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.

* * *

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.

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§ 8 Responses to The Erotics of Theology

  • Nes says:

    How about a potentially annoying reversal? Theology doesn’t become erotic, but rather eroticism is a shadow of the theological. The idea of marriage (obviously entailing physical union) as a symbol the relationship between God and man isn’t such a new idea after all.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    I don’t find it an annoying reversal at all. Would seem fitting of the dialectal logic. The problem would be, I suppose, if we identified “the theological” as the only solid that cast such shadows. I would resist this.

    Interesting that you bring up marriage. Elsewhere I have introduced this relationship in terms of “engagement” — suggesting both a promise & a combat. The union of marriage itself seems at once too realized and final to me — at least in its symbolism and language, if not its reality. In any event, the “relationship” between man and God, I believe, because it is purely symbol and language, eclipses the symbols and language we wrap it in.

  • Brad Johnson says:

    That last comment perhaps sounds more mystical than I intend it to be.

  • Nes says:

    The idea of marriage as something “final” is one I find interesting. I suspect it is because, as you said, it involves a kind symbolic language centering around “forever” – marriage today is initiated by a ritual that stipulates something has “happened.” But of course, in reality, this isn’t how marriage plays out. It is a day-to-day combat to fulfill the initial ritualistic promises, so in this way, I understand marriage very much like the way you present the idea of “engagement”.

    I think of something like the book of Hosea in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, where this whole analogy of “the relationship between God and man” is fully fleshed out. In this source, marriage is combat, and a rather bitter one at that.

    Anyhow, I sense you’re right in resisting the impulse to identify the “theological” (what is this, after all?) as the source of such shadows. In order to justify this claim, one would have to present a sufficient definition of the theological, and we both know that those kinds of academic endeavors are fraught with contention. Best not to get into that here!

  • Brad Johnson says:

    Yes, best not indeed. It is not even something I think I define all that well in the book I’m excerpting here. Alas.

  • Robert Minto says:

    The stuff on laughter here is fascinating. i sent it to a friend of mine who’s main interest is the philosophical theorization of humor, and it proved to be the source of a fascinating discussion.

    I got hold of your dissertation a while ago, but now I’m getting the urge to sit down and actually read it. =)

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