Charred Root of Meaning

Continuity, Transgression, and the Other in Christian Tradition

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Philipp W. Rosemann
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Philipp Rosemann’s Charred Root of Meaning is a conceptually brilliant, historically informed, eloquently written essay into the meaning of tradition and transgression—sameness and otherness—in Western philosophy and theology through detailed and fascinating readings of texts well known and not. The thesis is clear: “Tradition and transgression, far from excluding each other, are inextricably connected” (198). And the intention is ambitious: “to remind the Christian tradition of its transgressive core” and “to offer a corrective to the cult of transgression that pervades contemporary culture” (200). The book delivers on Rosemann’s intention and earns his thesis through pellucid, fascinating soundings of texts arising from this dynamic of transgressive traditionalism, ranging from the Hebrew Bible’s Genesis to Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Immersion (Piss Christ), always on the lookout for just those transgressions against a tradition that establishes new traditions. Whether tradition is essentially centripetal or centrifugal Rosemann wisely leaves unanswered, since he argues that you can’t have one without the other: center or margin would be meaningless alone (200). The book falls into two large parts: in the first three chapters, the Christian tradition gets established; in the last three, it gets maintained, challenged and revivified.

The introduction, “Break on through (to the Other Side),” offers a postmodern Christian history of tradition as forgetful memory in which the other is forgotten in order to establish a sameness of past and present, an(other) past that might always be recovered to create an(other) present during renaissance. Yet Rosemann’s postmodernism is always animated by the desire for the absolute Other—God. Rosemann is not always explicit about this, but—in the texts chosen, in the Catholic doctrine of development assumed, critiqued and refashioned, and in the felt longing in his often moving prose—he wants to fashion a sophisticated postmodern Christian faith.

So, it shouldn’t surprise the reader that the next three chapters take up the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and Augustine, respectively—always through the mediation of other texts. Rosemann constructs genealogies from strong parents, and it is difficult to imagine a stronger textual parent than Exodus, his reading of which is the book’s big bang: “Exodus 19 has served as a model of how the immanent and profane world comes into contact with the transcendent and sacred” (25).

In chapter 1, Moses’ encounter with the LORD in Exodus begets both Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s ascent to the divine in his Mystical Theology Paulist Press, 1987)and Pseudo-Peter of Poitiers’ allegory of biblical hermeneutics in his gloss on Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2007-2010) ). Notice both that Moses is transgressing the limit set between the divine and the human in the scriptural representation and that Exodus’ interpreters are transgressing the Jewish traditions of reading Exodus, which are certainly not those of Christian mystical theology and scriptural hermeneutics.

In chapter 2, Exodus begets Matthew. Rosemann is especially good both on the transgression by Christ of the law, the “fulfillment” of which is clearly a manifestation of something other in Judaism, and on the consequent Christian suppression of the other in its anti-Judaism. Rosemann sees transgression in tradition as neither fulfillment nor destruction, at least as those are normally understood, and he offers a compelling reading of Christianity as essentially a transgressive tradition.

In chapter 3, Exodus and Matthew beget Paul and Augustine, both of whom read Christianity as transgressing against both Judaism and paganism. The boundary between the human and the divine is transgressed, then established in Exodus; in Matthew, it is transgressed again. In unearthing an(other) future, Christianity transformed the Jew and the Greek into the other during “an act of exclusion” Christianity has only recently tried to rectify in the case of Judaism.

In chapter 4, Rosemann takes up Denys the Carthusian and the danger of commentary obscuring commented-upon texts, Alisdair MacIntyre on the challenge to traditions encountering other ones, and Jerome on the need to translate the language from one tradition into that of another, all three of which sublate and maintain the other voices in the apparent triumph of the same old voice.

In chapter 5, Rosemann examines the need of tradition to forget itself by going back to an earlier remembered moment when things might have been otherwise. Using Augustine’s understanding of memory from the Confessions (Oxford University Press, 1992) he examines Martin Luther and Martin Heidegger, reformation and deconstruction argued to fold back the tradition and begin again under the influence of an earlier, newly remembered moment of scripture or being.

All five chapters have side-stepped the question a reader will have had by then: How does one evaluate a transgression within a tradition? Are they all equally, relatively valid? In chapter 6, Rosemann tries to meet this challenge by examining two less-than-persuasive transgressions: Immanuel Kant’s clear misreading of Genesis’ account of the fall—the ur-transgression—in his “Conjectural Beginning of Human History” (Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Serrano’s sacrilegious stunt in his 1987 Piss Christ, which Rosemann compares to an equally scatological if more devout medieval illumination. Rosemann argues that both fail to acknowledge the pull of the “original” tradition during a transgression that overvalues originality in transvaluing tradition. If chapters 1-3 reveal the Christian tradition as transgressive, chapters 4-6 reveal a successful modern and postmodern transgression as arising from a respected tradition. As he concludes the book, “Playing in the margins of cultural norms is fun—and has a real function—only as long as there is a center” (200).

I am not as convinced as Rosemann that there is a center. Traditions are plural, after all, and, although there is an academic tendency to see history as a line of development, I have my doubts about that metaphor. As well, traditions operate within genres, kinds of texts and artifacts, the interaction of which is wonderfully manifold and vexed. The philosophical appropriation of scriptural literature, either in patristic and medieval hermeneutics or in modern and postmodern theory, is arguably one of the greatest forms of cultural oblivion in the West. Kant is not the first philosopher to misread the Bible. But, of course, that begs the question: How do you know when a reading is a misreading? Harold Bloom’s understanding of the strong misreading in literary criticism simply sets strength as the judge. Yet Rosemann is not satisfied with the will to transgressive power, or he would have no way to judge Kant or Serrano. He longs for some form of courageously transgressive love for the tradition, a love that demands the encounter with and revival of its otherness without doing violence to its being, like Moses facing the LORD. I am not sure Rosemann establishes the standard he assumes, but he certainly enacts it in these transgressions in the desert of the Western Christian tradition. The book shines like Moses’ face.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Crider is Professor of English at the University of Dallas Rome Program.

Date of Review: 
December 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philipp W. Rosemann holds the Chair of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth; he previously taught philosophy at the University of Dallas. His other books include The Story of a Great Medieval Book: Peter Lombard's 'Sentences', which studies the tradition of Christianity's most influential theology textbook.


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