Ricoeur reads Jesus

Here is some intergrative work between notes for a sermon on the wedding of Cana and notes on Paul Ricoeur’s “Pastoral Praxeology, Hermeneutics, and Identity” from Figuring the Sacred, (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress Press, 1995) 303-314.  Come play with me...

Your mind is spinning. You see dark face after light face after dirty face after clean face. There are people from all over the region.  They have traveled to this party unknowing that you will be there.  You haven’t been able to sleep for days now.  Its been about three days since you met your first fellow sojourner.  You grabbed him because he was ready to try something new.  His brother was nearby and after a few quick calls he had joined you.  As the three of you travel you pointed out the futility of life to a few other folks and they decide to travel with you as well.  One person is an idealist, the kind that could kill a party with his politics, his better-than-Ezra speak, his certainty.  And so you point out your place in what he’s so sure about and suddenly he’s on the wagon with the rest of y’all. 

You show up at the party and y’all blend right in.  It’s a Grecian environment, expansive space, marble floors, large clay jars to wash your hands in.  They remind you of the bowls of holy water outside cathedrals, like the one your parents talk about.  You vaguely remember being washed in them as a child when the wrinkled hands of a gray priest received you from your parent’s arms and held you up in front of the congregation.  But that was a long time ago now. 

The party is what everyone came here for but the marriage ceremony came first.  You sit through the rituals but your mind is somewhere else…

You notice some of the other guests and the solutes, the mozle tov, the cheers ensue. 

Then you are at the bar and your mom overhears that the crowd are heavier drinkers than they had planned on.

Then it hits, your mom says it is time to do something… the limit experience hits and you choose to lean into the future that you’ve known all along or you chose to wait for it.  Not seeing equality with God as something to hold on to you chose to be a servant, to humble yourself in the form of

But now is the time and suddenly the plot thickens, it turns, you are a different character than ten minuets before.  The servants, the baptismal water jars we all washed our hands in, grab them, fill them back up with water.

But wait, they are set aside for holy purposes.  They are god’s provision, they aren’t supposed to be used for this.

Uh, now tell them to bring it out there, lets not leave the water here.  If this is going to work, it has to be the servants, not me or any of us.  When the servant is doing this I will not be given credit, the groom will.  The people will see a new day and enjoy the hospitality, the benevolence of God, and thank their host, the organizer of the event.

And for twenty centuries since, Jesus has been writing us into the script to take the risk of bringing recycled vestments and elements into the party.  Who changed the water, who was changed?  Who served as narrators of the story?  Who served as author of the event?  Who participated in the closed story of the master of the party? Did any of them look like authors? (yes the one throwing the party).  Did any of them feel like narrators (yes the servants of the party). 


To create is a sticky subject with evangelicals.  We want to see that God as "the maker" and to protect ourselves from the offense of changing God or God's text.  So what roles do Mary, Jesus, the newly recruited discisples, the servant, the MC of the party play? Who is made, who is being made?  Or is it that simple?

Much of this is rooted in our understanding of self through Cartesian and Kantian categories.  We see a character’s self-hood as “sameness”  whatever belongs permanently to someone/thing.  Kant sent this knowledge into the non-personal space of thinking.  Descartes’ immutable and reflexive self. 

And so when something new is introduced it must have already existed so as not to threaten the sameness of that character.  This is seen best in theater, literature, and movies.  The character development requires a “limit experience” where the character’s sameness is threatened and the “self” the “who am I” is laid bare.

Heidegger said it this way:  Self hood is a question of who, who did this, who did that.  Hannah Arendt, said that all things labor, and that some labor is work, and that some work is action.  Action, the highest level of the three is distinguished from these three basic human activities by the function of story and history in telling us about the who/actor of action. 

If Kant was right that the permantent part of the individual is the substance of one's self-hood, then Nietzsche must also have been right in saying that the only substantial difference between people are their unique piles of meat and sinews.  So I am persuaded by Ricoeur that maybe Kant was not completely right here.


“Narrativity” is “the intelligibility brought about by the plot of a narrative.” (Ricoeur, 308) Narrative unity (a post structuralism perspective) is a stronger vantage point in differentiating meaning than the movable rationales of structuralists and their counter point, irrationalism.  Narrative unity is constituted through the identification of an actor the objects/subjects of his intervention.  Changes or reversals of fortune that threaten concordance of plot are made significant by the plot.  When these changes are applied to characters their identity or self-hood is revised, this is called the “emplotment of character.”  In this act we recognize in ourselves/others the working of the plot.

The challenge to ministry, however, is that the plot seems open ended because life is open ended.  We do not know the last page.  We are always revising, being replotted, and changing the plots of other’s narratives.  We are simultaneously in several narratives from several point of view. 

So the church is an emplotment environment.  We re-text, reshape the identity of our self, the body of Christ as character interacting with others not in body, and the greater world as part of God’s work. 

The problem then is who are ministers, who is the church?  Are we a character, narrator, or author?  This very ambiguity creates an opening… it is a limit experience.  The ambiguity of who is in charge between Mary, Jesus, the servants, and the MC is the same ambiguity of being God's people, the church.

Ricoeur writes, “Surely we are a character but it is we who tell the story therefore we are its author.  But we cannot simply be the author because we are already caught in narrativity of enacted narratives. We are also characters in other’s stories and histories… Being caught up in others’ stories is what create an inextricable aspect to our lives” (310).

“We are caught up in stories, in histories, and in large scale narratives of salvation where one is a partner, a character who is partially a narrator and partially and author” (310).

And so we participate in life’s revisions, examining life to consider if a “closed” part of our character is to be “reopened”. In this sense we are be converted, re-emplotted, transformed by the renewing of our plot-making minds.  In this sense all of life is a potential limit experience. 

Elaine Scary writes in On Beauty and Being Just of the role of "precedence" in perceiving beauty. As such we encounter a remembered plot, a precedent,and change our character or we are surprised by an other actor or event that has no precedence- unprecedented, and are then emplotted, as it were, for the first time.  To learn then, to place ourselves in line with new meanings and to risk re-emplotment is to risk limit experiences by seeking (placing ourselves under a plot- being a community) and by being aware (finding limit experiences and trusting they are from the narrator/author and not a threat). 

With Darrell Guder we see our regular re-emplotment as the call to "continual conversion".  Like Elizabeth Barret Browning we see the potential limit experiences as “bushes ablaze…”  like Peter Mayer, we sing, “everything is holy now.”  And then we realize that everything cannot possibly emplot, we must sort out the plotters.  And then we face the challenge again of learning, we need a place where we seek emplotment. 

Imagination is a key part of this leap from a closed to a reopened self.  It is the only way to structure or adapt the plot.  The function of imagination, then, is to separate “self” from “same” to lay bare the question of “who am I.” 

This is where this brings us: to lose ourselves is to find ourselves.  To allow ourselves to be impacted by the "other" (persons or world) is to risk being in control of ourselves. A habit that Jesus demonstrates.  Moreover, to participate in another’s story is to become an actor once again.  We transform the world by our relationship to it.  Descartes was wrong, we are never detached.

And so the church is called to be a character- authored by God as God's change met in the world

And the church is called to be a narrator- heard by creation about God's change to come

And the church is called to be an author (objective) finding our lives as co-creation, as we participate in the closed/opened stories/histories of God’s created world.

This certainly is quite the drama, this thing of being church in emerging culture!