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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 349-364

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The Otherness of God

Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt

Writing of Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard has stated that "from beginning to end, one question occupied him: the question of God."1 In light of Certeau's persistent attention to the writings of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mystics, not to mention his status as a member of the Society of Jesus, such a claim seems plausible.2 But how can we square this claim with the view, advanced by Wlad Godzich, that Certeau's work offers us an account of alterity that does not carry with it overtones of the sacred or transcendent—a notion of otherness that avoids reestablishing "the dominance of the religious over the rational" that so much postmodern thought risks—and thus fulfills the desire for what Edward Said calls a "secular criticism"?3 Moreover, how does Giard's claim affect the almost exclusively secular reading of Certeau in the English-speaking world? How, if at all, does the God with whom he was allegedly occupied fit within Certeau's heterological project, especially as this project has been appropriated in the field of cultural studies? And who is this God? Is this God-in-quotation-marks, the product of discourses of the past—"the universal speaking subject" who [End Page 349] today is "effaced from the prose of the world"—a "God" now dead?4 And does that make Certeau's work, if not an autopsy performed by a disinterested coroner, then simply "a work of mourning," a personal obsession of his own that we can leave aside?5 Or must we attend to, occupy ourselves with, Certeau's God as a living god? My contention is that Giard's claim is valid, that it is the question of God that drives Certeau's work. But I would also say that, to an extent, Godzich is right as well: Certeau does not sacralize alterity, for the God with whom he is concerned is beyond alterity and sameness.

Talking about God is a peculiar activity. As Certeau himself showed so clearly, to speak of God we must employ an extravagant modus loquendi that dismantles our referential pretensions even as it registers the pressure of that to which it cannot refer. Another author puts it this way: "When we speak of God, although we know how to use our words, there is an important sense in which we do not know what they mean."6 God appears as the Spirit that moves through the interstices of the Letter, which is always about something else; God is never the object of our knowledge. And this is true of Certeau's texts as well. They are rarely about God, but more often about God-in-quotation-marks, the "God" spoken of by others (especially the mystics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), for Certeau's project is a heterological one—a discourse on the Other—and Certeau's God, eluding every discourse, is not "the Other." At the same time, God is the one that this discourse is "not without." But if God escapes even the modest pretensions of heterology, where do we find God? How might God speak? How might we speak to God?

* * *

For a theologian like myself, perhaps the obvious place to seek God within Certeau's discourse would be as the "transcendent Other," the primordial alterity toward which all of our encounters with sublunary others point—"an Other which ‘gives' (and takes) all others," as Jeremy Ahearne puts it.7 However, if such a formulation implies that God is to be thought within the confines of alterity, it is misleading with regard to Certeau's thought because, for him, God is non aliud (not other). This is a point on which his thought underwent some change and clarification. In earlier works such as L'étranger he could speak of the "Other-God [Dieu Autre]" and refer on occasion to an uppercase Other.8 In the early 1970s he would still write "Jesus is the Other," and even in a 1982 work we find the uppercase Other.9 Yet [End Page 350] from the beginning...


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pp. 349-364
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