Originally published at Groundmotive.net.
The other month I discussed the decentred nature of identity, attributing the decenteredness to the fact that decision-making-selves are different from, yet dependant on determinate actions. In a similar spirit, this post focuses on the liminal moment of decision and the tension that provides its (non)foundation.
Since reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in undergrad, I’ve struggled to understand conversion. What happens in the moment of repentance, for example? How is any decision made at all, for that matter?
Although most activities involve little decision making—my fingers flow quite unintentionally across the keyboard—decisions do at the very least seem to occur. We observe them most clearly when our routine is rudely interrupted, when for example, a slow moving elderly women impedes one’s commute. Moments of confrontation call us to account for our otherwise habitual actions, requiring a decision—do we stop to help carry her luggage or jump to the other side of the stairs?
Jacques Derrida argues that every decision must pass through a crucible of the undecidable. By this he means that although a responsible decision should be a well-considered one, action never waits for reflection. At the moment of confrontation, when the elderly woman queues ahead of us, the question “what should I do?” is already a response and an action taken. The immediacy of action leaves no time to reflect. One is responsible even before she wants to be. As a result, decisions always occur in a moment of ignorance, in non-decision. No amount of time or reflective resources would solve this dilemma—the problem is inherent in the phenomenon itself. As Derrida citing Kierkegaard writes, “The instant of decision is a madness.”
Part 1, Part 2
A final noteworthy point, in consideration of household codes, is the fact that the call to peace between Jew and Gentile mirrors Paul’s later call for peace between husband and wife; child and parent; and master and slave. Yoder argues that the household codes promote peace and, at the same time, undermines its own hierarchical structures. In the same way, Paul applies the principles revealed through the mystery of Christ to the barriers dividing Jews and Gentiles, arguing that they are to be dismantled when they fail to establish unity, the very principle on which they were founded. Given Yoder’s argument, there is a clear parallel between the performative function of the household codes and the work of the mystery, which Paul is called to administer.
Household codes embody the tension between unity and the temptation to undermine destructive modes of identification. On the one hand, household codes as explained by Yoder, have an inner egalitarian logic that undermine hierarchical power structures, while on the other, they promote cohesive relations between members of society. Paul negotiates a fine line, arguing that Christ subverts identity structure, and encourages believers to identify as a determinate group or person. A well functioning community requires its members to make determinate decisions regarding ethics and identity. Without these decisions, the unity Paul desires to see made present in the world would remain an abstract principle. Yet, these determinate actions must also be suspended when they fail to live up to the principle of unity, which they endeavor to embody. Thanks to the power of Christ, movement is now possible between determinate actions and the principles they make present. Identities are not decreed by fate or immune to change, rather they must be negotiated in a context, responding to historical needs of a community or individual. Continue reading
If you take the time to explore the building just off James St. North on Cannon, you might stumble upon a fantastic little community called The Commons. It was at The Commons that I met Matt Thompson, a kindred spirit who persuaded me to join him on a trip to Baltimore to hear John D. Caputo at an event hosted by Home Brewed Christianity. Last spring, Matt Thompson, Adam Getty and myself were rewarded, with not only the opportunity to hear Jack speak, but also a chance of sharing a beer with him.
After some discussion, we felt that it would be beneficial to open up the conversation to others at the Commons and in our networks. Although we had originally planned on reading one of Caputo’s texts, we’ve opted to read Peter Rollins‘ book “How (Not) to Speak of God.“
As a way of beginning, I thought it would be good to make some preliminary remarks on my own relationship to the text and thereby situate some of my own commentary.
Although there are many points of reference between Caputo, Rollins and myself, the point that brings us together is an admiration of Derrida and “deconstruction.” One way I’ve learned to approach deconstruction, through my work at ICS, is by thinking about the movement between determinate action and the principles that inspire it (Caputo often uses the words “name” and “event” to describe this dynamic). Attempts by law to respond to the call of justice is an example of the movement between determinate action (law) and principles that inspire it (justice). When injustice, like poverty occurs in a community, justice demands that we take responsible action. An action to this effect might result in a law that alleviates pressure on the poor by providing affordable housing. In this way, determinate action, in the form of law, brings about justice. Determinate actions, therefore, enable or reveal the presence of the principle. Yet, this action is always partial. As a community grows and changes with time, using the money allocated for affordable housing elsewhere, like rehab centers for example, might prove to be a more just course of action. This demonstrates that determinate action cannot replace the principle it attempts to embody. The two are not interchangeable because actions are always determinate and particular, while principles, like justice, demand universality. As a result, we must always be willing to suspend the consequences of determinate action in the name of the principle that they attempt to follow. Deconstruction describes the necessity of both determinate action and universal principles while appreciating the call and response movement between them. As Christians we often try to articulate this dynamic by discussing the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Continue reading
Part 1, Part 3
This post outlines egalitarian movement in the first half of Ephesians and addresses the contradiction between such a movement and the patriarchal emphasis in the household code at the end of the epistle. Three observations are made which help explain this difficulty. First, Paul’s sees it has his mission to reveal the consequences of what he identifies as “the mystery.” The consequences of this mystery relativize modes of identity formation. Second, this mystery serve as a temptation to undermine oppressive systems by empowering the disenfranchised. Finally, it is argued that the household codes are an attempt, by Paul, to walk a fine line between holding identities open to critique, while at the same time encouraging unity.
In an effort to support the claim that the mystery revealed by Christ possesses the power to relativize fixed identity structures, we will begin in Chapter one, with Paul’s complex doxology. For exegetical purposes, I have divided the doxology into five sections:
(a) 1.4-5: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–
(b) 1.6-7: To the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins,
(c) 1.8: in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
(d) 1.9: And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,
(e) 1.10: to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment–to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. Continue reading
On March 14th I’ll be presenting a paper titled, “Ephesians and the Household Code: a Conversation with John H. Yoder” at TST’s Advanced Degree Students’ Association Theology Conference. I plan on posting a version of this paper here in four parts.
As a preface, in addition to the influence of Yoder, my treatment of both the household codes and the mystery found in Ephesians, is informed by a tension schematized by Derrida in many different ways throughout his work. In both Ephesians and Yoder’s treatment of household codes, this tension is revealed between the need for a determinate identity and the need to hold identities open to reevaluation and change. In Ephesians, Paul encourages a mode of negotiating or living in this tension that fosters health rather than death.
“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5.23-24
I have attended a number of weddings where couples include a reference to this verse in their vows, stressing that the woman shall submit to her husband. Ironically, more times than not, if my newly-wed friends were honest with each other, they would admit the inverse is true of the power dynamics in their relationship. Yet, I still find the inclusion of such a misogynistic sentiment a tad disturbing. These verses are associated with what biblical scholars call Haustafeln, that is, the New Testament (NT) household codes; and they have been an enduring conflict for biblical interpreters throughout the modern era. From abolitionism to women suffrage, household codes have garnered a variety of (sometimes contradictory) interpretations, having been read as oppressive and liberating. Since these verses continue to impact Christian communities, they require repeated readings that consider their past, present, and future relevance.