Real Presences

The life of theological concepts.

By Christine Helmer

Although they inhabit the realm of the possible, the conceptual disciplines rely on the actual for their truth. In the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz taught us, what constitutes the “best” is the most real; in the world of Descartes’s imagination, it is the existence of his personal self in the real world that instantiates his thinking. The pivotal characteristic of the world in which we live is the weave between concept and reality. Spirit is embodied in nature, the conceptual is anchored in the empirical, word is incarnate in flesh. There is no other reality than this one, and it is this one that is made up of two actual constituent and inseparable dimensions.

The task of the conceptual disciplines is to place the reality of their concepts in relation to corresponding empirical realities. Theories are tailored to suit the realities that are conceptualized; hypotheses are constructed in order to guide empirical experimentation. Feminist theory, for example, situates its notion of subjectivity in view of real women’s experiences. Analytic philosophy locates the logic of linguistic reconstruction in the face of ordinary language. Theoretical physics develops models imagining how subatomic particles can be related to an expanding universe. Theory without empirical reality is empty; empirical reality without concepts is blind.

Nevertheless, the conceptual disciplines cannot be restricted to empirical reality for the instantiation of their truth. Empirically perceived reality is not the only reality there is. Social realities include interpersonal relations and the relations of persons to systems by dynamics of love; social realities also include evils transcending even the human capacity to imagine the consequences of those evils that they conspire.1 Historical realities are wedged into reality by fact, yet those facts are interpretations transmitted interpersonally and intergenerationally. Religious realities are lived out in communities that create spaces both individual and communal for anticipated interruptions of the sacred. The task of the conceptual disciplines is to add to the empirically oriented disciplines by exploring precisely the multiple meanings within existing worlds, even those meanings that no eyes have seen nor ears heard. The conceptual disciplines are necessary because they open up empirically determined reality to ways of conceiving actuality according to the whole. Explanatory models give robust reasons for why things are the way they are; metaphysical theories posit realities that are more elementary than those appearances perceived by the senses; and fundamental ontology describes what it means to be human in order to explain freedom and mysticism. These are the realities intuited and articulated by the conceptual disciplines that resist one-dimensional, nonimaginative reductions of life’s abundance and that integrate the multivalence of realities into visions of the whole.

It is this niche that theology shares with the other conceptual disciplines, yet theology has its own unique perspective of reality that it can contribute to both conceptual and empirical studies. In this essay I will suggest ways to show that the realities articulated by theology can expose some of the deepest dimensions of the world as theorized by the conceptual disciplines and limned by the empirical. God and the soul, sin and grace, suffering and redemption are theological conceptualizations of reality that point to some of life’s deepest mysteries. To show theology’s capacity to carve out dimensions of reality not accessible to other conceptual disciplines, I will first discuss theology’s métier of concept formation. My main contention in this first part is that theology is not primarily about doctrines but about concepts pertaining to the reality of the intersection between spirit and nature. Hence, concept formation requires encountering various regions of thought, experience, and action for the concepts’ predicates.

In the second part of this essay, I will discuss the burden and the joy of theology’s work of infusing life into the concept. If theology is not to remain behind and bury the dead, it must look to life’s ebb and flow for its own living realities. I will argue that the life of theological concepts is the reality of real presences.

In this essay’s third part, I will turn to the hermeneutical dimension of theology’s concept formation. Theology must articulate its concepts in such a way that they can be heard and understood by its conversation partners. By paying attention to the universal aspect of concepts, theology can truly communicate the uniqueness of its conceptualized real presences.


Theology’s Métier

The reality about which theology speaks is one that is intimately tied to an epistemological question: How can this reality be known? The medieval entry into the question of the divine nature, the Enlightenment turn to consciousness and subjectivity, the current analytic-philosophical talk about basic beliefs, these are the transhistorical ways of addressing the common question regarding how claims about reality can be made.

The history of Christianity can be characterized by two theories concerning theology’s knowledge of realities. Both theories are available as options in the New Testament and both are represented by Western Christianity. One signals a dramatic epistemic shift from blindness to sight: the paradigmatic example of this model is Paul’s sudden conversion on his way to Damascus to a new appreciation for Jesus Christ (Acts 9). The second is less dramatic: a gradual yet inevitable growth into a reality that already exists in embryonic form. Conversion and development are the two anthropological dimensions of these models, and Christ as the new creation and Christ as the consummation of creation are their two christological dimensions. Although the two seem mutually exclusive, the second can be related to the first, and related in such a way as to show that even the conversion model presupposes the developmental model. It is precisely the second that forms the condition for the possibility of the first—conversion presupposes a certain degree of conceptualization of that reality to which one is converted. Without some conceptualization, communication about that reality could not even be understood. Paul already possesses some knowledge about Jesus before his encounter with the real person. Hence, the second model of concept formation, that of growth, explains the possibility of conceptual development in individual biography, in a community’s history, and in intercultural trans-history. Even new determinations of a dramatic sort can be predicated on the basis of the concept, because the concept has already been exposed to the predicate of conversion as one of its possibilities.

The history of theology cannot be isolated from the multibraided matrices in which theological ideas are embodied.

Theology’s métier is concept formation. My emphasis on this differs from the more common understanding of theology as a rehearsal of classical doctrines in historical and systematic form. The contemporary intellectual and political milieu challenges us to define a new understanding of the nature and task of theology that is better suited to the reality of spirit’s intersection with nature, to subjects of theology that extend beyond the traditional European male intellectual elite, and to the multivalent ways in which reality is explored by the sciences and in the humanities. The history of theology cannot be isolated from the multibraided matrices in which theological ideas are embodied, and doctrinal systems cannot be rehearsed as the sole options for organizing “lived religion.”2

This different emphasis on theology as concept formation means that theology has as its task the assigning of predicates to concepts in order that those concepts can be determined in the flow of life. Predicates are taken from a variety of sites: experiences, propositions, ideas, intuitions. As they are formed and conveyed to others, the concepts contain predicates made possible by previous experiences and sources, and are open to new determinations in actual experience. How open depends on the parameters initially set, yet history changes and new predicates can also effect changes in the extension of the concepts. It is necessary for transhistorical concept formation that concepts remain relatively stable; yet they are also relatively flexible, open to revision and supplementation as they are communicated from one generation or discursive field to another.

The choice of which concepts function as dominant in the ages of Christianity is a historical contingency, set at the origins of the Christian religion. At original sites of novel religious experience, the first and important conceptualizations of those experiences occur. In Leibniz’s terms, the singular concept (conceptus singularis) is a concept that has one predicate. Leibniz’s particular type of logic allows him such a move—one predicate is related to its concept by virtue of the fact that the predicate is included in the concept of the subject. Given another type of logic, Kant’s for instance, the concept would have to have at least two predicates to be minimally determined. There are no singular concepts for Kant. By advocating the singular concept, Leibniz and then Schleiermacher in his footsteps are able to claim that the original site of conceptualizing a reality can yield a singular concept. Schleiermacher particularly exploits this point in order to claim that the singular concept is the original moment of the truth of the concept’s history. It is here that concept and reality are presupposed as a unity: to put this in other words, the concept and that which it conceptualizes are one. By conceiving theology as concept formation based on an original relation of truth, theology is oriented closely to predicates of religion’s life and to their determination of the particular reality with which religion is preoccupied.

Christianity’s consensus deems the origins of its concepts to reside in the New Testament. An origin earlier than the post-Easter kerygma, written back into discrete events in Jesus’ biography, is not available, at least according to catholic consensus.3 The original conceptualization of the reality of Jesus is accessible only through the resurrection appearances. It is from this perspective that the gospels and the epistles assign predicates to Jesus. He is the good shepherd, the perfect sacrifice, the healer, the crucified one, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” as Peter exclaims in Matthew 16:16.4 These various predicates serve to determine the identity of Jesus. The names attributed to Jesus are elicited by the impact that Jesus has on the persons doing the naming. Even the dying breath on the cross elicits the outburst from the Roman centurion, “Truly, this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). Yet the many predicates are given a distinctive shape by the way they are woven into the New Testament narratives. The shape in turn yields a definite type of conceptualization. Documented in the stories about Jesus is the relationship of who he is to what he does, and titles—even titles connoting divinity—are assigned to his person. Jesus not only has the capacity to heal, but the divine power to forgive sins, as Mark recounts in the story of the paralytic let down through the roof to see Jesus (Mark 2:1–12), and to raise a dead man back to life, as John tells the story of Lazarus (11:1–44). The privileged concept about Jesus in the New Testament is the relation of his person to his riveting and dramatic work.

This particular relation is oriented to the presence of a personal reality that is transformative at a foundational level of body and soul, that is visible, yet in such a way that one’s eyes must be attuned to truly see, that is riveting by the power of love powerful enough to forgive evil, and that facilitates new entry into interpersonal relations characterized by “complete joy” (John 17:13). It is the conceptualization of this original real presence that becomes the paradigm for the ways in which other theological concepts schematize the reality of their particular focus; the history of theological concept formation is indebted to the original real presence of Jesus in the resurrection. Other conceptssuch as redemption and creationare derivative. They flesh out the ontology of real presences as persons deriving primary characteristics from Jesus (e.g., the Blessed Mother and the saints). They sanction the continued tangible communication of this reality in prophetic word and healing sacrament. The question that will now be addressed is: What aspect of real presence is grasped by the concept?


Theology’s Content

The distinctive reality that is theology’s task to grasp is the area of reality traditionally circumscribed by the intersection between spirit and nature. This intersection at least for Christianity is shrouded in mystery. Christ’s birth is recounted in only two of the four gospels, and in those two (Matthew and Luke), angelic beings and astronomical apparitions, multiple allusions to the Hebrew Bible, and coincidences of both a joyful and ominous sort defamiliarize the story of a normal childbirth. Another writer (John) begins his gospel with speculation reaching far back into the expanse of the divine eternity. The mysterious origins of the incarnate word are rendered in no less comprehensible terms for Jesus’ earthly life. John’s ascription of speculative origins for Jesus is the only explanation for the constant misunderstanding with which Jesus must reckon, even from his closest disciples. Mark hints at but never discloses the messianic secret, and Paul preaches from many angles the paradox of the crucified one who is now alive. It is this one who is in this world but not of this world (John 16:16) that sets the parameters for the reality that Christian theology will conceptualize.

Christian theologians have traditionally turned to their metaphysical counterparts to conceptualize at least the basic parameters for the reality of the incarnation. The dual constituents of reality, form and matter, power and appearance, and spirit and nature are speculative descriptions of reality that philosophers have advocated and that theologians have used. Modern theologians have been particularly indebted to two descriptive types of reality. The idealist type posits spirit and nature on a continuum; there is indifference as to where spirit merges with nature. This type is privileged by Christian systematic theologians who argue for a speculative-trinitarian starting point and show how the actuality of the incarnation is both a possibility and a necessity within the eternity of the triune life. The realist type is allied more closely with the neo-Kantian distinction between spirit and nature. A speculative moment is prohibited on the basis of Kantian critical philosophy; the transcendental is the condition for the possibility of the empirical and can be deduced, not known, on the basis of the empirical. This type is used by Christian theologians who argue for a theological respect of the bounds of reason set by Kant, yet who also highlight the distinctiveness of Christianity in terms of the relation between the two aspects of reality. If one uses a neo-Kantian lens, then the specific reality seen by theology is spiritual; concrete experience is displaced to the status of an “experience within an experience” because it cannot be empirically known.

Theology’s challenge has been to structure reality in a way that makes the incarnation metaphysically possible. Metaphysics has functioned as a philosophical-theological tool to grasp the fundamental constituents of reality from the perspective of the incarnation: spirit and nature, word and flesh, power and appearance. Modern theologians sensitive to epistemological questions have added psychology as the subjective mold shaping metaphysical claims; to these theologians, such as Schleiermacher and Rahner, the relations of self, world, and God are either psychological phenomena, available in feeling (Schleiermacher), or anthropological categories related to reason (Rahner). Theology’s content is given through a psychological apparatus that contributes a constitutive dimension to concept formation. The human spirit formally categorizes reality by the unities of self, world, and God.

More important than theology’s grasp of basic metaphysical and psychosocial parameters structuring its reality is the determination of its distinctive content.

More important than theology’s grasp of the basic metaphysical and psychological parameters structuring its reality, however, is the specific determination of its distinctive content. The distinctiveness of the incarnation is established by uniting two constituent dimensions of reality, yet it is the impact of the person of Jesus that is the primary object of Christian theological fascination. In New Testament accounts, the person of Jesus is significant because he affects the reality with which he is personally engaged. Each and every impact of Jesus’ person is announced as either decisively beneficial to the afflicted or as a scandal to those who are not in physical or spiritual need. The incarnation’s effects are transformative in each and every case of a personal encounter. It is precisely the reality of this transforming presence that is theology’s distinctive task to grasp.

It is here where theology is most challenged in its contemporary task of surveying and describing the elements of such transformative impact. These transformations occur at the intersection between spirit and nature, yet this intersection has long been circumscribed by philosophical determinations that render them elusive even in their appearing. The dimension of spirit in which theology is interested has a particular way of embodying nature, so that its real presences are experienced in interpersonal relations to be transformative, and sometimes transformative in ways that conflict with culturally normative ways.

This is where theology has its task: to engage domains of social and historical experience that will yield predicates for its concept formation. The movements of contextual theologies, feminist theologies, Native American theologies, Asian American theologies are all discursive regions that have corrected the European male bias of theological concept formation by the methodological contribution of coming out with their respective historical, cultural, and political terms as the inevitable embodiment of theological activity, and that have materially contributed to concept formation by adding predicates from their own regions of experience.

Theology cannot remain satisfied in operating at a monochromatic level of identity politics, but must plumb the depths of contextual theologies for their distinct determinations of real presences.

In addition to this pluralization of theology that mirrors the globalization of Christianity, theology must continue to press both these and new discursive regions for their reality predicates. Theology cannot remain satisfied in operating at a monochromatic level of identity politics, but must plumb the depths of contextual theologies, including popular devotionalism and women’s religious experience, for their distinct determinations of real presences. The work of Robert A. Orsi has figured paradigmatically in this regard.5 He has studied devotional practices in order to describe the multivalent traits characterizing the relationships that individuals have with personal religious realities. These studies recover relationships that exhibit spirit in places rendered invisible by traditional doctrinal-theological rhetoric. If theology were musical to experiential fugues, rather than to soloistic melody, its concepts would explode with the experiences of those who, without academic-theological tools, have known the interruption of spirit in nature and whose lives manifest the deep imprint of these presences.

In the Christian tradition, accounts of the particular intersection of spirit and nature have offered new possibilities of understanding the common philosophical category of appearance and essence. What appears as immorality is often divine creativity in choosing candidates for ordination—for example, Jacob’s treachery, Moses’ murder, and David’s adultery. The appearance of death is often judged in view of a prophecy of life, while the opposite case, the appearance of life, is sometimes judged to stand under the condemnation of death. The dry bones that Ezekiel sees (Ezekiel 37) will rise again, while the unrighteous who live largely do eventually have their comeuppance (see Psalm 73). When suffering strikes, it might not be punishment for sin, but possibly the mysterious entry into God’s permissive will for being purified in “the refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:3). Real presences sometimes expose the vanity of the superficial, while absences are rendered sacramentally present. If theology opens its range of study to these realities, rather than limiting its sphere to doctrinal prescriptions, it might delve more deeply into the structures and mechanisms of reality in its truth. There is no wrath in God, only love, is the content of a famous and controversial sermon that Schleiermacher preached.6 And sometimes this love asks for vicarious sufferers as the vehicle by which redemption is actualized.


Theology’s Contribution

Theology as understood here is concept formation about real presences. It seeks to acquire predicates gleaned from life’s ambiguities and joys in order to form the concepts intrinsic to the discipline. By finding in life the transformative experiences and effects of the gospel and by abstracting from these experiences to discover structural relations between ideas, theology uncovers life’s deep dimensions that are the real presences discernible to eyes trained to see them. Theology’s gift to other studies of life’s thinking, acting, and perceiving is to remind them about new possibilities of interpreting life under the aegis of these real presences. Sin and grace are hermeneutical possibilities that reveal reality according to the truths of its decay and of its unmerited redemption. Illuminated by more light from eternity, new possibilities of seeing life’s spiritual dimensions are given with the bigger picture, and with a vision extending beyond the immediate, new freeing patterns of thinking and ethical acting can be imagined.

Yet for theology to offer its gift, its concepts must be both communicable to, and understandable by, others. This is a particularly vexing difficulty arising perennially in the history of Christian theology. The conversion model of theology poses a particular problem in this regard. An epistemic conversion is required for entry into the concepts and language of theology, and only when revelation is taken as axiomatic can the “new language” of the Spirit be understood. Such a model immediately exposes its deficits when it is applied to interdisciplinary and interreligious conversation. If theology deduces all of its concepts from the inner Trinity, no common meeting ground with those not subscribing to this revelation can be established. The developmental model does not restrict dialogue from the onset by a choice of in-house theological concepts. Rather, this model keeps conceptual space open for preliminary interdisciplinary dialogue by presupposing that its concepts have a shared universal component. Concepts and their predicates arise from ordinary language, even though they are eventually refined to suit their unique subject matter. Novelty presupposes some common semantic field in order to compare what is novel with what is familiar. By drawing their predicates from the common experience of life, concepts have a universal dimension that allows for interdisciplinary dialogical potential and a particular dimension to be tailored to a distinct subject matter. The term redemption, for example, has an ordinary language meaning in nontheological realms such as literature, psychology, and even body art,7 as well as a specifically christological determination in Christian theology. By appealing to the nature of concepts to open up dialogical commonality, theology does justice to a responsibility in communicating so that its uniqueness can be heard by others.

A theological rationale for its hermeneutical responsibility can be given in view of theology’s distinct subject matter. The incarnation as described in the New Testament is a publicly accessible phenomenon. The person of Jesus walked and talked, sighed and wept in such a way that the texts about him are transparent to historical, ethnographical, cultural, and political interpretation. Christianity’s commitment to its public nature as established by Jesus is evident in its intersubjective practices of thinking and acting. The community is visible through common participation by individuals. Grace is audible in the declaration of forgiveness and edible in the distribution of bread and wine. The real presences of its subject matter assign to theology the task of hermeneutically rendering them in words that can be understood.

Theological concepts are not delivered into the public sphere ready-made, as if their formation had taken place in an ahistorical vacuum.

The hidden dimension of reality as exposed in real presences can also serve as a theological rationale for an epistemological humility in the public sphere. Hiddenness undergirds the possibility for other perspectives on its truth; the available truth is not the only truth there is. The contribution of theological concepts to the public domain is fraught with temptations, particularly the temptations of communicating concepts that avoid advocating justice for those marginalized by society, that spread confusion between religion and politics by conflating liturgical rites with requirements for admission, and that exempt themselves from the divine judgment that is declared on self-righteousness, presumption, and hubris. Hermeneutical communicability requires estimating the limits of extending power into the public domain and recognizing that an ethical-political stance is implied by all speech in the public domain. Furthermore, theological concepts are not delivered into the public sphere ready-made, as if their formation had taken place in an ahistorical vacuum. They are formed as they are informed by disciplines also reaching into the public space of thinking, such as ethnography, history, political science, metaphysics, and ethics, and into the public space of acting, such as education, politics, and the media. History is the location in which concepts are formed. Hence, concepts as works in progress are delivered to others for reciprocal testing and mutual determination, both embraced by the historical cradle in which the concepts are formed.

The important challenge to a hermeneutically sensitive theology is to remain both humble about its hidden dimensions and confident that it carries a precious treasure in its earthen vessels. The temptation to claim hyperbolic power is equally as problematic as the temptation to borrow without paying back. Theology can be parasitic, borrowing concepts and methods from other fields, because of its own lack of conviction concerning the power of its subject matter and the applicability of its concepts to contemporary discussions. Pastoral theology, for example, does need to pay attention to psychological theories, pedagogical accounts of human development, and systems theories, yet it also possesses its unique psycho-spiritual tools by both its own perspective on the transformative effect of the gospel and the soul’s hidden reality crying out for spiritual healing. Systematic theology requires empirical anchors in reality in order for its abstractions to render the truth of reality, yet these anchors must be illuminated by the life of the spirit in order to lift up the unique dimension of reality that has an eternal orientation. It is to these realities that theology must particularly look to inspire conviction that it has something to say because it has something to talk about.


Theology has served in the past as a speculative discipline, opening up eternity from the perspective of time to articulate a doctrinal scheme spanning creation and apocalypse. Since the eighteenth century, theology has provided a more modest account of reality. Within the bounds set by critical reason, speculation has been muted by conceptual forces to detect the intersection between spirit and nature. The real presences at this intersection inform the concepts that theology determines, on the one hand, from predicates gleaned from experience and, on the other hand, that theology structures by the relations of self, world, and God. In this essay I have provided a contemporary account of theology’s capacity to participate in interdisciplinary conversation only insofar as theology has something unique to contribute. Christian theology has a central focus, the transformative reality created by the presence of the person of Jesus, yet this focus can broaden out to the myriad of ways in which that reality is experienced. The conceptualization of these experiences is informed by metaphysics that accounts for the constituent dimensions of reality, by empirical studies that publicly acknowledge the validity of that reality by investigative tools established by consensus, and by conceptual abstractions that bring to view hidden dimensions of the distinct ways in which spirit embodies nature.

Theology is called out by contemporary circumstances to recover experiential dimensions of spirit-filled life that stand firm on love’s power in the world, and to discern the places in which the spirit breathes new life. Theology cannot remain so impressed by the traditional monuments marking past divine appearances that it lags behind the times of God’s present moving, but must be alive to the spiritual vitality that evokes real presences for life.


  1. This is Marilyn McCord Adams’s definition of “horrendous evils” that she gives in her most recent book, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology, Current Issues in Theology, 4 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  2. I borrow the term “lived religion” from David Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton University Press, 1997).
  3. Q (Quelle) is a hypothetical oral tradition behind the synoptics and has not yet been accepted as part of the canonical Christian scriptures by the catholic consensus.
  4.  Citations from the Christian Bible are taken from the New Revised Standard Version in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford University Press, 1991).
  5. See, for example, his most recent book, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005).
  6. Friedrich Schleiermacher, “The Wrath of God (Trinity Sunday, 1830),” in Servant of the Word: Selected Sermons of Friedrich Schleiermacher, trans. Dawn De Vries, Fortress Texts in Modern Theology (Fortress, 1987), 152–65.
  7. “Redemption Tatoo” is the name of a tattoo salon in my neighborhood.

Christine Helmer has recently accepted a position as Professor of Religion at Northwestern University. She has also taught theology at Harvard Divinity School and the Claremont School of Theology, and is the author of The Trinity and Martin Luther (Zabern, 1999) and editor (or co-editor) of numerous volumes in the areas of Schleiermacher studies, philosophy of religion, and biblical theology, most recently The Multivalence of Biblical Texts and Theological Meanings (Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).

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