Very Little, Ultimately Nothing
By David Capener
The dust rests between the tightly woven threads of a stain guarded, polyester-wool mix, design-by-committee, blue church carpet. The dust of years. The dust of ages. The dust of a thousand tongues to sing. The dust of the faithful. The dust of the unfaithful. This is the dust of christenings, weddings, funerals, centenary memorials, dwindling congregations, organ fundraisers, Christmas services and the week-in-week-out ritual delegation of facing life in all its fullness, to the systems of belief wherein we hide our creedal insecurity. This is the dust of a thousand stories.
This is my dust; The dust of disappointment. The dust of the presence of an absence that may never had been a presence at all.
We live in dust.
To think in dust, in the presence of an absence is a dark enterprise. It is a journey through the murky marrow of the sacred. It is to “to strip away the intricate simulacra of clarity that infest modern philosophy and religious reflection.” It is to wake up from our enlightenment coma, and realise that the demon was Descartes all along. To think like this is to stumble; not upwards; not in transcendent figments of wild other-worldly imagination — “when the roll is called up yonder …”. To think like this is to stumble onto the surface, to fall over, and with dirt in our hands remember — we are always someone, saying something, about something, from somewhere. There is no thinking a thought outside of thinking itself. We are here, and here matters. As one philosopher says“If you want transcendence, you will have to construct it yourself” it isn't going “to fall from the sky”: truth without the way to truth is dead.
To live in the absence is to remember that theological thinking must matter now or it doesn't matter at all. It is an immanent endeavour. The direction of this kind of theological thought is not towards a detached transcendent realm, constructed in the imaginations of those who lay claim to special insight or revelation; those content on partying like its 1399 under the banner ‘behold I am making some things new.’ “Revelation is not information about divine things” it is events in persons, and real tangible things. Such manifestations have shaking, transforming, and healing power. The subject matter of this kind of thinking is now — It is everything. Only if nothing matters can our thinking about a God be unsituatied. Nothing can slip through the net of this enquiry. There is no gap between a sacred and secular realm. There are realms intricately folded into each other — a weaving together of possibility, promise, disappointment, hope — and dust.
To think in the presence of an absence is to realise that “the surface of the ordinary world looks different in the context of unrestricted questioning.” This is a ‘God’ who has dirty hands. The hands of those who enquire of this kind of God must also have dirty hands. To think in this way is to think dirty. A thinking that “exploits the strategic deracination of ordinariness”, its beginning is and must always be in the middle of experience. “In the middle of experience, we will be buffeted about by forces of incorrigibility that act upon us. To think in the absence is to be where we all always-already are: in the middle. This task does not begin and it does not end — it is and it insists.
It is a thinking that thinks down, not up; thinks deep, not high. A way of thinking and being in the world that knows “resurrection happens now or it doesn't happen at all”, not “an event that might happen in some remote future,” but an event that is “the power … to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow.”
To think in this way is to cultivate a faith in the possibility of the God who disappears and then prepare to be haunted by the spectre of what remains. “A god disappears : divinity remains”; this is the risk that cannot be removed from the haunting absence of a presence that we were never really sure was a presence at all — the absence of absence. Faith is an altogether risky business. This kind of faith, as theologian Paul Tillich wrote,
risks the vanishing of the concrete god in whom it believes. It may well be that with the vanishing of the god the believer breaks down without being able to reestablish his centred self by a new content of his ultimate concern. This risk cannot be taken away from any act of faith. There is only one point which is a matter not of risk but of immediate certainty and herein lies the greatness and the pain of being human; namely, one’s standing between one’s finitude and one’s potential infinity.
The god’s disappear, we call these idols. Even God disappears, we call this an idol too. It is the God above God; beyond theism or atheism who we seek; there in the divine return, always already returning. To think in the presence of an absence, to think in the dust, is to allow religion to disappear as idolatry, “idolatry being understood here as the human attempt to construct and conceptualise God from our human point of view, from below”. If Christianity is to be more than a faint requiem for a strange age, then it must be the “religion of the exit from religion.” To think in the presence of absence is to think unthinkable things, unsettling things, it is to think, God exit God. In the presence of this kind of absence the best theological response to God is atheism. As C.S Lewis write “My idea of God is not a divine idea.” it is an idea that “has to be shattered time after time.”
Who dares think the thought that his thought, his tradition, tells him he should not think? yet finding the courage to be, to think ‘in spite of’ is to avoid objectifying statements about the depths of existence. Tillich again; “let us avoid giving it names, even the traditional ones of theology. When we do give it names—as we must in speaking of it, or even in silent prayer—then let us always have a yes and a no in our statements”. This is the self-negating quality of a faith that lives in the dust; a religion seeking to overcome religion. For “the relevance of Christianity is asserted by its self-negation. Without this continuous self-negation, Christianity is not true Christianity and is not relevant”. The creeds of such a religion — indeed the creeds of all religions embedded in the deep structure of culture— must be self negating creeds. Creedal expressions of faith in an age of absence must include their own criticism. For every yes a no. This is a recognition that everything else, beyond the possibility for the affirmation of life in the here and now “even religion or non-religion, even Christianity or non-christianity, matters very little—and ultimately nothing.”
In his book Atheism in Christianity Ernst Bloch describes life in dust as a search for a handhold. He writes:
The only thing one can really hold on to is the search for a handhold — the constant feeling that one is on the way to finding it, and the faithful following of the signs. Only that can stand up to disappointment — indeed it needs it if it is to grow in truth. There is no place for children here; they need ready-cooked food from on high. On this road discontent lasts best; its hope is in itself a handhold for the hoper. The best things must be left to simmer slowly, in anticipation, if their promise is ever to be enjoyed.
This is admittedly less than being in really good safe hands; but it is more than any prescribed (and therefore false) handhold can provide, and it has a far higher view of man. It is better, too, than any of those ready-made, pre-flavoured foods that only go to ruin one's real appetite — the appetite for more."
This is a dark theology. A theology of dust. It is to think the “dark intelligible abyss”. For “neither he who affirms nor he who denies God can be ultimately certain about his affirmation or his denial.” All of our creeds, systems, structures, orders, titles, imaginative figurations of a transcendent other-world; our liturgies, offices, doctrines, statements, in the end amount to very little, ultimately nothing. This is the “shadow haunted outside” of thinking in the presence of an absence; that the horror of life is not death but life in the face of death. It can be nothing else. This is hope.
Thus, infinitude haunts finitude and finitude spooks existence; it is the ultimate stranger — the long shadow cast over existence. This unbearable spectre, is, for some, too much and so we seek to cast this shadow onto “unsuspecting strangers who we name our worst enemies”; scapegoats on the altar of our deepest fears. They are a screen, the site of our projections, the body of our protection racket myths. But maybe the most dangerous projection of all is the projection we call God. Like Marion’s idols the light of our projection finds only the hard frosty surface of a mirror; our own gaze staring back at us, but blinded by the light we look on unaware, that the one who is looking is the one, who is in-fact looking right back at us; a spotlight searching out the other, hidden within the self that is itself really just an other — the stranger that spooks. Yet, as Richard Kearney writes “if each of us can accept that we are the strangers, then there are no strangers — only others like ourselves” — like Marion’s icons the light of our projection finds the phenomenal transparency of the other and there may encounter the holy wholly Other, perhaps the site where the divine is most manifest; living, icons. It is here that our deepest fears collapse in on themselves as we realise that the stranger; the other; the enemy, is more like us than we are like our selves. “There is nothing really alien about the alien,” just the ghost of ourselves coming back to haunt the house that it calls home. God disappears and returns, often in the dust, often in face of the one who we might call stranger.
The furies are at home in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the clearest water, if deep enough can drown.
Never think to surprise them.
Your face approaching ever so friendly is the white flag they ignore.
There is no truce with the furies.
A mirror’s temperature is always zero.
It is ice in the veins.
It’s camera is an x-ray.
It is a chalice held out to you in silent communion,
where gaspingly you partake of a shifting identity never your own.
R. S. Thomas, No Truce With The Furies
Central to the act of faith is the possibility of the God who disappears. Central to the possibility of a disappearing God in the midst of faith is to be haunted by the divinity that remains. Faith is not the sole preserve of the Christian, even doubt for the doubter is faith; it is the condition of finitude; which is the condition for an awareness of the possibility of infinitude. The search for infinitude, always seeking someone or something, maybe of the religious kind; an eternity of sorts; or, of the kind that seeks to transcend the mundane — less infinitude and more a self-transcendence. When the risky search for infinitude breaks down, as it does, it has the potential to take the ‘believer’ down with it; rupturing the self — the ‘believer’ may begin the search anew, or so violent was the rupture that they may be turned inside-out and experience a sense of deep mourning, a depth of death — dust. This, if we are to be honest, is the great pain of existence; standing in-between the eerie, haunted space of the finite and the infinite — the echo of humankind here reverberates against the vast walls of deaths shadowy valley; even though I walk, even though I walk, even though I walk, and, and, and, and …
When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are given to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not “something.” But this universal absence is in turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence…There is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm” (Levinas).