I am not going to do a chapter by chapter analysis of Figuring the Sacred. Not every chapter was equally good. Some of his musings on Heidegger and Kant were interesting but not germane to narrative theology.
“Philosophy and Religious Language”
“Understanding a text is always something more than the summation of partial meanings; the text as a whole has to be considered as a hierarchy of topics” (Ricoeur 38).
This makes me think of chiasms. The structure of a chiasm reinforces meaning. Meaning unfolds from narrative.
“Not just any theology whatsoever can be tied to narrative form, but only a theology that proclaims Yahweh to be the grand actor of a history of deliverance. Without a doubt it is this point that forms the greatest contrast between the God of Israel and the God of Greek Philosophy” (40).
I’ve long expected the above paragraph to anger Anchorites. I was surprised when it started angering Reformed folk.
Manifestation and Proclamation
This is the most important essay in the book and the one that causes much offense. Ricoeur opposes a philosophy of manifestation (ontotheology) with a philosophy of proclamation (Yahweh speaks).
The “numinous” element of the sacred has nothing to do with language (49). Another key element is theophany–not moments in the biblical narrative, but anything by which the sacred shows itself (icons, relics, holy places). This means that reality is something other than itself while remaining itself.
There is a correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm (54). This brings to mind the Luciferian “as above, so below” dictum. In short, ontologies of manifestation always focus on “reality/grace/etc” emanating from the thing or the place.
There is a rupture–violent in the case of the prophets’ war against Baalism–between manifestation and proclamation. The word outweighs the numinous (56). Israel’s whole theology–and identity–was formed around discourses.
Per idols and icons: “We may say that within the Hebraic domain they (hierophanies) withdraw to the extent that instruction through Torah overcomes any manifestation through an image. A Theology of the Name is opposed to any hierophany of an idol…Hearing the word has taken the place of vision of signs” (56). God’s pesel is the Ten Words. It is the only pesel he commanded.
In “The ‘Sacred’ Text and the Community” Ricoeur gives a neat deconstruction of the concept “sacred,” especially when applied with a book.
For us, manifestation is not be necessity linked to language. The word ‘sacred’ belongs to the side of manifestation, not to the side of proclamation, because many things may be sacred without being a text (71)
Ricoeur the Hermeneut
His reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a is interesting, but more for the method than the conclusions. His essay on the Imagination is quite valuable in showing what “goes on” in a narrative. Many narratives in the Bible, particularly Jesus’s parables, employ intertextuality which always forces an expansion of meaning from the text. In other words, it is “an object with surplus value” (152). Assuming that the Holy Spirit didn’t write chaotically and randomly, isolated texts are now seen in a pattern and signify something else, something more (161).
Ricoeur then moves to a section on biblical time, which is useful for meditation. He summarizes von Rad, Cullman, and others. I won’t belabor the point.
His essay “Interpretive Narrative” offers his famous distinction between “idem” identity (the god of sameness, the god of Greek metaphysics) and ipse identity (the God who is constant to the Covenant). He expands this motif in “Naming God.” God’s identity is seen in his historic acts.
While magnificent, it is in many ways a difficult read. He assumes a familiarity with Continental Philosophy (itself a daunting task) and even then some essays don’t seem to have a point. But when he unloads on narrative he truly delivers.