Encounter with the Wholly Other

Can we think together  the transfiguration (Mk 9: 2-8) and the empty tomb (Mk 16-18) in the gospel of Mark?  One is full of presences: light, clarity, vision voice while the other is full of absences: the missing body of Jesus. Maybe we can think of them together with the help of Derrida’s thinking of Mysterium Tremendum. Derrida’s long-standing critique of privileging presence in our thinking which he names as metaphysics of presence might be of help.  The narration of the event of transfiguration presents us with the fullest and most intimate picture of the glory of God. The blinding and dazzling elements of the pericope/ passage make God’s presence evident to us.  But despite the imagery of God’s glory the greek word Doxa that expresses glory is conspicuously missing. The empty tomb narrative does not seem to keep the promise of transfiguration.  There is not spectacularly dazzling imagery. Jesus does not come clothed with bright robes from on high. Marks paints the event with emptiness, fear and silence. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for the terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). We are faced with the gap that marks an absence. John Dominic Crossan aptly describes the message of non-message and an abiding absence, an absence that becomes more present than presence: “Indeed, [absence] may well be the deepest and most permanent form of presence”. 

Derrida thinks of glory without the standard dichotomy of presences and absences.  Reflecting on death Derrida following Martin Heidegger talks of death as the most intimate, individuating, isolating singular event. Death faces us with a moment that cannot be shared. It is simultaneously an encounter with otherness. There is an inside and outside to the experience of death. It is intimately personal but it exceeds us and we are faced with absolute opacity. This means we do not immediately know what lies on its outside. It is only by dying that one stands into this totally other/ opaque outside. This means we encounter Mysterium  Tremendum in the face of death and we have a call for an authentic response. We are faced with our own death with an impenetrable other side that has been always a secret to us. This is why death is a frightening or terrifying mystery. Derrida rightly describes it when he says,: “I tremble at what exceeds my seeing and my knowing although it concerns the innermost parts of me, right down to my soul, down to the bone, as we say”.  

Derrida’s refection on death in his text, the Gift of Death, gives us insight into other experiences that can be described as encounters with absolute singularity/ otherness.  The moment of such an encounter arrests us and shocks us with fear and trembling and we cannot communicate this experience with words without effectively distorting the experience.  But we are compelled to speak. We cannot hold our tongue in silence after the encounter.  Speaking relieves us. As one speaks, one lets the singularity be translated into a generality. This is because the experience of absolute singularity stands outside our language. It is totally other and language cannot fully capture or grasp it.  There is the unshareable dimension of the event which beckons us to share. We then put the experience into a collective system of thought through language. While translating the singular into the general we do lose the singularity of the event.

Using the event of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, Derrida says that we can only respond to the absolute singularity as a singular individual. This means  Abraham had to choose to commit what our collective system of thought and morality calls murder.  But that act in the face of the absolute singularity becomes a noble act of sacrifice.  This means we have to respond irresponsibly in the eyes of the collective systems of ethics and morality.  Derrida does indicate that God is experienced in these experiences of the wholly other, that is every bit other. This encounter with the wholly other is awaiting us in the mystery of our own impending death.  This is where one engages with otherness which is the outside and unshareable but this outside is inside of each of us. It is the secret crypt within us. Each of us is a singular other. We all share in the secret of our own death without sharing it. It stands beyond our tools of language and morality. 

We can notice in the narrative of transfiguration and that of the empty tomb that we find an encounter with the wholly other/ absolute singularity.   This is why we can find that the disciples are dumbfounded with stupor or astonishment. Language fails to capture these experiences and one is challenged to respond outside our collective systems of ideas and morals as singular individuals.  We see how peter is trying to tie the meaning of the dazzling event to the ground by suggesting the building of three tents. That’s Peter’s error. He is trying to put the meaning of the event into the fixation of thought, language and collective morality. The real response has to be singular and apart from these generalities.  Peter’s temptation of translation of the experience into the economy of shared meaning distorts the event and shows us the incommunicability of the experience.  In the same way, we have the temptation of thinking of the empty tomb with foreclosed closures of our generalities. The event of Resurrection stands outside our economy and tools/ system of thought, language and morality.  It is an absolute singular event that is why the tomb is empty. It is an empty tomb without an end.  No picture and image can describe the event of the Resurrection. It has this unsharable other side. But as of all such events, we know that we are compelled to share.  Mark seemed to have found the best way to translate the disruptive event of otherness/ Ressurection with the image of an empty tomb that is endlessly entering and going out of frames, cages, caves, prisons of our collective systems and tools of speech, writing and thinking. The tomb by being empty is speaking of a wholly other event, the Resurrection of the Lord.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao