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Essays on Biblical Interpretation by Paul Ricoeur

Paul Ricoeur was Professor of Philosophy and Theology in the Faculty of Arts at Paris-Nanterre, then was the successor to Paul Tillich at the University of Chicago. This book was published in 1980 by Fortress Press. It was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Chapter 2: Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation

[Translated by David Pellauer. The material in this lecture was first presented to the "Symposium sur l’idee de la revelation" at the Faculte Universitaire St. Louis in Brussels, on February 17, 1976, then in a somewhat condensed form as the Dudleian Lecture at the Harvard University Divinity School on November 11, 1976.]

The question of revelation is a formidable question in the proper sense of the word, not only because it may be seen as the first and last question for faith, but also because it has been obscured by so many false debates that the recovery of a real question in itself constitutes an enormous task.

The way of posing the question which, more than any other, I will seek to overcome is the one that sets in opposition an authoritarian and opaque concept of revelation and a concept of reason which claims to be its own master and transparent to itself. This is why my presentation will be a battle on two fronts: it seeks to recover a concept of revelation and a concept of reason that, without ever coinciding, can at least enter into a living dialectic and together engender something like an understanding of faith.


I will begin on the side of revelation and my first remarks will be devoted to rectifying the concept of revelation so that we may get beyond what I have spoken of as the accepted opaque and authoritarian understanding of this concept.

By an opaque concept of revelation, 1 mean that familiar amalgamation of three levels of language in one form of traditional teaching about revelation: first, the level of the confession of faith where the lex credendi is not separated from the lex orandi; second, the level of ecclesial dogma where a historic community interprets for itself and for others the understanding of faith specific to its tradition; and third, the body of doctrines imposed by the magisterium as the rule of orthodoxy. The particular amalgamation that I deplore and that I am seeking to combat is always made in terms of the third level, which is why it is not just opaque, but also authoritarian. For it is on this level that the ecclesiastical magisterium is exercised and this is where it puts its stamp of authority in matters regarding faith. Hence the rule that we should consider the levels that we named in ascending order as contaminated in a descending order. The doctrine of a confessing community, e.g., loses the sense of the historical character of its interpretations when it places itself under the tutelage of the fixed assertions of the magisterium. In turn, the confession of faith loses the suppleness of living preaching and is identified with the dogmatic assertions of a tradition and with the theological discourse of one school whose ruling categories are imposed by the magisterium. It is from this amalgamation and this contamination that the massive and impenetrable concept of "revealed truth" arises. Moreover, it is often expressed in the plural, "revealed truths," to emphasize the discursive character of the dogmatic propositions that are taken to be identical to the founding faith.

I do not intend to deny the specificity of the work of formulating dogma, whether at the ecclesial level or the level of theological investigation. But I do affirm its derived and subordinate character. This is why I am going to endeavor to carry the notion of revelation back to its most originary level, the one, which for the sake of brevity, I call the discourse of faith or the confession of faith.

In what manner is the category of revelation included in this discourse? This question seems all the more legitimate to me in that, on the one hand, the philosopher can hardly discover or learn much from a level of discourse organized in terms of philosophy’s own speculative categories, for he then discovers fragments borrowed from his own discourse and the travesty of this discourse that results from its authoritarian and opaque use. On the other hand, he may discover and learn much from nonspeculative discourse — what Whitehead called barbaric discourse because it had not yet been illuminated by the philosophical logos. What is more, it is an old conviction of mine that the philosopher’s opposite in this type of debate is not the theologian, but the believer who is informed by the exegete; I mean, the believer who seeks to understand himself through a better understanding of the texts of his faith.

The principal benefit of such a return to the origin of theological discourse is that from the outset it places reflection before a variety of expressions of faith, all modulated by the variety of discourses within which the faith of Israel and then of the early church is inscribed. So instead of having to confront a monolithic concept of revelation, which is only obtained by transforming these different forms of discourse into propositions, we encounter a concept of revelation that is pluralistic, polysemic, and at most analogical in form — the very term revelation, as we shall see, being borrowed from one of these forms of discourse.


Which of the biblical forms of discourse should be taken as the basic referent for a meditation on the idea of revelation? It seems legitimate to begin by taking prophetic discourse as our basic axis of inquiry. Indeed, this is the discourse which declares itself to be pronounced in the name of. . . , and exegetes have rightly pointed out the importance of its introductory formula: "The word of Yahweh came to me, saying, ‘Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem,. . .’" (Jet. 2:1). Here is the original nucleus of the traditional idea of revelation. The prophet presents himself as not speaking in his own name, but in the name of another, in the name of Yahweh. So here the idea of revelation appears as identified with the idea of a double author of speech and writing. Revelation is the speech of another behind the speech of the prophet. The prophetic genre’s central position is so decisive that the third article of the Nicene creed, devoted to the Holy Spirit, declares:

"We believe in the Holy Spirit. . .who spoke through the prophets."

Yet if we separate the prophetic mode of discourse from its context, and especially if we separate it from that narrative discourse that is so important for the constituting of Israel’s faith, as well as for the faith of the early church, we risk imprisoning the idea of revelation in too narrow a concept, the concept of the speech of another. Now this narrowness is marked by several features. One is that prophecy remains bound to the literary genre of the oracle, which itself is one tributary of those archaic techniques that sought to tap the secrets of the divine, such as divination, omens, dreams, casting dice, astrology, etc. It is true that for the great prophets of Israel symbolic visions are subordinated to the eruption of the Word, which may appear without any accompanying vision. But it also remains true that the explicit form of double speaking tends to link the notion of revelation to that of inspiration conceived as one voice behind another.

When extended to all the other forms of biblical discourse we are going to consider, this concept of revelation, taken as a synonym for revelation in general, leads to the idea of scripture as dictated, as something whispered in someone’s ear. The idea of revelation is then confused with the idea of a double author of sacred texts, and any access to a less subjective manner of understanding revelation is prematurely cut off. In turn, the very idea of inspiration, as arising from meditation on the Holy Spirit, is deprived of the enrichment it might receive from those forms of discourse which are less easily interpreted in terms of a voice behind a voice or of a double author of scripture.

Finally, the ancient bond between an oracle and techniques of divination establishes an almost invincible association between the idea of prophecy and that of an unveiling of the future. This association tends to impose the idea, in turn, that the content of revelation is to be assimilated to a design in the sense of a plan that would give a goal to the unfolding of history. This concentration on the idea of revelation as God’s plan is all the more insistent in what apocalyptic literature which was subsequently grafted on to the prophetic trunk, calls "apocalypse" — i.e., revelation in the strict sense of the word — the unveiling of God’s plans concerning the "last days." The idea of revelation thereby tends to be identified with the idea of a premonition of the end of history. The "last days" are the divine secret that apocalyptic proclaims by means of dreams, visions, symbolic transpositions of earlier writings, etc. In this way, the notion of the divine promise tends to be reduced to the dimensions of a divination applied to the "end of time."


For these reasons, we must not limit ourselves to simply identifying revelation with prophecy. And the other modes of discourse bear this out. To see this, we need surely to begin by considering the narrative genre of discourse that dominates the Pentateuch, as well as the synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts.

What does revelation mean as regards these texts? Should we say that as with the prophetic texts, these texts have a double author, the writer and the spirit that guides him? Should we really attend above all else to the question of the narrator? Theoreticians of narrative discourse have noted that in narration the author often disappears and it is as though the events recounted themselves. According to Emile Benveniste for example, historical assertions, that is the telling of past events, exclude the speaker’s intervening in the story.1 Every linguistic form of autobiography is banished. There is no longer even a narrator: "events are posited as though they were produced to the extent that they appeared on the horizon of history. No one speaks here. The events tell themselves."2

Can we annul this specific feature of narration by advancing the trivial argument that someone nevertheless wrote it and that he stands in a relation to his text analogous to that of the prophet and the double author of prophecy? I am not unaware that when the Nicene Creed proclaims "who spoke through the prophets," the creed engulfs narration into prophecy, following the tradition that Moses was the unique narrator of the Pentateuch and that he was the prophet par excellence. But in following this route, has not the classical theory of inspiration missed the instruction proper to the narrative genre? What I am hereby suggesting is that we should pay more attention to the things recounted than to the narrator and his prompter. We then see that it is within the story itself that Yahweh is designated in the third person as the ultimate actant — to use the category of A. J. Greimas3 — i.e., he is one of the personages signified by the narration itself and intervenes among the other actants of the goings on. It is not a double narrator, a double subject of the word that we need to think about, but a double actant and consequently a double object of the story.

Let us follow this trail. Where does it lead? Essentially to meditation on the character of the events recounted, such as the election of Abraham, the Exodus, the anointing of David, etc. in the Old Testament, and the resurrection of Christ for the early church. The idea of revelation then appears as connected to the very character of these events. What is noteworthy about them is that they do not simply occur and then pass away. They mark an epoch and engender history. In this vein, the Jewish scholar Emil Fackenheim is correct when he speaks of "history-making events." These events found an epoch because they have the twofold characteristic of both founding a community and of delivering it from a great danger, which, moreover, may take diverse forms. In such instances, to speak of revelation is to qualify the events in question as transcendent in relation to the ordinary course of history. The whole faith of Israel and of the early church is tied up here in the confession of the transcendent character of such nuclear founding and instituting events.

As Gerhard von Rad has established in his great work, The Theology of the Old Testament, and principally in volume one, "The Theology of Traditions," Israel essentially confessed God through the ordering of its sagas, traditions, and stories around a few kernel events from which meaning spread out through the whole structure.4 Von Rad believes he has discovered the most ancient kernel of the Hebraic Credo in a text such as Deut. 26:5b-10b which says:

"My Father was a wandering Aramaean. He went down to Egypt to find refuge there, few in numbers; but there he became a nation, great, mighty, and strong. The Egyptians ill-treated us, they gave us no peace and inflicted harsh slavery on us. But we called on Yahweh the God of our fathers. Yahweh heard our voice and saw our misery, our toil and our oppression; and Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror, and with signs and wonders. He brought us here and gave us this land, a land where milk and honey flow. Here then I bring the first-fruits of the produce of the soil that you, Yahweh, have given me." (Jerusalem Bible)

Notice how the recitation first designates Yahweh in the third person, as the supreme actant, then raises to an invocation that addresses God in the second person: "Here then I bring the first-fruits of the produce of the soil that you, Yahweh, have given me." We will return to this change from the use of the third to the second person when we discuss the hymnic literature. First, however, let us continue our examination of the narrative form.

What is essential in the case of narrative discourse is the emphasis on the founding event or events as the imprint, mark, or trace of God’s act. Confession takes place through narration and the problematic of inspiration is in no way the primary consideration. God’s mark is in history before being in speech. It is only secondarily in speech inasmuch as this history itself is brought to language in the speech-act of narration. Here a "subjective’’ moment comparable to prophetic inspiration comes to the fore, but only after the fact. This subjective moment is no longer the narration insofar as the events recount themselves, but the event of narration insofar as it is presented by a narrator to a community. The word event is thus emphasized at the expense of the first intentionality of the narrative confession, or rather the confessing narrative. The latter does not distinguish itself from the things recounted and the events that present themselves in the story. It is for a second order reflection that the questions "who is speaking? who is telling the story?" are detached from what is narrated and said. For this reflection the author of the narration comes to the fore and appears to be related to his writing as the prophet is to his words. The narrator, in turn, may by analogy be said to speak in the name of. . . , and then he is a prophet and the Spirit speaks through him. But this absorption of narration into prophecy runs the risk of voiding the specific feature of the narrative confession — its aiming at God’s trace in the event.

To recognize the specificity of this form of discourse, therefore, is to guard ourselves against a certain narrowness of any theology of the Word which only attends to word events. In the encounter with what we could call the idealism of the word event, we must reaffirm the realism of the event of history — as is indicated today by the work of a theologian such as Wolfhart Pannenberg in his attempts to rectify the one-sided emphasis of Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling.

Then, too, narration includes prophecy in its province to the extent that prophecy is narrative in its fashion. Indeed, the meaning of prophecy is not exhausted by the subjectivity of the prophet. Prophecy is carried forward toward the "Day of Yahweh," which the prophet says will not be a day of joy, but of terror. This term, the Day of Yahweh, announces something like an event that will be to impending history what the founding events were to the history recounted in the great biblical narratives.

There is as well, however, a tension between narration and prophecy that first occurs at the level of the event in the dialectic of the prophetic event. The same history which narration founds as certain is suddenly undercut by the menace announced in the prophecy. The supporting pedestal totters. It is the structure of history which is at stake here, not just the quality of the word which pronounces it. And revelation is implicated in this now narrative, now prophetic understanding of history.

Did we say understanding? But this understanding cannot be articulated within any specific form of knowledge or within any system. Between the security confessed by the recitation of the founding events and the menace announced by the prophet there is no rational synthesis, no triumphant dialectic, but only a double confession, never completely appeased; a double confession that only hope can hold together. According to the excellent phrase of André Neher, from his fine book on the prophets, a gulf of nothingness separates the new creation from the old.5 No Aufhebung can suppress this deadly fault. This is why this double relation to history is profoundly betrayed when we apply the Stoic idea of providence to it and when the tension between narration and prophecy is assuaged in some teleological representation of the course of history.

Such sliding over into teleology and the idea of providence would no doubt be unstoppable if we left the narrative discourse and the prophetic discourse of history face to face. Reduced to this polarity, the idea of revelation indeed tends to be identified with the idea of God’s design, the idea of a decreed plan that God has unmasked to his servants and prophets. But the polysemy and polyphony of revelation are not yet exhausted by this coupling of narration and prophecy. There are at least three other modes of biblical religious discourse that cannot be inscribed within this polarity of narration and prophecy. The first of these is the Torah, or instruction, conveyed to Israel.


Broadly speaking, we may call this aspect of revelation its practical dimension. It corresponds to the symbolic expression "the will of God." If we may still speak of a design here it is no longer in the sense of some plan about which thought may speculate, but in the sense of a prescription to be brought into practice. But this idea of a revelation in the form of instruction is, in turn, full of pitfalls for the traditional understanding of revelation. In this regard, the translation, beginning with the Septuagint, of the word Torah by nomos or "law" is completely misleading. It leads us, in effect, to enclose the idea of an imperative from above within the idea of a divine law. If, moreover, we transcribe the idea of an imperative in terms of Kant’s moral philosophy, we are more and more constrained to lean the idea of revelation on that of heteronomy; that is, to express it in terms of submission to a higher, external command.

The idea of dependence is essential to the idea of revelation, but really to understand this originary dependence within the orders of speaking, willing, and being, we must first criticize the ideas of heteronomy and autonomy both as taken together and as symmetrical to each other.

Let us concentrate for the moment on the idea of heteronomy. Nothing is more inadequate than this idea for making sense of what the term Torah has signified within Jewish experience. In order to do justice to the idea of a divine Torah, it does not even suffice to say that the Hebrew Torah has a greater extension than what we call a moral commandment and that it is applied to the whole legislative system that the Old Testament tradition connected with Moses. By thus extending the commandment to all the domains of life of the community and the individual, whether moral, juridic, or cultic, we only express the amplitude of this phenomenon without thereby really illuminating its specific nature.

Three points are worth emphasizing.

First, it is not unimportant that the legislative texts of the Old Testament are placed in the mouth of Moses and within the narrative framework of the sojourn at Sinai. This means that this instruction is organically connected to the founding events symbolized by the exodus from Egypt. And in this regard, the introductory formula of the Decalogue constitutes an essential link connecting the story of the Exodus and the proclamation of the Law: "I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exod. 20:2). At the level of literary genres this signifies that the legislative genre is in a way included in the narrative genre. And this in turn signifies that the memory of deliverance qualifies the instruction in an intimate way. The Decalogue is the Law of a redeemed people. Such an idea is foreign to any simple concept of heteronomy.

This first comment leads to a second. The Law is one aspect of a much more concrete and encompassing relation than the relation between commanding and obeying that characterizes the imperative. This relation is what the term "Covenant" itself translates imperfectly. It encompasses the ideas of election and promise, as well as of menace and curse. The idea of the Covenant designates a whole complex of relations, running from the most fearful and meticulous obedience to the Law to casuistic interpretations, to intelligent mediation, to pondering in the heart, to the veneration of a joyous soul — as we shall see better with regard to the Psalms. The well-known Kantian respect for the law, in this regard, would only be one modality of what the Covenant signifies, and perhaps not the most significant one.

This space of variations opened by the Covenant for our ethical feelings suggests a third reflection. Despite the apparently invariable and apodictic character of the Decalogue, the Torah unfolds within a dynamism that we may characterize as historical. By this we do not mean just the temporal development that historical criticism discerns in the redaction of these codes, the evolution of moral ideas that may be traced out from the first Decalogue to the Law of the Covenant, on the one hand, and from the Decalogue itself through the restatements and amplifications of the book of Deuteronomy to the new synthesis of the "Holiness Code" in the book of Leviticus and the legislation subsequent to Ezra, on the other; more important than this development of the content of the Law is the transformation in the relationship between the faithful believer and the Law. Without falling into that old rut of opposing the legalistic and the prophetic, we may discover in the very teaching of the Torah an increasing pulsation that turn by turn sets out the Law in terms of endlessly multiplying prescriptions and then draws it together, in the strong sense of the word, by summing it up in one set of commandments which only retain its being directed towards holiness.

Thus the book of Deuteronomy, to cite one example, proclaims long before the New Testament gospel: "You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words which I urge on you today be written on your heart" (6:5-6). This inscription on human hearts gave rise to the proclamation of a new covenant by some of the prophets, not in the sense of the proclamation of new precepts, but in the sense of a new relational quality as expressed precisely by the phrase engraved on your hearts." Ezekiel wrote, "I will give them a new heart and I will put a new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh . . .(Ezek. 11:19).

Without this pulsation in the Torah, we would not understand how Jesus could have, on the one hand, opposed the "traditions of the elders," which is to say, the multiplication and excess load of commandments put forth by the scribes and Pharisees, and, on the other hand, have declared that in the Kingdom the Law would be fulfilled to its last iota. For Jesus, the Law and the Prophets were summed up in the Golden Rule from Deuteronomy: "So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12). In this sense, the Sermon on the Mount proclaims the same intention of perfection and holiness that runs through the ancient Law.

It is this intention that constitutes the ethical dimension of revelation. If we consider this instituting function of revelation we see how inadequate the idea of heteronomy is for circumscribing the wealth of meaning included in the teaching of the Torah. We see also in what way the idea of revelation is enriched in turn. If we may still apply the idea of God’s design for humans to it, it is no longer in the sense of a plan that we could read in past or future events, nor is it in terms of an immutable codification of every communal or individual practice. Rather it is the sense of a requirement for perfection that summons the will and makes a claim upon it. In the same way, if we continue to speak of revelation as historical, it is not only in the sense that the trace of God may be read in the founding events of the past or in a coming conclusion to history, but in the sense that it orients the history of our practical actions and engenders the dynamics of our institutions.


But would this deepening of the Law beyond its being scattered in precepts be perceived clearly if another dimension of revelation were not also recognized in its specificity? I mean, revelation as wisdom. Wisdom finds its literary expression in wisdom literature. But wisdom also surpasses every literary genre. At first glance, it appears as the art of living well, expert advice on the way to true happiness. It seems to turn the transcendent commandments of the Decalogue into minute details, practical advice, only adding a kind of lucidity without any illusions about human wickedness to the teaching of the Law. But behind this somewhat shabby facade, we need to discern the great thrust of a reflection on existence that aims at the individual behind the people of the Covenant, and through him, every human being. Wisdom overflows the framework of the Covenant, which is also the framework of the election of Israel and the promise made to Israel.

The counsels of wisdom ignore the frontiers where any legislation appropriate to a single people stops, even if it is the elect people. It is not by chance that more than one sage in the biblical tradition was not Jewish. Wisdom intends every person in and through the few. Its themes are those limit-situations spoken of by Karl Jaspers, those situations — including solitude, the fault, suffering, and death — where the misery and the grandeur of human beings confront each other. Hebraic wisdom interprets these situations as the annihilation of humans and the incomprehensibility of God — as the silence and absence of God. If the question of retribution is so acute here, it is so to the extent that the discordance between justice and happiness, so cruelly emphasized by the triumph of the wicked, brings to light the overwhelming question of the sense or nonsense of existence.

In this way, wisdom fulfills one of religion’s fundamental functions which is to bind together ethos and cosmos, the sphere of human action and the sphere of the world. It does not do this by demonstrating that this conjunction is given in things, nor by demanding that it be produced through our action. Rather it joins ethos and cosmos at the very point of their discordance: in suffering and, more precisely, in unjust suffering. Wisdom does not teach us how to avoid suffering, or how magically to deny it, or how to dissimulate it under an illusion. It teaches us how to endure, how to suffer suffering. It places suffering into a meaningful context by producing the active quality of suffering.

This is perhaps the most profound meaning of the book of Job, the best example of wisdom. If we take the denouement of this book as our guide, could we not say that revelation, following the line of wisdom, is the intending of that horizon of meaning where a conception of the world and a conception of action merge into a new and active quality of suffering? The Eternal does not tell Job what order of reality justifies his suffering, nor what type of courage might vanquish it. The system of symbols wherein the revelation is conveyed is articulated beyond the point where models for a vision of the world and models for changing the world diverge. Model of and model for are rather the inverse sides of one indivisible prescriptive and descriptive symbolic order. This symbolic order can conjoin cosmos and ethos because it produces the pathos of actively assumed suffering. It is this pathos that is expressed in Job’s final response:

"Then Job answered Yahweh,
I know that you are all-powerful:
what you conceive, you can perform.
I am the man who obscured your designs
With my empty-headed words.
I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand,
on marvels beyond me and my knowledge.
(Listen, I have more to say,
now it is my turn to ask questions and yours to inform me.)
I knew you then only by hearsay;
but now having seen you with my own eyes,
I retract all I have said,
in dust and ashes I repent. (Job 42:1-6)

What did Job "see"? Behemoth and Leviathan? The orders of creation? No. His questions about justice are undoubtedly left without an answer. But by repenting, though not of sin, for he is righteous, but by repenting for his supposition that existence does not make sense, Job presupposes an unsuspected meaning which cannot be transcribed by speech or logos a human being may have at his disposal. This meaning has no other expression than the new quality which penitence confers on suffering. Hence it is not unrelated to what Aristotle speaks of as the tragic pathos that purifies the spectator of fear and pity.

We should begin to see at what point the notion of God’s design — as may be suggested in different ways in each instance, it is true, by narrative, prophetic, and prescriptive discourse — is removed from any transcription in terms of a plan or program; in short, of finality and teleology. What is revealed is the possibility of hope in spite of. . . . This possibility may still be expressed in the terms of a design, but of an unassignable design, a design which is God’s secret.

It should also begin to be apparent how the notion of revelation differs from one mode of discourse to another; especially when we pass from prophecy to wisdom. The prophet claims divine inspiration as guaranteeing what he says. The sage does nothing of the sort. He does not declare that his speech is the speech of another.

But he does know that wisdom precedes him and that in a way it is through participation in wisdom that someone may be said to be wise.

Nothing is further from the spirit of the sages than the idea of an autonomy of thinking, a humanism of the good life; in short, of a wisdom in the Stoic or Epicurean mode founded on the self-sufficiency of thought. This is why wisdom is held to be a gift of God in distinction to the "knowledge of good and evil" promised by the Serpent. What is more, for the scribes following the Exile, Wisdom was personified into a transcendent feminine figure. She is a divine reality that has always existed and that will always exist. She lives with God and she has accompanied creation from its very beginning. Intimacy with Wisdom is not to be distinguished from intimacy with God.

By this detour wisdom rejoins prophecy. The objectivity of wisdom signifies the same thing as does the subjectivity of prophetic inspiration. This is why for tradition the sage was held to be inspired by God just as the prophet was. For the same reason, we can understand how prophecy and wisdom could converge in apocalyptic literature where, as is well known, the notion of a revelation of the divine secrets is applied to "the last days." But intermingling in no way prohibits the modes of religious discourse — and the aspects of revelation which correspond to them — from remaining distinct or from being held together only by a tie of pure analogy.


I do not want to end this brief survey of modes of biblical discourse without saying something about the lyric genre best exemplified by the Psalms. Hymns of praise, supplication, and thanksgiving constitute its three major genres. Clearly they are not marginal forms of religious discourse. The praise addressed to God’s prodigious accomplishments in nature and history is not a movement of the heart which is added to narrative genre without any effect on its nucleus. In fact, celebration elevates the story and turns it into an invocation. Earlier we spoke of the example of the ancient creed from Deuteronomy — "My father was a wandering Aramaean, etc." In this sense, to recount the story is one aspect of celebration. Without a heart that sings the glory of God, perhaps we would not have the creation story, and certainly not the story of deliverance. And without the supplications in the psalms concerning suffering, would the plaint of the righteous also find the path to invocation, even if it must lead to contestation and recrimination? Through supplication, the righteous man s protestations of innocence have as their opposite a Thou who may respond to his lamentation.

In its conclusion, the book of Job has shown us how, instructed by wisdom, the knowledge of how to suffer is surpassed by the lyricism of supplication in the same way that narration is surpassed by the lyricism of praise. This movement toward the second person finds its fulfillment in the psalms of thanksgiving where the uplifted soul thanks someone. The invocation reaches its highest purity, its most disinterested expression, when the supplication, unburdened of every demand, is converted into recognition. Thus under the three figures of praise, supplication, and thanksgiving human speech becomes invocation. It is addressed to God in the second person, without limiting itself to designating him in the third person as in narration, or to speaking in the first person in his name as in prophecy.

I freely admit that the I-Thou relation may have been hypostasized to an excessive degree by what we might call the religious personalism of a Martin Buber or a Gabriel Marcel. This relation is really only constituted in the psalm and above all in the psalm of supplication. We cannot say therefore that the idea of revelation is completely conveyed by this idea of a communication between two persons. Wisdom, we have seen, recognizes a hidden God who takes as his mask the anonymous and non-human course of events. We must therefore limit ourselves to noticing that in passing through the three positions of the system of first person personal pronouns — I, you, he — the origin of revelation is designated in different modalities that are never completely identical with one another.

If we were to say in what sense the Psalter may be said to be revealed, it would certainly not be so in the sense that its praise, supplication, and thanksgiving were placed in their disparate authors’ mouths by God, but in the sense that the sentiments expressed there are formed by and conform to their object. Thanksgiving, supplication, and celebration are all engendered by what these movements of the heart allow to exist and, in that manner, to become manifest. The surpassing of pathos, that we have discerned in the movement of wisdom when it transforms suffering into knowing how to suffer, thus becomes in a way the theme of the Psalter. The word forms our feeling in the process of expressing it. And revelation is this very formation of our feelings that transcends their everyday, ordinary modalities.

If we now look back over the path we have covered, certain important conclusions are discernible.

First, I will reiterate my original affirmation that the analysis of religious discourse ought not to begin with the level of theological assertions such as "God exists," "God is immutable, omnipotent, etc." This propositional level constitutes a second degree discourse which is not conceivable without the incorporation of concepts borrowed from speculative philosophy. A hermeneutic of revelation must give priority to those modalities of discourse that are most originary within the language of a community of faith; consequently, those expressions by means of which the members of that community first interpret their experience for themselves and for others.

Second, these originary expressions are caught up in forms of discourse as diverse as narration, prophecy, legislative texts, wisdom saying, hymns, supplications, and thanksgiving. The mistaken assumption here would be to take these forms of discourse as simple literary genres which ought to be neutralized so that we can extract their theological content. This presupposition is already at work in the reduction of the originary language of faith to its propositional content. To uproot this prejudice we must convince ourselves that the literary genres of the Bible do not constitute a rhetorical facade which it would be possible to pull down in order to reveal some thought content that is indifferent to its literary vehicle.

But we will not get beyond this prejudice until we possess a generative poetics that would be for large works of literary composition what generative grammar is to the production of sentences following the characteristic work of a given language. I will not, in this context, consider the implication of this thesis for literary criticism. It concerns the type of discourse that is always a work of a certain genre, i.e., a work produced as narration, as prophecy, as legislation, etc. Instead, I will proceed directly to what concerns our inquiry about revelation. To be brief, I will say that the confession of faith expressed in the biblical documents is directly modulated by the forms of discourse wherein it is expressed. This is why the difference between story and prophecy, so characteristic of the Old Testament, is per se theologically significant. Not just any theology may be attached to the story form, only a theology that celebrates Yahweh as the great liberator. The theology of the Pentateuch, if the word theology itself is not premature here, is a theology homogeneous with the structure of the story; i.e., a theology in the form of the history of salvation. But this theology is not a system to the extent that at the same level of radicality or originariness prophetic discourse undoes the assurance founded on the recitation and the repetition of the founding events. The motif of the "Day of Yahweh" — a day of mourning, not of joy — is not a rhetorical motif that we can simply eliminate. It is a constitutive element of the prophetic theology. The same thing applies to the Torah, as well as to the spiritual tenor of the hymn. What announces itself there is in each instance qualified by the form of the announcement. The religious "saying" is only constituted in the interplay between story and prophecy, history and legislation, legislation and wisdom, and finally wisdom and lyricism.

Third, if the forms of religious discourse are so pregnant with meaning, the notion of revelation may no longer be formulated in a uniform and monotonous fashion which we presuppose when we speak of the biblical revelation. If we put in parentheses the properly theological work of synthesis and systematization that presupposes the neutralization of the primitive forms of discourse and the transference of every religious content onto the plane of the assertion or proposition, we then arrive at a polysemic and polyphonic concept of revelation.

Earlier I spoke of such a concept as analogical. Now I want to explain this analogy. It proceeds from a reference term: prophetic discourse. There revelation signifies inspiration from a first person to a first person. The word prophet implies the notion of a person who is driven by God to speak and who does speak to the people about God’s name and in God’s name. If we do not see the analogical bond between the other forms of religious discourse and prophetic discourse we generalize in univocal fashion the concept of inspiration derived from the prophetic genre and assume that God spoke to the redactors of the sacred books just as he spoke to the prophets. The Scriptures are then said to have been written by the Holy Spirit and we are inclined to construct a uniform theology of the double divine and human author where God is posited as the formal cause and the writer is posited as the instrumental cause of these texts.

However, by taking up this generalization, we do not render justice to those traits of revelation that are not reducible to being synonymous with the double voice of the prophet. The narrative genre invited us to displace onto the recounted events that revealing light that proceeds from their founding value and their instituting function. The narrator is a prophet, but only inasmuch as the generative meaningful events are brought to language. In this way, a less subjective concept than that of inspiration is roughed out. In a similar manner, the nuances of revelation that are derived from the prescriptive force of instruction, the illuminating capacity of the wisdom saying, and the quality of lyrical pathos in the hymn, are connected to these forms of discourse. Inspiration, then, designates the coming to language of the prescriptive force, this illuminating capacity, and this lyric pathos, but only as analogous to one another.

We over-psychologize revelation if we fall back on the notion of scripture as dictated in a literal fashion. Rather it is the force of what is said that moves the writer. That something requires to be said is what the Nicene Creed analogically signifies by the expression, "We believe in the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets.’’ Yet we do not have, at least in the West, an appropriate theology that does not psychologize the Holy Spirit. To discover the objective dimension of revelation is to contribute indirectly to this non-psychologizing theology of the Holy Spirit that would be an authentic pneumatology.

Allow me now to draw one final conclusion. If one thing may be said unequivocally about all the analogical forms of revelation, it is that in none of its modalities may revelation be included in and dominated by knowledge. In this regard the idea of something secret is the limit-idea of revelation. The idea of revelation is a twofold idea. The God who reveals himself is a hidden God and hidden things belong to him.

The confession that God is infinitely above human thoughts and speech, that he guides us without our comprehending his ways, that the fact that human beings are an enigma to themselves even obscures the clarity that God communicates to them — this confession belongs to the idea of revelation. The one who reveals himself is also the one who conceals himself. And in this regard nothing is as significant as the episode of the burning bush in Exodus 3. Tradition has quite rightly named this episode the revelation of the divine name. For this name is precisely unnameable. To the extent that to know God’s name is to have power over him through an invocation whereby the god invoked becomes a manipulatable thing, the name confided to Moses is that of a being whom human beings cannot really name; that is, hold within the discretion of their language.

Moses asked, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?" God answered "I am who I am." And he added, "Say this to the children of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’" (Exod. 3:13-14)

Thus the appellation Yahweh — he is — is not a name which defines God, but one that signifies, one that signifies the act of deliverance. Indeed, the text continues:

And God also said to Moses, "You will say to the children of Israel, ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever by which future generations will invoke me." (Exod. 3:15)

In this way the historical revelation — signified by the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — leans on the secret of the name, to the very extent that the hidden God proclaims himself the meaning of the founding events. The revelation takes place between the secret and the revealed.

I am well aware that tradition has interpreted the Ehyeh asher ehyeh in the sense of a positive, ontological assertion, following the Septuagint translation: "I am who I am." Far from protecting the secret, this translation opened up an affirmative noetics of God’s absolute being that could subsequently be transcribed into Neoplatonic and Augustinian ontology and then into Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics. In this way, the theology of the name could pass over into an onto-theology capable of taking up and bracketing the theology of history, and in which the meaning of narration and of prophecy was sublimated and rationalized. The dialectic of the hidden God who reveals himself — the nuclear dialectic of revelation — was thereby dissipated into the knowledge of being and the comprehension of providence.

But to say that the God who reveals himself is a hidden God is to confess that revelation can never constitute a body of truths which an institution may boast of or take pride in possessing. So to dissipate the massive opacity of the concept of revelation is also at the same time to overthrow every totalitarian form of authority which might claim to withhold the revealed truth. In this way, my first reflections end by returning to the point where we began.


What is philosophy’s task in response to the claim which proceeds from a concept of revelation as differentiated as the one I have just outlined? Claim — Anspruch — can signify two different things: undue and unacceptable pretension or an appeal which does not force one to accept its message. I want to understand claim in this second sense. But this reversal in listening to a claim can only be produced if, in symmetry with the critique of an opaque and authoritarian concept of revelation, philosophy proceeds in its own self-understanding to a critique of its own pretension which causes it to understand the appeal of revelation as an unacceptable claim opposed to it. If the unacceptable pretentious claim of the idea of revelation is in the final analysis that of a sacrificium intellectus and of a total heteronomy under the verdict of the magisterium, the opposed pretentious claim of philosophy is the claim to a complete transparency of truth and a total autonomy of the thinking subject. When these two pretensions simply confront each other, they constitute an unbridgeable canyon between what some call the "truths of faith" and others call the "truths of reason."

I want to direct my remarks to a critique of this double pretension of philosophy, with the idea that at the end of such undertaking the apparently unreasonable claim of revelation might be better understood as a nonviolent appeal.

But before undertaking this critique, allow me to say which ways I will not follow. First, I set apart from my own proposal the project of a rational theology which other philosophers whom I respect believe to be possible in practice. If I do not seek to restate the proofs for the existence of God, and if I do not inquire into the relation of concordance or of subordination that might exist between two orders of truth, it is as much for reasons based on the interpretation of biblical revelation given above as for the idea of philosophy that I make use of. My remarks in part one essentially tried to carry the idea of revelation back to a more originary level than that of theology, the level of its fundamental discourse. This discourse is established close to human experience and it is therefore in experiences more fundamental than any onto-theological articulation that I will seek the traits of a truth capable of being spoken of in terms of manifestation rather than verification, as well as the traits of a self-awareness wherein the subject would free himself of the arrogance of consciousness. These are those cardinal experiences, as language brings them to expression, which can enter into resonance or consonance with the modes of revelation brought to language by the most primitive expressions of the faith of Israel and of early Christianity.

This homology in no way requires that philosophy know God. The word God, it seems to me, just belongs to the pretheological expressions of faith. God is the one who is proclaimed, invoked, questioned, supplicated, and thanked. The meaning of the term God circulates among all these modes of discourse, but escapes each one of them. According to the vision of the burning bush, it is in a way their vanishing point.

The experiences of manifestation and of dependence therefore need not be referred to God, and still less serve to prove God’s existence, in order to remain in resonance with those modes of experience and expression that alone signify God in the first place.

There is another way that I also will not follow — the way of an existentialism based on the wretchedness of the human condition, where philosophy provides the questions and religion the answers. No doubt, an apologetic based on the wretchedness of existence does satisfy the existential conditions imposed by the level of discourse we attained in our first section. Furthermore, it numbers among its practitioners such worthy names as Pascal and Tillich. But its apologetic character is suspect inasmuch as it is apologetic.

If God speaks by the prophets, the philosopher does not have to justify His word, but rather to set off the horizon of significance where it may be heard. Such work has nothing to do with apologetics. Also, recourse to anxiety, to a sense of something lacking, is no less suspect. Bonhoeffer has said all that needs to be said against the God of the gaps, whether it be a question of explaining things or of understanding humanity. The philosophy of misery, even if one is not a Marxist, remains the misery of philosophy.

This is why I prefer to turn toward some structures of the interpretation of human experience to discern there those traits through which something has always been comprehensible under the idea of revelation understood in a religious sense of the term. It is this comprehension that may enter into consonance with the nonviolent appeal of biblical revelation.

My analysis will consist of two parts, corresponding to the twofold claim of philosophical discourse to transparent objectivity and subjective autonomy. The first remarks will be directed toward the space of the manifestation of things, the second toward that understanding of themselves that humans gain when they allow themselves to be governed by what is manifested and said. These two dimensions of the problem correspond to the two major objections that are usually directed against the very principle of a revealed word. According to the first objection, any idea of revelation violates the idea of objective truth as measured by the criteria of empirical verification and falsification. According to the second objection, the idea of revelation denies the autonomy of the thinking subject inscribed within the idea of a consciousness completely in control of itself. The double meditation I propose will address in turn these claims to transparency founded on a concept of truth as adequation and verification, and to autonomy founded on the concept of a sovereign consciousness.

If I begin with the former point, it is for a fundamental reason, namely that the conquest of a new concept of truth as manifestation — and in this sense as revelation — demands the recognition of our real dependence which is in no way synonymous with heteronomy. The choice of this order of discussion also is in perfect agreement with the critique I offered in my first part of the subjectivism and psychologism engendered by a certain inflation of the idea of inspiration. I said, in effect, let us rather first look on the side of those events that make history or that are part of the impending future. Let us look on the side of the prescriptive force of the law of perfection, toward the objective quality of the feelings — the pathos — articulated by the hymn. In the same way, I now say, let us allow the space of the manifestation of things to be, before we turn toward the consciousness of the thinking and speaking subject.


My first investigation, into what I will call the space of the manifestation of things, takes place within precise limits. I will not speak of our experience of being-in-the-world, beginning from a phenomenology of perception as may be found in the works of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, nor in terms of a phenomenology of care or preoccupation as may be found in Heidegger’s Being and Time — although I believe that they may be connected by means of the detour I propose. Instead I will begin directly from the manifestation of the world by the text and by scripture.

This approach may seem overly limited due to the fact that it proceeds through the narrow defile of one cultural fact, the existence of written documents, and thus because it is limited to cultures which possess books, but it will seem less limited if we comprehend what enlargement of our experience of the world results from the existence of such documents. Moreover, by choosing this angle of attack, we immediately establish a correspondence with the fact that the claim of revealed speech reaches us today through writings to be interpreted. Those religions which refer back to Abraham — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — are in their different ways, and they are often very different ways, religions of the book. So it is therefore appropriate, I believe, to inquire into the particular revelatory function attached to certain modalities of scripture which I will place under the title Poetics, in a sense I will explain in a moment. In effect, under the category of poetics, philosophical analysis encounters those traits of revelation which may correspond with or respond to the nonviolent appeal of biblical revelation.

To introduce this idea of a revelatory function of poetic discourse, I will draw upon three preparatory concepts that I have examined at greater length in my other writings on hermeneutics.6

The first one is the very concept of writing itself. We underestimate the phenomenon of writing if we reduce it to the simple material fixation of living speech. Writing stands in a specific relation to what is said. It produces a form of discourse that is immediately autonomous with regard to its author’s intention. And in this autonomy is already contained everything that I will call in a moment, following Hans Georg Gadamer, the issue of the text which is removed from the finite intentional horizon of the author. In other words, thanks to writing, the world of the text can burst the world of the author. This emancipation with regard to the author has its parallel on the side of whoever receives the text. The autonomy of the text also removes this reader from the finite horizon of its original audience.

The second preparatory concept is that of the work. By this I mean the shaping of discourse through the operation of literary genres such as narration, fiction, the essay, etc. By producing discourse as such and such a work taking up such and such a genre, the composition codes assign to works of discourse that unique configuration we call a style. This shaping of the work concurs with the phenomenon of writing in externalizing and objectifying the text into what one literary critic has called a "verbal icon."

The third preparatory concept continues in the same direction and goes a bit further. It is what I call the world of the text. By this I mean that what is finally to be understood in a text is not the author or his presumed intention, nor is it the immanent structure or structures of the text, but rather the sort of world intended beyond the text as its reference. In this regard, the alternative "either the intention or the structure" is vain. For the reference of the text is what I call the issue of the text or the world of the text. The world of the text designates the reference of the work of discourse, not what is said, but about what it is said. Hence the issue of the text is the object of hermeneutics. And the issue of the text is the world the text unfolds before itself.

On this triple basis — autonomy through writing, externalization by means of the work, and the reference to a world — I will construct the analysis central to our discussion of the revelatory function of poetic discourse.

I have not introduced the category of poetics heretofore. It does not designate one of the literary genres discussed in the first part of my presentation, but rather the totality of these genres inasmuch as they exercise a referential function that differs from the descriptive referential function of ordinary language and above all of scientific discourse. Hence I will speak of the poetic function of discourse and not of a poetic genre or a mode of poetic discourse. This function, in turn, is defined precisely in terms of its referential function. What is this referential function?

As a first approximation, we may say that the poetic function points to the obliterating of the ordinary referential function, at least if we identify it with the capacity to describe familiar objects of perception or the objects which science alone determines by means of its standards of measurement. Poetic discourse suspends this descriptive function. It does not directly augment our knowledge of objects.

From here it is only a short step to saying that in poetry language turns back on itself to celebrate itself. But if we say this we accede too quickly to the positivist presupposition that empirical knowledge is objective knowledge because it is verifiable. Too often, we do not notice that we uncritically accept a certain concept of truth defined as adequation to real objects and as submitted to a criterion of empirical verification. That language in its poetic function abolishes the type of reference characteristic of such descriptive discourse, and along with it the reign of truth as adequation and the very definition of truth in terms of verification, is not to be doubted. The question is whether this suspension or abolition of a referential function of the first degree is not the negative condition for the liberating of a more primitive, more originary referential function, which may be called a second order reference only because discourse whose function is descriptive has usurped the first rank in daily life and has been supported in this regard by modern science.

My deepest conviction is that poetic language alone restores to us that participation-in or belonging-to an order of things which precedes our capacity to oppose ourselves to things taken as objects opposed to a subject. Hence the function of poetic discourse is to bring about this emergence of a depth-structure of belonging-to amid the ruins of descriptive discourse. Once again, this function is in no way to be identified with poetry understood as something opposed to prose and defined by a certain affinity of sense, rhythm, image, and sound. I am first defining the poetic function in a negative manner, following Roman Jakobson, as the inverse of the referential function understood in a narrow descriptive sense, then in a positive way as what in my volume on metaphor I call the metaphorical reference.7 And in this regard, the most extreme paradox is that when language most enters into fiction — e.g., when a poet forges the plot of a tragedy — it most speaks truth because it redescribes reality so well known that it is taken for granted in terms of the new features of this plot. Fiction and redescription, then, go hand in hand. Or, to speak like Aristotle in his Poetics, the mythos is the way to true mimesis, which is not slavish imitation, or a copy, or mirror-image, but a transposition or metamorphosis — or, as I suggest, a redescription.

This conjunction of fiction and redescription, of mythos and mimesis, constitutes the referential function by means of which I would define the poetic dimension of language.

In turn, this poetic function conceals a dimension of revelation where revelation is to be understood in a nonreligious, nontheistic, and nonbiblical sense of the word — but one capable of entering into resonance with one or the other of the aspects of biblical revelation. How is this so?

In the following manner. First the poetic function recapitulates in itself the three preparatory concepts of the autonomy of the text, the externality of the work, and the transcendence of the world of the text. Already by means of these three traits an order of things is revealed that does not belong to either the author or the original audience. But to these three traits the poetic function adds a split reference by means of which emerges the Atlantis submerged in the network of objects submitted to the domination of our preoccupations. It is this primordial ground of our existence, of the originary horizon of our being-there, that is the revelatory function which is coextensive with the poetic function.

But why call it revelatory? Because through all the traits that it recapitulates and by what it adds, the poetic function incarnates a concept of truth that escapes the definition by adequation as well as the criteria of falsification and verification. Here truth no longer means verification, but manifestation, i.e., letting what shows itself be. What shows itself is in each instance a proposed world, a world I may inhabit and wherein I can project my ownmost possibilities. It is in this sense of manifestation that language in its poetic function is a vehicle of revelation.

By using the word revelation in such a nonbiblical and even nonreligious way, do we abuse the word? I do not think so. Our analysis of the biblical concept of revelation has prepared for us a first degree analogical use of the term and here we are led to a second degree analogy. The first degree analogy was assured by the role of the first analogue, prophetic discourse, with its implication of another voice behind the prophet’s voice. This meaning of the first analogue was communicated to all the other modes of discourse to the extent that they could be said to be inspired. But we also saw that this analogy with reference to the princeps discourse, that of prophecy, did not do justice to the specific character of each of the other modes of discourse, above all narrative discourse where what is said or recounted, the generative historical event, came to language through the narration. And the philosophical concept of revelation leads us back to this primacy of what is said over the inspiration of the narrator by means of a second analogy that is no longer that of inspiration, but that of manifestation.

This new analogy invites us to place the originary expressions of biblical faith under the sign of the poetic function of language; not to deprive them of any referent, but to put them under the law of split reference that characterizes the poetic function. Religious discourse is poetic in all the senses we have named. Being written down as scripture removes it from the finite horizon of its authors and its first audience. The style of its literary genres gives it the externality of a work. And the intended implicit reference of each text opens onto a world, the biblical world, or rather the multiple worlds unfolded before the book by its narration, prophecy, prescriptions, wisdom, and hymns. The proposed world that in biblical language is called a new creation, a new Covenant, the Kingdom of God, is the "issue" of the biblical text unfolded in front of this text.

Finally, and above all, this "issue" of the biblical text is indirectly intended beyond the suspension of descriptive, didactic, and informative discourse. This abolition of the reference to objects that we can manipulate allows the world of our originary rootedness to appear. Just as the world of poetic texts opens its way across the ruins of the intraworldly objects of everyday existence and of science, so too the new being projected by the biblical text opens its way across the world of ordinary experience and in spite of the closed nature of that experience. The power to project this new world is the power of breaking through and of an opening.

Thus this areligious sense of revelation helps us to restore the concept of biblical revelation to its full dignity. It delivers us from psychologizing interpretations of the inspiration of the scriptures in the sense of an insufflation of their words into the writers’ ears. If the Bible may be said to be revealed this must refer to what it says, to the new being it unfolds before us. Revelation, in short, is a feature of the biblical world proposed by the text.

Yet if this areligious sense of revelation has such a corrective value, it does not for all that include the religious meaning of revelation. There is a homology between them, but nothing allows us to derive the specific feature of religious language — i.e., that its referent moves among prophecy, narration, prescription, wisdom, and psalms, coordinating these diverse and partial forms of discourse by giving them a vanishing point and an index of incompleteness — nothing, I say, allows us to derive this from the general characteristics of the poetic function. The biblical hermeneutic is in turn one regional hermeneutic within a general hermeneutic and a unique hermeneutic that is joined to the philosophical hermeneutic as its organon. It is one particular case insofar as the Bible is one of the great poems of existence. It is a unique case because all its partial forms of discourse are referred to that Name which is the point of intersection and the vanishing point of all our discourse about God, the name of the unnameable. This is the paradoxical homology that the category of the world of the text establishes between revelation in the broad sense of poetic discourse and in the specifically biblical sense.


We may now turn to the second pretension that philosophy opposes to the claim of revealed truth. This is its claim to autonomy. It is founded on the concept of a subject who is master of his thoughts. This idea of a consciousness which posits itself in positing its contents undoubtedly constitutes the strongest resistance to any idea of revelation, not only in the specific sense of the religions of the book, but also in the larger, more global sense that we have just connected to the poetic function of discourse,

I will proceed here with regard to the second part of my analysis in the same manner as for the first. That is, instead of taking up the question of the autonomy of consciousness in its most general sense, I will attempt to focus the debate on a central concept of self-awareness which is capable of corresponding to one of the major traits of the idea of revelation brought to light by our analysis of biblical discourse. This central category will occupy a place comparable to that of poetic discourse in relation to the objective aspect of philosophical discourse. This category which to me best signifies the self-implication of the subject in his discourse is that of testimony. Besides having a corresponding term on the side of the idea of revelation, it is the most appropriate concept for making us understand what a thinking subject formed by and conforming to poetic discourse might be.

But before undertaking a properly philosophical reflection on the category of testimony, I will again call on some preparatory concepts which I have explicated at greater length in my other work on hermeneutics

First, the concept of the cogito as mediated by a universe of signs. Without appealing to the mediation by means of the text, the written work, I would like to recall in general terms that general dependence that upholds a subject who, contrary to Descartes’s assertion, does not have at his disposal an immediate intuition of his existence and his essence as a thinking being. From The Symbolism of Evil8 on I have perceived this constitutional infirmity of Descartes’s cogito. To pierce the secret of the evil will we must take the detour of a semantics and an exegesis applied to those symbols and myths in which the millenary experience of the confession of evil is deposited.

But it is with Freud and Philosophy9 that I decisively broke away from the illusions of consciousness as the blind spot of reflection. The case of the symbolism of evil is not an exception, one tributary of the gloomy experience of evil. All reflection is mediated, there is no immediate self-consciousness The first truth, I said, that of the "I think, I am," "remains as abstract and empty as it is invincible; it has to be ‘mediated’ by the ideas, actions, works, institutions, and monuments that objectify it. It is in these objects, in the widest sense of the word, that the Ego must lose and find itself. We can say, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, that a philosophy of reflection is not a philosophy of consciousness, if by consciousness we mean immediate self-consciousness."10

Adopting the language of Jean Nabert — as I will do again in my analysis of testimony — I defined reflection by "the appropriation of our effort to exist and of our desire to be, through the works which bear witness to that effort and desire."11 In this way, I included testimony within the structure of reflection without as yet having determined the importance of this implication. At least I saw that "the positing or emergence of this effort or desire is not only devoid of all intuition but is evidenced only by works whose meaning remains doubtful and revocable."12 This is why reflection had to include interpretation; that is, "the results, methods, and presuppositions of all the sciences that try to decipher and interpret the signs of man."13

The second preparatory concept is that of participation or "belonging-to" (appartenance) which 1 borrow from Gadamer’s Truth and Method.14 For me, the conquest of this concept marked the end of a difficult struggle with Husserlian idealism which was not yet broached by the preceding avowal of the mediated character of reflection. It was still necessary to call into question Husserl’s scientific ideal, especially in the sense of a final justification or a self-founding of the transcendental ego, to discover in the finite ontological condition of self-understanding the unsurpassable limit of this scientific ideal.

The ultimate condition of any enterprise of justification or of grounding is that it is always preceded by a relation that already carries it:

Are we speaking of a relation to the object? Precisely not. What hermeneutics just questions in Husserlian idealism is that it has inscribed its immense and unsurpassable discovery of intentionality in a conceptuality which weakens its import, especially for the subject-object relation. . . . Hermeneutic’s declaration is, so to speak, that the problematic of objectivity presupposes as prior to itself an inclusive relation which englobes the allegedly autonomous subject and the allegedly adverse object. It is this inclusive or englobing relation that I call participation or belonging to.15

As you can see, my ongoing work undercut the primacy of reflection that at first was left out of the critique of the illusions of consciousness. Reflection does not disappear. That would make no sense at all. But its status is to be always a "second order reflection," to speak like Gabriel Marcel. It corresponds to that distanciation without which we would never become conscious of belonging to a world, a culture, a tradition. It is the critical moment, originally bound to the consciousness of belonging to that confers its properly historical character on this consciousness. For even a tradition only becomes such under the condition of a distance that distinguishes the belonging to proper to a human being from the simple Inclusion of a thing as a part of a whole. Reflection is never first, never constituting — it arrives unexpectedly like a "crisis" within an experience that bears us, and it constitutes us as the subject of the experience.

Our third preparatory concept is caught sight of in the prolongation of this dialectic of participation and distanciation. It makes more specific our mode of belonging to a culture where the signs are texts, i.e., writings and works arising out of distinct literary genres. This third concept corresponds in the "subjective" order to the concept of the world of the text in the "objective" order. You will recall my insistence on defining the hermeneutic task not in terms of the author’s intention supposedly hidden behind the text, but in terms of the quality of being-in-the-world unfolded in front of the text as the reference of the text. The subjective concept that corresponds to that of the world of the text is the concept of appropriation. By this I mean the very act of understanding oneself before the text. This act is the exact counterpart of the autonomy of writing and the externalization of the work. It in no way is intended to make the reader correspond with the genius of the author, for it does not respond to the author, but to the work’s sense and reference. Its other is the issue of the text, the world of the work.

The third preparatory concept marks the final defeat of the pretension of consciousness to set itself up as the standard of meaning. To understand oneself before the text is not to impose one’s own finite capacity of understanding on it, but to expose oneself to receive from it a larger self which would be the proposed way of existing that most appropriately responds to the proposed world of the text. Understanding then is the complete opposite of a constitution for which the subject would have the key. It would be better in this regard to say that the self is constituted by the issue of the text.

How, you might ask, are these three concepts of mediated reflection, belonging-to or second order reflection, and appropriation as self-understanding before the text preparatory concepts? They are preparatory insofar as they bring about on a purely epistemological, even a methodological, plane consciousness’ abandoning of its pretension to constitute every signification in and beginning from itself. This abandonment (dessaisissement) takes place even on the terrain of the historical and hermeneutical sciences, at the very heart of the problematic of understanding, where the tradition of Romanticist hermeneutics had thought to establish the reign of subjectivity. It is the final consequence of a critique of Romanticist hermeneutics, at the end of which the concept of the world of the text has taken the place of the author’s intention.

Perhaps you have begun to realize how the pretension of consciousness to constitute itself is the most formidable obstacle to the idea of revelation. In this regard, the transcendental idealism of a Husserl contains implicitly the same atheistic consequences as does the idealism of consciousness of a Feuerbach. If consciousness posits itself, it must be the "subject" and the divine must be the "predicate," and it can only be through an alienation subsequent to this power of self-production that God is projected as the "subject’’ for whom the human being becomes the "predicate." The hermeneutical movement I have just traced brings about a conversion diametrically opposed to that of Feuerbach. Where consciousness posits itself as the origin of meaning, hermeneutics brings about the abandonment of this pretension. This abandonment is the reverse of Feuerbach’s critique of alienation.

But such a consequence can only be anticipated and glimpsed on the unique basis of a hermeneutic where self-understanding is the reply to notions as narrowly "literary" as those of the text, the work, and the world of the text. It is precisely the function of the category of testimony — the central category of this second phase of our philosophical inquiry—to dismantle a little further the fortress of consciousness. It introduces the dimension of historical contingency which is lacking in the concept of the world of the text, which is deliberately nonhistorical or transhistorical. It throws itself therefore against one fundamental characteristic of the idea of autonomy; namely, not making the internal itinerary of consciousness depend on external events.

As Jean Nabert puts it in his Essai sur le mal, "Do we have the right to invest one moment of history with an absolute characteristic?"16 You may recall that this is what in the phenomenon of religion also scandalized Karl Jaspers. According to him, "philosophical faith" ought to eliminate the arbitrary privileging of this or that moment of humanity’s spiritual history. This refusal of historical contingency therefore constitutes one of the most dug-in defenses of the claim to autonomy and a meditation on the category of testimony is meant to confront this refusal.

Few philosophers, to my knowledge, have attempted to integrate the category of testimony into philosophical reflection. Most have either ignored it or abandoned it to the realm of faith. One exception is Jean Nabert in his volume entitled Desir de Dieu.17 I want to draw on this work to show how this category governs the abandonment of or letting go of the absolute claim to self-consciousness, and how it occupies on the subjective side of a hermeneutic of revelation a strategic position similar to that of the category of poetics on the objective side.

Recourse to testimony occurs in a philosophy of reflection at the moment when such a philosophy renounces the pretension of consciousness to constitute itself. Thus Jean Nabert, e.g., recognizes the place of testimony at that point of his itinerary where concrete reflection exerts itself to rejoin what he calls that originary affirmation which constitutes me more than I constitute it. This originary affirmation has all the characteristics of an absolute affirmation of the absolute, but it is unable to go beyond a purely internal act that is incapable of outwardly expressing itself or of even inwardly maintaining itself. Originary affirmation has something about it that is indefinitely inaugural and that only concerns the idea which the ego makes of itself. For a philosophy of reflection, this originary affirmation is in no way one of our experiences. Although numerically identical to each person’s real (reelle) consciousness, it is the act that accomplishes the negation of those limitations which affect an individual’s destiny, it is the letting go (depouillement) of self.

In one sense, this letting go of self is still part of the reflective order. It is both an ethical and a speculative act. And it means renouncing not only the empirical objects that are ordered by reason, but also those transcendental objects of metaphysics that might still provide support for thinking the unconditioned. Consequently, this letting go takes up from and continues the Kantian meditation on the transcendental illusion as presented in the section on "Dialectic" in the first Critique. It could also be expressed by the language of the Enneads where Plotinus writes Aphele panta — "abolish everything." It is precisely this movement of letting go which bears reflection to the encounter with contingent signs of the absolute which the absolute in its generosity allows to appear.

This avowal of the absolute can no longer be Kantian (nor no doubt Plotinian), for Kantian philosophy would incline us to look only for examples or symbols, not for testimonies, understood as accounts of an experience of the absolute. In an example, the case is effaced before the rule and the person is effaced before the law. An abstraction, the abstraction of the norm, takes the place of the originary affirmation. But the encounter with evil in the experience of what cannot be justified does not allow us the leisure to grant our veneration to the sublimity of the moral order. The unjustifiable constrains us to let go of this very veneration. Only those events, acts, and persons that attest that the unjustifiable is overcome here and now can reopen the path toward originary affirmation.

As for the symbol, it is no less feeble than the example with regard to the unjustifiable. Its inexhaustible richness of meaning no doubt gives it a consistency that the example lacks. But its historicity places it at the mercy of the work of interpretation that may dissipate it too quickly into too ideal forms of significations. Only testimony that is singular in each instance confers the sanction of reality on ideas, ideals, and ways of being that the symbol depicts to us and which we uncover as our ownmost possibilities.

Therefore testimony better than either an example or a symbol Places reflection before the paradox which the pretension of consciousness makes a scandal of, I mean that a moment of history is invested with an absolute character. This paradox ceases to be a scandal as soon as the wholly internal movement of letting go, of abandoning the claim to found consciousness accepts being led by and ruled by the interpretation of external signs which the absolute gives of itself. And the hermeneutic of testimony consists wholly in the convergence of these two movements, these two exegesis: the exegesis of self and the exegesis of external signs.

Testimony, on the one hand, is able to be taken up internally in reflection thanks to several dialectical features that arouse and call for this reflective repetition in us. It first proposes the dialectic of its object, which is an event as well as a meaning at the same time, similar to what we spoke of in part one with regard to the narration of the founding events of the history of Israel. For the Hebraic confession of faith, the event and its meaning immediately coincide. It is the moment that Hegel called the moment of absolute or revealed religion.

But this moment of fusion of event and meaning fades away. Its appearance is immediately its disappearance. We might recall at this point Hegel’s admirable pages on the empty tomb and the vain quest of the crusades. In short, a scission appears here that engenders an unending mediation of immediacy. This is why testimony requires interpretation. Interpretation is also required by the critical activity that testimony gives rise to. It needs to be tested. This tight bond between testimony and a process of examination is not abolished when testimony is transferred from a tribunal to the plane of reflection. On the contrary, the judicatory dimension of testimony then takes on its full depth. We must always decide between the false witness and the truthful one for there is no manifestation of the absolute without the threat of a false testimony, and without the decision that separates the sign from the idol. This role for judgment will find its counterpart in a moment in the movement by means of which reflection replies to testimony’s critique, what Nabert calls the criteriology of the divine.

Lastly, testimony calls for interpretation through a more fundamental dialectic, the dialectic of the witness and the things seen. To be a witness is to have participated in what one has seen and to be able to testify to it.

On the other hand, testimony may break away from the things seen to such a degree that it is concentrated on the quality of an act, a work, or a life, which is in itself a sign of the absolute. In this second sense, which is complementary to the first sense, to be a witness is no longer to testify that . . . , but to testify to. . . . This latter expression allows us to understand that a witness may so implicate himself in his testimony that it becomes the best proof of his conviction.

When this proof becomes the price of life itself, the witness changes names. He becomes a martyr. I am well aware that any argument from martyrdom is suspect. A cause that has martyrs is not necessarily a just cause. But martyrdom precisely is not an argument and still less a proof. It is a test, a limit situation. A person becomes a martyr because first of all he is a witness.

This proximity between a witness and a martyr is not always without effect on the very meaning of testimony. Its purely juridical sense may rise and fall. In a trial, for example, a witness enjoys immunity. Only the accused risks his life. But a witness can become the accused and the righteous may die. Then a great historical archetype arises: the suffering servant, the persecuted righteous, Socrates, Jesus. . . . The commitment or risk assumed by the witness makes testimony more than and other than a simple narration of what was seen. Testimony is also the commitment of a pure heart and a commitment unto death. It thus belongs to the tragic destiny of truth.

This tragic destiny of truth outside of us in a wholly contingent history may accompany the letting go by means of which reflection abandons the illusions of a sovereign consciousness. Reflection does so by internalizing the dialectic of testimony from which it records the trace of the absolute in the contingency of history. The three dialectical moments of testimony — event and meaning, the trial of false testimony, and testimony about what is seen and of a life — find their echo, their reverberation, in the movement of consciousness that renounces its sovereignty.

The dialectic of event and meaning? A whole structure of self-understanding is declared here which enjoins us to renounce any idea of a self-constituting of consciousness within a purely immanent temporality. We exist because we are seized by those events that happen to us in the strong sense of this word — such and such entirely fortuitous encounters, dramas, happinesses or misfortunes that, as one says, have completely changed the course of our existence. The task of understanding ourselves through them is the task of transforming the accidental into our destiny. The event is our master. Each of our separate existences here are like those communities we belong to — we are absolutely dependent on certain founding events. They are not events that pass away, but events that endure. In themselves, they are event-signs. To understand ourselves is to continue to attest and to testify to them.

The dialectic of true and false testimony? This process has its counterpart on the side of reflection in what Nabert calls the criteriology of the divine, and which he couples precisely to the examination of testimony. For a finite existence like ours, appropriation can only be a critical act. It is not a unitary intuition or a form of absolute knowledge in which consciousness would become aware of itself as well as of the absolute. It is in sorting among and sifting its predicates that we seem most worthy of signifying the divine, that we form a certain idea of it. This sorting takes the form of a trial. It is easy to see why. To discern the predicates of the divine is to follow what the medievals call the way of eminence. For how else are we to carry a certain idea of justice or goodness to extremes if not by conforming our judgment of eminence to the testimony given outside of us in history by the words, the deeds, and the lives of certain exceptional people who are not necessarily famous, but who testify by their excellence to that very way of eminence that reflection attempts to reproduce in itself and for itself? It appears therefore that the two trials or judgments crisscross: in forming predicates of the divine we disqualify the false witness; in recognizing the true witnesses we identify the predicates of the divine. This fine hermeneutic circle is the law of self-understanding.

Yet the third dialectic, the dialectic of historical testimony, is the most significant for a self-understanding that would attempt to reproduce its movement in itself.

The witness to things seen, we said, at the limit becomes a martyr for truth. Here reflection must confess its inequality with the historical paradigm of its movement of letting go if it is not to abuse its words and become radically deceitful. The philosophy of reflection tends to use big words: epoche reflective distance, letting go, etc. But in its use of them it indicates more that it can signify of the direction of a movement, that movement which we have simply wanted to point to with the expression "letting go" as the abandonment of the sovereign consciousness. Philosophy must internalize what is said in the Gospel: "Who would save his life must lose it." Transposed into the realm of reflection, this means, "Whoever would posit himself as a constituting consciousness will miss his destiny." But reflection cannot produce this renouncing of the sovereign consciousness out of itself. It may only do so by confessing its total dependence on the historical manifestations of the divine.

Once again, Nabert expresses this dependence in terms of a complementarity. "For the apprehension of the divine," he says, "the letting go essential to mystical experience and the liaison of the divine to a historical manifestation are complementary to each other. Thanks to the former, the grasping of the divine tends to be confused with the advance of reflection through the sole exercise (ascece) of the philosophical consciousness; through the latter, the divine is inscribed in history through a testimony whose meaning consciousness has never exhausted."18 And a few pages later he adds, "The essential idea is to demonstrate a well founded correspondence between the historical affirmation of the absolute and the degrees through which a consciousness is raised up and transformed by an originary affirmation. . ."19 For my part I would emphasize the non-reciprocal nature of this complementarity inasmuch as the initiative belongs to historical testimony.

To account for this priority of historical testimony over self consciousness, I would refer you to the description Kant gives of "aesthetic ideas" in the Critique of Judgment. You will recall the circumstances where he has recourse to this theme. At the moment of accounting for the aesthetic productions of genius, he invokes that power of the imagination "to present" (Darstellung) those ideas of reason for which we have no concept. By means of such representation, the imagination "occasions much thought (viel zu denken) without however any definite thought, i.e., any concept, being capable of being adequate to it; it consequently cannot be completely compassed and made intelligible by language."20 Hence what the imagination thus confers on thought is the ability to think further:

If we now place under a concept a representation of the imagination belonging to its presentation, but which occasions in itself more thought than can ever be comprehended in a definite concept and which consequently aesthetically enlarges the concept itself in an unbounded fashion, the imagination is here creative, and it brings the faculty of intellectual ideas (the reason) into movement; i.e., by a representation more thought (which indeed belongs to the concept of the object) is occasioned than can in it be grasped or made clear.21

Historical testimony has the same structure and the same function. It, too, is a "presentation," of what for reflection remains an idea; namely, the idea of a letting go wherein we affirm an order exempt from that servitude from which finite existence cannot deliver itself. The Kantian relation between an idea and its aesthetic "presentation" well expresses the kind of relation we are seeking to formulate between originary affirmation (which would require an impossible total mediation between self-consciousness and its symbolic experience) and its historical presentation in testimonies whose meaning we have never exhausted.

Such is the non-heteronomous dependence of conscious reflection on external testimonies. And it is this dependence that gives philosophy a certain idea of revelation. As earlier with regard to poetic discourse on the objective side of the idea of revelation, so too on the subjective side, the experience of testimony can only provide the horizon for a specifically religious and biblical experience of revelation, without our ever being able to derive that experience from the purely philosophical categories of truth as manifestation and reflection as testimony.

Allow me to conclude with this expression of dependence without heteronomy. Why, I will ask at the end of this meditation, is it so difficult for us to conceive of a dependence without heteronomy? Is it not because we too often and too quickly think of a will that submits and not enough of an imagination that opens itself? Beginning from this question it is possible to catch sight of the dividing line between the two sides of our investigation. For what are the poem of the Exodus and the poem of the resurrection, called to mind in the first section, addressed to if not to our imagination rather than our obedience? And what is the historical testimony that our reflection would like to internalize addressed to if not to our imagination? If to understand oneself is to understand oneself in front of the text, must we not say that the reader’s understanding is suspended, derealized, made potential just as the world itself is metamorphosized by the poem? If this is true, we must say that the imagination is that part of ourselves that responds to the text as a poem, and that alone can encounter revelation no longer as an unacceptable pretension but a nonviolent appeal.



1. See his "Les relations de temps dans le verb francais," in Problemes de linguistique generale (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), pp. 237-50.

2. Ibid., p. 241.

3. Semantique structurale (Paris: Larousse, 1966).

4. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper, 1962-65).

5. Andre Nehet, L’Essence du prophetisme (Paris: P.U.F., 1955).

6. See, e.g., my recent book, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1976).

7. La Metaphore vive (Paris: Seuil, 1975), pp. 273-321.

8. New York: Harper, 1967.

9. New Haven: Yale University, 1970.

10. Ibid., pp. 43-44.

11. Ibid., p. 46.

12. Ibid., p. 46.

13. Ibid., p. 46.

14. New York: Seabury, 1975.

15. "Phenomenologie et hermeneutique," in Ernst W. Orth, ed., Phanomenolgische Forschungen 1: Phanomenologie heute: Grundlagen und Methodenprobleme (Freiburg/Munich: Alber, 1975), p. 38. English trans.: "Phenomenology and Hermeneutics," Nous 9, 1 (April 1975): 88-89; trans. altered.

16. Paris: P.U.F., 1955, p. 148.

17. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1966.

18. Ibid., p. 267.

19. Ibid., p. 279.

20. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. by J. H. Bernard; (New York: Hafner, 1966), p. 157.

21. Ibid., p. 158.

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