Carnal Hermeneutics and the Divine-Human Dynamism of Love

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Hermeneutics is a science that assists us to grasp how understanding takes place. With the rise of phenomenology, hermeneutics had a new lease of life. The work of Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoceur, Habermas and others open us to understanding and made it part of our everyday life.[1]  Some thinkers assert that humans are hermeneutical animals.[2] Although, these new developments have praise worthy applications, we have still not explored the profound depths and heights of what has been called as the hermeneutical turn in Philosophy.  Unfortunately, the hermeneutical turn got trapped in the linguistic turn and remained largely locked into the intellectual and semantic dimensions of understanding. Phenomenology did it bit to rehabilitate our constitutive corporeal dimension yet hermeneutics seem to remain trapped into the oculo-centric moorings of understanding.[3] Thanks to the work of catholic philosopher Richard Kearney, we can trace a return to primordial aspects of hermeneutics that takes our bodily existence seriously.[4] These developments are profoundly vital as they bring new light that enables us to understand the Divine Human reaching out in Love. Love may not be fully understood outside our bodily existence. The essential bodily dimension of divine love is manifested in the mystery of divine incarnation and human quest for theopoesis.[5] There is a profound hermeneutical belonging together in the bond of love between Humans and God. The divine journey of love may be seen as reaching its climax in the word becoming flesh. In the incarnation God’s love of humanity is revealed in flesh. If the divine journey is Word becoming flesh, the human journey is flesh becoming Word. Our study promises to open new horizons to understand the divine human dynamism of love. This is why we turn to the carnal hermeneutics of Kearney in a pastoral year dedicated to the theme love of Christ that urges us on.

Following the carnal turn in Hermeneutics, we wish to explore the divine human dynamics of love. We begin with an attempt to understand carnal hermeneutics; we then take up the flesh to flesh dynamism of humans as being-towards-the-world. Next we attempt to theologize in the light of Hermeneutics. Finally we try to explore the divine human dynamics of love.

Understanding Carnal Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is chiefly imprisoned into linguistic and intellectual chains. We seem to have surrendered  to the dictum that teaches that we   have no access to reality outside language.[6] Maybe this linguistic limit in the dynamic process of understanding forgets a primary aspect to it. Linguistic laden-ness of the dynamism of our understanding remains open to the oral and visual aspects of opening ourselves to the world that continuously gives itself to us.[7] It seems to close itself to the other senses that enable us to sense the world even before begin to speak. The carnal hermeneutics of Kearney opens us to this primordial sensing of the world.

Sensing the world

Humans sense the world and makes sense of it even before they develop linguistic competence. Right from the moment of our birth and some may say that even during the developmental stages in the womb humans access their world without linguistic abilities. This means we have access to the world outside language.  Our intense sense experience enables us to make sense of the world around us. The world is sensible and can be understood though our senses of touch and taste maybe even before we begin to use linguistics categories of our intellect. We interpret the world with our bodily senses. This primordial sensing of the world is primary while the intellectual apprehension of the world through the modes of language is secondary. Carnal hermeneutics of Kearney dwells with this primary relation that we develop to make sense of the world. This primary sensing of the world gives us sense (meaning) of the world. The world before being intelligible is revealed as sensible and what we sense about the world makes us orient ourselves to the world. One might see an intellection involved in the sensing of the sensible world. We may do well to bracket it to enter the hermeneutical horizons of flesh in the dynamism of understanding. We have to do this in order to free even our sense knowledge from the clutches of over intellection. Over intellection has enslaved us to binaries of sense/ nonsense, sensible/ intellectual etc. In this context, we primarily follow phenomenological attitude that remains open and passive and enable us to receive the revelation  of the world through the primordial working of our senses.

Living in Flesh  

We live in flesh right from the moment of our birth. Some may say this life in flesh begins at conception. Vitality at infancy is mainly a matter of taste and tact. The infant’s mains widows to the world are taste and touch. The touch and taste of mother’s breast as the child opens its mouth for the first milk becomes the primary locus of sensing the world. This shows that humans are flesh before words and are striving to become words all our lives.  Indeed, we can trace this human dynamism embedded in our quest for wisdom. The latin word sapientia comes from the word sapere which means to taste.[8]  We become open to wisdom through our dynamism of tasting. Breast being the first window to the world opens us to understand the world through taste. Melanie Klein, an English psychoanalyst, teaches that breast is the world to the child. The breast that gives milk  is good and the breast does not give is bad.[9] She teaches that we are primarily searching for substitutes for the milking giving breast in different ways all our adult life. These teachings seem to indicate that our deepest ‘knowings’ are tasting and touching. From the moment of birth, humans are condemned to sense the world through the tips of their tongue that enables us to discern between savoury and unsavoury.  It is taste and touch that makes the world sensible and we become sensitive. This is why touch and taste are the primary locus of hermeneutics. There is a deep inextricable relation between sensing and interpretation.

 Hermeneuticising Carnally  

Carnal hermeneutics embraces a large spectrum of sense. It is our primary deciphering tool of life. Flesh mediates between us, world and God. We are incarnated and we keep incarnating into the world to understand and relate to it. Body enables us to begin living tactfully and sensitively. Body literally keeps us in touch with things.[10] It is our embodied existence that keeps us open to the world. Flesh is a medium of transition and transmission.[11] It keeps mediating and messaging between, inside and outside, self and other and more than human. This is primarily done through touch. Touch is something that we first do to the world. It is touch that is something that the world does to us first too.  There is a two way mutual relation involved in relating to the world through touch. We touch the world and the world touches us. This does not happen in other ways of sensing the world. Sight requires us to see the world but the world does not see us as we see it.  Same can be spoken of hearing and other senses too.  In hermeneutical understanding there is a kind of mutuality. We can notice a hermeneutical circle here.  There is a sensing in the sense or receiving or making sense from someone or something other than myself. It is the flesh that mediates this otherness while it crosses back and forth between self and strangeness.  This is where hermeneutics arises. This is the locus where what Heidegger calls, ‘the as structure’ operates.[12]   This mediation in flesh is therefore interpretive even before we can use categories evolved though our linguistic competence. This means flesh mediates but remains figural to us most of the time. It continuously pre-figure, con-figure and re-figure our experience.[13] We are figuring things out before we begin to speak.

Beings-towards-the-world Through Flesh

Heidegger taught us that humans are being-in-the-world. This characterization of us as beings-in-the-world manifest humans as passively receiving the constant giving of the world. Although Heidegger tried to focus on  the dynamic relation of being-in the world, his focus on humans as shepherds of being and language as the house of being seem to impose some kind of inertness in the dynamism of humans reaching out to word. The carnal hermeneutics stays open to the dynamism and views humans are beings-towards-the-world rather passive beings-in-the-world.

Hermeneutics of Ownness and Otherness

Flesh is the place where we exist in the world as suffering and acting in pathos and praxis.  Flesh is both mine and most other. It is the paradigm of otherness. Paradoxically, it is closes to me and furthest to me at the same time. It opens us to our embodied given-ness as well as the given-ness of the world. It becomes a ground of my own proper otherness while at the same time I am enabled to derive the strangeness of the other from my ownness. It is through the flesh that we have space of belonging to the self and its other.[14] It is the foundation of the I-THOU relation. It is flesh that enables us to develop a non-objectifying primordial relations. In order to make oneself part of the world, one does not just have to be oneself but has to be oneself as another-a self with others. This means that the otherness of the other as ‘foreign’ relates not only to the otherness of my flesh (that I am), but also exists before any reduction to my ownness.[15] Flesh can appear as a body among other bodies to the degree one is another among others, oneself as another as Ricoeur would teach us. It is a flesh that makes us self-with-its-other. This is why flesh is the foundation ones intimacy to oneself as well as immanence to the other.  Thus, flesh constitutes an intimate body (leib) for the self and physical body (korper) among other bodies.[16] This is the basis of carnal hermeneutics where I experience myself as someone in a shared world. The shared world exists for us from flesh to flesh. It is in this flesh to flesh relation that the other is given to me both as inscribed in embodied relation and as always already transcendent. Hence, analogy becomes the ground of self and the other relations.

Carnal Difference of the Male and Female

Understanding the difference between male female carnal experience will enrich humans. Several feminist are turning to the lived body as a better concept for analysis of subjectivity than the gender. Lived body bring the social-cultural experience along side of the notion of a physically acting body. This brings the body-in-situation to the centre of our attention.  All persons face the martial facts of one’s body and its relation to the environment. This dynamism sums up the carnal existence of Humans. It involves our comportment, motility and spatiality.  It constitutes our facticity but we have a freedom to construct ourselves in relation to this facticity.[17] The male and female have different facticity. Both respond differently to this faciticity. Man exhibits more freedom while woman are governed by patriarchy.  Hence, to a large extent woman’s experience alienation. Often their bodily existence is eroticised, vouyerised and fetishised in a man’s world.[18]  Hence, time and again women internalise the desire of man and silences her own female desire. Influenced by capitalism and materialist science, being is seen as being in solid objects, self identical one and the same thing, to be observed measured, passed from hand to hand in a relation of commodity exchange.  Unfortunately in this scenario womans desire is organized to become an object of male gaze and learn to find pleasure in the satisfaction of the male. Carnal hermeneutics opens us to the plight women and opens them the possibilities of nurturing their own specific desire which is plural, fluid and interested more in touch than sight.

Heremeneutics of Biopower

Human bodies are involved in everything we do- in birth, in death, in health, in work, in sport or in leisure. All kinds identities that we human form are embodied. Our living moving bodies produce a physical culture that becomes a way of relating to our environment, ourselves, other human and God. All liturgies are embodied rites.   In the power of technology we are now moving into techologized bodies. Body are biological as well are socially constructed. There is body politics irrupting from the bodies as they are radicalised, marked by caste, medically named as disabled/ diseased/ fit, theologically disembodied, comsumerised by the market, digitalised by communication technology, regimented by military etc. Besides, body mediates our cultural and ecological process. In several ways body expresses power relations. Body becomes an important space where power operates in our society. Therefore, a critical study of body results into the critical study of power in our society. Body is site violence as well as a point of its resistance.   Body is socially interpreted or hermeneutised to produce and sustain unequal power relations in our society. Political-religious ideologies inscribed into patriarchy produce and maintain dominant power relations. All these dominant power relations are naturalised and normalised influence everyday habits of thinking. It is only though counter discourse of body that we can contest and deconstruct the reigning oppressing biopower in our society. Carnal hermeneutics is very powerful tool produce such an emancipative discourse.

Theologizing in the Light of Carnal Hermeneutics

Our primary access to the world being taste and touch can let us convert the gustatory and tactile sense as a site of theology.  ‘Taste and see that the lord is good’ (psalm 34:8) already articulates a theology developed through carnal hermeneutics.  Often echaton is portrayed as a festive meal and not merely a beatific vision that satisfies the eyes. This shows that carnal hermeneutics has been very central to theologizing to both the Christians and the people of Old Testament. This leads to a humbling in theology and saves us from masking our point of vive as God’s eye point of view. This also saves us from reducing intelligibility to visibility.

Carnal Hermeneutics in the Old Testament

The inaugural act of Abrahmic discernment is a scene of tasting wherein Abraham and Sarah greet strangers (Hostis) from the desert of Mamre who in sharing food revealed themselves as divine and announced an impossible child Isaac.[19]  Later the revelation of the name of Israel occurs a mutual touching of limbs between Yahweh and Israel.[20] The covenant in the Old Testament is sealed by the Passover meal (Ex 24:1-11). Food was an important part of covenant making in the ancient near East. We can already find it illustrated in the Bible when Laban and Jacob made peace by breaking bread ( Gen. 31: 51-54). The old covenant is also pictured through tactile images as one between God and his unfaithful wife (Jer. 21:1-5, Hos. 1:2).  The promise of the new covenant is also given through a taste image of a meal (Isa 25: 6-8). God’s faithfulness is seen through various taste images through the feeding of his people with Mana (Ex 6.31, Nub. 11: 7-8) and providing water from the rock (Ex 17.1-7).  This manifests that the primal way of relating to the world through the sense of touch and taste became central to the covenantal relation between God and the People of Israel and manifests that intelligibility is more than mere visibility. The other senses also are valid modes of relating to Goa and his creation. It is based on the principle that our embodied nature leads our body to sense and simultaneously be sensed as sensing.

Carnal Hermeneutics in the New Testament

The fact of Incarnation and bodily Resurrection are the foundational events of the New Testament. The event hermeneutics of the paschal mystery is inexhaustible and based in a carnal hermeneutics. In several ways the New Testament demonstrates that Jesus came to the earth to taste and touch. The last supper, Emmaus, the table fellowship, the wedding feast of Cana manifest the gustatory dimension of his ministry while several of his acts of healings show the touch aspect of his public ministry.[21] We can see how carnal hermeneutics reaches its climax in the last supper , suffering and death on the cross and the victory over the cross in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ  But we have admonition not to touch, taste and handle in the teachings of St. Paul. The Apostle teaches that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink but peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom.15:17).  He further teaches that ‘food does not bring us near God; we are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we eat (1 Cor. 8:8). But his teachings remain ambivalent as he teaches in the later days the Spirit some shall depart from faith; commanding to abstain from meats (1Tim 4: 1-3). These texts are said to be taught mimically and not dogmatically. St. Augustine held this view and taught St. Paul taught abstinence to present him as a model. We can find thick carnal hermeneutics   in St. Paul when he taught that the link between Christ and the Church, calling church the body of Christ (Col.1: 14-19, 1 Cor. 12:12). But it reaches its climax when he teaches that Christ is suffering in our suffering in flesh.

Towards a Carnal Theology   

Richard Kearney opens a space to do theology via carnal hermeneutics.  He teaches that flesh is a medium just like the word. Both inter-animate each other. The Word becomes flesh so that flesh becomes Word.  Flesh as a medium precedes all distinctions like subject and object. Flesh is always in a process of immersion into life. It is in the process of mediation. It introduces us body and soul into the flesh of the world. It is flesh that makes it possible for us to touch as well as be touched by the world. It is flesh that enables us to crossover and recognizes other flesh.  It is in and through flesh we can relate to everyone that includes the divine.  It is this process of mediation that God embraces through the mystery of incarnation. It only through ‘this is my body’[22] that we can relate to the world and God. Life becomes Eucharist for us all. It is as if we are challenged to live ‘this is my body’ and through this life in flesh we participate in the paschal mystery of Christ.   It is ‘this is my body’ that breaks into an encounter with God, Humans and Creation enters into a bond of  love in flesh.  This breaking of the ‘I’ is breaking into an encounter of love and care that loves in flesh.  The ‘I’ that speaks word becomes the ‘I’ that is spoken in word. It is the ‘I in flesh’ that relates to the ‘THOU who became flesh’. It is true that there is no salvation outside the flesh.  There is no Paschal mystery outside the Flesh. It is the Word that became flesh that saves. The Eschaton being the Resurrection of the Body cannot be an experience outside the hermeneutics of flesh and cannot be view in limited oculo-centric manner as beatific vision alone. It is also seen as a heavenly banquet that enables us to touch, smell, taste and sees and maybe even provides us occasion to hear everyone in the fellowship of the saints.

Understanding Divine Human Dynamism of Love

The Divine and Human dynamism of love has a distinct carnal dimension. The carnal dimension brings in the cosmic dimension and brings creation in this love embrace. The divine, human and creation stay entangled in an embrace of love.  Here we try to understand this love embrace with the help of familiar symbols of heart, cross and breathe with share resonance with faith and carnal hermeneutics

Heart at the Heart of the Bible

The word heart (lebab, Hebrew and Kardia Greek) plays a key role in the entire Bible. It features in hundreds of places and is used in hundreds of ways in a wide variety of  context  bearing  several meanings that were unknown outside the Jewish community in the Old Testament and early Christians in the new Testament.  What we can clearly find is that these several uses of the word heart does not reduce it to a physical organ but becomes the central place of our identity (ipseitas).[23] Hearts stands for what we properly are.  In most cultures, heart stands for volition but is not thought to be irrational. It is a seat of will and reason. Blasé Paschal famously said that the heart has reasons which reason does not understand.[24]  Heart in the bible is an undivided whole and does not signify a distinct organ. But rare exceptions to this general usage are in Jeremiah and St. Paul. Jeremiah invites the people of Israel to a spiritual circumcision when he says “remove the foreskin of your heart’.[25]  In a same way St. Paul prays for the Ephesians for spiritual awakening when he says ‘May He (God) open the eyes of your heart that hope his call opens up to you’.[26]  ‘The senses of the heart’ that is evoked in the bible can be appropriated with the carnal hermeneutics that we are studying here. It stands for the whole person. The spiritual dimension of the person is appropriated with the corporeal in the biblical context. Unfortunately, it is a new anthropology borrowed from the Greeks that emphasizes the soul would later become dominant and humans will be thought to be Souls trapped into a body. Thanks to carnal hermeneutics, we can return to holistic anthropology. This holistic anthropology invites us to enter into a hermeneutics of Heart to understand and live into the loving embrace of God our Father. Christian tradition that looks at God’s love through the symbol of the sacred heart of Jesus can become the locus of dwelling in this loving embrace of God.

Hermeneutics of the Cross

The cross becomes an important symbol of God’s love manifested in the passion and death of Jesus Christ his only son. The cross produces at once disruptive, interruptive and provocative hermeneutics of God’s Love. It presents the entire life of Jesus as a sacrifice on the cross offered  for the love of humanity and creation.  It produces a resonance of simultaneity of God’s involvement, our involvement and world-involvement. It draws us to find a link with the cry, suffering and pain of humanity and creation.  The cross becomes divine embrace of humanity and the entire creation. It is in and through the cross that God, Humanity and creation cross each other. The way of the cross becomes the way of God, Humanity and creation in which the sacrifice of the cross become enacted in the entire cosmos. This means the sacrifice of cross opens our minds and hearts and enables us to view the cosmic sacrifice in the way of the Cross of Jesus. This is why whoever follows  Jesus Christ has to pick up his /her cross (human and the cosmic side of our life) and follow the Lord (Lk. 9: 23-24).   The hermeneutic of the cross along with the hermeneutics of resurrection sparks the light of hope amidst darkness suffering, disease and sin. This hermeneutics of hope is marked by Christ’s victory over the cross. It is   faith that irrupts only after the victory over the cross. It only through what we call the hermeneutics the cross that we come to recognize the one born of Mary (Mystery of incarnation) is the Son God and saviour of the world.  It is this faith that enables us to live a life of Love that strives to establish God’s reign in our society.

Living by the Original Breath

The original breath that was lost by the original sin is restored by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. The spirit of God that was hovering over the mighty oceans (Gen1: 2) is blown into the nostril of Adam giving the first human the breathe of life (Gen 2:7).  Christian faith views Holy Spirit as the breathe of Life signifying the giving of the super-abundance of life of God. Hence, the original breath becomes a hermeneutics of Pentecost which becomes the explosion of God’s love for Humanity symbolised by the tongues of fire.  The hermeneutics of the Spirit is open without closure. The spirit of God refuses all Human mastery and remains always in the realm of mystery. The Pentecost proclamation of St. Peter crossing linguistic barriers and  all people understand the message of the Apostle  in his/her language. This shows that the original breathe restored in Jesus Christ is both life giving and life affirming. Hence, the hermeneutics of the Holy Spirit invites us to live in the power of the original breathe of God restored through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The original breathe keeps us into the economy of Trinitarian plan of salvation in communion with the Catholic Church. The sacramental economy, the proclamation of the Word of God and mission of God’s Kingdom of the Catholic Church keeps the original breathe of God in circulation both within and outside the boundaries of the Church. This makes the Church a visible sacrament of communion of God, Humanity and Creation.


Our study has opened to us that we relate to God , Humans and creation primarily as embodied beings in-the-the-world. We live in flesh as ‘Incarnate Cogito’ (Paul Ricoeur). Therefore, one might say that carnal hermeneutics might produce a Copernican revolution in Theology as well as Philosophy. The immediacy of living in flesh can open us new dialogical way of relating God, Humanity, and Creation. The cosmotheandric[27] experience of Humanity is essentially a flesh to flesh experience. It will open up new vistas for ethics and morality as a carnal hermeneutics can draw us to flesh to face encounter emphasized by Emanuel Levinas. Besides, it can be therapeutic as wounds of trauma and pain can require carnal healing.  It also promises social emancipation and can become an important resource to contest racialized, caste marked human  bodies, medically invaded human bodies through innovation in science and technology, and attacked by capitalist driven markets.  This is why the body has to be the new locus theologicus of theology.

[1] For a good introduction to hermeneutics read Hermeneutics by Richard Palmer’s ,  Richard E. Palmer Hermeneutics  (Evaston : Northwestern University Press, 1969).

[2] See Cyril Desbruslais, Interpretation of Transcendence (Pune: Jnanadeepa Vidyapeeth, 1989).

[3] See Richard Kearney , ‘The wager of Carnal Hermeneutics’ , in  Richard Kearney, Carnal Hermeneutics, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 16-17.

[4] Ibid, 15-56.

[5] See Lancy Monteiro, “God’s Divining Presence : an Adequate of Revelation for a theology of Interreligious dialogue’ in Vidyajoti Journal of Theological Reflection  ( Delhi: Vidyajoti Welfare and Educational society ), 53-54.

[6] Derrida seem to takes this position when  he says ‘there is nothing outside the text’

[7] Phenomenology teaches that it is world that primarily gives itself to us.

[8] See Richard Kearney , ‘The wager of Carnal Hermeneutics’ , in  Richard Kearney, Carnal Hermeneutics,  16.

[9] accessed on

[10] Ibid, 20

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid .50-51.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 53.

[17] accessedon 30th-1-2018.

[18] accessed on 30th-1-2018.

[19] Richard Kearney , ‘The wager of Carnal Hermeneutics’ , in  Richard Kearney, Carnal Hermeneutics, 18 .

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, 18.

[22] Emmanuel Falque, ‘This is my Body: Contribution to the Philosophy of the Eucharist’, in Richard Kearney, Carnal Hermeneutics, 279- 294.

[23] See Jean-Luis Chretien, ‘from the Limbs of Heart to the Souls of Organ’ , in See Richard Kearney, Carnal Hermeneutics, 93.

[24] accessed 1-2-2018.

[25] See Jean-Luis Chretien, ‘from the Limbs of Heart to the Souls of Organ’ , in  Richard Kearney, Carnal Hermeneutics, 94.

[26] Ibid.

[27] accessed on 1-2-2018.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao