The Monkey in the Margin: History, Tradition, and Transgression


[T]he early scholastic notion of revelation was more dynamic than the modern one. Revelation does not occur, in the medieval understanding, once and for all in the static letters of a closed canon of Scripture; rather, it is an unveiling of God’s scriptural message as it is unfolded in successive generations of readers.[1]

Philipp Rosemann

Does History Have Any Meaning?

Some wit somewhere has noted that there are really only two views of history: It is either “One damn thing after another,” or else it is “The same damn thing over and over again.” The second view is the view of the pagan world, where “history” is composed of endless cycles of foundation, rise, decay, and fall—rinse and repeat. History has no meaning in this view; it is an endless repetition, a pale imitation of the mythic order, which is the “real” order where “real” time exists.

The Jews are the first to have a “progressive” view of history, the one thing after another view: we really do start someplace, are going somewhere, and encounter new things along the way. From the standpoint of historiography, the most important line of the Hebrew Scriptures might be, “Morning and evening, the first day.” Before there is a sun or moon, there is a day, there is time; creation takes place not in the mythical, timeless world, but in and with time. The mythic order bursts into the order of time, transgressing the boundary between them, and history makes a claim on meaning. This claim we may rightly call “tradition.” Now, it does not matter how much, if any, credence we give to the “historical” claims of the first six days, or of any of the days after that; from now on, the encounter between Yahweh and his people will take place in historical time, even if the account of that time takes on aspects of the mythic and the legendary.

These two views of history also entail conflicting views of the job of tradition. In the pagan view, it is only necessary to keep the Sacred Fire burning through the endless cycles and pass its embers on from one age to the next. There is neither change nor growth nor reason for either. In other words, tradition must be protected from time and change. But it is otherwise with the Jewish and Christian view of history; the journey through time is a real journey, a real and on-going encounter with the Creator, and a never-ending opportunity for growth in understanding and wisdom. In other words, time and change must be embraced. But this poses a great question for tradition: If the scenery on this journey keeps changing, can tradition have any stable center? Can it track a moving target? And if it can change, how much change is too much, and how would we know?

Limits and Transgression

These are the kinds of questions that Philipp Rosemann takes on in Charred Root of Meaning: Continuity, Transgression, and the Other in Christian Tradition. The “charred root” of the title comes from Foucault, who finds that all meaning is grounded in an act of exclusion, which defines some “other” as lying outside the purview of history and falling short of human subjectivity. What is established here is a limit, and every culture and tradition defines a limit to the core of its identity and it establishes this limit by an “act of relegating to the margins something that used to be at the center.” But this act “creates a ‘hollowed-out void’ that will continue to haunt the center.”[2] This could be connected with Hegel’s exclusion from the unfolding of the Spirit all cultures that do not fit his account of the historical march toward absolute knowledge. This optimism, this belief in an uninterrupted historical march towards perfection, is countered by Foucault with an account of history that “remains permanently marked by the brokenness of its origins.”[3]

These “broken origins” reverberate throughout the development of a tradition, and are reflected in inevitable “epistemological crises” which force a reconsideration of the tradition. The process is described by Alasdair MacIntyre as beginning in the beliefs and practices of some particular community which constitute its “given.” This tradition has no justification outside of itself and cannot be critiqued from the outside. But that does not mean that the tradition is static and self-perpetuating, for questions arise internally over different interpretations of its texts and rites, or by facing new situations to which the texts must be applied. If the tradition is to survive, it must summon the resources to overcome these difficulties and will do so by developing theories and methods of problem resolution. However, it is inevitable that a tradition will come against problems which cannot be overcome by their internal resources and this leads to the epistemological crisis. The tradition can only overcome this crisis by opening itself to other and rival traditions, by learning to speak “a second first language.” The only alternative is defeat and death.[4]

This process is illustrated by the way in which the early Christians, existing with a hostile pagan culture, adopted the “second first language” of Platonic philosophy. Later it would adopt from the Muslims the second first language of Aristotelianism. Without the first move, Christianity would, arguably, not have survived, or survived only as a sect within Judaism. And every age is like that first age and no age more so than our own, wherein we confront a culture no less hostile to us than was that of the first century. But in each age, this opening up to the rival tradition is “transgressive” in the etymological sense of the term, that of a “crossing over.” For the question always arises, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” or Mecca with Rome? We face this same conundrum today as we confront a hostile modernity in hopes of creating a more Christian post-modernity. And while one might justly critique any particular approach to this postmodernity, it would be a fatal mistake to reject all such efforts in the name of a static tradition.

Tradition, Translation, and Forgetting

For tradition is not simply a “handing-off” from one era to the next, as in paganism, but a translation from one language to another, and this means both natural language and cultural language. As Prof. Rosemann notes,

Christianity faced a translation problem at its very roots: it had to translate Judaism into Christianity. This translation involved both the theological problem that crystallizes in Matthew 5:17, and the transference of the Hebrew words of the Old Testament into the Greek text of the New. … Christianity, then, is essentially a translation project.[5]

Jesus illustrates this process of translation when he says that he comes to fulfill the Law and will not change even a single letter of it. Yet, this fulfillment of the Law leaves the Law behind; Christians will not worry about two sets of dishes or even about meat sacrificed to idols. When circumcision in the flesh is replaced with a circumcision of the heart, the Law is both fulfilled and forgotten. The “traditionalists” are justly shocked by this nullifying “fulfillment,” yet the whole Christian identity—its tradition—is forged in the fires of the conflict between Paul and “the party of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5).

But translation always involves certain dangers. One must keep in mind the Italian proverb, “Traduttore, traditore,” “translator, traitor.” Words do not map precisely from one language to another, nor concepts from one age to the next; translation is essentially an interpretive problem, a process of selection. Some aspects of the Tradition are emphasized while others are eclipsed. There is always a “forgetting” involved in the transmission of a tradition; “tradition needs forgetting to function.”[6] But this leaves open the possibility of a renaissance, of a ressourcement (in the argot of Vatican II), a return to the sources that allows us to follow paths not taken, to express possibilities that have been repressed or forgotten, but which are no less “traditional” than practices which survived.

Transgression as Banal: Piss Christ and Shitting Monkey

Jesus Christ “transgresses” the Law to establish the Law of Love. But there is a great danger here, since “Not all transgressions are equal, however: some may be necessary, others ‘destructive’ in a way that decouples destruction from construction.”[7] Or as Walter Brueggemann notes, “The serpent is the first in the Bible to seem knowing and critical about God and to practice theology in place of obedience.”[8] Prof. Rosemann illustrates the differences by looking at two works of art, one contemporary and one from the middle ages, both of which are meant to shock the viewer.

The first work is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. This image is certainly transgressive, but is it constructive or destructive? We cannot tell just from the fact that it is shocking. For we can look at another work, equally shocking, from the 14th century psalter of the Count of Flanders. There, on the margins of the 41st Psalm, we find an image of a monkey who is defecating round objects which bear a cross (the hosts of communion?) while being blessed by a bishop. Both images are equally transgressive, but are they equally destructive? The question is one of context. The monkey and the bishop appear in the margin of a prayer book and the count would see them while at prayer. That is, there is a normative center which gives the margin its interpretive context.

The monkey is a frequent image in medieval art, signifying the sensual and subhuman parts of our nature. Medieval culture did not suppress the “Dionysian”; rather, it existed on the margins in full sight of the dominant culture. Indeed, festa stultorum, the “feast of fools” where the social and ecclesiastical orders were reversed, were held in cathedrals. The lower clergy performed bawdy stories, even inside the church, and a boy-bishop was elected. Here, the center and the margins were held in tension, reflecting and illuminating each other.

It is otherwise with Serrano. The interpretive context is simply the cult of originality and the art market:

For modernity, to be human means to transgress existing limits, to expand the horizon of knowledge—or of artistic possibility, as the case may be. But these horizons keep receding: “the avant-garde enterprise,” as Anthony Julius put it, “can no longer exceed the capacity of the art world to absorb it, nor can this subversive endeavor distinguish itself in a culture defined by subversiveness.” … In the words of Arthur C. Danto, “artists pressed against boundary after boundary, and found that the boundaries all gave way.”[9]

The art market cannot provide the limits which make transgression meaningful rather than merely destructive. Art simply becomes a commodity within the art market,

part of someone’s investment portfolio… Every work will be good as long as its value appreciates, whether it is a Rembrandt or a Mapplethorpe. The process of commodification, then, dissolves whatever limits did remain even further, and it will do this while normalizing the artwork’s transgressive aspects. … “Capitalism has at last dissolved the opposition between system and transgression.”[10]

In such circumstances, transgression becomes merely banal, devoid of any meaning because it has lost its relationship to a now absent center and hence its ability to shock or to enlighten.

God as the First Transgressor

In order to reach the divine, Man must transgress the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. But Man by himself is not, of course, capable of doing this; the initiative always remains with God, must always start in the other direction. It is God himself who first crosses the boundaries, in the Garden, on Mt. Sinai, or in the Incarnation. But he then withdraws, leaving an empty space, one that man must fill up in the course of history. We fill this empty space with the record of our encounters, that is, with our Tradition. But this Tradition can never be complete, nor can we ever have full access to it. It is, paradoxically, both secure and changing, and more, secure because it is changing, ever able to expand in response to the divine initiative, a response which we call “history.” Prof. Rosemann has furnished us with a richly detailed account of how this encounter functions within Christianity, one well-worth reading.

  1. Philipp W. Rosemann, Charred Root of Meaning; Continuity, Transgression and the Other in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 47.

  2. Rosemann, 12.

  3. Rosemann, 14.

  4. Rosemann, 114–18.

  5. Rosemann, 121.

  6. Rosemann, 135.

  7. Rosemann, 165.

  8. Rosemann, 170.

  9. Rosemann, 195–96.

  10. Rosemann, 196–97.


  1. “The second view is the view of the pagan world, where “history” is composed of endless cycles of foundation, rise, decay, and fall—rinse and repeat. History has no meaning in this view; it is an endless repetition, a pale imitation of the mythic order, which is the “real” order where “real” time exists.

    “The Jews are the first to have a “progressive” view of history, the one thing after another view:”

    Eric Voegelin thoroughly debunked this view over 50 years ago. See Order and History, Vol. 4.

    • I’m not familiar with Voegelen on this, but istm that any discussion would have to deal with “the first day” problem. It’s a strange assertion ; before there is a sun or a moon, there is a morning and evening, there is time.

  2. Rieff said most of this in “Deathworks” and “Crisis of the Officer Class.” Right down to the MacIntyre, Foucault, Mapplethorpe and Serrano references (with good bit of Duchamp, too).
    Does Rosemann discuss Nietzsche’s “Use and Abuse” essay? Your review made me think of that piece, as an appreciation for the past entails both remembering and forgetting, as well.
    Thanks for the review, I’m definitely going to read this book.

  3. I’m not certain that Christianity precludes the cyclical, “pagan” vision of history.

    Karl Lowith, in his “Meaning in History,” understood that all historical occurance can only be veiwed as “meaningful” in either a transcendant or in a “progressive” way, and that post-Incarnational history can only meaningful in this first sense, since the Incarnation is the end of history.

    Hence, by participation in the Incarnation, man is enabled to “ride out” the various cycles, not because the cycles themselves are intrinsically meaningful, (even the ascent or decline of Tradition is potentially without intrisic meaning,) but because the Incarnation gives permanence to the being of our souls as they are infleunced by and respond to history.
    Thus The Incarnation allows our individual actions to be spiritually or metaphysically meaningful, (without even the hint that a broader meaning could be assigned to historical phenomena as a whole.) Therefore, because the exterior movements of history are incapable of meaning, neither can the exterior movements of tradition be meaningful, if the central truth of that tradition is secure.

    In a similar way, I think it might be said with greater validity that “tradition changes because it is secure,” rather then that “tradition is secure because it changes. It’s transcendance is has primacy over its responsibility to respond to the outside world; however, that transcendance allows it to escape the dangers of historical change.

    That said, Medaille’s review might very well serve as a gloss on the following quote:

    “We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.”

  4. Michael,
    I think you are correct that the progressive view does not preclude the cyclic view, but rather unites them. That happens to be a theme covered in another work by Prof. Rosemann, “Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault.” I also think that “tradition changes because it is secure” is a good way to put it.

    Are you comparing Tradition to the wall around the nursery? That’s a bit too “secure” for me. Confronting history and tradition is a perilous enterprise.

    • Actually, my point was that unless one very carefully delineate what one means by “progressive,” it cannot truly be said that Christianity is historically “progressive,” certainly not in the same way Judiaism is. Christians, after all, “know neither the day nor the hour,” and are really already at and in the end of history itself, as members of Christ’s body. So if Christianity is progressive at all, it is surely not in the historical sense.

      In the passage quoted, Chesterton is, (I think) referring to the Church’s attitude towards worldly goods, as well as the pagan “attitude” towards those goods. The dionysian aspect of feasts and fasts, etc.

      I appropriated it to emphasise the “transcendant” truth which Tradition preserves. That is the “wall” within which, if you will, the most vicious and strange philosophical and theological debates can be allowed within ever losing contact with transcendant truth.

      A wall is perhaps an innappropriate metaphor. Tradition, as it appears to those who live within it, seeks more to be a kind of “incarnation” of transcendant truth within a certain practical way of life, (though neccessarally finite and fallible.) A wall merely surrounds, whereas tradition is immanent and penatrative. So, even if “revelation does not occur, in the medieval understanding, once and for all in the static letters of a closed canon of Scripture; rather, it is an unveiling of God’s scriptural message as it is unfolded in successive generations of readers.” This disclosure need not be progressive, even if it is successive. Hence the perennial need within the church for a return to the source.

      It might also be added that it is only through the tradition of the living body of the church that the source of faith is even accessible.

  5. Does Rosemann refer at all to Andrew Sopko’s little-known book The Problem of Christian Tradition? I read it a couple years ago and don’t remember much about it, but it seemed to touch on some of the same themes. I’ve been meaning to read it again but haven’t gotten around to it.

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