The Christianity of an Empty Word

I have been forced by the circumstance of life to acknowledge there are two forms of Christianity which cannot abide together. There is a Christianity which is observable as a distinct form of life and there is the religion which people join. In one form, “Christ has died so that we do not have to” and in the other is the recognition that we are to imitate Christ. It is not simply that there is a problem with Christians who transgress (evil Christians, mean Christians, unloving Christians); rather there is a transgressive form of Christianity which colludes with those who crucify.

There are Christians, as I previously pointed out, who are part of the mob at the lynching tree rather than the defenders of the scapegoat, the oppressed, and the marginalized. As Benjamin Corey observes, Christianity (perhaps for the majority) has become a static religion rather than an adjective describing those who would be “little Christs.”1 This institutionalized religion has a “bizarre” concept of “salvation” that marks itself, not by doing what Jesus said, but simply through formal acknowledgment (accepting Jesus, being baptized, etc.). John calls this a religion of the tongue and opposes it to an authentic Christianity of deeds (I John 3:18).

This word or tongue religion has a definitive history which I here introduce in two parts. First, I want to make it clear that describing it as a religion of words is not simply a rhetorical flourish but is a description of the parameters in which this religion operates. It is quite literally a religion which functions through the manipulation of human language and which imagines that language per se contains the truth. The disconnect between words and deeds is a manifestation of the empty nature of the words and the fact that the speakers of this language are deceived as to its power and origin. Modernity and postmodernity can, respectively, be defined in terms of an understanding which takes human language as constituting a world and the recognized emptiness (the deconstruction) of this supposed world. In this, as both Hegel and Derrida would have it, modernity is simply a repetition or return to the presumption of the lie which marks the Fall (they both give us a reading of Genesis 3). The loss of human agency due to taking up an empty word (propagating a lie) is not simply the problem of modernity, it is the human problem.

Second, I will tie this to a specific doctrine of the atonement in which words and the place of language (rather than any sort of lived reality) are made primary. Below I take the small step of showing how Anselm of Canterbury sets up the solution of coming to God by turning inward and reflecting upon himself. His entire project depends upon this turn and it accords with the form of Christianity disconnected from doing and only concerned with words.

So, I will begin in the very broadest manner so as to locate how sin itself is a turn to language which by its very nature corrupts human agency (in which thought cannot be carried over into action). Then I will briefly indicate how this sin system is the point of departure in the predominant theory of atonement worked out by Anselm. (In subsequent blogs, I will expand upon and prove the case of which I am here introducing).

The Turn from God’s Word to a Human Word

The story of sin and salvation begins with the Word of creation in Genesis and ends with the Word of re-creation related by John in his Gospel and in Revelation. Between creation and recreation, the Word of God is challenged by the word of man. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil constitutes an alternative word in which man would become the arbiter of his own ethic and with Babel he would constitute his own world. The idolatrous kingdoms set up subsequent to Babel culminate in the kingdom of the antichrist, described in Revelation as the summation of a world and word which would constitute itself as a counter to the Word of God. In Jesus’ description in John, one is either a native speaker of a language founded on a lie by a liar or one turns to the true Word of God.

The Human Project as Spelled out in Philosophy

The philosopher who has best captured the world building capacities of Babel is Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel, in his reading of Genesis 3, imagines that we need the binary opposites of good and evil obtained in the Fall so as to become cognizant beings. His history of everything, summing up logic, philosophy and psychology is a demonstration of the work of this human word and is the philosophical equivalent of Babel. Hegel presumes to storm the heavens through the dialectic provided by the binary of human language. For Hegel, the word of man delivers reality, up to and including God. Modernity is Hegelian in its hubris but Hegel is not simply modern. He might serve as an adequate summary of the movement of human thought between creation and re-creation. As David Bentley Hart has described it, one can either be an orthodox Christian or Hegelian.2 In biblical terms there is either the Word of God (Christ) or the word of man (antichrist).

Postmodern thought does not move beyond Hegel but it is a demonstration of the nihilism or emptiness of Hegel. Jacques Derrida claims to be doing nothing other than an examination of Hegel – but at the same time Derrida’s work is a demonstration of the closed nature of modernity and Hegelianism. Derrida, though, is not simply critiquing modernity as his deconstruction is as broad as Hegel. So, just as Hegel begins from Genesis 3 so as to tell us the history of everything, Derrida counters Hegel by offering an alternative reading of Genesis 3. Where Hegel imagines, we need the Fall so as to pass into mature thought, Derrida demonstrates the self-referential nature of the knowledge of good and evil. The entire construct presumes (from the Hegelian/human/serpentine perspective) to be able to mediate divine presence and absolute human presence (you will be like gods and you will not die). Derrida, however, shows that the dialectic is played out over an absolute absence (God has removed himself and there is no access to life or presence).

Derrida’s reading of Genesis is not unlike his reading of Freud’s day of baby-sitting (recounted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Freud’s grandson enters into language playing a hide and seek game with a spool, which Freud speculates provides the child control over presence and absence. But, as Derrida points out, the presence and absence being manipulated is simply a sign (a game) played out in the absence of his mother. Language cannot produce either divine or human presence but is simply a substitute played out in the midst of absence. Hegel and Derrida stand as a belated warning to a mode of theology and a theory of the atonement which would turn to human interiority and human language as the foundation of redemption (finding the presence of God in human words). Western theology will become primarily focused on divine and human interiority and the logic/law/language of redemption.

The Confusion of the Human and Divine Word

It is Anselm that bequeaths to the Western world a theological/philosophical system intent on establishing its own foundations with a turn to human interiority and language. There is with Anselm the development of a closed mode of argumentation which creates the “necessity” of his conclusions. Anselm assumes, as Wittgenstein puts it, “the sense of the world as a limited whole.” Anselm’s philosophical and theological project fits the Hegelian mode of ascending to the essence of the divine through an interior and closed dialectic (to paraphrase the Genie of Aladdin – “the infinite power of the universe in a very tiny space”). The drive is at once to encompass the whole (mysticism) and to establish the means of ascending to this height (rationalism). As Gregory Shufreider describes it, Anselm is the first rational mystic and Heidegger is the last rational mystic as they both posit the notion that truth resides in language per se. It is no accident that Heidegger echoes Anselm in his reification of language (and his negativity). “For strictly, it is language that speaks. Man first speaks when, and only when, he responds to language by listening to its appeal.”3 Heidegger’s turn toward nothing and death as absolutes containing the ultimate human authenticity seems to be making explicit a theme present in Anselm. Heidegger was following Anselm, as both saw language as something like the call of a divine voice. They both seek to use metaphysics to get beyond the boundaries of everyday language, and they both seem to describe an unfulfilled desire that they would satisfy with the limit experience of silence and nothing. This desire, which Wittgenstein came to see as the impetus to the philosophical (theological) program of the West, is due to the idea that “the essence is hidden from us.” Richard Rorty calls it an “obsession with this image of something deeply hidden” and describes it as, “This attempt to avoid relatedness, to think a single thought which is not simply a node in a web of other thoughts, to speak a word which has meaning even though it has no place in a social practice, is the urge to find a place which, if not above the heavens, is at least beyond chatter.”4

The place to which Anselm will turn to find this singular word which encompasses and rises above the chatter is within himself. He reasons that Christ is not a multiplicity of words but a singular word. Just as Christ is the singular word from which the world proceeds, so too within us is that word or place of language which we come to when the multiplicity of words has ceased. When one rightly remembers himself the chatter of words ceases and one arrives at the word within from which all other words arise. A Zen Buddhist preparing for enlightenment could conceivably follow his preparatory instructions without departing from his normal practice. “Flee your busy tasks, put aside for a moment the confusion of your thoughts, discard now your distracting cares and postpone your busy labors. Free yourself, rest a while, Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, exclude everything… close the door” (P 1 p. 103 GS). Only in the deep silence of the inner chamber of your mind will you come to the silent essence of the word. The method depends upon elements already existing in the soul, and it is only a matter of exercising the will and reason to make this “understanding” explicit.

The ordinary voice or word is only an outward indicator of a more “essential” and abiding reality that is so named because words or the voice seem to mark the point closest to the “psychological” or spiritual interiority he is pursuing. He will gradually eliminate from the “word” any ordinary content and will reduce it to a metaphorical “breath.” The word is at once central to his theology and it is at the same time that which is furthest removed from any positive content. To give it any content would be to defeat its role as the absolute that it plays in Anselm’s rationality. Everything depends upon this word and it depends upon it not appearing (through content or ordinary language). To speak of a “reified voice” is to begin from the depths of human interiority where what is reified is a place of absence or negativity within the self. Yet, for Anselm arriving at this word or place of language within is the equivalent of special revelation.

The rational mind is the only created thing that is able to rise to the task of investigating the supreme nature, but it itself is, thereby, that through which it may come closest to finding something out about it. The obvious inference, then, is that the efficacy of the mind’s ascent to knowledge of the supreme nature (Being) is in direct proportion to the enthusiasm of its intent to learn about itself. And, insofar as it forgets to look to itself, it falls from its reflection on the supreme nature (M 66, pp. 72 73).

The place of Being, at least that place that is open to inspection, does not lie outside of reason or rationality as reason’s object, but within. The rational soul must turn its gaze upon itself in an attempt to see mirrored there the essence of itself as “the rational mind (is) that which comes closest to the supreme essence in virtue of its natural essence (M 66, p. 72).” There is a word, a name, a subject, that is somehow both present and absent within the rational soul that requires earnest devotion “to learning its own nature.” One can rise “to knowledge of the supreme nature” (Being) due to the “natural essence” which in its likeness to the supreme essence accounts for the mind as its own proper object of study. The words that are sought in this perfecting of the rational vision are those with which the creator expressed himself in creation and so, as part of the expression of the creator the rational mind need only look within to discover the word with which it is expressed.

Attaining God through the Word of Man with the Help of Christ

Anselm will not depart, even in his atonement theory, from his reflection upon himself so as to attain the divine image. His project of explaining the death of Christ demonstrates that Christ’s death enables right reflection upon the self (empowering the will) so as to attain God. As he explains, the “will of a rational creature” is obliged to be subject to God by its “willing of rectitude or righteousness” and this rectitude is a presence in the will that can only be defined as the “will rightly willing itself.” The gap in the will interrupting self-sameness is closed or bridged by the death of Christ. Christ died so that one might attain, within himself, the divine presence which was always just out of reach.

Anselm gives us a theory of Christianity completely removed from ethics or modeling our lives after Christ. One need only turn inward to find Christ waiting. As far as I know, Derrida never engaged Anselm but here is the perfect illustration of his point that language is a game in pursuit of presence played out over absence. Anselm presumes to find the divine presence in the silence and emptiness he encounters within himself. He reifies this absence and pronounces that it is the presence of God.

I would suggest that in Anselm we find the doctrinal foundation for a Christianity caught up in words and removed from deeds.

1 See the recent Patheos article by Benjamin Corey, “There’s Only Two Types Of “Christian” (And You Should Be Able To Tell The Difference)” (February 14, 2017”).

2 Hart may mean this only in the narrower sense of the doctrine of God.

3 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 216.

4 Richard Rorty, “Wittgenstein, Heidegger and the Reification of Language,” in Essays on Heidegger and Others, Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 65.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.