Sunday, December 28, 2014

On Repetition: New Year's Again and Again and Again

In connection with the truth as inwardness in existence... the law is: the same, and yet changed, and still the same (Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Swenson and Lowrie translation, 254)

Last year around this time, I jumped on the #mythreewords bandwagon. It was a fun experiment attempting to develop a mission statement for the year in advance of living it, but I found, generally speaking, it didn't pan out very well. Life as a dad and pastor, life lived the way I tend to live life, for better or worse, is considerably more random than three words can encompass.

But for all that, this life is remarkably repetitious in its randomness.

This year, I'm more curious about the repetition of the new year every new year qua new year. Every new year "the culture" keeps coming back around and encouraging itself in the same-old same-old. We're so predictable the U.S. government is even able to measure and blog such things (

The whole resolutions thing is entirely tiring, exhausting us in renewed commitment to the very things we attempted and failed the year prior. It is also entirely re-energizing, inspiring us to continue the same new habits we started and maintained successfully the whole year.

But why do we keep doing it? Is it simply that somewhere along the line we adopted a cyclical calendar that is also linear, cycling around the years while always moving forward?

I have noticed that, at imprecise intervals, we are all repetitious, even on the bigger themes. For example, as I sat down to write this blog, I remembered I had written a post on the spirituality of repetition a while back, and it turns out it was one decade ago, December of 2004 ( And in January of this year I blogged four mini book reviews, one of which was of Catherine Pickstock's seminal Repetition and Identity: The Literary Agenda.

Repetition and Identity offers a theory of the existing thing. A thing has identity and consistency when it has been repeated, already. Repetition also summons difference and invokes a shadow of a connecting sign. The quest for the identity and consistency of this thing leads us from the subject through fiction and history and to sacred history, to shape an ontology which is also a literary theory and a literary artefaction (adapted from

For Pickstock liturgy and writing are themselves ontological, so literary artefaction is by no means artifice. Not everyone, especially those of a more literalist persuasion, will accept this thesis, but it is a helpful alternative to straight-up post-structuralist thought.

Then, of course, Kierkegaard also famously wrote on repetition in a philosophical novel of that name.

In it, although it is a strange little book, Kierkegaard offers some hints as to why we ought to give more considered attention to repetition. He writes, for example:
Who could want to be a tablet on which time writes something new every instant or to be a memorial volume of the past?Who would want to be susceptible to every fleeting thing, the novel, which always enervatingly diverts the soul anew? If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would not have come into existence. Either he would have followed the superficial plans of hope or he would have retracted everything and preserved it in recollection. This he did not do. Therefore, the world continues, and it continues because it is a repetition. Repetition — that is actuality and the earnestness of existence. The person who wills repetition is mature in earnestness. (132-133)
Repetition isn't an abstraction to consider, it is actuality itself. Back up a bit from life and it is easy to see why this is so. It is rather remarkable, when one considers it, that we are consistently the same person from moment to moment. Our identities have a kind of perdurance that is extraordinary. In middle age, listen to an old VHS tape of a speech you gave in high school, and you will still hear some inflections, key themes, still see some facial tics and mannerisms endure from then until the present.

So too, if one thinks about it, given the laws of physics, it is remarkable that anything holds together from moment to moment at all. We rely on the repetitious same-ness of the planet, the solar system, molecular particles, etc. I'm reminded of some concepts in Jonathan Edwards summarized well by Paula Cooey, footnoted in Theology and the Kinesthetic Imagination: Jonathan Edwards and the Making of Modernity:

In this sense we might say that repetition is Spirit. But this repetition is not the identical repetition of Kant, repetition keyed in to time as a straight line. Nor is this repetition of the circular same, repetition cycling through mythic time. Instead, repetition must be, somehow or other, more akin to the Deleuzian concept of repetition, where repetition does not take place in time but rather is itself the form of time. 

For Deleuze, repetition is a kind of eternal return. Things as identical unity will not return, but instead, for Deleuze, "Difference inhabits repetition" (76). Sometimes this is called non-identical repetition. In theology, it is sometimes spoken of as recapitulation. It is a selective repetition, where difference itself filters what is repeated. Or something like that.

One great example of recapitulation is the relationship between the gospel of Luke the narrative of Acts. The life of Jesus is repeated in the new community in Acts, often remarkable even seemingly identically so, and yet this is also repetition with a difference.

So what does all this have to do with the shape of our New Year's resolutions? For one, it frames what we find repetitive, even tiresome, in new ways. It is, as Kierkegaard says, "The same, and yet changed, and still the same." Even if we recommit in 2015 to resolutions we failed to fulfill in 2014, the resolutions are the same, and changed, and the same, because they are now resolved again... or again and again.

If nothing else, the repetition is marked by the stalwart nature of our commitment to repeat what is repeatable.

Christian faith is also like this, in nuce. Martin Luther liked to say of baptism (although I can't locate the source right now) that it is once... again and again... and more and more. Which is to say that baptism makes us holy, completely alive in Christ, the first and one time we are splashed into it. But it is also something we can return to again and again each time we fail to live the life of the baptized. And as something we return to each day, it is a resource to deepen faith and holiness more and more over the course of a lifetime.

That also is repetition inhabited by difference. 

In a similar manner, the life of Christians is indelibly itself repetition, recapitulation, of the life of that one who revitalized the image of God in humanity, Jesus Christ himself. Which is to say our lives together as Christians are a kind of non-identical repetition of the life of Christ. In the Spirit we keep repeating Christ's life, if differently. 

I kind of wonder if this helps make better sense of that very strange line in Paul, Col. 1:24: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. "

And I wonder a bit (imagining there are Trinitarian resources in the tradition for doing so) whether this is also a way of thinking about the life of God. We tend to think God endures, perdures, is changeless, continuous, immortal. Yet we also consider God to be alive, vital, three in one. So the life of God must be in some way, as the perichoretic relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a kind of repetition inhabited by difference, the Father always becoming more of who the Father is because of his relationship with the Son, the Son always becoming more of who the Son is as the one begotten of the Father, and the Spirit always becoming more of who the Spirit is by its mutual differential inhabiting of the space between them.

Or something like that.

So, for 2015, rather than develop a set of three words to offer a mission for 2015, I'm simply going to attend to the difference I find in the many repetitions I will, well, repeat this year. This will be a year like any other year. It will not be a year like any other year. Somewhere in there will be the glory of God.

Oh, and I have made one simple true resolution: "I plan to make more facial expressions in 2015."

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