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In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice has been having quite a run through the Garden of Live Flowers. “I declare it’s marked out just like a large chessboard!” she says. “There ought to be some men moving about somewhere—and so there are!” Alice gets excited by all this. “It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join—though of course I should like to be a Queen, best.”

And so the real Queen, the Red Queen, takes Alice in hand, leading her on in the direction of the Eighth Square where she will become Queen. After a lot of running and getting nowhere, they finally stop; and the Queen begins to set pegs in the ground and measure off the rest of the squares. “A Pawn goes two squares in its first move you know, so you’ll go very quickly through the Third Square—by railway, I should think—and you’ll find yourself in the Fourth Square in no time. Well, that square belongs to Tweedledum and Tweedledee—the Fifth is mostly water—the Sixth belongs to Humpty Dumpty.” The Queen pauses to chide Alice for her lack of response, then continues: “The Seventh Square is all forest—however, one of the Knights will show you the way—and in the Eighth Square we shall be Queens together, and it’s all feasting and fun!” At the next peg the Queen turns again, and this time she says, “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing—turn out your toes as you walk—and remember who you are!”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonder Land and Through the Looking Glass contain the workings of what is for me an effective understanding of language. They should constitute required reading for students in universities. Most faculty should memorize them. “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing—turn out your toes as you walk—and remember who you are!”

There you have it. The assertion of a principle—that there is a language that is neither functional (at least in the primary sense) nor essential. It just is. It is beyond the ordinariness of language. It is “other” than the way language is ordinarily used. Ordinary language is utilitarian; it is the “English for a thing.” “Speak in French” when English just can’t make it—when you just can’t find the English for the purpose. “Speak in French” because ordinary language won’t do; what you want to be able to say has no real usefulness, other than the fact that you need to say it.

There is here an acknowledgment of the fact that life is not functional, although it encompasses many functions. Life is not functional, although it may be reduced to function by a functional mind. Yet even for the utilitarian mind there are the occasions when a declaration of independence is called for, when life is encountered as more than the sum of its parts. There are occasions when an assertion of freedom, of transcendence, is forthcoming. Now, of course, it is true that “French” is someone else’s language. Yet for you it is not ordinary language. It is a language to which you are to resort when ordinary language won’t do. Ordinary language has become powerless, incapable of doing what is necessary. Another language, learned in order to assert itself when ordinary language is powerless, becomes the occasion of a different kind of power.

This “French,” this language of superordinary power, is a transcendent tongue, used in moments for the declaration of freedom. As such it provides a model for interreligious dialogue as well as for traditional theology. In realms of the history of religions, it may help us to understand how the “French” of another religious tradition may serve us in the moment when the tradition too close to us (“English”) has become commonplace. In this essay, we shall limit ourselves to comment about “French” as the language of theology, asserted in the moments of ordinary powerlessness.


If it is true that all language is power, that there is no power without language, then there seems to be evidence in human history of a kind of language which cries out. It says, No, wait! That’s not all there is; there is more! In Pure Land Buddhism it amounts to a recognition that there is “other-power,” that self-power has come to a frustrating dead end, that it was presumptuous and wrong-headed for the self to assume it was ever doing anything more than objectifying the content of its own whimsy.

In other words, the realization of the limitation of self-power causes a change in language. Self-power makes language utilitarian, designed to serve its objectifying proposals. However, when the world constructed by self-power seems to self-destruct or fails to yield what we bad hoped for, we find ourselves doing strange and very non-utilitarian things. Our language cries out, it prays, it meditates. In so doing it acknowledges the truth that life is “other-power,” not self-power. No longer do I speak in a way that makes utilitarian sense to a world dominated by self-power. Instead I speak words that are foolishness to such a world. I speak a theological word. I speak in French because the English won’t do.

The Japanese philosopher Tanabe Hajime informs us that philosophy must become “metanoetics.” That is to say, it must transcend metaphysics, speculation, and the purely intellectual. Ordinary philosophy is utilitarian manipulation of the things the mind objectifies. Ordinary philosophy is noetic; it is self-power at its keenest; but it does not understand the fact that life is more than self-power. “My power,” writes Tanabe, “by itself alone, is so ineffective, and my folly and wickedness so tenacious, that if left to myself, I could not perform even this zange [this sorrowful recognition of my ineffective self]. Nevertheless, the tariki (other-power) that acts within me exercises its power in a way so overwhelming that it obliges me to perform zange.” Tanabe’s thought has helped me to clarify my own notion of appositional power, which I have pondered for a long while.


I remember many years ago reading a novel by Oliver LaFarge called Laughing Boy, a tale of a young Native American lad. I can recall the plot only vaguely. The boy was in serious trouble; if I remember correctly, he had committed a murder. In the anguish and torment that followed, he fled and finally wound up at home, in the special lands of his people. As he stood gazing at the beauty in which he had once walked, he found traditional words welling up inside him; he looked to the valley in the shadow of the buttes, and (I remember the words of the author) “it was apposite.”

What did that phrase mean? It meant that life is not self-power, but other-power. When something is apposite, it is parenthetical. It stands next to, and in relationship to, something else, sharing what it is, to the end that identification and clarification take place. The appositional is “otherness,” it is the fullness of the “other” sharing itself. When the young lad stood before the beauty of his native lands, he was moved to express the helplessness of the utilitarian world of self-power in which he had been submerged. It was already Tanabe’s tariki, drawing him into the “more than” of existence. It was an appositional moment, in which language found a new and different word—spoken in an essentially different dimension.

This word, appropriate to tariki, to the appositional shape of human experience, has traditionally been known as a theological word. That was, of course, in a much more homogeneous moment in our history, when theology was part of the intellectual integrity of the society and culture. More recently, theology has come to mean the intellectual clarification and communication of the idea-structure of a (any) religion, the articulation of metaphysics, or , for that matter, of any view of ultimate reality.

I use it in a manner more in harmony with the usage of Eastern Christianity, where theology is neither speculation nor doctrinal exposition. Vladimir Lossky, in his Orthodox Theology: An Introduction, reminds his readers that theology does not think of or about something—say a concept of God or of creation; theology, rather, thinks by means of revelation. In other words, theology is thinking by means of the perception of tariki, other-power. The theological word is spoken as appositional power. The theological word is not like the utilitarian word of ordinary existence. It proceeds from the discovery that self-power has come to an end, the discovery that something, someone, some reality, stands in appositional relationship to us, revealing the truth that life is other than it seems, more than we know. Lossky writes: “The philosophy which speculates on God starts . . . from an idea. For the theologian, the point of departure is Christ, and it is also the point of arrival.”

I should say, parenthetical to the rest of Lossky’s statement, that the reader must at this point suspend his assumption about who or what Christ is and means. For, as a matter of fact, this Christ is the personal dimension of other-power. To speak of “Christ” is not to refer to someone whom one compares with philosophers or other religious leaders. Instead, to speak of Christ is an appreciative awareness that the instrument of observation is a key to understanding the nature of what is observed. The observing instrument is the human person. When the person discovers the futility of self-power and finds it fulfilled by a giving other-power, he is discovering something personal. Whatever else other-power is, it is personal. It can be nothing less, ultimately nothing more. To speak of Christ in this way is to say that reality is Christ-nature—reality is other-power, standing in appositional relation to us, sharing itself even unto its own death and rising. Other-power dies as it gives itself to us; but other-power is person that is more than person—at least as we know person; in its dying is its rising foretold.

In keeping with Lossky’s discussion of the nature of theology, we may say that theology is thinking with the mind of Christ—thinking with other-power, thinking appositionally. The language of the mind of Christ is not the ordinary utilitarian language of self-power. It cries out. It is the voice of the poet and the artist. It is speaking in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing; speaking in French because French is the only way to say it. This is why Lossky can write:

Philosophers construct an idea of God [self-power]. For the theologian, God is someone who reveals Himself and who cannot be known outside of revelation [other-power]. One must open oneself to this personal God, to encounter Him in a total involvement: that is the only way to know Him [apposition]. But this concrete and personal God contains the abstract and impersonal God of philosophers who is not, most often, a mere mirage, but also a reflection in human thought of the personal God.

Speaking in French is like a declaration of freedom, of liberation. It says, try as you will, you cannot keep me captive and domesticated in the utilitarian prisons of the ordinary world of self-power. You cannot because I have seen with the imagination that reality is more than that. This is why Oliver LaFarge’s Laughing Boy discovers the apposite power of his native landscape. It is why the Hebrew Psalmist cries out, “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence my help comes”; why he intones, “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth.” It is also why, in the Christian Gospel according to Matthew, Simon bar Jonas cries out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”; why St. Paul laments, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Thomas Merton makes the same point in a different manner:

In the writings of Chuang Tzu there’s a piece called “The Woodcarver”: Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand of precious wood. When it was finished, all who saw it were astounded. They said it must be the work of spirits. The Prince of Lu said to the master carver, “What is your secret?”
Khing replied: “I am only a workman. I have no secret. There is only this: when I began to think about the work you commanded I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles that were not to the point. I fasted in order to set my heart at rest. After three days of fasting, I had forgotten gain and success. After five days I had forgotten gain or criticism. After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness and the court had faded away. All that might distract me from my work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand. Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes, the bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin. If I had not met this particular tree there would have been no bell stand at all. What happened? My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood; from this live encounter came the work which you ascribe to the spirits.”

The mediocre artisan, the conventionalized scientist, professor, priest, or artist—these proceed according to fixed rules and standards, the generation of self-power that bas become the pride of modernity, the indoctrination of an unfree mind. But the one who creates the bell stand has been freed by other-power—he proceeds from a hidden and appositional principle “which, in fasting, detachment, forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit, discovers precisely the tree that is waiting to have this particular work carved from it.” Nonsense? Absolutely—nonsense! “Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing, turn out your toes when you walk, and remember who you are.” Nonsense. But true. At least that is the testimony of the theological word. Nonsense to the mind of self-power which fails to acknowledge the appositional character of reality—that the right way is beyond self-conscious reflection. The attachment to method and system is as old as Confucianism and older. It is as new as the modern university. It is the end of wisdom and the trivialization of existence.

What we fail to understand is what the appositional power of the theological word reminds us of—that method, system, argument from premises to conclusions, debate are at their best when they are part of the playfulness of a mind that is not attached to any of the “fixed rules and standards” that become the preoccupation of the mediocre artisan. When these rules and standards function within the objectifying world of self-power, self-consciousness, they build prisons for the human spirit.

Whether all this is true or not may be beside the point. The point is, this is the way the theological word operates. It is a discourse of other-power. As such it plays a prophetic role in relationship to the individual-in-community. The theological word stands in contrast to the language of self-power, and is not to be judged by the standards of self-power. It judges, transcends, and redeems the world of self-power. It is a word that is marginal to the conventionalized realms of existence—except, of course, as it becomes conventionalized by the human condition of trivialization that is constantly trying to control reality by democratization, the reduction of reality to the mediocre, the lowest common denominator.


American religious history offers a telling illustration of the manner in which the theological word speaks on behalf of an other-power that calls religion itself into judgment as an instrument of mediocrity, conventionalization, and self-power.

Beginning in the last decade of the eighteenth century, revivalistic evangelicalism became a major shaper of American religion and culture. The new nation faced the question of how to secure the essential spiritual and moral solidarity of the Republic without effecting an establishment of religion. No denomination could function as the “church.” Religious freedom meant pluralism, and pluralism, in turn, meant both sectarianism and denominationalism. In the new America the conception of the church was transformed from a doctrine to a function. As Professor John Smylie has put it: “The denominational church, as [Americans] saw it, was not for them the new Israel of God’s elect. It was a voluntary society, perhaps the most important among others, but hardly the organ through which God made his ultimate historical demands and offered his fullest earthly rewards.” And so, in such a situation, the nation itself came to function more and more as the church. Historians like Sidney E. Mead have shown how evangelical Protestantism easily merged with this new religion of the Republic.

Evangelical Protestantism refers, of course, to those well-established traditions of Reformation and Pietistic origin (such as Methodism) that were able to accept their denominational status and still find a way to support the common religious needs of the nation. To many Protestant leaders, such as the nineteenth-century patriarch Lyman Beecher, America was to be the setting in which the designs of Providence were to be fulfilled. This was to be the nation with “full enjoyment of civil and religious liberty . . . [where] the trump of jubilee will sound, and earth’s debased millions will leap from the dust, and shake off their chains, and cry, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’“

This nineteenth-century Protestantism had been conceived in the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. It was a Protestantism that had given voice to the people and overthrown many of the theological and ecclesiastical traditions of the European heritage of Christendom. The Great Awakening had given religious power to the revolution that was taking place in America, the revolution that was to be symbolically sealed by the War for Independence. The Awakening had been a democratizing force and Protestantism adapted readily to its expectations. By the early nineteenth century this Protestantism was being expressed in the forms of revivalistic evangelicalism.

The assumptions of this new consciousness are today so much a part of our religious culture that they seem almost self-evident, certainly commonplace. They hold: that religion is basically a salvific experience for the individual; that the individual must repent of his sins, turn to the Lord Jesus Christ as personal savior, and experience the joy of rebirth; that the Bible is an important private agent in this transformation process; that transformation of individuals is essential to the moral order of society; that certain measures must be developed to provide individuals with the opportunity for transformation; that among these measures is a form of proclamation or preaching which must be personally directed to the precarious nature of individual existence; and that this transformation process will provide initiation into the moral order of the new nation and will prevent descent into barbarism.

These are the assumptions of revivalistic evangelicalism, the religious consciousness which is shared in its sacred and secular forms by most Americans even today. Revivalistic evangelicalism represents the Americanization of Christianity, Protestantism adapting itself to the religious needs of a “nation with the soul of a church.” Virtually all American denominations were affected by this Americanization. Even the history of American Roman Catholicism bears the marks of revivalistic evangelicalism.

However, there were those who began to resist this Americanization. Their resistance did not take the form of prophetic judgment against the social injustice to be found in the new society. Instead it was theological judgment against the self-power at the heart of the new American religious consciousness. Although few revivalistic Evangelicals would have denied that salvation and moral improvement were according to God’s plan, the direction of the American consciousness was narcissistic and utilitarian. It focused on the lone individual seeking justification for his own aims and desires, seeking an experience that would satisfy the need for solace and success in this life or the life to come.

One of those who resisted this Americanization was the nineteenth-century theologian John Williamson Nevin. Nevin had been brought up in Old School Presbyterianism and educated at Princeton. After teaching for a time at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, he began to question the authenticity of the new religious consciousness. Although he did not perceive the weakness of its trivializing moralism, he did realize that the theology of his day was too fascinated with immediate experience and too attached to spiritual self-aggrandizement. Nevin read European and British philosophy, theology, and historical studies. He discovered the Catholic substance of Christianity, long neglected in the advancing march of rationalism and evangelical Protestantism.

In that substance he encountered theological language as other-power. In the creeds, the early fathers, and even the Reformers of the sixteenth century, Nevin stood before a mystery that, in his own mind, revealed the failure of self-power religion and offered itself in appositional power. He discovered something organic, social, and dynamic, a shared reality greater than the utilitarian consciousness of emergent America. He learned that the reality of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church encompassed far more than the voluntary association of believers that characterized American Christianity.

In the language of Catholicism (not confined to Roman Catholicism) Nevin discovered appositional power. He discovered other-power that could be expressed in no other language. “Quackery,” he wrote, “consists in pretension to an inward virtue or power, which is not possessed in fact, on the ground of a mere show of strength which such power or virtue is supposed to include . . . . The religion of the world has always been, for the most part, arrant quackery.” Revivalistic evangelicalism, the new consciousness, was quackery to Nevin.

What rude familiarity with the High and Holy One; what low belittling and caricaturing of all that is grand in the Gospel; what gross profanity in the style of many of the petitions with which it is pretended to storm the citadel of God’s favors! The atmosphere of . . . a [revival] meeting may be exciting, intoxicating, bewildering; but it bas no power whatever to dispose the mind to devotion. There is nothing in the scene to impress those who are present with the sense of God’s awful, heart-searching presence.

In these comments we observe the evidence of theology as a word about presence, the presence of other-power—something not evident, according to Nevin, in evangelical revivalism. The problem for Nevin is that the new consciousness assumes that “this life is something that stands in the individual separately taken, the property of a particular self, rather than a more general power in which every such particular self is required to lose itself that ‘old things may pass away and all things become new.’“

For Nevin, true Christianity was living in the sacramental reality of the Church, where the attachment of self-power may be overcome by other-power. The Church is Catholic; it is a language-world that communicates a reality that is always more than our knowledge of it, our practice of it, or claims upon it. Living in the Church is living appositionally, living “at home,” living in the world with the perception that the ordinariness of the world is filled with sacramental power. “The particular subject lives,” wrote Nevin, “not properly speaking in the acts of his own will separately considered, but in the power of a vast generic life that lies wholly beyond his will, and has now begun to manifest itself through him as the law and type of his will itself as well as of his whole being.”

Nevin’s critique has gone virtually unheeded in the history of American religion and culture. Whether his claims for “Catholicism” as the language of appositional power are true or not, his evaluations of the self-power of American life would seem to be valid. The new religious consciousness holds to this day. A century and a half after Nevin’s initial foray, America remains religious, even in its secular forms. We are convinced that whatever is of ultimate significance, providing order and meaning to our existence, is entirely of our doing. Reality, including what some may be willing to call divine reality, is immediately available to individual demand. For us, it is never mediated—and it is readily domesticated.

In American culture, the theological word as appositional power seems impossible and unnecessary. We acknowledge no other-power, standing over against and for us, transforming the ordinary world of self-power. We have no French to speak of when we can’t think of the English for a thing.

Richard E. Wentz (1928-2011) taught in the Department of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of Religion in the New World: The Shaping of Religious Traditions in the United States.