In the Catholic rite of ordination of a deacon – and therefore an element of all Catholic ordained ministry – the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hands of the newly ordained and says:

Receive the Gospel of Christ,

whose herald you now are.

Believe what you read,

teach what you believe,

and practice what you teach.1

The bishop's instruction with its four commands to receive, believe, teach and practice is direct and, at least on the surface, simple. Yet each phrase raises issues that twentieth century philosophers and theologians have vigorously contested. These issues, concerning language, truth, interpretation and action, challenge the meaning of every element of the instruction and raise profound theological question about revelation, truth, faith and discipleship that are fundamental to the Church's magisterium and Christian ministry and life generally.

The fundamental philosophical challenges, in brief, are that Scripture, and the tradition that gives rise to and sustains it, is now perceived as culturally and historically conditioned and relative rather than absolute; truth in an absolute sense is considered dead; speaking of God in a non-idolatrous way is held to be impossible; and human action that could witness to love of God and neighbor is viewed as ideologically suspect. If the philosophers are right, then the ordinands may well wonder what assent to the bishop's instruction entails and how to interpret it, for even the bishop's statement, like all statements, is open to interpretation – in this case at four levels. First, there is interpretation of the Scriptures that are handed over, of how God is revealed; this Revelation constitutes the content of the ordinand's belief and raises the fundamental question – barring fideism – of what is true in the Gospels and how that truth is warranted. Second, there is the hermeneutic task of talking about God as revealed in Scripture, of communicating the ordinand's belief about the truth of Scripture, the truth about God. Third, there is the translation of that preaching into the actions and life of the ordinand in a way that also communicates this truth to the Church, which the ordinand serves.

These three interpretive elements might appear to exhaust the steps in the bishop's instruction, but there is a fourth aspect: the interpretation of the Bishop's very act of instructing. For certainly, few bishops would be satisfied unless the belief, preaching and practice conformed to expectations of what is consistent with the teaching and practice of the Church. It is not the individual's right to carry out the hermeneutic tasks involved in Scriptural exegesis, preaching, and Christian life in just any way that suits him. The individual is part of a long tradition that continues and is embodied even in the bishop himself as he speaks the words of ordination. Implicit in the Bishop's order is the requirement that all of the interpretation will meet the demands of the tradition and be conformed to the Bishop's own concept of his ministry and the needs of the local Church of which he is episkopos or overseer. This last interpretive element may well be the most significant since, even though it is only implicitly contained in the first instruction to ‘receive’, it provides the hermeneutic for the entire rite as well as all of the other interpretive elements.

In this essay, I will explore the critical philosophical issues that are associated with each element of the bishop's instruction and attempt to show a path, consistent with contemporary philosophical insights and Church teaching, to resolve these issues and even to enrich the Church's understanding of faith. This path is grounded in a performative, rather than a propositional, understanding of truth within the tradition. The thesis to be advanced is that the bishop's directives can best be understood, not in terms of a logical sequence of instructions that flows linearly from belief to action, but rather as recursive praxis. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer has articulated the point most succinctly: ‘Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes’.2 Belief, as trust in revelation, and obedience, as responsive action, are integral and inseparable elements of Christian living. One without the other is simply not possible and both are pursued and lived simultaneously by the ordained minister and all Christians. The truth of Scripture is a lived truth.


The bishop's action of handing over the Gospels is the very essence of the Christian tradition (from the Latin tradere: to hand over), but the designation of the receiver as herald denotes a very special meaning of Gospel as the kerygma, the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ. The proclamation is embodied in the text of the Gospels, and it is the Gospel that the ordained minister will proclaim during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. But it is not only the words that must be proclaimed; the proclamation must be of God's revelation in Jesus Christ who unites the human and the divine in himself. Therefore the proclamation is not of the words on the pages of the Book alone but of the Word of God who continues to act in the Church, which is his Body. This view has been a cornerstone of Christian doctrine from apostolic times, but may be missed in the very act of handing over, with its signal use of a physical book that contains printed words.

In no way, however, does this focus on the kerygma as what is handed over detract from the vital significance of the book and the words themselves, for Christianity, like the Jewish tradition in which it is rooted, is a tradition of the book, the Bible, which serves as the norma non normanda, the primary guardrail of the truth of the revelation in Christ.3 Further, it is essential to understand that this guardrail arises out of the lived experience of the Apostles, the early Church, and the people of ancient Israel and must include not only what is contained in the Bible itself, but also the oral traditions (some of which have also been written down) from which the book was drawn and which continue to the present day and inform a true understanding of the text of Scripture. Oral tradition is also a part of revelation. In Judaism, this oral tradition is held to go back to Sinai, to be at least partially documented in the Talmud, and to continue in the ongoing study of Torah. In the Catholic Church, this tradition is partially documented in the writings from the ecumenical councils of the Church, the letters of popes and bishops, and the writings of theologians; but it also continues in unwritten form in preaching, teaching, and study by all who are Christians. Oral tradition is the means through which the text of Scripture continues to engage people's minds, change their hearts, and move them to live their faith from day to day. For if the tradition does not continue to evolve in response to new conditions, new perspectives, and new possibilities for proclamation in word and action, then it is doomed to become merely a cultural artifact that is of little more than historical interest.

Hans-Georg Gadamer is perhaps the most articulate modern philosopher on the subject of how traditions continue to live and ground the validity of people's lives through a process of interpreting the texts, which include not only the writings but also the practices and social norms that constitute a living tradition. Gadamer views tradition positively as integral to how human beings acquire their understanding of the world:

At any rate, our usual relationship to the past is not characterized by distancing and freeing ourselves from tradition. Rather, we are always situated within traditions, and this is no objectifying process – i.e., we do not conceive of what tradition says as something other, something alien. It is always part of us, a model or exemplar, a kind of cognizance that our later historical judgment would hardly regard as a kind of knowledge but as the most ingenuous affinity with tradition.4

It is the tradition within each historical and cultural situation that shapes the prejudgments/prejudices that a person brings to a text and that establishes the boundaries or guardrails of what constitutes right and wrong both intellectually and morally.

However, as Gadamer indicates, it is an interpretive or hermeneutic task to mediate how the texts of the tradition – always possessing both familiarity and alterity for us – are enacted or ‘played’ in people's lives. The intended outcome of this hermeneutic activity is the interpreter's – preacher's, believer's – consciousness of being affected by history (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein) within the tradition and by the interactive and iterative process of addressing and being addressed by these texts – what Gadamer calls the ‘fusion of horizons’ between the individual, the text, and the tradition.in5

The handing over of the Gospels, then, is not the passing on, or delivery of, a static set of documents, but the invitation to join a living process of proclamation and interpretation of Jesus Christ, who is the tradition's source, and of the tradition's texts, both its normative writings and the ongoing questioning, debate, and discovery of how those writings can be understood and lived within the current cultural, social and intellectual context of the time. This interpretation occurs within a vital community and is not limited to words, but necessarily entails action, action that for Christians is consistent with the Word of God, the imitation of Christ in each historical and cultural setting.


Only what is true merits belief, but the truth of the Gospels – of both Christ and the texts that communicate him – is a strange truth to the modern believer. The Gospel documents were composed in an era – actually several eras spanning almost two centuries – that was very different from our own. They reflect a somewhat different view of truth from our own, a view that was content with factual inconsistencies, relied on different criteria of evidence for ‘historical’ events, and used different methods of argumentation.6 Further, the Gospels communicate with words and stories that had a meaning in the cultural context of their time that is different from the contextual meanings of our own times and varied cultures. Historical-critical analysis of the texts and social and cultural investigations of New Testament times have not only raised cautions about too facile readings but have further heightened the awareness that the interpretation of the Gospels can never penetrate the minds of the Gospel writers or the early Christian communities but instead must rely on an appropriation of Gospel truth that is different from the times in which it was committed to writing. Our appropriation of the meaning that the Gospel writers sought to communicate is necessarily partial, culturally dependent on our own different ways of understanding the world, and even personal for each contemporary reader and believer. The strangeness of Scripture must never be reduced to a literal interpretation based on current understandings, but must instead be allowed to challenge us and the times in which we live.

The truth of the Gospels that the ordinand is instructed to believe is also not a truth that resides in the words and sentences alone, because the Gospels' revelation is of an event, God's entrance into the phenomenal world in Christ, and neither the early Christian community's experience of that event nor our appropriation of it can be fully captured in words and sentences. The few thousand words of the Gospels are far too limited to contain that transcendent event or the disciples' encounter. Language is simply inadequate to articulate that truth, because language is tied to the earth, grows out of human experience, is structured to serve human endeavor, and, in itself, cannot contain or comprehend the ‘transcendent’ in the truth that is God.7 Rather, language can only point to the event of the encounter with God, affirm the possibility and fact of the believer's experience of God in Christ, and sketch the circumstances and experience that led to the disciples' faith and that might also serve to lead today's reader to a relationship of faith in God through Christ.

This inadequacy of language is not a matter of the text of the Gospels being incomplete, as if lengthier Gospels with more explanation or the inclusion of yet another Gospel would somehow compensate. Rather, the inadequacy lies in the communication of experience through words. The Gospels' texts and all of the words in them – much like anything that we ourselves write or say – are in a sense ‘underdetermined’.

Eugene Gendlin has traced the development and creation of meaning in language from its roots in experience and has demonstrated that everything that is perceived and every word that is heard, read or spoken, is accompanied by a ‘felt sense’, a physical-linguistic, experiential, phenomenal depth of meaning that is both rational (i.e., not ‘merely’ emotional) and potentially expressible, but is never capable of being fully conveyed in a particular word or sentence at a given moment.8 This experiential depth of meaning of the speaker or writer – and the hearer or reader as well – is part of every text. Gendlin uses ellipsis (…..) to indicate this type of underdetermined meaning in expression, or stated more positively, to indicate that the experience or meaning that the word is communicating contains much more than the author can express in the word alone.9 This underdetermined character also implies an element of indeterminacy and the relative nature of all that is written or spoken, not merely as it is received and interpreted by the reader or hearer but also as the one who speaks or writes formulates and expresses it. This indeterminacy is heightened by the metaphorical character of virtually all expression, which creates a relationship for both the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader between ‘a complex of felt meaning and symbols on the one hand, and some new felt meaning on the other … Words that are already meaningful can, in a particular metaphor, mean something new, which they again cease to mean if taken out of the metaphor’.10

To see how this applies to Scripture, consider the meaning that the author(s), the final redactor – possibly Jesus himself – may have sought to communicate as they were speaking or writing the following example passages. We read: ‘Blessed (…..) are the poor (…..)’ (Lk 6:20), and ‘I am (…..) the way (…..) the truth (…..) and the life (…..)’ (Jn 14:16). What did the speaker/writer mean by these passages? How did the writer (like every writer) arrive at just these particular words to express the (…..), the insight together with its felt sense that was to be spoken or written? In particular, what was intended in the metaphors of ‘way’, ‘truth’, and ‘life’ that are personified by Christ in the second passage? We cannot know, but we can be certain that what the author meant was greater in its felt sense than the words alone can carry. It is left to the reader or hearer to try and fill in the ellipses, to grasp the experiential truth that the original author intended even as that truth had to be squeezed into the closest words that the author could think of to express it. This indeterminacy demands caution that the reader must not allow the words themselves to be taken as absolute in the author's act of communicating the insight or truth.11

At the same time, it is the ellipses that give rise to what Paul Ricoeur has called the ‘surplus of meaning’12 in each text and word and that necessitate interpretation even as they give rise to new ways for the reader to appropriate what the text and words were written to try and convey. However, just as the Gospel text is ‘underdetermined’ in communicating what the author intended it to communicate, so the hearing believer's understanding of it is also underdetermined to the extent that the hearer is unfamiliar with the words that are used and the particulars of the scenes that the text is portraying or that the hearer simply hangs on to one word or phrase of a spoken passage while the reading of the text continues. Both in the writing and communication and in the hearing and understanding, language can at best serve as a sign or rule of engagement for the trusting relationship between the believer and God that constitutes faith.

Emmanuel Levinas has reflected on the relationship between revelation and language and advocates dialogue as the means to ensure the lived truth of the text through ongoing interpretation and action. In his view, it not so much in the Said (le dit) – what is finally spoken or written – but in the Saying (le Dire), listening, and responding that Revelation occurs. In his own Jewish tradition, he sees the ongoing process of Torah study with its arguments and explicit consideration of earlier, even ancient, and competing points of view as the example of how Revelation becomes present to us and in us. Commenting on the sometimes vigorous – and unresolved – rabbinic debates in the Jewish oral traditions over the meaning of Torah, he writes:

To say that the ideas on transcendence and the very idea of transcendence come to us through the interpretation of writing is, admittedly, not to express a subversive opinion. Yet it is less dogmatic to people today. It suggests on the one hand that language, at the hour of its ethical truth – that is, of its full significance – is inspired, that it can therefore say more than it says, and that prophecy is thus not an act of genius, but the spirituality of the spirit expressing itself, the ability of human speech to extend beyond the primary intentions that carry it. This is perhaps possession by God, through which the idea of God comes to us. But this language offered to transcendence is also the object of philology; thus the transcendence that is expressed through it would be just an illusion, the prestige of influences to be demystified by History. Let us prefer, then, the genesis of every text to its exegesis, the certainties of given signs to the hazards of mysterious messages, the combinations of the shadows in the Cave to the uncertain calls from outside! This is also a science, at times an admirable one, to destroy false prophecies.13

It is not the words themselves that are transcendent in Levinas' judgment, they are creatures subject to the rules of philology. However, through the interpretive debate concerning Torah that leads to prophetic action, ethical truth can extend Torah through the expression of the spirit and move speech more deeply into and then beyond the words and intentions that communicate it.

In another place, Levinas extends this view of Revelation as dialogue for ethical action and identifies the need for everyone in the community to participate in this dialogue in order to arrive at the truth of Revelation:

But this invitation to seek and decipher, to Midrash, already constitutes the reader's participation in the Revelation, in Scripture. […] It is as if the multiplicity of persons – is not this the very meaning of the personal? – were the condition for the plenitude of ‘absolute truth;’ as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind …. It is to suggest that the totality of the true is constituted from the contribution of multiple people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carrying the secret of the text; the voice of the Revelation, as inflected, precisely, by each person's ear would be necessary to the ‘Whole’ of the truth. That the Word of the living God may be heard in diverse ways does not mean only that the Revelation measures up those listening to it, but that this measuring up measures up the Revelation: the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people. We can thus see the whole impact of the reference made by the revelation to exegesis, to the freedom of this exegesis, the participation of the person listening to the Word making itself heard, but also the possibility for the Word to travel down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.14

The individual believer is not incidental to the truth of Revelation but constitutes the truth of Revelation through participation in the dialogue with Scripture and based on his or her experience in light of Scripture. This truth clearly cannot be limited to ordained ministers alone. Such a limitation would artificially constrain the truth of Revelation. This recognizes that the Word of God must live in the entire Body of Christ, the Church; it also reaffirms and extends this long-held Church teaching to recognize that Revelation will always be incomplete until every member shares in and contributes to its truth. The ordained minister's belief in the Gospel that is proclaimed is also trust in an ongoing process through which its truth is revealed in the community.


The bishop's third direction calls for the ordained to respond, to carry on the tradition by speaking for the Church through preaching and teaching. But what is one to teach and how? Karl Barth articulates the preacher's problem:

Our difficulty lies in the content of our task. […] This situation I will characterize in the three following sentences: –As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison.15

Barth goes on to challenge three forms of speaking about God – dogmatism, mysticism and dialectic – and concludes that

…we must keep it in mind that our purpose is that God himself should speak; and we need not be surprised, therefore, if at the end of our way, however well we should have done our work – nay, for the very reason that we have done it well – the Word should still remain unspoken.16

Barth expects that the minister will use the tools available, however imperfect they are, to teach; will avoid the dangers of saying nothing or saying too much; and will, even in the gaps or ellipses, communicate in a way that lets God speak, most specifically by teaching what can be said in a human way about Jesus Christ and faith in him. Christian faith holds that God has spoken through Christ's life and teaching, and Barth insists that it is through the analogy of faith (analogia fidei), the study and imitation of Christ, that we come to know God, who cannot be known directly in God's self.

There is Scriptural support for Barth's position (‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’, Jn. 14:9). Yet Catholic theology has long held that we can also know God directly in the light of reason through the analogia entis, and this enables us to speak of God as well as of Christ at least in an analogical way. Graham Ward too has taken issue with Barth's view from a postmodern philosophical perspective, arguing that in order for Barth to rest his case on Scripture he must provide a more thorough account of the relationship between human cognition, reasoning or imagination and the inspiration of the Spirit than he does in his doctrine of the Word of God that supports his entire project. That is, writes Ward, Barth must show ‘the relationship between a theological epistemology and a ‘general theory of human knowledge’’.17 Ward concludes that Barth's basic move is to assert that we ‘know’ God only in God's hiddenness, but he asks what kind of ‘knowing’ this is when for Barth it is really a ‘not-knowing’ of God.18

Derrida is also sceptical whether even an apophatic approach to knowing God can avoid the metaphysics of being, which is at the heart of Barth's concern. In his essay, ‘How to Avoid Speaking’, Derrida concludes that even an ‘erasure’ or negative knowing (i.e., of God as ‘not’ being) still implicitly frames the discussion in a metaphysics of being. Acknowledging the presence of an Other is as far as Derrida is willing to go without in any way defining what the Other is, even as what the Other is not. Even prayer or praise of an Other in verbal form, as something that can be expressed or even written down, immediately establishes God as a human construction.19

Both Derrida and Levinas share the view that any metaphysics-based discourse concerning God in which God is understood literally, analogically, or metaphorically as Being, makes God a human construction.20 And, for Derrida and Levinas, a God that is reduced to a human construction becomes that worst form of ideology, totalitarianism, because of the ultimate and absolute character of God. It was this kind of critique of Levinas' ideas by Derrida in his essay ‘Violence and Metaphysics’21 that led Levinas to try and ground his ethics in something ‘otherwise than being’, an Other merely acknowledged and deferred to rather than named or spoken of, and never made the subject of a discourse that would necessarily be totalizing due to an intrinsic metaphysics that reduces the Other to the Same – the controlling mind of the discoursing individual

Levinas' positive approach to overcome the totalizing effects of metaphysics-based apprehensions of God is to find the word of God in the ‘saying’ of ethical responsibility, action and openness to the Other rather than in the ‘said’ of assertions about God:

Responsibility for the other, in its antecedence to my freedom, its antecedence to the present and to representation, is a passivity more passive than all passivity, an exposure to the other without this exposure being assumed, an exposure without holding back, exposure of exposedness, expression, saying. This exposure is the frankness, sincerity, veracity of saying. Not saying dissimulating itself and protecting itself in the said, just giving out words in the face of the other, but saying uncovering itself, that is denuding itself of its skin, sensibility on the surface of the skin … offering itself even in suffering – and thus wholly sign, signifying itself …. This expression is antecedent to all thematization in the said …. This stripping beyond nudity, beyond forms, is not the work of negation and no longer belongs to the order of being.22

And again:

Saying is thus to make signs of this very signifyingness of the exposure; it is to expose the exposure instead of remaining in it as an act of exposing. It is to exhaust oneself by exposing oneself, to make signs by making oneself a sign, without resting in one's every figure as a sign. […] This is the prereflexive iteration of the saying of this very saying, a statement of the ‘here I am’ which is identified with nothing but the very voice that states and delivers itself, the voice that signifies.23

Every minister who dares to speak of God knows the self exposure, the risk in making oneself a sign of the God that one preaches and this implicitly in the very act of preaching and apart from the words that are spoken and that can never hold God. For Levinas, saying goes beyond words. It is the non-thematic acknowledgement of the presence of the Other (Autrui) and the presentation of oneself to the other in ‘deference to the Other’. This deference is obedient response to the demand that is inherent in the other's presence, self-giving that in the act itself speaks of the Other and of one's presence to the Other. Levinas writes:

Should we not go beyond the awareness … which seeks this equality through assimilating the Other, in order to emphasize the act of deference to the other in his alterity, an alterity which can occur only by way of an awakening by the Other of the Same sleeping in his identity? And, as we have suggested, is not obedience the modality of this awakening?24

But this deference to the Other is surely what the Christian intends by love of God and love of neighbor. It is surely what Paul intends by Jesus' kenosis, his self-emptying, his humbling of himself and becoming obedient even to death on a cross (Phil 2:7–8).

Ward supports and reinforces Levinas' view, pointing out that the Hebrew for word, ‘dabar’, is both ‘word’ and ‘deed’.25 The Word of God is not to be viewed as ontological representation of God but as ‘responsibility one-for-another that is prior to transcendental subjectivity’.26 We might go so far as to say that preaching the Word of God is the imitation of Christ's own deference to the Other in obedience and love, in the saying and in action. For the preacher, this deference is to God's presence as Other through witness to God's action in the minister's own life and as testimony to the minister's experience of God's presence in Christ. Simultaneously, it is deference to neighbor as Other, to each person present and struggling to know God's presence, through service and self-opening that communicates that presence.

This understanding of preaching is at the heart of St. Francis of Assisi's exhortation to preach the Gospels always; use words when you must. However, we might clarify that when we do use words to speak of God, it is not metaphysical assertions about God that can communicate God; rather, it is the very act of saying that helps to awaken the Other to the Same sleeping in his identity, as Levinas expresses it, and in doing so communicates God. This calls the preacher both to radical humility and a life of self-emptying care for the Other as the real content of teaching.


We have seen already that the movement from Scripture to belief to teaching must be understood within the tradition as a communal event and as action more than as the content of assertions about God. But the movement in the bishop's final instruction to ‘practice what you teach’ is not unidirectional, following as if by a necessary requirement from the other two instructions. The act of trust is always ultimately an unfounded act, a leap into uncertainty. No amount of persuasion or reasoning can convince a person to follow Christ. Only an invitation to trust can suffice. Jesus does not stop to carry on a logical argument with Peter and Andrew, but simply says ‘Come, follow me’ (Mk 1:17).

Similarly, the Other does not bid us to do this or that but instead waits to see if our recognition of being in the Other's presence, which itself is a call to obedience, will move us. We make our choice and time sweeps us on to another encounter. This is not acquiescence to a categorical imperative or mere obedience to a law based on a calculation of consequences or conformance. So Levinas:

The term evoking obedience here [‘we will do’– Ex. 24:7] is anterior to that which expresses understanding [‘we will listen’] …. The rationality here would not appear as that of a reason ‘in decline’ but would be understood precisely in its plenitude from out of the irreducible ‘intrigue’ of obedience. This obedience cannot be reduced to a categorical imperative in which a universality is suddenly able to direct a will. It is an obedience, rather, which can be traced back to the love of one's neighbor: a love without eros, without self-complacency and, in this sense, a love that is obeyed, the responsibility for one's neighbor, the taking upon oneself of the other's destiny, or fraternity.

Our neighbor presents himself, and we are given a choice to respond or not. Jesus too calls us in the person of our neighbor and invites us to respond in obedience to a destiny that exceeds whatever our logic might have recommended. It is a risk that contains only the assurance that our destiny is now bound with his. It is an act of faith with infinite repercussions.

Maurice Blondel's philosophy of action posits the necessity of the supernatural, an infinite good that alone can motivate and satisfy the act of faith that is implied by and intrinsic to the performance of every human act.27 Acts may be performed for lesser reasons, but these acts will never ultimately satisfy. To be satisfied, the person ‘… must have the merit of … loving everything, of seeing it as naught before the infinite good, in order to spread over all the sole presence of this absolute’.28 And again:

The idea of the infinite, then, must become living in us; it must be willed and practiced there, act and reign there; in a way supplant us …. Let us play our role, therefore, which is to get rid of our petty individual perspective in order to realize the absolute in ourselves and realize ourselves in the absolute and to set the universal in each particular form of our life, in order to give the relative and the particular an infinite value.29

Blondel is attempting is to understand the internal logic of an action through which a person seeks fulfillment by constantly transcending himself or herself. Technically, Blondel views human action dialectically as an encounter with the world in which both the world and the human being are changed. Each individual is confronted by circumstances that demand action, and each act is a venture of faith that is never fully based on and justified by knowledge, since one can never be fully knowledgeable and aware of all the conditions, even including the acting person's own limited self-knowledge, that surround the action. Rather, one acts by venturing into the unknown and discovers new aspects that change and recondition one's entire view of the world. This new view of the world becomes a condition for future acts as it allows the acting person to participate in the supernatural.

Bonhoeffer's comment that ‘Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes’ reflects Blondel's insight well. Belief, as trust in and understanding of God, does not precede obedient action; nor does action precede belief. There are simply acts of faith, and these acts of faith constitute all of the acts of a person's life, not merely those actions associated with a realm of life that is designated as ‘religious’. The choice is whether these acts will be in conformance to an ideology, an exercise of faith in obedience to a socially defined power structure, the imposition of the Same as control and violence, or whether the violence of power will be held in abeyance through deferential service to the Other.

In either case, these acts are performed within and guided by tradition. Gadamer argues that tradition shapes each person's life; the person simply has no life apart from a tradition, but the tradition similarly has no life apart from the persons who are part of it. The person's role is to ‘play’ the tradition, as an actor plays a role or a musician plays a piece of music. Play is ‘the clue to ontological explanation’.30 The person's being is realized in ‘performing’ the tradition such that the person's consciousness is absorbed in the playing itself; the person becomes the tradition in the normal actions of life. Like the encounter with the Other, ‘play is really limited to presenting itself. Thus its mode of being is self-presentation. But self-presentation is a universal ontological character of nature’.31 This play is the ‘raising up (Aufhebung) of this reality into its truth. The classical theory of art too, which bases all art on the idea of mimesis, imitation, obviously starts from play in the form of dancing, which is the representation of the divine’.

Just as the tradition plays the preacher, so the preacher in performing acts of loving kindness plays or ‘practices’ the tradition, a tradition that has a history and that contains myriad examples of how love of God and neighbor may be realized in a life of faith, beginning with the example of Jesus Christ. The bishop's instruction to the minister is not so much to follow a code of behavior that has been previously explicated in teaching, as to raise up Christ through the divine ‘dance’ of mimesis, the imitation of Christ who both is and ‘represents’ the divine as the way, the truth and the life. In this practice, the minister must remain cautious and critical of all false Gods and ideologies that seek power within the tradition and that must be exposed as betraying or diminishing the freedom to live the life of Christ by raising up not Christ but the Same in the idolatry of metaphysical claims or the unjust exercise of authority.

Again, the goal is not to imitate an ideal or static conception of Christ, but to carry out and live the life of Christ in the minister's own life as ‘Christing’ in the world. This play of the tradition can only begin in acts of faith – of ‘Christing’– however small or imperfect they may be. These in turn lead to a more insightful appropriation of the truth of Scriptures, a more authentic truth expressed in teaching as personal witness, and again in full circle, as more truthful playing of the tradition. It is only this action, this ‘Christing’ that is in some sense absolutely truthful and transcendent. The glory of God is the human being fully alive, writes St. Irenaeus, and this glory and living are in service to the Other.


I have reviewed some of the challenges that contemporary philosophy has raised against the possibility of a sequential understanding of the bishop's order to the newly ordained deacons; and I have offered some considerations on the role of performative truth as not only following from assent to true propositions, but as necessarily and intrinsically part of them. That is, truth that is not performed is not truth at all. This challenges the minister to be open to the Other, to speak of God through self-giving, and to practice the truth of the Gospels through the imitation of Christ. As noted, the categories of contemporary philosophy help to draw out the implications of both Scripture and tradition even as they raise fundamental questions about interpretations that are too simple and even fraught with peril in their tendencies toward idolatry and ideology. Postmodern philosophy may challenge Christian theology where it is prideful, but it reaffirms and supports Christian theology – and praxis within the Christian tradition – where it pours itself out for the Other – both God and neighbor – in obedience and humility.


  1. 1 Ordination of a Deacon, 24, The Roman Ritual and Pontifical revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, in The Rites of the Catholic Church, Volume Two, Study Edition (Collegeville Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 35–6.

  2. 2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Revised & Unabridged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1963), p. 69.

  3. 3 The idea of the guardrail is taken from Jacques Derrida who writes concerning the task of reading a text: ‘To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing … the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language. […] To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading’. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Corrected edition (trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 158. In this case, the ‘text’ is the Church's tradition for which the Scriptures and oral tradition provide the guardrails, although – to follow Derrida – it is not possible to penetrate the minds of their authors to determine an original meaning within the original context in which they were written.

  4. 4 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd revised ed. (trans. revised Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall; New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 282.

  5. 5 Ibid., pp. 301–2.

  6. 6 G.W. Bowersock is particularly persuasive in showing how Gospels exemplified and inspired a new genre of classical literature, the religious novel. He writes: ‘… in the course of these six chapters [of Bowersock's book] the connection between imperial fiction of various kinds and the gospel narratives has grown ever stronger. The stories of Jesus inspired the polytheists to create a wholly new genre that we might call romantic scripture. And it became so popular that the Christians, in turn, borrowed it back – in the Clementine Recognitions and in the massive production of saints' lives'. See his Fiction as History: Nero to Julian (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), p. 143.

  7. 7 As Emmanuel Levinas comments: ‘The term ‘transcendence’ signifies precisely the fact that one cannot think God and being together’. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (trans. Richard A. Cohen; Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 77.

  8. 8 Eugene T. Gendlin's philosophy uses certain concepts from phenomenology, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but Gendlin has been the first to trace the development of the structure of symbolic, particularly linguistic, meaning from sensory experience in a systematic and philosophical way. See Eugene T. Gendlin, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962). Gendlin has also integrated into his framework the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly Wittgenstein's notion of performative linguistic meaning within a ‘language game’ as described in his Philosophical Investigations, 2nd ed. (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe; New York: Macmillan, 1958). A simple, clear statement of this is to be found in Gendlin's essay ‘What Happens When Wittgenstein Asks ‘What Happens When …?’’, The Philosophical Forum 28 (Spring 1997), pp. 268–81. The discussion of ellipsis in my essay draws on Gendlin's work.

  9. 9 Gendlin's approach conditions Derrida's view that the text is everything and all is a matter of the reader's interpretation. Gendlin, like Derrida, has no presumption that we can enter the mind of the author and determine the author's meaning and he does not argue that any meaning derived is primarily that of the reader, but he posits that we can at least be certain, that the text contains implied experiential meanings – the ‘felt sense’ of the author – that exceed the text we have.

  10. 10 Gendlin, Experiencing, p. 115. Metaphor as a form of expression has received extensive treatment that has tended to focus on the rhetorical mapping of a set of symbolic meanings from a ‘source conceptual domain’ to another set of meanings in a ‘target conceptual domain’. Perhaps the classic philosophical treatment, working largely (like Gendlin) within a phenomenological frame but focused more on rhetorical and hermeneutical application, is Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language (trans. Robert Czerny, with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977). See also the essays in Sheldon Sacks (ed.), On Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) and those in Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). More recently, cognitive scientists have begun to argue (with supporting empirical research) that metaphor is not merely a form of rhetorical expression but is the primary cognitive-linguistic structure for all human thinking and knowing – even apparently ‘literal’ thinking. The most extensive treatment is in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and their more recent Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic Books, 1999). Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) provides a detailed treatment of the theory of metaphor following Lakoff and Johnson's approach. Gendlin's work is more nearly aligned with Lakoff and Johnson than with Ricoeur.

  11. 11 Perhaps needless to say, the same caution applies to all expressions in the oral tradition as well, including creeds. It is the intent of the words and the hearer's understanding of them that matters and these cannot be fully expressed or grasped. Also, as is generally observed, to preserve the original intent may well require changing the words themselves lest the meanings – particularly the felt sense – of the words in new cultural contexts yield an unintended wrong interpretation.

  12. 12 See, for example, Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), p. 55.

  13. 13 Emmanuel Levinas, ‘On the Jewish Reading of Scriptures’, in Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures (trans. Gary D. Mole; Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 114.

  14. 14 Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Revelation in the Jewish Tradition’, in Beyond the Verse, op. cit., 133–34.

  15. 15 Karl Barth, ‘The Task of the Ministry’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man (trans. Douglas Horton; Gloucester MA: Peter Smith, 1978), p. 186.

  16. 16 Ibid., p. 215.

  17. 17 Graham Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 22.

  18. 18 Ibid., p. 24.

  19. 19 Jacques Derrida, ‘How to Avoid Speaking’ [Excerpt], in Graham Ward (ed.) The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 182.

  20. 20 Jean-Luc Marion also shares this view, identifying the human construction as an ‘idol’. See his God Without Being (trans. Thomas A. Carlson; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). However, although Marion rejects the metaphysical view of God as having being or of God as being, he posits God as ‘gift’ in God Without Being, p. 3, and in doing so, tends to ‘entitize’ God, i.e., fall back into God as being of a different sort. Derrida and Levinas are more strenuous and consistent in their rejection of metaphysics.

  21. 21 Jacques Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (trans. Alan Bass; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 79–153.

  22. 22 Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (trans. Alphonso Lingis; Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne University Press, 1998), p. 15.

  23. 23 Ibid., 143.

  24. 24 Levinas, ‘Revelation in the Jewish Tradition’, p. 150.

  25. 25 Ward, Language of Theology, p. 64.

  26. 26 Ibid. 110.

  27. 27 Maurice Blondel, Action (1893): Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice (trans. Oliva Blanchette; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 346–350.

  28. 28 Ibid., p. 348.

  29. 29 Ibid., p. 349.

  30. 30 Gadamer, Truth and Method, pp. 101–34.

  31. 31 Ibid., p. 108.