Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Kingdom of God: Ever Coming Never Arriving?

Tony J got me thinking. He got me thinking about God's kingdom, and the way in which Derrida and Caputo represent it as a perpetual deferral. Tony finds the D&C conception alluring and attractive. I suspect many in the emerging movement do. I myself don't find it appealing. I want to know what others think. And I want to wonder aloud about whether it might not actually be something else that Tony, et. al. find appealing in the D&C model, something that they misidentify as the doctrine of eternal deferral.

I make no pretense at all to being a Derrida scholar. So, I am open to correction in what I'm about to say, and I would invite others more knowledgeable than I to weigh in here and to offer correction where correction is needed. Let me lay out what I understand to be the gist of the D&C model of the impossibility and undeconstructibility of the kingdom, and say why, as a Christian, I think we ought to reject it.

As I understand it, the kingdom of God or Justice or The Wholly Other or Messiah is never fully present on the D&C model but always a reality yet to come, always a reality beyond, a future, a hope, an aspiration. Indeed, God is not even to be thought of as a being, an individual, but rather as an uncontainable, unconditional, undeconstructible Event that is, as some who talk about such things put it, "astir" or "harbored" in the name of "God".

Why is the kingdom eternally deferred? Because words and worldly structures are finite, contingent, particular, limited, deconstructible and thus inhospitable abodes for the Wholly Other and the un-deconstructible. At best what we are ever presented with are "traces" of the Event that is God, and these traces call us beyond and invite us into a transformed way of being in the world.

As I said, I'm certainly open to correction here as I am admittedly outside my own areas of professional expertise. But, to the extent that I've got Derrida/Caputo right, I'm inclined to think that this discarnational model of the kingdom is utterly foreign to the incarnational kingdom of Christian faith. Whereas the D&C "gospel" regards the contingent, particular and deconstructible with suspicion and as inhospitable to the Wholly Other/Messiah/Kingdom or Justice, the God of Christian faith dwells within, inhabits, incarnates himself precisely in the particular, deconstructible and contingent. And far from "traces" of God within the particular, deconstructible and contingent the gospel suggests a fullness of presence.

Moreover, while the idea of a transformative event lies at the very heart of the gospel, the Trinitarian God of Christian theism is not himself an Event, but a God-in-three-persons. Events don't have intentions, aims, loves, etc. I can't enter into a reciprocated relationship of love with an event.

What, then, might Tony and others find so appealing in the D&C idea of eternal deferral? I'd like to think that it's not so much the eternal deferral and impossibility of the kingdom that they find so attractive, as that hardly strikes me as good news. That's about as "good" as the news delivered up in Waiting for Godot. At least in the case of the latter the two main characters believe Godot is coming, though he never arrives. Not so in the D&C story where God's coming is impossible.

Perhaps what TJ and others find appealing is the perpetual deferral of understanding, the realization that no matter what we come to understand of God and of his justice it is inexhaustible; there is always more. I wonder if it's not the idea that we ought never to be satisfied or settled with a particular theology or political arrangement, for example, but always questing, always reaching and searching.

In a way, insofar as the emerging movement can be viewed as a development within evangelical protestantism, it is easier for me to see how some of Derrida's ideas are consonant with emergent sensibilities than it is for me to understand how Caputo, a Catholic, would be attracted to such discarnate, disembodied, otherworldly notions. Catholicism's emphasis on the Eucharist, a place where Christ is really present (one almost wants to say re-incarnated) would seem to more easily prevent one from flights of disembodiment than the thin "commemorative" understanding of the Eucharist in low-church protestant denominations and non-denominations.

In any case, what do you think? Have I misrepresented the D&C model? If not, do you find the notion of an eternal deferral of the kingdom appealing?












14 comments:

Kyle said...

Kevin,

This has nothing to do with this blog post, but have you heard that you apparently completely vanished about thirty years ago:

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/30_years_of_mans_life_disappear_in

Kevin Corcoran said...

Kyle:

Yes, I have! Many people have reminded me of this sad fact.(-:

Matt Wiebe said...

A good reflection on the "Absolute Future" in Derrida/Caputo. I think that these ideas of deferral are best applied in a human epistemic sense, but I don't know if that's all D&C are trying to say here. The notion of deferral, as I understand it, should always have a "for me/us" understood to rest at the end of every statement.

So, in Christ we see the incarnation of the Godhead, yet at the same time the kingdom is deferred, not wholly realized, for us. Christ's incarnation was the full revelation of God, but the meaning of that event is tied up for us in human interpretation, something which will never arrive at the fathomless truth contained in Christ. We believe that at the consummation of the kingdom, that the structure of the Absolute Future might be done away with or modified, but that does not negate the fact that for us, for now, the kingdom must be futural.

Now, I do think that you are on to something when you talk about D&C regarding our finite construals of the truth about God with suspicion. Jamie Smith makes the salient point that we should not expect them to be anything other than that if we hold ourselves to be finite created creatures and, to use my own terminology, that it's a bit of an Enlightenment hangover to think that this is automatically a problem.

Now, what I find appealing in this model is that it seems to deal honestly with where we find ourselves and prevents us from pretending that the kingdom has arrived in whatever expression we happen to inhabit. But this does not give us the resources or motives to help us to try to live in the kingdom, a task for which D&C do not seem to grant us much help.

Rachel said...

I think it sounds downright awful...like running toward a mirage and never getting a drink!

I agree with your assessment that this view really denies the incarnational reality of the gospel. "God with us" is in no way "an event eternally deferred."

Kevin Corcoran said...

Matt:

Thanks! Couple of thoughts. Your gloss on the eternal deferral seems to me plausible, helpful, but much, much tamer than what it seems to me D&C actually say.

For example, you say:

We believe that at the consummation of the kingdom...

The very idea of "consummation" seems to me incompatible with their notion of eternal deferral.

You say:

What I find appealing in this model is that it seems to deal honestly with where we find ourselves and prevents us from pretending that the kingdom has arrived in whatever expression we happen to inhabit.

Amen. I would just want to add "...prevents us from pretending that the kingdom has fully arrived..." In an important sense the kingdom has arrived in Jesus the Christ, from Nazareth. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," he often said. When one beheld the face of Jesus one beheld God incarnate. There, in him "all the fullness of heaven was pleased dwell."

That tweaking aside, I like what you say. I just think we don't need the D&C model to deliver that result. A recognition of our creaturliness, finitude and a firm grasp of the fact that the consummation of God's kingdom is not of our making will do the trick. The best we can do is set up provisional hints, glimpses and foretastes.

Matt, can you help me make sense out of the idea that the English word "God" ought not to be understood as a noun, but rather as a verb, that God is not a subject, a being or person, but an event, The Event, or some such?

Kevin Corcoran said...

Rachel:

......like running toward a mirage and never getting a drink!

Exactly! That is not good news for the thirsty.

A metaphor I could (and do?) embrace would rather be that of running toward the ocean, but only ever experiencing ponds on the way, ponds formed by the overflow of water of the ocean toward which I run. So, I do have genuine, even if partial and incomplete, experience of the ocean waters. But, I run with a promise that one day, I will experience the ocean in all its raging fullness.

Matt Wiebe said...

Kevin, good response and (mild) pushback. You are quite right that I have glossed on D&C and perhaps tamed them down somewhat. It is true that D&C do not have room for consummation in their notion of eternal deferral, but I read this as something that applies epistemically to this present age, something that structures our way of being in the world, something that is always deferred for us. Until, that is, the kingdom actually does arrive. We have no categories for that, and for the time being must content ourselves to wait and pray for kingdom come.

But yes, somehow this kingdom has been inaugurated in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. I believe that the word that D&C-types would like to use here is rupture.

As for your question of our word God as verb rather than noun, this is a thorny problem indeed. As I read it, D&C are more against God-as-noun than they are for God-as-verb. They are highly critical of what the onto-theological project does with God-as-noun and at times seeming to be running scared from it. And that begins to run up against the limit of what I think I understand in that area.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Matt:

Thanks! Let's push this a wee bit further if we can. You say:

It is true that D&C do not have room for consummation in their notion of eternal deferral, but I read this as something that applies epistemically to this present age, something that structures our way of being in the world, something that is always deferred for us. Until, that is, the kingdom actually does arrive. We have no categories for that, and for the time being must content ourselves to wait and pray for kingdom come.

Couple things. I get that you want to register this as a this present age sort of limit or deferral However, since I believe that the New Jerusalem, at the consummation of all things, though radically discontinuous with this present age in some ways is nevertheless continuous with it in others, e.g., in being contingent, finite and creaturely, the provisional nature of the kingdom must not owe to contingency, finitude and boundedness. And yet, I think that is precisely why D&C believe God or the Kingdom is always deferred, b/c it can't abide contingency, finitude and creaturliness. If I'm right, then I think there can be no incarnation for them and, therefore, no Christian faith.

A question. If you think that the deferral pertains to this present age, what do you think it is about this age (contingent, finite, creaturely) that accounts for the perpetual deferral that will be absent and ineffective in the New Jerusalem (itself contingent, finite and creaturely)?

One more question. When you say we have no categories for the kingdom that is arriving, what exactly do you mean? I think we must have categories, otherwise how can we sow little parables and signs of the kingdom? Don't we have a really good idea of what the kingdom is like? For example, in God's kingdom people are whole and flourishing. In God's kingdom love, forgiveness, healing, reconciliation flourish. In God's kingdom there is no poverty, war, or fragmentation of any kind. In God's kingdom people don't starve, aren't exploited, etc., etc.

I guess I think that what I pray and wait in joyful hope for is not the coming of God's kingdom, but its coming in fullness, its consummation.

Finally, the "onto-theological" allergy puzzles me. If it is onto-theological to confess that I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, etc., and that's a bad thing, something's gone wrong, I think. To the extent that reconceiving God as Event entails we have nothing to confess I think we have to reject it. I think I need to hear someone explain the idea to me b/c I'm pretty sure either it's incoherent or I don't understand it.

Thanks again, Matt. Much, much appreciated!!!!

Tones said...

D&C will surely be "eatin crow" when a new city decends from the heavens to reign over a new earth for eternity. If I were Lucifer, I'd dig the notion of the kingdom being eternally deferred. This is an awesome example of philosophy on acid.

Brad said...

If the Kingdom is eternally deferred, then why should Christians care about it right now?

Yeah, I just don't like that model, at all.

Stephen Krogh said...

Kevin,

This is the problem both the promulgators of continental philosophy, as well as with the detractors of continental philosophy. The latter often charge it with relativism, while the former can't seem to grip reality. The latter lack epistemic humility (or maybe much of any kind, for that matter), while the former lacks any sort of epistemic hope. The ancient and medieval philosophers struggled similarly (shock!). While God is eternal, so say the medievals, and immutable, impassable, simple, and omniscient, he also became a man, subject to time, change, pain, worry, and even becoming (Jesus, we are told, grew in wisdom and stature). A similar debate rested in the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Are they pronouncements to be understood in our life times, or are they eschatological? Are the poor really blessed? The best philosopher/theologians live in tension, not sacrificing their beliefs for philosophical/theological comfort. Sure, there is a sense in which the Kingdom of God is ever coming; there is always a good work left to be done in us (and I think there will be even after the 2nd coming), but that doesn't mean that the Kingdom will not be real, present, tangible, visceral. Why buy it? It is so costly.

And, God as a verb? Are we being serious here?

Kevin Corcoran said...

Stephen,

I'm SWAMPED. Oral exams/papers to grade/written exams to grade....Yikes! I've checked the blog twice in the past three days.

Anywho, excellent commments/contribution, as usual. The tension. Yes. I don't know a lot about EO, but I do know that they are much more comfortable with tension. For example, EO goes in for the apaphatic, but is still confessional.

And, yes; I think the God-as-verb suggestion is very serious. I'm sure one could offer a tame/declawed sort of gloss that's plausible, but reading it straightforwardly, it seems implausible to me.

Matt Wiebe said...

Kevin, some (brief) replies.

I do not think that it is being contingent, finite and creaturely is a feature of this age that will cease in the one to come. I believe that these are constitutive aspects of our created-ness and are therefore good, to celebrated and not avoided. D&C, however, seem not so much to agree, as they tend to think of finitude as some type of fall. Here I firmly disagree with them. For a full treatment, see your colleague Jamie Smith's excellent "The Fall of Interpretation."

Instead, I think that it is the broad, troubling categories of evil and sin that somehow mark of this age from the next. Again, this is a place where I would diverge from Derrida, if not also Caputo.

Now, when I talk about having no categories for the coming kingdom, I should clarify that it's not that we have none, just that they are inadequate and fail to even approach representing what that kingdom might truly signify. Of course we must make our way in the world with a variety of concepts that are provisional and incomplete, how else? But what D&C help us to see is that there is never anywhere, conceptually or physically, where we can plant a flag and say, "the kingdom is here." We must keep working, praying and weeping to see it come, while recognizing that it has not (yet) arrived. Now, I do sense an objection waiting in the wings that I would never then be able to recognize the true and final consummation of the kingdom, and I would say that that is essentially correct. I have no idea how to prepare my personage for such a lofty event.

As to onto-theology, what you have done in confessing God as Creator is assuredly not onto-theology (although some who misunderstand it might say so). Onto-theology pertains to making God a god of conceptual servitude akin to more Greek, philosophical conceptions of God. This god is not to be worshiped, but is a convenient way of 1) putting God on our side with beings and 2) rendering the whole of being intelligible to us. Onto-theology makes God into a means for our own ends.

Anyway, happy marking!

Kevin Corcoran said...

Matt:

Thanks again. This is how I tend to think of these matter, too. There's one exception. I think I'm a bit more sanguine about the kingdom or categories for the kingdom or what the kingdom truly looks like. I agree with you that there's nowhere we can plant a flag and say "here is the kingdom". However, we can plant a flag and say "Here is a picture of the kingdom; look!" Granted that place or picture will only ever be provisional, temporary and incomplete. But when I point (say) to a restored marriage or the group of people erecting a habitat house or the group of people feeding the homeless downtown or someone whose broken body is healed or someone whose heart is melted toward God, though provisional and incomplete, I believe that is what the consummated kingdom really looks like. To make sense out of our calling to anticipate the kingdom I think we must have a pretty darn good idea of what it looks like.

Again, all of these pictures are foretastes and glimpses. The consummated kingdom will, no doubt, blow us away with its beauty. But it sure as hek won't be radically discontinuous with them.