Last Spring, Noëlle Vahanian, a philosophy professor at Lebanon Valley College, published The Rebellious No: Variations on a Secular Theology of Language. As a part of the literary series called “Perspectives in Continental Philosophy” with John D. Caputo as the series editor, this book finds itself among texts written by postmodern theology’s most recognized names, like Jean-Luc Marion Richard Kearney, and Jacques Derrida.
Vahanian’s approach to theology, especially as a secular discourse, is notably different from most other mainstream theology—namely in that she does not presume to convince anyone of anything. Her aphoristic style allows one to take in secular theology as a liberating discourse. Even if we are to say that “God is dead” in a truly Nietzschean sense (i.e. not as represented in the recent film God’s Not Dead), Vahanian does not think that this means we need to get rid of God, “because God is still a word. Faith—in all its trepidation—then becomes a lever of intervention, a rebellious no! to passive acceptance of a world that has stopped making sense and to patient waiting for some radical transformation to come” (2). But is that all we are rebelling from? “The main character of faith is,” she wrote, “rebelliousness against flat ordinariness, against the penchant to misplace concreteness and attach importance to abstractions—such as assigning undue credibility to normative constructs of the self, against the blind commodification of all values” (3).
The indifference of life is another potent analogy she uses. Life, as a personified figure, is indifferent to us. It couldn’t care less if we were happy or sad, loved or hated. Moreover, we often have no clue what life is about. “But while this much is clear, why should we cease to be amazed by the pleroma? Why should we cease to be puzzled, dumbfounded, awed, by the ground on which we walk every day? By the pavement and the streetlights? By lions and termites and bears and fish and water and snow and toes and nails and eyelashes and tongues and smells? Why should we hate and kill those who remind us to be puzzled? … Why should we, how can we be indifferent?” (42-43).
One should not read this text and expect to come out with answers. Vahanian’s hope in writing is that we “will have encountered the promise of a secular theology of language to rebel against so as to make real the borrowed words that come to signify our ordinary condition” (p. 134). In other words, her hope is that the reader has a real experience, such that we can go and love—love via our rebellious no to the current social order—which is confusing and illusory and disconcerting.
Parts of this work are noticeably academic—for instance, her reflections on Lacanian psychoanalysis. But these are not the crux of her work. Her work is best exemplified in its (theo)poetic elements. It is a work of art which may inspire us to “think to the limits” of thinking itself, such that “I am thrust against a wall, and in that collision, I am forced to recognize life—that it is more than me, more than human, and in that strange sense, more than mortal. Thinking is theological, because it holds the promise of the other” (122). Certainly she is a marginalized voice in an already marginalized sub-discourse of theology and philosophy, but this book is refreshing and contains a promise, or rather, points to an Event, where we might become love.