Si scires donum dei

Latour prefaces the Inquiry with the Latin epigraph ‘si scires donum dei’: ‘if you knew the gift of God’

Taken from John 4:10, these words are found in the context of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Having previously asked her to give him something to drink, Jesus proceeds to say to her: ‘if only you knew the gift of God (εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ Θεοῦ), and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’ (δός μοι πεῖν), you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν)’.

This verse serves by way of tangential commentary on Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of existence, for at least three reasons.

First, it contrasts two registers of meaning: the woman understands the request literally, in terms of the water provided by the well; what Christ is offering, however, is ‘living water’—whatever this is, it must have an entirely different signification from the literal. This prepares the ground for Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of rationality that is distinct from the informational [DC] and the referential [REF]. (There is a delicious irony here, though: current evidence suggests that the site of Jacob’s well itself was recognised and honoured by Christians from an early date as a pilgrimage site, thus re-integrating referential modes of connection that were not intended by the original text, for which cf. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, p.36-42).

Second, it introduces the idea of kinesis and motility. The Old Testament and inter-testamental literature envisages that the broken cisterns of Israelite religion (Jeremiah 2:13) will be unblocked by the divine gift of a ‘living water’ that will quicken the people to spiritual life again (Zechariah 14:8; Ezekiel 47:9; 1 Enoch 48:1, 49:1). Augustine explicitly associates the latter with movement and flow, in contrast to the stagnation of the former: ‘water is designated as ‘living’ when it is taken as it flows: this is the kind of water that was in that fountain’ (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, in NPNF 1, 7:102).This fits with Latour’s definition of religion as a ‘logistical’ process whose rationality is given by the operational ‘flows’ of plural ontological actors.

Third, the verse in its context (the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman) draws attention to the transgression of established gender, social, political, ethnic and religious boundaries in favour of a new community of understanding. As Latour points out time and time again, [REL] is not given in the mode of fundamentalist diktat, but in the mode of first subject-formation, and second community-formation. For the latter, he borrows the imagery of Pentecost from Michel Serres. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is therefore a ‘diplomatic’ encounter, to use his own terminology, insofar as religion is ‘activated’ between two people at that site, then pushed forward into larger group membership (for which, see John 4:39).


One thought on “Si scires donum dei

  1. So could we say jokingly that the anthropologist in the book is the alter ego of the Samaritan woman (whom the tradition tells that became an apostle and a saint, st Photini, In the Evangelical text she sounds like a very “free” spirit. (to my ears there is a kind of flirting going on next to the well of Jacob, even the effort of a woman who might have been looked down upon, to stand as her own nomos through her questions and finally find freedhom in being conquered)

    Dear Tim, I just read a very interesting book : Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order by Jeffrey C. Herndon.

    It is very interesting for me because it makes me feel I understand better what happened with Christianity in the West (something difficult since Western Christianity is seen not extremely favorably by many Orthodox sources and also not from the Enlightenment litterature).

    I also found some interesting connections with Latour
    For example in speaking about Augustine’s City of God, Voegelin says (pg 60)
    “the history of the Christian world has no structure of its own. After the appearance of Christ, history simply goes on having no internal aim until at some unknown point of time the aimless course is cut short by the second appearance of Christ, an appearance that, as far as the internal structure of the Christian community life is concerned, might come today as well as tommorrow or in a thousand years (CW 19:211-212)”

    I am thinking relative to this the different ways one could say that time is realised along the different modes of existence. So one could see in Latour’s ideas neither a linear progress from weakness to power nor a circular view of a world where things repeat but a complex weaving along different weaving patterns. A “secular” history that can be seen as a fuge in contrapanctual relation to the religious “history” (for the religiously minded). The many options of freedhom if you like.

    I also thought how, if one leaves on the side the self agrandisment of the moderns, there is a negotiation between different philosophies: Modern philosophy, christian philosophy, islamic philosophy, jewish philosophy, budhist philosophy, hindu philosophy, Comfucian philosophy etc.
    Philosophies that cannot be put under the same system but still each can try to give account of the others and are in fact influenced among themselves.

    —But this is not just an issue of discussion. It is an issue of conditions of life, of the future of ones siblings, of being able to move along life in conditions of life and death (or ability to act or impotence). It is also a matter of joining forces of different bedfellows (often bizzare bed fellows).—

    I also think that Latour’s language of discussing about the individual, the individual that is split into layers (and still can collect itself), is an interesting contribution in the ways of talking about the basics of politics and existence (which is like the preformance of a religious ritual, not just “talking about”) which fascinate Voegelin (and which to my opinion is in touch with something very central to the reality we experience).

    I also found the following passage very interesting, among many others, (pg 140)

    “St Thomas puts the essence of faith in the amicitia, the friendship between God and man… the relation of amicitia is mutual”
    “ It is this reciprocal relationship between the call of God and the response of the spirit that Voegelin sees as the characteristic that is most intimately human”
    So in Latour I see an expansion in this “dialogue” that includes the whole of creation. Only that the parcing is not done along the usual categories of “beings” (the usual ontology) but along different possible onotlogies (perhaps there is a freedom in creating ontologies similar to the freedom of the poets when talking about the “same” thing- what matters in the end is not a description written in stone but the movement of the spirit. In this sense Latour’s theorizing is similar to some theorizing in physics stating general constraints but leaving freedhom in the specific base eigenfunctions that one would decide to use).

    Any way you are a theologian and all these may be trivial to you (but not for a layman like me).

    Finally I find in the meeting of Voegelin with Latour the very intersting meeting of history and actuality.


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