Friday, March 21, 2008

Discussion Summaries: Genesis 12 - Abraham 5

Genesis 12

- the imperfect tense in Gen 12.1 ("Now the Lord had said unto Abram . . . ") indicates that God's call, though textually contiguous with the death of Terah, preceded these events in some way; does the tense indicate an immemorial or metahistorical dimension to God's call? the call has always already preceded whatever historical events take shape in light of it?

- Abram is promised the very thing that the tower of Babel builders wanted (a name that would last), but he is promised it by the very means that denied it to the tower-builders (a scattering from family and homeland) (Gen 11.4, 12.2)

- does the scattering of languages open or close the possibility of theology?

- what are the implications of Abram's silent obedience in response to God's command? can such silence constitute a kind of theology?

- God's first words to Abram (Gen 12.1) command him to leave his family and homeland

- textually, God speaks to Abram out of the void of his father's death (Gen 12.1); does this insertion of God into the line imply a break with patriarchy? if so, what are its effects?

- the patriarchal lineage (through Terah) appears to already be sputtering and disrupted before God's command comes (Gen 11.26, 28, 31)

Genesis 13-14

- Abraham is portrayed typologically as the first to move from Egypt to the promised land, Canaan. (Gen. 13)

- The faithful must flee the world for the promised land, though on arriving they will not find the “Garden of Eden/idol” they fantasized about. They will find place where their work can begin anew.

- Abraham appears to work out the theological meaning of God’s commands existentially (in practice) rather than discursively and it is relatively clear that he does not know the meaning of his interpretive actions in advance.

- In addressing the role of family, the centrality of Abraham’s relation to Lot must be taken into account.

- Does Lot function as a placeholder for the patriarchal order that God interrupted by commanding Abraham to leave home, family, country? Does Melchizedek – without father or mother – embody the divinely non-patriarchal order? The first priest in the Genesis being the first person without any lineage?

- Abraham’s family commitments (i.e., to Lot) plunge him into politics and warfare, though on the basis of such a commitment his political actions are marked by an excessive generosity.

- Does Lot have a choice to not settle outside the promised land? It appears that the land cannot support both Lot and Abraham.

Genesis 15

- Is a faithful relation to God mediated or immediate? how does one or the other of these choices effect faith, doubt, knowledge, etc. (i.e., the structure of the relationship)?

- Why does the covenant keep getting repeated? Must it be continually re-made?

- God responds to Abraham’s doubt with a miraculous display of power, but this display doesn’t stick (it only temporarily relieves doubt); does this failure of the sensible image (however spectacular and powerful) imply the necessity of a symbolic supplement (words/texts/promises)?

- Following Melchizedek’s priestly mediation of tithes, Abraham has his first dialogue with God.

- Gen. 15.1 introduces the locution: “the word of the Lord” came to Abram; post-Melchizedek, the relation is mediated by the word? This newly symbolic dimension to the relationship allows for doubt and dialogue rather than simple, mute compliance?

- This re-capitulation of the covenant includes, for the first time, metaphor and metonymy. Is there a connection between the rhetoric and the change in the nature of the relationship? (Dust and stars as metonyms of earth and heaven; dust and stars as metaphors for posterity.)

- Is the substitutionary logic of metaphor an additional interruption of the patriline?

- The starry heavens: the immanent appearance of the immemorial/non-historical, the eternal stars as what circles above the earth/the historical and literally give time (day/night, seasons, etc.)?

- The confusion of day and night in this chapter indicates that the events do not belong to the ordinary run of time?

- The “cut” of the covenant is introduced; does this symbolic cut, the introduction of symbolic/metaphorical difference/substitution touch on the splitting of the subject’s own self-immediacy? The loss of immediacy in relation to God inducing a loss of immediacy in relation to oneself? Such a cut/split in subjectivity prompts fantasies of wholeness (the fantasies that are the substance of pride) and simultaneously leaves us potentially open to others if we do not withdraw behind fantasy in fear.

Genesis 16

- There are a series of notable parallels between Gen 16 and the Eden story: Abram hearkens to Sarai, Sarai takes Hagar and gives her to Abram, Sarai’s eyes are opened, Sarai can then have (vicarious) children

- other Eden parallels: the central role of shame, its connection to blame (16.2), a reflexivity of seeing and being seen, Hagar’s surprise at being seen by God without her destruction (shame as the inability to see the other’s gaze as other than destructively judgmental)

- Abram = Adam, Sarai = Eve, Hagar = fruit

- Sarai brings Hagar into the story as a substitute/metaphor for herself, a metaphor/surrogacy that changes/splits her relationship to herself?

- the difference between seeing and hearing in this chapter (and its peculiar emphasis on sight, on seeing, and on seeing oneself being seen)

- the importance of distinguishing contract from covenant; what is the difference? a difference in one’s relation to the symbolic, a relation which either includes or excludes the Real?

- faith takes place only in relation to the (impossibility) of the covenant rather than in relation to the (possibility) of the contract?

- Hagar’s inclusion is an attempt to “guarantee” rather than interrupt the patriline?

Genesis 17

- “walk before me . . .” (17.1), the first comprehensive commandment given to Abram; “. . . in my presence,” a life thoroughly conditioned by the Lord’s regard?

- the promise of being a king/queen of nations: does this promise still resonate with us? why would anyone want the trouble?

- contract vs. covenant: do we treat the excess of the contract as something that threatens to ruin it or as something that opens the very meaning of the contract itself? a contract supplemented with an avowed excess = a covenant?

- the excess of God’s unconditional commitment to the contract transforms it into a covenant?

- circumcision: indelibly associating reproduction with divine gifts

- the general commandment is vague and indistinct (17.1), but the prescriptions associated with circumcision are so precise and detailed (high-resolution descriptions)

- token : covenant :: signifier : signified; the token seems to be much richer in content that than the signified

- circumcision as symbolic castration: there will be a child, but only by God’s grace and power? a cut that literally interrupts the patriline? a cut that is a token shedding of blood?

- circumcision does not equal covenant: the whole household is circumcised, but only Abram receives a covenant

- fecundity: binding our concrete natural inclinations to infinite possibility?

Genesis 18

- the problem of the ethical ambiguity with which God is portrayed (e.g., Abraham’s negotiation)

- the parallel between Gen. 18 and Job (questioning God, “dust and ashes”): are these provocations meant to test and prove them?

- the unconditionality of the relationship renders it arbitrary or beyond ethics?

- an additional question here: is God impassive or passionate? can he be moved or swayed by the argument or is it a show?

- this chapter: the first time the promise is made conditional on some action

- Abraham must learn to act unconditionally in order for the unconditioned event / impossible child to arrive?

- the lack of clarity about the number of visitors (1? 3? 2?) and their status (God, angels, men?) is felicitous: Abraham, likewise not knowing, acts without regard to the answers offering hospitality unconditionally

- Abraham promises a modest meal and delivers a feast

- Abrahamic ethics: a hospitality that overflows obligation

- does Abraham here teach, at least implicitly, that there is some kind of moral standard independent of God, in relation to which God’s own actions might be measured?

- is the negotiation/dialogue a kind of rational/theological response to God?

- Abraham’s relation to God is very different from Sarai’s; there is no evidence of a “joint” relationship

Genesis 19

- There are a whole series of structural parallels between Gen. 18.1-8 and 19.1-3.

- Abraham promises little and provides a feast. Lot promises a feast and provided little.

- If Abraham's unconditional hospitality is the mark of his fidelity, then how do we distinguish it from Lot's own excessive hospitality in Gen. 19?

- Is Lot's hospitality counterfeit? If so, on what grounds?

- Possible answer: Lot is responding to men rather than God? Lot makes the offer of his own volition while Abraham acts only in response to an explicit command? Abraham meets the angels on their own terms, Lot brings them into the city on his terms? Abraham leads them into safety, Lot leads them into danger?

- Abraham gives perfectly, Lot gives imperfectly, and the Sodomites refuse to give

- Lot: an everyman, wanting to do the right thing but after doing it badly or wrongly?

- What does the text's general antipathy to the urban tell us about the politics?

- Lot's hospitality ends in the following chapters in incest: the mark of a complete dissolution of social structure

- What should we make of the JST's overturning of Lot's offer of his daughters to the mob?

Genesis 20-21

- Gen. 20 is about God's protection of Abraham when hospitality fails?

- the strong parallels between Gen 20 and 12.9-20; the earlier story is a foreshadowing of Israel's entrance, sojourn, and exodus from Egypt, is this one also?

- 20.7 is the only occurrence in Genesis of nabi, "prophet": why is Abraham described this way here?

- the events of this chapter make us realize that Abraham is not such a saint as we might have supposed, nor are all the inhabitants as depraved as those in Sodom

- why frame Gen 22 with a story of the fallible Abraham? In general, has our assessment of Abraham to this point been relatively negative?

- predicates that have been explicitly applied to Abraham over the course of the story to this point: old, son, father, prophet, wandered, stranger, servant, circumcised, husband, rich, Hebrew

- Abraham is the recipient of two gracious covenants with God and Abimelech; his exemplarity derives in each case from his response to the graciousness?

- Gen 21, the birth of the covenant child is the expulsion of the child of the handmaiden (we need to read these events as belonging together)

- covenant and promise do not appear to be the same: Isaac receives a covenant, Ishmael a promise; promise = I will bless you? covenant = I will bless you so that you may become a blessing to others?

- why doesn't Abraham's story end here with the birth of Isaac? many rhetorical figures indicate that the story has cycled through to its conclusion; can we proceed to the next generation only by enacting a kind of traumatic cut/break/fall? this is to ask: how does the eternal round of creation work? how do we understand the parallels between the "generations of the heavens and the earth" and the "generations of men"?

- Gen 21, the birth of the covenant child is the expulsion of the child of the handmaiden (we need to read these events as belonging together)

- covenant and promise do not appear to be the same: Isaac receives a covenant, Ishmael a promise; promise = I will bless you? covenant = I will bless you so that you may become a blessing to others?

- in the entire Genesis account of Abraham he is "old"; a uniquely Mormon understanding of Abraham will be an understanding of Abraham as other than "old"?

Genesis 22

- is hineni, "Here I am," the response of perfect fidelity? Does this response mark a culminating moment in Abraham's relation to Lord, moving from his originally mute response to God's call, to his doubting dialogue, to an affirmatively unconditional response?

- is Abraham's willingness to not "hold back" his son the core of hospitality? hospitality: a willingness to not hold anything in reserve but unconditionally consecrate everything?

- the repetition of the covenants in 22.16, 18 include a causal construction "X blessing because you have done Y"; possible readings: not a making conditional of the covenant but an acknowledgement of Abraham's unconditional commitment to the covenant that God has unconditionally extended to him, a recognition of Abraham's joint-partnership in a mutual unconditionality

- a complex pattern of "hearing" and "seeing" in this chapter; Abraham "hears" passively and "sees" actively? by hearing, Abraham is empowered to actively see? he
"listens" to what the Lord "sees"?

- what about the centrality of substitution/metaphor for the story?

- the chapter narrates a "double" slaughter in which God requires Abraham to relinquish both his sons

- this recognition of a double sacrifice highlights the human costs of an unconditional fidelity? Abraham must sacrifice not only Isaac, but his relationships with Ishmael and Sarah as well? he must willingly sacrifice these relationships for the sake of God's promises about these relationships?

- Abraham's two sons: two ways of constructing community, Ishmael as the willful construction of family/community, Isaac as the kenotic construction of family/community

- does this double loss of both Ishmael and Isaac connect with Mormon doctrines about the loss and risk inherent in the plan of salvation?

Genesis 22/23

- is to ask a question about Abraham as a model of fidelity necessarily to ask a question about typology? how ought we to think about typology?

- does the fact of the Genesis 23 (the fact that, after the akedah, the story STILL continues) recast the events in a new and/or less climatic light?

- it is Sarah’s death that finally leads to Abraham’s acquisition of a portion of the promised land; is this an additional trial? Abraham has to buy even the smallest plot of the promised land because none has been given to him, even for Sarah’s burial? is it a degradation of the covenant, a devolution into banal bargaining for the land? does Abraham have reason to want to “economize” Sarah’s death?

- is Sarah’s narratively contiguous death related to the akedah? even caused by it?

- typology requires us to turn our hearts to our fathers (the past type) and toward our children (the future antitype)? it binds generations together by abridging time?

- is to ask a question about Abraham as a model of fidelity necessarily to ask a question about typology? how ought we to think about typology?

- the question of the importance of the Book of Mormon’s/Jacob’s typological reading of the akedah

- some basic elements of typology? (1) an identification between two dissimilar things that elides the differences between the two (a commutative relationship?)? (2) a metaphorical identification structured by time, a space of time, a bridge the spans a temporal gap that produces a kind of temporal abridgment, a “folding” of the normal course of time in which two previously unrelated events are asserted as identical? (3) it is non-causal/linear fold that “re-sets” chains of causality in order to introduce something new and free and unconditioned? (4) the type is a kind of cipher capable of recoding the elements of an entire situation, a cipher rather than a symbol? (5) being faithful to God means being faithful to this typological realignment he means to enact?

- what of the difference between antitype and archetype? which are we talking about? what are the essential differences?

- typology requires us to turn our hearts to our fathers (the past type) and toward our children (the future antitype)? it binds generations together by abridging time?

- repentance, by creating something new, enacts the gift of freedom or agency

Abraham 1

- the most striking difference between Genesis and Abraham: the shift from an brisk, impersonal, third-person narrative to a detailed and self-conscious first-person narration?

- the shift in narrative style is exemplified in the shift toward explanation for why things are done (some Genesis is very short on)

- this shift is more “Mormon” because explanation and a discussion of priesthood “rights” is more works oriented and intelligible? de-emphasizing the mysterious, unconditional and unaccountable intervention of God?

- what do we do with the “Pharaoh” who is righteous and blessed but denied the priesthood?

- the deep connection between records + priesthood + family

- connection between the Word and priesthood and family: sealing is authorized giving of one’s Word

- is priesthood a way of “acting out” a typological relation?

- the opening verses set “my fathers” (the particular) over against “the fathers” (the universal) from whom the priesthood comes

- a different kind of relationship between God and Abraham: not the abject subject/Lord relation of Genesis

- the emphasis on “rights” may be a way of re-thinking grace rather than marginalizing it

-the rights in question are the rights of primogeniture

Abraham 2

- the image of Abraham pleading with God to have mercy on his father

- the problem of grace in the book of Abraham: perhaps the issue shifts in this book from receiving grace to giving grace? from receiving blessing to becoming a blessing? (e.g., 2.11)

- grace is received as grace only to the extent that it is given away graciously?

- this is the problem of the blessing of posterity: the relation of a parent to a child is the giving of a grace (life itself) that cannot be earned and, in the end, only related to by giving that unearnable grace to one’s own children

- the gospel: an attempt to work through the tangled complexities of the grace given to us by parents/Parents by taking up this grace as something that we ourselves give; sin is refusing or economizing this grace

- Terah tries to economize this grace by calling in Abraham’s debt when he tries to sacrifice him; Abraham marks no debts, pleads for his father’s life and wants to endlessly give this gift of life to his posterity?

- again, the ethical problem of Abraham’s being told to lie about Sarah

- could we use a typology to understand these ethical conundrums? a kind of typological re-ordering of the ethical?

- our expectations of a “flawlessly” ethical God simply don’t seem to fit the texts – is the problem with our expectations rather than with the text?

- is God engaged in a kind of ethical bricolage? making the best out of the way things are? because the world, always already given, never perfectly conforms to our ethical imperatives? thus we sometimes need to make the “least bad” choice and accept responsibility for its badness rather than imagine some other kind of world in which ethically perfect actions are possible? is the problem located in our desire to have an ethical system that only returns ethically pure results? is the problem epistemological (we just don’t know enough to see how ethical perfection is possible) or ontological (reality is such that ethical perfection is a mirage)?

Abraham 3

- God appears to be described as experiencing time; time of a different “order,” but time nonetheless

- is God’s “other” time a different way of “relating” to time?

- does vs. 14 indicate we should read the entire discussion of astronomy as really a discussion about children and posterity?

- vs. 16 provides a fascinating formulation of infinity (for any two orderable things, there will be a third higher thing . . .): does this found a Mormon ontology on multiplicity/infinity rather than on unity or duality? does this formulation say: everything is one or many but there is no such thing as a dualism because two implies infinity? does our Mormon materialism demand a choice in favor of infinity?

- though intelligences are hierarchically orderable, ALL are co-eternal

- “to be chosen before we were born”: the immemorial, the always already of things having started without us, preceding as a non-recoverable pre-history

- the immemorial dimension of our own histories: our co-eternality? our definitive lack of any identifiable or recoverable point of origin?

- our immemoriality: the problem of our relation to our parents/Parents (or lack thereof!)

- a non-libertarian reading of our co-eternality: our “having always already existed” does not mark the epicenter of our irreducible freedom and autonomy, rather it means that there is NO beginning to which we could appeal as the auto-foundation of our liberty

- it may be worth noting that the moment the story gets ethically complicated (Ab. 2) the story shifts scale from the personal to the cosmological

- stars are used metaphorically in Genesis, but metonymically in Ab. 3 (Kolob metonymically stands in for God as a scepter for a king)

Abraham 4

- it is important to Abraham’s account that creation is a corporate venture

- here the creation of the covenant community echoes (and is intertwined with) the creation of the world

- establishing the covenant community entails, each time, a creation of a “new” world?

- vs. 27, the empathic plurality of the gods gives greater weight to the introduction of sexual difference in that male/female are, together, in the image of the gods?

Abraham 5

- the emphasis on the Gods counseling

- vs. 3, the curious use of the word “decisions”; generally decisions are only required when a way forward is not obvious or when the material situation does immediately appear suitable – is this why it’s necessary to constantly counsel? to get everyone’s consent in the ongoing (and not predetermined?) process?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Individual Papers - Discussion Thread

A thread on which one might bandy about ideas for the individual papers. (Thanks to Robert for the suggestion!)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Notes Toward a Report: Question 1

If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship?

Notes Toward a Report: Question 2

What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology?

Notes Toward a Report: Question 3

How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?

Notes Toward a Report: Question 4

What is unique about a Mormon understanding of Abraham?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gift of Death - Chapter 4

It may not be a good sign to be swamped in the middle of the summer but that's the way things have been the past few weeks. I would like to post some final thoughts about the concluding chapter of the Gift of Death but likely won't get to it for a few more days. In the meantime, I thought it might be worth while to open up a thread for the chapter and see what comments and ideas develop.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Whom To Give To"

As an undergraduate, the first philosopher I read was Derrida and the first book I read was The Gift of Death. I picked it up because someone I admired and with whom I worked at the MTC (he was, in fact, a serious former student of Jim'€™s) told me that one of the most significant and transformative spiritual experiences of his life occurred in connection with his reading The Gift of Death. I've tried to make it a rule to never turn down such book recommendations. I don'€™t know for sure what passages he had especially in mind, but I have a hunch. And I'€™m pretty clear about which passages ended up producing a similar effect in me. In both cases, I think they are here in the third chapter.

A few comments and transcriptions.

1. "€œWe tremble in that strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, a traumatism has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, but, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unapproachable. Even if one thinks one knows what is going to happen, the new instant of that happening remains untouched, still inaccessible, in fact unlivable." (54)

The trembling produced by the mysterium tremendum is the living bridge between the trauma of the past (irrefutable, irreducible, and unmasterable) and the secret that is the future. The future, here, being constituted by the fact that it is necessarily a secret that cannot be told, a secret that is structurally rather than accidentally a secret or mystery. What gives the future a future (what makes it other than a modulation of the present) is its secret. We never know what'€™s going to happen. The limit of the future, the limit that marks the future a€™s absolute rather than relative mystery, is death. The gift of death is the secret that death holds and the future that death's secret both gives and forecloses (gives, Derrida would say, by foreclosing).

Within a Derridean framework we might say that typology is this living, trembling bridge between the unfathomable past and the secret of the future. Except, for Derrida, the quivering connection between type and antitype and is possible only if the antitype remains a secret (if it were not a secret the future would itself collapse) and thus the meaning of the type, though irrefutably given, remains a mystery. Or we might say: in a Derridean typology, we receive an endless series of powerfully transformative types€“ but the antitype that would definitively reveal their meanings can never, by definition, be given.

2. "What is it that makes us tremble in the mysterium tremendum? It is the gift of infinite love, the dissymmetry that exists between the divine regard that sees me, and myself, who doesn't see what is looking at me." (56)

What does love have to do with death? Love is our trembling in the face of the secret/future that death gives. Love is a trembling in light of the dissymmetry between what I apprehend and the secret that the Other holds.

Love, Derrida would maintain, is only possible insofar as the antitype is never given and the meaning of the type is never definitively unveiled. Death makes love possible because death is what gives us an end, but it gives us end that we can only receive by no longer being around to receive it. It promises to tell us the secret by promising to keep the secret a secret. Love, founded on dissymmetry, is necessarily absurd: the books can never be balanced, the debits and credits can never be zeroed out, no universal equivalence can ever be accomplished. It is the dissymmetry of love that renders it immune to money (the universal equivalence machine) and, thus, unconditional.

3. "He [Abraham] says something that is not nothing and that is not false. He says something that is not a non-truth, something moreover that, although he doesn'€™t know it yet, will turn out to be true."€ (59)

This is, I think, a tantalizing formula for doing theology (and typological theology). When we do theology properly we manage to say things that are not nothing and that are not false. When we do theology properly we manage to say things we do not know the meaning of€“ but, nonetheless, will turn out to be true. We venture a wager in faith on the meaning of a type, but do so in the absence of its key, the antitype.

4. "If I obey in my duty towards God (which is my absolute duty) only in terms of duty, I am not fulfilling my relation to God. In order to fulfill my duty towards God, I must not act out of duty . . . . It is in this sense that absolute duty (towards God and in the singularity of faith) implies a sort of gift or sacrifice that functions beyond debt and duty, beyond duty as a form of debt. (63)

What does sacrifice have to do with the gift of death? What does sacrifice, as Abraham enacts it, have to do with the secret? Sacrifice is (as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita) the only mode of action that escapes the bind of conditioned actions. It is the only mode of action capable of giving a gift. It is the only way to act that eludes the trap of debt. Sacrifice simultaneously preserves what it sacrifices and sacrifices for the sake of preserving what is sacrificed.

Say we sacrifice the antitype. Derrida'€™s point is that we can only preserve the antitype as a messianic antitype by sacrificing the possibility of its arrival. Or: the only way to love my wife is by constantly sacrificing my desire for the affects that she produces in me (the affects that I love). If I love her for those affects, if I love her out of duty to the debt that I owe her because of what she gives me, then I will have failed to love her and loved, instead, only what she gave. So that it is impossible to perform my duty to her (to love her) out of duty. In order to perform my duty to love her, I have to sacrifice that duty as a duty and love her without regard to what I owe her or receive from her. I can only love her by sacrificing my love for what gifts come from her.

Sacrifice, then, is the kind of action capable of keeping a secret: it can perform a duty without duty knowing that it has been performed. It can keep duty a secret from itself.

5. "Kierkegaard rejects the common distinction between love and hate; he finds it egotistical and without interest. He reinterprets it as a paradox." (65)

The paradoxical sacrifice that love enacts has to reject the common distinction between love and hate because, commonly, both love and hate are modulations of self-interest. In order to love Isaac, Abraham must sacrifice him. Abraham must hate him, sever any connection he has to or interest in what Isaac gives to him. Only by hating him can Abraham become free in a way that will allow him to love Isaac without the intervention of debt and the interest of self-interest. Love is neither love nor hate but some impossible third things beside them both. Faith is neither faith nor doubt but some impossible third thing beside them both.

6. "I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others . . . . I betray my fidelity or my obligations to other citizens, to those who don'€™t speak my language and to whom I neither speak nor respond, to each of those who listen or read, and to whom I neither respond nor address myself in the proper manner, that is, in a singular manner (this for the so-called public space to which I sacrifice my so-called private space), thus also to those I love in private, my own, my family, my sons, each of whom is the only son I sacrifice to the other, every one being sacrificed to every one else in this land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day."€ (68, 69)

If this were the only passage worth reading in Derrida's corpus, it may still be worth the effort to read his work in its entirety.

In my estimation, life in the Spirit begins here: with the revelation of a responsibility that is not bound by any consideration of self-interested guilt and accountability at the judgment bar of God (or man). This is the revelation of a responsibility to others that exceeds anything that God (or man) would either reward or punish us for fulfilling or not fulfilling. The revelation of an absolute responsibility that can only be taken seriously by sacrificing both an attempt to be universally responsible (the tragic hero) and an attempt to limit our responsibility parochially (the aesthete). An absolute responsibility that we can only enact by sacrificing the other others to another other, both preserving and resigning what we sacrifice.

What is beautiful about this passage is it's€™ non-intellectual, non-mystical, non-religious mundanity. This land of Moriah is our habitat every second of every day. This has do with the cat that I choose to feed and all the cats that I don'€™t. It has to do with the time that I spent at work rather than with my family and the time that I spent with my son rather than with my other son. It has to do with the gift of time that death gives by assigning an end to time: there are only so many minutes in a day and I must do something with them but I cannot do everything. This is the Abrahamic bind and it is, according to Derrida, the bind that gives birth to an experience of faith, decision, mystery and the absolute.  In other words, this is the bind that gives birth to religion. I have to decide what to do without knowing what to do because the very condition of possibility for a meaningful decision is not knowing which way to decide.

7. "€œOur faith is not assured, because faith can never be, it must never be a certainty. We share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us. To share a secret is not to know or to reveal the secret, it is to share we know not what: nothing can be determined. What is a secret that is a secret about nothing and a sharing that doesn'€™t share anything?" (80)

- Adam

Monday, June 18, 2007

Derrida's Gift of Death, chapter 2: "Beyond"

I want to begin this week by focusing on Derrida’s focusing on Patocka’s focusing on Poe’s/Heidegger’s focusing on that which escapes focus: the purloined (Lacan, you’ll remember, transgressed Baudelaire’s volee by focusing on the etymology here, rendering “purloined” as “prolonged”) letter. In one of Derrida’s more brilliant linguistic plays: “Heidegger himself, and his work, come to resemble a purloined letter. He is not only an interpreter of the play of dissimulation who can be likened to one who exposes letters; he or it is also in the place of what is called here being or the letter [l’etre ou lettre].” Heidegger thus plays two roles: he is the philosopher who eulogized philosophy (giving it its very being, but thereby cutting short its time), and he is the philosopher (inevitably like all philosophers) who is never eulogized by anyone but suicides (that is, philosophers).

I was reminded again and again in the course of reading “The Secrets of European Responsibility” of a curious little paper by Francis Landy, titled “Tracing the Voice of the Other: Isaiah 28 and the Covenant with Death” (found in Exum and Clines, The New Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible, 140-62). Landy writes: “The primary symbol in the passage [verses 1-8 of Isaiah 28] is drunkenness. Drunkenness in Isaiah is a paradigmatically inane defence against death, as the carpe diem motif, ‘Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (Isa. 22.13), suggests. Drink fends off but also anticipates death, anaesthetizing fear and rendering the subject unconscious.” (p. 150) This fleshing out of drunkenness leans on her earlier articulation of poetry: “Poetry plays with alternative worlds, with the infinite combinations of sounds and images, with the transition between narcissistic omnipotence and the terror of finitude. It is a game with language and the world that constitutes preeminently a ‘transitional object,’ transitional between mother and child but also between union and separation. The spoken or unspoken other player in this game is death, not only in that poetry tries to make sense of the world despite death, nor in that it seeks immortality for our voices and our lived experience, but in that it passes between being and non-being, what can and cannot be said, the thought of being and the unthought.” (p. 142) At precisely that point, she adds in a footnote about Heidegger on poetry: “But if poetry marks a trace of the holy, it also sounds the knell of the philosophical subject.” (p. 142).

I think this nicely traces the contours of Derrida’s discussion of Patocka’s paper: in Plato, Europe makes a covenant with death, but in Christ, death makes a covenant with Europe. But let me take up Landy’s paper primarily as a kind of excuse for reading Derrida in an Isaianic idiom (without trying to get too involved with genealogies, it was in part my encounter with precisely the Isaiah passages I’ll take up below that gave birth to this curious Abraham seminar…). That is, following up on a comment I made perhaps a week ago, I’d like to think more carefully about the Isaian image of the seal.

Isaiah 8:16 nicely articulates Derrida’s/Patocka’s Heidegger in (I’ll leave this undecided) 1976/1967: “Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” Gerhard von Rad takes this passage as the key to an important historical puzzle: when and why did the writing prophets begin writing? (His brilliant reading of this problematic is found in his section on First Isaiah in volume II of Old Testament Theology.) If von Rad does not thematize the act of sealing at any length, let me emphasize the importance of doing so in any serious attempt to grapple with the broader problem of Mormon theology (and I imagine we can all sense which of our four questions is at the center of my thinking this week).

David John Buerger opens his “history” of Mormon temple ordinances (The Mysteries of Godliness) with the claim that “Some time between June and November 1831, however, LDS salvation theology changed, tied to the 3 June 1831 conferral of High Priesthood on church elders.” (p. 2) He makes this change primarily a question of sealing: “This notion, when taken with key Book of Mormon passages, represented a departure from biblical precedent. In the New Testament, for example, the terms ‘to seal’ and ‘to place a seal on’ referred to the ancient practice of placing a wax or mud seal to close and protect a document from misappropriation.” (p. 3) He unfortunately then goes on to sum up the Book of Mormon references to sealing up a text as “obvious non-figural usages of the term.” (p. 4) But it seems pretty easy to sense in Buerger’s approach a (rather common) presupposition that does a great deal of violence to the meaning of the Book of Mormon in the Restoration: the Book of Mormon, as a sealed text, is precisely a question of sealing the fathers and the children (according to what is usually dubbed the “Nauvoo theology”). The title page itself makes this clear, since, in all rigor, there the Book of Mormon is first and foremost written “to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever,” only secondarily---“also” is the term the title page itself uses---“to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST.” Nor is one justified in reading some kind of distance in the “Nauvoo theology” from textuality, translation, or writing: “It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of---a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?” (D&C 128:9)

But polemics aside, what of sealing---of Heidegger as a “book that is sealed,” of the purloined letter as sealed despite its broken seal (or really, its two broken seals), of Isaiah and the Book of Mormon as sealed, of Abraham’s facsimiles and even text as sealed, of families and covenants as sealed, etc.? But collapsing the sharp (ultimately historical) distinction between sealing documents and sealing covenants/people, might we not pave the way to some real work on what constitutes a uniquely Mormon theology? At the very least, we would thereby be laying the foundation of a theology devoted primarily to the two extremes that temporally define the prophetic work of the prophet Joseph: on one extreme, an angel with a text; on the other extreme, the “family kingdom.”

…Even as I would appear, I think, to leave off much of Derrida’s discussion, let me argue that I am hardly doing so. The “thought-through” (that is, impossible) Christianity Patocka pines for is precisely, I would suggest (but would anyone else here?), what began in 1820 in the Sacred Grove (and I don’t, by that, mean the Church, but the Kingdom). And if we can agree with Derrida about much of what he has to say about the mysterium tremendum---and I do, for now---then we might suggest that death has indeed made a covenant with Europe (or with Ephraim). That is, the impossible gift is being given in every temple we’ve built (gift: endowment), and it is being given in much the manner Derrida is describing. And that gets me thinking about two comments from the recent PBS special on Mormonism, one from Terryl Givens about the temple as a kind of vehicle for total reconstitution, and one from Harold Bloom about Joseph Smith’s Mormonism being the only religion that really aims at fully conquering death as such. But this preface is already twice as long as my entire post should have been…

At least this can be said of the sealed as such: the sealed is the epistolary (and the secret, the tremendum, as Derrida will say at the beginning of chapter 3). The Book of Mormon is a prime example. Written to the Lamanites and sealed up. And, as we are all quite aware, it remains a sealed text: two-thirds, they say, of the text has never been cracked. But what of the part we have read? Are we not simply reading the address of an epistle? The Book of Mormon, as we read it today, is precisely the seal (that is, the signature) and the address on the outside of a letter to the Lamanites (given: the address and seal are quite lengthy!). What in the Book of Mormon is profoundly public---all that has been published---is given to the Gentiles as to a carrier: the Gentiles have the task of working out (and in some detail!) the address, of making sense of the seal and the address, and then of delivering the text up to those who will break the seal and read the contents (and whether or not the addressees desire to share those contents with the Gentiles will be entirely up to them). (And we do not even begin to address here the question of having to translate the address/seal, etc.) And what is clearest, perhaps, of all in that seal and that address is that this is a letter written by the fathers and for the children, written precisely to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers (written: an act that can only be described as the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children; and an act that can only be brought to completion in the turning of the hearts of the children to the fathers).

Hence, the epistolary, the sealed letter: a binding or welding link between the fathers (according to the covenant) and the children (according to the covenant), delivered “by way of the Gentiles,” the Platonic. (Joseph Smith as hermeticist, as translator: a Westerner trying to make sense of the Eastern---trying to translate characters of ancient date---in an attempt to retreat from the Western, to retreat from the Platonic, in what has been called, by Marvin Hill, a Quest for Refuge….) The absurd, as a kind of call (Nephi tells us that the deaf will hear the word of the book, remember), passes through the public---that is, ethical (in Kierkegaard’s sense)---sphere as a trace, as an address and a seal, being carried from one to another precisely by the individual, the citizen, the Platonist, the European, the Gentile. The text, sealed up and sent, comes as a message, a messenger, true messengers, fathers or angels with/by a book (or a letter, taking especially into account the theme of “the end of the book and the beginning of writing” in all its ambiguities).

But too many themes are converging here. In a word: Mormon theology as an epistolary theology?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Gift of Death, chapter 1

In this first chapter, "Secrets of European Responsibility," Derrida, drawing on the work of Jan Patocka, sketches in a history of the modern self, which is to say, a history of responsibility, conscience, and consciousness. This genealogy takes three principal stages, with two transitions: primitive orgiastic religion is incorporated into Platonism, which is in turn repressed by the mysterium tremendum of Christianity.

Orgiastic religion is poorly defined in the chapter---perhaps Derrida is here relying heavily on Patocka, whom I have not read---and I've been unable to google up anything very useful. But to the extent that I understand the argument, the orgiastic rites from which Platonism emerge are enthusiastic---that is to say, initiates experience something like possession, an abandonment of self and volition to a communal experience of emotion and being. These orgiastic mysteries are then incorporated, but not subsumed or extinguished, by Platonism; Derrida draws on psychoanalytic meanings of "incorporation" that escape me, but, very broadly and in the signature deconstructive gesture, Platonism is shown to retain within itself secret traces of the orgiastic mystery it purports to surpass. Platonism introduces the responsible self at the threshold of the cave, that is to say, Platonic responsibility resides in one's vision of the Good. That gaze originates, crucially, from an internal and internalized seat of the self; it is a major objective of the chapter to show that this gathering in or "secreting" of the internal self and a kind of care or solicitude for death are mutually constitutive.

On to Christianity. Derrida argues that Christianity represses Platonism, again drawing on psychoanalytic meanings that I'm not equipped to evaluate, but again suggesting, very broadly, that Christianity retains secret traces---nay, broad swaths---of Platonism precisely as it denies those traces. The locus of Christian responsibility is the what Derrida calls the mysterium tremendum: the assymetrical relationship that opens the subject to the gaze of God but conceals God from the subject's own gaze. (It is this assymetrical nature of the gaze, I take it, that distinguishes Christianity from Platonism.)

Derrida goes on to make a further assertion about the modern---that is, Christian---self, namely, that the essential condition of Christian responsibility is heresy and dissent. The reasoning, if I've got it, goes as follows:
1. Responsibility can never know itself---that is, cannot acknowledge its historical origins, its historicity---but must claim for itself an autonomous, ahistorical transcendence
2. Because responsibility lacks self-knowledge, it can never act on the basis of comprehensive knowledge of the world
3. Thus responsibility must always be self-authorizing and self-authenticating and self-legitimizing, because it cannot legitimize its actions and choices on the basis of complete knowledge
4. That is to say, because it is self-authorizing rather than subject to a higher authority, responsibility is always already heretical.

I will leave it in the able hands of commenters to tease out the implications of this chapter for our project; I'm still in the digesting stage. Actually, still in the eating stage; by all means please correct my misapprehensions, of which I have no doubt there are many.