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From Babel to Pentecost: Proclamation, Translation, and the Risk of the Spirit


Derrida condenses his reflections on Babel and translation in a rather provocative statement about naming: “nothing is untranslatable; but in another sense, everything is untranslatable; translation is another name of the impossible.”20 This latter term, “the impossible,” functions as a central idea in Derrida’s philosophy. “The impossible” serves Derrida as a cipher for whatever cannot be programmed, foreseen, prescripted, or projected out of an assumed tradition.21 We can neither predict “the impossible” on the basis of past experience nor cultivate “the impossible” as if it grew organically out of the soil of stable presuppositions and previous fields of existence. “The impossible” never “is” but always “will be,” or “will have been” in some future perfect that lures the present imperfect forward, inciting every “today” to stay in motion toward an unknown “tomorrow.” As a result, “the impossible” functions as another name for difference and otherness, for the unsuspected something that is always “to come,” the unexpected something that always surprises us—as in “We did not see that coming!” But this means for Derrida that “the impossible” comes as an event, which he defines as always unique and singular, as the coming of the new and of the “first time ever.”22 In other words, event marks the coming (venire) forth (e) of what cannot be programmed or anticipated, of what comes to (ad-venire) or comes in (in-venire) as the unexpected, of the adventure and invention of the future as inconceivable.23 Since the event cannot be foreknown or foreseen, it shatters every expectation. Because we can neither know nor see who or what is coming, we must live within a functional agnosticism and within the blindness of the unpredictable.24

When explaining the “to come,” the “event,” and “the impossible,” Derrida resorts to an explicitly religious vocabulary and considers the unexpected coming of the other to be “messianic.”25 By this term “messianic,” he means the “irreducible paradox [of] a waiting without horizon of expectation.”26 Of course, by using this term, Derrida uses an important religious category, one that holds redemptive significance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet, not only does he acknowledge the religious traditions behind the term, he goes so far as to affirm that his language about the promise of the other to come resembles a soteriology, a “saving” (soter) word (logos) intimating that there may be something salvific inherent in the idea of event as a messianic interruption.27 Perhaps not surprisingly, Caputo goes even further and asserts that Derrida’s messianic idea of “the impossible” is not only a decidedly religious category, but also a decidedly theological category. He considers the term to be yet another naming of God and declares that “[t]he name of God is the name of the chance for something absolutely new, for a new birth, for the expectation, the hope, the hope against hope … in a transforming future.”28 The word “God,” therefore, names that divine power that transcends the human and grounds the potential for the miraculous, the unexpected, and the spiritually unique, that divine power that comes “as a Spirit who breathes, who inspires, and whose gentle breath urges us on” into the impossibility of a possibly redemptive future.29


Proclaiming the Truth in Love … and Humility

Now what exactly does Derrida’s curious reading of the Tower of Babel narrative, with its resulting theory of the difference and deferral of translation and its messianic interpretation of “the impossible,” have to do with Christian proclamation in the postmodern context? In order to answer that question, we need only turn from the text of Genesis to the text of Acts, journey from the Plain of Shinar to Mount Zion,, and listen to the first “official” proclamation of Christ’s newly-formed church. In Acts 2, Luke recounts the miraculous events that occurred to and through the church on the day of Pentecost, when Jesus filled his disciples with the power of God. According to the narrative, the disciples obey Christ after his ascending to the Heavenly Father, not by scattering to different locations, but by gathering together in one place in order to await the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. Once the Spirit arrives, he symbolizes his presence visually with “tongues” of fire that divide and settle over each disciple’s head, and, afterwards, when the disciples exit the upper room, the Spirit reveals himself orally as they begin to speak the gospel of Christ in languages that were not their own (2:3-4). This miraculous event attracts a crowd of people who gather together in that one place in order to listen to the disciples. The assembled crowd, however, is totally bewildered by their experience of hearing the good news of Christ’s grace proclaimed to them in their own native languages by individuals who do not know those languages! One might say, that the crowd listens in a genuine state of confusion.


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Category: Ministry, Summer 2007

About the Author: B. Keith Putt, Ph.D. (Rice University), is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He has published several articles addressing issues relating philosophy of religion to certain post-secular theories of language and interpretation, specifically the radical hermeneutics of John D. Caputo. He has not only a professional, academic interest in postmodern thought, but also an interest in the ecclesiological implications that post-secular culture may have on understanding the Kingdom of God in the 21st century. His own personal Christian faith reflects a non-charismatic Baptist confessional tradition. Samford faculty page

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