Real Presence as Opposed to Deferred Meaning

Japanese is a language suited to a people concerned to gauge response (agreement or disagreement), and aiming to gain consensus, in that the meaning of a sentence is not clear from the beginning or middle but only becomes clear at the end. The statement can be turned to a negation, a question, or the subject changed all-together according to the ending of the final word of the sentence. What might seem a bold declaration can be turned round, softened, or negated, depending on how it is being received. Jacques Derrida saw this deferral of meaning as characteristic of writing and language in general, so that the entire signifying chain holds out a meaning that is deferred so that the subject/Subject is continually being uncoiled in speech.

Just as in Japanese, faced with a run on sentence, the meaning or substance of speech is always in process but never arriving. Derrida tried to capture this in his neologism “différance,” in which the changed vowel cannot be detected from the way it sounds. What the added letter indicates is that language is built on difference: the different letters and contrasting sounds or the different meanings of words compared to other words creates meaning, so that it is only through contrast and difference that meaning unfolds along an endless signifying chain. To attach some substantive element, some final meaning, or some essence or presence to the Subject speaking due to his speech, contains the deception inherent to language.

An object endures through time due to its static nature, but language does not endure but rather passes away as soon as it arises. It has no enduring being. One who is coming to his identity in and through language is subject to the fate of language. Thus, what Derrida means by his new word concerns the death dealing nature of language: “The a of différance, thus, is not heard; it remains silent, secret and discreet as a tomb: oikesis.”[1] Tomb in Greek, oikesis, is akin to the Greek oikos (house) from which the word “economy” derives. Thus, to dwell in the house of language is to dwell in the house and economy of death. “And thereby let us anticipate the delineation of a site, the familial residence and tomb of the proper’ in which is produced, by différance, the economy of death.”[2] A Subject put into pursuit of an object, or identity as an object (the ego, or the notion of an enclosed self-subsistent center), through language is involved in an impossible contradiction.

Jacques Lacan would do for the human psyche what Derrida did for the text, finding there the pursuit of identity and presence through a three-sided play of language.  Following Freud, he finds in the compulsion to repeat a key to human self-destructiveness. Where Freud grounded the compulsion in a biological need to return to the stable material realm, Lacan explains the compulsion as arising from language and the struggle to establish the self in and through language. Lacan connects the compulsion to repeat to the ‘insistence of the signifier’ or the ‘insistence of the signifying chain’ or the insistence of the letter as a means to establish the self. To be present to the self or to have a self-presence gives rise to the compulsion to repeat so as to gain the self. He connects the compulsion to death in the “death drive” or “death instinct.”[3]

In the death drive one would be integrated into the signifying chain, converting the word into flesh (body and ego), simultaneously immortalizing the flesh through the word and its endless play. Thus, Lacan concludes the death instinct is “the mask of the symbolic order” of language (Seminar II, 326). The death instinct is the “insistence to be” through language.

Lacan, followed by Slavoj Žižek, considered his explanation of the human psyche as an extrapolation from the Apostle Paul. Paul is laying out this framework primarily in Romans, but is building upon the Hebrew Scriptures, dealing with the fall, with the law, and picturing both the human predicament and its resolution in Christ as arising from the economy described in Scripture. The knowledge of good and evil, the law, idolatry, or simply the “letter” in Paul’s depiction, kills. In the language of cabalists, Adam makes knowledge his own destiny and his own specific power.[4] So too with Paul, the law is not inherently deadly but the tendency is to reify it or make it substantive and by this means lend substance to the one who takes up the letter. The letter kills as no life or Spirit is to be found in the letter of the law.

Another approach to the same idea is to be found in the spectacle of the idol. The idol (the visual) is invested with substance through language. It is made a divine spectacle, not because the wood or metal from which it is crafted contains peculiar properties, but because it is invested with divine power through language.

A way of putting this that taps into the entire biblical economy is that God’s presence is displaced where the letter, where the knowledge of good and evil, or where the idol displaces that presence. That is, the economy of presence and absence which Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek, attached primarily to language is an economy that originally pertains to God’s presence. The letter kills as it cannot produce the presence which comes from God alone.   

In the economy of the Bible, the presence or absence of God is determinative of success or failure and is equated with life or death or truth and lies. From the opening verses of Genesis, God’s presence in the Garden represented by the Tree of Life, and by his walking in the Garden in the “cool of the day,” means all is well. With the entry of sin, access to God, to the Garden, and to the Tree of Life are cut off (Gen 3)

As the Psalmist indicates, “the nearness of God is my good” (Ps 73:28). God’s presence is equated with life and joy (Ps 16:11) and there is nothing better than to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to behold his beauty and “meditate in His temple” (Ps 27:4). The presence of God is portrayed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the equivalent of fulness of life and blessing. God assures Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Israel in general that he will be with them, and so there is no cause for fear as they will endure and be successful. As God says to Moses, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex 33:14).[5]

Likewise, salvation in the New Testament is equated with having access to the presence of God: “for through Him (Christ) we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18); “in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him” (Eph 3:12). Partaking of the body of Christ (Luke 22:19-22), receiving the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8:9-11), entering the Holy of Holies (the very presence of God) (Heb. 10:19), and inhabiting the City of God, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21) are all equated with salvation. This presence gives eternal life, peace, love, joy, hope, forgiveness, freedom from sin, and access to God in prayer.

However, what is meant by Christ’s or God’s presence, is not an instance of presence in general but it carries a peculiar and specific meaning in Scripture. The presence of God pertains to God’s indwelling and active presence, comingled with the person in whom this presence is manifest. The presence of God is equated with the Gospel, with grace and with truth. It is “constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Col 1:6). This presence has obtained a hold on believers: “Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you” (2 Pe 1:12). This presence is an ever-increasing reality culminating in the final presence or Parousia of Christ but present now in and through the believers: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming?” (1 Th 2:19). As the saints “increase and abound in love for one another” they are established “without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (1 Th 3:12–13). In and through his presence a process of sanctifying preservation is enacted which will be secured with the final Presence/Parousia: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 5:23). There must be an active pursuit of this abiding presence: “abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (1 Jn 2:28).

God’s presence is not simply an effect of language, the absorption of or in an idea, or the repetition of a divine formula. Nor is God’s presence simply that God is nearby. God’s presence accomplishes what the failed pursuit of the letter attempts. The human word made flesh, ossifies, entombs, and kills while God’s Word made flesh brings about the comingling of the divine and human. In the same way that Jesus Christ is both God and man, so too those who take on his identity experience this hypostasis.

Maximus the Confessor’s description of the person of Christ describes the manner in which there is a real presence in the life of every believer:

He does the things of man,according to a supreme union involving no change, showing that the human energy is conjoined with the divine power, since the human nature, united without confusion to the divine nature, is completely penetrated by it, with absolutely no part of it remaining separate from the divinity to which it was united, having been assumed according to hypostasis. (Amb. 5.14)

He assumed our being that we might assume His, joining together His Spirit as the substance of our life and His body as our continued incarnation of the Word. Through this Word Christians “become partakers of the divine nature” (I Pet. 1:4) and escape the corruption of His absence.

(Sign up for our next class beginning January 30th: Philemon and Ephesians: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Paul https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] Jacques Derrida, Différance, translated by Alan Bass, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp 3-27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The prime example of the drive to establish the self through language, inclusive of the deployment of language to establish being, and the impossibility of the enterprise is captured in Rene Descartes’s cogito.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Translated by Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 80.1.

[5] God’s presence is connected to the ark of the covenant, so that wherever the ark goes God is present, as in aiding in the defeat of an enemy (I Sam. 4:6-7). The particulars of how his presence manifests varies. “He can come in dreams (Gn. 20:3; 28:13), in more or less veiled theophanies (Gn. 18:1 ff.; 32:25 ff.; Ex. 3:2 ff.; 24:10 ff.; 34:6 ff.; Ps. 50:3), in the cloud . . . in visions at the calling of the prophets (Is. 6:1 ff.; Jer. 1:4 ff.; Ez. 1:4 ff.), in the storm, in the quiet breath (1 K. 19:12 f.), in His Spirit (Nu. 24:2: Ju. 3:10; 11:29; 1 S. 11:6; 19:20), with His hand (1 K. 18:46), in His Word (Nu. 22:9; 2 S. 7:4; 1 K. 17:2 etc.). The messiah is expected to come in history Oepke, A. (1964–). παρουσία, πάρειμι. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 5, p. 861). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


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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.

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