Ricoeur on Prophetic Politics

I’m currently doing some research on the social uses of the concepts “sin” and “Fall,” and have been led to the early work of the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur. Currently I’m reading his Symbolism of Evil (1960). This is my first encounter with Ricoeur’s writing and so far I’ve found him fascinating. As phenomenologists go he’s actually quite readable. Moreover, the breadth of his engagement with biblical materials and research on the Ancient Near East is impressive, exempting him from my earlier critique of “phenomenologists of nothing.”

There are various overlaps with Yoder I’d like to explore someday, particularly on their readings of prophetic politics. In Ricouer’s terms Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah teach a “political ‘nihilism,'” “the expression of a pedagogy of historical failure that aims at placing the ethical demand beyond any assignable historical end, beyond any finite observance, beyond any self-justification” (62). For Ricoeur, this move towards infinite demand characterizes the prophets, and completes the Old Testament’s overall picture of ethics as simultaneously a call to unconditional righteousness and to specific, finite acts of righteousness. Without eliminating the latter, the prophets want to “shatter any assurance that the pious man might draw from his observance of the commandments.” Instead of political zeal, no matter how “righteous,” it is through prophetic “non-resistance” (61) and “unarmed obedience” (57) that “the song of hope of second Isaiah might be heard” (62). (By “second Isaiah” I assume he means Isaiah 40-55, though he might have another division in mind.)

Though Yoder would likely (and rightly) refrain from calling this “political nihilism,” there are clearly certain accents here that go well with his treatment of the Jeremianic “politics of exile,” as well as with his general project. For Yoder, Jeremiah’s admonition that Jews exiled in Babylon “seek the peace of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7) prefigures the politics of the cross which, for Yoder, are the politics of not being in control, of giving up “handles on history.” Though this politics does not count on immediate success, it does follow the “grain of the universe”–it corresponds to the underlying moral order and thus in the long run is far more realistic than what politicians short-sightedly call “realism.”

I’m not sure where Ricoeur will go with the phrases “non-resistance” and “unarmed obedience” or with his general reading of prophetic politics, but from a Yoderian perspective it’s a good start. Perhaps the influence of Gerhard von Rad is notable here, as Ricoeur draws from him extensively, and Yoder (with his student Marva Dawn) translated von Rad’s Holy War in Ancient Israel. As a non sequitur, I’m also curious to know what influence, if any, Symbolism of Evil and related works had on Derrida, who was Ricoeur’s teaching assistant around the time he wrote it.



  1. 1
    Chase Says:

    I read Ricoeur (mostly via Brueggeman) in Goldingay’s class. I liked him. That’s all I have to offer.

  2. 2
    elcaballo Says:

    Um, thanks.

  3. 3
    Chase Says:

    No problem. Expect me to provide this kind of trenchant commentary any time you mention someone I’ve read before.

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