There are, broadly speaking, five major covenants in the biblical canon: the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic, and the “New Covenant.” In this post I want to reflect a little on the role of the first four, with a later reflection on the role of the fifth. These are basic reflections that will, one day, be elaborated in a book and/or series of talks (they are reflections based on my reading/interpretation of Lacan and Zizek).
At a popular level it is thought that the point of contracts or covenants in the Biblical text is to connect people with their God. The five major covenants exist as form of binding one to the sacred. However, at a fundamental level, covenants exist as a means of helping us maintain a distance from the one we are interacting with. In this way the first four biblical covenants can be read more accurately as a means of people creating a distance from the sacred (with the last, I will argue elsewhere, signaling a radical cut).
To understand the nature of this distance it’s worth reflecting on how all covenants are designed to protect us from a very specific thing.
Firstly, we can note that covenants exist to navigate an already existing, or soon to exist, social relation. Take the example of a contract made during a divorce. The contract comes into being precisely because two people are already connected in some way. The contract thus exists to manage that relation. More precisely, it exists to separate each party from that deepest part of the other: their desire.
The contract used in a divorce is needed so that each party knows what their rights and responsibilities are regardless of personal feeling. The contract might outline when each party can see their children, how much alimony is to be paid or who has the final decisions in various matters. Perhaps one of the parents decides that he doesn’t want the other to see the children, or the other stops paying her fair share of costs for the child. Without such a contract these situations can easily degenerate into all out conflict. A contract can thus be seen to outline what everyone needs to adhere to: thus protecting both parties from becoming victims of the others shifting wants and desires.
The same goes for students living together (for it doesn’t take long for rota’s to become nessesary in order to ensure that everyone pulls their weight), or marriage (where two people make vows to commit to each other regardless of the ebbs and flows of their desire). Contracts or covenants, at their best, thus offer a mutually agreed set of terms concerning the roles and responsibilities of each party, so that peoples shifting and elusive desires don’t destabilize everything.
In this way covenants, contracts, rotas and vows manage social relations in such a way that parties are protected from the whims of the others desire. They acknowledge a connection (for we would not need them if there were no connection), while protecting us from that deepest part of the other.
In relation to the Hebrew Scriptures we can see how covenants operate with this fundamental logic. There are numerous references in the text to the elusive and terrifying nature of God’s desire. Times of peace, victory in war, and prosperity are often put down to God’s favor, but floods, plagues, doubts, and famines are generally taken to be evidence of God’s anger and jealousy.
In such a world covenants offered protection from these divine whims. There were clear instructions, alongside roles and responsibilities. If the covenant was obeyed then everything would be good, and if it wasn’t then there would be hell to pay. This then created a distance from the elusive desire of God, meaning that they could get on with other things.
This structurally reflects some of the anxiety that young children feel with their (real or symbolic) mother. While an infant will seek intimacy with their mother, there is also a psychological stifling that takes place if the relation is too close for too long. For the infant to develop her own sense of self apart from the mother a cut must be introduced. This cut is called the Name-of-the-Father” in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and it refers to that which gets in the way of the mother-child relation (this doesn’t need to be the actual father anymore than the initial connection needs to be with the actual mother).
If things go to plan the child experiences a type of psychological alienation from the mother, realizing that she has other interests and desires outside of their relationship. More than this, the child begins to create her own realm apart from the mother. If the mother is too overbearing then the child will tend to feel suffocated and anxious, wondering what the mother wants from her.
In very concrete terms we witness, within Judaism, the practical outworking of this distance. While belief in God still has a reasonably significant place within Judaism (though much less than actual existing Christianity), there is a certain palpable distance from God’s desire. What matters more are the rituals and practices, which are often carried out as rigorously among secular Jews as religious ones. Indeed the Midrash is well know to contain stories that explicitly draw this distance out, something that explored by Emmanuel Levinas.
When approaching these covenants in this way we can begin to understand why Radical Theology doesn’t see religion proper as a means of bringing us close to the divine, but rather as a means of breaking us free from the divine. In a specifically Lacanian theology, this breaking free is not related to some kind of intellectual belief, but to divine desire. A Lacanian reading of religion involves drawing out those parts of the tradition that seek to distance us from the Big Other in whatever form that Big Other takes.
The Radical Church is thus charged with the task of helping mimic that space so that those involved can take full responsibility for their actions.
These are only provisional reflections on the first four covenants. I hope to reflect on the role of the fifth soon and bring these together in a much deeper way in the future. This should help to explain the theory behind my project: building Radical expressions of Church.