The Erotics of Theology
August 30, 2012 § 8 Comments
For those who don’t know, in my former life, deceased for not too long, I was an academic. Despite not being religious for a very long time, my interest in religion has not really waned. (This will surprise no one who reads this site regularly.)
I don’t discuss this much here, explicitly anyway. It could be said that I don’t discuss much of anything. But for some reason I felt like today I wanted to share something from my past, which in at least one form still infects the present.
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While reflecting on the Jewish proverb, “Man thinks, God laughs,” Milan Kundera cannot help but wonder why this God might be laughing. His conclusion is appropriate to our dilemma: because “man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man’s thought diverges from another’s. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.” In its expectations of beginnings and endings that stabilize meaning and significance, and thus seek to fill an absence, humanity misses the joke, and, too, the “sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” that Kant ascribes to laughter. As we will see, though, the intensity of this excessive “nothing” is a joke that can easily get out of hand. The punch line of reality is too much, leaving us in stitches on the floor with our most insane of laughs, screaming between snorts “No! Stop! No more!” — unsure whether we mean it or not. . . . What we find, nevertheless, is that amidst the apparent chaos of laughter and repetition, theology is neither stymied nor silenced by its impossible task. . . .
Might we strip it bare, this question theology asks and/or is asked, to get beneath its textual, textile surfaces, and behold it in its natural glory? Moreover, might we yet behold the question of theology’s character, for us the fundamental problem of theology, in its essential, naked truth and origin, as it strives to understand all it can of, and indeed to fashion the very categories of thinking about, God?
And yet, we cannot stop here. For, indeed, what would be the character of this undressing? Would it be forced or consensual, violence or foreplay? When surfaces are compound, when theology’s flesh is textual and textile (i.e., published, bound, and disseminated in an endless array of monographs), its undressing cannot go simply skin-deep. Like the instrument of torture in Kafka’s fable, “In the Penal Colony,” where vibrating needles engrave into the skin of the convicted his or her transgression, the piercing of theology is a sort of tattooing and judgment thought to unveil its fundamental truth. . . .
The theologian’s desire to assess and judge theology strictly as an object follows a similar path. For, indeed, both the Commandant and theologian are exemplary models of the Freudian ego, which in its early development “wants to incorporate [its] object into itself, and . . . wants to do so by devouring it.” Like Kafka’s tale, the theologian’s most ingenious and meticulous attempt at dissection and analysis, aimed to bring his/her object into accordance with a rule and/or method — be it through systemizing, narrating, or even deconstructing — is both a verdict and a death sentence.
[. . .]
Has not the more common modern tendency been for the theologian to peek inside and grasp, as though pursuing the semblance of a science? To become, in other words, like the infant observed in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde:
Unquestionably there lies deeply rooted in the nature of man a desire to eat everything he loves and put every new object he encounters immediately into his mouth in order to break it down. A healthy hunger for knowledge makes him want to apprehend the objects completely, to penetrate and bite through to its inmost core.
Indeed, in the Christian tradition, the theologian’s desire to “know” God — specifically, what lies beneath the fleshly masquerade of the Incarnation — has often taken on an overtly sexual tone. In his study of depictions of the Crucifixion in medieval Europe, for instance, Richard Trexler notes that it was customary for Jesus’ crucified body to be regarded as a “volume to be penetrated.” Hence we find Jesus appearing and quickly embracing Rupert von Deutz in a dream, kissing him, and then opening his mouth, “so that I could kiss him more deeply.” Battista Varani is even more literal with his desired penetration when he expresses the wish to wriggle into Christ’s dying body in search of his heart. In this way, theology itself becomes its own sacrament: that into which traditionally the theologian cannot help gaze or probe, and from which the theologian cannot be differentiated.