Theology Begins in Disappointment

Here’s a question I’ve been thinking about for the last month:
“What happens when meaning breaks down?”

This lead me to other related questions. Questions about the starting point for not only thinking about theology but also doing theology.
What’s the beginning of theology? Is it in wonder? Or is it in disappointment?


For most of my adult life, Abraham Joshua Heschel has been an important interlocutor for me. His philosophy of religion (and his book God in Search of Man) helped spark my interest in the philosophy-theology/theology-philosophy discourse. In the same tradition as Socrates (“for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder”), Heschel agrees that wonder is the beginning of the engagement with the Divine, with reality, and with the mystery of life:

Wonder, or radical amazement, is a way of going beyond what is given in thing and thought, refusing to take anything for granted, to regard anything as final. It is our honest response to the grandeur and mystery of reality our confrontation with that which transcends the given.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel ("Who is Man?" 1965)

And up until this past year, I agreed with this idea. Philosophy, that is, theology, began in wonder. My experience of reality, the Divine, the mystery of all things was cradled in the awestruck wonder of what is and what could be.

But what happens when meaning doesn’t reach quite far enough?

This is essentially the question of Simon Critchley in Very Little - Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature. The only difference is that Critchley isn’t interested in theology (though he is to an extent) - he’s interested in the implications that philosophy begins in disappointment. But for my discussion here (as with all my discussions), I don’t see a qualitative distinction between theology and philosophy (at least not for my project). Critchley writes that this disappointment is experienced in two “problems”: the religious and the political. I quote him at length here:

“...religious disappointment provokes the problem of meaning, namely, what is the meaning of life in the absence of religious belief?; and secondly, political disappointment provokes the problem of justice, namely, ‘what is justice’ and how might justice become effective in a violently unjust world?” (Very Little, 2-3).

Critchley’s work in Very Little is focused on religious disappointment. He goes on to discuss how, understood this way, philosophy becomes an “atheism” that is never settled. This is because he understands faith as an ontological grasping for meaning outside of human activity and consciousness. Philosophy, he writes, is arrogant since it’s assumed that there’s been a dissolution in meaning’s monolithic existence (following after Nietzsche, whom he discusses for the rest of that chapter). Over time, I’ve become convinced by Critchley’s argument - that philosophy (theology) begins in disappointment, recognizing that meaning cannot be fixed and it cannot exist outside of humanity’s activity/thoughts. As a result of the violent, unstable state of this world and this existence, I am continually asking the twin questions of ‘what is the meaning of life?’ and ‘what is justice?’ in my contexts.
My theology begins in disappointment.  

Where does that leave me?
I am in a place where I am attempting to think with Heschel beyond Heschel.
While I appreciate Critchley’s context, I, too, am thinking with Critchley beyond Critchley.
A hauntotheological perspective is a destabilized theology of movement. To bridge the gap between Socrates/Heschel and Critchley, I must continually enter that gap.
In other words, my search for the beginning of theology, the beginning of philosophy, must actually begin in that gap - in the suspension.
Derrida (and many others) has written on the epoché - what Derrida describes as the “suspension.” Though this word is rooted in (and representatively problematic for) the discourse on phenomenology, I want to use the concept of the epoché as a tool to explain how such a suspension helps me address a question of emotion and a question of text(s).

Wonder does not help me address fear.
The awe that accompanies wonder does not aid me in sitting with fears that surface on the face of the water.
Disappointment does, to an extent, allow me to sit with that fear, to read something and admit, “Yes, I am disappointed that the world is in such a state that I am afraid of this possible outcome.” This is to say that disappointment opens the potential for the epoché to be written into my context. The disappointment allows me to suspend my fear - not efface it, but to engage it. Only when my fear is strung up in a suspension can I finally look that fear in its eye and address it. I can name my fear when I place it in suspension. A fear that is in suspension can neither harm me nor can it escape. I am locked in a tense, face-to-face experience with my fear as it looms over me in its suspension. And yet it is that disappointment, that critical angle which opens up questions of meaning and justice, that enables me to finally address my fear and, with some degree of calm, a smile as I bid it adieu.

With regard to texts, disappointment and the epoché are useful tools to engage a troubling reading. Acts of violence in a text are not an obstacle that requires a degree of hermeneutical gymnastics to arrive at a “sense of wonder.” Instead, the questions of meaning and justice enter the conversation, disappointment can express its sorrow and anger over the violence, and the suspension allows all of it to hang together in a way that doesn’t permit an effacement of the violence but neither does it excuse it. The epoché preserves the problem so that the problem can be sufficiently questioned.
What does it mean that God authorized the slaughter of the Canaanite cities in the book of Joshua? This is not a question of wonder.
I am not required to find awe in God’s actions in that text.
Instead, my disappointment in God’s violence is the genesis of my questions about meaning and justice. I suspend the violence in such a way that forces me to deal with the problem while not letting the problem escape. And it will remain there until I have fully addressed the problem of violence, the problem of interpretation, the problem of justice, and the problem of meaning. This problem constitutes an event, an endless engagement of a problem caught in suspension.

My theology begins in a disappointment at the lack of meaning I find in so many people talking about God, faith, and religion. 
My philosophy begins in a disappointment at how justice-for-each is buried under multiple layers of violence. 
My politics begins in a disappointment at how partisanship constantly destroys an-unable-to-be-expected future of hope for marginalized, vulnerable persons. 
My ethics begins in a disappointment that oppression in the United States is not a flaw of the system but the intended function of that system.

Perhaps the idea of wonder works better for you. 
And that's perfectly fine. But disappointment resonates so much more deeply with my experience. It is at the edge of my tears and anger that I forge my theology, philosophy, politics, and ethics as I pursue justice-for-each.