catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 8 :: 2002.12.20 — 2003.01.02


Reflecting on the incarnation

Feminist possibilities

During this time of advent and Christmas, as Christians we hear and confess together the familiar narrative about Jesus’ birth, repeating especially the first words of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3a, NRSV). These verses invoke a literally creative word, a word with the power to express not only truthful statements about the world but to perform truth and life actually and fully.

The scripture continues with the story of how this creating word was incarnated in the body of the Christ: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John1:14, NRSV). This radical meeting of the divine and human becomes the central confession of the Christian gospel, pointing to revelation and redemption in and through the life of Jesus.

The incarnation story enacts a radical relationship between language and the body. The word-made-flesh figures a profound intimacy between the creating divine word and the created human body, and we enter into this intimacy when we confess the event of the incarnation. This particular advent, I have been reading the texts of Anne Carson, a Canadian poet and classics scholar, whose own reflections on language identify a particular relationship that is produced between ourselves and the texts that we read. This relationship is dynamic and pedagogical, transforming readers in potentially traumatic and unforeseen ways. At the centre of Carson’s text, Eros the Bittersweet, lies a possibility that holds critical import for us as readers of scripture: the possibility that reading is like falling in love (84).

In her doctoral research on Greek lyric poetry, Carson discovers a powerful force at work within eros: “Desire moves. Eros is a verb” (17); “properly a noun, desire acts everywhere like a verb. Its action is to reach, and the reach of desire involves every lover in an activity of the imagination” (63). Throughout the text, Carson examines the implications of such a force. She states, “Desire changes the lover” (37), and later reflects, “Change is risk. What makes the risk worthwhile?” (159).

While this question is itself challenging and important, the stakes of the question rise when Carson considers the similarities between desire in love and desire in reading. She states, “Reading and writing change people and change societies” (41). Reflecting on the transformative force at work within both love and reading, she comments, “There would seem to be some resemblance between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker” (70). She asks, then, “Just what is erotic about reading and writing?” (107).

Carson urges us to examine how and why the experiences of falling in love and coming to know seem so alike: “There is something like an electrification in them. They are not like anything else, but they are like each other. How?” (70). In her analyses of classical Greek texts, she discovers that the Greeks’ understanding of eros resonates with the act of seeking knowledge: “In any act of thinking, the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space” (171). According to Carson, the bittersweetness of Eros that the Greeks describe so well is also experienced in the human will to knowledge. Carson’s text, then, points to the potentially traumatic possibility that “lovers and readers have very similar desires. And the desire of each is something paradoxical. As lover you want ice to be ice and yet not melt in your hands. As reader you want knowledge to be knowledge and yet lie fixed on a written page. Such wants cannot help but pain you, at least in part, because they place you at a blind point from which you watch the object of your desire disappear into itself” (145). This blindpoint occurs in and through an active encounter: between a lover and the beloved; between a reader and the text.

Carson writes, “Only a god’s word has no beginning or end” (Eros 76), and the incarnation enables us to contemplate a language that is both divine and human. Carson’s texts have prompted me to wonder what happens affectively and productively when we confess a gospel story like the incarnation. What are the radical affects of our confessions? When we confess in and through an incarnating language, are we thereby opening up ourselves and our discourse to revelation?

As confessional Christians, the language that we speak takes part in the stories that we hold to be revelatory. Poets like Carson can teach us about the importance of attending to the processes of reading and retelling stories. When we begin to wonder about how language affects us and the stories that we tell, the incarnation opens up critical resources for us as Christians to think through the transformative possibilities of language itself. Carson asks, “What does the desirer want from desire? Candidly, he wants to keep on desiring” (136). This on-going movement of eros motivates relations between readers and texts, and I am struck by the resonances between such desire and the faith that we profess. We want our stories to be continually revelatory.

Such a focus on the process of telling gospel stories opens up the possibility that a story like the incarnation maybe be actually performed by the workings of language itself. This seems like a very confessional paradigm to me, echoing the radical Calvinist call to confess the gospel within all aspects of life. We cannot separate our own language from the stories themselves. However, within such a radical invocation of grace within not only specific narratives but within language itself, what challenges do we inevitably encounter to how we actually read and speak the gospel?

We find ourselves implicated here by challenges posed by contemporary thinkers who interrogate the stories enacted by language itself as it relays narratives like the incarnation. For example, Luce Irigaray, a contemporary feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst, teaches us to listen not only to what a canonical story is itself stating but also to the stories at work within the concept of language that is relaying the story. Language itself holds within it foundational stories, according to her critical engagement with Western philosophy and theology. Examining the creation story, Irigaray states, “As our tradition dictates, man originates from God, and woman from man. As long as the female generic ‘woman’ is not determined as such, this will be true. Women will remain men’s or Man’s creatures. With respect to themselves, and among themselves, they are unable to create, create (for) themselves, especially an ideal, for want of an identity and of mediations. They will be able to criticize their condition, complain, reject themselves or one another, but not establish a new era of History or of culture” (I Love 64). The logic of the creation story, as Irigaray points out, results in a language in which women are unable to participate in the construction of their own subjectivity, of their own relations with each other, with themselves, and with men. Irigaray’s work focuses continually on the need to interrogate language for its complicity in affecting women in life-threatening, injurious ways.

Irigaray’s own story, then, calls for a word-and-flesh incarnating language. Like Carson, she invokes the critical transformative role of texts themselves. A theology of language emerges here which calls for an incarnating relationship between ourselves and language: “Sharing the word does not mean believing: incarnation prevents blind faith, and requires that each person is present and speaking. It is up to us to be faithful to this crossing: body and word. . . . Neither body nor language simply, but incarnation between us: the word being flesh and the flesh word” (To Be 12). This emphasis on an incarnation between us parallels Carson’s exploration of the desire at work between the lover and the beloved, between the reader and the text. Such an incarnation is always in process, always becoming: “Flesh itself becomes spiritual while remaining flesh; affect becomes spirit while remaining love” (I Love 148).

High stakes emerge from such an engagement with the affective force of language. We are able to enter into a more critical awareness of the normativity of narratives like the incarnation story when we situate them within the very operations of language. However, we cannot avoid complex political questions about the normative work of language itself.

Given the gesture that both Carson and Irigaray demonstrate towards an intimacy with stories and texts, what is our understanding as Christians of the relations between our bodies and the incarnating story that we confess? We are encountering a radical affectivity of language here. What do we become when we read? What do we become when we confess the truth of the incarnation? These questions lie at the center of my doctoral dissertation, when we fully engage with a text, what do we risk becoming? Reading is understood here as an event, as a meeting of the body with the text. As Anne Carson points out, the exact moment of falling in love is a “very difficult moment to find, until it is too late. When you are falling in love, it is always already too late” (149). According to Carson’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus, Sokrates tells us that the moment when Eros enters the lover is the most important moment to consider: “To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live. Eros’ mode of takeover is an education: it can teach you the real nature of what is inside you. Once you glimpse that, you can begin to become it” (153).

What becoming are we invoking when we confess the incarnation story? When we speak with an incarnating language, is the Spirit always already at work within our reading and writing? Can and should we always be open to the workings of revelation? In terms of the political risks of staking out the boundaries of normative truth, what happens to dogma or doctrine when we are open to the radical affects of language? Is there an incarnating-becoming that we invoke when we retell the incarnation story or even when we confess the gospel itself? And, to go further, must this be true if we are indeed professing the scriptural narratives as gospel?

Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet. IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.

Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. Trans. Alison Martin. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Luce Irigaray, To Be Two. Trans. Monique M. Rhodes & Marco F. Cocito-Monoc. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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