…and Reading the People There

Jon K. Cooley, St. John’s College, Cambridge

Denver’s meeting witnessed as many problems and obstacles in the work the Society seeks to further as signs of gathering strength and clarity. Despite the size of the gathering, for example, it was impossible to ignore the absence of a central paper from an Islamic scholar, or the few Muslim members who attended the meeting in Denver. In itself, given the historical circumstances, this situation was not exceptional. Yet, looking within the larger contexts from which we came and to which we returned – ones perhaps more centrally defined by open, potentially unrestricted and irresolvable conflict than many for nearly two generations ( e.g. , Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and all actions attached to the “Global War on Terrorism” ensuing from the attacks of 11 September 2001) – the fact that any kind of balance, however tenuous and fragile, was attained was impressive and heartening. The following is testimony to these generative possibilities gathering in our work.. No doubt, we shall need all the stamina generated from our shared work for the days and nights ahead. But perhaps Another has already gone ahead of us, so that we shall not be without direction ( i.e. , wisdom) [13] and courage ( i.e. , holiness) [14] in our present and coming troubles. For such enduring munificence, one can only say: “God is great.”

The following remarks’ partiality in no way is meant to dis-count many of the avenues our conversation opened and began to traverse. Others better able can and should re-count those that I cannot. Instead, I shall attempt to flesh out – a not entirely ironic gesture in a context of circumcision – some of the concerns raised in my commentary in light of comments made during the meeting, and then very briefly recapitulate some of what I consider the most suggestive comments made. Also, the compressed nature of the following remarks are a product of the restrictions within which this genre must operate. I hope they may be expanded as the Society’s work proceeds.

Having read Prof. Wolfson’s paper, I expressed a concern that I was unable to sense what relationships the opening and closing sections of the piece – concerned as they were with various philosophical figures and hermeneutical issues – had with the central section(s) on circumcision and incarnation. Specifically, the worry was about Heidegger, but citing his name was meant to do more than call to mind his ponderous musings concerning “drafts” and “clearings.” In fact, the purpose was two-fold: (1) “Heidegger” (at once the real man and the corona of concern which has formed around him, which may be very partially signified by the signs “Levinas” and “Derrida”) was meant to stand as a cipher for the (to my mind) problematic status of non-pragmatic philosophies within the history and emerging practices of SR; (By “non-pragmatic,” I mean those philosophies which are not forthrightly concerned with the healing of ruptures – linguistic, logical, social, etc. – as appears to be the working definition of “pragmatic In my opinion, the first of these layers ( i.e. , the role(s) of nonpragmatic philosophy) is subservient ( i.e., prior ) to the second (the problem of ethics), but can only receive full consideration in tandem with the second, and often, paradoxically, takes the subsequent place. It is this complex interaction of accounts of Ideas, [15] in which precedence and subsequence can only be relationally distinguished – as opposed to relatively separated – that the opening and closing sections of Prof. Wolfson’s paper brought to the fore, but perhaps not in the most helpful of ways for everyone concerned.

That Prof. Wolfson then opened his remarks at the meeting by neither repeating nor extending/clarifying the “hermeneutical gymnastics” [16] in his paper left these matters in a state of silence for most of our time together. Only very near the end did the second layer of this dual concern of philosophy and ethics find voice among us, and that to the effect that Prof. Wolfson perceives that “Levinas works in a certain political context,” but not in every one. [17] But, if political context is to any real extent determinative of ethical viability (a term as yet unclarified within SR), and if, further, the prime factor in such viability is the labour – what other idioms render as the fruit – which is possible within the (dynamic) conditions of life in any context, then it is difficult to see how abstract objects of intellection, such as those Heidegger purveys, will assist either in evaluating the products of past labour – the non-exhaustive conditions of our possibilities – or guiding the collecting of feasible endeavour for the future – the non-reductive possibilities of our conditions. In short, such an attitude appears to be the denial of wisdom – and so of Law – [18] in its rejecting history as any more than a vista toward an “end that is an anticipation of [its] beginning.” [19] For politics only takes place in history as the assemblage and transmission of acts of beings, neither of which can by human effort be undone – though they can be forgotten and massacred. As such, it is always carried out in the imperfect tense, [20] by imperfect agents. Its central task, therefore, is continuously to attempt the impossible: simultaneously (1) to recall what and who preceded and to whom and where they were directed; and (2) to negotiate in a socio-nautical sense, i.e. , not to recoil from the menaces by which it is constantly faced and to recognise the courses which have brought matters to the present, to the people and practicalities with which one is presented. Courage, therefore, is the principal component of the political, [21] whilst direction is its prerequisite. To mis-use courage (holiness) by following a false direction (wisdom), then, may thus be taken as a labour-intensive description of sin. [22]

This assessment, practically, I took to be the point of Prof. Ochs’ question to Prof. Watson, as to how the Sodom story raises the issue about what happens when one turns to a religious text – not of strict necessity a Scripture, but those are often the richest sources – in a time of trauma/tragedy. Why read a religious text, in other words, and what value, religious or otherwise, could possibly arise from reading one, if there is no immediate relation to the historical situation, to the suffering within it? Prof. Watson’s reply, to the effect that “crisis” cannot dis-privilege “indwelling” the text, leaves unaddressed the leading characteristic of the traumatic/tragic: its rupturing of the “world” “indwelt.” [23] Moreover, it appears to limit the category “crisis” to generally recognisable catastrophes, which, though certainly of signal importance, are by no means its full content. As many will recognise, a serious argument with a family member or a close friend can just as easily, and perhaps often more so , rupture a “world indwelt” as anything else. Trauma/tragedy thus may be seen as constitutive, though not in a fully determinative way, of daily life, and facing it as such by turning to religious texts again locates one’s act and being, one’s politics, within the direction-courage duplex noted above. [24] For it takes courage not to look elsewhere, when there are countless possible sources of succour and rejuvenation available – especially when it is from within the indwelt world of a set of religious texts that a trauma/tragedy arose; I think here of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s inscribing the date “9.11.38” ( Kristallnacht ) next to the 8th verse of Psalm 74 in his devotional Bible, and then underlining the next verse and adding an exclamation point [25] – while direction is at once re-found in such turning (toward religious texts and away from others) and is the founding matrix which made the turning feasible in the first place. [26]

This was the background for my recollection of 2 Timothy 3:16, which the NRSV renders as: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” [27] The purpose of drawing attention to the Greek word rendered there as “reproof” ( elegmos ) was to point out the linguistic link between it and another ( elegos ), common in liturgies and tragic literature, which derives from songs of mourning. (I have since learned that the connection is not as strong as I had thought, but real nonetheless.) Paralleling the two deepens the recognition of the traumatic/tragic character of life within the direction-courage duplex, since it links chastisement with bereavement, both of which, it seems, have a common feature in being highly labour-intensive, especially within religious contexts. Neither criticising nor grieving can be considered completed, in large part, until, in some sense(s), both the preceding loss – whether of communal harmony/integrity or of personal/communal life – and the subsequent reconciliation (in the fullest sense of the term) are “etched” into the life that remains. In critical terms, the prior truth must be re-proved; in grieving terms, the prior life must be properly mourned, which is to say, properly re-called (to memory, to exemplarity, to account, etc.). [28] The variations possible between these foci “trace” what might be called – idiosyncratically, to be sure, but in continuity with the concluding questions of my pre-meeting commentary – “ellipses of life,” thereby providing workable integrity to their multi-form contents.

With that in mind, Dr. Quash’s question about how “the legibility of bodies” may be discerned, particularly in respect of their manifold “etchings” being potential vehicles of theophany (or the reverse, of suppressing God’s appearing), seemed to me one of the most important ones for a Christian – and perhaps not only a Christian – SR yet proffered. In many ways, this characteristic of the body strikes me as the greatest single hope and apprehension for the type of dialogue encouraged within the Society: that the history, the very identity-creating practices, of the participants will either foster or dispel God’s presence. I can only hope that it will be taken up with the serious thoroughness it deserves in the course of our future work.

The “hermeneutical gymnastics” framing Prof. Wolfson’s discussion of circumcision and incarnation (“etchings” of the deepest order), then, seemed to me to “mark” many of the deep problems I sense that both draw the Society together and make its development into a fuller reality difficult. [29] The two most pressing problems, from my perspective, were those sketched above: (1) the status of non-pragmatic philosophies, and (2) the problem of ethics. I then attempted to suggest that these two problems share common features which locate them at the very core of human life, whether religious or not. Because, on the one hand, if philosophies, rooted as they are in concern for direction, do not evince a specific concern with the healing of ruptures but instead are concerned with other ends, be they of whatever worth, there appear no clear “technologies” ready to hand for practitioners of SR to bring them into proper dialogue, whether critical or grievous in tone, with SR’s avowed pragmatic concerns. “Heidegger” provided a ready example of this dilemma, but the same could be said for any number of other figures: Hegel or Aristotle, Rorty or Boethius, Kung-fu Tze or Shankara, and the commentary traditions that have grown up after them. Perhaps the question being asked may be put more directly (if also formally): How many directions can the Society accommodate? ( N.B. : the Society, not SR per se. ) Or is the plural legitimate here in any sense? (This recapitulates my question about Prof. Rogers’ commentary: Is it too aesthetic?)

The problem of ethics, on the other hand, of the mis-use of courage in following a direction, brings into view the “etchings” on those presented to us. This, too, suggests a (formal) question: How can reconciliation be hoped for precisely from within the manifold failures of SR evinced within the Society itself? Or, to put it more forcefully: How are our mistakes, which inscribe themselves on our (personal and communal) bodies, to be reconciled with our fidelities? (This really was my second question to Prof. Rogers’ commentary, in light of its interpretation of the parable of the great feast: What is truth?) [30]

Whatever the merit of the foregoing, it remains my conviction that the work of the Society evinces – as much in Denver as before – the possibility of reconciliation within the various contexts out of which we are drawn. Toward that end, may we all be found not lacking in courage as we labour along in the directions given to us.

If not in Jerusalem, then next year in Toronto.

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