Prayer After the Death of God, Part II (Ashley [Gay] Graham)

The following is the second part in a two-part installment. The first part can be found here.

III. Prayer As Confession: Thinking in love

This abandonment is not a permanent void; rather, it demonstrates the Eckhartian notion of leaving behind beings not because they are insufficient, but because they are allusions, traces, references to love.[1] Here Derrida would echo that the Name, like any other limited being, “record[s] the referential transcendence…a prayer, too, a testimony of love, but an ‘I love you’ on the way to prayer and to love, always, on the way.”[2] To record and reference what transcends is to hold in language the shadows.

Again, it is holding what cannot be possessed, or paradoxically owing what exceeds economics.[3] Prayer is not symmetrical exchange (“the most formal economical” expression of negative theology) but rather disproportionate conversation; the call of the Other will always exceed and precede the self as response.

This paradoxical notion of outstripping economics by “giving what one does not have” attracts Levinas’ ethics as an a priori obligation to give to the other one’s life. It also underwrites Derrida’s quasi-ethical exposition in The Gift of Death. Here, death is not the gift that can be given or taken; my death is my responsibility and also the possibility that institutes “giving and taking….In the name [of death] giving and taking become possible.”[4] Because of the Name of Death, giving and taking can be an event.

But how to reconcile the Name of Death (the event that makes possible even as it resists economy) with a prayer in the Name of God (the event that makes possible exchange, even though it offers no-thing)? What distinct gifts do they bear—what events do they make possible? Is there not a difference between the gift of death that makes us responsible and the gift of life that turns us toward—makes us desire—kenotic love?

Let us return to Caputo’s text, where weak theology meets the Death of ‘God’ and the Name of God, summoning and subverting both by the event of prayer. He summarizes: “A theology of event, then…neither guarantees the future of the name nor manages to proffer a new name in its place but prepares us prayerfully, per impossible, for the coming of something unforeseeable.”[5] Just as the particularities of our death, its event of gifting, is unforeseeable, this God, this Name bound in the finitudes of words and contingencies of concepts is, for Caputo, yet unknown.

So why should one bother to pray or relate to an unknown that is conceptually as indistinguishable, as mysterious as death? In Caputo’s theology, prayer serves an undeniable desire while also easing our anxiety of mis-naming: we long for a God, but we do not wish to mess up, mis-read, misappropriate, mis-take. Theology of the abused.

If a Name resembles Khora, and the event resembles death—both would fail to account for the particularities of love. As Chretien might critique, “One cannot describe prayer without describing the power to whom it is addressed.”[6] Caputo would shirk at Chretien’s use of potency—but what of his point’s potential. There is, after all, a difference between acknowledging one’s deficiencies before a Wholly Other, and claiming that the Wholly Other is powerless. There is a difference between sheer limping and receiving my name’s blessing along with my limp.

Even Derrida suggests that prayer is an attempt to surpass negative theology.[7] Prayer, like God, cannot be thought, it must occur in particularities. It is not enough to simply “ask nothing”—prayer must also, simultaneously, “[ask] more than everything. It asks God to give himself rather than gifts.”[8]

But to pray this gift is to ask God’s giving: phenomenal revelation in the incarnation, kenotic destitution in the crucifixion, and the spirit’s indwelling at the ascension. It does not, of course, assume that God has given Himself definitively in these ways—nor does it preclude desire. To ask for God’s presence as gift is not to discount desire felt in God’s absence; rather, to ask for givenness, for the coming presence, is to swallow khora and vocalize one’s faith, one’s indeterminate hope, in prayer.

In some way, there is no room for fear in love, though there is much room for mystery. Perhaps Caputo’s prayers are an attempt to fear the not yet known; but in doing so, he romanticizes the deferral as the space for desire. Can there be a prayer that, like love, is restless until it finds rest in the Lover? This rest is not ease, it still includes Caputo’s suggestion that we perpetually “prepare the way” of the Lord, of the yet-to-arrive or lately departed guest.

But this is not to say that prayer is beyond apophantic truth claims. As Derrida points out, Pseudo-Dionysius “prays to God, not mammon.”[9] So perhaps we cannot wear (as we prepare) Christ’s excuse, “[We] know not what [we] do” or ‘we know not who is coming.’ We may not know in full at any given moment who is coming, but does this mean that we do not determine the preparations of our house based on certain expectations of the guest yet to come? Prayer, as Chretien would suggest and Caputo would exemplify, is a preparation of the space (khora) and the home (ousia)[10]: “‘Lord teach us to pray’…or also, ‘I believe! Come and help my unbelief!’”[11] The space is our grace, the home is our selves—where God knocks, or if need be, breaks and enters, in the night.

IV. Prayer as home(coming): Thinking as welcoming

We might thank Derrida that Marion’s notion of God’s saturating grace resembles khora: breaking the binaries of judgment, irreducible, untranslatable, anarchic. In this sense, khora perhaps retrieves its etymological connection with the pre-Socratic khthonios: the place beneath the surface of the soil that marks the grave as well as abundance. This khora space that resembles the khthonic place is neither beholden to the categories of good nor evil, neither being nor nothing. It is a reception that does not absorb, an embrace that does not consume. Perhaps this is why Derrida frames khora as that which

receives, so as to give place to them, all the determinations, but she/it does not possess any of them as her/its own. She possesses them, she has them, since she receives them, but she does not possess them as properties, she does not possess anything as her own. She ‘is’ nothing other than the sum or the process of what has just been inscribed ‘on’ her, on the subject of her, on her subject, right up against her subject, but she is not the subject or the present support of all those interpretations, even though, nevertheless, she is not reducible to them. Simply this excess is nothing, nothing that may be and be said ontologically.[12]

Derrida’s definition of khora closely resembles his discussion of the Name of God as illumined by Silesius. In “On the Name (Post-Scriptum),” Derrida dangles Silesius’ question: “What is God’s own proper? To pour forth in creation,/ To be the same in all times, to have, want, know nothing.” The first line speaks of a God who is through being, as if poured through the strainer of creation (or Marion’s “screen” of being) to be taken back up again into Himself, untainted by or dispossessing of being. Therefore, this God has no property (ousia). Like khora, this God is the very ground that is non-place, non-event that makes possible all other events.

Khora is without desire. As Derrida states in correcting Marion’s saturating God, “The khora does not desire anything, does not give anything. It is what makes taking place or an event possible. But the khora does not happen, does not give, does not desire. It is a spacing and absolutely indifferent.” [13] Thus, when Derrida’s khora begins to resemble Silesius’ God, it is no wonder that Derrida’s God is space, is difference—that which holds nothing, but is held open for God knows what.

It is this God that Caputo is attempting to pray toward—that is to say, it is this God that Caputo desires and summons when he prays. But it asks a simultaneous desire and denial: a praying with both hands in an attempt to follow T.S. Eliot’s admonition, and perhaps Derrida’s deferral, “I said to my soul be still and wait without hope/ For hope would be hope of the wrong thing;/ Wait without love/ For love would be love of the wrong thing.”[14] Caputo’s “come” reaches back into the “reservoir of the past” more than it is comfortable projecting the future.[15]

And yet, the future is not disregarded, it is simply un-regardable (perhaps not unlike Marion’s invisible presence at the edge of visibility, the icon). Caputo’s desirous “come” desires nothing in particular, but resembles the “first yes” of Silesius, of Derrida, “inscribed deep in our consciousness.”[16] At best, it is an excess of nothing that we cannot definitively hold, that rather, holds us. In this way, the first yes is the thirst of desire. And perhaps, on this point, Derrida and Caputo join St. Augustine, in the desert of desire, to pray, “Desire is praying always, even if the tongue is silent. If you desire always, you are praying always. When does prayer nod off to sleep? When desire grows cold.”[17]

Our part in prayer is to evoke a space as wide as the expanse between past and future, as wide as prayer’s invitation of the infinite into the finitudes of beings. In prayer, we are to resemble time’s invitation to space. Where negative theology attempts to create this open invitation—only prayer as an event and not simply its archive succeeds. Prayer may snap negative theology’s linguistic tug of war (or shake its apophatic arras).[18] Prayer may function as the surface that the Divine brushes; negative theology can only come in after to dust the fingerprints or trace, highlighting and erasing its evidence.

Prayer’s concession, its “Oui, oui,” gestures to a God who is the “first yes” perhaps only acknowledged as such in the pragmatics of praise and prayer.[19] As that which precedes and exceeds the flirtation of negative theology (withdrawing and overflowing language), prayer erupts as this third-dimensional space created between the said and unsayable, the mortal and the God, the finite and the infinite.[20] This space concedes and conditions the coming; as such it more resembles khora than the Heideggerian “chaos which also opens the yawning gulf of the abyss.”[21] The prayerful space does not drown out desire; its non-space/non-event topos takes on the aporias of the desert while not shunning our desire.

Lacoste grounds the human experience of an exceeding God in the relational expanse of liturgy—not simply worship, but rather any encounter of the Absolute Other at the margins of experience. One phenomenon that marks this liturgical relation (for Chretien and Lacoste) is prayer: the non-space that permits the finite to call the infinite. But how to exist as prayer—an inquiry that calls upon and responds to the Divine—while rooted in time, in space? It may imply the summons of a reverse prayer, an incarnation: the infinite entering space in order to call the finite. The infinity of human words to God meets the finitude of God’s Word among humanity.

In prayer, we form the world with our words, holding the earth within the orbit of our mouth. The being-before-God does so in prayer’s topological formlessness, its kenotic claim, “come” (a transposing of God’s “let there be.”) Prayer permits a Genesis 1 topology, but instead of God calling out, hovering, we respond, our words hovering over the surface of His depths. Prayer allows us an ekstasis that is radically interior (“an absolute transcendence that announces itself within”).[22]

Derrida, Ricoeur, Levinas, Irigaray, and Marion account for this asymmetry in their own ways: each trying to preserve the disproportion of call and response that Heidegger noted in his later writings on language.[23] Is God a secret half-heard and ever halving in retreat (Derrida) or an excess abundantly given (Marion)?

In either case, the surplus or the deficiency of the call requires the patience of time, the vigilance toward the other that prayer cultivates. Whether inundated with sound or straining to hear its softness, both actions (a response in themselves) require an attuned deciphering, a sifting and lifting of what is given, humbled always by what is with[/]held.

Marion frames God as the [w]hole—that which exceeds, shines through the irruptions of phenomenal givenness. Derrida frames God as the w[hole]—the spaces gaping in our systems, necessarily left open for God’s coming in the messianic fulfillment. Levinas might call this hole the rupture or tear of subjectivity, of totalities, in which the face serves as a placemarker for the Divine, its trauma and its trace. In Marion’s terms, this would be the icon shining through the idol, burning its contours by speaking through, saturating the phenomena that we are tempted to reduce.

In turn, when trying to combat this superabundant asymmetry of Marion’s hyperousia—Derrida frames the gift as hypo-ousia. Ousia, before its troublesome rendering as the Latin substantia, etymologically roots in practical notions. Heidegger strained Aristotle’s metaphysics through his practical ethics, recalling ousia as “household, property.”[24]

I recount this to state that all notice an umheimlichkeit-houseguest has broken, entered, and left being. How they account the traces of this guest and its coming may in the end be denominational differences or hermeneutical preferences. What resonates in their expressions is the noted de-centering. Prayer seems this in-breaking’s anamnestic enactment; its sacramental remembrance.

John Caputo begins his “Concluding Prayer” by enacting prayer: de-centering the self, relinquishing any tight-fist conceptual choke on thematized truth.[25] He opens by opening himself before the reader, before the Other of an unseen, though not unsolicited audience. Stepping forward, revealing himself: nearly every sentence beginning with “I am” until the halting, “But—.” Suddenly, as if hitting a wall we did not anticipate and one he cannot see,[26] the retreat, the backstep of apophasis, “confess[ing]”: “none of us…know who we are.”[27] It is as if he experiences the wounding encounter of alterity. Chretien would mark this event as a call that “recalls us [even as it is] a promise that keeps us beholden…giv[ing] us speech only by gripping us by the throat.”[28]

This simultaneous encounter that is both gift and grip founds the event of prayer, a prayer that has made Caputo prey.[29] Theology as an event or encounter is a way of acknowledging the presence of an alterity without rendering that presence as “understandable”, or denying its “perceptible” absence.[30] Again, God finds a safer ana-logy with time than with being. The “event” is a way of doing what negative theology can only cleverly posit in aphorisms. For as Anne Davenport recalls, in conversation with Chretien:

Prayer eludes the parameters of objectivity, it has the bewildering character of “an event, with light from elsewhere.”…The event of prayer, which manifests itself as a wound and as the suffering of a gift, cannot be constituted by the ego as its object. A paradigm for religious phenomena, prayer…manifests what in itself is undecidable: we suspect that “only a thought of love” harbors in its depth what thought as such is unable to master.[31]

Or, as Derrida might have it—prayer provides the dancing interplay, the unsettled, asymmetry that stretches consciousness, torn and wounded until the soul bleeds through, crying upon God at the margins of experience, in and on “the edge of language”—across the precipice that looks down on khora, the aporias of speech. Nevertheless, it is a God calling in absentia, in the opening, asking for a decision, a word as an event that ushers in justice by first stirring the voice, trembling the tears. Finitudes break under the “‘in-finity’ of ‘God’.”[32] ‘God’ on the way to God: beyond what can be said or summoned by the voice.

And yet, in prayer, the voice that calls to God unearths. By virtue of the prayer’s rupture and the addressee’s alterity, the voice is poised and hovers over where even the clever aphorisms of negative theology dare not go…though they may hurl themselves across, “over there, toward the name, toward the beyond of the name in the name. Toward what, toward he or she who remains—save the name.”[xxxiii] Apohatic theology, like deconstructed metaphysics, hurls its words by wounding them, nearly prayer-like, hoping that in the scars the “impossible takes place.”[34]

The question remains: is prayer simply the house, the space, that is no space, but that God no doubt enters? Though we lock our doors in thinking or tear our walls in deconstructing, we anticipate the Lord who asks us to seek, knock, that his door will be opened into us, unto us.

This is the same Lord, who upon returning, stands among us saying, “Peace be with you,” even “though the doors were locked.”[35] Thus, the event of the coming Name, for Caputo, can be intimated by the “name of God [which] is the name of an event, of an event that comes calling at our door, which can and must be translated into the event of hospitality.”[36] Perhaps, in this sense, prayer-thinking, not unlike poetry, can provide a space for the philosophical wagers (and theological visitors) of hermeneutical hospitality.

Ashley (Gay) Graham received her Ph.D. in Religion from Emory University and her Master’s in Theological Research from Andover Newton Theological School. Graham’s manuscript, “God’s Absence is Not Nothing: Thinking the Absolute Otherwise,” pursues the perennial question of God’s alterity as it pertains to the limits of thought and the corruptibility of institutions. 


[1] Caputo’s distinguishes between Heidegger’s flight from beings and Eckhart’s flight from the sensible world. In The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, Caputo suggests that Heidegger preserves Being’s purity by cutting it off from entities (beings). According to Caputo, Eckhart’s flight from creatures or creation is a move made in love. He writes, “It means that the soul no longer takes creatures as if they are something of themselves but only in reference to their primal being as ideas in the mind of God.” John D. Caputo. The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986), 144.

[2] “Sauf le nom,” 68.

[3] See, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “Self-Giving,” in Epilogue (San Francisco: St. Ignatius Press, 2004).

[4] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 44.

[5] “A Concluding Prayer,” 294.

[6] “Wounded Word,” 149.

[7] He writes, “Emptiness is essential and necessary to [negative theologians]. If they guard against this, it is through the moment of prayer or the hymn.” Derrida seems to suggest that prayer is what keeps them from ultimately living their apohasis as Husserlian crisis—the “forgetting of the full and originary intuition.” “Sauf le nom” 50-51.

[8] “Sauf le nom,” 56. Prayer guards against the emptiness of forgetting by replacing it with the kenosis of prayer’s faithful devotion. It is a kenosis in living (faith, hope, love) that betrays in some way their apophatic attempts at a sort of pseudo-intellectual-kenosis.

[9] “Apostles,” 190.

[10] I suggest ousia as home based on Heidegger’s own early gloss in his 1924 lecture, “Dasein und Wahrsein.” He returns to the Aristotelian use of ousia as one whose essence or being is “household, property, that which is environmentally available for use.” John van Buren, The young Heidegger: rumor of the hidden king (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 225.

[11] “Wounded Word,” 148. This entire essay on the phenomenology of prayer should be read between the lines of Caputo’s efforts, especially as it begins by delineating prayer as an encounter, an event, made to “appear and disappear” with even the “weakest and most dilute” forms of religiosity…namely Supervielle’s poem-prayer, “How surprised I am to be addressing you,/ My God, I who know not if your exist.”

[12] “Khora,” in On the Name, 99.

[13] Jacques Derrida as quoted in John Caputo, “Apostles,” 216.

[14] T.S. Eliot. “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets, http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets (accessed online March 7, 2011).

[15] “A Concluding Prayer,” 293.

[16] “A Concluding Prayer,” 289.

[17] Augustine, Essential Sermons, Vol. 3 (New York: New City Press, 2007), 130.

[18] As T.S. Eliot writes, “Houses live and die: there is a time for building/ And a time for living and for generation/ And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane…And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.” T.S. Eliot. “East Coker,” Four Quartets, http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets (accessed online March 7, 2011).

[19] “Apostles,” 197.

[20] In this way it resembles Anne Carson’s account of the topos that erupts from the paradoxical tension of Socrates. “Plato’s analogies are not flat diagrams in which one image (for example, gardens) is superimposed on another (the written word) in exact correspondence. An analogy is constructed in three-dimensional space. Its images float one upon the other without convergence: there is something in between, something paradoxical: Eros.” Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998), 145.

[21] “Khora,” 103.

[22] “Sauf le nom,” 70.

[23] See Jean-Louis Chretien’s exploration of Heidegger’s later works in “Call and Response”—his first essay in Call and Response, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004).

[24] John van Buren, 225.

[25] As he writes, “The event for me is not an object, but a matter for prayer,” “Concluding Prayer,” 283.

[26] “Hence the ill-advised decision to speak about God, which I would not have done were I not provoked (by who knows what).” Ibid., 284.

[27] Ibid., 283.

[28] “In calling us the call does not call us alone, but asks of us everything that voice is capable of saying…In his fourth ode, Claudel affirms it: “When I hear your call, there is not a being, not a man,/ not a voice that is not necessary to my unanimity.” He pursues: “Yet when you call me, not with myself alone must I answer, but with all of the being that surrounds me,/ A whole poem like a single word in the shape of a city within its walls, rounded like a mouth.” Such a yes, even when proclaimed by all things and all voices, would still be insufficient. It would still not amount to more than a mere “hosanna in the window-discarded day,”…The call that recalls us is also a promise that keeps us beholden; it gives us speech only by gripping us by the throat.” Call and Response, 32.

[29] Caputo writes, “I am praying to God, preyed upon by God, turned to God—by God.” This rhetoric echoes Chrétien’s description in, “A new characteristic is added to our description of prayer: the manifestation of self to the other by the word, that is, agonic speech that struggles for its truth, is an ordeal, a suffering God, a passion for God, a theopathy. Prayer is prey to its addressee. In measuring itself by God, prayer is speech that has always transgressed all measure, exceeded any ability to measure itself and know itself completely. In collapsing beneath him, prayer, like all lovers’ speech, bears the weight of giving itself, that is to say, of losing itself.” “The Wounded Word: The Phenomenology of Prayer,” 161. A version of this essay appeared long before Caputo’s Weakness of God, in Chrétien’s “La Parole Blessée” (Paris: Criterion, 1992). The resonance is too striking to be ignored.

[30] See Pseudo-Dionysius’ advice to Timothy, “my advice…is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge.” “Mystical Theology” in Pseudo-Dionysius: Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987), 135. This gestures toward Plato’s distinction of the sensible and intelligible—of which khora is neither, presenting a third genus. See Derrida’s “Khora,” 89

[31] Qtd. in Anne A. Davenport’s “Translator’s Preface,” to his book, Call and Response, xiv-xv.

[32] “A Concluding Prayer,” 294.

[33] “Sauf le nom,” 59.

[34] Ibid., 60.

[35] John 20:26.

[36] “The Event of Hospitality,” The Weakness of God, 269.

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