Grammars of Creation
by George Steiner
Yale University Press, 338 pages, $29.95
The Promised End: Eschatological Theology and Literature
by Paul S. Fiddes
Blackwell, 299 pages, $62.95 cloth, $29.95
“Who except fundamentalists now awaits the actual coming of a Messiah? Who except literalists of a lost communism or anarcho-socialist Arcadia now awaits the actual rebirth of history?” Such are the questions of George Steiner, one of the most infuriatingly and brilliantly eccentric of our literary critics, author of Errata , Bluebeard’s Castle, The Death of Tragedy, Real Presences , and a host of other books that have been celebrated but, at least as frequently, derided with venom and at excruciating length—thus securing for Steiner the status of enfant terrible, albeit a now aging enfant terrible, in the circles of the erudite where large meanings are cleverly constructed and deconstructed with unseemly relish. We are told that Grammars of Creation “originated in” his Gifford Lectures of 1990, which suggests that he has been doing some hard rethinking since then. Along with The Promised End by Oxford theologian Paul S. Fiddes (how did the extra “d” intrude itself into such a perfect name for a theologian?), Steiner’s book may be viewed as an instance of fin de siècle pessimism at the turn of a century and a millennium marked more by world-weariness than by eschatological excitements. But these books are about more than weariness.
A quick Internet check indicates that there are more than five thousand books in print with “The End of . . . ” in the title or subtitle. There is the end of socialism, economics, marriage, sex, childhood, Western Civilization as we have known it, and, very famously, the end of history, not to mention the many biblical dispensationalists announcing, quite simply, The End. As the title of his book suggests, Steiner thinks endings have everything to do with beginnings. His very first sentence is, “We have no more beginnings.” Which may be why the spiritual climate at the turn of the millennium is marked by a “core-tiredness”—“the contracts with time which so largely determine our consciousness point to late afternoon. . . . We are, or feel ourselves to be, latecomers. The dishes are being cleared. . . . Valediction is in the air.” In this melancholic mode, Steiner knows he runs the risk of what Kierkegaard called “the wounds of negativity,” but there’s not much to be done about that. The end of beginnings, the end of endings: some things you just can’t help thinking about. “Are such questions worth asking seriously, or do they merely invite vacuous high gossip? I am not certain.” More than three hundred pages later he is, as we shall see, somewhat more certain that they are worth asking, and worth asking very seriously, which is what he does.
No matter how dark the encircling gloom, Steiner holds on to the intuition embedded in the grammar of man, “the language-animal,” that posits contingency against determinism, and life against death. Verb-futures, subjunctives, and optatives are the home of hope. “There is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb ‘to be’ is a negation, however limited, of mortality. Even as every use of an ‘if’ sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact. ‘Shall,’ ‘will,’ and ‘if,’ circling in intricate fields of semantic force around a hidden center or nucleus of potentiality, are the passwords of hope.” Two Jewish heresies gave form to the grammar of hope—Christianity and Marxism. The first promised a coming Kingdom. “The future tense of the verb inhabits nearly every saying of Jesus. He is, for his followers, hope made flesh.” The second immanentized that eschaton, and produced catastrophe. But at levels both transcendent and immanent, says Steiner, we are now witness to “the eclipse of the messianic.”
Steiner writes in resistance to an easy acceptance of that eclipse. Determined resistance recruits to its side all the resources of philosophy, theology, and the arts, which, says Steiner, are more of a piece than is commonly thought. With Wittgenstein, he sees that the sciences and rational analysis can assemble and order facts, but the facts of the world are not and will never be “the end of the matter.” Music joins grammar in pointing to the possibility, the reality, of more. He thinks Schopenhauer was on to something when he said music will continue after the world ends. “The capacity of music to operate simultaneously along horizontal and vertical axes, to proceed simultaneously in opposite directions (as in inverse canons), may well constitute the nearest that men and women can come to absolute freedom. Music does ‘keep time’ for itself and for us.” Serious music can even, or so it seems, reverse “time’s arrow””the flight of time from past through present to the future. But time reversed is not time fulfilled or time redeemed.
Like Paul Fiddes in The Promised End , like all who have thought long on these matters, Steiner is much taken with Lear holding in the embrace of death his faithful, and fatefully honest, Cordelia:
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
The threefold “no” and the fivefold “never” are thrown in the face of a promised something that will make sense of it all, something like a final judgment.
Kent :Is this the promis’d end?
Edgar :Or image of that horror?
Shakespeare promises that his words will “body forth” new worlds, knowing that he writes against the threat of nonbeing. “‘Nothing’ and its temporal counterpart ‘never’ thread terribly through King Lear,” Steiner observes, and he follows the same thread through Mallarmé, Kandinsky, Beckett, and numerous other moderns in whom “language is modulated from articulacy to a naked cry, from that naked cry to silence.” Minimalism in the arts asserts, with Heidegger, that “nothing is never nothing,” and today’s critical theory flirts with a species of negative theology in its chatter about “breaks,” “erasures,” “cracks,” and “disseminations” of deconstruction.
Even the silence cannot remain silent because reality was made for, and made by, speech. This is the great contribution of Judaism, says Steiner, continued today in the work of Levinas: the connection between creation and articulation, the understanding that “speech demands a listener and, if possible, a respondent.” To whom did God say, “Let us make man”? Steiner answers, “To His own solitude at the very hour in which that solitude is to be broken by the creation of man-the-listener, of man-the-respondent and gainsayer. In echoing turn, human speech declares its origins in transcendent dialogue. We speak because we were called upon to answer; language is, in the root sense, a ‘vocation.’” The Jewish Steiner edges up to, but does not reach, what the Christian Fiddes emphatically underscores, that the dialogue is, in truth, the trialogue of the Holy Trinity, that man is created into a conversation already and eternally underway.
Steiner’s prose is frequently heavy going; there are convoluted allusions within allusions aimed, it seems, at flaunting the erudition of an old man who at age twelve, as he somewhere reports, could recite the Iliad and the Odyssey from memory, in Greek. He is among those writers about whom one has to make a decision: whether what is to be learned and enjoyed is worth the price of their pretensions. His literary mannerisms regularly test one’s resolve, but over the years I have found myself deciding for Steiner. Consider, for instance, what he does on the familiar terrain of the sufferings of Job. “Job the Edomite does not cry out for justice. Had he been a Jew, he would have done so. Job the Edomite cries out for sense.” Many critics dismiss God’s answer from “out of the whirlwind” as a cop-out, as an evasion of the challenge of theodicy posed by Job. In his commentary on Job, Karl Barth complains that God displays himself as “a God without God.” But the stakes are higher than justifying the sufferings of innocent Job, says Steiner. Job curses the cosmos, with the conclusion that “God is guilty of having created.”
The voice from the whirlwind responds to this challenge with a barrage of questions. “Were you there when . . . ?” Barth derides this as a “cosmological-zoological-mythological” farrago. Claudel rages: “What a disappointment! The Architect promenades us from one level to another of His constructions.” In “complacent exhibitionism” he displays his successes and monsters, which is no answer at all to the anguished cry of “fundamental human innocence.” Not so, Steiner contends. The speeches out of the whirlwind are the most overwhelming apologia we have for the doctrine of “Art for Art,” of creation for creation. Job’s challenge is ontological, going beyond Heidegger in questioning the being of Being; it is epistemological, asking whether the universe makes sense, whether there is meaning to meaning, and all this in a framework that is expressly theological. But God’s answer breaks out of these discourses. “Its category is that of the aesthetic.”
Steiner agrees with Martin Buber, who says that creation itself is the only possible reply to Job. “The creation of the world is justice, not a recompensing and compensating justice,” writes Buber, “but a distributing, a giving justice. . . . The creation itself already means communication between creator and creature.” But Rudolf Otto comes closest to the heart of the matter, says Steiner. In The Idea of the Holy , he recognizes that Job’s suffering is, on the level of theodicy, unanswerable. What overwhelms the man from Edom, Otto writes, “is the downright stupendousness, the well-nigh demonic and wholly incomprehensible character of the eternal creative power.” We are meant to be convinced “by the intrinsic value of the incomprehensible”a value inexpressively positive and ‘fascinating.’” Steiner’s comment deserves to be quoted in full:
In the aesthetics of God’s non-answering answer to Job, “Art for Art” or, more exactly, “Creation for Creation” displays its enormity, its festive impertinence to humanity. The refusal of creation to justify or explain itself, the refusal of the potter to hold himself accountable to the clay, is implicit in the tautology of the Burning Bush: “I am what I am,” or “I am/I am.” It explodes in Job. God the artist could not contain even within His boundlessness the pressures of creativity. There “is” instead of there being nothing because He is in excess of His solitary being. Wonderfully, the Satan in Job suggests the figure of the critic. He is acidly intimate with the Deity as critics too often are with artists. His role may have been seminal: Satan may have provoked God into creating. “Show me,” narks the critic-theoretician. Once creation lies before him, the Satan seeks out its flaws. He ironizes the Maker’s self-satisfaction—that “very good.”
In the voice from the whirlwind, God employs the poetic in his counterblast to the challenges of the ontological, the ethical, and the religious. The poem exalts if it does not convince or console. Steiner favorably cites a cryptic note of Nietzsche set down in the spring of 1888: “Art affirms. Job affirms.” Nowhere does he cite Hans Urs von Balthasar, but those who know Balthasar’s theological aesthetics will be struck by similarities. “There is, in the genesis of great art and philosophical insight,” writes Steiner, “something ‘other’ or inhuman. The grammars of creation abide our question.” I take him to mean that the grammars of creation survive our question. The iconoclasm of Judaism, Islam, and Calvinism, he writes, fears that “to make images of the Maker of all images is to touch on elemental forces at once too vast and too a-moral for man’s understanding.” They insist that such making be left to the Maker. Platonism and Neoplatonism—and, he will later add, the Great Tradition of Christian thought and art—are alert to such fears, but “they labor to contain them, to humanize by the light of measured intelligibility the turbulence which sprang out of Chaos.” Here, although Steiner does not put it this way, is the great divide between finitum capax infiniti and finitum non capax infiniti—the finite is, or is not, capable of the infinite. The question is whether our finite ends are participant in the promised ending, whether we can let our endings go without regret, knowing that they momentarily held, and are forever fulfilled in, the End.
Platonism and Neoplatonism, maybe, but Plato, who would ban poetry from his republic, does not really belong on the first side of the divide between finitum capax and finitum non capax. In Grammars of Creation, more than in his 1989 book Real Presences , Steiner acknowledges that his argument rests on inescapably Christian foundations. In fact, he has in the past sometimes written in a strongly anti-Christian vein, while the present book reflects the influence of, among others, Miri Rubin, whose Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture is credited in a footnote. Steiner asserts that, after the Platonisms and Gnosticisms of late antiquity, it is the doctrines of incarnation and transubstantiation that mark “the disciplining of Western syntax and conceptualization” in philosophy and art. “Every heading met with in a study of ‘creation,’ every nuance of analytic and figural discourse,” he says, derives from incarnation and transubstantiation, “concepts utterly alien to either Judaic or Hellenic perspectives—though they did, in a sense, arise from the collisions and commerce between both.” As Alain Besançon has recently shown in The Forbidden Image (see Edward T. Oakes, “Icons and Kitsch,” FT, March), these concepts are not so alien to Judaism as Steiner suggests, but his point remains that—in the understandings, sensibilities, and practices of the West—they are carried and enacted by Christianity.
The incarnation of God in the Son, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into his body and blood, are “a mysterium, an articulated, subtly innervated attempt to reason the irrational at the very highest levels of intellectual pressure.” “Uniquely, perhaps, the hammering out of the teaching of the eucharist compels Western thought to relate the depth of the unconscious and of pre-history with speculative abstractions at the boundaries of logic and of linguistic philosophy.” Later, the “perhaps” in that claim seems to have disappeared:
At every significant point, Western philosophies of art and Western poetics draw their secular idiom from the substratum of Christological debate. Like no other event in our mental history, the postulate of God’s kenosis through Jesus and of the never-ending availability of the Savior in the wafer and wine of the eucharist, conditions not only the development of Western art and rhetoric itself, but at a much deeper level, that of our understanding and reception of the truth of art”a truth antithetical to the condemnation of the fictive in Plato.
This truth reaches its unrepeated perfection in Dante, says Steiner. In Dante, “It rounds in glory the investigation of creativity and creation, of divine authorship and human poesis , of the concentric spheres of the aesthetic, the philosophical, and the theological. Now truth and fiction are made one, now imagination is prayer, and Plato’s exile of the poets refuted.” In the fashionable critical theories of our day, we witness “endeavors of the aesthetic to flee from incarnation.” “It is the old heresies which revive in the models of absence, of negation or erasure, of the deferral of meaning in late-twentieth-century deconstruction. The counter-semantics of the deconstructionist, his refusal to ascribe a stable significance to the sign, are moves familiar to [an earlier] negative theology.” Heidegger’s poetics of “pure immanence” are but one more attempt “to liberate our experience of sense and of form from the grip of the theophanic.” But, Steiner suggests, attempted flights from the reality of Corpus Christi will not carry the day. “Two millennia are only a brief moment.”
As Eliot memorably reminded us, in our beginning is our ending. Grammars of Creation is about endings and beginnings, and the argument is posited in large part against the idea that, as we press toward endings, we can leave beginnings behind. Of such is the idea of progress in which science has so influentially persuaded us that “discovery” and “invention” can displace “creation.” “It is difficult to believe,” writes Steiner, “that the story out of Genesis has ended.”
The new cosmologies regard “creation” as being ambiguous, mythological, and even taboo. To ask what preceded the Big Bang and the primal nanoseconds of the compaction and expansion of our universe is, we are instructed, to talk gibberish. Time has no meaning prior to that singularity. Both elementary logic and common sense should tell us that such a ruling is arrogant bluff. The simple fact that we can phrase the question, that we can engage it with normal thought processes, gives it meaning and legitimacy. The postulate of unquestionable (“not to be questioned”) nothingness and intemporality now made dogma by astrophysicists is as arbitrary, is in many regards more of a mystique, than are creation narratives in Genesis and elsewhere.
Driven by the ambition to be the dominant discourse, indeed the only discourse, science aspires to “explain everything,” and commands silence about what it cannot explain. But the story of the world is entrenched in language, and is indelibly imprinted:
Language is its own past. The meanings of a word are its history, recorded and unrecorded. They are its usage. Prior usage does not, or only very exceptionally, attach to any color or musical sound a specificity of meaning. Words mean. In the most rigorous sense, meaning is etymology. Each word comes to us, as we learn and use a language, with a more or less measureless freight of precedent. It will, where it pertains to common speech, have been thought, spoken, written millionfold. . . . Even the most prodigal of wordsmiths, a Rabelais, a Shakespeare, a Joyce, adds only infinitesimally to the inherited stock. . . . The means of all meaning, if communication is to be intelligible, are a prescriptive legacy. A “new language” generated de novo by some science-fiction edict or word processor would be strictly meaningless (and how can there be language without meaning?). Solely a translation into a tongue accessible to us, only a bilingual lexicon and relational grammar, would give it sense, which is to say a binding historicity.
But a binding historicity is what the modern world, also in its postmodern phase, is determined to escape in its flight from incarnation and transubstantiation. The postmodern temper—a temper, as we shall see, so generously indulged by Paul Fiddes—insists upon unlimited possibility, and the “making up” of possibility on its own terms. Earlier artists, says Steiner, and up through the nineteenth century, understood themselves to be creators rather than inventors. They participated in a continuing creation which they had not initiated. “Even the kabbalistic trope of God’s solitude, of His wish to create man so as to have company, has its counterpart in the longing of the artist to ‘people this little world’ [Shakespeare] with presences at once familiar and resistant to him.” So Alexandre Dumas wept at the “deaths” of his characters, and Tolstoy, having fathered Natasha and Anna Karenina, came to doubt his own mortality. The artist as creator was a god-like conceit, Steiner suggests, but it was at least in continuity, however tenuous, with Dante’s awareness that he was participant in a story of beginnings and endings not of his own invention. With the twentieth century, all this was to change, and to change dramatically.
Steiner describes the change as a Sprachkrise, a crisis of language, a crisis of the word. With Freud’s concept of an “oedipal revolt,” words no longer meant their meaning. The crisis was in largest part—and for this claim Steiner will likely be attacked—brought on by Jews and a debased and secularized Judaism. From Hofmannsthal and Karl Kraus to Noam Chomsky, from Mauthner, Wittgenstein, and Roman Jakobson to Derrida, “the master-players in the critique of language, in philosophical and formal linguistics, have been Jews or of Jewish origins.” “This,” says Steiner, employing a phrase from the Marxist past, “is no accident.” Jews have been, above all others, “the people of the book.” “That ‘logo-centrism,’ that identification of the spirit with the letter, come close to defining both Jewish consciousness and the fraught miracle of its survival. Where a single letter or accent has been erroneously transcribed, the scroll is to be destroyed.” The theme of those who precipitated the Sprachkrise was “Death to the textual fathers.” From Karl Kraus and Kafka through Derrida’s deconstructionism, “modern Judaism has mutinied against its patriarchal-paternalistic legacy of textual prepotence. It is in the nonverbal idioms of mathematics, of physics, of pure logic that twentieth-century Judaism has made its peace with meaning and with truth.”
Where the representational power of the word is broken, books can be burned, and where books can be burned, people (the “word animals”) can be burned, and they were. The crisis of the word has consequences. Here is the heart of the matter:
The underwriting of Hebraic-Hellenic literacy, of the normative analogue between divine and mortal acts of creation, was, in the fullest sense, theological. As was the wager (pronounced lost in deconstruction and postmodernism) on ultimate possibilities of accord between sign and sense, between word and meaning, between form and phenomenality. The links are direct between the tautology out of the Burning Bush, that “I am” which accords to language the privilege of phrasing the identity of God, on the one hand, and the presumptions of concordance, of equivalence, of translatability, which, though imperfect, empower our dictionaries, our syntax, our rhetoric, on the other. That “I am” has, as it were, at an overwhelming distance, informed all predication. It has spanned the arc between noun and verb, a leap primary to creation and the exercise of creative consciousness in metaphor. Where that fire in the branches has gone out or has been exposed as an optical illusion, the textuality of the world, the agency of the Logos in logic—be it Mosaic, Hericlitean, or Johannine—becomes “a dead letter.”
That passage bears rereading. The dispute over the normative analogue between divine and mortal acts of creation is the continuing eruption of the Scholastic conflict between analogia entis , the analogy of being (Aquinas), and nominalism’s denial of the existence of universals (Ockham), and thus the abiding line of demarcation between finitum capax infiniti and finitum non capax infiniti. It is of course a complex and perennial philosophical conflict that has in convoluted ways twisted Western thought. As Steiner rightly says, it is finally a conflict of theologies.
In postmodernism’s version of nominalism, all true description is displaced by “invention.” Literary postmodernism is, of course, an extension of the “modernism” in the arts that arrived with Dada in 1916. Overwhelmed by the slaughter of World War I, Dada heralded the end of reason, the sundering of language and syntax from ascertainable meaning. Hugo Ball sings out:
ü üü ü
What does that mean? Nothing, or anything. That’s the point. “Acknowledged or not,” writes Steiner, “the legacy of Dada has been immense.” “There has been since no significant movement in Western art, literature, and aesthetic debate that does not come out of Dada. Deconstruction and postmodernism are Dada translated into academic-theoretical jargon—a jargon often as impenetrable as were the glossolalia of Dada itself.” The existentialist cult of the absurd, the flower children of the sixties, the “happenings” in fashionable Manhattan galleries, the futurist exhortation to burn all libraries in order to be liberated from the dead weight of the past”all are part of the Dada chorus:
wulubu ssubudu uluw ssubudu . . .
George Steiner does not want to be taken for yet another curmudgeonly conservative wanting to return to the past. Who wants to be accused of wanting to return to the past? Time’s arrow flies forward, and in his last—and, I think, weaker—pages he offers conventional, and conventionally implausible, hype about the changes likely to be wrought by digital and cybernetic revolution. Maybe God is dead. Maybe the analogy between divine and human creation is forever shattered. He then asks the inescapable question: “Can there, will there, be major philosophy, literature, music, and art of an atheist provenance?” He wants to respect the honest atheist. Such atheism bears witness to somber deprivation. “He doesn’t exist, the bastard,” said Samuel Beckett.
Suppose a time when genuine atheism replaces the self-indulgent frivolity and faked nihilism, the “blowing neither hot nor cold,” of current postmodernisms. “Let us suppose that atheism will come to possess and energize those who are masters of articulate form and builders of thought. Will their works rival the dimensions, the life-transforming strengths of persuasion we have known? What would be the atheist counterpart to a Michelangelo fresco or King Lear ? It would be impertinent to rule out the possibility. Or to deny the fascination of the prospect.” Such questions should not be ruled out of order. But, finally, history is very long and our present moment of discontent very short. Steiner is still placing his bets on the “grammars of creation” with its covenant between sign and signified, word and meaning, all premised upon the analogy between divine and human creation. The book’s concluding words: “We have long been, I believe that we still are, guests of creation. We owe to our host the courtesy of questioning.”
To move from George Steiner to Paul Fiddes and The Promised End is not to change the subject but it is to breathe a very different air. The move is from Steiner’s darkly brilliant, sometimes lugubrious and convoluted, ponderings to the clipped, transparent, and seemingly lucid style of Oxbridge debate. It is not that Fiddes has not entertained somber thoughts. The book is dedicated “to my son Benjamin,” about whom we are told only this: “1978-1998.” And the book’s title is drawn from Kent’s response to Lear’s lament over Cordelia, “Is this the promis’d end?” Fiddes, too, writes out of dark ponderings about beginnings and endings. Yet there is a lightness in his treatment of dark questions. He fully justifies his subtitle, “Eschatology in Theology and Literature,” displaying an admirable command of literature—from Beckett to Joyce to Woolf—and of theologians—from Barth to Pannenberg to Tillich to Moltmann. There are gestures backwards, to classical Greek and patristic sources, and throughout Fiddes says he wants to employ “the coinage of the tradition,” but the book is chiefly about what the twentieth century, especially its latter half, has made of beginnings and endings, and mainly of endings. Paul Fiddes brings together in a relatively (!) accessible way themes and arguments reflective of much of what contemporary theology is making of these matters.
Of course such a book must take account of the hegemonic fashions of critical theory associated with such as Derrida and Foucault, but to Fiddes’ great credit, and unlike many critical theorists, he understands that he is not the master but the servant of the literary texts under discussion, and he provides marvelously close readings and imaginative but respectful insights into the authors’ intentions. No student of theology and literature should overlook this book. My criticisms are to be read in light of the acknowledgment of what he has achieved.
Once upon a time, endings fit what went before. But now, along with everything else, or so it seems, endings have been “problematized.” What are intellectuals for, if not to complexify the obvious? Hans Frei of Yale taught theologians to understand human life in terms of “realistic narrative.” That means dramatically coherent narrative which, according to Aristotle, is narrative in which each decisive event is unpredictable until it happens, but the moment it happens it is seen to be what had to happen. We do not know that Oedipus will blind himself, but once he does so it is obvious that the entire story must end in this event and flow from that ending. Things are not so obvious now, says Fiddes. Against Aristotle and Frei, he notes that contemporary authors, John Updike being a case in point, frequently provide alternative endings for their stories. Which is the “real” ending? The implication is the end of endings; we make up endings without end.
In classical thought, and in earlier “structuralists” of the school of Ferdinand de Saussure, a story or written text is a world of its own. It has its own integrity, its own meaning, its own beginnings and endings. The meaning of words and phrases, as we have seen George Steiner contend, is in their relationship to, and difference from, each other. Northrop Frye said the world of the text gives expression to a universal and deep human desire for a happy outcome, in which we recognize ourselves. Then comes along Derrida announcing the “dispersal” of meanings, and we don’t know what world we’re in, if any. Differences can now be expanded infinitely, since all signs differ from all others. Différence, meaning the spatial distance between things, becomes différence in the temporal sense of deferment or postponement. Derrida coins the word différance which evokes both senses of difference “differing and deferring” without simply combining them. As Fiddes writes, “Différance hovers between the two and cannot be trapped in any category, but it certainly results in a dispersal of meaning. So if we accept the insights of structuralism itself about the network of language, we can never reach any final point in interpretation of a text. It is endlessly open in meaning, and there can be no archetypal structures such as the comedy of desire that Frye discerns.” As Roland Barthes puts it, “The text practices the infinite deferral of the signified.”
Fiddes assembles an array of thinkers caught up in the revolution inaugurated by the dispersal of meaning. There is, for instance, Paul Ricoeur, who, like Frye, believes that texts are eschatological because they express possibilities rather than actualities. For Ricoeur, however, the human being is possibility itself, and “fiction changes reality in the sense that it both ‘invents’ and ‘discovers’ it.” Ricoeur is more conservative, perhaps even closer to Steiner. Fiddes writes, “In a new version of Pascal’s ‘wager’ on the existence of God, Ricoeur breaks through the circle of hermeneutics by saying, ‘I wager that I shall have a better understanding of man . . . if I follow the indication of symbolic thought.’” As in the jargon of Derrida, texts are eschatological in the sense that they defer meaning forward; but also in their very meaning, in their sense (structure) and reference (the new world they create), they present a hope by which human beings can live. Ricouer’s wager is that, finally, the word can be trusted.
Likewise, Fiddes agrees with Eberhard Jüngel that metaphor creates, referring not only to the world that is but to the world that is coming to be. Metaphor with reference to God is about the God who is coming to be. Being embraces possibility as well as actuality. That is central to Fiddes’ argument. But more than that: with Jüngel and a host of others whom he discusses, Fiddes wants to “reverse the long Western intellectual tradition of making actuality prior to possibility.” This is the crucial point, and it has everything to do with how we conceive God and the eschatological promise, the End proposed by the Christian story. As we shall see, in this view, the End cannot be the end of endings.
The fourteenth century William of Ockham (?1285-1349) is not mentioned by Fiddes, but there are striking similarities with Ockham’s understanding of God as absolute freedom and possibility. The influence of Ockhamist “nominalism” is of course pronounced in Protestant theological traditions, although evident also in Catholic thinkers who are engaging deconstructionist and postmodernist theory, which is essentially (forbidden word!) nominalist, if not quite the nominalism of Ockham. The effect of this influence on Protestantism is convincingly set forth in Louis Bouyer’s 1956 study, recently reissued, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. (One might add, parenthetically, that nominalism vs. the analogy of being has everything to do with current disputes among evangelical Protestants over the “open God” of infinite possibility.) Fiddes recognizes that the “reversal” of the actual and possible drives to the heart of the Protestant project, namely, the doctrine of justification. With Jüngel, he sees justification as a kind of creation ex nihilo. “The whole Aristotelian tradition (from which, we may add, the text ‘nothing will come of nothing’ comes) assumes the priority of actuality over possibility,” Fiddes writes. “But the doctrine of justification makes possibility prior to actuality, as we become righteous in God’s sight before we act righteously.” So also, and quite consistently, Fiddes rejects the immortality of the soul, with its suggestion of the continuity of actuality, in favor of resurrection as new creation ex nihilo.
According to Fiddes, “the promised end” must provide both closure and openness to the future. Here he addresses the arguments of, among others, Wolfhart Pannenberg, whom I think he misunderstands (although to explain why would take us too far afield). While he sympathizes with Pannenberg’s claim that eternity is not timelessness, he says that Pannenberg’s proposal that eternity is “simultaneous with all events in the strict sense” is finally a stasis of closure that does not allow for the openness provided by Fiddes’ idea of eternity, which he describes as “the healing of time.” While Fiddes employs “the coinage of traditional discussion,” he finds it necessary to alloy that coinage with contemporary sensibilities. For instance, the concept of “subsistent relations” among the Persons of the Trinity must be rethought in a way so that the eschatological fullness of God’s presence is a “non-dominating reality.” “Only this,” he writes, “will allow us to conceive of an openness at the very heart of closure.” God’s non-domination is crucial to Fiddes’ understanding of The Promised End.
Throughout the typically agnostic or atheistic literature that he so insightfully discusses, Fiddes discovers the fear of authors that the presence of the Christian God threatens their autonomy and creativity. That fear “sets the theologian the task, therefore, of conceiving transcendence without oppression.” Theology must accommodate those who, while proposing a deconstruction of “full presence,” do not deny presence altogether. They find “a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence together.” As Derrida puts it, “Nothing is . . . anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.” Heidegger and others employ the term khora , meaning the “space” described in Plato’s Timaeus which is neither being nor nonbeing but an interval between in which the “forms” were originally held. The concept of khora , applied to the relations among the Persons of the Trinity, says Fiddes, leaves space within the life of God for human creativity and thus makes the eschatological presence of God nonthreatening.
In his essay “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” Derrida denies that the khora is the same thing as the God of negative theology, chiefly because the khora is not “the giver of good gifts.” The khora gives nothing at all, except that it “gives place,” but this is a gift “without the least generosity,” and therefore entails neither debt nor exchange. There is no obligation involved, and therefore the integrity of human creativity is not compromised. Traditional Christian theology, Fiddes writes, proposes an explanation of the whole of reality (a “meta-narrative”) and is therefore suspected of being a concealed ideology. He cites Nietzsche’s dictum that “absolute truths” are a product of human will-to-power. Even a gift, which in its gratuitousness appears to challenge the usual structures of commercial exchange, is absorbed by its reception into the process of exchange and can therefore become part of a “power-game.” In this view, even the grace of God as proposed in traditional theology, no matter how unconditional, threatens in that it calls for gratitude in return.
Derrida has said, “I pass as an atheist,” but Fiddes agrees with those who say he leaves the question of God open. Différance does not settle the question one way or another, but unsettles it for both theist and atheist. The khora as a destabilizing and differentiating source provides, says Fiddes, “hints and promises of transcendence that puncture all systems built on complete immanence.” The “trace” undermines all pretensions to “full presence” but still allows for “some kind of presence.” In the words of Derrida, the “margin of play of difference, of opening” forbids only that anything, including God, “be present in and of itself, referring only to itself.” Or, as we may be permitted to put it, God must not get in the way, He must not trespass upon human freedom and creativity. Otherwise, God’s creativity and our creativity are in competition with one another. Medievals such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham posited a dialectic between creature and Creator in which the absolute freedom and power of the latter threatened the former absolutely. In the dialectic of their postmodern descendants such as Paul Fiddes—and there are many contemporary theologians in this camp—a more limited God has been made safe for His creatures. (How such a God, who is not ontologically distinct from, who is not radically other than, His creation could create in the first place is an interesting question for another time.) The theology of God’s absolute sovereignty, which Scotus and Ockham held, and Luther took to its magnificent extreme, was a shattering of the foundations. Postmodernist nominalism appears, by comparison, to be a decorous doctrine for the faint of heart. Unlike the God of Luther, the postmodernist God is (or has made Himself) incapable of terrifying.
Although Fiddes cannot bring himself to accept the answers given by a-theologians such as Thomas Altizer who propose “the death of God,” he recognizes that they are working on the same set of problems. Altizer’s proposal is that human creativity is protected from divine oppression by the “full presence” of God in Jesus Christ who dies and thus, so to speak, definitively removes God from the competition. Altizer differs from other postmodern theologians, observes Fiddes, “in beginning with the notion of total presence as the foundation for the absence which we now experience as characterizing existence.” The divine act of creation is, according to Altizer, a negation of eternity; it is the eternal God’s self-negation ending in the cross, and in that self-negation is the beginning of human freedom and, therefore, of history. The Creator’s love is revealed in His getting out of the way in order to let human creativity get on with it.
Some students of Karl Barth will protest, but it is not surprising that Fiddes tries to recruit Barth to the postmodernist cause that he would accommodate. In humble self-effacement (although not Altizer’s self-negation), God, according to Fiddes’ reading of Barth, “does not dominate us but gives us our own time and space.” Without this kenosis , without this self-emptying, Barth declares that “revelation would obviously be an act of violence.” From this Fiddes concludes that “Verbal signs in themselves cannot either be bearers of transcendence or be subjected to transcendent presence; there is a crisis of representation here which brings Barth curiously close to Derrida.” In other words, finitum non capax infiniti. And that in two senses: the finite is not capable of bearing the infinite, and the full presence of the infinite threatens the displacement of the finite.
The concluding chapter of The Promised End contains a richly imaginative reflection on the Book of Revelation, as well as Fiddes’ proposed resolution of the supposed competition between God and His creation. God, he proposes, does not simply have relations within Himself; He is relations among the Persons of the Trinity. That is, so far, perfectly orthodox. But he goes on to say that the processions (perichoresis) within the Trinity are the space that God opens up for human creativity. The Promised End is not an act of “unilateral sovereignty, but of a humility no less than the kenosis shown in the incarnation and the cross.” God does not dominate but makes room for human creativity within the dance that is God. The comparison is not to the three “dancers” of the Trinity but with “the movements and patterns of the dance itself, and these can move in and out of each other and occupy each other’s space in a way that dancers cannot.” Fiddes quotes approvingly the popular song “Lord of the Dance” which has God declaring, “But I am the dance, and I still go on.”
This is a fetching image, worthy of a complex and fascinating engagement between theology, on the one hand, and contemporary literature and critical theory, on the other. Yet one may wonder whether the God proposed by Fiddes is not a God too small. To worship this God is, if not idolatry, to risk idolatry. The “full presence” of the God of the Christian tradition threatens a domination, a hegemony, that leaves no room for human creativity, says Fiddes, following Derrida et al. Thus Fiddes proposes an accommodation between divine and human creativity. That we and our creativity not be destroyed, God must become less. Not as in process theology (Whitehead, Hartshorne, et al.) where God is of necessity dependent upon the world, but by choice God becomes “dependent upon others for enrichment of the divine life.” Fiddes recognizes that “this appeal to the freedom of God, which is an appeal to the richness of possibilities in God, takes issue with classical theism.” God chooses to be less than God, not just in the event of the incarnation, but in His eternal being, which is not, as the tradition would have it, Absolute Being in which all being participates, but is a being among beings. For Fiddes, God is not ipsum esse “the very “to-be” of being”or actus purus “pure act”but a participant, along with us, in something greater without end.
Since God is a dependent being (albeit by free choice), it follows that the classical “attributes” of God must be rethought. God is, for instance, omniscient only in that He “knows everything there is to be known.” “God cannot know the details of the future because these events have not yet come into being through God’s own creativity and the co-creative response of the world; they are just not there to be known , and so not knowing them cannot limit divine omniscience.” Needless to say, not knowing the future puts a very sharp crimp in what has been meant by omniscience. In agreement with the process theologians and following Whitehead and Hartshorne, Fiddes’ God is “the sympathetic companion” of the world, preserving all things and somehow—without dominating or exercising a threatening sovereignty of “full presence”—transfiguring all things, including evil, into ultimate good. For Steiner, the crux of the connection between sign and signified, between human and divine creativity, is incarnation and transubstantiation. In Fiddes’ argument, incarnation, never mind transubstantiation, seems to play no necessary part. His triune dancer is, along with those whom he invites to join the dance, already part of the same created order—a created order, or so it would seem, absent a Creator.
There is much to commend in Fiddes’ exercise, and I have hardly touched on the suggestiveness of his exegesis of some of the great literary texts of the Western tradition. In his theology, he says throughout that he wants to transcend the “subject/object” dichotomy of the Enlightenment, yet his sympathy for thinkers such as Derrida leads him to join them in objectifying God as the Other who competes with and threatens to stifle human creativity. His proposed solution is to conceive of God as a nonthreatening Other, and the way he does this results in not letting God be God. This is the predictable result of the crucial step that Fiddes takes in order to meet the objections of moderns and postmoderns to the traditional Christian understanding of God, language, history, and eschatological promise. That crucial step is what he calls the reversal of actuality and possibility. The dominant Western tradition of Christian thought begins with God as pure act. In the theology of Fiddes and the postmoderns for whom he speaks, reality is, rather, the play of possibilities in which that pure act, i.e., God, is infinitely deferred. God, in the full presence of His being God, must be infinitely deferred if human creativity is not to come to an end.
The Jewish Steiner is closer to the classic understanding that God is Absolute Being, the I am/I am of the Burning Bush, who encompasses past, present, and future and in whom our creativity is creativity by participation. Fiddes’ God of possibility prior to actuality”who, somewhat contradictorily, does not have the possibility of not being dependent upon the world”stands over against the human subject, making our creativity a creativity not one of participation but of competition. The proposed resolution of his “promised end” is that God becomes less than God in the partnership of a dance that has no ending. Since “domination” is excluded, there is no call for repentance or submission on the part of the human subject. This is an ending without the ending described by Paul: “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Or, as the King James puts it, when God will be “all in all.”
The promised end of The Promised End is that nobody and nothing will be all in all. We will each, God in His way and we in ours, continue the dance without ending. The tradition proposes that Absolute Being can be trusted to encompass, complete, and fulfill every existent, including our lives and our signifyings, in The Promised End. Fiddes’ alloyed “coinage” of the tradition proposes an eschatology without an eschatos. His is a God who in deference (a word interestingly related to Derrida’s différence and différance ) to the human subject does not infringe upon our freedom. Our freedom is not in knowing the truth (John 8) nor in knowing even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13) but in the endless postponement of actuality as we join God and are joined by God in postmodernism’s dance of signifiers that forever practice “the infinite deferral of the signified.”
For all the charms of Fiddes’ argument, and they are considerable, George Steiner has, I believe, a more profound understanding of the grammars of creation, in which our creativity participates in an analogy of being; in which our signifying is in response to the Signified and Signifier who is the actuality of the “I am” who forever includes every possibility of what will be. We are, as Steiner says, the guests of creation. Better, we are the guests of the Creator. We owe it to our host to let Him, to pray Him, to finish the story according to His promised end. The alternative is, with no promised end,
ü üü ü
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things.
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