The Uses of Language: Julia Kristeva and Kenotic Love

Language is the medium in which we live and move, and what we make of or do with language, is determinative of the reality in which we live. In this post-theological age, it may not occur to us to consider that we have an orientation toward or within language. Psychoanalysis, or the talking cure (as Freud described it) is nearly the last realm in which what we do with words, linguistic exchange (even in dreams), how we linguistically constitute ourselves towards others and ourselves (transference and countertransference), is an object of study.

Psychologists have noted that young children pass through a fundamental depression just prior to acquisition of language. Julia Kristeva describes the passage into language as an abandonment by the mother or the narcissistic paradise in which all needs are met, and entry into the symbolic world of the father. “The child must abandon its mother and be abandoned by her in order to be accepted by the father and begin talking … [L]anguage begins in mourning …”[1] Both death and abandonment and the establishment of the self are implicated in language acquisition.

In the description of G. W. F. Hegel, language brings simultaneous awareness of death and its refusal. As he describes, inasmuch as he is speaking and mortal, man is, the negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.”[2] The “faculty” for language and the “faculty” for death arise together, but of course the peculiar faculty for life, at least in the Christian understanding is interwoven with this “faculty” of death and language. Which is to say, this focus and enquiry into language is first and properly the domain of theology.

As Kristeva describes, the work of the cross is to address us at this most basic and deep psychological level: “The ‘scandal of the cross’, the logos or language of the cross … is embodied, I think not only in the psychic and physical suffering which irrigates our lives … but even more profoundly in the essential alienation that conditions our access to language, in the mourning that accompanies the dawn of psychic life. By the quirks of biology and family life we are all of us melancholy mourners, witnesses to the death that marks our psychic inception.”[3] Yet it is through this passage, from out of blissful narcissism, that we discover the other. We form connections, not simply warm support in an extension of the life in the womb, but the possibility of love and hate, life and death, self and other, through entry into language. Kristeva depicts this slightly hellish condition as precisely the place in which Christ meets us: “Christ abandoned, Christ in hell, is of course the sign that God shares the condition of the sinner. But He also tells the story of that necessary melancholy beyond which we humans may just possibly discover the other, now in the symbolic interlocutor rather than the nutritive breast.”[4]  Language is for finding the other, for recognizing and negotiating mortality, and yet it can also be deployed as a refusal of this reality.

The matrix of language can be made to constitute its own reality, and can act as an obstacle rather than a bridge. In this understanding, attaching ourselves to the law, the immovable symbolic order, is simultaneously a means of inscribing ourselves into stone (becoming immortal) but the stone is an epitaph. Meaning attached to language per se, to the occurring of the sign, mistakes the letter of the law for its meaning. Kristeva raises the example of Chinese reification of the word: “In classical Chinese (for example, the I Ching), ‘to believe’ and ‘to be worthy of faith’ are expressed by the word xin, where the ideogram contains the signs for man and speech. Does ‘to believe’ therefore mean ‘to let speech act?’”[5] In the case of Japanese, being a speaker of the language conveys the spirit of Japanese identity. Much like the Jew, marked by Hebrew speaking and law-keeping, attachment to the sign conveys an immovable essence, which Paul characterizes as deadly. The reification of the word seems to be the universal tendency.

The philosopher often uses words much like the mathematician employs numbers, as a coherent symbol system which is or produces truth. In this understanding, language works within a closed system, in which words and symbols constitute their own reality. Thinking is being, as the thought contains the essence of reality. Rather than language leading from death to resurrection, we can be haunted by negativity, rejection, castration, death drive. In the language of the Apostle Paul, we can be caught between wanting and doing, between the law of the mind and the law of the body, and we can find ourselves overwhelmed with the ego, that ungraspable “I” in the mirror. The ego cogito is ever allusive, and yet pursuit of the ego poses as salvation.

To pass from death to resurrection requires a relinquishing of the ego. What Paul describes as kenotic self-giving love, is a relinquishment of stasis, being, and position, so as to reach out to and exist with and in the other. This kenotic lover does not insist upon his status or position in the symbolic order. This deadly attachment to law, is a futile attempt to have existence within the self – to establish the self-image as distinct from and not subject to the other. The ego is preserved at the cost of love. In the description of Graham Ward:

To be redemptive, to participate in the economy of redemption opened and perfected by Christ the form of God’s glory, our making cannot be in our name. Our making cannot, like the builders of the Tower of Babel, make a name for ourselves. Our making cannot reify our own autonomy. Such making is only death and idolatry. Our making must be in and through an abandonment to an operation that will instigate the crisis of our representations. Our making has to experience its Passion, its descent into the silent hiatus.[6]

The recognition of mortality, forsakenness, alienation, is the first step toward life. According to Kristeva, “It is because I am separate, forsaken, alone vis-àvis the other that I can psychologically cross the divide that is the condition of my existence and achieve not only ecstasy in completion (complétude: reunion with the father, himself a symbolic substitute for the mother) but also eternal life (resurrection) in the imagination.”[7] She is specifically thinking of life in Christ as completing the journey to love. ”For the Christian believer the completion of faith is real completion, and Christ, with whom the believer is exhorted to identify, expiates in human form the sin of all mankind before achieving glory in resurrection.”[8] The passage through death with Christ enables, through tarrying with the negative, kenotic love.

As Slavoj Žižek explains I Corinthians 13, this love necessitates self-emptying:

the point of the claim that even if I were to possess all knowledge, without love I would be nothing, is not simply that with love I am ‘something’ – in love, I am also nothing but, as it were, a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack. Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love is therefore that incompleteness is in a way higher than completion. On the one hand, only an imperfect, lacking being loves: we love because we do not know all. On the other hand, even if we were to know everything, love would inexplicably still be higher than completed knowledge.[9]

Žižek’s negation rests upon an atheistic reading of Hegel, but the Christian Hegel sees negation, not as an end in itself, but as the merging of the infinite and finite. The infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[10] As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[11] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. God in Christ emptied himself, not of deity, but of the presumption of infinity. “He existed in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Php. 2:5–7). Paul is recommending Christ as the model for the Christian, who obviously cannot empty themselves of deity, but they can “have this attitude” of self-sacrificial giving. They can “hold fast to the word of life” (Php. 2:16) in taking up this self-emptying Word.  

Language is made for love, for connection to the other, such that all true dialogue is an act of love. Speaking as a reaching for the other is a relinquishment of the isolated ego. All true discourse is an act of love. According to Kristeva, “The speaking subject is a loving subject.”[12] But at the same time, “Love is a death sentence which causes me to be.”[13] As Ward explains, “All representation is a kenotic act of love towards the other; all representation involves transference – being caught up in the economy of giving signs.”[14] We gain access to both God and the neighbor through transferential (mutually indwelling) discourse of the kenotic Word. The task of theology, the work of the Christian, is to recognize how it is that the language of Christianity shapes us according to a different order of desire – (as Hans Frei describes) the unique “cultural linguistics of the Christian religion.”[15] In the vivid explanation of Ward:

As such, Christian theology is not secondary but participatory, a sacramental operation. It is a body of work at play within the language of the Christian community. Our physical bodies are mediated to us through our relation to other physical bodies and the mediation of those relationships through the body of the signs. Thus we are mapped onto a social and political body. The meaning of these signs is mediated to us through the body of Christ, eucharistic and ecclesial, so that we are incorporated into that spiritual body. Transcorporality is the hallmark of a theological anthropology. [16]

The deep grammar of the body of Christ inducts into an alternative linguistic community, in which lack and negation become the opening to love and entry into the corporate body of Christ, sharing a body, indwelling one another, through the “transcorporality” of Christ.

[1] Julia Kristeva, In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Colum[1]bia University Press, 1988) pp. 40. Cited in Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 207.

[2] According to Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, Translated by Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) xii.

[3] Kristeva, 41.

[4] Kristeva, 41.

[5] Kristeva, 35

[6] Ward, 215.

[7] Kristeve, 35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute  — Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London/New York, Verso 2000) 147. Cited in Ward, 264.

[10] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019), 12.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[12] Kristeva, 170.

[13] Kristeva, 36, Cited in Ward, 212.

[14] Ward, 212.

[15] Types of Christian Theology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 20. Cited in Ward, 217.

[16] Ward, 217-218.

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”: The Hypothesis of Scripture as Encounter with Christ

The identity of Christ is the unifying point of Scripture but this identity is synonymous with the presence of Christ in the reader or believer. That is, Christ’s identity pertains directly to the one doing the identifying, as his identity entails his presence in the life of the one rightly answering his question.[1] Christ’s life and presence are rendered in his identity and this identifying realization. This entails circularity (reading Scripture through the Gospel, his identity, and the Gospel through Scripture), but revolving around Christ as it does and including the life of the believer as it does, it is on the order of the circulatory system of the human body. What is circulated is the life and presence of the one around whom it revolves. One reads through the lens of the identity of Christ, but this exegesis of and through Christ pertains directly to the “you” doing the exegesis as this constitutes the encounter with Christ. So, the hermeneutical lens of the apostolic preaching (the Gospel or the analogy of faith), not only produces a symbolic coherence, bringing together the types and tropes and context of the Hebrew Scriptures in Christ, but as applied to Scripture it concerns the exegesis of Christ (not the exegesis of Scripture), the encounter with Christ, or the presence of Christ in the life of the exegete.

This describes the authority of Scripture as it takes hold through the identity of Christ in the life of the believer. The author or authorization or authority is immediately present in the one answering, “Who do you say that I am?” This is not simply an historical judgment or a critical assessment of a set of texts or an acknowledgement of institutional authority. The authority of history, Scripture, and Church pertains indirectly to the fundamental and primary authority found in the identity of Christ as this directly pertains to the believer. The particular nature of the presence of Christ in the believer is mediated through the Christ of history, the Christ of Scripture, and the Christ of the Church, but these are not substitutes or alternative authorities, but the authority derived from the Gospel, which immediately takes hold in Christ’s presence in the believer (again, an admitted circularity).

To place the primary authority in history or the historical truth of the Gospel may imagine a Christ subject to history rather than history subject to and relativized by Christ. Certainly, there is no extracting his death and resurrection from history as this history is part of his identity but his identity is determinative of this history and not vice versa. Temporality, the past, the situation of his life does not take precedence over his life or determine his identity. There is a history of Christ, in which time and history and humanity are interwoven and inseparable from the person of Christ encountered in the Gospel but the history per se is not primary. The truth of his history is a necessity, but this historical truth is not the fulness of the truth as it takes hold in the life of the believer. History, and even the history of Christ, is not the presence of Christ found in his identity.

So too with Scripture: to place primary authority on the text or the book, may miss that its authority is derived from Christ. Christ is not subject to Scripture any more than he is subject to the Church or to history. Where Scripture is made primary, Christ may be made to fit the context and circumstance of its writing rather than the other way round. Christ is the unifying center, the very hypothesis of Scripture, and the reality of his life, death, and resurrection precedes Scripture in both the Old and New Testament. Christ and Scripture are no more separable than Christ and history, but it is Christ and his identity that constitute Scripture as an authority.

 So too the Church: to place primary authority in the institution or in the hierarchy, or in the body of believers, may be to miss that the Church derives its authority from Christ and the Gospel. Life in the body is constituted by Christ and the identity of Christ located in the apostolic preaching. This preaching cannot be separated from the Church any more than it can be separated from Scripture and history but so too with this authority; to make the Church the authority will be to miss the immediate import of Christ’s identity. The apostles and the Church do not determine Christ but are determined by him. Christ cannot be made to fit the authority of the Church as the Church derives its authority from who he is. Apostle corrects apostle not because one is more authoritative than another, but because the apostles and the Church are authoritative only through the Gospel and through maintaining the apostolic tradition.

Who do you say that I am is not a question to be answered apart from history, Scripture, and the Church, but none of these are themselves the answer. The question demands that “you” answer and the answer and its power and presence take hold within this same you. Historicism, biblicism, and institutionalism, misconstrue the nature of authority and truth and thus they misidentify Christ and misplace his presence. The believer does not have a primary relation with history, with Scripture, or with the Church, but with Christ. He is present in his identity but no one but a “you” concludes to the presence and relationship of this identity. This may all be dismissed as circularity, but at the heart of this circular reason is the singular truth, which I presume is the truth of the Gospel – the identity of Christ.

The modern errors, like the original heresies which challenged the early church (in the New Testament and among the church fathers), shares in kind the fact, as John Behr puts it, “that in none of these approaches is God really ‘with us’ (cf. Matt 1:23).”[2] Some began to teach that Christ was a mere man, adopted by God as a Son (adoptionism). He is representative, at best, of the divine. In Docetism God is not really with us in our humanity but only appeared as a man. Instead of denying the deity of Christ, the deity is fully acknowledged but his humanity is a mere likeness and not the reality. Again, there is a failure of presence in his humanity and ours. And the third tendency acknowledged both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but separated the deity from the humanity. Thus, the human Jesus may have experienced death and human passions and emotions but the deity of Christ is thought to be removed from such things. In essence, each of these false teachings is a denial of the cross, or in terms of presence, God cannot be said to be present in pain, suffering and death. God is not really Immanuel, God with us, in the false conceptions of his identity.

The cure or counter to this false teaching (or this failed presence) will emphasize either the humanity or deity of Jesus, or the reality of the resurrection, affirming what the false teaching would deny, but then, in each instance, this affirmation speaks directly of a specific presence that bears fruit in place of the lost presence. That is, as the writers of the New Testament and the apostolic fathers are challenged by the various heretical misidentifications of Christ, the hypothesis of his identity is honed to speak directly of God’s saving presence in place of a particular form of absence. So the example from Corinthians (worked out below), deny the resurrection and one is left with vanity and nothingness, a useless faith that misses the living hope and victory of faith. The counter focus then, is on the hope of the resurrection as entailed in the reality of his resurrection and this translates into resurrection life enabled to defeat the futility of sin. In the example of I John (developed below), deny the humanity of Christ, and the story of Christ in the Gospels, and his ethical teaching and human sojourn are traded for an abstract spirituality without ethical responsibility. Emphasis on the humanity of Christ entails then a focus on his ethical teaching and walking as he walked to abide in his presence.

Paul sums up the gospel as Christ dying for our sins, being raised on the third day, and then appearing to the twelve apostles (I Cor. 15:3-4). The identity of Christ is linked to his ongoing presence to the apostles through his death, burial and resurrection, interpreted in light of the Scriptures. Death is the prime obstacle or the opposite of life and presence, and Christ defeats death and this is the basis of his presence – a resurrected presence. This is what Paul delivered to the Corinthians and by which they stand and are saved (I Cor. 15:1), but by denying the bodily resurrection the Corinthians are turning faith into an empty vanity. Paul describes Christ’s resurrection appearances, enumerating who experienced them and extending resurrection experience to the faith of the Corinthian believers, which they are nullifying. Apart from the resurrection, life and presence are exchanged for death and vanity. Paul says it amounts to being left in sin. With resurrection belief the sting of death, a life of sin, is overcome: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15:57-58). The reality of resurrection defeats the reality of death and this translates into a specific experience of victory and hope through Christ.

Christ’s presence is specific to the particulars of his resurrection. He is not present as an abstract generalization – a spirit of the universe – but he is the resurrection and the life; an identity that pertains to one making the identification. Paul leaves out the teaching and life of Jesus in his Corinthian formula, probably because of the peculiar denial of the resurrection in Corinth. The Corinthians had a form of the faith, perhaps acknowledging Jesus earthly walk and teaching. The story of Jesus however, is not rendered secondary due to the resurrection but becomes part of the life that is conveyed. As Paul says to the Ephesians, they must “learn Christ” (Eph. 4:20) and the way to learn Christ is not simply learning facts and propositions (though this is not excluded), but by laying aside the old self and putting on the new self (Eph. 4:21-24) so that one enacts in their life course Jesus’ death and resurrection, inclusive of the content of his teaching. The story has a particular shape, and the teaching of Jesus (e.g., on neighbor love and nonviolence, etc.) is captured in the manner of his death and resurrection. We do not read the events of Jesus’ life and his teaching as in normal biography, as facts and history removed from us, but we recognize the ethical implication, the form of relationship with God and others, which his resurrection implies. His story and his life is one we share, and his presence continues in us in his form of life – summed up as resurrection life. Thus believers are “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16).

John is faced with the docetic teaching that Christ did not come in the flesh, and so his concern is not a defense of the bodily resurrection but the bodily or corporeal nature of Jesus. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (I Jn. 1:1). This life was manifest in the flesh – the flesh of the Son – and in those who “saw it” (1:2).  The life was simultaneously “with the Father” and “made manifest to us” as we have seen with our eyes and we have heard with our ears and we have touched with our hands (1:1-3). Jesus was human and corporeal and not a mere human similitude or likeness. And it is on this basis that fellowship with God and his Son is established (1:3). John emphasizes abiding in Him more than accepting the fact that he abides in the Christian. Docetism may have taught moral license to do with the body as one might. But John binds the presence of Christ to “keeping His commandments” to walking “in the same manner as He walked” and to perfecting the love of God in one’s life by “keeping His word” (2:4-6). Like Paul, John speaks of a rule of faith which renders outside teachers and authorities unnecessary: “you have no need for anyone to teach you . . . as His anointing teaches you about all things” (2:27). Jesus was anointed with the Spirit and he has anointed his followers with the Spirit and the Spirit, as promised, guides into all truth. Christ abides in you and you abide in him if you walk as he taught. Christ is present and this presence takes on a particular ethical shape in those who abide in his life and presence.

Perhaps in the midst of persecution there was greater need to speak of the fulsomeness of the divine presence. Peter writes of becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). In Athanasius’ formula, “He became man, so that we might become god.”[3] Ignatius of Antioch, on a forced march to Rome and martyrdom, speaks of Christ “being now in the Father” even “more plainly visible.”[4] Now his is not a mere earthly presence but an immediate presence of the Spirit. For Ignatius Christ “is our true life” and this reality is realized in facing the reality of a torturous death with Christ: “But, [in fact,] he who is near to the sword is near to God; he that is among the wild beasts is in company with God; provided only he be so in the name of Jesus Christ. I undergo all these things that I may suffer together with Him, (Romans 8:17) He who became a perfect man inwardly strengthening me.”[5] Ignatius imagines in the details of his martyrdom complete identity with Christ: “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”[6]

Answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” entails naming an identity that becomes one’s own, such that the life and presence of Christ are realized as one’s life course takes on the shape of Christ.

[1] This is the conclusion of Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Fortress Press, 1975).

[2] John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicaea, Vol. 1 (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 78.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54.

[4] Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans, 3.2.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 4.

[6] Ibid. Epistle to the Romans, 4.