The Unrecognizable God

Jean-Luc Marion, in God Without Being, says that one must “obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology,” a remark that I have quoted more than once.  The theologian requires this forgiveness, according to Marion, because “theology consists precisely in saying that for which only another can answer.”  For this reason, and for others, I need forgiveness for what I am about to write.  If there is one who can answer for it, I am certainly not that one, but I will write it nevertheless.

What I will write is that I am confronted by something that I might call the unrecognizability of God, by which I mean, not the nonapperance of God, for I will unjustifiably assume this appearance in advance, but the impossibility of recognizing the God who appears.  This God, the God who appears, the God who is revealed, the God who would in Christian terms be called the Christ, is unrecognizable because he must always appear according to the measure of human understanding.  To whatever degree the Christ might be said to be the appearance of God, a degree that is traditionally held to be absolute, he must still appear only in the limited ways that the human mind can comprehend.  To appear in other ways would be not to appear at all, at least not to human minds.  Yet, by appearing only according to the limits of human understanding, the Christ can never be recognized definitively and unmistakably as God.  The Christ can only appear as human, never as God.

This is why even John the Baptist, the one who prophesied that the Christ was soon to come, the one who baptised him, the one who witnessed the Holy Spirit descend on him, the one who heard a voice from heaven affirming him as the son of God, sends disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the Christ or if they should expect another.  This is why Mary Magdalene sees and speaks with Jesus when he approaches her as she mourns at his apparently empty tomb, but does not know him until he calls her name.  This is why the two disciples on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus for hours, speak with him about the scriptures, and invite him into their home, but do not recognize him until he breaks bread for them.  This is why the eleven remaining disciples, those who were closest to Jesus, see him on the beach, speak with him, obey him when he tells them to drop their nets in the other side of the boat, but do not know him until their nets are miraculously filled.

Again and again, those who would most be expected to recognize Jesus as the Christ fail even to recognize him as the Jesus they have followed and served.  It is as if there is some quality in him, or some quality in his appearing, that hides him from them.  Though they see him, and though they speak to him, they fail to know him for what he is, and even when they do finally recognize him, it does not seem to be through any act of their own.  Christ speaks their names or breaks their bread or fills their nets, and they, quite apart from their own will and activity, find that Christ has become recognized in them, as if according to a will and an act that is not their own.

It is in this way that Anna and Simeon recognize the infant Christ.  They do nothing to effect this recognition.  They simply see him and know him according to a sight and a knowledge that is not their own.  They receive this recognition.  They do not accomplish it.

This is also the case, and more explicitly, when Jesus, many years later, asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Though the disciples initially defer the responsibility of this question, choosing instead to offer the opinions of other people, Jesus is insistent, and it is finally Peter who says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  It is then that Christ makes clear that it is not Peter who has in fact recognized him for the Christ.  “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you,” he tells Peter, “but my Father who is in heaven.”

When the Christ is recognized, therefore, it is not a recognition of God by the human.  It is a recognition of God by God that merely takes place in and through the human.  Peter does not himself recognize the Christ, does not recognize the appearance of God as such.  It is God who recognizes God in and through Peter.  The movement is entirely distinct from Peter, occurring through him rather than by him.  The recognition of Jesus as the Christ occurs apart from any act of Peter’s own.

Of course, it may be argued, and with some justice, that the Christ is recognized through Peter because Peter has actively pursued this recognition, actively made himself open to it, actively sought so that he might find it.  I will not deny this.  I will only insist that, however good and right these activities might be, whatever role they might play in determining whether God will indeed perform this recognition in Peter, none of them are capable of accomplishing the recognition of the Christ as such.  Only God accomplishes this recognition in him.  Only God recognizes God.  Peter can merely ask that this recognition might occur in him.

I think that this structure of recognition is essential, not essential to God, surely, for nothing can be said about the essence of God, but essential to how God appears to us: it is not sufficient that God appear to us, because we can never recognize God for what God is.  It is always necessary also that God recognize God through us and in us, for only God can accomplish this recognition.

This means, of course, that any recognition of God will be radically without guarantee, since no logic and no proof will suffice to effect this recognition or to demonstrate it, even to myself.  This is why the recognition of the Christ can never become a knowledge.  If it is a knowing, it is a knowing that is otherwise than knowledge, a knowing that might be called better, if still inadequately, a faith.

When I say, therefore, “This is the Christ, the son of the living God,” this confession can never justify a coercive or militant religiosity.  It can only be a cry or an exclamation, like a gasp of pain or pleasure.  It must only be my own recognition, always inadequate, of what has been recognized in and through me, always without guarantee.

  1. Tom Abel said:

    Great post Luke. I just finished reading a book called “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism” by James KA Smith, which examines the applicability of certain aspects of postmodern philosophy to a Christian worldview. One of the ideas that he considers is deconstructionism as advanced by Jacques Derrida, which challenges the idea that something is only true if it’s objective, or able to be fully understood by anyone who uses basic reason. In contrast to many Enlightenment thinkers who claim that there really is are universal conclusions that can be rationally demonstrated, he suggests that many aspects of life (and faith) that are incarnated in different ways for different people. This doesn’t mean that truth doesn’t exist; it’s just that everyone doesn’t experience it in the same way.

    Smith builds on Derrida’s thought in asserting that one of the downfalls of the modern church is that it traditionally equates knowledge with certainty. Under this false paradigm, one would claim that God is “recognizable” (or knowable) if we could be “certain” about His character – hence the endless efforts of apologetics to empirically “prove” the Christian God’s existence and preeminence. In the place of this flawed tradition, Smith proposes a church of “radical orthodoxy”, which, instead of making knowledge of God contingent on the amount that you can undoubtedly prove, equates our knowledge of Him to the degree that He reveals himself to us. In his words, “we confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.” I thought this emphasis placed on revelation and the origin of knowledge of God complements some of the points you’re trying to make in your post. Although I could be totally wrong!

    Just got your e-mail – looks like Nate is going to have to hold down the paint on his own this Friday! Have a good time visiting your relatives.

  2. Tom,

    James K. A Smith is the leading American figure in a mostly British movement that is actually called Radical Orthodoxy. I have not yet read Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, but I have read his Speech and Theology, disagreeing with it in several substantial respects. I often disagree also with the ostensible leader of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, John Milbank, though for very different reasons. Of all of those associated with the movement, I most enjoy Katherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. I find their thinking both more subtle and more rigorous. I recommend particularly Ward’s book, Barthes, Derrida, and the Language of Theology, though I do not have a copy to lend you.

    You should come for coffee sometime. It is difficult to talk about these kinds of things while shooting hoops.

  3. Tom Abel said:

    I guess to say that Smith “proposes” a church of radical orthodoxy is to give him a bit too much credit, as it is definitely becoming a popular movement. Bad choice of words!

    That said, this was my first real introduction to it, so I really don’t have a broad perspective on it’s theology yet. I’ll check out some of those authors you mentioned, and we should definitely discuss them over coffee sometime! I agree with you that it might be hard to incorporate these things into trash talk….

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