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January 2017
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Now in my eleventh year of teaching theology (and eighteenth year of courtship with it since I started graduate school), I find myself searching again and again for basic concepts that are sufficiently rich to hold a range of meanings, simultaneously concrete and evocative, when I teach (or write) theology. One of the concepts on which I have settled for several years is the notion of “strangeness,” which I try to present theologically. The spark was reading Michel Foucault’s citation of a poem by Rene Char (“Partage Formel”).

The line that Foucault excerpted from Char lightninged through me and has never quit its ricochet: “A new mystery sings in your bones / develop your legitimate strangeness.”

In this line, several strands seemed to come together for me: a possible “nonreligious interpretation” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) of the gospel, especially “mysterion / mystery” as “strangeness”; an acknowledgement of the ethical call of the other as “the stranger” (Emmanuel Levinas); a consent to meeting that profound category for experience and thought in modernity, “the uncanny” — or the strange (David Tracy). No doubt, too, I had my own personal reasons for welcoming this line as a stranger of uncanny mystery.

Moreover, I thought that Char’s verse, as extracted by Foucault, could be used theologically in a way that furthered Christianity as a “secret discipline.” I have discussed that notion elsewhere on this blog, such as in a post on Katell Keineg here. I have glossed “secret discipline” as “holding in abeyance the holy things one truly believes are at stake for the sake of not offering them for cheap profanation.” “Legitimate strangeness” seems to both open onto holy matters and yet to hold them with appropriate discretion.

And so it was that I came across this song by The Waterboys titled “Strange Boat.”


See if it does not conjure up for you some ideas, feelings or references that pitch you forward into some