Waltzing Porcupines: Communication and Community
by Dan DeLion
This essay, written long ago, comments on the role of communication in a Christian community.
It begins with a number of observations about ideologically suspect conceptions of communication and then offers some alternatives. All this discussion is intended to generate a special kind of hope that vitalizes community life.
This project was originally undertaken for the small parish of St. Benedict the Moor in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was presented to the people assembled at Ben’s church in 1989 in a photocopied version entitled Reader/Rhetor, pseudononymously authored by Dan de Lion. Now reissued on the Web with the present title, my essay still aims to clarify the role of persistent communication and hope in a Christian community.
The hope, that I refer to, is more than just an aspiration and a heartfelt desire. It is a performative virtue, one that is embodied in the collective actions that enable a group of people to become what they understand themselves to be. This sort of hope is, I argue, the virtue for our time. Oh, there is no denying that faith and love were primary virtues in earlier Christian times. But nowadays, we need to put every ounce of strength into cultivating hope. It keeps us together, clinging to each other against the darkness. Such togetherness is far more important than our ambition to know the truth and get things right.
The way I see it, faith in the twenty-first century is a troublesome virtue. Whatever its value in Pauline theology and in the early modern Church, faith today invites division and conflict. It sets the stage for the clash of civilizations. And as for love, it has become a dangerous cliché.
Hope, however, is the virtue for our time. But it does not spring forth on its own, through personal meditation or self-actualization. Its cultivation requires an appropriate social context. It only emerges in the fertile ground of a community.
But, here’s the rub. “Community” is itself a very troublesome term. Generally, community is assumed to be a consensual group, a collection of folks who share ideas, values, and practices. But, I argue otherwise. I contend that sharedness plays a minor role, at best, in the life of a community.
So, you can now perhaps understand the aim and objective of this work. Ultimately, I aim to promote the virtue of hope. But I cannot do so without first addressing the social conditions associated with “community” that are favorable for its development. It is for this reason that I have written this essay that reflects critically on communication and community.
The title, Waltzing Porcupines was inspired by a cartoon in the then popular series Bloom County by Berke Breathed. In this cartoon, Opus, a chronically bewildered penguin, finds himself at sea during one of his rare dates with a person of the opposite sex/species. Seated at table in as fine a restaurant as will serve penguins, he initiates some light conversation: “It’s high time that Michael Jackson moved out of his parents’ house.” His date–a short, bespectacled young woman with long braids down the front of her frock–responds obliquely that romantic love is a tool of male domination. Opus, indefatigable in his conversational efforts, glances at his menu and says that the herring soufflé sounds pretty good. His date end-runs his comment and turns her words to the sexual orientation of Leonardo da Vinci. It’s then that Opus realizes that his conversation has been a muddle from start to finish. He has been, he says, “waltzing a porcupine.”
Opus’s experience of waltzing a porcupine helps us to understand the communicative practices that anchor a promising community like Ben’s. Not only do Ben’s people “waltz porcupines” with great regularity, they should continue to do so. They should persist in their carnivalesque ways because such persistence engenders hope. Indeed, persistent interaction in the face of conflict is the very heart of hope.
To summarize, we accomplish hope more than we feel or possess it. And nowhere can we accomplish hope better than in a difficult dialogue or contested interaction. This is what this essay is all about.
Let me offer one further comment by way of preface. This book is about Christian practice and a Catholic community, but it says almost nothing about God. If I were to develop some God-talk, it would start with the claim that God is the hope of the future rather than as the cause of the past. Instead of thinking about a “God above us” that brings us into being, we do better to think instead of a “God in front of us, ahead of us” (Moltmann). Not only is God ahead of us, and therefore the target of human hope, but God is also dependent upon us as Hartshorne argued. We are all part of a world that contributes to the emergence of God. God’s fullness is realized at the end of time, as the summation of all time.
Such a future-oriented conception of God is consistent with the focus on hope that prevails throughout this essay. Whereas faith implies a gaze pointed backward in time toward a perfection now lost, hope implies a gaze pointed forward into the future in search of a God in the making. (This stance is wholly opposite, of course, to the traditional view that presents God as an absolute invulnerable force that stands at the beginning of time.)
For Companions (1989)
Let me explain what this writing is about by telling you one brief story about my son Fritz and then another about my students at the University.
My son Fritz asked me today what it is that I study at the University. I told him that I study the way people talk to one another. And indeed that is what I study. As a linguistic anthropologist, my stock in trade is talk, and more specifically the give and take of talk, i.e. interaction. I read about different styles of interaction. And I explore the many forces that different people are subject to as they engage each other in those different styles. Along the way I also consider the grammars that inform talk; and by “grammars” I mean the mental representations of the sounds, words, and sentences of different languages as they are used in interaction. I study how such grammars are similar and how they differ from person to person and from group to group. All of this study gives me a leg up in appreciating the life we live together as companions.
But Fritz–you know he has always been head strong–brushed aside my interest. “What’s to study?,” he said. “People think ‘balulu’ and then they say ‘balulu.’ What else is there to know?” He allowed that some aspects of the mechanics of speaking might bear some investigation, e.g. how it is that the muscles in the mouth and throat are able to work so automatically and rapidly when you speak. But on the more general matters that I had described, he was simply bewildered. Talking and interacting, he figured, are as plain as day: You think a thought and say a word; your partner hears that word, and thinks a corresponding thought. What is there to study in something so obvious?
He offered me these comments as we rode our bikes together. And I am sure that by the time we reached the top of the hill we were climbing, his mind had shifted gears to other matters. The excitement that I could see on his face as he raced back down that hill was more likely due to his anticipating a good bump that he could take off on, rather than to anything we had been discussing. For my part, I waited at the top of the hill while he did his thing. And I reflected on his puzzlement over my studies of talk.
Fritz’s bewilderment, I could see, is shared by the students of anthropology who come my way. And I cannot blame them. It is obvious to them that talk is a simple process of words representing thoughts. Not least amongst their experiences that confirm this view is their experience of me talking to them. That is, they assume that I spend my days preparing thoughts. And, as I stand before them, they watch me deliver some words that correspond to those thoughts which I have prepared. They, for their part, take my words down on paper, later to commit them to memory, and, after repeated experiences of such classroom interaction, they reckon that they have done what they were supposed to do. As they see it, our classroom activity involves my thinking and then talking, and subsequently, their listening and generating thoughts that correspond to what I had been thinking.
You can sympathize with their confusion as they read my words that they have take down in their notebooks. My lectures usually go something like this: “Words do not follow from thoughts. If anything follows from anything, then it is the thoughts that follow from words. Words, above all, are actions. And usually they are actions through which people collaborate at moving into one another. When done right, words spit and scratch and create a situation that, for all the world, looks like a prickly waltz of porcupines.”
My students try valiantly to process these notes. They try to remember them and to interpret them as if they were their own. But of course they have difficulties. They are caught in a paradox. In my class, students are hamstrung just like the poor chap who confronts the Cretan who says convincingly that all Cretans are liars. To believe the Cretan is to effectively discount his words. On the other hand, to reject the Cretan’s statement is to set aside the only good reason for rejecting the Cretan’s statement. Just so, if my students were to accept and believe my words, then they have to discount my words. On the other hand, if they were reject my words, then they would be setting aside the only good reason they would have for rejecting my words. What to do? My students usually confront the paradox bravely, though not without shaking their heads. I suspect that they proceed through my course determined to generate for themselves a knowledge that corresponds to my words. As they do, they sigh and comfort themselves with the thought that professors like me are out to lunch–only the addled would claim that words precede thoughts. They resign themselves, I think, to dealing with this nonsense as a way of preparing themselves for an adult life that will probably confront them with similar nonsense. They reckon that after they’ve dealt with me, they can deal with anyone.
But I think that I am not so very addled. Nor are my words about talk and waltzing porcupines so very impractical. On the contrary, I will try to show you, here, that our actions of organizing ourselves in pursuit of a good life together at Ben’s depend, not on what we mean, but on how we talk to one another. I will try, here, to “do” some words that are in themselves–regardless of what they mean–good for us. Even more importantly, I will try to convince you that it would be extremely dangerous for us to attend too much to what these words that I “do” mean as if thoughts generate words. That, in brief, is what this long discussion is about.
Having said this, let me now ask you to join with me in preparing ourselves to handle the words being done here. As I make this request, I am reminded of Honore de Balzac who approached words are whole-body acts. Writing, for him, required a well-prepared body as well as a well-prepared mind. He would wait until the dead of night, and then dress up in a Carmelite monk’s habit before sitting down to write.
I am not going to ask you to dress up for this discussion. Nor do I have any concern with the hour of the day during which you read. But I do request that you reframe our relationship during this writing-reading.
We at Ben’s should be familiar with “reframing relationships.” We understand, for example, the strategic reframing of a relationship that Jesus worked out for us when he suggested that we come to him as to a Shepherd rather than as Father or as Judge. When he said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he effectively changed the way we talk to him. Similarly, at Ben’s, we cherish our reframing of our relationships to one another. In conventional parishes, the laity focus on vertical relationships, defining themselves, as it were, by way of their relationships to priest, bishop, Pope, and God. However, at Ben’s, we have reframed our relationships, emphasizing the horizontal over the vertical. What we do when we talk–quite aside from what we mean–puts greater weight on our relationships to one another than to the office holders of the Church.
It is a similar reframing that I ask you to undertake as you get into this discussion. Please set yourself, here, into the situation of a storytelling rather than a book-reading. Treat these words as a story, but not as story such as one might conventionally read in a book. Approach this as you would approach a noisy story…maybe as you would approach a joke told in a rowdy crowd of folks who constantly interrupt with their own two cents. More precisely, please approach these words, as if you were Sandleford rabbits.
The Sandleford rabbits were the fictitious rabbits found in Watership Down by Richard Adams. They were remarkable for being rabbits who struggled persistently to organize themselves into a community, resolving conflicts and sidestepping dangers along the way. Their stories were what kept them together.
Dandelion was the name of the Sandleford story-master, the rabbit who told the stories that entertained his companions and also prepared them to confront the larger world in which they lived. At storytime, the rabbits would huddle together–though they were rarely well behaved and never very quiet–to listen to Dandelion as he told his tales.
Dandelion’s stories were always pointed and useful. They were directed at the major figures in the warren, Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and Strawberry, and they knew it, and they responded accordingly.
The Sandleford situation, with Dandelion, Hazel, Fiver and the rest of the contentious lot of rabbits, models the story-telling atmosphere that I advocate for this event. Like Dandelion’s stories, my story is pointed and directed to you, my companions at Ben’s. You, like Fiver and Bigwig, are listeners but also players in the events being recounted. Most importantly, you bear some responsibility for how this story comes off.
Your responsibility is the salient feature of our reframed relationship. And this responsibility distinguishes this discussion from what we might call a bookish discussion. Were I to have written a book, the words in it would pass from me to “whomever would read it.” And the “whomever,” in such a case, would receive the words without strings. The “whomever” could believe or not believe, read them to completion or cease reading after the first sentence. Most importantly, the “whomever” could respond or not respond as ever he or she or they pleased.
But conducting ourselves as Sandleford rabbits, we should feel strings in the reading. We should feel some obligation, not just to listen, but also to respond. Not an obligation to agree, but an obligation to contest.
In our reframed relationship, then, I request that you listen to this story, without necessarily trying to fathom what I mean. Just know that I am, here and now, moving into you with these words. All you need do is respond. Imagine that this is a Sunday morning, and I have grabbed the microphone out of Jack’s hand, and am delivering these comments to you face to face. Let the kids explore the worlds that they can discover underneath their pews, and forget about your fannies that are aching from sitting so long. All you need do is respond.
This is a tête-à-tête, not a book. It is an occasion for me to thrust and for you to parry. Don’t interpret me. Don’t believe me. All you need do is respond. You, my companions at Ben’s, are participants in this storytelling event. You are already playing a visible and responsible part in the action of these words.
Me, for my part, I don’t need to be so very visible. You know me already, so there is no need for me to make a big thing out of who I am. It is better that I not attach my name to this story. If I were to do that, I would only be inviting you to credit me with some creative or authoritative meaning. I would be inviting you to listen to me as my students do, with notebooks at the ready. I would be inviting you to relate to me as a reader relates to a bookish author. But that is precisely what I am trying to avoid. So “Dan deLion” will do.
Part One of this tête-à-tête is called “Ben’s Beargarden.” It lays out the argument for appreciating talk as action rather than as meaning. This Part One is an apt threshold for Part Five in which I have described the people of Ben’s as “New Christians” who are distinguished by their penchant for “waltzing with porcupines.” You may find it desirable to move directly from Part One to Part Five. Then again, you may get a clearer sense of the argument by working through the woody core of this story.
Part Two,“Pilgrim Talk,” offers an historical explanation for our typical reluctance to acknowledge that “talk is an action,” and it explains our commitment to the notion that “talking is for meaning.” In this Part Two, I will mention some aspects of the history of philosophy that are associated with the popularization of our common sense about talk as meaning. But I will focus on the cultivation of the religious ideal of the “pilgrim life” and its role in fashioning our modern moral order in which “talking for meaning” seems to be all that is important.
Part Three, “The New Age,” is an extension of Part Two which explores some contemporary versions of the “pilgrim life.” The growth of the discipline of Anthropology, with its cultivation of primitive holism and wisdom, is one extension that I am particularly keen to comment on. But I will also comment on kindred dimensions of modern life including the growth of communes, the celebration of romantic love, the fascination with consciousness, and the pursuit of “bliss.”
Part Four,“Reader/Rhetor,” sets out to construct an image of a new kind of utopia, “a community of rhetors.” This utopia of rhetors is distinguished from the utopias of our common sense by being diverse rather than unified, by being conflictful rather than harmonious, and by being theatrical rather than sincere and authentic. Such a utopian community of rhetors is constituted in and through the collaborative action of talk rather than by way of any communication that promises mutual understanding of the meaning of words.
Part Five, “New Christians,” provides illustrations, examples and conclusions.
References. This section lists the writings that have been consulted for this project.
Part Five – New Christians
So who are we? What kind of community is this Benedict the Moor? Where are we headed? We asked these questions in Part One before heading into a forest of uncommon sense about communication and community. Parts Two, Three, and Four, drew us more deeply into that forest, where those uncommon notions of communication were contrasted with our conventional Gnostic-like wisdom. But as to the questions about the identity of Ben’s, Part Four offered only hints of an answer. Some of you readers/rhetors may have leapt here directly from a reading of Part One. Others of you may have worked your way’ through those heavily wooded middle parts. But now and here, we are all prospecting this final Part Five for some answers to questions about Ben’s.
Who are we? The proposed model of our community life rests, as you might expect, on the idea that every good community arises in and through that curious style of communication that resembles a waltzing of porcupines. However, let us explore this model, initially at least, without reference to communication or porcupines. Let us, instead, present a model for Ben’s in the form of a story about Dr. Juan de Prado and his very unusual seventeenth-century life in Amsterdam.
Juan de Prado was born in Spain around 1612 to parents who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Such conversion was the only realistic recourse for Jews who wished to remain in Spain after royal orders for their banishment were issued in 1492.
Prado’s parents remained in this Spain that was so paralyzed with paranoia and obsessed with its goal of transforming itself into a homogeneous community. Prado’s parents became conversos, “New Christians.” They were tolerated, but they were never wholly accepted. They were constantly suspected of relapsing and were subjected to unrelentingly scrutiny by the Inquisition.
During the mid-1630s, Prado studied theology and medicine at the University of Alcala de Henares and at the University of Toledo. But more important than his formal studies was the fact that, at the university, his clandestine reconversion to Judaism became evident to his friends. Despite this development, he remained in Spain, practicing medicine in Andujar in Andalusia. Alas, he was soon denounced before the Inquisition, and so, in the 1650s, he fled to Amsterdam. There he became a member of a Jewish community largely composed of former conversos. Like so many others who shared his fate, he found himself facing the nearly impossible task of trying to reconstruct a Jewish practice that he had never really lived. He ran afoul of the community. They banned him from their midst, but he refused to accept the sentence pronounced upon him. He died, as he lived, a very ordinary man…a non-conforming Jew who was rejected by his community but who persistently embraced it nonetheless.
This brief account of Prado’s sad life is worth our reflection as we raise questions about how we are to conduct ourselves at Ben’s. Let us consider again the community at the center of this story, the community of Judaizing New Christians in Amsterdam of which Prado was a member.The Amsterdam community was marked and distinguished by five characteristics: (1) its members were living a second life and doing so with marked cynicism; (2) their second life was marked by extraordinary diversity of beliefs and practices; (3) they gradually became aware of the fact that their decisions were never totally effectual in ruling their lives; external circumstances always exerted a power over the essence of their religious practice; (4) in the face of this uncertainty, they communicated in a cautious style that bordered on dissembling. However, and despite many obstacles, (5) the ordinary members of the community persisted together, not without conflict, but still together.
Ben’s resembles this Amsterdam community in each of these characteristics. Let us explore each characteristic in turn, and, with each, let us compare Ben’s to Prado’s Amsterdam community. First, the members of the Amersterdam community were living a second life. They had been New Christians in Spain before fleeing to Amsterdam where they reverted to Judaism. Their freedom from oppression in Amsterdam was a blessing. However, that freedom also presented them with the disturbing problem of reconstructing a Jewish life that few of them had ever actually lived. During their first lives, they had been schooled as Christians and isolated from the practices of Judaism–by 1600, a hundred years of intense discrimination against Jews plus a second hundred years of genocidal politics had succeeded in wiping away most external signs of the once flourishing Jewish culture of Spain.The common sense of these Amsterdam conversos was therefore riddled with Christian assumptions. Their memories were charged with Christian energies. As a result, their struggle to begin anew a communal life as Jews required that they scrutinize their own common sense and that they distance themselves from their own memories.
Most of us at Ben’s are, like the New Christians of Amsterdam, living second lives. We were raised as traditional Catholics: We memorized the Baltimore Catechism knowing that it was heaven-sent–“God made us to know, to love, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.” We prayed in Latin–Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. We carefully distinguished our sins, listing and numbering them for our Father Confessors. We avoided reading books on the Index. Some of us believed that the chalice during Mass became was so intensely hot that only a priest could touch it, aided by special heat-shielding cloths. The monstrance was probably hotter still. We learned the art of saying the Rosary despite the fact that it required us to pray Hail Marys, to log the repetitions of each, and to accomplish this praying and calculating while focusing our whole thought on Mary’s demeanor before the angel Gabriel or some other such event. We rejected Satan and all his works–which, in my memory, clearly required one to reject the thoughts of sex…sex itself is probably okay; the sin comes in thinking about it (as Thomas Laqueur suggests in Solitary Sex.).
Now, in 1989 (as well as in 2004), we folks at Ben’s, like most modern Catholics, we have dispensed with the Baltimore Catechism, the Index, the Monstrance, and the Rosary. But unlike most modern Catholics, we at Ben’s have done so of our own accord and on our own authority rather than at the direction of office holders. In a number of areas, Ben’s people have intentionally transgressed the limits for religious practice that these office holders have prescribed. In this respect, we are far out ahead of most other American Catholics in leaving behind that first life where we were docile children.
We have leaped ahead to a second life where we operate as courageous agents of religious practice. In our second life at Ben’s, we are not followers of the Church, but makers of the Church.
It’s chilly, being a maker of the Church as the Amsterdam New Christians had discovered. But we are not about to warm ourselves with any of the security that comes of following the directives of officeholders as we did in our first lives. We would rather shiver as we search the horizon for principles to guide our changes.
Like the Amsterdam New Christians, we tend to fall back on our common sense as we search for those principles to guide our work of Church-making. But we should recognize what they recognized: common sense and our memories are untrustworthy. Both are shot through with the forces of our first life, e.g. patriarchy being just one such force that we identified and begun to wrestle with.
This distrust of both common sense and memory creates cynicism. And this cynicism contrasts with the wholehearted Catholic fervor of our first life. Then, if Father Mike had told us to love our neighbors, we would have immediately tucked his message in our hearts. Nowadays, however, if Father Mike tells us to love our neighbors, we stop and consider what “love” means. We wonder whether our efforts at “loving” might not perpetuate oppressive relationships. We remember Archbishop Oscar Romero’s response to a similar message from his colleagues. We consider the possibility that love might require us to dissolve certain relationships rather than extend them.
In our first lives, if Father Mike had told us that we must do good to our enemies, we would have listened and acted. We would have taken a wrench to our minds, if necessary, to alter our ways of thinking. But nowadays Father Mike knows that his counsel to us will be scrutinized. He knows that cynicism is the unavoidable companion of our chilly status in this second life, the status of Church-makers.
Cynicism and distrust of common sense is paired with a second distinguishing feature of the New Christian community, namely, diversity. Far from being of one mind, the Amsterdam Jews formed a clattering band that was always on the verge of fracture. Saying that they were a motley crew understates the case. The diversity of the converso community was exacerbated by the intensity of the repression they suffered in Spain. A tight lid on a pressure cooker causes the steam to build, and, in the end, the pot finally explodes with all that much more force. Such was the consequence that followed the decades during which Spanish Inquisition screwed the lid down tightly on the Jewish community. The explosive consequences rocked the conversos in Amsterdam can hardly be surprising.
Besides the cynicism and explosive questioning, the conversos resorted to creative dissemblance. In Spain itself, conversos found provocative, but legal, ways of responding to the genocidal politics of the era. For example, Teresa of Avila, born to New Christian parents, found her way, along with John of the Cross, to a form of intense devotion that subordinated external ritual to the contemplative ecstasy. Hers was a religiosity that diminished the significance of official Catholicism by superseding it. Alternatively, Fernando de Rojas, author of Celestina, and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, both probably of converso parentage, created literary works that diminished the signficance of Spanish officialdom by parodying aristocratic behavior and by glorifying the virtues of base and vulgar commoners.
The creativity of the Amsterdam community of former conversos was no less diverse and no less splendid. Splendidly creative, for example, is the philosophy of Spinoza (Baruch d’Espinoza) who was a close friend of Juan de Prado and, until 1656, a member of Prado’s Jewish community.
Spinoza raked over his own common sense and memory with devastating cynicism. And he finally arrived at a radically non-dualist philosophy that, except for being intensely anti-religious, is similar in some respects to the kenotism described in Part Four. Sometimes labeled pantheism, his view was that divinity is immanent in the human condition: God is amongst humans and nowhere else.
The writings that arose in this Amersterdam community were so extraordinarily rich partly because converso experiences varied so greatly. Some persons were intimately familiar with the practices of Judaism, but many had no experience at all. Some had, while in Spain, eagerly embraced Christianity, only later to fall back to Judaizing. Others had always preserved an affinity with Judaisim, having embraced Christianity only nominally. In addition, many members of the community found worth in both Judaism and Christianity and were torn between the two. In short, this Amsterdam community was a beargarden.
Ben’s community is similar to the Amsterdam community in being diverse. We companions are similar partly because we, like the conversos, have lived through ecclesiastical repression. Many of us have experienced this repressive force in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees.
Beyond repression, diversity arises at Ben’s because of we spring from different backgrounds. Many of us were clerics or preparing to become clerics. Consequently, we were intensely devoted to the Church of our first life. Such wholehearted devotion doesn’t simply disappear for us, anymore than it did for the Jews in Amsterdam. It remains a vital and creative force in our second lives at Ben’s. Others however, come to Ben’s out of a background of religious diffidence, and now deploy a quite different intensity. All of us at Ben’s are haunted by our pasts–often very strong pasts. And being so haunted, we find it difficult to arrive at a single view or a single course of action.
Having raised the issued of hauntedness here, we can turn to the third distinguishing feature of the Amsterdam community. This third issue is associated with hauntedness. The Judaizing New Christians recognized, upon self-scrutiny, that they could never simply wipe away their pasts by fiat. No decision was ever totally effectual in ruling their lives. They tried, sometimes with tragic results, but they could not simply rule themselves by reason.
Consider for example the sad case of Uriel Da Costa. Da Costa was a New Christian from Porto, Portugal, a former student of canon law at the University of Coimbra. While still living in Portugal, he became disenchanted with Catholicism and found his way back to Judaism. He encouraged other New Christians to follow his example. Eventually he fled Portugal and traveled to Amsterdam in hopes of being able to practice Judaism freely and openly. However, when he reached Amsterdam and began participating in the Jewish community there, he became quickly discouraged with Judaism. The Amsterdam Jews, it seemed to him, were caught up in the rules and precepts rather than in the original spirit of Judaism. They were tripping over the ornaments of their religious life, and were losing sight of its core and essence. Da Costa tried to recover the core by renouncing his Judaism so as to become a New Christian Jew. As a result, he was ostracized by the Jews in Amsterdam. Thereafter Da Costa tried to live a life of philosophical Judaism, but his isolation led him into despondency. In search of a remedy, he recanted his rejection of Judaism and returned to the community. However, he again found himself unable to abide by the form of Judaism that the Amsterdam community practiced. So once again he rejected Judaism. He lived seven more years in isolation and misery. Thereafter he crawled back to the community to recant his rejection a second time. He confessed his sins in public, submitted to thirty-nine lashes, lay across the doorstep of the synagogue while the members walked over his body. Soon thereafter he put a bullet through his head.
Our common sense finds it difficult to understand the hauntedness of Da Costa. We tend to think that people anywhere and everywhere can become whatever they damn well decide to become. And as far as the community at Ben’s is concerned, we assume that if folks want to participate in the life of Ben’s, they can simply make up their minds to conduct themselves according to the menu of possibilities that Ben’s puts before them. But the tragic story of Uriel Da Costa, together the uncommon sense presented in the body of this essay, suggests that people cannot, by mere decision, reject their past experiences and set their previous life aside. No one can simply decide to be liberated from past experiences. No child can be liberated from the experiences of childhood. No spouse can get a divorce from the experiences of a marriage. These pasts give a clearer and more definite shape to our moral lives than any decisions we might utter.
We at Ben’s are shaped by our past experiences. Those of us who have lived our early lives of intimate devotion to a repressive Catholic regime cannot escape our lives by simply waving a hand and deciding on a new course of action. We have memories too deeply sedimented with Rosaries, Confessions, and Solemn High Masses. We cannot avoid being haunted by these experiences. As a result, we can expect to find Da Costas amongst us at Ben’s.
The Amsterdam community managed their diversity and their hauntedness by developing a distinctive style of speaking. That style was marked by hiddenness and dissemblance. In Spain, the conversos had learned the virtue of caution. In their era, so thick with suspicion, speaking with any candor would have been foolhardy. So conversos cultivated a rhetoric marked by deniability. Fernando Rojas exemplifies that rhetoric of deniability in the “Old Whore” passage of Celestina:
“If she’s among a hundred women and someone says ‘Old Whore!’ with no embarrassment whatever she turns her head and answers with smiling face. If she walks among dogs, that’s the name they bark. If it’s birds, they sing nothing else. If it’s a flock of sheep, they bleat her name. If it’s asses, they bray ‘Old Whore!’ The very frogs in their puddles croak it. If she passes a smithy, the smiths’ hammers pound it out.”
After considering this passage, readers have been tempted to accuse Rojas of actually celebrating Celestina, the Old Whore. But Rojas could deny that accusation citing evidence from the words themselves. In the same vein, Spinoza was an artist and master of deniable discourse–the finger-ring he wore was inscribed with the word caute i.e. “caution.” Yovel’s recent book about his life and times of Spinoza, summarizes his rhetorical style in this way:
“Barred from revealing his true mind to everyone, the philosopher cannot be truly trained for a life of reason unless he learns how to use language defensively, masking his true aim and intentions and passing tacit messages to some while in the same text or phrase misleading others. One of the most efficient masks is the use of pious phrases, images, and formulae, borrowed from Scripture or from accepted religious beliefs”
Does Spinoza’s celebration of dissembling and deniable discourse jolt us? Our common sense tells us that talk is for saying what is on our minds, not for hiding it. Moreover our common sense tells us that our talk in which we confess and represent what is on our minds, such talk is what binds us together and makes us a community. Our words might be hard words, but candor will soothe the hardness and cement the relationship. Our words might be confusing, but sincerity will enable the listener to tolerate confusion and remain close to the speaker. Authentic talk, sincere talk, candid talk, honest talk, true talk….such is the talk of a good solid utopian community. Such is our common sense.
But at Ben’s, we would do well to adopt the cynical mind and dissembling talk of a New Christian. We would do well to set aside our common sense about talk, so clearly shaped by Gnostic views that vaunt the mind and discount the body. Thus shaped by Gnosticism, our common sense, described in Part Two as the pilgrim’s common sense, locates the essence of talk in what we mean or what we intend, rather than in, what we say or how we say it.
The alternative view advanced in Part Four is that what we say and how we say it play a far more significant role in forming our communities than the pilgrim’s common sense admits. This alternative and cynical view — associated in Part Four with the rhetor’s perspective — says that being a member of a community is an action rather than a state of mind. It is an accomplishment that requires the action of talking.
Pilgrims live lives in search of meaning. Searching in book after book, mind after mind, pilgrims attempt to reconstruct ultimate meaning which, being located only in the mind of God, is unavailable to humans in its pure form. All talk, for pilgrims, and all relationships in which talk proceeds, are part of this process of recovering the mind of God.
However, we “New Christians” at Ben’s should not aim to become pilgrim readers. Instead we are rhetors. As such, we assume that life’s meaning is made, not found. We assume that there is no such thing as “God’s Mind.” Or, if there is, we assume it contains nothing that we can call “ultimate meaning.” Rather life’s meaning is made here and accomplished now…between persons…within talk. Outside of interaction and beyond the action of talk, life has no meaning. Thus to a rhetor, the candor, the sincerity, and the honesty of talk, are less important than the collaborative action of talk.
As rhetors see it, no one possesses a blueprint for the construction of meaning. Not even the central aspects of the process are decided in advance. Thus, constructing meaning may involve hiddenness as well as candor and conflict as well as harmony. Only one principle dominates the construction process: the action of talking must be collaborative and persistent.
To use the images of this essay, rhetors are like porcupines. They are not often flashy. Rarely do they dazzle anyone with heroic deeds and scintillating monologues. Instead, rhetors recognize the humble level at which human social life functions. They may be prickly, even churlish, but they are utterly constant people who push back when pushed. Littoral rhetors interrupt, tease, snap, and laugh. Their penchant is to mix it up with whomever they meet. Rhetors behave in the manner of a you. They are responsive and responsible. They embrace the occasions of talk that put them on the spot for an answer. They relish interactional responsibility as an opportunity to perform the unique function of respondent, through which sense making is accomplished and meaning is created. Such responsibility is not a service that rhetors perform as Christian do-gooders–Christian do-goodery is an aspect of the pilgrim life and of the reader’s life, not of the rhetor’s life. Rhetors respond for selfish reasons, i.e. nothing is more important to the individual rhetor than the push-push of talk amongst constant companions.
Persistence and responsivity are the marks of the New Christian at Ben’s even as they were the distinguishing features of the ordinary New Christian in Amsterdam. Juan de Prado, in particular, is the prototype of such a persistence and responsive New Christian.
Prado’s virtue is summarized by two observations: First, he responded to the life of the Amsterdam community, moving it forward, provoking it, albeit disturbing it. Second, he clung to that community persistently, despite the fact that it banned him in the end. He was not so brilliant as Spinoza, but he clung to the community in a way that Spinoza did not. He was not so headstrong as Da Costa; he insisted in clinging to the community rather than leaving it. His persistence and responsivity are the remarkable and distinguishing qualities of the ordinary member of the Amsterdam New Christians. And they are the same two qualities that distinguish the “New Christians” at Ben’s.
On Original Sin
Accepting ourselves as “New Christians” will not be easy. Our common sense and our memories will object to the image of us as waltzing porcupines, as a fractious, cynical, fast-talking, but loyal, community. One reason for the difficulty is that our common sense is too influenced by conventional notions of original sin.
Before The Fall, according to conventional wisdom, there was unity and harmony. After The Fall, there was Babel and diversity. And with Babel, there arose the dimension of the human, so mundane, so vulgar, so mediocre, so ordinary, so specific, so concrete, so diverse, …and so insignificant. And in all these respects, the dimension of the human fares poorly in comparison to the dimension of divine which is so absolute, so unified, and so utterly important.
Motivated by this common sense, we tend to hold out for significance. We might tolerate human mediocrity and human diversity for the moment, but we are on the lookout for an absolute, something unified and important. Holding out for significance is our way of trying to recover from The Fall.
The danger of “quietism” lurks in such an attitude. That is, if we see ourselves mired for the moment in mediocrity, then we will be tempted to subject ourselves to any experience that presents itself as unified and signficant. Over the past 2000 years, Gods, Priests, Kings. Dictators, Presidents, and Scientists have regularly presented themselves as bearers of unifying significant experiences. And the citizens of Babel have willingly subjected themselves to their programs of religion, nationalism, fascism, racism, sexism, patriotism, evangelical fundamentalism, evolutionary determinism, economic determinism, linguistic determinism.
We “New Christians” at Ben’s reject such. “quietistic” and “fatalistic” yearnings for unity. We turn away from the temptation to embrace the “-isms” associated with such a yearning. We do so because we first of all reject the conventional characterization of the Fall. We reject the dualism that subordinates the human to the divine; we reject, too, all characterizations of the human project as a journey up and away from the slime of history and toward some Divine Light.
Instead, we affirm instead that we are a people gifted from the outset with the project of creating the divine. We affirm, moreover, that our job of creating the divine proceeds because of, rather than in spite of, our material, mediocre, and diverse experiences.
We at Ben’s affirm–to put it bluntly–that Adam had a navel. At his very blessed best, he was born of a woman through a rigorous labor that came on the heels of ecstatic pleasure. At his best, before the alleged Fall, he was a physical, sexual, sometimes joyful, sometimes anxious person. And he was living God’s will by persistently responding to Eve in and through his physicality, sexuality, joy, and anxiety.
Books are dangerous because they are objects fashioned in accordance with our common sense about original sin. They therefore reinforce our dangerous common sense about The Fall. Conventional books are made to appear as if they were dis-embodied truths uttered by invisible authors who speak out of their solitude. Such an appearance is orchestrated by a strategic muting and hiding of the interaction and responsivity that is a crucial component of every human moment of talk.
Books, in their mutedness, tempt readers to believe in the possibility of vacation from responsivity. As readers, we typically approach a book as if it offered a moment of relief from the pressures of interaction, as if our reading enabled us to step outside of the human condition just long enough grab it by the tail. However, reading is no vacation from a waltz of porcupines. Reading is, for rhetors at least, an especially intense kind of interaction, one which pushes us and invites a push in response.
Books, in their mutedness, also tempt writers. They trick writers in to believing that they can, of themselves, produce words of personal significance or, in Rorty’s terms, a “private language” and a “final vocabulary”. Books seem to be possessable objects; they are neatly defined by covers, and they are distinguished from each other by distinctive colors and sizes. They can be held, stored given, and received. Therefore they lead us, as writers, to believe in the possibility that the words which they contain can also be possessable objects. In line with such a belief, Richard Rorty presents the human condition this way: individuals spend their days constructing possessable words and then vying with one another over their worth. Each persons “vocabulary” may be independent of others’. No one’s vocabulary need share anything another’s. Individuals may well share no language, share no values, share no sense of human nature which others possess. Nothing need be shared.
Communities of individuals, in this view, are each atoms freely floating and free of all other atoms. The only thing that binds them together is a fear present in all the members of the community that someone might destroy their stock of valuable words leaving them in a condition of terminal humiliation. Such a common fear operates in the fashion of the M.A.D. (Mutually assured destruction) principle of nuclear politics: it forestalls first strikes at the words of others. In Rorty’s world, you and I might waltz now and again, but we always keep our quills covered. Such a view, I think, errs by taking books at face value, by treating them as if they were REALLY possessable vocabularies.
The rhetor responds to this error by saying that no word can be possessed by any individual. Every word is a trans-individual experience. Every word bespeaks a collaborative interaction, a waltz of porcupines. There are no private language, no final vocabularies that one individual possesses in isolation from others. All seemingly possessable languages and vocabularies are but phases of the larger reality of interaction.
We rhetors at Ben’s want to avoid the typical errors of writers and readers of books. We work to avoid the mistaken assumption that words are disembodied truths and that words are possessable objects.
One major consequence of our unwillingness to be good readers of any book is that we avoid becoming readers of the Good Book. The Good Book can be as dangerous as any other. It can turn us into a them as easily as can any other book. If all bookery is dangerous, then holy bookery is especially dangerous because it is so intensely promoted. Better to become a Bible rhetor than a Bible reader.
But what is a Bible rhetor? The rhetor’s approach to the Bible begins with the assumption that the Bible is a most sacred collection of world-creating words. They were given in who-knows-what-way in a past that we cannot fathom. Strangely and discomfittingly, this collection of words comes with no accompanying meanings. There is no author’s intention to be discerned; no speaker’s meaning to intuit. We have only the words, just the words. So, in the face of this situation of having words without meanings, we rhetors take up the task of constructing meanings for ourselves. Even though we have no instruction manual and no guide book, still we persist, fashioning meanings for these sacred words. And we do so collaboratively, you against you, each contesting the other’s analysis all the way along. Such is the activity of a Bible rhetor.
The Bible rhetor operates differently from, say, the Lollards. The Lollards, remember, were those British upstarts in the late fourteenth century who felt that holy people were, as individuals, capable of discerning the meaning of the sacred texts. They rejected claims made by the Church that officeholders and only officeholders had the power and to authority to read and interpret scripture. Such a view is wholly consistent with the premises of the pilgrim’s project, but is not consistent with the role of the rhetor.
But, it should be emphasized that, as we go about creating meanings for sacred words, rhetors never act alone. We never speak or listen in isolation. We are collaborators and respondents before all else. Therefore, unlike the Lollards, Bible rhetors always collaborate with each other to handle their texts.
It should also be noted the Bible rhetors operate differently from the hermeneuticians. Hermeneutics arose in the nineteenth century as a method for the interpretation of scriptures, a method premised on the idea that meanings are always larger than words, and that to appreciate the meaning of a word one must see the word in the context of the whole text, indeed in the context of the whole circumstance in which that text was spoken or written. For hermeneuticians the word does not make sense outside of the total assemblage of words in which it is found…though of course it is impossible to completely understand that total assemblage without first understanding the words that constitute it.
Salubrious as this contextualizing assumption might seem, it still remains clearly pilgrim-like. Hermeneuticians still treat reading is an act of recovering meaning. And this is my point. Rhetors don’t ever expect to recover meaning. They never probe words in order to discover the author’s intent. For rhetors, reading is contest. The rhetor’s reason for handling a text is to respond to it, and in responding to produce meaning that was not there at the outset.
Rhetors don’t find meaning, they make it. We rhetors at Ben’s shouldn’t banish the Bible from our midst. But we shouldn’t read it either. Instead, we should contest it, and thereby create meaning for its words.
Second, we can recognize that we have been operating as rhetors if we have bristled at the words that we have read. Reading is for bristling! Unfortunately, most of us rarely read with any expectation of bristling. We would probably not read at all if we thought that it would leave us in a snit. Conventionally we read so as to become calm, secure, and advanced in our understanding of our selves and of the world.
Rhetors, however, are constantly looking to rebut and contest the words of the text. In our reading we rhetors typically find cause for laughter or annoyance in our reading and we seldom find ourselves wrapped in contented contemplation. Far from a world where I’m o.k. and you’re o.k., the rhetor’s world is a world full of suspicions that maybe the writer is not o.k. at all, and neither is anyone else.
This essay has been discussing who we are at Ben’s. Specifically, it has been commenting on the kind of talk that is apt for us as we work toward becoming human. However, this essay has not said very much about how to become Christian at Ben’s. True, a number of theological perspectives have been discussed here. But all these discussions have been presented so as to analyze and exemplify one or another form of talk. Almost nothing has been said about being Christian.
Our discussions of the Resurrection and the Incarnation, for example, have been presented so as to illustrate the relationships between humans and the world which the historical explication of those theological mysteries have entailed. However, none of these discussions suggest how we are to take and use the Resurrection and the Incarnation at Ben’s. What, for example, are we supposed to do with the Resurrection? Generally, I will leave these matters to theologians. Language, not theology is my concern here.
But perhaps some brief comments are in order. First, this essay does not aim to deny the Resurrection or its significance. Neither does it deny the Virgin birth or transubstantiation, etc. Denial of such matters of faith is as myopic a response as doctrinaire affirmation. Both the affirmation and the denial presume these Christian mysteries to have significances that history cannot alter and which come to us whole, complete, and finished.
And if these mysteries are regarded as whole complete and finished, then we Christians have no responsibility with respect to them than either affirming or denying. It is just such an disavowal of responsibility which this essay rejects.
The Resurrection, the Incarnation, the Virgin birth, transubstantiation, are not over and done with. They are instead sacred words which we Christian rhetors have a responsibility to answer. And our answer ought not be a simple affirmation or denial of the content of those words. Instead our answer should be one which creates a content for those words. In every age, Christians have a responsibility to create the meaning for revelation.
My brother suggested that this essay advances a wayward and scandalous view of Christian community. “If only,” he said, “you would just take Jesus at his word.” My answer to him is that I am trying to take Jesus at his word. However, I am convinced that the task of “taking someone at their word” is far from the straightforward act that it seems. Saying that one should take Jesus at his word, presumes that his word was spoken once and for all, and is given to us unaltered by history.
Perhaps my brother assumes that the word of Jesus comes to us sanded, varnished and positioned for us as if it were a museum piece. Such a view is common enough, but it hardly helpful. Museum pieces, for all the honor we might show them, are lifeless and useless. Surely, the words of Jesus are not that.
So, I argue that “taking someone at their word” is problematic. The problem does not have to do with, say, trustworthiness–I consider Jesus to be supremely trustworthy–but with the process of “taking … words.” The way in which one goes about “taking words,” i.e. of listening, requires us to adopt a certain view about what a word is and how one goes about the “taking.”
We regularly use the phrase “taking someone at their word.” It is part of our culture, part of our common sense. I am recommending that we reflect critically not on the theology of Jesus but on the cultural and commonsensical value of this “taking someone at their word.” This has been, in large part, the point of this essay, trying to re-evaluate a view of talk and of “taking words.” It is a disturbing task because our view is part of our very sense of what it means to be human. Moreover, it is a difficult task because our view of talk and of “taking words” is part of our non-conscious understanding of the world. A fish would have a difficult time appreciating water because the water surrounds the fish and the fish cannot easily stand aside from it. So too, it is difficult for us to talk about our view of “taking words” because our very act of talking actually avails itself of that view.
Anthropologists have offered one approach to re-evaluating our view of “taking words” by presenting as best they can, the views that different peoples have advanced about such matters: Gary Witherspoon, for example, tells us that the Navaho believe that words are swirls of air which move out from mouths into the world and which, if spoken responsibly, renew the harmony of the cosmos. Thus, the Navaho would regard “taking words” as accepting the revised cosmic order which follows from a word that has been spoken or sung. And Genvieve Calame-Griaule tells us that the Dogon of West Africa consider words to be droplets of water that arise in the human body. At the moment of speaking selected droplets are drawn to the clavicle, are warmed by the heart, transformed into vapor, and pushed out into the world by the lungs. There in the world, word-droplets attach themselves to those feature of the outer world that correspond to the source of the droplets in the body. (For the Dogon, the human body is, in its physical organization, a perfect analogue of the outer world.) In this way a bridge is created between the human body and the world. Thus, the Dogon would regard “taking words” as confirming and renewing the human connection to the world.
I do not suggest that we adopt a Navaho or Dogon theory of talk. But I do contend that their proposals deserve a good listen. We should listen to the Navaho or the Dogon as porcupine to porcupine. We should respond to their bristling theories talk by challenging their proposals on grounds that they can appreciate. In the process of doing this, we will inevitably revise and re-evaluate our view of “taking words.”
So this essay is directed to a linguistic challenge, not to a theological challenge. It advances a plausible view of what it means “to take someone at his word.” That view is called “the littoral rhetor’s view.” That rhetor’s view roughly matches some aspects of Kenotic theology, however, it is the rhetor’s view and not Kenotic theology which is being advanced here.
The rhetor’s view of talk suggests that we at Ben’s can best become human by maintaining our noisy bumptious life together. Our biggest challenge is to figure out ways to keep the band playing for our dizzy waltz.