Pope’s Footwashing & Nonidentical Repetition

Radical Orthodoxy sees the transmission of Christian tradition in terms of “non-identical repetition.” In The Word Made Strange (p 64) John Milbank speaks of “repetition with variety” (borrowed from the 18th century Bishop Lowth, who, against that other bishop, Warburton, argued for the primacy of speech over writing in the origins of language) in which a poet repeats the same poetic lines he has received, learned, and memorized from his predecessor bards … but with a “twist,” with a difference.

Even as the same lines are repeated, the poet adds a different emphasis, pairs a phrase with a novel facial expression, or  stresses different syllables of particular words differently than did his antecedent poet.

In this way the original poem, and mutatis mutandis the poem at every stage in the catena, is “pleonastic:” it contains within it the potential for an infinite variety of performances.

In his essay “A Christological Poetics” Milbank speaks of Christ as not only the sum total of the signifying chain or web of Hebrew theology poetically imagined in the Old Testament, but also as occupying a certain place, indeed an “originating place” (Michel de Certeau uses the phrase “inaugurating rupture”) in the chain.

So “on the night before he was betrayed” Jesus Christ performs and repeats the story of the passing over in Egypt but in a radically new way. This inaugurating rupture includes the  command to love one another along with the embodied example of washing his disciples’ feet, a performance which the church has been performing and re-membering for two millenia.

And so it is that when Pope Francis recently washed the feet of a Muslim female prisoner in the context of the Maundy Thursday Rites, he was performing the poem in a radically new way. Who knew that the pleonasm of Christ’s poesis on the night before he was betrayed would include this meaning? And who knows what potential meanings are yet still to come?


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I like the idea of non-identical repetition as a way to view the transmission of the Christian tradition. I think the great fear people have towards tradition is that they feel it denies individual contribution, spontaneity, freshness–in effect, they feel it is in opposition to the new, and more importantly, the different.

But like you pointed out with the Pope washing the female Muslim prisoner’s feet: when the tradition is extended to “others” it cannot remain stale and the same, but must be fresh and new.

This is why it is so important, in my opinion, that the tradition be open to all willing to come (called to come), given to them and allowed for them to be engrafted into the tradition, allowing for the tradition to be engrafted into them. This is how the tradition is preserved (repetition) while at the same time remaining fresh (non-identical).

Mr. Collins Aki,

Preach it, brother!

Peace,

Matt+

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