Study Guide

Figuring the Sacred

by Paul Ricœur

Figuring the Sacred Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Figuring the Sacred, edited and introduced by Mark I. Wallace, includes essays published between 1971 and 1992 by Paul Ricur, former professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a winner of the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences. The collection is divided into five parts: an examination of the nature of religious discourse; resolution of conflicting philosophical positions on religion held by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995); critical analysis of the polyphonous nature of different biblical literary genres; hermeneutical and phenomenological arguments about hope, evil, and the narrative of self-identity; and homiletics that convert recondite metaphysical arguments into principles for everyday moral action. The inconclusiveness of Ricur’s dialogic mode of argument and his use of abstruse philosophic and semiotic terminology can conceal from all but the most determined readers his profound views on religious belief.

In the first part of Figuring the Sacred, Ricur establishes the importance of discourse analysis in interpreting Judeo-Christian tradition inasmuch as that tradition arises from the interlaced faith of different communities whose particular languages and idioms give enduring meaning to religious belief. Linguistic analysis is especially important because of the value the Bible places upon the Word. However, Ricur rejects any structuralist “cult of the text” because the infinite partial meanings of scripture make, in fact, ontological references to the sacred. “To see the world as sacred is at the same time to make it sacred, to consecrate it.” Using the concept of a Heilsgeschichte (salvific history) found in the work of Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971), Ricur celebrates the tensions created by the apparent incongruities of the Bible, for instance, between narrative and prophecy. Stated simply, these tensions, generated by the use of “limit-expressions,” force a suspension of belief in reality and leave holy scripture open to perpetual interpretation. Ricur builds upon the work on comparative religion of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who observed that manifestations of the numinous are not described directly in primordial belief systems but are instead represented in hieratic rituals simulating the sacred through “a logic of correspondence.” However, in Judeo-Christian tradition, the sacred becomes textual through divine proclamations that shatter the logic of the cosmos, creating an epoché through which humans are freed to envision the Kingdom of...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)

Figuring the Sacred Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Fodor, James. Christian Hermeneutics: Paul Ricur and the Refiguring of Theology. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. A critical effort to appropriate the philosophy of Ricur into Christian theology.

Hahn, Lewis Edwin, ed. The Philosophy of Paul Ricur. Library of Living Philosophers 22. Chicago: Open Court, 1995. Includes an intellectual autobiography by Ricur, scholarly articles about all aspects of Ricur’s philosophy, and a bibliography of works by and about Ricur.

Kearney, Richard. On Paul Ricur: The Owl of Minerva. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. A clear and concise examination of the philosophy of Ricur, followed by five dialogues between Kearney and Ricur over central concepts of his method.

Lowe, Walter James. “The Coherence of Paul Ricur.” Journal of Religion 61 (October, 1981): 384-402. A provocative exploration of the Calvinist and Lutheran implications of Ricur’s thought.

Wall, John. Moral Creativity: Paul Ricur and the Poetics of Possibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An argument built on the philosophy of Ricur that moral life is possible only through human creativity.