Jason Bosworth, University of St. Andrews jason.k.j.bosworth@gmail.


Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics Seminar Paper: 24th February 2011

This is an attempt to draw out a theological hermeneutics as a method for practical theology. These ideas here are born out of the singular experience of being a stranger in a strange land, from being a European in the US confronted by the profound alienation that occurs with one’s displacement from the comfort of the familiar. One of the oddities of my two years studying theology at Boston University was the inordinate amount of time that I spent reading continental philosophy. Yet somehow, when discussing these texts with my American peers, I found a natural resonance between these ideas and the time and place in which I found myself. I was not, after all, alienated, but rather between: between Europe and America, and, in the end, between the divine and the human. So this paper arises from that betweenness, the seeking of a faithful though agnostic theological speech that speaks to the political crises of identity that continue to assail us. This has become a question of how we can facilitate the coming to be of the oppressed, and in so doing realise a tenuous fragment of the kingdom that works to overcome the suffering of, ‘the least of these,’ the widow, the orphan and the stranger.


Upon the Shifting Sands of Time: Theological Hermeneutics, Towards a Method for Practical Theology

Terry Veling, in his work Practical Theology: On Earth as it is in Heaven, reminds us that the work of theology is an ongoing practice; one characterized by the hermeneutic movement of critical interpretation and application. This process he summarizes as “searching the scriptures,” and, “reading the signs of the times,”1 in a forever unfinished act of the skilled application of one’s attention in cycles of interpretation that seek out transformation. This hermeneutical movement of the mediation of past and present, in order to herald and tentatively embody the possibilities of the divine not-yet, is, however, always implicated in the contextual reception and interpretation of the sacred stories of one’s community. There is thus a profound need to recognise the effect of one’s interpretative space or world, from which and within which one encounters both the normative sources of the past and the present events which have brought one up short, which have disturbed the ordinary patterns of interpretation and action. Theological hermeneutics, as a method for practical theology, has become a potent means by which to understand this complex dynamic, in which the wisdom of the sacred texts that form the collective memory of faith communities is continually mediated in light of present concerns and an abiding future hope for what is to come. It is this collective time and memory – found within a community’s account of the past, present, and future – that shapes and influences the efforts of application that emerge from such an encounter. By working through some of the key ideas contained within Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work Truth and Method, in conjunction with the concerns of certain modes of contemporary philosophy and theology with the effect of contextual receptions of historical wisdom, I hope to offer a distinctively practical theological

Terry A. Veling, Practical Theology: On Earth as it is in Heaven (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 25.


approach to the restless expectation of the coming kingdom, whose infinite possibility stirs the prophetic heart of the Judeo-Christian witness to past promises and future expectations.

An Initial Encounter, Being Brought Up Short by Another Hermeneutics, as a sub-field of philosophy, is a meta-level effort to phenomenologically account for the experience one has in reading texts. The encounter with another world in a text can have a profound effect on the reader, as one feels oneself to be brought up short or to be put into question. How one negotiates this experience with the otherness of a text will determine whether or not one is beneficially transformed by the work. Gadamer believes that it is an art that has to be worked upon and developed, as our implicit reaction can at times prohibit the possibility of change heralded by the experience of being brought up short, as the world of the text is assimilated into the reader’s world. For, if the reader refuses to truly engage the text any transformative possibility is passed over and one’s world continues uninterrupted. Good reading is facilitated by a fundamental hospitality on the reader’s part, choosing to allow oneself to be open to another world, one which could have a profound effect upon the contours of one’s own world if the world of the text is given the chance to become a conversation partner. Homer Ashby’s Our Home is Over Jordan is a text that I have found to have this kind of effect, and it is through this particular encounter that I will begin to point towards a practical theological method, one infused with the hermeneutic endeavour. In Our Home is Over Jordan, Ashby gives a haunting account of the threat contemporary American society poses to the cultural and racial survival of African-Americans,

In a variety of ways blacks are being lynched at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


There is the lynching of economic strangulation, the lynching of political disenfranchisement, the lynching of higher morbidity, the lynching of the loss of cultural identity, and the lynching of perishing because of lack of vision.2

This is Ashby’s unsettling claim, that the very structures of American society consistently undervalue African-Americans’ humanity and so actively reduce their life expectancy. The effect has precipitated an existential crisis of disconnection, as the collective identity of AfricanAmericans has become fragmented and so any enervating and uniting memories are being lost. This is the heart of the struggle, as it reduces even further the possibility of recovery as the social strength required to bring about transformation is crippled before the struggle can even begin. Ashby’s constructive practical theology seeks to pose a strategy of intervention, one which reunites African-Americans through a recovery of their traditions of Christian worship. The conjuring of the story of Joshua’s conquest of the promised-land is at the heart of this effort, being, “a magical story laced with many miraculous feats whose telling transforms the identity of the ancient Israelites from an enslaved and desperate people to a powerful nation with land and self-determination.”3 This ancient story is to be instantiated in the minds of contemporary African-Americans through a conjuring, so that it may become a site of the cohesive retelling of racial identity around which the fractured internal consciousness created by the systemic injustices of contemporary American society can be healed by the calling into the present of past victories and future promises. Without addressing this internalized space of memory and identity, which has been so painfully disturbed and disrupted, the “disciplines of struggle,”4 that were the source for powerful political, religious, and social action in the past cannot be recovered and the

2 3 4

Homer U. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003), 25. Emphasis my own. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 21. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 26.


fate of African-American identity and culture will be one of extinction, to be cast off into the stasis of a white-washed history. Rather than accept this fate, the power of the conjure is to be harnessed in order to transform the African-American community’s identity with its revitalising and redemptive vigour, which retains its strength through an eschatological orientation. Ashby thus maintains a dialectic between the present crisis of survival and its overcoming with both a past-present orientation, that relives the historical promises of God to African-Americans, and a future-present orientation, which calls into being the transformative possibilities of what is promised to come. Why do I call this effort to our attention? Why should we dwell on this specific crisis and the great suffering it inflicts upon this particular people? In part it is because Ashby’s work is akin to Veling’s hermeneutical elaboration of theology, searching the scriptures and reading the signs of the times in light of the future expectation of the coming kingdom. But even more so, it is because my reading of this book gave me a horrifying and profound sense of how I am implicated in destructive movements of power, power which coalesces around my dominant worldview and puts the healthy formation of others’ lives at risk. As a result of reading Our Home is Over Jordan I can no longer ignore my role in this harmful dynamic. Ashby’s work has brought me up short, it has interrupted my vision and disturbed the horizons of my world by calling me into question. The richness of Ashby’s testimony requires me to recognise this reality, to recognise my reproduction of these damaging structures, and it calls upon me to critically intervene by joining him in the struggle for transformation. This will not mean that I take up a role which is not mine to take, but it will require that I adjust my thinking to accommodate his insights, so that together we can modify my own and wider society’s behaviour.


It is from the midst of such an experience of being brought up short that constructive work can begin. Ashby’s work shows the important role of tradition and future promise in calling to account the prevalent norms of society, by using points of a transcendent or utopian orientation that are constructed from traditional sources of wisdom in order to claim authority for one’s insights, which are themselves born from the particular crises to which they are attuned. By fostering such a critical theological attitude, one’s hermeneutical processes of interpretation and application will hopefully be heightened, both in their openness to the movements of social power and in their ability to engage these effects both empathetically and constructively. It is by beginning here, at the site of disruption, that true theory may follow as phronesis, only in order that one can enter into a cyclical process of question and answer as the multiple narratives one encounters bring one up short by continually disturbing the horizon of one’s worldview, which strives to fix the boundaries of the world with a totalised image of reality.

Gadamer’s Hermeneutics and Practical Theology Gadamer’s work in hermeneutics was motivated, in part, by an effort to outline what happens in the study of the traditionary objects of the arts.5 This was in order to separate the work of the arts from that of the sciences, where the approach is a methodologically consistent effort designed to build a total view of reality by the continual refinement of a prior fount of knowledge. Instead, the arts offer the peculiar possibility of being brought into question by classic texts, works from the depths of history whose surplus of meaning is such that they can continue to be relevant to contemporary readers. This dynamic involves a specific kind of

In Truth and Method Gadamer’s concern is largely with texts and language, but the interpretative experience of the artistic object, such as a painting or a piece of music, is also considered; although only in an exemplary fashion.


encounter, in which the prejudices or pre-judgments that constitute the world, and therefore the subjectivity, of the reader are brought into conversation with those of the world of the text. This requires that the reader seek to interpret the text, and in so doing this act of interpretation that seeks understanding results in application, as the world of the reader is brought into question. From here the cycle begins anew, as through other texts and performances of traditionary objects the present world of the reader is always found to be in a situation of disruption, being subject to the questioning that emerges from the interaction with these other worlds. The reader’s subjectivity can be transformed in and through this event of understanding, and it is this event that is the site of hermeneutical enquiry, “Understanding proves to be an event, and the task of hermeneutics, seen philosophically, consists in asking what kind of understanding, what kind of science it is, that is itself advanced by historical change.”6 From the questioning the reader experiences as one strives to interpret the text in the event of understanding meaning emerges, as one bridges the historical distance that separates the reader from the historical text. This can induce a change within the worldview of the reader, as this new meaning comes to be applied through the transformative process that occurs within the event of understanding. The kind of knowledge which arises from this encounter is phronetic (from the Greek phronesis, which means practical wisdom), which is to say that it is a kind of moral knowledge the purpose of which is to govern human action.7 It is, therefore, application which marks both the end of the cycle of understanding and interpretation and the need for its resurgence, as the reader is returned to a site of contemplation in light of the renewed understanding that the reader has achieved through the struggle to interpret the text within history,

6 7

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 2006), 308. Emphasis in original text. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 312.


[T]he interpreter seeks no more than to understand the universal, the text – i.e., to understand what it says, what constitutes the text’s meaning and significance. In order to understand that, he must not try to disregard himself and his particular hermeneutical situation. He must relate the text to this situation if he wants to understand it at all.8

The reader is implicated in a process of understanding whose reference is bound by history and yet encompasses the interaction of different historical worlds. The historically effected consciousness of the reader is thus experienced from the world of the text, which the reader now belongs to as one becomes part of the meaning that one has begun to apprehend between the now of oneself as the reader and the past of the text.9 Application is at the very heart of the encounter with the text, which Gadamer expresses in the image of the event of understanding as the fusion of horizons.10 The horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader (being the figurative boundaries of their respective worlds) are taken up into a dialogical process of question and answer, the experience of which is fundamentally historical. For the reader comes to know one’s own finitude as the limits of one’s horizon are exposed through the event of understanding. But this experience, given its radical finitude, is always open and encompasses yet more new experiences in the encounter with other worlds, “The truly experienced person is one who has taken this [finitude] to heart, who knows that he is master neither of time nor the future.”11 The truly experienced reader acknowledges one’s own historicity, being bound by prejudice and steeped in the passage of tradition, which mediates history and so creates the subject. To be ready for this experience, to be open to the capacity to call oneself into question and thereby reform the boundaries of the self with the distanced object of interpretation, this is the dynamic
8 9 10 11

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 321. Emphasis my own. See, Gadamer, Truth and Method, 335. See, Gadamer, Truth and Method, 304-5. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 351.


of the historically effected consciousness. To revel in this experience with the text is an art, one to be consciously developed and heightened by the reader as hermeneut. Gadamer writes of the practice of hermeneutics, which he models on the Platonic dialogues, as the “art of conversation,”12 in which one allows oneself to be tested by another’s opinion, to be open to the possibility which it presents for one’s understanding of the subject-at-hand. The text presents the reader with a question as the reader is brought up short by the historical distance of the text, as its becoming meaningful exposes the indeterminateness of things, bringing out their undetermined possibilities, “Questioning opens up possibilities of meaning, and thus what is meaningful passes into one’s own thinking on the subject.” Furthermore, “To understand meaning is to understand it as the answer to a question,”13 a question that arises from the reader’s experience of dialogical encounter with the text. It is the experience of history, found within a reader’s openness to the question of the text that allows for the fusion of horizons of the reader’s world and the text’s such that a newly inflected horizon emerges within the present moment, as new possibilities emerge in the consciousness of the reader and so one’s world adapts and transforms as it moves into the future through history. The appeal that such an effort has for practical theology can be seen in Veling’s work. Gadamer’s historicising of knowledge resists the powerful urge to seek a total comprehension of reality while acknowledging the effect the encounter of worlds has upon one’s own being-in-theworld, as the reader’s worldview is transformed through the fusion of horizons. Veling adopts this basic process for his outline of a practical theology, as “a more integrated theological sensibility that attempts to honor the great learnings of theological wisdom with the desire for

12 13

Gadamer, Truth and Method, 361. Quotes, Gadamer, Truth and Method, 368.


God and the coming of God’s kingdom ‘on earth, as it is in heaven.’” 14 This disposition is one grounded in an interpretative resonance with tradition, being the heartfelt attunement to the great and hard-won wisdom that is an important resource of one’s intuitive sense of being-in-theworld.15 For the past is one’s living memory, “human beings live within important collective memories and traditions that serve as crucial and fundamental interpretative frameworks for our understanding and apprehension of life.”16 The excess of this historical memory contextualises the present as this collective memory incorporates the now within history, thus transcending oneself in and through tradition. It is “another time,” one both in the past and the future, which shapes one’s world in the present with “a deep remembering and expectant hopefulness that is characteristic of the historically gifted human spirit. It is not just ‘this time’ – rather, it is this time as shaped by the past and leaning into the future.”17 For the faithful community of the church, the revelatory address which both exceeds and incorporates the present within a greater trajectory of history is mediated by the word of God,

If theology is anything, it is first and foremost the word of God addressed to our lives. It is first and foremost a teaching, a commandment, a deep well, an infinite word, a provocation, an announcement, a saying, a speaking to us and for us – for our sake and our salvation.”18

This divine address must elicit a response, for to be a word, to be the theological word that is steeped in the collective memory of an ancient tradition, it must be heard again and again,

A word given is no word unless it is received. A word that teaches is no word unless it transforms. These two together – God’s word to us, and the response it calls forth – form
14 15 16 17 18

Veling, Practical Theology, 3-4. See, Veling, Practical Theology, 28. Veling, Practical Theology, 30. Veling, Practical Theology, 31. Veling, Practical Theology, 33. Emphasis in original text.


the heart of a living tradition. Theological hermeneutics begins with the recognition that we exist within a religious tradition that begins with founding texts – the scriptures – and the way these texts have been received and interpreted by communities of faith across time and history.19

One must cultivate a receptivity and openness to the questioning and transformative possibility that emerges from this divine address, which is mediated by the gift of tradition and can bring about a change in one’s understanding through the dispossession of self-understanding in kenosis, the letting go of one’s self-possession through one’s encounter with the traditionary word. This dispossession allows one to receive the gift of religious tradition, whose excess signals the infinity of the divine and heralds, through its profound surplus of meaning, possible worlds. Yet it also preserves the “dangerous memory,” of suffering, as the divine comes to be witnessed in the visage of the orphan, the widow and the stranger; a revelatory experience which proclaims the need for this divine disruption of the present with the collective memory of the past and the future.20 Religious tradition is thus mediated through a twofold excess, as the infinite possibility of the divine overflows into present history from the past wisdom of the faith and through the expectation of the future not-yet. These two aspects find their momentary remembrance and revelation in the ethical demand placed upon the faithful from the eyes of the Other, who suffers under the weight of a present time without history. Certain totalitarian projections of being-inthe-world dominate those without power and privilege, raising up idols that cannot be inflected with the indeterminate questioning that emerges from the recognition of humanity’s profound historicity. The revelatory event of understanding disrupts this totalised horizon of the dominant

19 20

Veling, Practical Theology, 34. Emphasis my own. See, Veling, Practical Theology, 35.


account of the world with the concerns of the religious tradition, which disturb the present with memories of the past and expectations of the future.21 For the Jewish and Christian traditions this concern is one of justice, which in Christianity has been particularly associated the justice of the coming kingdom. The absolute horizon of the present is interrupted and transformed by the infinite possibility of this divine concern with justice, being the promised horizon of the future not-yet, where the divine abides with “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV), amongst whom we will find signs of the coming kingdom. Christian theology becomes a work infused with this divine possibility of justice, as the horizon of the present is transformed by the horizon of tradition and its divine concern with the coming kingdom, which has been borne witness to throughout the history of Christian faith communities. My encounter with Ashby’s work can be seen as one instantiation of this event of understanding with the divine word, as his witnessing to the struggle that confronts AfricanAmericans today interrupts the blind-spots of my worldview through an event of understanding in which our horizons fuse. But Ashby’s exposure of the systemic presence of racism within contemporary American society requires that one attend to this event of understanding with a more nuanced sensibility. The interpretative resonance that rings out from Ashby’s conjuring of the memory of Joshua’s triumphal conquest of the promised-land disrupts the present account of reality with its transcendent possibility, “blacks need the promise and hope found in this first chapter of Joshua. God’s promises will not fail… In God’s promises the future outcome has already been fulfilled.”22 The conjuring of this story creates a cohesive identity around which the struggle to restore a healthy African-American identity, one freed from the fragmentation caused

21 22

See, Veling, Practical Theology, 44-7. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 47.


by the brutality of systemic injustice and racism, can rally, “In Joshua identity is associated with living within the destiny that God has proposed for God’s people, engaging in rituals of remembrance of that destiny, and playing an active role in the actualization of that identity.”23 It is this particular recovery of a collective memory from the divine address of the revelatory word that creates the conditions for the solidarity of purpose and hopefulness required to struggle for God’s destiny for African-Americans, a destiny which Ashby defines as, “living black and free and claiming the inheritance of full humanity that God has promised.”24 It is a powerful claim, to reach into one’s tradition and call upon the power of God to enable one’s striving to change the very shape of reality. As a white man I must take very seriously the power of such a conjuring, knowing that as I claim the transformative possibilities of one’s encounter with the historical text I have forgotten the power that is invested in the contemporary encounter with a world that is just as distant to my own as that of the ancient Greeks or Judea around the time of Christ. In reading Ashby’s work I am put into question just as radically as I am by the canonical texts to which I regularly turn in my academic work. However, what Ashby’s text serves to show is the inherent danger of the conditions of receptivity, which can also perpetrate a singular world with my reading of these canonical texts being predicated upon the diffusion of power and the rejection of dominance. To hear the revelatory address of the divine word from Ashby’s lips, to be brought up short by his world, should disturb my worldview. If it does not then I have not heard Ashby, I have silenced him and evaded his witness. I have simply maintained the present shape of reality and perpetrated the brutality that it enacts. However, I have heard him, I have re-cognised his testimony and so

23 24

Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 52. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 66.


allowed myself to be transformed. But my receptivity to such an experience is one conditioned by my own worldview, which is itself a memory built out of the texts and traditions in which I live and breathe. My world is not, therefore, one that is fundamentally inhospitable to the gift of Ashby’s prophetic word, but its prejudices must be contextualised by this address, their descriptive power and transformative possibilities to be acknowledged as being an address from and to my own worldview. To some extent Ashby reflects on this problem in his discussion of the inappropriateness of the critique of ontological blackness, a critique steeped in the texts and traditions to which I consistently turn.25 Raised in reaction to the grounding of African-Americans’ struggle for emancipation in terms of a primal racial identity, this critique sought to disrupt the valorization of one authentic expression of African-American culture. It was considered to be predicated on a totalised world, under which different identities and understandings were subsumed by a binary framework of One, authentic blackness, and Other, all who are not black. This kind of binary frame fixes an absolute horizon in the present, and cannot abide difference as it secures one threatened identity under a total comprehension of true being. It therefore mimics the very framing of reality that was perpetrated, and continues to be, by dominant whites; who have fixed reality around One, white, and Other, all who are not white. In both cases the Other can only be in terms of the monolithic identity of the One, and is therefore simply a mirror designed to reflect back to the One the world as it should be. There cannot be any kind of dialogue between these identities as there is only a simulacrum of difference to be found, the Other is simply not-same. Any kind of malleability of identity, any kind of fundamental complexity, is lost. For AfricanAmericans to reiterate this patterning of reality would seem to represent the devastating effect of

See, “Discerning Black Identity,” in, Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 71ff.


centuries of having to live with a double-consciousness, thus allowing whites’ fixing of AfricanAmerican identity as not-same to continue to dominate efforts to recover and reformulate a genuine subjectivity. It is a critique that I know very well, and fully endorse in terms of offering a fundamental disruption of dominant patterns that subject Others, whether marked by differences in race or class or gender. However, my encounter with Ashby’s work reveals my need to reassess the conditions of some of my allegiances, for,

Although the idealism of the black cultural politics of difference is very appealing, it does not address major issues related to the survival and liberation of African American people… the reality is that blacks are being murdered, lynched, infected, and failing to thrive in any number of different ways.26

The question is rather of survival, and survival is predicated upon a common ground of identity and cultural integrity. But this is not another binary. Rather it is a both/and, survival with fulfilment in a multiplicity of response, “Multiplicity of response recognizes both the differences that are housed in the notion of multiplicity and the cohesiveness of these different responses that are distinctive.”27 The collective memory of African-American identity should, “hold disparate and often conflicting manifestations of a culture in tension with one another.”28 But not at the cost of the common struggle for survival and liberation, which depends upon the latent power invested in the recovery of a cohesive identity and memory. A practical theologian must be willing to be attuned by this kind of profound need, to be able to reconsider constitutive images and ideas which effect one’s strategies of care. Such hospitality will ensure that one does not perpetrate totalised worldviews, even as these are

26 27 28

Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 81. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 88. Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 90.


predicated upon effecting social and individual transformation. It is a consistent and ongoing effort, one which is able to recognise multiple sites of resistance that seek to disrupt the dominant patterns of power which produce certain worlds and therefore certain modes of subjectivity. However, in my tradition this effort has been sought out through certain images and modes of engagement, and the appropriateness of these ideas must be measured against this event of understanding, by the divine address that is mediated by Ashby’s work.

Developing a Theological Method from the Event of Understanding One text which is of particular importance to much of my work is Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. This text was produced as a critique of the transcendent orientation of much of Euro-American traditions of philosophy and theology, and in its singular deployment of the arresting image of the rhizome it has proved to be a successful and provocative challenge to the normative dynamics of certain strands of thought in the academy. However, the limitations of this critique can be sharply felt in contrast to Ashby’s appeal to coalesce transformative power in a determinative account of African-American identity, an account which Deleuze and Guattari would call arborescent. In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari depict reality as a complex and interdependent biological system through the image of the rhizome. The rhizome is a particular form of plant stem found in tubers and bulbs, recognisable by its horizontal growth and abundant complexity, the image of which invites one to think of multiplicity and a certain ordered chaos insofar as it is a determined organic system. By conceiving of reality as rhizomatic, Deleuze and Guattari would resist the transcendent mode of thought that they claim typifies the Euro-


American traditions, “A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” 29 The rhizome is a horizontal network marked by its inherent multiplicity and connectivity. It is system with a “plane of consistency,”30 yet it is without a stable form, “A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase without the multiplicity changing in nature.”31 Envisioned as such the rhizome therefore resists, “fascist concretions,”32 which rupture its organic multiplicity. These ruptures are the great trees of knowledge, arborescent systems which are, “hierarchical… with centres of significance and subjectification.”33 They are, “the structure of Power.”34 These central nodes within the greater structure of the rhizome gather to themselves the power to create subjects according to priorly determined principles which function dualistically, be this and not that. Through the trees of knowledge the ground of reality has been sought, being a stable and familiar haven that constrains the complex into the simple one. From this position totalitarian power may be wielded as those in control of the concretion determine the flow of the rhizome for their subjects. This impulse to establish, “the root foundation,” 35 is the disease of transcendence, and it infects all Euro-American thought, including theology.36 Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic account of reality stands in clear opposition to this,

To these centred systems, the authors contrast acentered systems, finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbour to any other, the stems or
29 30

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 7. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 9. 31 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 8. 32 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 9. 33 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 16. 34 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 17. 35 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 18. 36 See, Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 18.


channels do not preexist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their state at a given moment – such that the local operations are coordinated and the final, global result synchronized without a central agency.37

This is a cartography of multiplicity, confounding concretions by the dynamic movement of networks of communication within which power is diffused by the rhizome’s, “short-term memory, or antimemory.”38 It is an image of reality as an interconnected system, constantly forming and reforming itself as it adapts to new stimuli. It is to all intents and purposes chaotic, and any order perceived has too often been imposed upon this dynamic movement. But what these projections achieve is very real, being the violent formation of subjects in accord with a transcendent ideal around which great power has been gathered. In their work Deleuze and Guattari have sought to disrupt the conventional dynamics of academic theology and philosophy. They have profoundly effected the developments of radical thought in Europe and America, with their work being taken up in feminist and queer studies as a profound transgression of totalizing worlds, deployed in order to interrupt these worlds’ horizons and so disrupt their production of certain modes of subjectivity. It is the power of history that all the authors in this paper have recognised and is a concern that each shares. And after their respective fashions each has attempted to harness this power and so deliberately produce alternative memories, thereby preserving subversive identities that can resist the functioning of a reality controlled by certain fascist concretions, or dominant worldviews. However, there is a profound resistance on the part of Deleuze and Guattari to any kind of utopian future. Each identity, either dominant or subversive, is only provisional and temporary, and can only be a momentary resistance to the greater flows of power, which are continually gathered by those
37 38

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 17. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 21.


with the necessary ideological systems of control and production. The creation of other subjectivities is always undone either by the overwhelming forces to which they are subjected or by a resistance to the creation of yet another arborescent concretion. From the underside, from a place where there has never been such control, profound need calls out for more. The visage of the orphan, the widow, or the stranger seeks another movement, one which recovers lost traditions to create memories and identities which are always under threat from the movement of history, and thus must be given over to a greater, and utopian, Power. This need to produce determinate and lasting subjectivities can be clearly seen in the work of the French feminist and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray. Her efforts to re-read key texts in the traditions of European thought is motivated by the very concern evinced throughout the above works, to resist the particular dynamics of subject formation in, for her specifically, European history. Irigaray’s central concern has been to expose Euro-American philosophy’s phallocentric subjugation of the feminine other – who has been reduced to the formation of her subjectivity in relation to the One of Euro-American discourses, the male subject. As such there is no true Other, since subjectivity is defined as same and not-same. Irigaray believes this impulse to be rooted in the historical definition of male subjectivity over and against the perceived lack of the female body. Woman is conceived thus,

By a fault, a flaw, a lack, an absence, outside the system of representations… Which are man’s. By a hole in men’s signifying economy. A nothing that might cause the ultimate destruction, the splintering, the break in their systems of ‘presence,’ of ‘re-presentation’ and ‘representation.’ A nothing threatening the process of production, reproduction, mastery, and profitability, of meaning, dominated by the phallus – that master signifier whose law of functioning erases, rejects, denies the surging up, the resurgence, the recall of a heterogeneity capable of reworking the principle of its authority.39

Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 50.


The phallus is the fascist concretion par excellence, and its presence as the master signifier demands that one recognise the gendered functioning of the Power. Hence Irigaray’s clarion call, “Outside of all self-as-same.”40 It is the demand, “to be considered as actually an/other woman, irreducible to the masculine subject,”41 which is to gain a true subjectivity and to no longer be simply defined as a lack. By instead preserving gendered difference, the implicit binary reductionism of Euro-American ‘subjectivity’ can be overturned, ending this oppression “within difference rather than by abolishing it.”42 This is represented by the rejection of the signifiers woman and female, whose presentation assumes the One of the male subject, and the raising up of the feminine subject as the site of true difference, forming outwith the shadow of the Power. This presentation of the dynamics of gendered power creating totems of authority which prohibit multiplicity by asserting unity accords well with the image of fascist concretions. But crucially Irigaray offers a ground for the infinite project of becoming feminine in religion. Her cry for the embodiment of the divine within the feminine is rooted in her belief that the centrality of the divine throughout history points to some exteriority without which the process of human becoming cannot be sustained. She writes:

God is the other that we absolutely cannot be without. In order to become, we need some shadowy perception of achievement; not a fixed objective… a cohesion and a horizon that assures us the passage between past and future, the bridge of a present that remembers, that is not sheer oblivion and loss, not a crumbling away of existence.43

This divinity has held a privileged place in Euro-American theological discourse, which as the dominant discourse has been the locus for the suppression of a feminine subjectivity emerging in
40 41

Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, 200. Luce Irigaray, “The Question of the Other,” Yale French Studies, 87 (1995): 9. 42 Irigaray, “The Question of the Other,” 10. 43 Luce Irigaray, Sexes and Genealogies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 67. Emphasis in original text.


Euro-American societies. But, by realizing a ‘herself-God’ as at once an immanent manifestation of the embodied transcendence of feminine subjectivity, and as the ever-proximate horizon of becoming, the binary phallocentrism of Euro-American discourses is shattered. So a dynamic, irruptive space may be created, in which feminine subjectivity is intuitively brought forth as an infinite project protected by an absolute presence that remembers.

Theological Hermeneutics, A Method for an Eminently Practical Theology The event of understanding offered in the work of Ashby has its clearest interpretative resonance here, from the position of absolute lack, where the creation of identity can only be conceived with the aide of the infinite possibility of the divine. Through the recovery of a cohesive identity by the retelling and re-performance of Joshua’s story in his conjure, Ashby sees a way to restore full humanity to African-Americans, by creating a vision of what ought-to-be,

[T]he moral authority of ‘ought to be’ carries with it a moral power whose force has the capacity to break out of imposed negative identities. In this new place with the power to create a more life-giving experience, African Americans can fashion an identity that transcends the limits imposed by the dominant society.44

The despised bodies of feminine subjects and African-Americans can become sites of memory, instantiated within history by the deliberate and consistent effort to coalesce power around one moment in history, a moment which could become the site of the divine address if we but had the ears to hear. These moments are re-rooted in the past, a past that has been forgotten by the myopic gaze of the dominant world. To recapture these lost memories and allow them to resonate with the divine address heralds the infinite possibility of the not-yet, as an infinite

Ashby, Our Home is Over Jordan, 138.


horizon projects what ought-to-be from the eternal memory of the divine. The encounter with the divine is to be found in the midst of the event of understanding. For here is where we are addressed by another voice and another world, one which disturbs and disrupts our present horizons with a momentary blindness and, in turn, a shedding of the scales which cover our eyes. The new vision which comes with the passing of our blindness is one with a profound recognition of the past, one now both our own and that of another. We are taken up into a collective memory in which can be found an echo of the divine word, which speaks of the possibilities of being-in-the-world as it reveals and grounds our multiple efforts to realise our humanity. It is an acute hermeneutical encounter, in which we step beyond ourselves through another’s world and so encounter our own world anew. Such an experience must result in the radical application of our new understanding, as our sense of self and the world are transformed. For our fundamental agency remains, mediated through the horizons of our world, and we are therefore implicated in the need to disseminate this new vision, to instigate hermeneutical encounters among those who remain blind to the presence of the kingdom amidst the sacred stories of the Other. We must entreat them to welcome the encounter, to lead them through its paths as the revelation of infinite possibility begins to transform our limited and finite visioning through the story told by another. Only in such an act of phronesis can I, as a hermeneut, participate in Ashby’s struggle as I call others to hear his prophetic denunciation of the arborescent concretions of power. The limited horizons of which he exposes by the reiteration of another way of being-in-the-world, one that is given the weight of history by the conjuring of a forgotten memory that resonates with the divine word, an address which forever lies outwith our final grasp at the boundaries of being itself.


However, the patterning of such an event through the theories in the midst of which I struggle to be-in-the-world contains an eminent danger, as my worldview comes to fix my horizon. Yet the encounter with such texts as Ashby’s heralds the possibility of a continual process of transformation. But only if I attend to artistry of my reading, only if I cultivate a sensitivity to the presence of the divine word in other worlds, and only if I am willing to be heard to being through the words of another. As the hermeneutical cycle continues to shift throughout history I will be brought up short again and again by the excess of multiple traditions and subjectivities, whose retelling of collective memories continually re-establishes the flow of time around their sense of being-in-the-world. As I allow the coalescing power of these remembrances to effect my own subjectivity, my own traditions and memories come to participate in a diffuse time, in which the infinite possibility of the divine moves, heralding what ought-to-be. Human narratives, sites of power and memory, are only ever arbitrary delineations of history; representing the cohesive effort to account for one’s experience of the world. A theological hermeneutics sees these efforts as an important and constitutive effort in response to the possibility of the divine word apprehended in the eyes of another. But it is only ever a provisional act, situating oneself and one’s people within the shifting sands of time. As a practical theologian, part of my role is to ensure this passage of time; deferring final realizations of identity by reflecting upon my encounters with other worlds. It is a conscious act of bringing forth the event of understanding, allowing its phronetic resonance to attune my continued efforts to attend to the appearance of the divine word and its infinite possibilities. The narrative which emerges from this effort will always be open, to the wisdom of my own tradition and that of another. In this way we can sustain a powerful solidarity with the poor and oppressed,


who, from the underside of the streams of power, can exert a decisive moral authority in the pronouncement of another world: one within which the justice and the authority of divine possibility, being the heralding of the kingdom itself, is to be found.


Bibliography Ashby, Homer U. Our Home is Over Jordan. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Continuum, 2006. Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Irigaray, Luce. “The Question of the Other,” Yale French Studies, 87 (1995): 7-19. Maddox, Randy L. “Practical Theology: A Discipline in Search of a Definition,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 18 (1991): 159-169 Veling, Terry A. Practical Theology: On Earth as it is in Heaven. New York: Orbis Books, 2005.


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