The Christian Topic

The following is a translation of the Epilogue from Jean-Louis Chrétien’s 2014 book, L’espace intérieur. It is slightly abridged in the middle, splitting it into two parts. The text is then supplemented with a number of “footnotes”; these lead to other quotations from the rest of the book chosen simply for their beauty and wisdom, as well as for the light they shed on the Epilogue itself. The result, I hope, is an adequate representation of the author’s main ideas and intentions. I hope the reader will enjoy the contemplation of this text as much as I have. As preparation, a brief note is in order.

The problematic at play in the book involves the self, subjectivity, and its interiority. Chrétien wants to show that the modern version of this problematic has lost touch with its origin,its founding moments, which he traces to numerous Christian theologians and mystics. chretien l'espace interieur interior space 2The crucial difference is this: where contemporary thought sees an increasingly isolated psyche struggling to gain control of its unconscious tendencies and become master of self and world, the Christian “topic” instead focuses on the edification, exploration, and expansion of an interior space in which God may dwell. Of prime importance here is the presence of infinity or alterity that we “house” potentially within ourselves, or even more strongly, whose residence we are. The book draws on numerous figures present in the Christian tradition from its inception, from the chamber of the heart (Matt. 6:6) to St. Theresa’s Interior Castle, to illustrate the energetic, dramatic, and libidinal-economic dynamics at play in the Christian topic of interior space. Each chapter ends by showing how modern thinkers appropriated and twisted these figures, stripping of them of their God-orientation and tipping them progressively toward the “kingdom of subjectivity.” Chrétien’s aim, however, is not proselytistic but philosophical and schematic: to show the intelligibility of this model of inhabitable personal identity and how it might inform impasses that have proved intransigent for modern thought.

This architectural schematic of interiority, whose constancy and abounding richness throughout the centuries the preceding pages have shown, and which is articulated in a differentiated way by multiple figures, indeed forms a Christian topic. It is not limited to projecting localized images of the powers and faculties of the soul or consciousness, but meditates constantly upon the play of forces that act in us and upon us, ascertaining their laws; and it also constitutes a program for the formation and transformation of the self. A description of psychic life cannot be abstracted from the ultimate end it assigns to it, and it changes according to how this end is determined. Psychology always presupposes an ethics, a determination of the meaning of liberty and human servitude, just as the varying criteria for “normality” are dependent upon man’s goal and the price he must pay to reach it. Decisions about this goal thus lead to different topics. If, as Rimbaud says at the end of A Season in Hell, “spiritual combat is as brutal as battle between men,” it is because it belongs to humanity as such that the meaning of our life is more precious than this life itself, and that this cannot be neutralized or suspended when it comes to its description.

The fundamental premise of this topic, suspended or vigorously denied by the modern psychological topics, is that this life contains in its center a source of light and power that is extra-worldly and truly divine [1]. There are many ways, according to tradition, to think this source, which here bears the biblical name of “grace.” Not only is psychical life not sufficient into itself, but its commerce with the world does not exhaust its resources [2]. Yet we must add immediately that what forms the decisive differential criteria, which is powerfully elaborated by Saint Augustine in particular, is that I could not have access to this extra-worldly source in me if were it not for the word of God, which can only come to me by way of other humans, and which resonates in the world. Every unfolding of interiority stems from an interiorization (as Nietzsche said in §16 of the second essay of Genealogy of Morals, underlining the word, “Verinnerlichung des Menschen,” and seeing in it the result of a constraint exerted upon the “instincts” that prevented them from unfolding outwardly; but this presupposes that they have in themselves the possibility of getting turned around and the space, however narrow, in which to do so). The one-on-one, interior dialog with God may only be reached starting from man’s conversation within a community, and it is always to return to it in the end [3]. The initial interiorization is of words and sayings, which opens at once a space without limit, and everything that will be qualified as unsayable only takes place, by definition, in that space.

As the reader will have noticed from the identity of the authors studied, this topic is originally sacerdotal and monastic. This simple observation demonstrates two things simultaneously: the first is that this intensification supposes a life of free time and relative isolation, like that of the ancient philosophers, but to a different end; the second is that, even more than theirs, this life is indissociably, even practically, a function in service of the community. From there, this topical scheme rejoins, completes and perfects that of the collective body for which each of us are an indispensable member, out of which the economy of the entire body can be seen [4]. Personal, spiritual individuation only takes place among the community, through it and in it, a community without measure that is larger than the milieu in which I live presently, since it also includes that of the past and future Church. The strong emphasis placed on solitude and the secret (the “chamber”) is therefore in no way equivalent to individualism or solipsism. No one is bound to share the premise upon which this topic rests, but it is clear from the foregoing that it possesses a great power of intelligibility and allows for a finely differentiated description. There is in this perspective a permanent coming-and-going, though it contains distinct moments, between solitude and community. It is a word that comes from others that sends me into solitude, and this solitude, which leads me all the way to the center or summit of my being, gives me the resources to return to this community, sends me to others forever [5]. Saint Augustine, the thinker par excellence of the “chamber of the heart,” kept speaking and writing (which amounts to the same thing, since he often dictated his writings) with an energy that could be envied, and Saint Theresa sees the fruit of mystical life in the tireless devotion it produces in us for others (which is also the criteria of truth).

The core of this paradigm is that by subtracting myself, provisionally or long-term, from commerce with others and, as much as possible, from the things of the world, by entering and advancing into an interior space, far from confining myself to an increasingly cramped underground, I am heading toward the largest opening and the greatest encounter, that of God’s personal presence [6]. The void that I must create, or rather must let be in myself, is a place of hospitality for God [7]. My most high possibility, when it comes to personal identity, is to render it inhabitable by him. It goes without saying that this movement is always thought as being possible only upon the initiative of he who comes to inhabit us, in order to enlarge us in every sense, and to give us the needed strength for our preparations and efforts. It is not a technique whereby I would become master of my own source. This unheard-of future of hospitality is not the result of a project of ours, but a conversion [8]. The horizon of this paradigm is certainly mystical, if one understands by that term union with God, which comprises many degrees and many forms. But this dimension, far from being reserved for a few exceptional personalities, is on the contrary what gives mysticism its radical opening. What can we say? In the interior castle according to Saint Theresa, few indeed will actually reach the last and centermost dwellings, where the king lives; but it belongs to the very sense of this schema that the castle of the soul is each soul’s, that all of these dwellings are virtually ours in proportion to our love, and that no one can know just how far they will be given to advance. The same goes for the other figures: in the complex topics where I pass from one place to another, no one has a fixed, assigned place, just as in the simple topic of the chamber of the heart, where emphasis is placed on the “immobile movement” of transformation, no one can know where the adventure, which begins with the crossing of the threshold, will lead [9]. This paradigm in fact inscribes into every man, in the structure of his soul or of his conscience, and as his center by destination, the hospitable vacuity wherein God can reside. The call being given, it is entirely up to man to join in and clear a space, for, according to a theological adage, God only abandons those who abandon him. To which it should be added that the major acts that characterize the diverse figures of prayer, sacrifice, praise, building or advancing are equally possible for each of us, whatever our situation might be.

This possible dwelling in us of he who infinitely goes beyond us divests all final mastery and prohibits every definitive calculation [10]. Interior space is that of the unhoped-for and consequently of  the event. No transparency is therefore possible, also because the mystical tradition, Christian but also pagan, if one thinks of Plotinus or Proclus, stands in solidarity with a conception of psychical life that does justice to a beyond of reflexivity or consciousness, to a superior “unconscious,” to use a modern term. The event of hospitality robs me of every observer position. The highest prayer is when I’m no longer even conscious of praying, many spiritual beings say, just as purity cannot be bent back upon itself to know that it is pure. The path of self-knowledge leads finally to self-forgetting, if the dignity of the self resides in opening to the higher-than-self, and to letting oneself be ordered to it [11].


One of Pascal’s pensées opposes man to a house: “We are not miserable without feeling it: a ruined house is not miserable. Only man is miserable.” This appears at first glance to be a truism, for its meaning is only revealed when one situates these words within the entire sequence, where it is man’s knowledge of his misery, posed here as proper to him, that will act as a catalyst for knowledge of his purpose and of his greatness, from which the wound of original sin made us fall. But if man is in his spirit a living house, he can also live like a house in ruins. St. Augustine spells it out in full at the beginning of his Confessions: “[the house of my soul] is in ruins, remake it” (I,V,6). The thesis of the present book is that modern identity results from a profanation of interior space, this term being understood in the strict sense of “to render profane,” to disaffect this place of that which for a long time was its highest purpose and function, to deconsecrate it, as was done ritually for a religious building that was abandoned. God deserts in our eyes these interior dwellings that we are; he ceases to be the inhabitant or visitor par excellence that we were destined to receive and welcome. Even if I’m a believer, I am henceforth alone with myself in the chamber of my heart, where memory always conveys to me the rumor of the world; and the temple that I am no longer has an altar, no more than the house has at its center a nuptual and royal chamber. All of our analyses have stressed the major importance of the figure of the “temple” [12], it is because all the other figures boil down to it once God comes to reside there and I relate to his presence through the appropriate religious acts. That is why the word “profane” is here rigorously descriptive. In Latin, the word is formed from fanum, the consecrated site or temple; profanus is that which is brought or placed in front of the temple. Whence the double meaning of the verb profanare, to profane, which can mean to offer or consecrate, or on the contrary to deprive something of its sacred or consacrated character. When our interiority ceases to be a temple for God, it is thus in the strict sense profaned. The term is not meant polemically.

But it is at this point that the most decisive questions about the sense and future of this profanation start to arise [13]. Every negation depends by definition on that which it negates, and the profanation of the temple of the one and only God is not equivalent in scope or importance to that of a temple to Zeus or Apollo (which the Greek religion never maintained our soul could be). And, furthermore, the disaffection or deconsecration of the interior space does not amount to its diappearance or its fading. By way of a long tradition of interiorization whose laws and practices we have only described in part, it is open such that it cannot be closed. The disaffected temple becomes the kingdom of subjectivity, but the emptiness discovered there continues to reveal in its own way the magnitude of this space. We remember that for Hugues de Saint-Victor, expending every effort to build his private ark, the starting point was constituted by the chaotic infinity of our thoughts, cogitationes, mental form of the flood. The stream of consciousness, per William James, will not be a frail rivulet, but takes on something of the fluvial. This mobile infinity, which Enlightenment thinkers, in their analytical and classifying spirit, had sought to discipline and put in order, will be, in diverse forms, a central theme for romantic thought and art, whose sense of immoderation the 20th century often deepened. The interior monologue turns out to be polyphonic, and personal identity, which by its very nature is in a strong sense a “question,” as Augustine already insisted, tends to crack under the pressure of the multiplicity of social roles and relations in which we are — a theme that the Renaissance modulated in a rather jubilant way, like a freedom, but that for Proust ends up making us ungraspable or unknowable to ourselves –, and it cracks even more under the pressure of those impersonal forces inside us that drive us on. This fracture cannot be unrelated to the loss of what was for so long our ultimate destination: to be, here, a stop or resting place for the divine presence, since it is only what we have to be, and not what we are, that can unify us.

On the other hand, and to take up again an opposition dear to Levinas, but which corresponds to an eidetic demarcation between paganism and Biblical faith that he is not the first or the only one to put forward, the profaned temple of the Holy One frees up the space for all the powers of the sacred. The enchantment of the “subject” has its forms of sacredness, and even if they are assuredly “pagan,” they in no way constitute a return to ancient paganism, nor to its finished and secure world. The spirit can never go back on its steps. This sacralization of “subjectivity” has the characteristic of destroying on one side what it adores on the other, as we can see in the modern worship of nature, which is glorified in us the more we devastate it in reality, emerging amidst factory smoke. And individualism appears more all the more precious once there is no longer anything to singularize it except for its caprices, themselves predictable in a given time and milieu, which the economy uses to make it respond to its demands. But it is not for this epilogue to enter into what could only be the object of other works; we only indicate the power of intelligibility, negative as well as positive, that the model of habitable identity possesses.

One essential difference between this theological topic and the psychological topics developed in the two previous centries stems from the distinct role that the project of mastery holds there… In the Christian topic, there is certainly a project of mastery and discipline, whose diverse examples we have seen over the course of time, and which necessarily accompanies the deployment of interior space (concentrating oneself, freeing oneself from certain acts or thoughts, etc.) [14]. But this horizon of mastery is in fact restrained on principle, on the cognitive as well as the practical plane, because of the fact that at each moment divine grace, and thus the free sovereignty of God, is the primary agent, always presupposed. The belief that I would be master of myself perfectly, as the crowning of arrogance, is always considered to be the road to ruin. Even more profoundly, the goal of mastery, which is only a means, remains each time to clear within ourselves a void, a place of hospitality, where we let ourselves be instructed and shaped in a way that is greater than we ever could have done ourselves [15]. Only the ultimate dispossession of our control and command, by the new receptivity it opens up in us, gives us to ourselves and to others according to a vocation older than every project.

The modern psychological topic, caught in a psychopathological and medical horizon, is aimed at a practical mastery of that which appears to escape it most, the disorders and impediments produced in us in spite of ourselves, at least going by appearances; and even if it never claimed to be all powerful, and although the concept of “cure” itself could become aporetic for some psychoanalysts, it opens up to a cognitive mastery it puts forward as unlimited by right, which is reinforced from there by quite different trends. The popularity it gained with the interpretation of dreams and “unconscious acts” is the sure sign of this… All of this would of course call for many nuances, distinctions and in-depth study, especially since the plurality of psychological schools would have to be taken into account, and the often greater modestiy of psychoanalysis due to the time of its founding, but the tendency signals a difference that would be difficult to deny. One index of this could be that, in psychology, the strongest thought of the event is as trauma, whereas in the Christian topic the event concerns my liberation and my enlargement by the coming of the divine guest in me [16].

It would otherwise be an outrageous simplification to reduce the tipping one of these topics into the otherto a passage from heteronomy to autonomy, from a state where man recieves from God the laws to which he submits his behavior to a state where he is himself the legistlator, according to the critical Kantian opposition [17]. Firstly because, as numerous citations have shown by virtue of their silence on the matter, this is not a debate about the foundation of moral law, and the authors studied here do not necessarily have the same theses regarding this question. Next and above all because for them the question is put in terms of liberty and servitude, in economic and energetic terms, and because grace, in the Biblical meaning continually deepened by St. Augustine in light of St. Paul, thus involving the unprecedented aporias of “law” as such, and of its effects, is always thought of as a radical power of liberation, the tearing-free from a servitude that we ourselves, collectively and individually, have produced, but can no longer unmake. Grace does not number with our liberty like a power we could oppose to it, for it is precisely the source and resource of liberty [18]. (It is in Christology that the articulation between divine freedom and human freedom was most profoundly developed.) The question about the nature and origin of the forces I have to put the law to work, like those that make it hard for it to stand up in us, is certainly no less important than the question of the foundation of this law itself…

Our description of this overlooked and misunderstood paradigm of personal identity does not claim to resolve by itself the group of questions it might provoke, but is inteneded to be one element that helps pose them better — the decisive element, but certainly not the only one. Great is its fecundity, for this interior space, once opened and articulated, can never be closed, and it lends itself to renewals and recompositions. What was named here “profanation” is the foundational event of the latter, but it does not exhaust their diverse possibilities. The forms and directions of space that the human word unceasingly puts into work and into action, far from being the occasion of decline or of a reification of spirit, are that whereby its power of intelligibility is unfolded in every order, including that of mental life. To inhabit is a constitutive dimension of existence, and not even the nomad or the wanderer avoids it; they fulfill one of its possibilities, which clarifies others and is clarified by them. Every givenness of sense supposes space, as is shown by the beautiful French phrase “to take place.” A thought’s hospitality to the real is measured by the position it accords to and acknowledges in space, as well as to its mobility in language. And the void, the silence or the blank whereby, as here, everything concludes, are nothing other than that whereby it respires, taking in a breath above it [19].

[1] The first thing to be said about the castle of the soul is that it is made out of a unique crystal or a very clear diamond (I,1) and that it has in its center a sun (I,2). Transparency and luminous splendor thus characterize it de jure. God sparkles in its image like nowhere else in all creation. But a high de facto opacity answers this transparency de jure, by the sinful condition of man and by our personal sins, which have made us wander for a long time outside the castle, that is, outside ourselves. The interior sun is eclipsed for us, our intimate source produces only dark waters, the pitch of sin covers the crystal of the soul (I,2), and we carry along with us this teeming mass of reptiles and beasts of every sort that cloud our vision (I,1 and 2). The guiding thread of this drama thus appears to be that of a progressive reduction of the innermost opacity and a growth, or a gradual liberation, of transparency, by the effect of self-knowledge and self-mastery that grace makes possible for us henceforth. And, in fact, the guilty opacity we bring with us will decrease, even if human fragility can never be abolished. But this path toward the light is toward the blinding and divine light that drives us, and not toward our own, trembling and filtered; and its end is not the stoic impassibility of a total mastery of self, nor a transparency in which nothing about ourselves would remain unknown, for it is identified instead with a self-forgetting that sends us without return to others qua the overflowing of this mercy we have received, and which made it possible for us. For this light indeed comes from the sun of justice, which makes us malleable to its silent call by a succession of ordeals, where a passivity grows that is more profound than that which affects us by the events of the world. (p. 230)

[2] It is in effect an eschatological saying [cf. 1 Cor. 7:29-31]: the present world is already worked through by its end, by the coming reign of God, and while leading our ordinary life and fulfilling our state duties, which are tied to our particular situation in the social body, we must not be absorbed by it entirely, nor see in it what is essential, and we must leave open in ourselves our availability to the sovereign action of God renewing all. The imminence of a wholly other future, and the urgency of preparing for it, are then inscribed in our souls through a different use of the goods of this world, and of the relatonships of this world, an as without or as if… not. It is an interior freedom for that which comes, which does not imply a breakdown of our obligations. (p. 92)

[3] What is absolutely decisive is that St. Augustine rejects every attempt to understand this interior temple as having an individual or solitary nature: “Therefore all those who believe in this way are like living stones, from which the temple of God is built: and like wood that cannot rot, this arc that cannot be submerged by the flood is made from them. This temple is that: human beings themselves, where God is prayed to, and where he answers them.” The temple of Jerusalem, he continues, was only a figure for the truth of the body of Christ, that is, the community of the faithful. It is therefore because each spirit is one with the others in faith and prayer that it makes up a part of the living temple, and can itself be called, by metonym, the temple. The apparent one-to-one of man and God in interior prayer and sacrifice always supposes the whole of the community, and forms only a lieutenancy or a delegation: interior sacrifice is never only offered by me, or for me, for each one in this intimate worship represents the others as well. This intimate breath always takes a breath with others. Hence, this topic, when it puts into play the intimacy of consciousness, cannot be a matter of individual psychology, nor of the economy of our own forces and their play, since it takes root in each of its acts in the community. (p. 121)

[4] With the construction of the house that we each are, where this house constitutes the new identity that will be conferred upon us by our acts and our thoughts, what is the result? First of all, it appears that this construction of our own forever-identity, by the indelible character of baptism, though it is indeed our unsubstitutable task, in no way forms a process that is solely individual (even when conceived as an interior one-to-one with God), for it is interpersonal through and through: it requires other humans both in its conditions of possibility and in the very movement of edification. The foundation and meaning of this house being given to it by the Word, it was necessary that this Word reach us through other humans, as it happens through the apostles, without whom that upon which it relies and that to which it destines us would not have been offered to us. The chain of transmission of the Word,and its action in us and on us forms the binding power or cement of the edifice. And, in each instant of its erection, the relationships we have with other humans, based on the testimony that comes to us from them as much as the testimony we give to them (whose impact and intensity can never be measured by those who give it but only by those who receive it), are the properly architechtonic forces that we can only use well or poorly. As St. Augustine said about the temple, we are the house of God all together and each in particular. The acute point of solitude is only the extremity of an interaction. There is nothing that we have not received, but the receiving, and how we receive (and thus build), forms our unique ipseity (this is the meaning of living stones). The interiority of the dwelling sounds the voice of all the others; it does not come from the demiurgic will of an individual willpower, for which everything would be the material of its own project (I could not want the Word to come to me). This interpersonal dimension is consonant with plenty of contemporary doctrines of man (taken, whether they recognize it or not, in their genealogy), but it poses as election what they find as facticity. (p. 186-7)

[5] In the spiritual, moral, or intellectual order, one only conserves what one augments, for the spirit is only preserved through acts of spirit, which always lives and moves. In this order, there is no safe-box one could sleep peacefully in front of, assured that nothing will be lost: on the contrary, preservation wants exposure and risk, the uneasy vigilance of one who questions, goes to the depths, enriches the breath of the voice or the trembling life of the fingers that write. Each of us knows that, left inactive, the personal gifts we’ve received are taken away from us, meaning in truth that they disappear or whither away, as does every part of us and in us that we no longer use. (p. 49)

[6] Interiority is therefore an intimacy, a place where one is withdrawn into oneself and isolated from the outside and the social world. But in this chamber, I am by no means alone, for this is the place par excellence of the presence of God in me, of encounter and exchange with him. This is no doubt what confers upon this topic its major philosophical weight: the deepest interiority of man is only the place of truth because it is the place of encounter, because I stand before God and with him, because I listen to him and he talks. In contemporary language, identity is that into which the most vivid alterity incessantly comes, and this is one of the criteria that distingushes it from the future “subjectivity.” My center is decentered, my interiority is inhabited, and that is what constitutes it as such and founds it. (p. 30)

[7] Personal identity, that of the “chamber” [of the heart], carries a void or a hollow in its center, a vacancy that is for God, a vacancy–St. Augustine calls a “capacity”–that is the basis of its sense of being. That’s the price of these spatial analogies that put emphasis on this void: intimite richness is nothing but a free and clear space. My own “chamber” becomes uninhabitable for me, and its closeness a hell, when I am the only one in it, for that is not its purpose. This is of crucial importance for distinguishing it from its modern transformations, which will be studied shortly. That which, for my part, opens and unfolds the simultaneously vast and intimate space of this chamber is the act of prayer, this address in me to that which is not me, which always forms a response to the call. It is the place par excellence of its experienced presence. This prayer, which can certainly take many forms, is silent, a mental oration (which some confused historians talk about it in a bizarre way sometimes, as if it was invented in the 16th century). In other words, prayer is generative of interiority; it brings it forth, maintains it and cultivates it. From a descriptive and phenomenological point of view, of course an interiority whose founding act is prayer is distinct, by essence, from an interiority which originated in an entirely different act. And the one to whom this prayer is addressed, by making it present to me, is a part of the constitution of this interiority that can never be canceled. That is why there cannot be anything like “the ego” here, even if muddied minds have blackened many pages about “the ego” according Augustine, or “in his home” [“chez” lui] as they love to say, suggesting unduly that he’s invited them to have a drink. (p. 72-73)

[8] God is such for us as we are ourselves; he appears to us according to the way we stand before him and act. This obviously does not mean that God reacts to our behaviors as in a mirror, but that the suspicious only see deceptions everywhere, and the violent vengeance, up to God himself. To flee God toward God, to flee his wrath toward grace, is nothing but the movement in place of an intimate change, and of conversion by the confession of sins, penitence and repentence. To change the direction of one’s gaze is for this very reason to change one’s life and what this life can open up to, from God or from other people. He for whom everything is “rotten” only reveals his own turpitude, as Hegel will say forcefully. It is only through blindness that I can exempt myself from the rule I myself pose as universal. That said, in the movement St. Augustine invites us to, it’s not a matter of absolving oneself, and even less about making excuses and fabricating justifications like a crooked lawyer, but only to remain guilty, acknowledging it as such, in the chamber of one’s heart, stopping there. God stops hunting me down when I stop fleeing him. (p. 69)

[9] It is necessary, [Theresa] says, “to have great confidence (gran confianza)” and above all it is of paramount importance to not diminish or shrink (apocar) our desires, for even a tiny bird can teach us to fly. In the Interior Castle, it is also at the outset that she calls us to “always consider things of the soul in their plenitude, width and grandeur,” for the soul is “capable of much more than we can percieve”… The greatest danger, then, is to mutiliate our desire right away, to devote ourselves forever to narrowness, and to practice, by taking this to be the exercise of humility, the infanticide of our vocation. The dignity of our being as an image of God is the light that enlightens humility in order that it orient itself, and not that the latter should start by forgetting. In a letter, Gustave Flaubert wrote powerfully that, “a soul is measured by the dimension of its desire, as we judge cathedrals in advance by the height of their bell towers.” The magnitude of desire for God, far from contradicting humility, is the condition without which the latter lacks everything true and good, because desire is what forbids us from closing ourselves up in our narrowing, and reveals it to us as our own doing. Everything thus begins for Theresa through dilation. (p. 221) See Chrétien, La joie spacieuse : Essai sur la dilatation (2007).

[10] In other words, our consciousness can neither seize nor surround this flame nor this force to appropriate it for itself; it can only experience its effects. This desire in us higher than us, the interiority opened by the wound of love, in every sense of the term, escapes. Unification is neither the height of self-mastery (if not by relation to the disorder of the passions), but the place where I can no longer measure my act nor my being. It is surely one of many affirmations, as lofty as they are vivid, where the difference from the major oriental thinkers appears: the summit of self-accomplishment and of contact with the Absolute is not attained by the extinction or abolition of desire, but by its intensification. (Note that this is not exclusively Christian, since Plotinus’ intellectual drunkenness, which leads to the One, also refers to eros.) This assuredly mystical dimension of the heart’s altar bears considerable philosophical weight, for it brings to light a model of interiority that cannot be translated into a thought of subjectivity. (p. 135)

[11] The Yes toward which the spirit, with all its desire, is led, can only be approached by sacrificing everything that would still participate from the distance of contemplation, of an inspection of the One to whom I say yes (which St. Francis calls “considering”). “The soul would nearly like to close its eyes.” The price of entry into the place of highest lights to renounce the desire to see insofar as it would entail a dimension of appropriation on my part of the One I see in its splendor. It is not a matter of contemplating the Yes, which is God, but of responding to it by becoming yes oneself. Acquiescence by the tip of the spirit to the divine will is one way of “being united infinitely and [of] surrendering oneself to it,” as Francois de Sales says with a bold adverb, putting stress on the plenary character of the will’s yes as love. To the One that my knowledge can neither encompass nor comprehend by reason of its infinity, I can say yes with the whole of myself. (p. 152)

[12] In what way, to return to the question, does the Augustinian thought of man himself as sacrificium or offering open interiority in such an unprecedented fashion? The latter is not at all characterized by enclosure or confinement, and intimacy as “abyss,” according to Augustine’s words, gapes from all sides. For Augustine, this sacrifice to God must lead to acts towards others, which ballasts its gravity. The gift always increases from being given, but the heart or the center of this oblatio is the act itself of orienting or destining oneself, addressing or sending oneself toward the one that we can never measure nor comprehend. A consentment that knows to whom it says yes, but can never finish learning what it says what it says yes, and where the absence of transparency is not obscurity, but the inception of the light over our historical and psychic thickness… This scheme lets all of my interior acts be integrated into worship, and takes into account the whole of our life’s dimensions. The insertion of the latter into a movement that goes from God to God, by opening it on all sides, and by making our spirit a “sacrifice” in the sense of a consacrated offering, dying so as to live in the truth of a higher life, thought as being that to which it is destined in its very center, situates it in an entirely different order than that of “subjectivity” that became ours, and this applies to all the doctrines of God’s habitation in us. To actively live the intimite space which is our spirit’s as “temple,” and its center as an altar, this is one of the greatest thoughts of human dignity; it cannot be reversed into a cult of self. The closure of the temple, with the difference between the interior and the exterior, does not contradict its opening toward the heights, where the scent and fire of sacrifice climb. (p. 127)

[13] What one calls, using an imperfect name, “secularization,” or the withdrawal of God, is very often put in relationship with the “disenchantment of the world,” according to Weber’s expression, quite hypothetically connected to the development of mathematical physics; but what this present analysis aims to put into evidence, the reason why it must be patient and precise, is that the major place of this disenchantment is interiority. Not a loss of faith, but a thought of the deepest human identity as no longer being in its essence the place where God resides, a “chamber” for him. Am I or am I not alone at home [chez moi], in myself? This is the big question. After a long dream of transparency, where solitude is synonymous with mastery, anonymous and impersonal forces will, in a variety of forms, take the place that God formerly held in us, if we dare say so, an underground unconscious being substituted for the unconscious at the summit of the point of the soul, but only to make of us their playthings, instead of liberating us. If the presence of God in the spirit and to the spirit is, as all of theology affirms, its highest presence, and the truest, then it is also the most decisive place; its more or less manifest presence in the material world does not have the same decisive character, nor is it therefore the same issue [enjeu]. (p. 60)

[14] This offering necessitates a preparation of oneself and of what is going to be offered all at once; it is a purification. Pure habits are necessary, that is, a pure conduct; then we can bring to this altar, “an offering (hostiam) of praise, an offering of prayers, an offering of mercy, an offering of purity, an offering of justice, an offering of sanctity.” Every act of virtue can become the “victims” that I offer, and thus every dimension of human life as such. The beauty of the spirit’s acts is only preserved by offering them or sacrificing them. It’s not a question of hoarding them, or of accumlating them jealously, but of setting fire to them, such that only their scent subsists on their way up to God. The right conscience is totally contrary to “good conscience” in the usual, and perjorative, sense of the expression, which evokes satisfaction with oneself. To speak of purification and consumption by fire is to mark this all with the sign of finitude, the “work of the negative.” If our acts are consumed into perfume, then new spiritual “victims,” or hosts, must always be provided by renewed acts. (p. 131) It is by lowering oneself in humility, and not by elevating oneself in pride, that one can come closer to God. Closest to the meek, the Most-High distances himself from those who hold themselves high up. He prefers the valley to the summit. It is by descending that one reaches him. The path of intimacy descends. But, in a second step, the entire vertical axis is unfolded in us: we must descend in ourselves to be able to rise in ourselves. “So do everything internally. And if by chance you seek a high place, a holy place, present yourself inside the temple for God. You want to pray in a temple? Pray in yourself. But first and foremost make yourself a temple for God, for it is in his temple that he will answer the one who prays.” (p. 117)

[15] This house, “the soul of the just,” will be, “the seat of wisdom.” After having appointed us artisan of this house, Hugues specifies how God and man cooperate in its construction. They do not number in this, and they are not juxtaposed in a sort of distribution of tasks, as if the human work finished God’s work and added onto it what his lacked (this has always offended certain minds in the term cooperation). Hugues puts it admirably in this formula: “His work in us, with us, is our help, and our work in us by him is his gift.” He is in us the architectonic force that enables us to become architects in truth. That he is the origin, end and inhabitant of this building of the “heart” cannot destroy the fact that it is our heart; on the contrary, it makes it possible for it to be made fully ours, fulfilling our vocation, by opening us completely to him. (p. 195)

[16] The return to self is a necessary stage, the inaugural moment which has all the force of a sunrise, with a view to encountering God. But it is only a stage, not the goal itself. The goal is to surpass oneself, to be transcended and so be fulfilled. Only one who is crosses over is found, for they let themselves be exposed to the encounter, without which they only would have consumed themselves, in a circle and in vain. That God is within and not without is a thought taken up repeatedly by St. Augustine, with unexpected variations and accents each time, as is usual under his pen. God is therefore, in one way or another, in the chamber of my heart before me, waiting for me and expecting me there. It is always I who shut the door on him, locking myself out of the house, as one says colloquially, to the point of forgetting the very existence of this place. Only the act of prayer (which of course is present in many forms, and at many different levels of obscurity and clarity) opens or partly-opens the door. There is no sanctity to places that elevate those who go there and what is done there. On the contrary, it is those who come to inhabit this space and what they do there that give it its height in accordance with the spirit (this goes for temples and churches too). (p. 61-62)

[17] [For Kant,] the edification of the temple that I will be henceforth is exclusively my own work. It does not suppose any personal presence of God in me, no more than it would lead me to it. Rather, it demands above all else the clarity of the moral gaze (the moral human here is practically a moralist, in the sense of a thinker of morality). That demand applies to every moral, for a good intention is not good if it doesn’t see that it has to be, and how to be. Kant of course does not exclude “personal prayer,” which always reawakens a new moral intention in us, but this prayer refers more to a monologue than a dialogue with God, and forms a place of obedience to the law for which I myself am the legislator, and not a place of response to the call of God. (p. 163)

[18] For the Biblical faith only, the presence of God, coming to meet us in an encounter, can sanctify a place in the world. Through his presence as creator, which is not created once and for all in an immemorial past inaccessible to us, but never ceases to support his creatures in their being and to renew them, he sanctifies the world in the broad sense. The Sabbath, when man stops working and exploiting the world and other living beings, when he renders thanks unto God, also recalls the beauty of dawn upon the completion of his work, and acknowledges this light over things by letting them be and letting them rest such as they are. This is the time of a yes to a perfection that is not the output of our hands. Yet, by the presence of his grace, where he is manifested and addresses himself to a finite spirit, which is able to respond to him and above all to recognize him as its God, he sanctifies, by this very event, in a strict and strong sense, some places in the world. These are the places where God reveals himself, furtively or long-lastingly, where his word resonants, albeit silently, that is, to the spirit alone. When the revelation occurs and takes place, and just so long as it does so, there are sacred places. There is only this breaking-in [effraction] toward us of the word that sanctifies them, just like the memory of it that man actively safeguards, answering this word by continuing to answer for it, and growing old in the ear with this signifiance always younger to the extent that it is heard, maintaining these burning spaces with a flame that to the eye is imperceptible. (p. 109-10)

[19] The topical word of St. Theresa culimates in a yes, as she says in her Life (14,5): aqui todo es “si” en aquel tiempo, “here, everything is “yes” in this time.” This “yes” is upheld in a “letting be said,” and no longer in the act of making statements; in a “letting be led,” and no longer in choosing one’s own path sovereignly; in a “letting be taught,” and no longer in setting oneself up as master. For the “yes” would not be loving if it did not have something to lose, that is, to give, taking wing without return from the lips that proffer it, higher than them, higher than us. It is the peak of the act that has sharpened the formative passivity, the most vivid possibility of man, for it is the highest receptivity. (p. 231)

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2 Responses to The Christian Topic

  1. Rex Styzens says:

    Yet the account Nancy gives of the “word made flesh” in this and other essays of Dis-enclosure is quite different from that given by Derrida in his analysis of Chretien’s “spiritual touch.” The tempting substitutability that troubles Derrida at the end of the fifth “Tangent” may well be tempting and perhaps even inevitable, given that both Chretien and Nancy are thinking from within a Christological framework. Yet within that framework, Nancy argues, another thinking can and must be discerned.

    Nancy’s more literal reading of verbum caro factum est places the apparently marginal doctrine of kenosis at the heart of Christology and therefore makes Christianity in its most inner logic an atheology of presentation in the withdrawal of presence, substance, foundation, and ground. If this is so, then it is easy to see why he affirms that Christianity’s belonging to the totalizing closure of the metaphysics of presence will always, and always already, be accompanied by its dis-enclosure, by its opening out onto an irrecuperable excess of metaphysics. Derrida’s troubled concern that the terms of a deconstructed Christianity could be substituted for those of Chretien’s phenomenologized theology is misplaced. His worry that Chretien’s “spiritual touch” might always be in some way at work within, or implied by, a deconstructive or deconstructed thinking of (Christian) touch could be countered with the thought that an (auto-)deconstructed Christianity will always already have inhabited its more orthodox counterpart.
    Perhaps what is really at stake here is whether the “God who empties himself” of kenosis can ultimately be substituted for, or recuperated by, the “supreme God” who creates the world and maintains it as substance and grounded presence.
    –“Incarnation and Infinity” by Ian James in RE-TREATING RELIGION

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