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This post continues my discussion of Bernard of Clairvaux and the notion, developed by Dr. Luke Anderson, of “imperation.” Part one is here, and part two is here.

Theologians of culture participate by way of academic theology in a practice whose dynamics are also found in everyday theology, taking responsibility for the interpretation of our culture, not assuming its meaning to be univocal. Such an approach may presuppose or surmise that God has abandoned us / entrusted us to do it for ourselves. God does not make certain aspects of culture or certain experiences “religious,” even when certain theological “criteria” are satisfied. There is no religiousness permanently “within” symbols or any cultural artifact waiting to be “accepted.”

Imperation would suggest that religious experiences in culture are always in part a matter of the possible interpretations of those experiences, what is able to be (individually and socially) “bounced” off of them, and whether what bounces back has the “power” to manifest. Emmanuel Levinas writes, “The truth illuminates whoever breathes on the flame and coaxes it back to life. More or less. It’s a question of breath” (“Reading, Writing, Revolution, in The Levinas Reader, p. 266). Imperation is interpretation as religious performance in a “world come of age” without a deus ex machina (see Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison) in the form of a methodological guarantee to save our interpretation. It is having our theology of culture through Foucault’s insight: “If interpretation were the slow exposure of the meaning hidden in an origin, then only metaphysics could interpret the development of humanity. But if interpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game, and to subject it to a secondary rules, then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations” (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, p. 86).

In this vein we can invent-retrieve “biblical models” of this freedom for interpretation. Recall Genesis chapter 19, wherein Lot cancels God’s plan (communicated through the angels) that he should go to the hills, and instead chooses to go to a city. God grants him this, then says, remarkably, “I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waits for the enactment of our abandonment to each other, our utter reliance on each other within the world.

“I can do nothing until you arrive there.”

More to come.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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