I’ve been meaning to post this here for some time! This is the revised version of the paper that Keegan Osinski and I presented at AAR last November. The paper explores Derridean ideas at play in the liturgy at St. Lydia’s and at ikonnyc.
Audio from the panel is available at Homebrewed Christianity:
This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community
Presented by Joel Avery and Keegan Osinski
“Caputo and Derrida in Actual Churches:
Exploring the Influence of (a stream of) Postmodern Thought on Christian Practices”
Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion
Saturday November 23, 2013
The way Derrida speaks of language and text begs to be explored in terms of the sign and symbol of sacrament in liturgy. Though not identifying as a Christian, Derrida plays with ideas of interacting and repeating word and gesture and the temporality and inherent repetition of text that echo profoundly in church sanctuaries as congregations partake in the sacrament of Eucharist. In this paper we will explore Derridean notions of the Eucharist, vis-à-vis John Caputo, and show at length how they are at work at St. Lydia’s, an ELCA-affiliated dinner church, and how they play out differently in the work of ikonNYC. First we will talk about the act of liturgical repetition, followed by the deconstructive notion of Real Presence, then the rupturing power of a ruptured liturgy, and finally the way community can flourish in the challenges of difference.
As Derrida returned to Plato’s writings throughout his life, looking for moments of aporia in each new reading, so too Christians, returning time and again to the Eucharist, open themselves to the possibility of encountering the body of Christ in the presence of the stranger in each gathering. The repetition of liturgy, week in and week out, which may seem like rote and empty ritual, is in fact the mechanism that allows the event to take place. It is the return every morning to find that, yet again, manna has appeared and is ready to be gathered—just enough for each person’s need, leaving open what may become in the future. Manna’s very name is a question—“What is this?”—and cannot be hoarded or contained. It is the daily bread of questions, of uncertainties, of possibilities (Chauvet 1995).
The liturgy is the path we travel together, unsure where it will take us, though it is the same path we have taken for years. Faithfully returning, we take the chance of meeting a stranger on this familiar way—a stranger who could be the Other, the Christ, or even the Self. Stranger still, these three could all be one. Caputo says that “by virtue of repetition, the individual is able to press forward, not toward sheer novelty which is wholly discontinuous with the past but into the being which he himself is. By repetition the individual becomes himself, circling back on the being which he has been all along” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 12). We can take this to mean that by the repetition of Eucharist, the individual becomes him- or herself, a member of the body of Christ—the being which, as a child of God, he or she has been all along, and indeed is still becoming every day and in each gathering. It is the same journey—the same liturgy—that has been engaged by Christians for centuries, and so retains a link to the past while perpetually becoming new into the future.
On the path of liturgy, we face the uncertainty that marks any journey, even familiar ones. And we must be open to possible detours or obstacles we meet along the way, or else never leave home at all. The text of the liturgy, “as a ‘work,’ unfolds before the reader as a possibility” (Chauvet 1995, 68). And it is the repeated return to the possibility of permutation that allows the Eucharist to do its deconstructive work.
St. Lydia’s, a dinner church in Brooklyn, is one place where the possibilities of the path of liturgy are being explored.
Lydians gather to set a table and prepare a meal. Celebration of the Eucharist runs through the entire gathering: the preparation of the food, the breaking of bread to open the meal, the time shared in conversation over dinner, the reading of scripture and the sharing of a sermon, communal responses to the scripture and sermon, offering of prayers, reading of poetry, the sharing of the cup, and the clean-up that closes the time together. All aspects of the gathering are understood as the unfolding of the Eucharist.
The repetition of preparation, celebration, and conclusion (with an invitation to return) occurs in a context that shifts with each gathering. We never know who we will share table with, or where the conversation will go. Although we may know the path, we don’t know who we will encounter there, and how these encounters may alter what we think we know about the path itself. As Caputo observes, “Even to repeat “exactly the same thing” is to repeat it in a new context which gives it new sense” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 142).
In some ways, there is a comfortable predictability to dinner at St. Lydia’s, yet this is a path without guardrails. To share this meal is to become open to the known and unknown Other, the possibility of encountering someone new at the table (or in ourselves), the possibility of encountering something difficult, something that may change what we think we know and who we think we are, to be open to the ever-present possibility of encountering the presence of something real.
When people come to the table, they create space for the possibility of something deeper than historical recollection to occur in this meal.
Liturgy creates a rupture in the everyday where we are faced with the presence of the absence of God and are invited to recognize that we may fill this space as the body of Christ. The trick is to abide in the absence willingly, because the absence is where truth may be found.
Referring to the disciples who greet Jesus as a stranger on the Road to Emmaus and their meal with him in which he is revealed, Louis-Marie Chauvet points out that “their eyes are opened to an emptiness—‘he vanished from their sight’—but an emptiness full of presence” (Chauvet 1995, 170). The moment these disciples truly see and experience that it is Jesus who is present is the moment he vanishes. This negative theophany returns in the eucharistic liturgy, where the presence of Jesus is experienced in the broken bread, in the poured out cup, in the gaps that appear to make space for the possibility of the event.
Chauvet calls the liturgy a “powerful pedagogy where we learn to consent to the presence of the absence of God, who obliges us to give him a body in the world, thereby giving the sacraments their plenitude in the ‘liturgy of neighbor’” (Chauvet 1995, 265). It is in the participation in Eucharist where we may meet the actual, living, risen Christ—in and as the bodies of those gathered with us. In the absence of the presence of a first-century prophet or a transcendent ontological being , there is actually space for God among us, between us, in our bodies, as our bodies, as we partake in the bread that is Christ’s body. Christ’s being is contingent on the communion of his human brothers and sisters, which may bring his true humanity into being.
Christ’s resurrection cannot be separated from the witness of his people, meaning that when Christians gather and receive the elements in the liturgy of the sacrament, they respond to the call of the event of the resurrection of Jesus among them. His body may become alive in their bodies; their bodies becoming as one body—his body. The repeated and shared language of liturgy enacts the somatic efficacy of the elements. “To theologically affirm sacramental grace is to affirm, in faith, that the risen Christ continues to take flesh in the world and in history and that God continues to come into human corporality” (Chauvet 1995, 490).
Early in the service at St. Lydia’s, we light candles and carry them with us as we gather around the tables where we will share a meal that evening. As we stand in a circle, the presider chants the words of institution. At this moment, all attention is focused on the presider, who holds the bread as she reminds us of the one who is absent, the one in whose name we have gathered. Just as at Emmaus, as soon as this name is invoked and this memory evoked, the bread is broken and passed away from the presider to the congregants with the words, “This is my body.” In this manner, the broken bread is circulated from person to person. The focus now is no longer on the presider, or the absence in the middle of the circle in which we stand, but on those who compose the circle and who share the bread.
Each person wears a nametag and so is spoken to by name: “Keegan, this is my body.” Each in turn addresses their neighbor by name as they turn to share the bread. This movement disrupts the notion of the Eucharist as otherworldly and locates it in the reality of the space between two people as they give and receive the bread.
More than just leaving the door open for the Other to walk through, to call our neighbor by name is to engage them more directly than simply allowing for their presence. Using the person’s name recognizes their substantial, particular materiality, pulling the liturgy out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who enact it, with all their dis/abilities, imperfections, limitations, flaws, and fragmentations.
The conspicuousness of the nametag and the brief pause as one glances at the name written there are reminders that though we call each other by name, we still remain strange to each other in some way. Though this may be a more direct engagement, there is still a significant unknown (and to some degree unknowable) aspect of the neighbor. In these gaps of knowledge between each other (and ourselves) is where there is possibility for surprise.
So even in the Realization of the Presence of the absent Christ in the presence of the neighbor, there yet remains an absence, a “to come,” the nondeconstructable Real Presence that breaks in and breaks down and breaks open anything that would contain the event harbored in the Eucharist.
The most effective way to expose the underlying deconstruction that occurs within the Eucharist—that is, the breaking open of our insular lives in order to receive the trace of Christ’s real presence among us—is to break down the text of the liturgy itself. Challenging and altering norms of the liturgy enables us to dissect and explore the insides of the ritual to see what is real in the sharing of the sacrament. Freedom to manipulate the signs and creatively rethink traditional practices encourages play in the way participants interact with the liturgy. Like a piece of art in a gallery, the Table can be returned to indefinitely, by fresh eyes each time, to be interpreted and experienced anew, and indeed the artist can learn more about her piece from its viewers than perhaps she ever intended.
As Caputo says, “It is not when signs have been put to work that their usefulness is established for Derrida but when they have been put into play” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 138). A fixed mediation (i.e. unmovable orthodox sacrament) hinders the “play” of the sign/symbol, and therefore obscures its meaning and its efficacy. Steven Shakespeare explains that “Derrida seems to embrace the dissolution of all structuralist ambitions toward certainty. Instead, he turns to the ‘play’ of the chance and the inventive, the open-ended and mobile metaphors that frustrate our systematic desires for totalizing knowledge” (Shakespeare 2009, 49-50). When we play with our rituals, we allow the sacraments we experience within them to play as well, and therefore allow their call to be heard.
This opportunity—indeed this necessity—to let go of the certainty of established norms in order to engage with the play of potentialities can be frightening, uncomfortable, or seem downright wrong. Chauvet asks, “Can we consent to leave the solid, reassuring ground of our represented foundation and the stable, fixed point in order to let ourselves go toward this demanding letting-be in which we find ourselves out of our depth?” (Chauvet 1995, 51). And the answer, if we are to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ among us, in us, and as us, must be Yes.
In many ways, St. Lydia’s is all about play. Play is where children learn how to be in the world, and how to explore new worlds. Play is where the impossible, the not yet, and the to-come cast their shadows.
Dinner at St. Lydia’s is a playful encounter between traditions of liturgy and traditions of dinner, with neither tradition escaping unaltered. Inasmuch as liturgy at St. Lydia’s relocates liturgy in a different setting, and makes room for new events within that setting by allowing for surprises in conversation and shared reflections, it disrupts and opens up traditional liturgy while engaging that same tradition.
The impossible is a boundary. Play teaches us to transgress boundaries. To pretend, to act “as if”. Play brings new possibilities to light, as well as newly possible impossibilities. Play takes the boundary, the impossible, as its toy, pushing it, throwing it, taking it to pieces, building with it, smashing it, setting it on fire. The impossible, like a toy, can’t be taken seriously, can’t be treated as sacred. The impossible, like a toy, opens up when played with. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is only when it is forgotten that it becomes real.
Each encounter with liturgy at St. Lydia’s is an invitation to play. Play with the recipe. Play with the music. Engage in playful conversation. Play with the scripture. Listen to the wordplay in the poetry shared. Pray in response to this play.
The entirety of an evening at St. Lydia’s, from preparing and sharing a meal to helping in clean up, is play. Play at being the kind of people and community we are called to be, called by the insistence of the Eucharist to manifest a Real Presence. Called to bring into existence what the Eucharist insists on. Called to be a community that is already and not yet.
In deconstructing the liturgy of Eucharist to allow it to exercise its own deconstruction, we witness the formation of a community-without-community—a broken gathering of broken people. Caputo says that “deconstruction is hospitality, which means the welcoming of the other” (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997, 109-110). By breaking open the patterns of the everyday and its ingrained societal hierarchies and barriers, we make space for welcoming the Other, and being welcomed ourselves. In the Eucharist we who are many partake in the becoming of one body, for we share in the one bread, broken—for us and by us—because “only if there is something that ruptures our communion can we really communicate” (Shakespeare 2009, 104).
Rupture permits unity. This unity is not homogenized or unfaceted, but a unity in which the difference of each individual is preserved. The Other remains an Other even as we together become Christ’s one body, because Eucharist as deconstruction is a repeated “Let the Other come!” which constantly reminds us that we are strangers who come together. Rather than a Hegelian unity-in-difference, Eucharist displays what could be called a Derridean difference-in-unity. In the unity of the deconstructed Table that harbors the deconstructing call of the undeconstructable Real Presence, we maintain and celebrate our differences—true hospitality allows for and encourages difference. And this is difficult hospitality, a pushing past the limits of a superficial welcome. It is the madness of the excess of the unrepayable gift, and it is, as Derrida says, the impossible. Hospitality never “exists,” it is always becoming. But we can catch glimpses of it in our becoming the body of Christ at the Table (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997).
Even in the unity of the Church, “disharmonious voices” flourish with the permission of the “violence” of deconstruction. Without deconstruction, as Steven Shakespeare says, “the dream of perfect peace is also a nightmare in which every disharmonious voice is suppressed” (Shakespeare 2009, 92). The disharmony of the community-without-community of the Eucharist is demonstrated at Pentecost, the “anti-Babel,” when each person hears his or her own language—not all the same one (Chauvet 1995, 522). When our differences are deconstructed by the elements at the Table, we can embrace them not as accidents that keep us apart, but as differences that allow us to be gathered together repeatedly into a unified community of differences. A community-without-community. A “we who cannot say we,” but can say “Oui, oui” to the stranger, to the event.
In a city known for its simultaneous embrace of diversity (in the abstract) and indifference to the other (in actuality), St. Lydia’s exists as a place of rupture that permits unity.
Deconstruction is hospitality, and St. Lydia’s is predicated on radical hospitality. Not the “hospitality” of a host welcoming invited guests, but the more difficult hospitality of a genuinely open door and open table. Once we have come together with the stranger, our various backgrounds don’t determine the roles we play. Cooking and cleaning need to be done and all are welcome and needed to get the work done. Or at least one hopes for this kind of hospitality and equality. In practice, our habits of inhospitality and domination are hard to break. This is one more reason we return again and again to this work together.
The reality of difference-in-unity is that different circles may practice the deconstruction of liturgy in different ways. ikonNYC, another group meeting in Brooklyn, offered an approach to breaking the daily pattern of inhospitality that was different than St. Lydia’s. For the past year, ikonNYC met monthly to create a space where certainties were given enough air to breathe (and rust), where beliefs were exposed (and allowed to rot) and where participants were encouraged to set fire to what they held sacred, sifting the ashes together to see what remained, what was lost, and what was transformed.
At ikonNYC, this transformative work was done in a space of identity-suspension. Identity-suspension differs from the work of Eucharist discussed above. In Eucharist, we gather in a space of difference-in-unity. At ikonNYC, we found it necessary to embrace unity-in-difference as a precondition to embracing difference-in-unity. Temporary suspension allowed for radical hospitality: as beliefs and identities were set aside, all who came to ikonNYC found themselves together as “outsiders”, the “trash of the world”, with no “inside” to enter or guard. This was a “we who could not say we.” Suspending the identities that set us apart in difference and embracing unity as the trash of the world allowed us to resume our lives and return to our identities, but holding them loosely, achieving a difference-in-unity enriched by our experience of unity-in-difference.
As with St. Lydia’s, Eucharist was the focus of ikonNYC. And in Eucharist difference-in-unity was celebrated. The real event unfolded after each month’s liturgical event was presented, as people were invited to gather for Eucharist: this was a time for conversation over food and drink, a time to share reactions to and experiences of the liturgy. In this communion, people transitioned from the space of identity-suspension and unity-in-difference, to a space of difference-in-unity. Here, they began to establish the ways in which their experience that night connected with their experience of difference in their lives. In the same way that calling our neighbor by name at St. Lydia’s makes liturgy real, this was the moment when the liturgy was pulled out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who experienced it.
As we return time and again to the Table, repetition of Eucharist brings us back to an ancient and well-worn path, where we may encounter the deconstructing Real Presence in the strangeness of the Other. Eucharist produces a rupture in routine, and provides a space of radical hospitality in which a community of difference-in-unity may begin to emerge. This work is never complete, never arrives at its goal, is always open to what is “to come.” Take and eat.
Caputo, John D., ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.
—. Radical Hermeneutics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.
—. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.
Chauvet, Louis Marie. Symbol and Sacrament. Translated by Madeleine E. Beaumont Patrick Madigan. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1995.
Shakespeare, Steven. Derrida and Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2009.