My past week at McGill (27-31 October), has been eventful to say the least. I’ve had the opportunity of attending the Annual Birks Lecture Series (2008), a Doktorclub, as well as two classes (one grad and one under-grad. As much as I would like to report on each one in detail, I’ve noticed that I just do not have the time for detailed reflection. What follows below is a brief summary of the Birks Annual lecture, and if I have time I’ll deal with other events in another post.

BIRKS ANNUAL LECTURES – 2008

The Birks lectures are hosted annually by the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, in the Birks Heritage Chapel (since the 1950s I think!).  This year’s annual Birks Lectures was titled “Beyond Religious Exclusivism and Cultural Pluralism: The Christic Achievement of Language” by Prof. Gabriel Vahanian (on the 27th and 28th October, 2008).

Vahanian, some people may know, was one of the main spokespersons of the “Death of God” movement in the mid-20th century. His lectures were in two parts, dealing with the phrase “Wording the world” and “worlding the word”, where the “word” refers to the idea of “God’s word” as in the Bible, and the world refers to everything else. His key point was that there IS (or there is becoming) a disintegration of the separation of the “world” and the “word” categories, with each evident in the other. In effect, there is no God (word) without the world, and there is no world without the word.

Primarily, (and now this is my reading), assuming the new “Death of God” thesis, in that there is no way we can talk about God outside language (ie. no bird’s eye view of God and the world), ((which basically seems to be a Kantian thesis that has been clarified through postmodern thought by the emphasis on language))… the use of ‘sacred’ language is blurred in the political/social “world”,  while the social/political etc world also uses sacred language.  To this extent that the verbal distinctions between the world and the word are fast fading (or have already faded) away.

An example of “the wording the world” is an extension of the “word becoming flesh”, and this is evident through the ‘religious’ language of worldly thought including politics etc. The separation of God from the state, is not actually achieved and rather the “word” is evident in a variety of worlds that intentionally or unintentionally see the word the the world.

An example of the inverse, “the worlding the word” is an extension of the “priesthood of all believers” where the distinction between sacred and secular spaces, within the sacred, are disappearing. In effect, if all are priests, then no one is (that kind of thing).

Is that clear enough? Well, that’s literally the best I can do. Because the first lecture especially was quite unclear (because Vahanian) read his paper on a feedback-y mic system, a paper that was filled with twisted phrases that after a while become rather pedantic. While the second lecture, though clearer, seemed to repeat the same point, inversely.

But it was hard to see the point in all Vahanian’s assertions especially if one removed the ontological referent. To the extent that he said, “God is not without the world” made no sense because God, to him, is  a linguistic construct (and I assume he is openly agnostic about the actuality of God behind the linguistic construct). If “God” is just a word, why were we investing so much time saying what seemed to be obvious, that God/secular divide is mythic? He had closed the first lecture with the words “forgiveness and reconciliation” and yet it was hard to see them, as anything but words without even the possibility of it be substantively real in any way.

I do feel that Vahanian was trying to being “stirring” in that he felt he was saying something substantial (without the assertion of ontological substance). And when one questioner asked about his view of God, he promptly (cheekily said) he had “none.” And almost defensively (to show that he had been thinking about this question even before it was asked” went on to say “the word God is in the dictionary… I have the right to use it.”

And so I left the lectures not so much stimulated as much as clear that for Christians the concept/doctrine ‘revelation’ as word becomes key in this mileu because it assumes (through faith) the ontological reality of God behind the words. Granted that these words remain words, but faith allows us to “believe the words” and thus make the existential leap of faith to claim to have direct contact with the true Word. This kind of experience of faith, which even Derrida knew could not be deconstructed (except when it is codified in language as it is being right now even by me), is I guess the Christian intellectual response to the linguistic mess. And a mess it remains, because the Vahanian kind of assertions make none of us any wiser, as it states and restates the obvious with truisms that have been circling the academia for half a century and perhaps even more clearly said by others.

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