He Will Come Like Child

He will come like last leaf’s fall.Nativity of Jesus
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

*From Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems, edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Lawrence Sail, published by Enitharmon . Originally from The Poems of Rowan Williams, published by Perpetua Press

Part I: Fanon, Cone and Carter—On Imposed Narratives, Counter-Narratives and the Christian Narrative

In the closing section of Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon emphasizes the need for the black person to be future-oriented and to actively reject the white-scripted narrative into which he was born while creatively carving out a new present and future.  For Fanon, this meant a willingness to employ violence and to risk his own life so that human beings would no longer “be enslaved on this earth”.[1] Yet, his vision also included a call to human solidarity, a call to blacks and whites and to all human beings to “move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born”.[2]Frantz Fanon

Does his appeal to human solidarity, his repudiation of the past and his refusal to allow the “density of History to determine” his acts mean that Fanon has no interest in his ethnic roots or that he sees no value in highlighting the distinct contributions of people of color?[3] One need not draw such conclusions.  Rather, because he is acutely aware of the power of socio-historical forces to create systematic, racialized mechanisms and eventually essential-ize a people group, Fanon understood the need for a “disalienation” to occur.[4] This disalienation requires that the black person break the bonds of his historical (white) inscription and begin to write his own narrative.  Here we should not overlook Fanon’s affirmation of human free agency even in extreme situations of oppression.  As human beings, we are not determined completely by socio-historical conditions.  However, in the colonial situation where skin color defines in advance a person’s value and his or her place in society, abstract philosophical schemata—such as Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal schema and Hegel’s mythological master/slave dialectic—come up short because they fail to consider the existential reality of racial difference.[5]

Among other things, Fanon’s account of his experience in a white-scripted world points to the human need to understand oneself as part of a larger narrative—a narrative in which both human freedom and cultural and ethnic diversity are valued and respected.  Though the context was slavery and not colonialism and the dissimilarities between the two should be acknowledged, it is instructive to consider the ways in which some African Americans re-constituted their identity by bringing an ancient narrative of oppression and liberation into conversation with their present circumstances.  As Rowan Williams observes, if the dominant group takes on the role of defining the out-group’s identity, we should not be astounded if the latter’s response is, “‘We don’t need you to tell us who we are’.  Certain kinds of separatism are necessary to highlight the reality of a difference that has been overridden by the powerful conscripting the powerless into their story”.[6]

In fact, such a response in the form of counter-narratives of non-white-defined identity and creative strategies of resistance was precisely how many African-American slaves chose to struggle against white oppression and the brutality of American slavery.  Given the theological and specifically Christian approach that my account will discuss, it is necessary to acknowledge that Christianity has not been faithful to its own best teachings related to the issue of slavery.  In fact, under the banner of Christianity and with the “justification” of Scripture, many proclaiming the name of Christ fought to preserve the inhumane institution of slavery.[7] Nonetheless, in spite of such oppression, the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.[8]

This resistance took many forms from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines.  Whatever shape the opposition took, a common conviction driving the slaves’ subversive maneuverings was a refusal to accept the degraded, sub-human existence imposed on them by white masters, coupled with a commitment to assert a self-defined, rather than an other-defined account of black identity.[9] Another area in which resistance manifested itselfwas in what we might call the specifically religious sphere.  “Slave religion”(Cone’s term), which continually asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed “freedom from bondage” but also “freedom-in-bondage”.[10] That is, though Christian slaves did seek an ultimate end to their sufferings in the next life, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now—in their history—“making right what whites had made wrong.  Just as God delivered the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, he will also deliver black people from American slavery”.[11] The spirituals are often inspired by biblical passages which emphasize God’s care for and active involvement in liberating oppressed people, as well as his willingness in the Person of Jesus Christ to enter into an exiled existence and even physically touch the untouchables.

While the black spirituals communicate an abiding trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, they also provide an avenue for the slaves to cry out in their suffering, thus creating their own version of Israel’s “How long, O Lord?”[12] Here we not only have an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done in history and is doing in the present, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced now where injustice often prevails.  When the day finally came and the slaves were freed from their bonds, these African American believers experienced an “eschatological freedom grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future [the eschaton] is inconsistent with the realities of slavery.  Freedom, for black slaves, […] was a historical reality that had transcendent implications”.[13] In other words, even though a form of liberation had come—a proleptic view of the eschaton—the very fact that slavery existed and thus required a decree of emancipation underscores the dislocated character of our present world.   In short, one of the central theological themes of black spirituals is the belief that God has not forsaken his people, coupled with the conviction that he will one day deliver them from their unjust human oppressors.   However, it must be stressed that the faith in view here was not a mere passive waiting for divine deliverance but involved creative strategies of active resistance to a white-defined identity.  “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence.  Resistance made dignity more than just a word to be analyzed philosophically”.[14]

Notwithstanding the genuine differences between Fanon’s colonial (and postcolonial) context and the African-American’s enslaved (and segregated) context, the oppressed in both situations are given an other-scripted narrative—a narrative which is one component of a socio-political, racialized apparatus that seeks to destroy difference.  Whether the narrative comes from “enlightened” Europeans or “Christian” slaveholders, the latter having more in common with the former than with the teachings of Jesus the suffering servant, the goal is domination and a reduction to white sameness.  If in fact colonialism and modern institutions of slavery are fueled by a desire to possess, destroy and re-make others in one’s own (white) image, and Christians who have supported these projects have been in grave error, is it possible to vindicate Christianity so that it might still be considered a valid option for the possibility of saving difference?  J. Kameron Carter believes it is possible and has recently made a case for rescuing Christianity from its perverse instantiations.

In part two, I shall discuss Carter’s reading of Maximus the Confessor.


[1] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 202.

[2] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.

[3] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 205.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 206.  This is not to deny the complicity involved in the black person’s internalization of the negative other-scripted narrative.

[5] This is not to suggest that Fanon’s critique resulted in his repudiation of all philosophical analyses and methodologies.  Rather, Fanon’s project can be seen as a needed corrective and expansion of the philosophical tradition.  On Fanon’s original contributions to the master/slave dialectic, see Nigel Gibson, ‘Dialectical Impasses:  Turning the Table on Hegel and the Black’, parallax 8 (2002), esp. pp. 33-41.  As Gibson explains, ‘[r]eciprocity in the colonial experience is not so much deformed as closed off.  The colour barrier stops the dialectic.  Fanon further maintains that the slave cannot win recognition through labour; since the master wants only work, he is not at all interested in recognition’ (p. 36).

[6] Rowan Williams, ‘Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgement Morning,’ in On Christian Theology, (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2000), p. 281.

[7] See, e.g., James Cone’s discussion of slave catechisms created by white ‘Christians’ for the purpose of producing docile slaves and to attempt to convince slaves that they were in fact created to be slaves (The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 22-23.  Here one sees more continuity with Aristotle’s notion of ‘natural slaves’ than the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God and are therefore equal before God.

[8] As Cone explains, ‘[w]hen white people enslaved Africans, their intention was to dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage.  White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites.  Their intention was to define humanity according to European definitions so that their brutality against Africans could be characterized as civilizing the savages.  But white Europeans did not succeed; and black history is the record of their failure’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, pp. 23-24).

[9] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 25.

[10] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28.  In chapter two, ‘The Black Spirituals and Black Experience’, Cone highlights the numerous ways in which African-American slaves actively resisted the white-imposed narrative and refused to accept the biblical hermeneutic of their ‘Christian’ masters.  ‘The slaves were obliged to create their own religion out of the remnants that were available and useful, both African and Christian.  These elements were woven together to provide a historical possibility for human existence.  While white religion had taught blacks to look for their reward in heaven through obedience to white masters on earth, black slaves were in fact carving out a new style of earthly freedom’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 28; italics added).

[11] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 32.

[12] Commenting on the slaves’ expression of faith in the midst of unjust suffering, Cone writes, ‘[f]aith in the righteousness of God was not easy for black people, since God’s liberating work in the world was not always when they expected it.  Their faith did not cancel the pain of enslavement’ (The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 35).

[13] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 42.

[14] Cone, The Spirituals and The Blues, p. 27.

Part IV: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Walter Lammi, Kathleen Wright, Brice Wachterhauser and others have highlighted Heidegger’s influence on Gadamer.  Gadamer readily acknowledges his indebtedness to Heidegger, after all he was a student of Heidegger’s for many years.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer mentions his use of Heidegger’s “hermeneutical circle” (an on-going movement between whole and part and part and whole in our interpretative endeavors) and embraces Heidegger’s understanding of truth as aletheia (a dialectic of concealment and Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunconcealment), yet Gadamer is also critical of Heidegger.  For example, Gadamer rejects Heidegger’s Seinsvergessenheit thesis (the “forgetfulness of being”) and denies that the Western metaphysical tradition necessarily culminates in nihilism.  In fact, Gadamer detects nihilistic tendencies in Heidegger’s views in the latter’s separation of questions of Being from questions of the human good.  According to Gadamer, Heidegger’s critique of the Western metaphysical tradition fails because he employs a univocal understanding of metaphysics.   Here Gadamer’s study of Plato, particularly the later dialogues causes him to reject Heidegger’s read of Plato as a “metaphysics of presence” advocate.  Gadamer sees the later Plato as endeavoring to work out an ontological vision that overcomes a certain misread of his theory of Ideas, viz. the interpretation that the Ideas constitute a separate realm (i.e. a view of the Ideas that suggests a strong dualism in Plato).   Instead, Gadamer interprets the later Plato as sharing similarities with Aristotle (non-dualistic) and developing what subsequent thinkers have called the “transcendentals” (good, true, unity, beauty etc.).   Gadamer argues that the center of Plato’s thought is not the theory of the Forms but rather the relationship of the One and the Many.  On Gadamer’s read, there is a kind of “movement” in the Forms in that when they reveal themselves they simultaneously conceal themselves (i.e., in their relation to the whole, that is, the other Forms and of course the ever-elusive Form of the Good).  Thus, for Gadamer, Plato does not promote a “metaphysics of presence” philosophy.  Rather, he acknowledges our finitude and our incomplete (yet real) grasp of the Forms.

Reappropriation of Platonic Insights:  “Metaphysics of Light”

At the end of Truth and Method, Gadamer turns explicitly to Plato’s view of beauty and self-validating truth.  Beauty is that which draws us to itself; it shines forth and presents itself as tangible in its visibility.   Truth likewise exhibits radiance and manifests itself in the beautiful, thus functioning as a “mediator” between the ideal and the real.  Given his rejection of the modern foundationalist project and its attempt to make knowledge completely transparent along with its search for a “method” to justify its every move, Gadamer suggests that an appropriation of this ancient version of self-validating truth, in which knowledge is not identified with certainty, is a possible way beyond the impasse of skepticism and the ruins of (modern) foundationalism.

In keeping with the overall vision of his dialogical, hermeneutical project, Gadamer continues his “fusion of horizons,” interacting with both ancient and modern thinkers and philosophical traditions and suggesting a way forward through an appropriation of the past and present so that the tradition can continue to speak, flourish and “surprise” us and generations to come.

Part III: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Another key aspect to Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics is his emphasis on human finitude.  Here Gadamer’s understanding of history and language comes into play, as these function as two conditions of our all our knowledge endeavors.  We cannot fully comprehend these conditions, as their origins stretch back into a past that escapes our complete grasp.  Yet, Gadamer believes firmly that we do in fact have some, though limited and partial, knowledge of these conditions even if we cannot make either fully transparent to ourselves.  In this vein, Gadamer speaks of Wirkungsgeschichte (“effective history”).  For example, we are not fully aware of the extent to which language shapes and “makes” us.  As Gadamer puts it, “Language is always out in front of us.”  The same is true of culture, tradition and customs.  (If you have ever spent any significant time outside of your own culture, this cultural “shaping” becomes readily evident).  Likewise, we see “effective history” in the various ways in which different communities of inquiry employ certain analogies, as well as choose (and reject) certain metaphors etc.  Language, in other words, is pregnant with tradition, culture and in fact opens up a world to us (Heidegger)—a world unlike the mere “environment” of non-rational animals who lack the kind of freedom we as linguistic, rational beings have.Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzwei

Here I should discuss Gadamer’s well-known but often misunderstood statement, “Being that can be understood is language.”  First, Gadamer does not mean that words create reality.  As Charles Taylor, B. Wachterhauser, Joel Weinsheimer and Robert Sokolowski argue, Gadamer is not a linguistic constructivist.  On Gadamer’s account, both language and reality “participate” in intelligibility.  The function of language (at least one function) is to enhance the intelligibility of the already intelligible world.  There is no re-doubling of the interpreter in the otherwise uninitelligible world in Gadamer’s account.  Rather, language functions as a lens that makes reality come into sharper focus than would be the case if language were absent.  Thus, language does not stand between us and reality, as a kind of shroud or hindrance.  Language functions instead as a “medium” through which we gain access to the world—it has a kind of “iconic” function.  I emphasize the world to highlight the fact that Gadamer is a realist (cf. Wachterhauser, Beyond BeingGadamer’s Post Platonic Ontology, and Robert Sokolowski, An Introduction to Phenomenology).  Though we no doubt have our horizons, are conditioned by culture, history and language, we are not trapped in our horizons or imprisoned by our prejudices and thus cut off from the things themselves.  Gadamer is adamant that as rational, linguistic beings, we are free to step back, reflect and allow the world (and texts) to disconfirm our “projections”.

In addition to the intelligibility of both language and reality, Gadamer emphasizes the Zugehorigkeit (“belongingness”) of language and thought.  What may come to as a surprise to many is Gadamer’s interaction and largely positive, though not uncritical, appropriation of both the ancient and medieval traditions.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer devotes significant space to a discussion of the “theology of the verbum,” interacting with Greek theories, as well as, the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa.  Gadamer rejects the medieval view of a pure, mental language, as in his account we always think in a particular (natural) languages.  Yet, Gadamer employs the medieval, Christian teaching of the unity of the Father and the (pre-incarnate) Son, as well as St. Thomas’ discussion of the “processual” nature of this relationship in order to explicate his own theory of the “belongingness” of thought and language.  Just as the Father and the Son/Word share exhibit both a unity (in substance) and diversity (they are different Persons), thought and language share a similar unity or prior accord prior but are not reducible to each other.  As the Word “proceeds” from the Father (non-temporally), so thought unfolds “within” the mind (think of the way deductive reasoning unfolds) which is an image of the discursive nature of our thinking.  Yet, as noted above (and here the dis-anaologies enter), Gadamer rejects Augustine and Aquinas’ view of a pure, mental language, focusing instead of the various “incarnations” of natural languages (even prior to their utterances “outside” the mind).  Here Gadamer appeals to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation in which Christ’s taking to Himself of human flesh (and one might add à la J. Kameron Carter, Christ’s particular Jewish flesh) in no way de-values his divinity.   Similarly, the incarnation of thought by particular natural languages does not hinder intelligibility; yet, given our finitude, each language opens up partial yet true views of the world.  (In this section and with regard to our finitude, Gadamer highlights the difference between the discursive nature of our knowledge and God’s knowing in one intuition).

Wachterhauser provides another way to understand Gadamer’s notion of the “belongingness” of thought and language and the “productive” function of language in connection with reality.  Gadamer speaks of language as symbol, that is, as a symbolon in the Greek sense.  In ancient Greece, a member of one family would break a piece of pottery into two halves, keeping one half and giving the second to the member of the other family.  The pieces were then handed down through the various generations of each respective family.  If a member of one family (born at a later date) presented his half of the broken piece of pottery to a member of the other family, the pieces would be re-united, showing the prior accord of their families.  The pottery functioned not as a mere empty sign but actually effected what it symbolized.  Similarly, language and thought exhibit a unity prior to the various (extramental) utterances and dialogical encounters with others in which language gives us access to and enhances (already intelligible) reality.

Wachterhauser then turns to Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ myth of how humans have to come in their present state to further elucidate the unity of thought and language, as well as the “achievement” of language—here emphasizing its creative function as employed by free, rational beings.  As Aristophones explains, originally humans were spherical and needed no “other” to complete them sexually or otherwise.  However, due to their arrogance they upset the gods who then divided them and turned their sexual organs outward (as we find humans in their present form).  Given this “fall” and division, humans now seek an “other” for completion, and here the emphasis is on sexual completion.   Just as the two halves of the lovers share a prior unity, so too do thought and language.  Yet, the new completion for which the lovers seek is not predetermined or predestined.  That is, a kind of achievement or work of sorts must occur.   Here the analogy turns to the work required for true hermeneutical engagement and transformation.  In order for the interpreter to be transformed by the alterity of the text, s/he cannot exhibit the characteristics of a false lover.  A false lover is not interested in what the other has to say; rather, s/he simply re-creates her/himself in the other.  By contrast, a true lover allows the other to speak, to call her/him into question and thus is open to the “event” of understanding which exhibits a “surprise” character.

Part II: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

As mentioned in my opening post, Gadamer’s overall project in Truth and Method is plausibly Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunderstood as an attempt to work out the notion of identity-and-difference as manifest in hermeneutical experience.   That is, on Gadamer’s view the “being” of texts (and works of art and music) exhibit a flexibility which allows for multiple, true interpretations, as different communities of inquiry approach the text with new questions.  Yet, these multiple, true and very diverse (yet non-contradictory) interpretations are of the very same text or work or art/music and thus exhibit an identity through time.  In this view, interpretation is not mere re-production but involves a productive aspect given the new questions and new “horizon fusings” that take place as various communities of inquiry engage the texts of the tradition over time.  Here Gadamer speaks in phenomenological language, using terms like “aspects” (=the multiple, true interpretations) and “things themselves” (=the subject matter of the text).

As I’ve suggested on numerous occasions, a helpful way to understand what Gadamer has in mind with his view of the expansive “being” of texts is to consider  a musical analogy .  In jazz, the performer works with a “lead sheet” (something akin to a text) which contains a given melody and harmonic progression.  Thus, there certain givens/structures to which the performer must submit.  However, various performers interpret the (very same) piece differently and bring out new aspects not seen—or rather heard—up to that point.  This is not to suggest a kind of hermeneutical anarchy, as the interpretation/performance must be recognizable by particular musical community/tradition as a valid instance of that particular piece.  Likewise, the performer cannot simply impose onto the piece whatever harmony s/he chooses.  To do so would be to produce an illegitimate interpretation, just as imputing any meaning onto a text would likewise not count as a valid interpretation.  Because the “being” of musical works (like texts and works of art) contain this built-in-flexibility, multiple, true interpretations are not only possible but to be expected. However, in order to count as valid, legitimate, true interpretations, they must exhibit continuity with the tradition in that each (to use Gadamer’s term) “aspect” manifests the thing itself in its presentation, though no two aspects are exactly the same.  This flexibility allows the tradition to grow and continue its influence through time, as the “being” of texts and works of art show themselves differently in different historical epochs, yet they retain continuity with the tradition. (Though some scholars have begun to explore the ways in which Gadamer’s work might be brought into conversion with the development of religious traditions, including Christianity, there is certainly room for additional work in this area.  Those working in biblical hermeneutics have, of course, already enjoyed the fruits of his labors).