The Son of Man with No Name

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Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name. (AP Photo/file)

God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth … (Phil 2:9-10)

The upshot of this entire undertaking [to pray for a theology of the event] is to liberate ourselves from the anxious and obsessive search for the name … The very idea of the truth of the event is to explode the notion that there is a name that is above all other names … (John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God)

Prior to encountering the radical theology of John D. Caputo, my identity as a Christian was defined by an “anxious and obsessive” relationship to the name of Jesus. The prayer most constantly on my lips was “Jesus”, which is, arguably, the simplest of all Christian prayers, commended by many saints of the Church. Insofar as it is obsessively fixed upon a determinate name, it is the very opposite of Caputo’s idea of prayer, in which prayer comes into its own qua prayer precisely in that moment when the one who prays admits — in a radically honest confession or concession — that he has no idea to whom or what he is praying.

Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Over the years, I repeated his name, devoutly, under my breath, a thousand times. The object of this prayer — if it was a prayer — was the disclosure of a presence, the conferral of a genuine certificate of authenticity, a fulfillment of the promise that “Jesus” is “real”. Not only did this prayer fall short of its goal, it was like an infinite audio loop, completely closed upon itself — closed, as Jack Caputo would say, to the solicitation of the event that stirs within the name.

What is the “event”? The long and fascinating answer can be found in Caputo’s excellent book, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. More briefly, I offer a pair of imaginative exercises:

  1. Imagine the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus in the gospels — not the parts about walking on water or raising people from the dead, but the parts about loving your enemies and inviting strangers off the street to your wedding reception — enacted this very day in your personal life, your workplace, your politics.
  2. Imagine unfolding a paper clip and sticking it into a live electrical socket.

Put those two experiences together. That’s the event.

Repeating the name of Jesus a thousand times, no matter how devotedly, is not the event. In fact, such a spiritual practice could very well close off contact with the event. It’s like sticking the paper clip into a dead socket. It’s a religious habit.

As long as the event that is desired with a desire beyond desire is contracted to the specific terms of a Proper Name, there will be wars of private property, battles over the copyright, over who owns that name, or who gets to speak authoritatively, with all the authority of the Name. (Caputo, The Weakness of God)

Inquisitions, persecutions, religious wars. This what comes of missing the event by fixating on the name, which might be close to what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

These are not spiritually easy or politically correct thoughts to entertain in the Advent season, a few days before Christmas. Jesus is the Reason for the Season. Keep Christ in Christmas. Imagine a different sign lit up in blinking lights or different words on the marque outside the church:

Whoever receives me, receives not me, but him who sent me.

The high Christology and strong Eucharistic theology animating my Jesus prayer have often stumbled over those words of Christ. How can it be that I do not receive Jesus when I receive Jesus? Happily (by my accounting of religious happiness), such sayings that de-center a Jesus-centric theology have been compensated for by many other words of Christ in red that put the name and person of Jesus at center stage. But if the properly Christocentric sayings of Christ have shored up my strong theology, have they helped me to take up a truly radical prayer? The sort of prayer in which I confess and concede that I haven’t a clue to whom I’m praying?

The Son of Man, unlike the foxes, is homeless, and true to his solidarity with the nothings and nobodies of the world, nameless. Many of his sayings are painfully obscure. He has to be pointed out to the thugs who come to arrest him. There is no disclosure of presence, no certificate of authenticity. All the while, the event stirs, to the point of boiling.

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