Letting God Go: Further Remarks on Jan-Luc Nancy


“Let go, and let God.”  That saying, popular in Twelve Step recovery groups and various other contemporary circles, begins to take on new, unexpected meaning when heard with ears tuned by reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s Noli me tangere:  On the Raising of the Body, translated by Sarah Clift, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2008). 

Noli me tangere,” Latin for “Do not touch me,” is what Christ says in the Gospel of John when he appears to Mary outside the empty tomb on the first Easter morning.  Nancy’s reading of that line and, with it, of the entire Christian doctrine of “the resurrection of the body” in the title essay of the book is part of his larger project of “deconstructing Christianity.” 

By “deconstructing” Christianity Nancy does not at all mean tearing Christianity apart in order to crush it as an enemy or infamy, as Voltaire once famously called for doing.  Rather, he means carefully loosening Christianity from the encrustations beneath which centuries of abuse, most (and certainly the most devastating) of which has been at the hands of Christians themselves, have buried it.  His project is, therefore, not one of eliminating Christianity, but one of recovering it–or what remains of it after all the abuse it has suffered–by undoing as much of the covering over, the avoidance, denial, distortion, and silencing, to which it has been insistently and repeatedly subjected, most violently and repeatedly by those who have claimed to be acting in its name and for its own good (an all too common refrain among abusers in general, of course).  To use my own way of putting it, what he is trying to do is to clear obstructions out of the way so that the trauma which is Christianity can at last and again come back to traumatize us.   

In his reading of Jesus’s command to Mary not to touch him, Nancy emphasizes that the same line can also be and has also been rendered, “Do not hold me.”  Do not, that is, try to keep hold of me, do not cling onto me.   Instead, let me go, both now and later, when I complete my going “to the Father.”  That is, by Nancy’s reading, Mary is told not to try to hold onto divinity or God, as though the divine, as though God, were some sort of actual or acquirable “property” one might, legitimately or not, lay claim to.  Rather, to let God be God is to give up all efforts to make God into anyone’s personal property–or anyone’s community’s property,  for that matter, no matter how small or how large that community may be, all  the way up to  the universal community of all human beings, or all sentient beings, or even all beings,  period.  To let God be God is to let God go, to let the divine depart, to be set apart in its departure, ab-solute, that is,  absolved from, disencumbered by, released from all relations, and all possible or actual claims that might be build upon such relations. 

By Nancy’s reading, the very divinity of the divine is such shining presence beyond all being present, the very presence of what can never be brought to presence, what always departs, giving  itself only in and as that very departure. 

By at least one traditional Christian reading, Jesus’s command to Mary not to touch him is the command of God as such, since Jesus is God (at least as one of the three Persons of the Trinity).  Especially if the very divinity of the divine, of God, lies in the giving of itself in and as departure, nothing more fitting, as it were, of God could be said, God “in person” could not say anything more God-like, than the command to let God go, not to cling to God, as though to something one might somehow, God knows how, make one’s own.  

Accordingly, to let God Godself go would be the only way to obey God and, thereby, to let God be God.  In other words, to head the advice or command,  whichever it may be, to “let go and let God” would mean first, last, and always to let God Godself go:  Let go, and in that letting go, as that letting go, let God Godself go–let God depart, let God take off, rise up, and fly away, let God leave.  

So understood, then, to “let go and let God” would be nothing more–but also nothing less–than to let God go.  Here, at last, when we have come to  a place where we can and must let God go, we find ourselves at that remote or desolate place, that desert and deserted place, where ecumenism becomes expansive enough to include not just all Christian denominations, or even all “faith traditions” whatever, including all polytheistic ones, but also all non-traditional traditions and traditions of no tradition at all, so that even atheists, anti-theists, and the utterly indifferent can join hands with all the rest of us, if there are any.

 Nancy plays upon the ambiguity of the French phrase for “raising of the body,” la levée du corps, which can mean resurrection but is used as well to mean the lifting of the corps of the dead person to carry it from the mortuary to the burial site.  For Nancy, that delivery of the dead to their graves is, in effect, the very meaning of “resurrection” itself.  He is insistent in rejecting any reading of the resurrection that would make it tantamount to the resuscitation of a corpse.  Like many Christian theologians themselves, both Protestant (for example, Jürgen Moltmann) and Catholic (for example, Moltmann’s Tübingen colleague Hans Küng)–and, I am sure, Orthodox, though I am not well enough read in Orthodox theology to name them–Nancy dismisses that idea altogether.  For him, resurrection is no such resuscitation.  Rather, resurrection is the letting go of the departed into departure.

The “empty tomb” in the Christian Gospel stories means precisely, in his reading, such ineradicable, not-to-be-held-back departure.  For him the resurrection is (pages 15-16) “not a magical trick.”  Rather:  “It is the very opposite:  the dead body remains dead, and that is what creates the ’emptiness’ of the tomb, but the body that theology will later call ‘glorious’ (that is, shining in the brilliance of the invisible) reveals that this emptiness is really the emptying out of presence.”  A bit later on the same page he writes:  “Death is not ‘vanquished’ here, in the sense religion all too hastily wants to give this word.  It is immeasurably expanded, shielded from the limitation of being a mere demise.  The empty tomb un-limits death in the departing of the dead.  He is not ‘dead’ once and for all:  he dies indefinitely.”  Nancy reiterates this point again on the next page (17):  “The resurrection is not a return to life.  It is the glory at the heart of death:  a dark glory, whose illumination merges with the darkness of the tomb.  Rather than the continuum of life passing through death, it is a matter of the discontinuity of another life in or of death.”  One more page later (18) he repeats the same idea yet again, arguing that the “lifting” or “raising” of the body is “not . . . a Hegelian Aufhebung.”  It isnot a dialectics of death.”  Nor, he continues, “does it mediate death.”  Rather:  “It makes the truth of a life rise in it, the truth of all life insofar as it is singular.  It is vertical truth, incommensurable with the horizontal order in which dead life is reduced to material remains.”  On page 26 Nancy sums up as follows: 

The risen body remains earthly and in the shadow:  its glory does not belong to it and the resurrection is not an apotheosis; to the contrary,  it is the kenosis [“self-emptying” of God, first in creation of the world, then, in the person of Jesus, who, according to Paul, did not boast of his equality with the Father, but so completely humbled himself as to take on human form and eventually accept even death on the cross, the inglorious death reserved for the lowest of criminals against the power of Rome] continued.  It is in the emptiness or the emptying out of presence that the light shines.  And this light does not fill in that emptiness but hollows it out even more . . .

In turn, to trust in the resurrected one, the risen one, is to exercise a faith that Nancy distinguishes sharply from all belief, from all “contents,” as Heidegger also and already called them in his 1920-21 lecture course at the University of Marburg, “Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion” (in The Phenomenology of Religious Life, translated by Matthias Fritsch and Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencie, Bloomington and Indianapolis:  University of Indiana Press, 2004), where Heidegger insists that the authentic sense of the letters of Paul can only be found, not in their specific “contents” (Wasgehalt), but only in what he calls their “relational-sense” (Bezugssinn), inclusive of their “enactment-sense” (Vollzugssinn), the sense they take on when their relational-sense is brought to fulfillment in life-praxis.

The same notion, I would argue, is to be found in what William Faulkner puts in the mouth of Nancy Mannigoe, the black housekeeper and nurse for Temple Drake’s two children, in Requiem for a Nun, his eventual sequel to Sanctuary.  Accompanied by Gavin Stevens, the attorney uncle of her husband, the mature Temple of Requiem visits Nancy in the jail cell where she is awaiting execution for the murder of both Temple’s children–an act Nancy has performed, paradoxically, out of love for the children and, especially, for Temple herself, to save the latter from sin.  Calmly facing her own pending death, Nancy maintains that it was only an unshakable “belief” that allowed her, not only to take on such a horrifying deed, but also, having performed it, to face her own death with peace and confidence.  When first Gavin, then later Temple press Nancy to articulate just what she believes, Nancy refuses to tie her belief to any specific contents, and answers that she “just believes.”

Interestingly, just a few days ago I read a line from yet another, very different author–different in significant ways from Nancy, Heidegger, and Faulkner, all three, though sharing some features with each.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her recent book Leaving Church:  A Memoir of Faith (New York:  HarperCollins, 2006), tells the story of her own journey of faith.  Her story leads her, in young adulthood, to join the Episcopal church.  In time, she goes on to become an Episcopal priest.  Eventually, she comes to serve as rector of her own congregation, only later to leave that post and even, in at least one sense, the Episcopal church as such–all of it as a matter of her continued growth in, and/or exerciseof, faith.  About that difficult decision to “leave” her church, she writes (page 111) that she felt called upon to  do so because:   “I wanted to recover the kind of faith that has noting to  do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything.” 

Compare Nancy, on what he calls “belief,” as contrasted to what he calls “faith,” when he writes (page 22):  “Belief waits for the spectacular and then invents it when needed.  Faith consists in seeing and hearing where there is nothing exceptional for the ordinary eye and ear.  It knows to see and to hear without tampering [sans y toucher].   Returning to the same point a few pages later (pages 28-29), he uses the example of “the disciple (John himself) who ‘sees and believes’ before the empty tomb with the abandoned bandages and shroud.”  According to Nancy:  “He understands without seeing, but nothing is said of the content of his faith.  It is as if this faith consisted in trusting the emptiness as such, without searching for what has become of the dead.” 

Later (pages 39-40), Nancy even goes so far as to identify such faith in emptiness itself with “goodness.”  Concerning the long popular tradition wherein Mary Magdalene is so often assumed to be a woman of ill-repute, as the saying goes, he writes that such an assumption “answers to the following paradox:  the ‘good life’ is not a life that conforms to good morals (one can also think of the adulterous woman, the prodigal son, etc.) but is that which, in this very life and in this world, keeps  itself in close proximity to what is not of  this world:  to this outside of the world that is the emptiness of  the tomb and the emptiness of god, the emptiness opened up within or as ‘God’ by the birth of man, by the birth of the world.”


I wrote the passages below in my philosophical journal on the dates indicated.  Together with what I have written above, they give the gist of what I so far have to say about Nancy’s book on the resurrection.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

In the question and answer session with the children after his talk to them, “In Heaven and On Earth,” p. 97 [in Noli me tangere:  On the Raising of the Body]:  “. . . the Jewish religion awaits the Messiah, who will be sent by God, and Christianity says that the Messiah has already come, and that he is Jesus.  Now I might very well say, if we had the time, that the fact that the Messiah has come does not mean that  he has truly come.”

That makes me think of Rosenzweig, for one.  He and Nancy share an insistence on the autonomy of  each “religion” here, yet also share an  insistence on their belonging together–and insight into how they do so.

It strikes me that related to Nancy’s insight might be the notion that the Christ “to come” of the Christian formula, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” can and must be different in identity with the one who has died and is risen. And Judaism can be seen as the refusal to close that gap, against what would  happen–the total closure of that gap = the gap of the Event itself–if Christianity were left on its own.  Indeed, Judaism would also collapse into a black hole of itself, were it not in polemic relation to Christianity.  In that way, each “religion” can only be  itself in enmity-relation with the other.


In the second piece [of the book], “Mary Magdalene,” p. 57: 

She is not a sinner because she prostitutes herself; it is the other way around:  she prostitutes herself because she is a sinner.  She is a sinner because she does not know love.  She does not know love because she is abandoned.  She is abandoned because she is far from God.  She is far from God because she is a creature, a part of creation.

However, in encountering Jesus (washing his feet with oil and drying them with her hair), “She ceased to be in sin” (p. 59).  Her open love for him cleanses her of her sin.

In turn (same page), she loves him only because she experiences herself as loved by him.  In her meeting him, “The love that had abandoned her returns to her in her abandonment.”  (“For,” he goes right on to say,”love cannot love unless it can go all the way to where it is lost, to where it got lost.”)  A little later he adds that in leaving sin behind by loving in the capacity awakened by his loving her, she becomes (pp. 59-60) “as pure as the other Mary,” that one free of sin, who is a “sign of exception so as to point out from within abandon or abandonment [e.g., “loving with abandon,” as we say] the hidden face of abandonment itself, the face that abandonment never completely abandons.”

Then, as the resurrected Christ finally, after showing himself to her, goes to the Father, he sends her far away as well (p. 60):  “He goes away and she goes away [letting one another be only in such leaving of one another!], the one like the other set free while leaving:  set free from wanting to be free [my emphasis], set free from wanting to be themselves.”


Previously, in his “Prologue” to begin the title piece (“Noli me tangere”), he articulates a notion of the Gospel itself as parable, and of the difference of parable from allegory, that reminds me again of Rosenzweig (his insistence that the Song of Songs is not at all “symbolic”).  P. 4:  Jesus’s life, and the telling of that life in the Gospels (or, I’d say, in all subsequent retellings of that story), “is a representation of the truth that he claims himself to be.  But that does not simply [i.e., at all,  really] mean that life illustrates an invisible truth:  rather, this life is precisely the truth that appears [se présent] in being represented [se représentant].”

Here (still p. 4), “truth itself becomes parabolic,” wherein this very life is seen–by those given eyes to see (to which he soon turns)–to be/as truth.  Nancy remarks: 

A thought that conceives of revelation as bringing to light a hidden reality or as deciphering a mystery is only the religious or believing modality (in the sense of a form or representation or subjective knowledge) of Christianity or or monotheism in general.  But in its deep, nonreligious and nonbelieving structure (or in accordance with the auto-deconstruction [Isn’t that, finally, pleonastic?] of religion that it puts into play [cf. Vattimo]), ‘revelation’ constitutes the identity of the revealable and the revealed, of the ‘divine’ and the ‘human’ or the ‘worldly.’ “

Here, one has (still p. 4) “the identity of the image and the original.”  Thus does the long sovereignty of the image, as I call it, at last end.

P.9:  “. . . the parable waits for the ear that knows how to  hear it and . . . only the parable can open the ear to  its own ability to hear it.”  Thus, the parable “both brings the capacity to hear–the ears to hear–to first be, and is what is heard in the exercise of that capacity.”

Following this, he distinguishes here (p. 10) and elsewhere (e.g., in the session with the children of “In Heaven and on Earth” [later in the book]) between “faith” and “belief,” using the latter to mean rigidification into specific contents of belief, I’d say, and identifies religion with such belief.  That gives him, he thinks, grounds to write:  “[W]hat thus distinguishes belief from faith is identical to what distinguishes religion from literary art, provided we hear these terms in all their truth.”

Yet, I’d say, one could draw distinctions a bit differently here.  Thus, I’d follow Vattimo and, even more importantly, Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun, by moving to free the very notion of belief of all set reference to a fixed content.

Regardless, however, of such differences on how the points are best articulated, I am point for point in full agreement with Nancy.


In n. 4, p. 108, Nancy notes the intentional ambiguity of his phrase “deconstruction of Christianity,” whereby it can mean

an analysis of Christianity–from a position presumed to be beyond it –as well as the displacement, with modifications, proper to Christianity. . . . It is essentially a matter of the following:  not only does Christianity detach and exempt itself from the strictly religious, but it also marks out intaglio, beyond itself, the place of  what will finally have to abandon the simplistic alternative of theism or atheism [my emphasis].  In fact, this deconstruction is at work, in various modalities, throughout the monotheism of the “religions of the Book” as a whole.  This work always corresponds to the following:  the “One” god is no longer precisely “one god.”


In the body of his text, after his prologue, Nancy gives/follows such a deconstruction “of” (that is, by and about) the notion of “resurrection,” for one.  That is a matter of not missing the (pp. 15-16) “nonreligious meaning” of that term: 

What for religion is the renewal of a presence that bears the phantasmatic assurance of immortality is revealed here to be nothing other than the departing into which presence actually withdraws, bearing its sense in accordance with this parting. . . . “Resurrection” is the uprising [surrection], the sudden appearance of the unavailable, of the other and of the one disappearing [the word he uses also can mean dying] in the body itself and as the body. . . . This uprising or insurrection is a glory that [reveals itself and only reveals itself in and as it] devotes itself to disappointing you and to pushing your outstretched hand away.

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