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Theology By Accident

This Aquinas and Derrida paper is hard.  And today I found out that it is my TF's dissertation topic.  Great.  So I am taking on something that is challenging and ambitious for me, and the one grading my paper has been working on this topic for the past 4 years of his PhD in religious philosophy.  The probability of me saying something interesting and new to my reader just drastically decreased.  Oh well.

However: I had a little chat with Denys Turner after class today.  I am taking a reading course with him next semester where we are just going to read poetry and talk about it in theological terms, which is of course a dream come true for me.  He wanted to sit down with me to hear what it is that I want out of life so he can set up our reading list accordingly.

As a response, I told him about a conversation I recently had with my friend Junius who recently finished his PhD in theology here at Yale and is now teaching here (application for a tenure-track position is pending).  He started out a literature person, but once he started to understand theology he said he realized he didn't need literature anymore.  Theology is what literature is trying to do, but it so seldom gets there.

Agreed.  In terms of succinct presentation ideas and figuring out what is right and what is wrong, theology has no need of literature.

As I dig into this Derrida paper, however, I am remembering why I started drifting in the literature-and-theology direction in the first place.  The most compelling thing about a text, for me, is when it starts doing theology without realizing it.  I find myself so often sitting there with a lump in my throat, watching an author set the table for the passover feast as he writes his novel, ever approaching the climax of the feast when one rises from the table to open the door for Elijah.  I watch this passover dinner in every text I read; my heart burns with compassion as I watch longing eyes stare passionately at the empty doorframe, while from my own vantage point I can see the living Messiah is already present at this feast.  Not only present, I hasten to add, but truly he is the feast.

At no other moment in my life of reading was this more poignant to me than my first readings of Derrida. His frustrations and rebellions resounded heartily within me as he tore down institution after institution that needs to be torn apart in order for us to understand them.  C.S. Lewis would say here, however, that "the purpose of seeing through something is to see something through it."  It's like opening the door for Elijah and then refusing to let him enter.

As I put Derrida in conversation with Aquinas now, I realize I've been waiting for years to write this paper - to show how right Derrida is to a point, and where he was doing theology by accident.


  1. Oh, Catherine. This is eloquent. I was immediately taken to the Passover we shared together last year with that delightful family. You are so right: He IS present whenever a story does what stories do best: bringing people together to participate in a shared meal, and whether or not the host or the guests realize it, he IS the feast. As I am writing a paper on Origen's idea of Christ as Logos, the Word made flesh, you remind me of Christ's words to the Jewish leaders, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day." He is the Word of life, and all words, if they are true, bear witness to Him. As someone studying theology and longing for literature, I needed to hear this. Thank you, thank you!


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