Graham Ward

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In Christian theology of the twentieth century Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar each attempted to situate the creation and vocation of man and woman within their wider systematic concerns (see Barth 1936-75: III/I-IV; Balthasar 1986b: 183-266 and Balthasar 1988-98: II, 365-95). For Barth sexual difference was a repetition on a horizontal and social level of the vertical covenant between God and human beings. Sexual difference rehearses the dialectic of the self and the other; the dialectic itself is constitutive of being human. That is, a human being is such only in relation to other human beings. Man and woman together constitute what it is to be human, making marriage fundamental anthropologically as well as theologically.1 Marriage is the fulfillment of sexual difference; the fulfillment also of a certain analogia Christi insofar as it imitates the old covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Israel and the new covenantal relationship between Christ and the church. For Balthasar, sexual difference is related to the operation of specific offices within the church - the Marian and the Petrine - which, in turn rehearse the difference and hierarchy between Christ and his church. The male and female perform the twofold character of the Christian life, service and obedience. These are the distinct vocations of men and women, in which women are the answer or response to Mensch. Each theologian, as has been remarked by several commentators, struggles with but cannot avoid the hierarchy in which the male has priority (see Beattie 1998; Loughlin 1999b; Moss and Gardner 1998; Gardner and Moss 1999; Muers 1999; and Ward 2000: 182-202). Each theologian also cannot avoid a biological essentialism that structures and determines the difference that is subsequently enquired into theologically. The sexual in sexual difference is fundamentally physiological - it is that which can be read off from bodies. Although, these bodily signs have first of all to be recognized as significant, determinative in a major way. And, as historians of medicine and genealogists of corporeality inform us, we have been taught to identify and read certain bodily signs as sexually different only over the last 150 years or so (see Laqueur 1990). Barth and Balthasar's biological essentialism, their beginning with the determining physiological factors of distinct gonads, is itself historically and culturally determined. As such their starting point is relative; relative to other future possibilities and other conceptions of the body's determinative signs in the past.

My enquiry in this chapter issues from wondering what would happen if we started somewhere else - and it is no less relative and no less culturally and historically determined. In fact, it might be said, my starting point can only issue from the debates over the last 20-30 years concerning alterity and difference. For I wish to begin with a series of questions concerning difference as such (and concomitantly, what constitutes affinity as such). We might list such questions as: Why is difference theologically significant? How is difference recognized? What is the effect of the recognition of difference? What is theologically significant about the operations of the recognition of difference?

No doubt Barth and Balthasar would both inform me that they did not begin with the biological body but with Scripture. For both "arrive at" their accounts of sexual difference by way of exegeses of specific scriptural texts: the Genesis story of the creation of Eve, understanding this story as prefiguring the New Testament theology of Christ the Bridegroom and the church as his Bride and, for Balthasar, the scene of the Annunciation and the renaming of Simon as Peter. For both authors, Scripture is used to support a case that had validation elsewhere (in the medical sciences and their respective doctrinal traditions); they cannot escape the hermeneutical circle - of finding in Scripture what they already, to some extent, expect and anticipate. I want to offer two other accounts as scriptural starting points for a theological inquiry into sexual difference. Again neither the choice nor the exegesis that follows escapes the hermeneutical issues raised by Barth and Balthasar. But by beginning with Scripture I place my thinking within a Christian theological tradition working on the basis of what has been revealed and passed on through the church. The particular passages have been chosen to focus our attention upon a wider ecclesial erotics (thus dissolving some of the fixation with physiology by enquiring into the operations of desire) and to open the questions concerning difference, affinity, and its recognition. Both of these accounts occur in John's Gospel and, to some extent, each reflects (albeit non-identically) the concerns of the other. Both are post-resurrection experiences of and encounters with Jesus. This is theologically significant, for I will claim that it is Christ who installs difference; and therefore it is with respect to Christ that all difference has to be understood, when understood theologically.

The first account is Jesus' encounter with Mary in the "Garden" (John 19.41):

Mary stood at the tomb outside, weeping. As she wept, she peered into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. They said to her "Woman, why are you weeping?" She answered, "They have taken my Lord [Kurion] away, and I do not know where they have laid him." With these words she turned round [eis ta opiso] and saw Jesus standing there, but did not recognise [edei] him [Jesous]. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking it was the gardener, she said, "If it is you, Sir [Kurie], who have removed him, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away" Jesus said, "Mary!" She turned to him and said, "Rabboni!" (which is Hebrew for "My Master" [Didaskale]). Jesus said, "Touch me no more [Me mou aptou], for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God." Mary of Magdala went to the disciples with the news, "I have seen the Lord! [Eoraka ton Kurion]" (John 20.11-18)

The second passage follows this narrative after a space of five verses:

One of the Twelve, Thomas, that is the "Twin" [ho legonomenos Didumos], was not with the rest when Jesus came. So the disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord [Eorakamen ton Kurion]." He said, "'Unless I see the mark [tupon] of the nails on [in] his hands, unless I put [balo] my finger into the place [tupon] where the nails were, and [balo] my hand into his side [pleuran], I will not believe". A week [emeras okto] later his disciples were again in the room, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them, saying, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Reach [phere] your finger here: see my hands. Reach [phere] your hand here and put [bale] it into my side. Be unbelieving [ginou apistos] no longer, but believe." Thomas said, "My Lord [Kurios] and my God!" (John 20. 24-8)

In both of these encounters a transaction takes place between self and other that results in a vocalized recognition - "my master" and "my Lord." In both accounts the transaction takes place through emphatic bodily actions and gestures (Mary's turning and embracing; Thomas's reaching beyond the boundaries of his own body to penetrate [pherao] and thrust [balo] himself into the body of Christ). In both accounts there is an economy of response, a structured dialectic between self and other, in which difference and affinity, distance and proximity is negotiated in a sensuous move from sight to touch. In both accounts there is an eroticism. Mary and Jesus embrace in a garden; the pupil/teacher relation is conflated with the relation between a man and a woman that is suggestively mythologized as a return to the Garden of Eden. And stories of Mary's sexual intimacy with Jesus that have issued from readings of this scriptural text (among others) testifies to the awareness of the eroticism -from the Gnostic Gospels to Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (USA 1988). Thomas touches the raw flesh of Jesus, placing his hand into the very wound that in John is symbolic of the vaginal opening through which the community of Christ's body is born (John 19.34). The disciples only see, they only behold. A far greater intimacy is granted to Thomas, a more corporeal intimacy than the head of the beloved disciple resting on Jesus' breast (John 13.23). It is again a suggestively mythologized intimacy - thrusting into the side of the second Adam from which the new Eve issues. Caravaggio captures the eroticism of that action - its carnality, its penetration - in his famous painting of the scene, The Incredulity of St Thomas (1601-2).

In the first passage, to employ an entirely anachronistic word, the eroticism is heterosexual. In the second passage, to employ a similarly anachronistic word, the eroticism is homosexual. In both there is difference, a difference between self and other that remains even in the epiphany of recognition that overcomes, to some extent, that difference. In both accounts what is sex - being male and female, being male and male - is highly ambivalent. It is ambivalent partly because of the suggestive mythologizing - Mary as Eve, Jesus as Adam; Jesus as a hermaphrodite and Thomas as opening up the womb of Christ. But then sex is always a mythopoetic affair; riding on fantasy (see Zizek 1994).

The difference, the affinity, the eroticism and the sex of those involved in the actions is inseparable from speaking, from words and the translation of words from one language to another. The knowledge that comes through recognition, through the economy of responding to the other and the other responding in return, is a vocalized knowledge. It takes the form of an exchange. Although, with Thomas, the words are spoken to the disciples directly and, one assumes from the story, overheard in some sense by Jesus who then returns them to Thomas when they meet. The cameos of relations with the Christ are themselves written compositions by "John" who, throughout his narrative, is conscious of the creative power of language, and who thinks powerfully about the nature of signs. He is aware of the theological significance of his own written, semiotic act (John 20.31). The text moves across the Aramaic acknowledged as the language being spoken by the disciples and Jesus, translating those conversations into Greek. It is a text concerned throughout with the act of naming: in the first account there is Jesus as Lord and Master and the response elicited by being called "Mary"; in the second there is Thomas called "Didymus" and Jesus is called both Lord and God. Furthermore, the common theme is paralleled in the common structure of these two economies of responding to the resurrected Jesus - the other man whose otherness is manifest in his conquest of death and a certain inability to recognize who he is: coming to know through speaking with and understanding the other, through desiring and engaging with the other, through seeing, naming, and touching the other. In both accounts a topography of bodies is sketched. Mary stands, stoops to peer, turns, turns again at the mention of her name, moves forward to embrace, moves back from the embrace and withdraws to tell the disciples what she has seen. Jesus stands in the midst, confronting Thomas, then offers his body for examination. Thomas moves forward, extends his finger, stretches out his hand, pushes it into the side of Christ, withdraws. This topography of bodies in both passages focuses on Jesus' body, coming to understand, coming to an identification of who he is through engaging with this body The knowledge then that issues in identification is both carnal and theological.

Let us follow these economies of response a little further to see how this topography of bodies maps onto a relationality in which difference and affinity, distance and proximity, are understood, and ask how difference and affinity, distance and proximity, are not only established but what they signify about Christian relations. First, we can note the play of absence and presence. When Mary stands at the tomb, Jesus is, in one sense, not there because the tomb (and the positioning of the angels accentuates this) is empty. And yet he is there in Mary herself, contained within her, internalized as Lord and Master (or Teacher). In a revealing passage on the body's knowledge, Merleau-Ponty observes:

When I imagine Peter absent, I am not aware of contemplating an image of Peter numerically distinct from Peter himself. However far away he is, I visualize him in the world, and my power of imagining is nothing but the persistence of my world around me. To say that I imagine Peter is to say that I bring about the pseudo-presence of Peter by putting into operation the "Peter-behaviour-pattern". . . . Peter in imagination is only one of the modalities of my being in the world. (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 210)

In the same way Jesus' presence is part of Mary's presence, and it is the physical absence of that presence that remains within her, displacing both a sense of herself and him, that installs her desire. The question the angels ask her elicits a vocalization of her desire: to have present even if only as a corpse the body of Jesus. Jesus himself not only reiterates the angels' question but he elicits a more precise naming of her desire. Like the night watchmen in the Song of Songs speaking to the Beloved, he asks "Whom do you seek?" Secondly, we can observe the states of knowledge. We begin with incomprehension because the body is missing while the presence of Jesus in her and to her remains strong. We continue with misrecognition for she thought it was the gardener. Turning and turning about (where the body imitates a coming to consciousness of what it itself understands), she turns into a hearing of her own name. The calling calls her not only to herself and into a new knowledge, but to an identification through his voice of herself with him (in him if we can understand the name dwelling in his mouth and mind). The absence that previously filled her disappears, and the two bodies come together (again imitating a state of knowledge) as they embrace.

The negative command, Me mou aptou, installs a distance again, but it is not an absence. Although neither is it presence as possession or the unity of the identification of herself in him and with him. In a sense, when he speaks her name he speaks her into existence as part of himself, when he explains to her why she should stop touching him he speaks to her and so demonstrates they are not one. His speaking to her is a communication with her, but also a separation from her. (In a sense this is the condition of all theological understanding, that works between a sacramental presence and an inability to grasp fully what faith understands.) Thirdly, we can identify the modes of address as they shift from interrogation to affirmation, to the giving of a command, to the giving of an explanation, to the giving of a commission, to a final acclamation and testimony before witnesses: "I have seen the Lord."

The topography of bodies maps then onto an economy of response that begins with the paralyzing contradiction of absence and presence, issuing dramatically into a consummating knowledge which is then followed by a dialectical relation of affinity (or recognition) and difference, knowledge, and desire. The economy of response is composed of four complex movements - of bodies, of language, of knowledge, and of desire. The movements are not equally distributed between the two figures. The body of Jesus the Christ is more central to the narrative than Mary's body, though it is Mary's body that moves whilst Jesus' body stands still. The language operates upon and within Mary for the most part - she answers or she listens until she makes her statement before the disciples. She does not control the direction of the language. She speaks within a language given to her by invitation (from the angels, from Jesus). The movement of knowledge is time-bound: eureka, I have seen. She understands then by remembering. Her moment of identification with Jesus is crossed by ignorance that he is not yet ascended. She makes no answer to the account of going to the Father, of ascending to God. What is known is always being crossed by what is unknown. The language says more than is understood. It operates as an expression of desire as it changes in the moves from loss and longing, to being united, to being separated and given the task of going ahead to speak to others. Desire remains because it cannot fully attain the understanding that faith seeks. Desire remains - confused and lacking an object (fetishizing the corpse), finding and uniting with its object, being displaced on to another object, desire knows difference whilst knowledge has identified again what it knows: "I have seen the Lord." All the various aspects of the economy of response are orientated towards a future state. Mary must go and tell the disciples, Jesus must ascend; the knowledge and the language is not yet perfect. The body receives and responds (it sees, it hears, it touches) more than the mind understands, and what the body knows is not incomprehensible, it merely sketches a knowledge that has yet to be entered into; and the future is carried on the wings of desire. The very secret of the structure of time is contained in that moment of embrace and recognition.

The economy of response in the account of Jesus and Thomas is more truncated, though also more visceral. The theme of absence and presence opens this account too, though it is Thomas's absence to begin with, followed by Jesus' absence when Thomas returns to the upper room and the disciples. There is a different choreography of bodies. But again, Jesus is present in Thomas as his pronouncement to the disciples makes evident. For Thomas rehearses the wounds inflicted on Jesus by the crucifixion. In fact, he returns us, like the victims of trauma return the trusted enquirer, to the scene of the crime: the nails hammered into the hands, the lance puncturing the side. Jesus' death lives in Thomas; lives in his memory, his language and his understanding of who this man is/was. Let us interpret this generously, as Caravaggio did. This is not atheism, nor even agnosticism. This is love that cannot come to terms with loss; this is belief that cannot yet take on the burden of hope. Jesus comes to Thomas as Thomas imagines him, as Thomas has internalized him. There is no mention of Jesus' wounds in Mary's encounter, nor in the encounter with the other disciples that takes place off-stage, so to speak. But something more is needed than seeing these wounds. These wounds have shaped within Thomas an understanding of this crucified man; that understanding must now undergo a transformation. Jesus invites Thomas to plunge into the very depths of the tortured Messiah that he has internalized. The touch is demanded of Thomas; it was Mary's spontaneous response. Thomas must go where no other man or woman has been allowed to go - into the very flesh of the Christ. He must be brought to a new knowledge and identification through the engagement of bodies. His future in Christ is only possible on the basis of the carnal reception of and response to flesh touching flesh. Touch and identification are, as with the early account, inseparable, but a new and more dramatic crossing of bodily boundaries is required. Thomas has to be brought not to announce his desire but to perform it. It is the same desire as Mary's - to be one with Jesus. But in neither case is seeing enough. Mary has to hear first and then embrace. Thomas has to be commanded. Subsequently, he has to submit to that command (which is only voicing what Thomas himself had voiced within himself). Thomas has to be brought to a knowledge; a knowledge Mary seizes in an utter surrender of herself at the call of her name. Caravaggio captures this leading, this manuduction, in his painting; for it is Christ who guides Thomas's finger into the wound. And the wound is opened by that finger as if lifting the lid of an inner eye, or even parting vaginal lips. Thomas is led to an intimate, carnal, and spiritual knowledge; his face is fixed with both a curiosity and an incomprehension.

But let us go just a little further - further than Caravaggio's depiction of Thomas, towards Caravaggio's depiction of and response to embodiment itself. For the painting as a whole - Thomas in his context - suggests the touch is commanded, solicited as an act of love, and initiating a process of healing. Is Jesus' pain in being wounded somehow lessened, healed, by Thomas's touch? Is that touch akin to those visions of mystics who kiss the wounds of Christ not out of some gruesome masochism, but out of a love that wishes to touch the very place of pain with love, and begin its healing? Thomas's hand remains forever touching the torn flesh of Christ; and when does touch become caress? The composition suggests a healing of relation; a distance remains (registered in the look on Thomas's face of absolute incomprehension), but it is a distance known in proximity.

The four aspects of the economy of response that we have examined are different in this second account: what is being performed by and upon the body; the coming to know [Erkenntnis]2 and identify; the language which is not of interrogation and explication, but of command; and the operation of desire in which the scene is almost freeze-framed as Thomas reaches into the side of Christ. But the telos is the same - the learning of difference and affinity, distance and proximity, through the establishment of a relation that is erotic beyond being simply sexual.3

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