Towards A Post-Metaphysical Theology
As Jack Caputo maintains in his award winning 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.
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.1 This differentiation process that precedes and sets up the very conditions of language and meaning is what Derrida calls diffÈrance, which he characterizes as “the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.”2 As the dynamic structuring principle of language and communication, diffÈrance can also be described as the never constituted enabling condition of Western metaphysics3, 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”4, Derrida is therefore able to employ his non-concept of diffÈrance 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.”5
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 unchanging meaning—whether we think of this as the ‘transcendental signified’6 or as a ‘metaphysics of presence’7 in its full transparency and plenitude.8 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.9
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.10
In this way, Derrida argues that we are always and already situated within the effects of diffÈrance, and that metaphysics in the history of 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 or 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 radically questioning the notion that a transcendental signified constitutes some permanent invocation of truth that resides eternally outside of the differential spacing of signifiers.11
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”12.
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. 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.”13 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.14 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.
This basic recognition that the sought for foundation of all things is not univocal15, and that the “archai are trembling”, however, 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 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.”16
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.17
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…”18. And so once we relinquish the fixed certainties and securities of 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 by showing how the parables of Jesus disrupt and confound the pre-given horizons of intelligibility that establish the metaphysics of Being in the history of 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 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.19 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 consistently turned on their head.
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 lessons20 througout 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’21 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, as well as 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 incorporate the insights of Derrida’s deconstruction, in order to identify the “dangerous memory”22 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.
1. Good Samaritan: the upright are degenerate and the degenerate are upright
The one deemed to be a socio-religious stranger or outcast (the Samaritan) is foremost in the ways of neighborly love, just as those who are deemed to be foremost in the ways neighborly love (Jewish Temple authorities) are exposed as socio-religious outcasts. That is, the agents of divine favor are really objects of scorn and derision; while the objects of scorn and derision are really the agents of divine favor.
2. Vineyard Laborers: the first are last and the last are first
Those who stood around idle all day while growing envious “because no one had hired us” receive the unconditional favor of the land owner, while those who worked longest are revealed to be envious because they expected to receive more than what was promised…
That is, apparent worthiness and hard work becomes the source of envy and a sense of injustice, while apparent unworthiness and laziness is the occasion of God’s radical graciousness and unconditional favor.
3. Unjust Judge: the strong becomes weak and the weak becomes strong
What appears to be a fearless judge is really the victim of a widow’s persistent demands and what appears to be the pleas of a widowed victim, is really a fearless demand for justice. In other words: the annoying refusal of a fearless judge, turns into the reluctant delivery of justice, while what appears to be a reluctant widow’s pleas for mercy and justice, is really the fearless stance of one who annoyingly refuses to back down.
4. Shrewd Manager: the hero becomes a villain, just as the villain becomes a hero
What initially appears to be the respected manager of a rich man is really a swindler who loses his master’s possessions, and what appears to be a fraudulent swindler in his dealings with the rich man’s debtors, is really an applauded business manager who is much admired for his shrewdness…
5. Prodigal Son: the insider is out, and the outsider is in
What appears to be a life of unmerited favor and luxury turns into a life of poverty and servitude, while what appears to be a good reason to expect a life of poverty and servitude on returning home to father, is really a reason to rejoice and celebrate in the unconditional favor and luxury of the father’s compassion. Moreover, just as the recognition of a rebellious life with the prodigal son becomes a celebratory homecoming with the unconditional favor of the father’s feast, the desire of the dutiful son to be recognized in his obedience to his father, is really the root cause of his rebellious and corrupt refusal to share in the unconditional favor of the father’s feast. Or more simply—while the younger son appears to be an outsider 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 an outsider in self-imposed exile.
6. Pharisee and Tax Collector: the saved are lost and the lost are saved
What appears to be an act of righteousness is really sin, while what appears to be a confession of one’s sin is really an act of righteousness.
7. Friend at Midnight: the friend is a stranger, and the stranger is a friend
The refusal of a friend is really the acceptance of a stranger, just as the rudeness of the same stranger at the door is really the faithfulness of a friend.
8. Unforgiving Slave: 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.
9. Rich Man and Lazarus: apparent riches are secret poverty, and apparent poverty is secret riches
10. Great Banquet and Wedding Feast: the insiders are out and the outsiders are in
11. Two Sons: an apparent acceptance is really refusal and an apparent refusal is really an acceptance.
12. Faithful and Wise Slave: apparent servitude is really mastery, while apparent mastery is the really the root of bondage and ruin.
13. The Sower: apparently abundant sowing leads to wide spread destruction and scarcity, whereas the apparent scarcity of a few seeds in good soil leads to wide spread abundance.
14. Slave at Duty: what appears to be a time for grace is really a time for work, and what appears to be the recognition of good works, is really a confession of grace.
15. Waiting Slaves: what appears to be knowledge of the master’s return is really ignorance, and what appears to be ignorance of the master’s return is really knowledge
16. Talents: what seems to be risk taking regarding what has been given, is really faithfulness and apparent faithfulness in preserving what has been given, is really to risk of losing everything.
17. Weeds in the Wheat: what appears to be a cause for judgment (the mix up of good seed and the weeds) is turned into a time of grace, and what appears to be a time of grace (the collection at harvest), is revealed to be a cause for judgment.
18. The Final Judgment: those who appear to affirm Christ are real despising him whereas an affirmation of those who are despised (the least of my breathen) is really an affirmation of Christ.
19. The Rich Fool: what appears to be wise future planning is really foolish hoarding, and what appears to be the recklessness or foolishness of an unsettled and uncertain future, is really what happens when the wisdom of God breaks through our best made plans.
20. The Wicked Tenants: what appears to be a time for fruitfulness in the Kingdom is really a time of rejection and violence, while what appears to be a time of rejection and violence is really the coming of the Kingdom, for “the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.”
21. Mustard Seed and Leaven: the corrupt is sacred
22. The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin: the one that is lost is greater than the ninety-nine that are saved
23. The Treasure in the Field: what appears to be finding/discovering, is really losing/hiding, and what appears to be losing/selling is really finding/buying
24. The Pearl of Great Price: looking through many is really finding one, and selling many is really buying one.
25. The Father’s Good Gifts: the suggestion of giving false gifts is really an affirmation of those who give good gifts, while the affirmation of those who give good gifts is really false giving compared to the good gifts of the Father.
26. The Barren Fig Tree: what appears to be fruitful is really barren, and what appears to be judgment of barrenness is really the graceful favor of an opportunity for fruitfulness
27. The Seed Growing Secretly: what appears to be a man at work is turned into the effortless natural growth, and what appears to be natural growth becomes the human work of harvest.
It has been demonstrated above that the structural logic of paradox, or what is also called a stable pattern of “bi-polar reversals” is clearly evidenced in almost all of Jesus’ most well known parables. In other words, by way of a simple disclosure of the paradoxical structure within the core teachings of Jesus of Nazareth it can be shown that there is a consistent pattern within the parabolic system of Jesus as a whole that is able to establish the historical authenticity of these remarkable teachings, while simultaneously disclosing to us Jesus’ own experience of the advent of God’s kingdom.
As a result of this brief overview, the astonishing brilliance of Jesus of Nazareth as a wisdom teacher can be witnessed in the stable pattern that underpins all of his most memorable parables, where what is holy in one context can suddenly become blasphemous, and what is blasphemous in the same context can suddenly become holy. With these paradoxical reversals of meaning and expectation, the formal structure of Jesus’ original teachings can be shown to interrupt the conditions of possibility of the Western metaphysics of presence, and the age-old attempt to anchor a pre-given and independently existing reality, while simultaneously disclosing to us an insight into the mind of the historical Jesus and his challenging vision of the Kingdom of God.
As John Dominic Crossan writes in The Dark Interval23, the authentic parables of Jesus are enigmatic, disturbing, and unnerving, as they radically undercut and de-legitimate the agreed upon myths of the commonly accepted world, thereby provoking us to think the impossible—the despised Samaritan is righteous, just as the privileged Jewish leaders are sinners; the uninvited guests are first at the banquet, as the guests of honor are last; the homecoming of a wasteful son is celebrated, whereas the dutiful son is left on the outside in rebellion; while the expected Jewish Messiah is crucified, whereas the dead come back to life, and so on.
Therefore, given the overriding significance of this paradoxical structure in the main body of Jesus teachings, we can now set out the formal logic of this paper—what appears to be X is really Y, and what appears to be Y is really X; where X and Y are virtually any pair of binary oppositions that are brought into play within the general framework of Jesus’ recorded teachings: righteous/sinner, inside/outside, saved/lost, dutiful/rebellious, etc.
So while there is indeed a structural logic that underpins the parabolic system of Jesus as a whole, it must also be said that it is a logic that looks downright absurd, ridiculous, and even mad from the perspective of ordinary logic and the metaphysics of Being in the history of the West. For in the coming of God’s kingdom, it looks like all hell has broken out, a holy hell that Jack Caputo likens to a “sacred anarchy”24 wherein everything is turned upside down and inside out in flagrant disregard for our conventional horizons of truth and meaning while breaking open the limits of what is normally considered possible or reasonable.
By invoking a sense of risk and danger, while being marked by a capacity to tolerate ambiguity, the parables of Jesus also tend to shake the foundations of those institutions that lend the weight of God to our historically constructed prejudices while simultaneously making us vulnerable to the unconditional love of God with a heightened sense of paradoxicality that transmits the very heart of Jesus’ own awakening to the Kingdom. And in this sense, Jesus is not so much the answer, but the place of the question, a question that intensifies the passion of faith and points directly to the gate-less gate of the Kingdom by opening us up to new possibilities of thought and action and an unforeseeable future that leaves us expecting the unexpected.
In discovering the original form of Jesus’ parabolic language-events in a simple formula that has been largely buried beneath the ossified institutional dogma that was erected in the historical unfolding of the Christian Church, we can therefore conclude that the paradoxical structure disclosed here can provide New Testament scholars with a ‘source code’ for unpacking the original teachings of the historical Jesus—and we can do so without depending on the existing structures of power and privilege in the institutional Church. And as a source code, the paradoxical structure outlined here is the kind of discovery that can create new thought and re-configure out-dated forms of religious life, for in re-capturing the authenticity of the gospel message in a way that gives both depth and coherence to the main body of Jesus’ oral teachings, it is now possible to communicate the mysteries of Christian faith by re-activating the revolutionary language this 1st century sage from Galilee, a language that has been almost completely lost in the historical development of Christianity.25
TOWARDS A POST-METAPHYSICAL THEOLOGY
As we saw at the start of this essay, Derrida questions the axiomatic structure of metaphysics, the founding gesture whereby metaphysics desires for itself its own unity and wholeness.26 By seeking out the binary oppositions that drive all written texts, Derrida’s deconstruction brings these under scrutiny and shows that the fixed centers of meaning established by traditional metaphysical oppositions, once exposed, are illusory, permeable and mobile.27
For Derrida, this attempt to fix in stone lines of conceptual opposition and hold down the connection between a linguistic signifier (spoken or written word) and its signified (conceptual meaning) “belongs in a profound and implicit way to the totality of the great epoch covered by the history of metaphysics, and in a more explicit and more systematically articulated way to the narrower epoch of Christian creationism and infinitism when these appropriate the resources of Christian conceptuality.”28
In undertaking his deconstructive project, then, Derrida also argues that the history of metaphysics in the West has taken insufficient account of the precariousness of our conceptual formations, and is therefore a history of ‘violent hierarchies’, and according to Derrida “the best liberation from violence is a certain putting into question, which makes the search for an arche tremble.”29
In rising to the deconstructive challenge of thinking about God after the “end of metaphysics” (i.e. otherwise than the way that has been inescapably imposed upon us since the inception of metaphysics with the ancient Greeks), this paper raises the possibility of a God-view that belongs not to the metaphysics of Being and the fixed order of presence but to the way things work in the Kingdom announced by the 1st century Nazarene sage30, a Kingdom that finds its earliest and most definitive expression in the mind-bending paradoxes and bi-polar reversals of meaning that reveal to us the authentic form of Jesus’ original teachings.
For in outstripping the tired old debates of Greek metaphysics, the paradoxical teachings of Jesus disrupt and overturn our pre-given horizon of intelligibility with an anarchic field of reversals and displacements31 that cuts across the distinction between orthodox and heretic, saved and lost, insider and outsider, and so on, with a radical reversal of expectation for which no mundane horizon of possibilities can contain, program, or foresee.32
By confounding and contradicting the meaning of Being in the historical development of the West, and scandalizing the establishment of those hierarchies of power and privilege with un-thinkable paradoxes burst through the ‘given’ order of presence, the provocative teachings of Jesus that have been uncovered here within the earliest beginnings of the Christian movement have more in common with deconstructive post-modernity and the de-stabilizing effects of Derrida’s diffÈrance and than the classical conception of an all-powerful and all-knowing theistic God.
And so, in breaking open the limits of what is merely possible or reasonable, Jesus’ paradoxes have much in common with the deconstruction of metaphysics, for as Caputo has already pointed out, Derrida says that the least bad definition of deconstruction is “an experience of the impossible”33, an experience of something unforeseeable that unsettles our pre-given centers of truth and meaning and disrupts our ordinary horizons of expectation.
As Crossan further sums up this uncanny resemblance between Derrida’s deconstruction and the post-metaphysical impulse within the parables of Jesus, “The literal point confronted the hearers with the necessity of saying the impossible34 and having their world turned upside down and radically questioned in its presuppositions. The metaphorical point is that ‘just so’ does the Kingdom of God break abruptly into human consciousness and demand the overturn of prior values, closed options, set judgments, and established conclusions.”35
And so, by subverting the powers that be with a “sacred irreverence” on account of which every metaphysical center is displaced, destabilized and disrupted, the parabolic teachings of the historical Jesus constantly refuse the ‘violent hierarchies’ of Western logo-centrism and those fixed centers of meaning that attempt to make God into a static concept beyond the sliding play of diffÈrance.
From this perspective, then, the historical Jesus is a kind of metaphysical pervert who robs us of all the protections and privileges, entitlements and ethnicities that are grounded on a logic of identity, for there is no basis in Jesus’ teachings for the metaphysical consolations of or for any group or individual to think that they have a favored position in God’s eyes. As the leader of the World Community for Christian Meditation, Laurence Freeman concurs,
When Christians draw lines between themselves and others, Jesus remains a relentless and scandalous crosser of these lines. He quietly slips to the other side. Whenever an attempt to imprison him is made he disappears from sight and appears elsewhere. Thus is lived out the paradoxical nature of Christian identity. A Christian is simultaneously a member of a community and an outsider. It is as if Jesus still prefers to be with the outcast, however wrong their beliefs or behavior, rather than with those who are self-righteously sure that only they are right.36
In displacing the habitual tendency to allow all such binary distinctions to settle firmly into place, the exquisite beauty of Jesus’ paradoxes is that they are structurally impossible to pin down once and for all in a way that yields absolute or objective certainty. For while what is sacred in one context can suddenly become obscene, while what is obscene in another context can become sacred without warning, in view of Jesus’ parables our knowledge of the ways of God is inherently open to not-knowing, while the sudden emergence of altogether new possibilities that is offered to us in the advent of the Kingdom can never be programmed, predicted or closed off once and for all.37
Therefore, by confronting the challenging of Derrida’s deconstruction and incorporating the insights of the linguistic turn in philosophy, we can conclude that the bi-polar reversals of meaning that give coherence and depth to the recorded teachings of the historical Jesus – i.e. the paradoxical structure that holds true across virtually all of Jesus’ most memorable parables, does indeed constitute a post-metaphysical origin precisely because it does not constitute an origin, and in being structurally impossible to fix in place once and for all it is therefore always open to surprise, mystery, and the unexpected twists and turns that are paradigmatic of the language of Jesus.
And since the formal logic of paradox—X is Y, just as Y is X—never constitutes a fixed center of meaning in accordance with the metaphysics of presence, this paradoxical pattern can be said to be a “non-fundamental” structure, or an “abyssal” structure. In this way, to the extent that it is a ground it is also without metaphysical grounding, or without a bottom.38 And of course, paradox is not itself the bottom of anything either.39 As a coherent framework of ultimate meaning that itself has no fixed meaning, it does not constitute a deeper, supra-essential origin of truth. If this paradoxical structure is said to ground origins, it must be added that it un-grounds them at the same time40 in a radical language from which can be best thought of as the “underlying matrix of an non-foundational dialectically structured universe.”41 As a deep structure of protest against the absolutizing of logical concepts into metaphysical idols, in unpacking the paradoxical structure that resides at the very origins of the Christian faith tradition and proposing this post-metaphysical frame of reference, we can agree with historical Jesus scholar Crossan when he states that “the big difference, it seems to me, is whether you have a goal with no center without being scared.”42
By discovering a stable pattern of paradoxical reversals (X is Y, as Y is X) within the most well-known teachings of Jesus that have been handed down to us in the synoptic gospels, this paper has argued that it is now possible to respond to the challenge put to Christian theology by deconstructive post-modernity. By employing paradoxical statements that perplex and disrupt “conditions of possibility” of metaphysics with unexpected reversals of meaning in re-activating the earliest beginnings of the Christian faith tradition while simultaneously outstripping the now exhausted history of metaphysics in the West with a post-metaphysical approach to the question of God that affirms the possibility of an authentic Christian faith in the 21st century, a faith that can be lived with passion, risk, danger and uncertainty.
And so in briefly re-capping some of the post-metaphysical paradoxes of the historical Jesus outlined here—the Kingdom is freely given only to the undeserving and immediately revoked from those who claim to merit its possession. It justifies those who do not have a leg to stand on, while those who are justified by their own righteousness are left in chains. In the same way, the Kingdom can never be attained because it is always already accomplished; and it is impossible to find, because we were never truly lost. As a free gift that will cost you precisely everything, the paradoxical tensions of Christian existence also call for a free decision in response to a promise already made, where in surrendering all we receive it back in abundance. And just as the one that is lost is greater than the ninety-nine who are saved, in opening hearts and minds to the advent of God’s kingdom, by embracing Jesus’ world-shattering teachings, you are not the center of the uni verse, but the universe is the center of you.
And while disclosing the revolutionary potential of Jesus’ authentic teachings of the Kingdom of God, if we avoid listening to the explosive paradoxes that underpin his enigmatic parables it is only because they might disorientate us and change our world irrevocably, leaving us robbed of certainties and naked before the incomprehensible mystery of God. For with the bi-polar reversals of meaning that establish the original form of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God, our sense of reality is disturbed and shaken, as previously fixed binary distinctions begin to de-stabilize in a radical uncertainty that breaks open the metaphysics of presence and throws the established wisdom of the world into holy confusion. And by way of their propensity to include the different and exclude the same, and to disturb the logic of identity by negotiating the space in between our constitutive differences, this paper has shown that the teachings of Jesus easily lend thems elves to the process of de-stabilizing the systematic aspirations of metaphysical theology and those institutional structures that lend the weight of ‘Being’ or ‘God’ to historically contingent socio-political orders.
In surmounting the limits and possibilities of metaphysics while consistently dissenting from the rigorous and un-bending adherence to the order of pure objectivity, Jesus’ paradoxical language also undermines our belief in a pre-established dogma that decides the objective meaning of our deeds.43 By calling us to live with contradiction and to tolerate ambiguity, while being a witness to the dignity of keeping the question open, rather than claiming to know the Answer with absolute certainty, in opening our hearts to the life-transforming impact of Jesus’ radical paradoxes we are asking for trouble rather the contrived certainties and sweet consolations of the metaphysics of presence.
And moreover, by clinging tenaciously to two contradictory ideas at the same time, and refusing to collapse the tension between opposites (e.g. free-will/grace, faith/works, losing/finding, and so on), Jesus’ paradoxical teachings can also be so structured as to be appropriate currency for the discourse on ultimate truth, and particularly the revelation of the Kingdom that they were originally intended to express. For this unveiling of the formal structure of paradox within almost all of the most memorable parables within the New Testament gospels remains perhaps the best and only clue to all genuine mystery while providing a succinct insight into the lived experience of the historical Jesus.
In confirming the basic findings of this study, former president and co-founder of the ‘Jesus Seminar’, Robert Funk describes the contemporary picture of the historical Jesus that has emerged from recent scholarly investigations,
It is becoming clear that Jesus infringed the symbol system of his religious tradition so that he modified the fundamental structure of the correlative semantic code. The system of oppositions on which every linguistic code depends … is a kind of screen or grid through which one sees the world. As a modification of the semantic code, the parable and the aphorism became an event of language: a new tradition, a new code, with new polarities – and thus a fresh sense of the real, emerged.44
And so, by wrapping up the seed of Christian dogma in the dangerous memory of Jesus’ mind-bending paradoxes, this study has opened up a pathway out of the exhausted history of Western metaphysics by re-constructing the living word of the historical Jesus that resides within the earliest sub-stratum of Christianity prior to the time when these oral teachings were reinterpreted and assimilated by the metaphysical constitution of Western thought and language in the subsequent unfolding of the Christian tradition.
And so, in giving up the 2500 year search for an independently existing reality and a fixed center of meaning that gives us set in stone the ultimate meaning of our lives, this paper has re-activated the revelatory shock of revolutionary paradox within the unforgettable narratives of the historical Jesus, astonishing stories that scramble the wires of our most venerable traditions while offering us a Kingdom in which nothing ever happens quite the way we think it will… and so all we can do is expect the unexpected in a structural openness to the ultimate mystery of God.
3 Hart, K. The Trespass of the Sign: deconstruction, philosophy and theology. (Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.37
4 Derrida, J. Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p.7, 9; cf. 29 cited in Lowe, W. Theology and Difference: The Wound of Reason. Bloomington and Indiana, Indiana University Press 1993), p.73
5 Derrida, J. in “Nature, Culture, Writing”, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1996), also see Derrida, J. Speech and Phenomena (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973).
6 On Derrida’s understanding, the ‘transcendental signified’ is an imagined fixed point outside the system of signification. Derrida makes it quite clear that God is a paradigm of the transcendental signified. See Derrida, J. in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p.136, Derrida 1996, p.49-50 and Derrida, J. Dissemination. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p.19-20
7 For Derrida, then, “The history of metaphysics … is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the center have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, arche, telos, energia, ousia, aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth.” Derrida 1978, p.279 from “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
8 Bernstein, R. The New Constellation: the Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity. (Cambridge: MIT Press 1993), p.175
11 See Derrida, “the concept of a centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play. And on the basis of the certitude anxiety can be mastered.” Derrida 1978, p.279 from “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”
14 Rubenstein, M. in “UnKnowing Thyself: Apophaticism, Deconstruction, and Theology After Onto-theology.” Modern Theology 19(3): 387-417 2003, p.390
16 Derrida 1985, p.12 “Deconstruction in America: an Interview with Jacques Derrida,” ed. James Creech, Peggy Pamuf, and Jane Todd, Critical Exchange 17 (Winter 1985), p.12; published by The Society for Critical Exchange, Miami University, Oxford Ohio – cited in Lowe 1993, p.16
17 As John Dominic Crossan writes in regards to Derrida and the possibility of a post-metaphysical theology, “Derrida’s thematics of absence could be extremely important for negative theology. But even more important would be the thought of diffÈrance for that theology which is neither positive nor negative but paradoxical.” Crossan, ‘Stages in Imagination’, in “The archeology of the imagination”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Studies, 48 (1981), ed. C. Windquist, p.59 cited in Kevin Hart 1989, p.185
19 Perrin, N. Jesus and the language of the Kingdom : symbol and metaphor in New Testament interpretation. (London: S.C.M. Press, 1976), p.39
20 As Perrin states, “the parables are allegorized and moralized in the Christian traditions to a point at which one can live with them and draw helpful lessons from them.” Perrin 1976, p.201 also see Perrin, N. Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus. (London: SCM Press. 1967)
21 For the purposes of this study, then, paradox describes an apparently contradictory statement that in fact is well founded; or a seemingly absurd proposition that can be accepted as truthful. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1986
22 Metz J. B., cited in Hart 2005, Ed. (2005). Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments. New York, Routledge p.258
23 see Crossan, J. D. The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Allen, TX: Argus Communications, 1975).
24 For more discussion see Caputo’s recent work The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, (Indiana Press, 2006) especially part II on sacred anarchy.
25 Jesus’ own realization of the Kingdom of God became, within only a few generations: 1) the early Church speaking about 2) the apostles, who spoke about 3) the resurrected Jesus, who originally spoke about 4) the Kingdom of God in 5) the paradoxical logic set out here… For further discussion see Funk, R.W. Parables and Presence : forms of the New Testament tradition. (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1982), p.2-31982, p.2-3) Thus we can see the beginnings of the gap between Jesus’ original teaching and practice of Jesus of the Kingdom and the dogma of the Christian Church in its declarations about the ‘Only Begotten Son’ of Yahweh. (Of course, there are also numerous exceptions to the down-ward translations of Jesus original teachings into literal-mythic beliefs and moral allegories, most notably in aspects of St. Paul and St. Augustine, the orthodox Christology of the Chalcedon council (451 A.D.) and much of Nicholas Cusanus, Meister Eckhart, Luther and Kierkegaard)
26 Ingraffia, B. D. Postmodern theory and biblical theology: vanquishing God’s shadow. (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.236
27 Collins, G. “Thinking the Impossible: Derrida and the Divine.” Literature and Theology 14(3): 313-334. 2000, p.134
29 Derrida 1978 “Violence and Metaphysics”, Writing and Difference. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p.41
33 Derrida 1992, p. 15 – To be precise, as Caputo maintains – “the impossible” refers not to a logical but to a phenomenological impossibility – a definition that corresponds here with the bi-polar reversals of meaning and expectation within Jesus paradoxical teachings, as an “event” of language that makes the impossible happen.
35 Crossan, J. D. In Parables: the challenge of the historical Jesus. (New York: Harper & Row 1973), p.65
36 Freeman, L. Jesus: The Teacher Within. (London: the Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000), p.149
37 In the same way, Kierkegaard also advises us that we ought not “think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like a lover without the passion…” Kierkegaard, S. Philosophical Fragments (by Johannes Climacus). (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967), p.46
38 GaschÈ, R. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection, Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press. 1986, p.155
40 GaschÈ 1986, p.161 – As a post-metaphysical structure, the Kingdom of God is not so much ones ultimate concern (as metaphysical ground) but that which interrupts or undermines ones ultimate concern. (Crossan 1973, p.70)
41 McCort, D. Going Beyond the Pairs; the Coincidence of Opposites in German Romanticism, Zen, and Deconstruction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), p.182
42 Crossan, J. D. Semiology and Parables: An Exploration of the Possibilities Offered by Structuralism for Exegesis. (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Pickwick Press, 1976), p.310
43 Ziûek, S. The Puppet and the Dwarf: the perverse core of Christianity (Cambridge Massachusetts: London England, MIT Press, 2003), p.171