The Theological Community as Coming Community

This is a paper that I gave at the annual postgrad SST conference (the British equivalent of the AAR). The theme of the conference was “doing theology for the next generation.”

The question that this conference poses: ‘What does it mean to do theology for the next generation?’ is a question that evokes further questions about the nature of time and history. The notion of ‘doing theology for the next generation’ assumes an understanding of time in which current actions in some sense determine what is subsequently possible. This means that we, as the actual, have a responsibility towards the potential, towards that which is not yet, but which might be. In one sense, this attitude is appropriate to a Christian ethic in which those with power are responsible to use that power, perhaps even giving it up, for the sake of the weaker. Thus, the actual are responsible to and for the potential. However, in another sense, the idea of ‘doing theology for the next generation’ involves an understanding of time that is not Christian. Christian time takes seriously what we call a ‘partially-realized eschatology,’ in which the culmination of history is both ‘already’ and ‘not-yet.’ Thus, Christian time does not simply progress linearly towards its telos, but seeks to manifest the telos that is already latent within it, but is not yet fully actualized. So, Christian theology is not simply performed for the next generation, but for the eschaton, in which all generations are already caught up, and are thus, in some sense, contemporaries. But what could this mean?

We find an unlikely resource for thinking about the eschatological community in the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, particularly in his book The Coming Community. This is, admittedly, a peculiar place to turn. Agamben is not a theologian, although he has appropriated many theological concepts in his work. Many theologians have felt that his work is nihilistic or pantheistic in character. Arguably, The Coming Community is a book in which these pantheistic tendencies are most visible, as he says things such as “the world, insofar as it is absolutely and irreparably profane, is God” (89). I do not necessarily want to endorse any of these tendencies, nor do I here intend to defend Agamben from these charges. Nevertheless, while there are undoubtedly many theologians who could help us to think about the nature of eschatological theology, Agamben provides a unique perspective by thinking the relationship between time, community, substitution, and contemporaneity.

Whatever-Being

The Coming Community is a book of fragments. Each fragment is a perspective on this community. It is not intended to be a prescription for how to actualize a particular sort of community because the Coming Community is not one that is actual. It is not a group of people united by a common property. Rather, it presents alternative imaginary categories according to which we might understand the the idea of belonging to a community. In this way, the form of the book mirrors the nature of the community that it points to. There is no unifying quality or property according to which the Coming Community can be identified, just as there is no unifying category or argument that runs through the book. There is only that which is most common to all, which is not a property at all. It is the mere fact of belonging, the mere fact that the fragments of The Coming Community stand alongside one another, and interact with each other by virtue of their proximity. It is this alternative imagination of community that I am suggesting might help us in thinking about the temporal nature of the Christian community and what it means to do theology as part of that community.

In order to understand the nature of the Coming Community, we must first understand Agamben’s ontology and this element that is most common to all. Agamben has described this common element in several different ways, such as ‘whatever,’ ‘potentiality,’ and ‘communicativity.’ It is thus a fundamentally relational element. However, it is important to recognize that this common element is not a thing we can point to because as soon as we can point to it, we have turned it into a property. Instead, the ‘whatever’ is that which both gives us the possibility of belonging, but does so independently of any criteria for belonging.1 So, belonging is here not belonging to a previously-existing category. It is more like ‘being with.’ In Latin, for example, the word for ‘belong,’ ‘adiungo,’ means simply to ‘attach oneself to someone or something.’2 So, when Agamben speaks of belonging, he is referring to attaching oneself to the other, or being with the other, rather than falling under a category.

That which makes belonging possible, the “whatever,” does not for Agamben denote randomness, but an indifference between genus and species.3 For example, whatever that singularity over there is, that is what it is. It cannot be broken down into generic human parts on the one hand, and parts that are unique to that particular person on the other because the two are indistinguishable. It is what Agamben calls a ‘singularity,’ or an ‘example.’ A singularity is whatever it is, there is no hidden essence. Its being is engendered in its manner and its appearance. Similarly, examples are neither universal nor particular. They are singular, but they do not belong to themselves. They “stand for all,” by virtue of no other characteristic than simply being one singularity among others (9). Agamben’s community is made up of these singular examples, which are neither isolated particulars nor manifestations of a larger universal group according to an identifiable property. So, there is resemblance between singularities but no archetype under which this resemblance might be explained (48).

The relationship between singularities in the community is explained according to what Agamben calls “whatever-being.” It is something like a “communicativity” that is added to all the properties that make up any given singularity. But this something extra is not a thing or a property, but merely an empty space beside the being.4 Agamben says that whatever-being is singularity plus an empty space (67). Thus, “whatever-being” can never have any content. The singularities have content, but the relationship between singularities by virtue of their “whatever-being,” the empty space that cannot be filled, can never be an actuality. It is always retains its potentiality because the space does not have any content proper to it.5 Thus, the community, the relationships between singularities are always in motion. ‘Whatever-being’ is always emerging in the relationship between genus and species, potentiality and actuality, or the singularity and the space. Agamben puts it like this:

The passage from potentiality to act, from language to the word, from the common to the proper, comes about every time as a shuttling in both directions along a line of sparkling alternation on which common nature and singularity, potentiality and act change roles and interpenetrate. The being that is engendered on this line is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage – or rather, ethos (20).

A ‘Whatever-being’ is therefore not a being understood in the static sense of a category, but is the name for the dynamic, incessant, bi-directional movement between common and proper, potentiality and actuality etc. The manner of this movement is the guiding principle that characterizes any given singularity.

The Coming Community as Substitution and Contemporaneity

So, what does a community made up of these whatever-beings, look like? Since whatever-being is something that is always potential, always deferred, as the incessant movement between the singularity and the space, the Coming Community is not something that can ever be realized as an actuality. It names the zone of this movement of ‘whatever-being’, “a zone in which possibility and reality, potentiality and actuality, become indistinguishable.” The title of the book is helpful here. The Coming Community is translated out of the Italian phrase La communita che viene, which is more accurately translated as ‘the community that comes.’6 Agamben’s community is not one that draws near in the future, that one day will have arrived. It is not one that we must work to bring about. Rather, it is a community that is perpetually in a state of coming. It already exists and will only ever exist as potentiality.7

So, the community is one that is coming in every generation. Wall describes it as

something that is not established once and for all, eternally, but that which is always [between times], delayed or coming amongst an infinite series of modal variations. Each individual p opens onto an exemplarity… – a vicarious space where each individual p substitutes itself for each other possible p such that this particular p is incarnated as substituted.8

This idea of substitution is very important for understanding the Coming Community. Agamben refers to a tradition from the Tulmud in which that which is most proper to every creature is its substitutability. The final state of each creature is a living in a place adjacent to itself, namely in the place of the neighbour. Similarly, the Christian community of Badaliya involves a vow to live as a Christian in the place of someone else. Agamben interprets this substitution as exiling oneself to the other. In taking the space of the other, one relinquishes a claim on one’s own space and offers hospitality to the other (23). This is the very principle of the space of communicativity or belonging, which is attached to singularities in whatever-being. Communicativity is substitution, exiling oneself to the other. This is the purpose of the empty space beside the singularity. The empty space allows for exiling oneself to the other, and this is the principle according to which the Coming Community happens. However, each individual p can substitute itself for each other possible p, such that this is not a substitution that is reified and actualized, but is always a potential and dynamic substitution.

Theological Implications

So, if we extend Agamben’s vision of the Coming Community temporally, to work for the Coming Community is not to actualize something for the next generation, but to exile oneself to both the past and the future. In substituting oneself within the sphere of potentiality that extends across all generations, one relinquishes one’s own special place in time and becomes contemporary with all. It is difficult to know what this would mean in practice. However, this is where we can begin to extend Agamben by fleshing out what this means for an ecclesiology in which all generations are contemporary before Christ in the already-but-not-yet. In his essay “What is the Contemporary?” Agamben suggests that to be contemporary with something is both to adhere to it as well as to be disjuncted from it so as to be able to recognize it. More specifically, contemporariness “…work[s] within chronological time, urges, presses and transforms it. And this urgency is the untimeliness, the anachronism that permits us to grasp our time in the form of…an “already” that is also a “not yet.”9 Agamben therefore recognizes the chronological structures of time, the succession of generations, and the disjunctions between them. However, he also recognizes a force that works within chronological time that makes our own time strange to us, as if we were standing in the empty space beside it, slightly disjuncted. Elsewhere, Agamben calls this disjuncting force Kairos. Chronos represents regular, secular time in which one generation succeeds another. Kairos does not merely represent the end of chronological time, but nor is it a time that is outside chronological time. It is, rather, the time within chronological time that is transformed by the Messiah and thereby makes chronological time graspable and meaningful. It is the force that transforms chronological time into the eschaton. Agamben’s concern is neither with the chronological, nor with the eschatological per se, but with this Messianic force that operates within chronos. Agamben says that “Messianic presence lies beside itself, since, without ever coinciding with a chronological instant, and without ever adding itself onto it, it seizes hold of this instant and brings it forth to fulfillment.”10 Kairos is merely chronological time that has been seized by the Messiah, and has been slightly disjuncted from itself making it graspable from within time. So, what this means, is that while we stand within chronos, within our own particular generation, we can nevertheless, through the Messiah, gain a certain distance from our time according to which it can be transformed. Messianc time is “chronologically indeterminate…but…also has the singular capacity of putting every instant of the past in direct relationship with itself.”11 Thus, a slight disjunction is introduced into every generation, through the Messiah. In making all generations contemporary with himself, by transforming time from inside time, the Messiah makes all generations contemporary with one another as well.

This Messianic disjunction functions much like the empty space of “Whatever-being” by which the substitution, or ‘being-with’ of relationship and communicativity is made possible. We therefore have here a sort of dynamic, temporal substitution made possible by the Messiah. And what I am proposing is that this is helpful basis according to which to re-imagine the temporal nature of the Christian community. As Christian theologians, we do theology as part of the Christian community that is extended throughout space and time. So, the question of what it means to do Christian theology for the next generation is a question about the temporal nature of the Christian community. Doing theology as part of the Messianic community is not only doing theology for the next generation, but doing theology with the next generation in Christ. The idea of the Coming Community or the Messianic Community describes the temporality of what we do as theologians. We never say to ourselves, ‘right, we have the atonement figured out, now we can build an ecclesiology on that.’ Theologians have been in conversation about the same doctrines for centuries and across generations, and will no doubt continue to be. It is easy to understand what this means with respect to the past, but more difficult with respect to the future. I think it has something to do with not believing ourselves to have the last word. We must expect questions and criticisms from the future, even if we cannot yet anticipate what they are. Nevertheless, an attitude of openness is crucial. The ecclesial community and its theology will never be complete, never fully realized. It is always in the process of coming. We do not have a packaged inheritance that we can bequeath to the next generation. We can only invite the next generation into the ongoing conversation.

So, I recognize that I have perhaps not done much in this paper, particularly by way of application. But it has been my intention to challenge our imagination, and some of the ways in which we think about time and the Christian community.

1Thomas Carl Wall and William Flesch, Radical Passivity : L©*Vinas, Blanchot, and Agamben (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999)., 123.

2C T Lewis, Elementary Latin Dictionary, 24.

3Ibid, 1.

4Ibid., 125.

5Ibid., 124.

6Murray, Agamben, 50.

7Murray, Agamben, 51.

8Ibid., 127.

9Giorgio Agamben, David Kishik, and Stefan Pedatella, “What Is an Apparatus?” And Other Essays, Meridian, Crossing Aesthetics (Stanford, Calif.

London: Stanford General ;

Eurospan distributor, 2009). 47.

10Agamben. The Time that Remains, 71.

11AgambenIbid., “What is an Apparatus?” And Other Essays, 52-3.

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