The work is an outline of the basic theological assumptions of historical-covenantal monotheism from a philosophical perspective of phenomenology. The theology was originally a reading of H. Richard Niebuhr, and the philosophy started with Martin Heidegger and has expanded since. The basic questions of theology are, (1) Where is God when I need him? (2) If he is here now, what is he doing for us? (3) How do we know God in action? (4) How do we speak of God? In the spirit of phenomenology, the focus of the inquiry has been turned from the person of God to divine providence, the human experience that is accessible to thoughtful reflection.
The themes of the work, for each chapter:
The question underlying religion is, How do you deal with the disappointments of life? What is the remedy? Put from another side, is there good in life? Monotheism is the thesis that all of life, including its disappointments, is good or bears good. The issue is providence.
1.1 Disappointment and Monotheism
The central thesis of the book is announced early: In the disappointments of life, we come to the question of providence, that is, will we be provided for in face of those disappointments? The monotheist's faith is that all of life is good, disappointments included, for they always bear blessing. The No's of life are transformed into Yes's, or in the words of Job, "though it slay us, yet will we trust it." H. Richard Niebuhr will stand at the head of the inquiry as its inspiration and guide, although the conversation of which he was a part has progressed considerably since his time, as will unfold later in the book. In its development, this choice of starting point will neatly undermine many of the problems of modern philosophy of religion: "miracles," the supernatural, the "problem" of evil, the problem of how to know God.
A basic stance toward life that affirms human life in this world in full view of its pains, if it is truly a starting point for living, and not derived from something more basic, can be confessed but not proven. And it must in the end have some structure, in order to be able to say more than just this simple affirmation. The chapter spells out these assumptions of method.
2.1 Basic Questions
The guide through this exploration of providence will be four questions that come from John Courtney Murray in The Problem of God: (1) Where is God when I need him? (2) If he is here, what is he doing? (3) How do we know God? (4) How do we name God? This section notes the sense of the questions in the Bible, and Murray's placing of the problem. It explores the interrelations of the four questions and so lays out the order of questioning for the whole book.
2.2 A Confessional Approach
The hiddenness and transcendence of God has consequences both for human knowledge of God and for philosophical method in theology. Religious convictions and religious faith are relative to culture and history and may not be simply deduced from some assured starting foundations. In a world in which one man's foundations are another's nonsense, only a confessional starting point is viable. One confesses one's religious commitments, but does not deduce them. Confessionality will inform the method of the entire project.
Following Edward Hobbs, I take it that disappointments come in three basic flavors: exposure (getting caught red-handed); limitation (being up against the facts of life); and need (other people's need, when I had my own plans). The monotheist responds with openness, creativity, and help for the others in need. This tripartite schema is a cultural artifact of Indo-European civilization, as may be argued from the work of Georges Dumézil, wherein all of human life and the cosmos is divided into departments or functions having to do with legitimacy or order, action and power, and feelings and sustenance. God in the first function (legitimacy and order) comes as God the Son; God in the second function (action and limitation) comes as God the Father; God in the third function (sustenance) comes as the Holy Spirit.
3.1 Exposure, Limitation, and Need
The disappointments of life can be characterized as exposure, limitation, and need. In exposure, the embarrassing truth about me comes out. In limitation, I am up against the impossibility of accomplishing what I want. In others' need, I am confronted with demands on my time and resources when I had other plans. The response of faith to exposure is acknowledgement of the truth. The response to limitation is innovation and creativity. The response to need is to open one's eyes, hands, and heart to the other. These come from the work of Edward Hobbs, but they occur in many other places as well, Niebuhr's thought in particular.
3.2 Tripartite Thinking
The tripartite schema of the title of the book is an instance of a larger tripartite ideology that seems to travel with Indo-European languages, thus relativising it to its cultural and historical origins. In its generic form, the first member or function of a triad has something to do with legitimacy and order, the second pertains to action or force, and the third to sustenance or nutrition. Indo-European social classes and religion reflect this tripartite ideology in considerable detail. It was Georges Dumézil, French linguist specialist in comparative mythology, who discovered this pattern.
3.3 Tripartition and Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is an instance of triparite thinking. For in each of the three functions, disappointment is transformed into blessing. In exposure, we meet God in the first function, disappointment in regard to legitimacy or order. In limitation, we meet God in the second function, disappointment in regard to force or action. In need, we meet God in the third function, we meet God in regard to sustenance. God the Son redeems human life from sin (first function), God the Father redeems human life from frustration (second function), and God the Holy Spirit redeems human life from loneliness (third function). What results in the first function is freedom, in the second, creativity, and in the third, community.
3.4 Monotheism Beyond Tripartition
In order to keep all the distinctions clear, it will help to view monotheism with and without the tripartite ideology, and also to see the tripartite ideology with and without monotheism. The example of the Shema illustrates the hazards of translating into an Indo-European language, and it points the way to understanding the most easily available monotheism without tripartition. When Judaism thinks originally in an Indo-European language, as in Philo of Alexandria, tripartite thinking emerges exactly as one would expect it to, and it does so without any notion of incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. Other cultures have conceptualities recognizably different from the Indo-European schema of tripartition, and some are mentioned. It should be possible to frame the monotheist's transformation of disappointments into blessings in the terms of any culture.
Such a description of monotheism allows us to understand some of the more common mistakes that monotheists make: The one who takes the disappointing events as good because they are disappointing, rather than because they bring some blessing apart from disappointment, is commendable for devotion, but has nevertheless mistaken the promise of radical monotheism. The one who believes that another's disappointments bring blessings, but is not willing to share in those blessings and the pain in which they come, is not being a consistent monotheist. Monotheists are often tempted to defend God, to prove that God is God; this is to argue to, rather than from, what is supposedly a starting point. Niebuhr's recommendation is salutary: confessional commitments should be simply confessed, because trying to prove them shifts ultimate loyalty to some other commitments, silently taken as self-evident.
4.1 Mistakes for Monotheists
Most projects in philosophy or religion attract misunderstandings, a theme that will appear in more than one place in this book. If the engagement with the disappointments of life is misconstrued, one can subvert the openness to blessings that comes in it, and so subvert the entire project of radical monotheism. The first mistake to appear is the claim that because exposure, limitation, and need bear blessings, the good they bear is in the disappointing character itself. This can take several forms. Masochism is the least destructive, but one could also conclude that people should be allowed no privacy, frustrated in their plans, or abandonned in their need. Limitation is in some ways most typical of another kind of mistake. One may (in apathy) not work to turn limitation into opportunity at all, or one may (in defiance) refuse to work with the real limitations one faces.
4.2 Faith and Struggle
Kierkegaard saw these two patterns as forms of despair. Finding one's way between them is a matter of some labor and struggle. The key seems to be in not taking offense, but meeting the disappointments instead so as to turn grief into creative response.
4.3 Consistency and Respect
If the monotheist believes that the pains of life bear good, he believes that other people's pains also bear good, and if he is consistent, he is willing to share in that pain in order to share in that good. A sense of solidarity with others is an essential consequence of monotheistic faith.
4.4 Defending God
To defend God is to presuppose something else as basis for faith than God himself. A confessional stance in theology and philosophy of religion does not defend God, content to let the blessings in the disappointments of life show themselves. In a sense, this is a simple matter of logic. One cannot reason to a starting point, but only from it. But beneath the level of logic, there is another reason for a confessional stance. One who defends God, usually against charges of non-existence or of malice, has implicitly already taken offense at the pains of life, and that offense will come out eventually in the controversies attendent on defenses of God. A question of truth remains, in the charge of fideism that is sometimes made against a confessional stance. But fideism is irresponsible, not by not giving reasons for faith, but in not really explaining what faith is. A confessional stance is careful precisely to explain what it is doing.
I accept from Heidegger's incomplete anthropology the observation that human life is at bottom both concerned about its own prospects and also temporal and historical. It is from history that the believer learns how to be a monotheist, and within history that he can make sense of his life. Troeltsch's problem of how history can be known with enough confidence to support faith almost thrusts itself on the believer; Troeltsch's marks of historical method (criticism, analogy, and correlation), appear at first sight to be profound challenges to historical religion. I contend that they bring blessings, enabling rather than undermining faithful life in history. This is an outgrowth of Niebuhr's central contention in The Meaning of Revelation, that history as exposure is gracious, enabling reconciliation, creativity, and community.
5.1 Why History?
Section 5.1 provides an overview of Chapter 5 and Part 2, and then notes that the context for making sense of human life is a narrative one. The narratives of individual lives are situated in the larger narrative of history.
5.2 Being in the world
We turn to Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I, for the care-structure, manifested in anxiety, in which human existence is constituted by its concern for its own being. As noted already in Part 1, this is in effect a concern for providence.
5.3 Time and History
Beneath care lies temporality, and so the roots of history in human existence are seen. Human existence is constituted by its temporal relations, and they, as it turns out, are a matter of interpretation, a feature that will receive considerable development later on.
5.4 History and Faith
The problem of living in history is a problem of knowing history, of getting from historical events to their theological significance for the present, and of bridging the cultural gap between the past and the present. G. E. Lessing stands behind these questions, and Gordon Michalson is the contemporary guide to them. Ernst Troeltsch is the theoretician of the historian's knowledge of the past, the first problem in Michalson's exposition. Troeltsch's three canons of responsible historical method are criticism, analogy, and correlation. Those canons appear to carry hostile implications for latter-day biblical religion, but instead, they embody embracement of exposure, limitation, and need,
5.5 History and Grace
H. Richard Niebuhr's The Meaning of Revelation is the initial guide to living faithfully in history. His argument in that book will inform much of what follows, but this section merely summarizes it in its own terms and notes that the radically monotheistic community does indeed embrace exposure, limitation, and need in its relations to history. History makes possible reconciliation where before there was estrangement. History makes the past intelligible, and makes it possible to continue it creatively in the future. And history makes it possible for others to enter the community, and in so doing, both bring their own history and adopt the history of the community they enter.
6. At this point, it is necessary to update Niebuhr's original typology of basic religious options from his series of polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism. Merold Westphal's God, Guilt, and Death sees a somewhat different three options: (1) life is nature, and as such good; (2) life is history, and as such good; (3) life is an exile from some more desirable state. Nature-religion orders human life as mimesis of nature; historical religion is covenantal; and exilic religion is most familiar from ancient gnosticisms. Religion of history can understand nature as the necessary substrate for history, but the discourse of nature cannot really understand the problematic of history. I would correct Westphal by locating Niebuhr's henotheism as a religion of history that affirms only some of life as good (the life of the community of believers), consigning the lives of outsiders to badness. Niebuhr's polytheism seems to correspond to Westphal's religion of mimesis in nature.
6.1 Typologies of Religious Options
Niebuhr's typology of religions needs to be expanded at this point. Merold Westphal offers a somewhat different typology, one based on Mircea Eliade's Cosmos and History, in which the options for human living center on nature, history, and exile. In the first, human life is taken as simply part of nature, and history is non-existent or irrelevant. In the second, human life is part of history, included in which is nature. In the third, this world is defective, and human life in this world is a state of exile from something better. Niebuhr's category of henotheism makes a fourth possibility, though it is theoretically less interesting (so far as I am aware). I also introduce the term "basic life orientation" as a functional substitute for "religion."
6.2 Religion of Nature
If human life is just part of nature, and there is no such thing as history, or history is irrelevant, then the prescription for success in life is to fit into nature naturally. For this reason, it is called "mimetic" religion. Nature is orderly, and the good is whatever enhances that order. Evil is whatever disturbs that order. This is the aboriginal world-affirming nature religion that is found in various forms all over the world. It construes human life in terms of archetypes rather than narrative that is open enough to allow characters to emerge with any real individuality.
6.3 Exilic Religion
In exilic religion, the human self is usually divided into a discardable body and a detachable soul. The body is declared to be evil, and the soul good. The point of human living is to get the soul out of the body. Plato provides the anthropology in the West, and Western Gnosticisms turn it into a religion.
6.4 History and Covenant
In what Westphal calls historical-covenantal religion, human life in this world is construed as essentially historical, and it is affirmed as such. It first appears in the Exodus. The Hebrews left Egypt and at the same time left mimetic religion. A number of lessons were learned in that experience, and they are preserved in a documentary form adapted from ancient Hittite suzerainty treaties.
6.5 Religious Options Today
This section extends the typology from the ancient to the modern world. Instances of mimetic, exilic, and covenantal religion can be found in contemporary culture.
7. When one looks at how history is used to make sense of life, it becomes clear that the language of history is analogical. Typology is the original way of thinking in history: analogies from the past suggest how one might improvise creatively in the present. Analogy can both challenge its hearers (it speaks truth) and its speakers can be challenged in turn (this is its responsibility). It should be clear on a little reflection that there are usually more ways than one to proceed in the present, and so monotheism ought to admit of a responsible liberty of interpretation of its past. That is, multiple interpretations are permitted, and there should be some way of enforcing responsibility on differing interpretations. Chapter 7 begins the exploration in depth of what it means to live a historical-covenantal basic life orientation.
7.1 Analogy, History, and Typology
Analogy across history is called typology, from the technical name for its occurences in biblical texts. This section explores examples of typology from biblical texts.
7.2 Challenge and Responsibility in History
This section examines how analogy from history can challenge those who live in history. To say that an analogy is true because it challenges and to say that it challenges because it is true are almost equivalent. Demonstration of covenantal living challenges, and in a confessional way, invites.
7.3 Evading History
This section notes a handful of ways to fend off the challenge of history. They illustrate that challenge in the ways they turn away from it.
7.4 A Responsible Liberty of Interpretation
There are many possible ways of interpreting a community's history, and that openness leads to pluralism in covenantal living. As it happens, pluralism is original in the Exodus. What holds pluralism together is a community of moral obligation, and the structure of that community lies in the obligations of its members to answer to one another. Pluralism and responsible liberty of interpretation are hallmarks of covenantal living ever since. They are also under nearly constant challenge in the history of monotheism. The section closes by looking at the vices and virtues attendant on schism, because schism is the place where pluralism is tested to the limit.
If Niebuhr is correct in The Meaning of Revelation (cf. Section 5.5), that history as exposure brings grace and opportunity for reconciliation, then we should be able to see this offer in the history of, for example, Christian anti-semitism. At the root of Christian anti-semitism are several theological factors. One is a henotheism, whose operative assumption is that only one daughter religion can legitimately inherit from Second Temple Judaism. This is the Exclusive Or of salvation history; it is also a direct repudation of the possibilty of a responsible liberty of interpretation in covenantal history. Christianity has also had a long affair with exilic religion, whether in Marcionite or other forms. The grace offered in history is first the opportunity to avoid exilic and henotheistic religion. Judaism is exposure for Christianity in a deeper way, when it is exposure of an entirely innocent relativity: This relativity underlies the responsible liberty of interpretation that enables one to meet new cultural challenges creatively. The fact that Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity continue the Exodus covenant differently should not undermine the legitimacy of either one.
8.1 A History of Estrangements
If Niebuhr is right that history is exposure that offers the way to reconciliation, then it should be possible to see that in the history of Christian anti-semitism. This section traces that history, from the present back to the roots of theological anti-Judaism. The New Testament is ambiguous; John is one side of a messy divorce within first-century Judaism, but Romans 9-11 argues precisely against hostility to those Jews who are not also Christians. The principal root of anti-semitism is the Great Exclusive Or, the assumption that only one daughter religion can legitimately inherit from Second Temple Judaism.
8.2 Exilic and Henotheistic Religion in Christianity
The Great Exclusive Or is an example of henotheism in Christianity. There are also exilic themes, as in Marcionite theology. This section explores the roots of these ideas in the dynamic of covenantal religion and the challenges of exposure, limitation, and need.
8.3 Grace in History
We should expect exposure of a history of sin to liberate its heirs from continuing that sin. Exposure does more. The presence of a competing covenantal monotheistic community exposes not only sin but also historical relativity, which is to say that it exposes a tradition's responsible liberty of interpretation. The section explores how the two surviving Exodus traditions can live together in peace.
It is possible to return to Troeltsch's problem, responsibility amid relativity in history, and see more hope than he did. The full problematic of relativity expands to comprise history as exposure, relativity as limitation, and pluralism as the face of cultural need. Each brings blessing and opportunity. In Troeltsch's terms, criticism works as gracious exposure in history, correlation works as the limitation that safeguards the transcendance of God, and analogy works in the mode of sustenance, guaranteeing that history is actually relevant to the present. It is then possible to see through the quest for absoluteness in history, content that relativity affords as much as a covenant people needs to know in its own time. Historical relativity is quite compatible with responsible choices in history, and trans-historical knowledge is still possible, working by analogies drawn across history. Indeed, analogy across history is of the essence of historical thinking, and confessional claims are formulated in analogical terms.
9.1 History, Relativity, and Pluralism
Troeltsch's challenges would better be taken as the basis of faith than as a threat to faith. What started out as canons of method (criticism, correlation and analogy) become features of human existence: critical history, cognitive relativity, and religious pluralism. This section explores the grace offered in each of them. Critical history functions as exposure, cognitive relativity as a form of limitation, and religious pluralism as encounter with need.
9.2 The Neuralgia of Absoluteness
Troeltsch, the great theoretician of historical relativity, sought to prove the truth of Christianity "absolutely." The fear, on seeing historical relativity, is that one will be thrown into nihilistic relativism, and thereby abandoned bereft of any basis for meaning or justice or coping in history. The plight of the believer as it appears in the world inherited from the Enlightenment is one of responsibility for his commitments. But relativity deprives him of any means of discharging that responsibility. The Enlightenment accepted only absoluteness as a way to satisfy the obligation of religious responsibility, and confessional stances were seen as the very antithesis of responsibility.
9.3 A Confessional Stance
Far from being the problem, confessionality is the way to a solution. If confessionality of human religious starting points were embraced as part of the human condition of finitude, absoluteness would not be necessary in order to fend off the terrors of historical relativity. This section explores some of the features of confessionality.
9.4 Analogy and Historical Individuals
The claim that analogies can work across history is an instance of the historian's perception of the identities of historical individuals across the history of their life-spans. Troeltsch's formal logic of history can explain this, and could have provided him with the means to live with confessionality and historical relativity.
Before one can talk about knowledge of God or providence in a culture dominated by Anglo-American analytical philosophy, it is necessary to clear away some misconceptions about God and knowledge of God. God is not "a" being among other beings, one that might or might not "exist." This should be suggestive from Niebuhr's approach, but it needs detailed expansion at this point. More importantly, human knowledge of God is always practical, intimately involved with human action. To act faithfully is to know God, and vice versa. Thus the problem of knowledge is not one of demonstrating God in the mode of proof, but of experiencing God's providence in action. An example of the way of action is found in halakhah, in which the central dynamic has at least two moments. One is the welcoming of transcendance into the world (instead of fleeing from the world to transcendance). The second is repentance, bringing one's life into conformity with the covenant. The meaning of human acts has to be changeable after the fact if this repentance is to be possible.
1.1 The Shape of the Problem
This section reviews Murray's posing of the third question, how we can know God, transposing it to a question of how we can know providence.
1.2 In The Light of Falsification
Challengers in the 1950s claimed that unless theologians could name possible circumstances under which they would abandon "theism," theological language could make no truth claims. The challenge of falsificationism was made on analogy from experience in the natural sciences as they were then understood. But the form of the challenge is in effect a demand to state what potential disappointments would induce the theologian to say that not all of life is good, what potential disappointments would be barren of blessing. The theologians did not recognize the form of the challenge presented to them as a simple invitation to abandon monotheism.
1.3 Knowing and Living
The question how one might recognize providence in life, its disappointments included, in answered in living. Theory comes later, as reflection on living. The way to know the Lord is to walk in the ways of the Lord. Joseph Soloveitchik's book Halakhic Man is the guide. Soloveitchik mirrors (or anticipates) Westphal's typology, as it happens. Halakhah is both a historical tradition and also one that admits a responsible liberty of interpretation, as the Talmud famously attests. Living halakhically requires from time to time the activity of repentance, by which one's biography gets effectively rewritten. That opens the way to looking at human action, in the next chapter, which will provide some philosophical justification for Soloveitchik's bare claims.
Human action has a dimension of meaning that goes beyond merely tabulating the motions of the acts. Human involvements give acts their meaning, and to make sense of an act is to ascribe a structure to it, rather than describe a structure that can be read out of it passively. Indeed, interpretation of acts is itself active in ways that are very much like interpretation of texts, and the meaning of an act, like that of a text, can grow and change over time. Ultimately, the meaning of an act is a function of the larger narrative into which it is to be fitted. In the simplest sense, its meaning is changeable because that narrative is unfinished until the actor is dead; and even then, the history into which his life fits is ongoing. There are, however, quite different ways of viewing human life, in proportion as one adopts a mimetic, exilic, or historical-covenantal schema of explanation, and we can see the differences play out in action.
2.1 The Constitution of Acts
Actions are more than just the motions of their actors. The full constitution of what makes acts be whatever they are is incomplete until their meaning is spelled out. That, as it turns out, leaves open an enormous liberty of interpretation, one that requires essentially narrative categories.
2.2 Acts in Time
The meaning of actions can grow in subsequent history in ways quite analogous to how the meaning of texts can grow. The guide is Paul Ricoeur. When the larger narratives that particular acts fit into get rewritten, those acts take on new meaning. Herein lies the possibility of Soloveitchik's concept of repentance really becoming effective.
2.3 Action and Life Orientation
What it means to say "I did X, for reasons A" is quite different in mimetic and historical life orientations. In mimesis, human actions are instances of archetypes, and ultimately, the purpose of explanation is to fit things into the order of nature. Where history is seen and appreciated, things are different. The possibilities for action are quite indeterminate, and explanation of action then becomes a way of taking responsibility for action. The human commitments implicit in the activity of taking responsibility are peculiar to covenantal religion.
2.4 Conversion of Life
Basic life orientation requires some deliberate intention if it is to be consistent or successful. Adding recognition and intention is a process, and one in which commitment and life orientation are radicalized by stages. Choices are made along the way, as the pains of life are encountered.
It is possible to see what people are doing with their lives by looking at how they act in certain clearings, places in life where the worth and interpretation of all of life are called into question. Prime among these are choices having to do with birth, death, sex and reproduction: the beginning and ending of human life. Self-deception, following Herbert Fingarette, in order to succeed, must not spell out what is going on in one's life. This chapter spells out what is going on in regard to abortion, euthanasia, and contraceptives. Human life is devalued in these practices, from covenantal membership in a community of moral obligation to something that has purely utilitarian value and does not merit the kind of respect that covenant implies.
3.1 Self Deception
This section introduces the notion of a clearing, a place where it is possible to see what whole lives are about. It then turns to the workings of self-deception, the activity by which what could have become clear in a clearing is instead hidden. Herbert Fingarette is the guide. Self-deception operates chiefly by not spelling out what is happening.
3.2 Abortion and Euthanasia
When a child is aborted, its life is deemed not worth living in spite of the pains attendant on it. This is a clear rejection of the thesis that all of life is good, pains included, the trust that I have taken as definitional for radical monotheism. Whereas in other, smaller, disappointments that come from day to day, the choice as to whether they can bear blessing or not is (or can be made) unclear, in an abortion, an entire life is terminated irrevocably. Here, the statement about basic life orientation is quite clear. What goes for abortion goes also for euthanasia, for those to be euthanized are deemed to have lives precisely not worthy of living, Leben unlebenswert. Section 3.2 ends by reviewing the growing movement to legalize euthanasia, and its precedents in the National Socialists' killing of most of the disabled in Germany, 1939-1941.
3.3 A Technology of Disrespect
The roots of the need for abortion lie in commitments already made in the decision to use contraceptives. For it is at that point that people structure their lives in ways that cannot receive children. I claim that the principal purpose of contraceptives is to take away a woman's last reason to say No, and thus to give men all the choices about sex. Hence they are a technology of disrespect.
3.4 Never Too Late to Choose Life
Since those who abort seldom want to do so, and just as seldom feel good about having an abortion, it is necessary to repeat the offer of grace that is at the heart of radical monotheism. It is never too late to choose life, and exposure, even here, does bring grace and and offer of freedom.
The language which adds recognition and intention to covenantal living is peculiar in some respects, as one would expect the language of any basic life orientation to be. It works by affiliatives and silence, in order to circumvent the problem of how to speak of transcendence without drawing the transcendent into the world on the world's terms. That is, affiliatives say, "like Joe over there," who is known to be covenantal. Silence refuses to speak when speech would betray transcendence. At a deeper level, irony embodies the central transformations of covenantal living, in which the disappointments of life are very real, but bring blessing nonetheless. Language is also the primary means of self-deception, and so it is the pivot on which monotheism turns when it degenerates covertly into henotheisms and mimetic or exilic religion. It does this by becoming counter-performative, that is, by doing just the opposite of what its ostensible performative force would suggest. Affiliatives and silence not only safeguard transcendence but also work to prevent the worst counter-performative abuses of religious language.
4.1 Taking Stock
This section reviews the role that language has played in the argument so far, and prepares the way for making it central and thematic in Part 4.
4.2 Counter-Performative Speech Acts
When monotheism turns into something else, it usually does so because its language first begins to work in other than covenantal ways. The phenomenon of performative speech acts that do not do what they appear to do gets explored first, in this section. They are called counter-performatives because of the way they work.
4.3 Religious Counter-Performatives
This section is a catalog of counter-performatives in the life and history of monotheism.
4.4 Affiliatives, Silence, and Irony
When covenantal language does work as it should, it often takes one of three forms. It can merely express affiliation with a history. It keeps silence before mystery and on occasions when to speak would inevitably become counter-peformative. And its irony expresses the central transformations of covenantal living, in which the disappointments of life are seen to bear blessings.
Covenantal language pivots on how narrative is handled; differently in matters of history than of nature, as it happens. Nature is predictable and orderly, and human life seen in terms of nature must as a consequence be described in repeatable and orderly terms -- the archetypes of the world-affirming nature religions. History is the realm of the unpredictable, the free, and above all, of responsibility. Human action is appraised in acts of judgement that both hold others responsible and are themselves responsible. One may then ask how the language of covenantal narrative in history can challenge, and how it can hold others responsible. This is the working of narrative as exposure. Narrative works to meet limitation when it shapes human lives in gratitude in the face of disappointment that cannot be evaded. Narrative works to meet need when it creates community across cultural boundaries in a responsible liberty of interpration of covenant.
5.1 Narrative in Nature and History
Inasmuch as covenantal living is historical, the role of narrative in its language will be pivotal. Narrative works differently in naturalistic and historical worldviews. The difference turns largely on the ways that responsibility is handled. Fingarette is once again the guide.
5.2 Historical Narrative and Exposure
Exposure in historical narrative raises several questions. Niebuhr's account in The Meaning of Revelation turned on a distinction between history written by a community's insiders and history written by outsiders. Instead of his explanation, I locate the difference in the way responsibility is handled by insiders and outsiders. Last, it is conceivable that exposure in history might ultimately bring neither truth nor grace. That it does is a matter of trust, something that cannot be seen in any way that would qualify as demonstration. This is the first opening to transcendence, one that will be taken up in Chapter 6.
5.3 Historical Narrative and Limitation
We tell disaster stories to see how people respond in face of terminal limitation, to see courage and the virtues and vices in action. When people look limitation and pain in the face and say, "Yet will I trust," another signal of transcendence has been encountered. The Holy Week Collects of the Book of Common Prayer, praying that "walking in the way of the Cross, we may find it none other than the way of life and peace," express this trust nicely. Lastly, one meets limitation in a spirit of service, an analogy that is also a signal of transcendence.
5.4 Historical Narrative and Need
It is in language that people meet cosmic chaos and convert it into order, in language that peoples meet other peoples and face their own loneliness and isolation and convert those into fellowship. Often this means retelling history in order to find a way out of inherited conflicts and estrangements. It can be done.
5.5 Narrative and Other Religions
The encounter with other religions is a case in point. Often neither historical nor covenantal, they are nevertheless part of history and part of a created world that is to be affirmed as good. This poses a challenge to both parties in any such encounter.
When people trust in providence in history, that trust rests on assumptions whose meaning depends on truth beyond the experience of the speakers. It only by analogical language that covenantal can speak of a transcendent reality. And at last, the exploration of providence comes to God: what is it in human life that leads people to speak of ultimate reality in human and personal terms? Analogy happens when we see one area of life in the light of another, and the experience of being exposed to, limited and needed by other human beings is the experience in whose light ultimate reality is languaged in covenantal monotheism. In closing, this language will carry some hazards that cannot be removed, and the concept of God will always be open to counter-peformative interpretations.
At every turn in Chapter 5, the believer was in a certain state of up-against-ness, trusting in spite of disappointments that have no easy remedy from within simply intramundane resources. This is the face of transcendence, and Section 6.1 merely explores this up-against-ness.
Analogical language is the vehicle for speaking in such straits. Section 6.2 explores how it works, sufficiently for the modest purposes of this chapter. The simple definition of analogy is that it is a phenomenon in which one area of life is experienced in the light of another.
6.3 Why This Analogy?!
It is the experience of encounter with other people within the world that provides the light by which the encounter with ultimate reality gets understood in covenantal religion. The analogy in question is the one by which the experience of providence opens the way to speaking of a provider. Analogies are voluntary activities, this one in particular. This merely reflects in substance the confessionality that was undertaken as method in the beginning of the work.
6.4 The Last Counter-Performative
The concept of God in radical monotheism is one that is inevitably and essentially open to counter-performative interpretations, and it is important to be aware of them. Covenantal language can always be (mis-) interpreted to give the believer control over the covenantal relationship, and even the attempt to rule out that possibility is such a misinterpretation. If these counter-performative possibilities are ignored, monotheism can degenerate trivially into some other basic life orientation. In the end (as in the beginning), the believer who promises to embrace all of life as good, pains included, is making promises that he is in no position to keep.