Towards a Post-Metaphysical Theology:
The Paradoxical Teachings of Jesus
“The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”
As Jack Caputo maintains in his recent work on deconstruction and the Kingdom of God (The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Indiana Press 2006), the God of metaphysical theology is a God that is well lost to the task of thinking, and so the challenge that faces theologians today is to think God in a way that is radically otherwise to the metaphysics of Being in the history of the West.
As so in the wake of the Nietzsche’s announcement that God is Dead, culminating in the “end of metaphysics” in the main currents of 20th century continental thought, this paper begins by asserting that if Christian theology is going to survive with any intellectual legitimacy in the 21st century it needs to embrace the important challenges of Derrida’s deconstruction and jettison from its self-representations the out-dated metaphysical legacy of the Western philosophical tradition.
In undertaking the task of constructing a post-metaphysical approach to theology, then, this study will begin by turning to Jacques Derrida and his critical deconstruction of the Western metaphysical tradition from Plato to post-modernity. Derrida begins with the observation that in so far as the entities that constitute our reality have to be set apart before we can even begin to speak about them, nothing actually exists prior to this differentiating process.This differentiation process that precedes and set up the very conditions of language and meaning in the West is what Derrida calls différance, which he characterizes as “the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.” As the dynamic structuring principle of language and communication, différance can also be described as the never constituted enabling condition of Western metaphysics, and as such it describes the very ‘conditions of possibility’ for distinguishing between metaphysical oppositions such as ‘sensible/intelligible’, ‘nature/culture’, ‘inside/outside’, etc.
As the “common root of all conceptual oppositions”, Derrida is therefore able to employ his non-concept of différance to deconstruct all metaphysical determinations and all pre-given centers of meaning so as to dismantle all fixed principles of order and governance in a highly influential assault on the entire history of Western metaphysical tradition, leaving only a endlessly sliding system of meanings in which “all is textual play with no connection with original truth.”
To briefly elaborate, in carrying out his far-reaching deconstruction, Derrida argues that the deepest and most persistent desire in the Western metaphysical tradition has been to locate some fixed and permanent center, some Archimedean point, some certain grounds for timeless truth and uncjanging meaning – whether we think of this as the ‘transcendental signified’ or as a ‘metaphysics of presence’ in its full transparency and plenitude. In summarizing this strategic longing for metaphysical comfort that has pervaded the entire tradition of thinking in the West, Derrida contends that
“All metaphysicians, from Plato to Rousseau, Descartes to Husserl have proceeded in this way, conceiving good to be before evil, the positive before the negative, the pure before the impure, the simple before the complex, the essential before the accidental, the imitated before the imitation, etc. And this is not just one metaphysical gesture among others, it is the metaphysical exigency, that which has been the most constant, most profound and most potent.”
For Derrida, then, Western thought is infected with a yearning for a non-existent ‘fixed center of meaning’, a desire that is manifested in 1) a hierarchical axiology, where metaphysical determinations spawn binary oppositions and subordinate these opposing values to each other(subject/object, presence/absence, material/ideal); or 2) the enterprise of returning to an origin held to be simple, self-evident, and pure, in order then to think in terms of derivation, complication, accident, and so forth.
In this way, Derrida argues that we are always and already situated within the effects of différance, and that the metaphysics of Being in the West has always depended upon a hierarchical privileging or a clear-cut opposition between binary pairs that is fixed in place, resulting in an extreme rigidity where all that does not fit into any particular scheme tends to be marginalized, suppressed and rendered unconscious.
And so in undertaking his deconstructive venture, Derrida exposes the ‘metaphysics of presence’ as a futile attempt to fix the meaning of conceptual oppositions and freeze the play of linguistic differences, by affirming that the transcendental signified constitutes some permanent invocation of truth that resides eternally outside of the differential spacing of signifiers.
And moreover, by confusing the linguistic construction of meaning by virtue of the metaphysical center with a permanent endorsement of essential truth, Derrida lays open the great philosophers of the past as masters of illusion, and their philosophies are shown up as false dreams of plenitude, where all philosophical concepts rest on “a delusion and non-respect for their own condition of origin”.
DECONSTRUCTION AND THE QUESTION OF GOD
For many people, Deconstruction has commonly been framed as the latest refinement of the Nietzschian doctrine that ‘God is dead’, the final nail in the coffin of the God of classical theism and Western metaphysics. At first this seems to be a valid interpretation, as the object of deconstruction is indeed the desire for wholeness, totality, unity, the desire for a perfect present, or the desire to make reality make sense and hold together. And traditionally this has been the role of the God of classical theology, characterized by Derrida as an “Author-Creator who, absent and from afar … regulates the time or the meaning of representation.” In this classical view the God of metaphysical theology acts as a transcendental signified, a stable center of pre-given truth, the conceptual ground of all temporal meaning that fixes the play of differences and where the meaning of Being is regulated by a theological obsession with univocal concepts.And as such, this classical theistic God – which is easily exposed by a deconstructive reading to be a merely human construction of power and privilege – is a prime candidate for Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the Western tradition.
However, it is important to note that in as much as deconstruction is a critique of theism it is also a critique of atheism, or any concept that is used to secure the meaning of any over-arching system of ultimate meaning. So while on first impressions it appears that deconstruction is in direct opposition to belief in God, on closer inspection the critical object of deconstruction not so much God, but rather any stable conception of God as a an eternal and unchanging linguistic anchor point for theological discourse.
This basic recognition that the sought for foundation of all things in not univocal, and that the “archai are trembling”, then, is not necessarily a bad thing for theology. In fact, it is the central aim of this paper to argue that the deconstruction of metaphysics ultimately helps to open up a post-metaphysical space that yields the possibility for a new kind of theological language, a language that is rooted in the earliest beginnings of the Christian faith tradition.
As Derrida states in pre-empting the overriding goal of this study, “the point would be to liberate theology from what has been grafted onto it, to free it from its metaphysico-philosophical super-ego, so as to uncover an authenticity of the ‘gospel’, of the evangelical message. And thus, from the perspective of faith, deconstruction can be at least a very useful technique.”
And so, by engaging the inherent instability of the deconstructive impulse and jettisoning the metaphysics of first principles, this paper will propose a way in which to re-capture the authenticity of the gospel message by re-constructing the enigmatic teachings of the historical Jesus that have been handed down to us in the sacred texts of the New Testament.
For as Death of God theologian Thomas Altizer contends, “only a deep deconstruction of the language of the gospels could call forth anything echoing the original power of the parables…”. And so once we relinquish the fixed certainties and securities of metaphysical language and the meaning of Being in the history of the West, it can be seen that the parabolic teachings of Jesus that have been recorded in the New Testament gospels are not predicated on a ‘transcendental signified’ or a ‘fixed center’ of stable and unchanging meaning. And so, by showing how the parables of Jesus disrupt and confound the pre-given horizons of intelligibility that establish the metaphysics of Being in the West with a direct pointing to his own realization of the Kingdom of God, it will here be argued that Jesus’ radical teachings are so explosive precisely because they are not grounded upon the onto-theological foundations of the Western metaphysics of presence.
THE PARABLES OF JESUS
From the outset, it is agreed by virtually all New Testament scholars that the parables of Jesus opened a window onto a new world that he called the Kingdom of God. And as we will see, in his proclamation of the coming of God’s kingdom, for Jesus the logic of life had been radically revised in order to bring about an altogether new figure of Reality wherein our attempts to master and control the mystery of God is regularly frustrated as our everyday expectations are turned on their head.
Before turning to the parables themselves, we will briefly summarize the insights of some of the more prominent parable scholars in modern times. In affirming the extraordinary significance of Jesus’ parables, Amos Wilder maintains that the parables of Jesus have an unparalleled depth in their unique portrayal of the enigma of human existence. Likewise, C.H. Dodd was already insisting back in the 1930s that the language of Jesus was uniquely creative, being grounded in “the volcanic energy of the meteoric career depicted in the Gospels.” And since the 1960s, modern parable scholarship has formed a reliable consensus in concluding that Jesus’ parables had a profound and life-changing effect on his audiences. According to E. Linnemann, to utter a parable in certain situations is to “risk all on the power of language.” To further this claim, TeSelle asserted that the parables caused his hearers to “lose control” over their lives as “the story of their own lives has been torn apart” in the provocative encounter with the language of Jesus. Other modern interpreters have spoken of parables as “revelatory and world-shattering”, with the capacity to break open established thought forms by either saying the impossible, or turning the world upside-down. In causing the hearer to “re-examine the very grounds of his being, by a challenge that is effective at the very deepest grounds of existential reality” a parable may also be experienced by its hearers as a “calamity – as a disaster for their sense of self-worth and place in the moral order of things.” And according to V.G. Shillington, the parables of Jesus are invested with “a sort of provocative power” so much so that the parables figure as evidence in the mystery of what ultimately provoked Jesus’ execution.
Moreover, there is an emerging scholarly consensus that Jesus spoke about the coming of the Kingdom in a language that virtually nobody – including his disciples of many occasions, could quite understand. And as such, Jesus’ parables do not have a clear-cut ‘message’ that conforms to our conventional horizons of meaning in the West and our demands for pre-given objective truth. Instead, as a harbinger of the Kingdom the parables of Jesus “tease the mind into ever-new perceptions of reality; they startle the imagination” and function like symbols in that they “raise the potential for new meaning” and invite their hearer into a “new possibility of world and language”, while simultaneously revealing to us the heart of the teachings of Jesus: his own experience of God.
And so, while modern parable scholarship has largely agreed that the original power and revolutionary force of Jesus language has been lost and reduced to a series of moral or allegorical lessons in the historical development of the Christian Church, by way of a simple analysis of many of his more well known parables (and aphorisms), this study purports to unearth a ‘paradoxical structure’ within the very origins of Christianity that offers us a formal indication of the singular logic at work in the core teachings of the historical Jesus, and an unprecedented insight into the mind of the one who is confessed to be Christ -where the love of God is the paradoxical center of a radically empty horizon.
In setting out the key theme of this paper, then, in what follows it will be shown that the original artistry of Jesus’ most memorable teachings consists in the effective use of the same paradoxical structure within the framework of a short literary narrative. And as a result, we can recapture the authenticity of the Christian gospels and open up the possibility of a post-metaphysical approach to theology that can confront the challenges and incorporating the insights of Derrida’s deconstruction, in order to identify the “dangerous memory” of the historical Jesus and expel from his God-view the entire lexicon of terms that serve the metaphysics of presence in the history of the West.
With the prodigal son gathering his inheritance, what at first appears to be a life of unmerited favor and luxury quickly becomes a life of poverty and servitude, while what appears to be a good reason to expect a life of poverty and servitude on his homecoming, is really an event that brings about the unmerited favor and luxury of the father’s compassion with a joyful celebration that symbolizes God’s unconditional love.
In the same way what appears to be a life of rebellion and corrupt living with the prodigal son is suddenly transformed into a celebratory homecoming with the unconditional favor of the father’s feast, while what appears to be a life of unconditional favor with the dutiful son – who always lived in obedience to his father, is really the root cause of his rebellion and his corrupt refusal to share in the homecoming celebrations of the father’s feast.
Or again, with the prodigal son an expected rejection is really the context of his unconditional acceptance by the father; while with the older son the unconditional acceptance of the father (“you are always with me, everything I have is yours”) is really the context of his rejection of the father’s unconditional love.
Or similarly, while the younger son appears to be on the outside in self-imposed exile, he is really on the inside in homecoming, while the older son appears to be on the inside in loyalty to his father’s home, he is really on the outside in self-imposed exile.
Those that appear to be insiders are really outsiders, while those that seem to be outsiders are really insiders.
The Jewish priest and Levite, who appear to be agents of holiness and divine favor, are really objects of religious scorn and derision in passing by a beaten traveler lying in a ditch, just as the Samaritan outcast, who at first appears to be an object of socio-religious scorn and derision is really the agent of holiness and divine favor in tending to the needs of the beaten man.
Or again, what appears to be a privileged Jew traveling along the road to Jerico, is really a victimized outcast dying in a ditch – an untouchable in the eyes of his fellow Jews, while what appears to be an untouchable – a victimized Samarian outcast, is really the privileged agent of healing and a fore-most example of neighborly love.
Those that appear to be upright are really degenerate, while that which appears to be degenerate is really upright.
With the laborers who spent all day in the vineyard, the hard work that justifies their expectations of favorable status and extra pay from the landowner is really the root of their sense of injustice and their lack of gratitude when they are paid the same as those who work just one hour. And at the same time, the apparent unworthiness of those who stood around all day – and the seeming injustice of their receiving equal pay for less work, is really the context within which God’s unconditional favor is revealed.
Or again, while the unmerited efforts of those who labored all day in the vineyard for the same pay as those who started last, is really the context within which they are reprimanded for being jealous and ungrateful in the face a seeming injustice, the apparently unfair judgment of the landowner in his allocation of equal pay to those who worked least, is really a sign of the unmerited graciousness of God.
The first will be last, and the last will be first.
4. THE UNFORGIVING SLAVE, Matthew 18:23-35
What looks like is a good reason to expect the ruthless judgment of a king, actually becomes an unexpected expression of mercy as a slave is forgiven his un-payable debt, and what looks like good grounds for the same mercy and forgiveness to be extended in turn from the slave is in the next breath reversed into the fearless judgment of the sovereign King.
So, what appears to be a cause for judgment is really an occasion of forgiveness, while what appears to be a cause for forgiveness is really an occasion of judgment.
Or again, with the slave and his un-payable debt, what appears to be a show of powerlessness and servitude while begging for mercy is really the grounds for an unexpected favor and privilege wherein his debt is forgiven. And then, the ruthless and self-righteousness behavior of the slave who refuses to forgive his fellow servant also becomes the grounds for a return to servitude and the reinstatement of an un-payable debt.
What appears to be humility is really exaltation, and what appears to be exaltation is really humility.
5. THE FRIEND AT MIDNIGHT, Luke 11:5-8
While an initial refusal of a friend in need becomes a generous and unexpected acceptance, the reason for helping is not on the basis of friendship, but rather because of the troublesome persistence of someone more akin to a stranger. In other words, the refusal of a friend is really the acceptance of an annoying stranger, just as the seeming rudeness of an annoying stranger at the door is really the faithfulness of a friend.
What appears to be annoying friend is really faithful stranger, while what appears to be annoying stranger is really a friend.
Just as those privileged guests who are expected to accept the masters call are the ones who reject their invitation to the great banquet, what appear to be the underprivileged – the poor, the crippled and the lame, those who have no grounds for expecting an invitation to the banquet, are really the ones who accept the masters call. Or again those who expect to be included are excluded, just as those who expect to be excluded are included.
The insiders are out, as the outsiders are in.
With the Pharisee, what appears to be a holy declaration of one’s righteousness, is really a blasphemous refusal of God’s grace, while with the Tax Collector, what appears to be a blasphemous declaration of ones degenerate tendencies, is really a condition for the holy acceptance of divine forgiveness and the boundless love of God.
What appears to be upright is really degenerate, what appears to be degenerate is really upright.
8. THE UNJUST JUDGE, Luke 18: 2-8
What appears to be a fearless judge is really a victim of the widow’s persistent demands, while what appears to be the annoying pleas of a widowed victim, is really a fearless demand for justice.
Or again, what initially seems to be the fearless refusal of a defiant judge is really the worn out delivery of a widow’s justice, while what appears to be a worn out pleas of a widow for justice, is really the fearless stance of one who is defiant and refuses to back down.
What appears to be strong is really weak, and what appears to be weak is really strong.
9. THE TALENTS, Matthew 25:14-30
While those who risk losing everything by investing the little that they do have are really acting faithfully, and so gain more than what they started with, just as those who appear to act faithfully by preserving the little that they started with, really runt the risk of losing everything they started with.