Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality

Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 448
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    Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality
    Book Description:

    The ancient doctrine of negative theology or apophasis-the attempt to describe God by speaking only of what cannot be said about the divine perfection and goodness-has taken on new life in the concern with language and its limits that preoccupies much postmodern philosophy, theology, and related disciplines. How does this mystical tradition intersect with the concern with material bodies that is simultaneously a focus in these areas? This volume pursues the unlikely conjunction of apophasis and the body, not for the cachet of the cutting edgebut rather out of an ethical passion for the integrity of all creaturely bodies as they are caughtup in various ideological mechanisms-religious, theological, political, economic-that threaten their dignity and material well-being. The contributors, a diverse collection of scholars in theology, philosophy, history, and biblical studies, rethink the relationship between the concrete tradition of negative theology and apophatic discourses widely construed. They further endeavor to link these to the theological theme of incarnation and more general issues of embodiment, sexuality, and cosmology. Along the way, they engage and deploy the resources of contextual and liberation theology, post-structuralism, postcolonialism, process thought, and feminism.The result not only recasts the nature and possibilities of theological discourse but explores the possibilities of academic discussion across and beyond disciplines in concrete engagement with the well-being of bodies, both organic and inorganic. The volume interrogates the complex capacities of religious discourse both to threaten and positively to draw upon the material well-being of creation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4743-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Apophatic bodies. If the phrase stops the reader short, perplexes, provokes a pause, it will have begun to do its work. Indeed, the modifier “apophatic”—that which “unsays” or “says away”—presses toward the pause and the silence within language. It pauses before the unknowable infinity of:bodies?

    Surely not! The ancient tradition of apophasis, or negative theology, concerns itself with the infinity called “God.” It says and unsays talk about that God. It falls speechless before a mystery that inspires more speech in the next moment. Surely the paradox entailed in this traditional apophatic gesture is mind-bending enough—speaking...


    • The Cloud of the Impossible: Embodiment and Apophasis
      (pp. 25-44)

      “Apophatic bodies.” for instance. The phrase verges on the oxymoronic, lacking the oppositional elegance of, say, “languages of unsaying” or “brilliant darkness.” Its multiplying bodies obstruct the path of a cleaner deconstruction, let alone the way of a higher negation. Just so it confronts us. We can’t all be expected to voice a fifteenth-century Cusan enthusiasm: “[T]he more that cloud of impossibility is recognized as obscure and impossible, the more truly the necessity shines forth.”¹

      Apophatic theology has little to (un)say about bodies, whereas it speaks volumes about that which it deems worthy of unsaying.² Bound inextricably to a Neoplatonic...

    • Subtle Embodiments: Imagining the Holy in Late Antiquity
      (pp. 45-58)

      From the fourth century through the seventh, late ancient Christianity fostered the development of three remarkable movements—the cult of the saints, the cult of relics, and the production of iconic art—all of which were premised on the conviction that the material world—particularly in the form of the human body—was a locus of spiritual presence. This dignifying of “matter” raised what became urgent issues: the problem of idolatry, understood as investing the material world with too much meaning, and the consequent need to articulate how the holy could be present in the contingent order in a nonidolatrous...

    • “Being Neither Oneself Nor Someone Else”: The Apophatic Anthropology of Dionysius the Areopagite
      (pp. 59-76)

      Recent interest in the negative, or apophatic, mystical tradition prompts us to consider that tradition’s foremost late antique spokesman, Dionysius the Areopagite, or, as he is often called, “Pseudo-Dionysius.”¹ This is not the first time that Dionysius has seemed peculiarly relevant to contemporary concerns: in the sixth-century Christological debates, in the eighth-century Iconoclastic controversy, in the fourteenth-century Hesychast movement, and in the Italian Renaissance, thinkers turned to the Areopagite and submitted his small corpus—four short treatises and ten letters—to rigorous attention.² To these periods we may add our own, when the burning interest in Dionysius is reflected in...


    • Bodies without Wholes: Apophatic Excess and Fragmentation in Augustine’s City of God
      (pp. 79-93)

      One can easily discover in Augustine “the elements of a negative theology,” as Vladimir Lossky observed in 1954.¹ Yet if the North African theologian positively embraces adocta ignorantia,² this ignorance is not without limit, as Lossky also notes. A forgotten knowledge limns Augustine’s unknowing.³ His is a queer apophasis, then—an apophasis of confession, not least. In confession, there is always more to say—and to unsay. One never gets to the bottom of it all, for no utterance is ever quite right. The self eludes language as surely as God does.

      David Dawson writes regarding the necessary inadequacy...

    • Bodies Still Unrisen, Events Still Unsaid: A Hermeneutic of Bodies without Flesh
      (pp. 94-116)

      Only those who are unfamiliar with theology would be surprised to hear that theology is all about bodies, very corporeal bodies, mystical bodies, bodies politic, but also what Saint Paul called thesoma pneumatikon(1 Cor 15),¹ a certain “spiritual body,” which, if there is such a thing, is my special interest here. Of all these visible but slightly immaterial and insubstantial incarnations one body in particular stands out, the “risen body” in the New Testament, which I treat as a focal body. It is upon just such a body that Christian theology has turned from of old. It marks...

    • In the Image of the Invisible
      (pp. 117-134)

      Christian theologians often maintain that God is incomprehensible, beyond human powers of positive explication through concepts and speech, because God is without limits or bounds. God is without limits of time, being framed by no beginning or end. Existing in perfect simplicity, God is without internal limits or boundaries dividing the divine nature into manageable component parts or aspects for our comprehension. The absolute fullness of being and goodness, God transcends all divisions between kinds and exceeds all bounds of a particular nature or mode of being that might allow God to be set alongside others or encompassed by anything...


    • “The Body Is No Body”
      (pp. 137-146)

      The problem with the thematic of “aphophatic bodies”—even if one could in some way manage to conceptualize the near oxymoronic nature of the phrase—is not the word “apophasis,” which is well known from the tradition of mystical or negative theology.¹ What is really problematic is the so-called body. Presumably, if the “body” is truly apophatic, like resurrection bodies, ethereal bodies, and subtle bodies, it must be, as Wallace Stevens has said, “no body to be seen.” Then to what does the word refer?

      Sarah Coakley has observed that an “obsessive interest in the ‘body,’ ” which is a...

    • Revisioning the Body Apophatically: Incarnation and the Acosmic Naturalism of Habad Hasidism
      (pp. 147-199)

      The expression “apophatic body” strikes the ear as a pairing of words that do not sit together so easily. What, after all, is it to speak of a body about which nothing can be spoken? From both the commonsense and more erudite perspectives, it would seem that the body, however we are to conceive it, presents itself with a gravitas that makes it hard, if not impossible, to depict it apophatically. How would we take hold of such a body? How would such a body take hold of us?

      In considering the matter more circumspectly, however, one comes to appreciate...

    • Bodies of the Void: Polyphilia and Theoplicity
      (pp. 200-224)

      What is an “apophatic body”? Is there a phenomenology of “apophatic bodies”? Probably not! Instead of an essentializing definition, let me try this: The “apophatic body” is a paradox that lives from anegation, an “un-naming” or “un-signifying” that is a twofold process of “negating bodying” and “bodying negating.” What is negated?What is un-, and in this way,embodied? It is the “What”—essence—itself! ThisWhatthat cannot be named or signified, isun-bodied. However, in un-naming “essence,” we do not negate the process of “bodying,” but “what” is negating it, fixating it, pre-stabilizing it as theThat...


    • The Metaphysics of the Body
      (pp. 227-250)

      What I am intending in this essay is to make some moves toward the construction of a metaphysics of the body. I embark on such a venture rejecting the dualism of physical and metaphysical, materiality and spirituality, nature and culture. What I mean by metaphysical with respect to the body is the system of values pertaining to embodimentthrough whichembodiment is viewed, shaped, and performed. These are moral values such as goodness, social values such as justice, aesthetic values such as beauty, and claims to truth or the way things are. There is no materiality as such, then; materiality...

    • Emptying Apophasis of Deception: Considering a Duplicitous Kierkegaardian Declaration
      (pp. 251-272)

      Beginning a series of supposedly edifying remarks with the declaration that one is always wrong is likely to raise suspicion. Yet this is the central thrust of the text that will be the primary concern of this essay, the sermon of Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, the Jutland Pastor. The central meditation of this subversive supplement to the multivoicedEither/Oris that “The upbuilding lies in the thought that in relation to God we are always in the wrong.”¹ For an audience of discerning listeners, this might serve as a good indication to stop listening or abruptly exit. Such an admonition may lead...

    • Feminist Theology and the Sensible Unsaying of Mysticism
      (pp. 273-285)

      The literary theorist Anne-Marie Priest argues that if poststructural scholars of religion have pointed out the connections between Derridean deconstruction and negative theology, the affinities between feminist theories of sexual difference and negative theology have been less explored. By reading the early texts of philosopher Luce Irigaray on alterity and sexual difference, Priest claims apophatic practices at the heart of contemporary feminism of difference. She maintains that for those feminists who affirm sexual difference, woman-as-the-Other holds a place similar to that held by God for apophatic theologians. Priest writes, “As an apophatic mystic of ‘woman,’ then, Irigaray sheds light on...

    • The Infinite Found in Human Form: Intertwinings of Cosmology and Incarnation
      (pp. 286-304)

      Enough has already been said in praise of the Unsayable that I will not add my voice to the chorus—not that my silence on the merits of the Ineffable reflects any lack of conviction on the topic. In fact,wereI to allow myself to write the panegyric on the virtues of the Unsayable that my fingers are even now itching to write, it would be driven above all by an ethical and political motivation: the drive to challenge literalists who transform holy mysteries into their own univocal possession. Incalculable social and political damage has been done whereverincarnatio...


    • The Apophasis of Divine Freedom: Saving “the Name” and the Neighbor from Human Mastery
      (pp. 307-328)

      The general interest that provides the context for this essay emerges from what is often called, these days, the postmodern “turn” to religion and theology. This “turn” refers to a growing body of theologically minded work centered on the thought of Derrida and Levinas (but not to the exclusion of other postmodern thinkers), especially in the wake of Derrida’s own deconstructive “turn” to the theme of religion. This is a theological current that is fast becoming a cottage industry, at least in the United States. What I find particularly interesting about this emerging arena of postmodern discourse, and what constitutes...

    • Let It Be: Finding Grace with God through the Gelassenheit of the Annunciation
      (pp. 329-348)

      In this essay I read the narrative of the Annunciation as a text that describes a phenomenological event, an event in which there is a manifestation of the divine to an experiencing subject. Using the understanding of releasement that flows from Meister Eckhart to Angelus Silesius to Martin Heidegger, I propose to create a theoretical framework for interpreting the Annunciation as a moment of releasement, orGelassenheit. Since this reading is primarily phenomenological, the essay will begin with a discussion of the theological possibilities present in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. These possibilities will then be interwoven...

    • Intimate Mysteries: The Apophatics of Sensible Love
      (pp. 349-366)

      “I am a little discouraged,” Hélène Cixous laments to her beloved; “I shall never have the strength nor the time to write something worthy of you. Would I do better to remain silent?” For “to say you, multimillionly of you, that goes beyond all possibilities, even the imaginary ones, of ever producing a successful stroke of writing. Yet,” she confesses, “I do not have the courage not to write: I write to you, I write myself to you.” Flowing from the most intimate of human love, this apophatic dilemma torments Cixous far more than cautious attempts to (not) speak of...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 367-464)
  11. List of Contributors
    (pp. 465-468)