or love loving itself. Kearney prefers to imagine God according to a biblical poetics, those creative narratives and literary tropes that reveal through semantic im pertinence a living God, a lord of history, who acts and intervenes, who accompanies and leads forth, who calls and comes. These biblical twists and turns along the way lead him to transfigure God into kinetic images of playing and dancing. God reveals Godself in Scripture as a hyperactive creator who joins with human playmates in order to cavort in creation with delight and abandon (GMB, 268).32 This playful God also reveals Godself as a triune deity who loves to dance. Traditionally, the Trinitarian relationship has been interpreted as perichoresis (to dance around) and circumincession (to give way or change position), terms that image the dancelike movements of the Father, Son, and Spirit as each gives way to the other, allowing the other to cut in and to change partners. This Trinitarian rondo takes on a unique quality through the image of incarnation, the movement into flesh, by which the Son transfigures himself into a servant, repositions himself in the world, and proclaims the good news that there are no Cinderellas, for everyone has been invited to the ball (GMB, 109; SGM, 207).33 This Christocentric choreography is the motion of grace through the kinetics of kenosis.
Kinetics and kenosis are the two foci around which Kearney's refiguration of God elliptically revolves. God as playing, as dancing, as moving, as possibilizing, as coming, as incarnating, as passing through Being, as always escaping the claustrophobia of conceptual limitations— all of these are active images, images of a God who never remains still or absolutely immutable. No, his God cannot sit still, but always moves centrifugally, acts out of a passion to go forth toward the other, to empty the divine self, to dispossess the divine (p.262) self in order to possess the other. Such kenosis actuates the ecstatic God of possibility and differentiates that God from the ontotheological, metaphysical God of stasis.
As one “listens” to Kearney's Irish theological brogue, one might well detect a certain Danish accent to it, for indeed one can argue that Kearney's theological cartography, his mapping out of a tropology along his imaginative itinerary toward understanding God, is quite reminiscent of Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard discounts metaphysics because it centers on a love of immobility, an inability and/or refusal to take time and change seriously, to acknowledge or respect that life is movement, and to affirm that existence has horizons that constantly shift and beckon each individual to move forward toward possibility and impossibility. He proposes the movement of repetition as an existentially more potent alternative to metaphysics, one that not only celebrates motion but celebrates it in its passion for futurity. I contend that this Kierkegaardian concept offers an interesting translation of Kearney's theology of the God Who May Be, that one can apply that concept to God, mutatis mutandis, of course, and utilize it as something of a theologeme in order to develop prolegomena for any future imaginative systematics.
Kierkegaard develops his understanding of repetition in an eponymously titled work written under the pseudonym Constantin Constantius. In that text, Constantius discriminates between two perspectives on motion. He rightly interprets traditional metaphysics as always chafing against the friction of any genuine motion; therefore, metaphysics (1) denies motion in the Eleatic sense of the nonbeing of nonbeing, (2) subordinates motion to the Eternal in the Platonic sense of anamnesis (recollection), or (3) transmutes motion into commotion in the Hegelian sense of mediation (Aufheben).34 The second perspective, that of repetition, counters with an appreciation for motion, a recognition that without motion, life becomes meaningless, and that for the existing individual, no possible attainment of a “self” may obtain without the particular type of motion offered by repetition (R, 149). For Constantius, repetition offers a significant counterpoint to the Platonic notion of recollection and the Hegelian idea of mediation. For the former, movement is a movement backward toward some previous manifestation of full presence, an archival passion to return to what has always been. For the latter, movement is synthesized in an immanent process that manifests full presence in the absolute knowledge of the system. In both cases, the teleological impact of the two movements is to terminate movement. Repetition, (p.263) on the other hand, celebrates movement and directs it forward, not backward; keeps it active and not attenuated in an inertial process of mediation. It references genuine metamorphosis as resulting from transcendent dynamics, from eternity's breaking into temporality in the “Moment” (Augenblick), keeping time in motion toward a future of possibility. Repetition begins in actuality, proceeds through freedom, and realizes existence. The entire process establishes change within the milieu of continuity with the past and an openness toward the future through a passion for the possible. In other words, by means of inwardness, freedom, and transcendence, repetition activates the task of becoming a self through the resolute decisions based in a fidelity and commitment to the eternal.
Ironically, Constantius “abandons” his theory of repetition and does so specifically because it references transcendence, a movement that he simply cannot make. In a supplemental glossing of the text, Kierkegaard fleshes out Constantius's abandonment of repetition as his incapacity to take the step of religion, for repetition is, indeed, finally a religious gesture made “by virtue of the absurd” and ultimately manifested as the transformational dynamic of atonement (R, 324). Sin cannot be mediated but must be forgiven; the sinner cannot be renewed but must be re-created. The Christian religious notion of salvation as a new birth and of the redeemed individual as a new creature, therefore, best exemplifies repetition. By no longer holding to the past but pressing forward into the future, the redeemed individual passionately strives with fear and trembling toward the impossibility of the realization of self in relation to God.35 Consequently, one may interpret repetition as a theological term, at least in the sense that religion and atonement eventually reference the idea of God and, for Kierkegaard, more accurately the personal God revealed through the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
Undoubtedly, Kierkegaard himself would not interpret repetition as a theological term or ever attribute it to God as an idiom for explaining God's interaction with existing individuals; however, given its religious and soteriological qualities, to use the concept as a theologically heuristic device, as a possible way of imagining how God affects existence, would not be completely inappropriate. John Caputo, for example, might be one who would approve of using repetition as a theological predicate. In one of his extended definitions of repetition, Constantius characterizes it as “the interest [Interesse] of metaphysics and also the interest upon which metaphysics comes to grief” (R, 149). Inter-esse etymologically means “being in the middle,” (p.264) or “in the middle of being”; therefore, “interest” as “involvement in” or “concern for” carries with it the idea of participation and solicitude. In other words, repetition references a genuine immersion in the kinetics of existence, a functional immanence within the flux of time and history, the place where real human beings live, suffer, laugh, cry, and die. In Radical Hermeneutics, Caputo interprets this “mediational” quality of repetition as “firmly placing oneself in and amidst the strife of temporal becoming” (RH, 33).36 Recently, Caputo discusses a postmetaphysical reading of divine transcendence and concludes that one can no longer understand God's eminence as hyperousiological and homogeneous but as a “disturbing presence” that manifests a heterophilia, a love for the different and the other. He writes:
in the religion of a deconstructionist, “God” stands not above being as a hyperpresence, but in the middle of being, by identifying with everything the world casts out and leaves out.37
Caputo qualifies God, then, as inter-esse, not “being” above being in some antiseptic sphere of the epekeina tes ousias nor as “being” beneath being in some sublime abyssal Urgrund, but as “being” in the midst of being in the gracious “interestedness” of a loving, kenotic presence. Caputo thus “speaks” of God with exactly the same nomenclature that Kierkegaard uses to “speak” of repetition. As a result, using repetition as a possible cipher for Kearney's kenotic God Who May Be might not be a category mistake after all.
Kearney's God Who May Be certainly reveals Godself as an “interested” deity, a God in the midst of time and history engaging real individuals within the very structures of their existence. Indeed, in his fourth reduction, Kearney explicitly notes that God leads back to the “little things” of factical existence, the “epiphanies of the everyday,” by leading forward to the sacred possibilities yearning to be revealed. As repetition moves from actuality to existence, so God passes through being in order to repeat Godself in discrete moments of encounter, such as with Moses at the burning bush or in Christ with the disciples on Mount Tabor. When God relates to human beings, God does so as a God who desires to repeat those encounters, who waits for individuals to respond to his repeated calls for relationship. This divine interest in intimate relationships holds significant implications for God as creator. Kierkegaard claims that without repetition there would be no divine creation (R, 133). Likewise, Kearney insists that God desires humans to join him in the ongoing process of (p.265) creation, to respond to God's repeated calls for relationship with the “Here I am” of commitment and obedience. Creation, then, is no punctilear occurrence, no aoristic singularity that winds the watch and walks away. Instead, for God as Posse, creation is always incomplete, with remainder, open to repeated engagements between a God who gives freedom and human beings who use it to join God in the creative process. One might say that the seventh day of creation is a day of repetition.
Divine repetition effects not only creation but redemption as well. God as Posse is not only the creating God but the coming God, the God who comes into the world as the one who is always to come. He repeats his coming again and again, for the sake of an “ad-venturous” repetition forward, seeking to realize an eschatological atonement. But God's reiterative coming remains a possibility within the context of undecidability, that is, God's coming disallows explicit predelineation but always occurs with the potential of surprise, as the unprogrammable, im/possible event. The incarnation manifests one such aleatoric repetition, since the divine presence comes into the world yet again, but in the unique and singular movement of kenotic enfleshment in Jesus of Nazareth. But this unique personal manifestation of God suffers and dies on the cross. Yet, he returns as the resurrected one, his life repeated by the quickening power of the same Holy Spirit who first conceived him in Mary's womb. This resurrected Christ offers atonement and redemption, the ultimate repetition of salvation that does not promise a recapitulation of a prior glory, no reiteration of Eden, but the promise of a new creation, a new heaven and new earth, a new eschatological reality that draws individuals forward toward a coming Kingdom. The same Christ who offers such a salvific movement forward promises to come again, to repeat his presence in the future. But who knows in what surprising ways this Christ might repeat his coming presence?
Kearney's creative and redemptive God of possibility is a God of promise, but promise itself is always a matter of repetition. To make a promise, to commit oneself to some future action, is to obligate one-self to repetition. For example, in a marriage ceremony, the couple “repeats” their vows after the minister and in the presence of the gathered witnesses; however, that formal repetition commits them to repeating their vows after themselves and often in the absence of each other until death makes repetition impossible. But fidelity demands that every vow be repeated in every context, that whenever one gives one's word, one must give it again and again. One keeps (p.266) one's word only by giving it repeatedly. If one says “yes” to another, one cannot say it only once; therefore, it should come as no surprise that God restates his covenant constantly, at different times to different people. As Ricoeur states so beautifully, God establishes a history of repetition by dedicating the divine self to being/becoming faithful and repeating the “yes” of every divine promise. The manifestation of the unnameable divine name given to Moses at Sinai is itself a repetition. The God who names Godself “I am who I will be,” who binds Godself to the other with the” (Here) I am,” and who, thereby, promises the recurrence of divine grace and love, reminds Moses at the beginning of their conversation that God has been the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has already encountered others, revealed the divine self to others, and given the divine Word to others in order to establish covenant relationships of promise. Consequently, God is simply repeating Godself to Moses, saying “yes” again, and renewing God's obligation to say “yes” yet again, and again, and … again. For Caputo, individuals should respond to this divine promissory repetition with the complementary repetition of faith. He writes, “For faith means to live without keeping count, without taking account (sine ratione), and to say yes, a number of yeses, oui, oui, again and again, each day, day by day.”38
Within the context of the kenotic movement of divine creation, redemption, and promise, the God Who May Be also pledges to forgive, which itself depends on the reiteration of gift and promise. Forgiving as for-giving must be a continual donation of freedom from vengeance and retribution, the gift of pardon that keeps on giving in two respects. First, forgiveness as promise falls under the repetitive nature of divine grace. As Derrida claims, “[i]n principle, there is no limit to forgiveness, no measure, no moderation, no ‘to what point?’”39 The book of Judges in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, evidences God's unlimited commitment to release individuals and communities from the destructive implications of retribution. The narrative recounts episode after episode in which Israel breaks the divine commandments, suffers because of their infidelity, cries to God for mercy, and receives it. Time and time again, the repetition of rebellion is matched by the repetition of redemption. These narratives illustrate the Pauline principle that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Forgiveness always flows forth out of an extravagant abundance of grace, an abundance that reflects the infinite repetitive power of the God who comes to save and liberate.
(p.267) That God considers the repetitive nature of forgiveness as quite significant may be witnessed in Jesus' encounter with the Apostle Peter when Peter inquires into the limits of forgiveness: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” In other words, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should repeat the gift of forgiveness and, in asking, suggests that perhaps seven repetitions are more than generous. Jesus, however, rejects Peter's number and informs him that the limit is actually seventy times seven, an imaginary number for an eschatologically open process of forgiveness. Jesus tells Peter and all of his followers that in the Kingdom of God, one never ceases to repeat forgiveness, or, as Derrida would state it, that forgiveness has no limit. As Kearney claims, the desire of God as kenotic Posse comes not from deficiency, from a subtraction of divine sovereignty, but from “grace and gratuity, gift and surplus, less insufficiency than the bursting forth of the ‘more’ in the ‘less’” (DG, 117).
Repetition and forgiveness correlate at a second point, one that has become a central theme in Caputo's postsecular philosophical theology. He contends that forgiveness must be a forgetting of the past and a “letting go” of vengeance. Forgiveness is gift and, consequently, must not be mistranslated into an economy of exchange, into the language of “debits and credits,” into “treasuries of merit” against which one may borrow, or into a quid pro quo reciprocity whereby the injured party receives her “pound of flesh.” Forgiveness should be interpreted according to the “mad economics” of the Kingdom of God, the noneconomic economy taught by Jesus when he instructs his followers to turn cheeks, love enemies, and, yes, forgive seventy times seven. Jesus even teaches such a mad economics of forgiveness when he instructs his disciples on how to pray: “Forgive us … as we forgive others.” Is this not another instance of repetition, in that God's forgiveness of the disciple repeats the forgiveness given first by the disciple to the other? Caputo would concur, for in glossing this “prayerful” text, he claims that the “kingdom is the repetition beyond the resignation … the love beyond the obligation” (PT, 226). For Jesus, forgiveness cannot be “earned” or “deserved”; relational books cannot be balanced and the debt considered forgiven. To forgive a debt means to cancel it, not to have it paid back. It means that the loss is absorbed, that books are closed without a zero sum, and that the debtor is liberated from the burden of having to make up the difference. For Caputo, then, to forgive in the Christomorphic sense of the term leads one to say, “Forget it; it never happened.”40
(p.268) Yet, if the offense occurred, it did happen, and one cannot forget it. Caputo recognizes, therefore, that forgetting is impossible and, in certain situations, inappropriate. He accepts that the oppressed and violated victims of past malfeasance should be honored and in some sense “saved” through the “dangerous memory of suffering.” The Holocaust must not be forgotten; Oklahoma City must not be forgotten; and 9/11 must not be forgotten. Still, in remembering those events, communities should not allow the past to fester into the vengeance and hatred that contaminate the present and the future. Nor should individuals allow such infestation of their temporality in contexts of personal offense and violation. Whenever forgiveness is granted, the one giving it actually pledges to repeat that gift in the future. Whenever the offense is remembered, the one who forgives must also remember the forgiveness. Throughout the future, then, one must constantly repeat the forgiveness, repeat the “letting go” of revenge and anger. Could one also imagine divine forgiveness as the amnesty of a recurring amnesia, as God's intent to remember to forget, to realize redemption by repeating the gift of pardon? Perhaps God provides just such an image in certain prophetic texts where God makes a new eschatological promise and obligates Godself to Israel through a new covenant written on their hearts, a covenant predicated upon divine forgiveness. Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25; emphasis added). Then God repeats Godself in Jeremiah 31:34: “their sin I will remember no more” (emphasis added). The future tense of both “non-rememberings” indicates that through the divine imagination God projects a time to come in which God will respond to the repentance of Israel, a time when the God Who May Be may be a God of grace and compassion.
Kearney would undoubtedly accept much of Caputo's “radical” theory of forgiveness. Certainly he would accept the validity of forgiveness as repetition, for he states quite unequivocally that “amnesty is never amnesia: the past must be recollected, reimagined, rethought and workedthrough so that we can identify, grosso modo, what it is that we are forgiving” (SGM, 105–106). He also explicitly agrees with Ricoeur that through the narrative imagination, communities and individuals forgive by remembering to relinquish vengeance and retribution, that is, remembering to repeat the “having let go” (NER, 27). Furthermore, extending forgiveness as repetition to God is quite consistent with Kearney's imaginative third way of transfiguring God as (p.269) the One Who May Be as kenotic love. His God Who May Be is a God of grace and compassion, who gives the divine Word as a promise of redemption, obligates the divine self to actualize a possible eschatological renewal of the kingdom of righteousness, summons individuals to participate in possibilizing that Kingdom to come, and desires to hear the “yes” repeated by human beings whom God allows to affect who God will be. The prophet Isaiah joins Kearney in imagining such a God of unimaginable grace: “Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you, and therefore he waits on high to have compassion on you. For the Lord is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long for Him” (30:18; emphasis added). Isaiah writes of the desire of God, a desire that is, indeed, God's desire for the desire of the human other who in freedom cultivates a desire of God. For Kearney, this desire of God, in both senses of the genitive, finds expression through the Christomorphic imagination of kenotic possibility.41 In Poêtique du Possible, when writing about the vulnerable God of the Bible and of the kenotic significance of the Exodic “I Am the One Who May Be,” Kearney draws an interesting conclusion: “God will be, then, the loving [aimant] Posse who possibilizes humanity” (PP, 229). The linguistic sign aimant presents a fascinating semiotic iteration that Derrida would surely love and that summarizes with beautiful ambiguity Kearney's imaginative theology. As an adjective, aimant is French for “loving” and “affectionate”; however, as a noun, aimant is French for “magnet.” This provocative surplus of meaning allows one to catch the imaginative dynamic of a God Who May Be as a loving God, a compassionate and affectionate God of possibility who also reveals Godself as a charismatic deity, one who is constantly attracting and luring human beings toward the impossibility of a future possibility of grace (charis). Kearney imagines the covenant-making God, the God of promise and obligation, to be a God “who persuades rather than coerces, invites rather than imposes, asks rather than impels” (PP, 30). The God Who May Be as the God of Advent comes as a “magnetic” event “breaking into” and “passing through” Being in order to draw individuals out of a static actuality toward the kinetics of possibility. The magnetic God of possibility entices and entreats individuals to repeat forward the “Here I am” of commitment and, thereby, to usher in God's Kingdom and, more important, under the influence of God's magnetic field, to participate in God's being the God that God desires to be. Now just imagine that!
(1.) Charles Winquist, Epiphanies of Darkness: Deconstruction in Theology(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 49.
(2.) Ray Hart, Unfinished Man and the Imagination: Toward an Ontology and a Rhetoric of Revelation (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 28. Henceforth cited as UM.
(3.) Jacques Derrida, Points… Interviews, 1974–1994, edited by Elisabeth Weber (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995), 130. Kearney writes that “historical memory [read: tradition] needs both empathic belonging and critical distance” (SGM, 183).
(4.) Kearney claims that persona always exceeds any attempt to categorize it or to speak about it. It transcends both perception and imagination; however, its very “beyondness” impels language and imagination to “grasp it— especially in the guise of metaphor and narrative” (GMB, 10).
(5.) Derrida's interpretation of aporia inculcates many of the issues that Kearney addresses in his imaginative theological method. According to Derrida, aporia references “the difficult or impracticable, here the impossible, [sic] passage, the refused, denied, or prohibited passage, indeed the nonpassage, which can in fact be something else, the event of a coming or of a future advent” (Aporias, translated by Thomas Dutoit [Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993], 8). As will be apparent later in this essay, “event,” “advent,” and the future as a “coming” figure significantly in Kearney's theology of a God Who May Be.
(6.) Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1979), 13, 27. Henceforth cited as ETM.
(7.) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Michael Oakshott (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 23.
(8.) Kearney points out that Husserl actually refers to the open telos of existence as “God” and the power that motivates imagination to project that telos as “grace.” Consequently, even in this “secular” phenomenological theory, there is a theological character to the imagination (32–33).
(9.) Of course, Heidegger reverses the traditional Aristotelian order: “It is evident that energy, or activity, is prior to potentiality” (Metaphysics IX, 8).
(10.) Kearney constantly emphasizes the existential importance of the narrative imagination for how humans interact with reality. He claims, in good Socratic fashion, that “the unnarrated life is not worth living” (OS, 14).
(11.) Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 85. Henceforth cited as IG.
(12.) Garrett Green, Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 205.
(13.) Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, translated by David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Pres, 1995), 6.
(13.) Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, edited by Mark I. Wallace, translated by David Pellauer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 230. Henceforth cited as FS.
(14.) Paul Ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, edited by Charles E. Regan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 238.
(15.) Paul Ricoeur, From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, translated by Kathleen Blamey and John B. Thompson (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 2:171. Henceforth cited as TA.
(16.) Paul Ricoeur, Essays on Biblical Interpretation, edited by Lewis S. Mudge (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 117.
(17.) Parmenides prescribes a corporeal monism to being that excludes any potentiality or mutability, since both rely upon some notion of non-being. Non-being cannot be, for Parmenides, precisely because it cannot be thought, since to think the “not” is in essence not to think. Consequently, he disallows any reality to movement, temporality, history, or change (see Parmenides, fragments 3 and 4, in Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-So-cratic Philosophers [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962], 42). Since being has been equated to God in the ontotheological tradition, God cannot be temporal, mutable, or kinetic, but must be understood as an “epiphany of the eternal present (see Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope [New York: Harper and Row, 1975], 84). Henceforth cited as TH.
(18.) Westminster Confession, 2:1; emphasis added.
(19.) The Exodic naming “signals an inextricable communication between God and humans, a commitment to a shared history of ‘becoming’… God may henceforth be recognized as someone who ‘becomes with’ us, someone dependent on us as we are on Him. God's relation with mortals is, in other words, less one of conceptuality than of covenant” (GMB, 161).
(20.) The phrase “Divine Perhaps” comes not from Kearney but from the Old Testament theologian Terence Fretheim, who interprets God's relationship (p.418) with Israel as one of spontaneity and reciprocal response. Scripture indicates in several passages (Ezekiel 12:1–3, Jeremiah 26:2–3, and Isaiah 47:12) that God leaves God's future actions open and uncertain, awaiting Israel's response to the divine Word. Who God will be and what God will do, then, depend upon the decisions made by God's people. “Perhaps” they will respond; “perhaps” they will repent; “perhaps” they will obey. Although God knows what God will do in reaction to the various particular responses that might come from Israel, God does not know which of those reactions will actualize. Fretheim contends that “Israel's response[s]…contribute in a genuine way to the shaping not only of its own future, but to the future of God.” See The Suffering of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 45–47.
(21.) WI, 75–78. See also GMB, 37, 103–105; and GWMB, 170.
(22.) Jürgen Moltmann, The Future of Creation, translated by Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 55.
(23.) See ibid., 29; Jürgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, translated by M. Douglas Meeks (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 52–53; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, translated by Margaret Kohl (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 317.
(24.) Jacques Derrida, “As if It Were Possible, ‘Within Such Limits’…” in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971–2001, edited and translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002), 367. Henceforth cited as AIP.
(25.) John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 117–118. Derrida treats the issues of event, advent, and the invention of the other (l'ίnvention de l'autre) extensively in “Psyche: Inventions of the Other,” in Reading de Man Reading, edited by Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 25–65, and in “As if It Were Possible,” 343–370. Expecting the impossible, as in remaining open to the unprogrammable advent of the God Who May Be, makes one the “greatest,” according to Kierkegaard: “One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all (Fear and Trembling, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983], 16).
(26.) Kearney also seems to utilize a language that corresponds to Derrida's idea of l'invention, at least with his notion that one must remain open in order to receive the incoming of the other. When writing of the desire for God, Kearney quotes from Gide's Nourritures Terrestres: “Let your desire be less expectation than a readiness to receive” (GWMB, 79).
(27.) It lies beyond the scope of this essay to engage Kearney's critique of Derrida and Caputo in depth. Suffice it to say, however, that his criticisms have merit at certain points, especially in regard to the two (p.419) Deconstructionists' predisposition to avoid giving specific content to their quasi-transcendental structures. At other points, though, his criticisms derive from a misreading of their texts, for example, his persistence in confusing undecidability and indecision. Undecidability becomes, for Kearney, the summary of all he finds wrong with deconstruction and radical hermeneutics, because he misinterprets undecidability as prohibiting any decision, as leaving individuals forever riding the pendulum between two alternatives. Take, for instance, his analysis of Caputo's polarity between a meaningful belief in God and an acceptance of the anonymity and abyssal nature of khora. When Caputo inquires rhetorically into whether one has to choose between God and khora, Kearney answers for Caputo with “No.” But that is not how Caputo would answer. In several of his texts, Caputo makes it clear that undecidability is not synonymous with indecision. On the contrary, undecidability is the quasi-transcendental ground for making decisions. Were it not for undecidability, there would be no decision to be made. If a matter were programmed, calculated, and formalized according to some objective algorithm of choice, then no decision would be possible or necessary. Decision arises only when there is uncertainty, when there is genuine possibility between two or more alternatives; and under those circumstances, undecidability demands that choices be made. In his best Left Bank rabbinical French, Caputo would contend that within the context of undecidability, “Il faut choisir,” it is necessary to choose. See Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, 137; The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 338 (henceforth cited as PT); “Richard Kearney's Enthusiasm: A Philosophical Exploration on The God Who May Be,” Modern Theology18 (January 2002): 93.
(28.) “It is because our desire is human that we have to see to believe, that we need signposts and signals on our night journey, sentinels to guard and guide us on our undecidable way toward the absolute other” (DG, 126).
(29.) Kearney proposes to engage alterity in order “to say something about the unsayable, to imagine images of the unimaginable, to tell tales of the untellable, respecting all the while the border limits that defer all Final Answers” (SGM, 10).
(30.) The idea of response naturally carries with it the idea of responsibility—the ability to respond to the summons of the Other. Mark Dooley addresses the issues of imaginative variations and responsibility within the context of Kierkegaard's thought and concludes, “To be truly responsible, for Kierkegaard, is to affirm the possibility of imagining otherwise, of calling into question what has been traditionally celebrated as truth, reason, ethics, and community with a view to making each of these structures own up to its contingent configuration.” The Politics of Exodus: Søren Kierkegaard's Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 107; emphasis added.
(31.) S. D. Goitein proposes an interesting morphological correlation between God as love and the Exodic naming of Yahweh. By comparing the (p.420) Hebrew Tetragrammaton YHWH with certain Arabic roots, he suggests that the term references passionate emotion, somewhat akin to the passion of jealousy. He concludes that ehyehãsher ẽhyeh may be translated as “I shall passionately love whom I love” (“YHWH the Passionate: The Monotheistic Meaning and Origin of the Name YHWH,” Vetus Testamentum 6 [January 1956]: 2). Were one to couch Goitein's naming of God in a more Kearneyesque nomenclature, one might translate the Exodic naming as “I Am the God Who May Be as Loving Potency.”
(32.) Kearney references Zephaniah 3:17, where the prophet writes of God's dancing for Israel with shouts of joy (SGM, 207).
(33.) For an excellent, if brief, Trinitarian reading of Kearney's theology of God as Posse, see John P. Manoussakis, “From Exodus to Eschaton: On the God Who May Be,” Modern Theology 18 (January 2002): 99–100.
(34.) Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 131, 148, 186. Henceforth cited as R.
(35.) John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 20. Henceforth cited as RH.
(36.) As Mark Dooley puts it, repetition “keeps the individual moored to time, to the implacable stream of motion and change.” See Dooley, The Politics of Exodus, 98.
(37.) John D. Caputo, “In Search of a Sacred Anarchy: An Experiment in Danish Deconstruction,” in Calvin O. Schrag and the Task of Philosophy After Postmodernity, edited by Martin Beck Matuštίk and William L. McBride (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002), 238; emphasis added.
(38.) John D. Caputo, “Instants, Secrets, and Singularities: Dealing Death in Kierkegaard and Derrida,” in Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity, edited by Martin J. Matuštík and Merold Westphal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 234. Caputo's correlation of repetition and faith repeats Kierkegaard's claim that “repetition begins in faith” (Concept of Anxiety, edited and translated by Reidar Thomte [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980], 18).
(39.) Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, translated by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (London: Routledge, 2001), 27.
(40.) For Caputo's perspectives on forgiveness, consult Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 106–112; Prayers and Tears, 226–229; and “Reason, History, and a Little Madness,” in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, edited by Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley (London: Routledge, 1999), 84–104.