Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Witnessing: Barth, Cixous, and the Art of Writing

"Witnessing means pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another. Witnessing is thus service to this other in which the witness vouches for the truth of the other, the service which consists in referring to this other...Standing in this service, the biblical witnesses point beyond themselves...One might recall John the Baptist in Grunewald's Crucifixion, especially his prodigious index finger. Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely ('he must increase, but I must decrease')...This is what the Fourth Evangelist wanted to say about this John, and therefore about another John, and therefore quite unmistakably about every 'John.'" Karl Barth, CD I.1.4.3, 109-110 [112].

So much to say about this painting--but we are only following one path here, the path to which Barth points us, the path of pointing away. Follow the prodigious finger.

To go ahead and say it: the phallic finger. Prodigious--extraordinary in size, abnormal, a miracle perhaps. Or a monstrosity. Perhaps all--that prodigious finger is not an end in itself. What it is--abnormal, excessive, monster, miracle--comes not from within, but from without. From where it points. Or, to whom. But Barth is right: it is a prodigious finger/phallus.

The object of desire, the one to whom the finger points: the monstrosity of (as) Christ. The prodigy, prodigium, Latin for monster. Or omen. Christ, the prodigy, the monstrous omen. "The prodigy is not only prewarning, but activation of the calamity at hand" (__Greek and Indo-European Etymology in Action: Proto-Indo-European *aǵ-__, Raimo Anttila, 114). The prodigious finger pointing away, pointing to the prodigy, the calamity at hand, the death of Christ.

Here we enter into the undoing. The phallic finger does not inscribe itself. It is not the goal, or object of attention. It exists in the painting as a sign, as a witness, as something to move past. It is magnified, enlarged, made prodigious so as to draw attention to its shrinking. Above the finger, it is written: he must increase but I must decrease. Enlarged, to draw attention to its shrinking. To his shrinking. To he shrinking.

Let us turn from shrinking and look at the large--and grotesque--feet of Christ. With the nail through the center, and blood dripping off the individual toes. The feet must have died first. They look ashen; even more than the rest of the dead, diseased, broken, bloody body. (I remember stories, in the Bible, about covering feet, and laying at the feet, and recall: a euphemism). Prodigious, dead feet.

Jesus' hands are also unusual. His fingers point--not to another person in the painting, but to the one absent, God, above. If there were time--I'm trying not to ramble...--we could examine those hands. One other person imitates those splayed fingers--Mary Magdalene, the smallest figure in the painting. Also, the only other one (besides Jesus) who isn't standing on her feet. The prodigious finger, pointing away from itself, towards the one with opened, uncontrolled, grasping hands. And thoroughly dead feet. (He came in the likeness of sinful flesh...).

"Writing is a passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me--the other that I am and am not, that I don't know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live--that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?--a feminine one, a masculine one, some?--several, some unknown, which is indeed what gives me the desire to know and from which all life soars. This peopling gives neither rest nor security, always disturbs the relationship to "reality," produces an uncertainty that gets in the way of the subject's socialization. It is distressing, it wears you out; and for men, this permeability, this nonexclusion is a threat, something intolerable" (Cixous, Sorties, in __The Newly Born Woman__, 86).

The permeability, the vulnerability, speaks of the end of self-mastery. Christ is the end of self-mastery. The death of human autonomy (self-government); the shriveling up of the enlarged...feet. For men, this is a threat. He must increase, I must decrease. The object of desire--the one to whom John's prodigious finger points--the crucified Christ. The death of the "phallogocentric" economy. Desired. Desirable. Lovely and teeming with life.

Cixous emphasizes writing; she performs a new writing, one not intoxicated by the desire to contain, conquer, control. Free from self-mastery, which involves (by necessity) an opposition to others: I, not you, am master. Beyond mastery, a different space, another way to write, another way to live, another way to relate. She thinks she's merely dreaming.

"Without the ambivalence, the liability to misunderstanding and the vulnerability with which [preaching] takes place, with which it is itself one event among many others, it could not be real proclamation" (Barth, 91 [94]). God speaks--the event of God's Word occurs--not in spite of, but through the weakness of our proclamation. To be a witness is to be weak. To be a witness is to have one's whole life amount to the task of pointing away, of highlighting not the self, but another. Not any other, either. But the Wholly Other--the Weakest Other, God in flesh.

Barth sometimes downplay the importance of the human form, the style of the presentation ("dogmatics does not seek to give a positive, stimulating and edifying presentation," p. 80 [82]). But he fundamentally recognizes its importance. The form does not guarantee that God speaks. God speaks always out of God's freedom. Nevertheless, one can point to Christ in a way that actually points to oneself (the kingdom of the Selfsame, in Cixous' terms). One can witness to one's strength; which means one can point away from Christ, and thus, even in the form of witnessing, one can fail to witness at all. The form matters. The way we write matters. It displays who we think we are, and, by God's grace, the one to whom we point.

To write in a way that embraces the dead, prodigious, monstrous, saving omen of Christ. And his dead feet. A challenge. Joyful, exhilarating, and terrifying. "For men, this permeability, this nonexclusion is a threat." The threat of losing control. "She lets the other tongue of a thousand tongues speak--the tongue, sound without barrier or death" (Sorties, 88). A beautiful picture of the feast we celebrated two weeks ago--Pentecost. Life beyond the dead feet. Come, Holy Spirit.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Thoughts on John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

It was evening on that day, the same day, the first day of the week.  Earlier that day, before the evening gathering, before the doors were locked, when the morning darkness still lingered, Mary Magdalene approached the tomb--we know not why--and saw that the stone no longer blocked the entrance.  The stone had been removed and the  tomb was--empty.  She ran back to the disciples--who had not gone to the tomb with Mary, we know not why--and Peter and John joined her back at the tomb.  They entered into the open tomb, saw the discarded linen wrappings and the carefully folded cloth that had covered Jesus' face, but Jesus was gone.  The disciples did not linger but returned to the house.  

The disciples left, but Mary stayed, weeping outside of the tomb, weeping for the lost body of Jesus.  Two angels appear--though Mary does not see them as angels--and ask her why she is weeping.  She tells them and then, right after she finishes speaking, she sees Jesus standing there--though she thinks him a gardner.  She tells the gardner to help her locate the misplaced body of Jesus, but the gardner speaks her name, and she hears--and then she sees, the Lord.  She returns to the disciples, to the house where, later that same evening, the door will be locked.

When it was evening, on this day, the first day of the week, after Mary, Peter and John had entered the empty tomb, after Mary had heard Jesus' voice call her name and had seen the risen Lord, once the disciples had gathered together, and once the doors of the house where they met had been locked for fear of the Jews, when all of these events had finally lined up (or been strung together), Jesus came and stood among them.

Jesus enters--but not through the door.  Jesus enters through the locked door.  It is no mere demonstration of his power, a new trick, a test drive of the new, resurrected body (I wonder if this thing will pass through walls...).  No, Jesus--whom they now know, or at least should now know to be alive, resurrected--is locked out.  Why?  Fear of the Jews.  

The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.  The place of entry--locked.  Unlike the tomb.  The stone was removed; but the doors were locked.  Why was the stone removed--why not pass through it like the locked doors?  Or, conversely, why not knock on the door?  An open passage way and a closed one.  For the one person who needs no passage way, for the one person who is the passage way (I am the gate...).  

The door, the stone.  The place of transition, and mechanisms to prevent transition:  locked doors, covered tombs.  And the fear of the Jews.  Why are they afraid?  And what good do they think a locked door will do?  You don't have to be resurrected to get past a locked door.  Why are they hiding?  Do they not believe Mary?  Or are they afraid--not only of the Jews, but of Jesus.  Perhaps.  Is it not the case that our fear of others and our fear of God are related?  Our failure to trust God leads to locking the doors against others.  Locking the doors, fearing the Jews, closes us off from God.  The door, the place of transition, is closed.  To "the Jews," and hence also to Jesus.  To lock out "the other" necessitates locking out Jesus.  

Jesus doesn't condemn the locked door.  He bypasses it.  He comes into the place he is excluded.  And his first words, "Peace be with you."  He passes through the blockade and stands in our midst.  He has no need to coerce us into letting him in.  He enters through the locked door, affirms his and our peace, and shows his wounds.  Then the disciples rejoiced.  The order is not peace, rejoice.  But peace, the displaying of his wounds, and then rejoicing because we finally see the Lord (why does Mary not need to see the wounds but only hear her name...?).  

The door that closes out the other, and closes out Jesus, has been circumvented.  Bypassed.  Passed through, and rendered useless.  Peace offered, wounds examined, vision restored--rejoice.  And now, the repetition.  Jesus repeats the peace.  The first peace restored.  What is the point of this new peace?  Is it mere repetition?  No, it is a peace not only to be reconciled, but to be sent out.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Spirit.  

After passing through the locked door, Jesus sends us out.  Out of the locked door.  With the first peace, Jesus bypasses our locked doors.  With the second peace, he sends us out of the room.  Beyond all locked doors.  Sent as Jesus was sent.  By the Father, through the Spirit.  Sent like Jesus, the one whose wounds were just displayed.  Sent out, away from the locked doors.  Sent out vulnerable, weak, compassionate.  Wounded.  Filled with the Holy Spirit.  

It is not a calling we want.  We prefer locked doors.  We would prefer closed tombs.  The one who left the tomb moves through our locked doors.  The first peace is scary, but comforting.  The one we love--alive, and at peace with us.  But the second peace--to be sent out, like him, that is too much.  We do not want it.  We cannot sustain it.  We like our locked doors.  Receive the Holy Spirit.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  How can we retain the sins of any if we are sent out in the form, pattern, and image of Jesus, the one sent to subsume all sin?  How can we refuse to forgive sin when we know we would rather lock our doors and hide in our self-created (and hence false!) sense of security?  We who are terrified of that second peace--and thus know ourselves to be sinners--how can we do anything but rejoice in the forgiveness of sins?  

The Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of him who came bypassed all barriers, who is himself the point of transition, the Spirit of this one, the risen Jesus, given to us.  Not offered to us (would you like the Spirit, it's pretty great, it fulfills your needs and will sustain your life, come on, you know you want it, it will really deepen your piety and liturgical performance and social justice...please...).  Not offered or explained, but given.  Before we have a chance to say no.  Before we think again about what he just said, before we realize what it means to be sent as Jesus was sent.  Given to us--as grace.  As encounter.  Regardless of our locked doors, our fears, weakness, insecurity, bigotry, and sinfulness.  Encountered by grace.  Filled by the Spirit, and told:  step out of your hiding place, abandon your post behind locked doors, and be sent--out, unafraid, weak and vulnerable, into a world radically transformed, a world in which all barriers are meaningless because the excluded One has risen.  Sent out.  To a world where there are, ultimately speaking, no "others" because there are no truly locked doors.