Michael Staudigl, Jason W. Alvis (Eds.): Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn

Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn: Contemporary Debates on the 'Return of Religion' Book Cover Phenomenology and the Post-Secular Turn: Contemporary Debates on the 'Return of Religion'
Michael Staudigl, Jason W. Alvis (Eds.)
Hardback £115.00

Reviewed by: Thomas Sojer (University of Erfurt)

Are we living in a Post-secular age, and if so, how can it be understood (1)? By asking this question, Michael Staudigl and Jason W. Alvis introduce their remarkable anthology of contemporary debates on the ‘return of religion’.  The collection of eight essays was first published as a special edition of the International Journal of Philosophical Studies under the slightly different title Phenomenology and The Post-secular Turn: Reconsidering the ‘Return of the Religious’ in 2016. In contrast to the Open Access online version, this printed hardcover volume offers the rewarding invitation of reading and re-reading.

It is important pointing out one formal peculiarity: A separate section at the beginning of the anthology indicates that quotations should not be taken from the printed volume, but from the journal published in 2016 (vii-viii). Since the order of essays has changed, one will have to engage in a little arithmetic game when citing. In addition, as format of the original version in 2016 was adequately maintained, the person who cites has to disregard the page numbers of the 2018 physical copy, but to count the pages per essay from the 2018 physical copy before applying to the 2016 journal page count. Eight contributions from 2016 are offered with calculation as Open Access at Taylor Francis Online.

As the editors emphasise in the introduction, Anthony J. Steinbock provides the opening and basis of anthology by revealing what he thinks as all along missing from the secular realm. Steinbock’s paper The Role of the Moral Emotions in Our Social and Political Practices regards the current discourses on both post-secularism and the ‘return of religion’ as desiderata of our secular age to unfold a new understanding of moral emotions (12); e.g. emotions of self-givenness (guilt, pride, shame), of possibility (despair, repentance, hope), and of otherness (humility, loving, trust). With the new philosophical equipment of moral emotions on board, Steinbock proposes to emancipate the discourse on a possible return of religion from the oscillation between atheism and theism. He aims to re-introduce the experience of not being self-grounding at the very centre of a new discourse. Steinbock claims that moral emotions not only determine our internal spheres, such as the private, psychological or ethical domains but they relate ourselves to others with whom we find ourselves already involved (20). Thus, moral emotions are shaping the way we imagine political, social, economic and ecological dimensions of our world and elucidate modes of existence as modes of co-existence. However, in favour of values like subjectivity, rationality, and autonomy, Modernity has ignored and even denigrated moral emotions. Here, the phenomenological investigations of moral emotions shed light on the givenness of man revealing that the individual is not self-grounding but inter-personal and inter-Personal (22). This last capital letter refers to a vertical and de-limiting dimension of our social imaginaries. Steinbock observes in this regard that “the political is not merely ‘political’, as the ecological is not merely ‘ecological’. At the core of the experience is a pointer beyond itself. And this is precisely what has been missing in secularism” (24). To sum up, Steinbock’s contribution provides a valuable and welcome resource for everyone who is interested in the importance of moral emotions to the processes of social and political transformation throughout history.

By pursuing a phenomenologically inspired de-worlding, James G. Hart aims at a deeper meaning of being in the world, thus the meaning of world itself beyond the concept of a ‘megamachine’ (36). Via the mutual transitions from religious domination to secularism and the post-secular, the paper Deep Secularism, Faith, and Spirit asks about an original default stance of this development: Reading the New Testament Hart situates the biblical condition of humanity within a physical and social world of fundamental godlessness, calling it the ‘kosmos’ from which god finally redeems (29). Diametrical to the biblical default, Hart highlights sociological interpretations similar to which Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age defines as secularism as an historically evolution emerging from Christendom and consequently negating it. Here, Hart criticises Taylor for describing the conditions of experience exclusively within a framework of a sociology of religious belief based on Thomas Kuhn’s manner in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Hart accuses Taylor of ignoring the transcendental, phenomenological and metaphysical underpinnings of his hermeneutical analysis. Because of this ignorance, Taylor omitted in the eyes of Hart to consider an ‘agency of manifestation’, which is to understand the secular as a kind of pervasive deep background that pre-thematically and pre-conceptually shapes our consciousness of religious and secular experience (28). According to Hart, the deepest outcome of deep secularism has been manifested so far in the various strains of scientisitic and reductionist materialist naturalism, which dismisses the first-person experience as an illusion of the brain (44). Hart portrays present-day deep-secularism, unlike previous historical manifestations, as rejecting not only the contents of experience but experience as such, making knowing itself impossible. Concerning the debunking of belief in immortality by declaring the first-person experience an illusion, Hart outlines a dilemma that thinking of knowing in terms of a biological causality inevitably will self-destruct: He argues that “knowing cannot be a biological process because such processes as such (and our knowing of our knowledge of these processes) are not true or false, not necessary or probable, and have no syntax – as does our knowledge of these processes” (48). In this manifold and diverse contribution, Hart provides both philosophical and religious convincing ‘faith perspectives’ on questions about post-secularism due to deep secularism.

Another ‘faith-voice’, J. A. Simmons suggests that a disembodied, ahistorical, objectivist approach on faith (comma) in a postmodern/post-secular age was not only epistemologically but morally controversial (60). Consequently, he chooses to conduct phenomenological investigation by reflecting upon his personal lived existence as a so-called ‘postmodern Christian’ (52). Here, Simmons takes up Jean-Luc Marion’s warning against the intellectual arrogance of taking God’s perspective and finds a proposed solution in Merold Westphal’s notion that postmodernism is simply the idea that one cannot peek over God’s shoulder (59). By employing this extraordinary autobiographical approach, Simmons’ paper Personally Speaking … Kierkegaardian Postmodernism and the Messiness of Religious Experience performs what his original theory of Kierkegaardian postmodernism seeks to outline. In this regard, the attribute ‘Kierkegaardian’ implies that identity formation results from a specific social location. Simmons locates himself within four dichotomic propositions (58-59): as a person who ‘asks post-secularly’ out of his personal religious beliefs, not against them, he is motivated by Christianity, not threatening to it, he acknowledges his religious affiliation precisely because of his postmodern identity, not despite of it, finally he uses phenomenology in a postmodern/ post-secular context to immerse into his historical community not away from it. Against the backdrop of an unavoidable perspectival inquiry, Simmons discerns current debates in philosophy and theology as oscillation between an objectivist and a subjectivist solution (61). The objective side agrees that we remain within our contingent perspectives; however, God would enable us through divine revelation to grasp the Absolute Truth within these very perspectives. Simmons brands this version of epistemic realism ‘kataphatic orthodoxy’. On the other hand, the subjective side uncompromisingly rejects truth entirely following what Simmons brands consequently an apophatic orthodoxy (62). To neither pursue one nor the other extreme, he emphasises as Ludwig Wittgenstein calls it, the ‘rough ground’ of a hermeneutic analysis that can be obtained only in a personal approach (59). This personal access allows expressing the full radicality of faith. Only then God can be released from the equation to objective truth – hence articulating what a phenomenological concept of God entails: a God who is trouble (64). In addition to the fact that Simmons’ contribution is humorously written, it compellingly connects complex epistemological concepts with ordinary problems of a parishioner.

In the paper How to Overcome the World: Henry, Heidegger, and the Post-Secular Jason W. Alvis disputes in favour of the statement that only when we stop to take the obviousness and neutrality of the world for granted, we can indeed speak of the post-secular (74). The author finds an obvious and natural world challenged most prominently in the works of Martin Heidegger and Michel Henry, albeit in different ways: Heidegger criticises, on the one hand, a materialistic conception of world, which sees the world only as the sum of its parts. On the other hand, Heidegger rejects those religious and mystical interpretations of the world that portray its actual basis in an invisible, metaphysical essence beyond the material world (75): Heidegger’s concept of world is both ‘subjectively’ constituted by us, yet simultaneously constituting us within it. Additionally, it also constitutes our concepts of the world in a shared and public way shaping it for others (85). In his seminar on Heraclitus, Heidegger demonstrates the traditional understanding of ‘appearing’ is therefore misleading. The dichotomy between presence and absence needs to be abandoned in favour of paradoxical notion of what can be observed in the essential unfolding of an inconspicuous world (79). For Henry, on the other hand, it is the connecting link between ourselves and the inconspicuous world that consists of affects (82). He suggests a self-affection of life: The experience of oneself as living is what allows us to be affected by the world. Henry unveils thus a paradox of Modernity (84): While describing what is all too obvious in the world, this very description omits the most obvious notion of all which is that life itself being auto-affective. In the synthesis of Heidegger and Henry, Alvis proposes subsequently not to read the world as what appears as neutral and obvious but as exactly the opposite, namely the inconspicuous non-neutral. Alvis concludes the striking and insightful consideration as “what hides itself inconspicuously and presents itself as ‘ordinary’ or neutral is precisely what is pulling the strings of consciousness, directing the metaphysical backstage of everyday life” (87).

Taking Paul Ricoeur as a starting point, Christina M. Gschwandtner examines how fundamentalist groups cope with an inevitable ambiguity of human life between discordance and concordance within contemporary pluralist societies. Her paper Philosophical Reflections on the Shaping of Identity in Fundamentalist Religious Communities identifies the fear of losing personal and social identity as a significant factor within religious fundamentalism (102). Gschwandtner agrees with Ricoeur that religion is best studied through its language (93). However, she advocates by extending Ricoeur’s concept of religious language beyond biblical texts, in favour of all sorts of material culture with a foundational function, for example, Christian science fiction, Christian romance novels, movies, video games, homeschool materials, and religious social media platforms (94-95). Particularly interesting is what Gschwandtner’s reversed reading of Ricoeur’s linear account of secular de-mythologization (100): For Ricoeur, a community adheres to a first naïveté while accepting its own religious language uncritically as literal belief. The first naïveté is finally debunked as a myth by criticism, technology and science. Via a post-critical second naïveté the community re-mythologises the symbolic realm of the text, grasping a deeper meaning. Referring to current ethnological research, Gschwandtner reminds that most religious communities do not interpret their myths literally in the first place. However, facing the ambiguity of contemporary pluralist societies, these groups develop a ‘hermeneutic style’ of adopting a narrower and more literalistic interpretation of their founding texts (101). In this respect, Gschwandtner detects a tendency to abandon the mythical complexity and plurality of the past in favour of rigorously restricted and narrowed hermeneutics today. Furthermore, Gschwandtner demonstrates why Ricoeur’s linear and narrow depiction of hermeneutics partly misses recognising the violent potential of fundamentalist forces. Ricoeur believes, following René Girard, that while rituals may generate violence, sacred texts may contain it. Consequently, she suggests that beyond the “unnecessary (and unhelpful) bifurcation” between ritual and text, the question of individual identity formation must come to the fore (103-104). Even though Gschwandter criticises Ricoeur fruitfully in various aspects, by developing his ideas further, she remains faithful to the main ideas and emphasises about the strength of his hermeneutics in clarifying issues regarding religious fundamentalism. At this point it is noteworthy that the comprehensive notes (105-110) are remarkably outstanding, highly informative and in-depth.

In the paper Murdering Truth: ‘Postsecular’ Perspectives on Theology and Violence Robyn Horner first investigates how far the phenomenon of revelation is legitimised within philosophy by comparing Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Yves Lacoste. On that basis, Horner asks the relation of revelatory truth claims and violence. With Marion’s concept of the saturated phenomenon, Horner reasons that it is phenomenologically feasible to describe revelation as an experience of excess, as the saturation of intuition (118). On the other hand, regarding the concept of Lacoste, revelation can also be interpreted as lacking and poverty of intuition or simply the experience of feeling nothing, closely link to the experience of atheist and believer (120). Horner associates the perspectives of both excess and poverty as a revelatory interruption that regards the potential for violence which needs to be examined in the light of the always-potentially-contrary-to-me nature of revelation (126). Although religious beliefs are often involved in violent conflicts, Horner rejects the idea of violence as a necessary corollary of God’s goodness. In this respect, she refers to René Girard’s mimetic theory emphasising the biblical pathway towards overcoming violence, as well as Kantian teleology, according to which a God who is violent by nature is incompatible with the good. What turned out to be fascinating is Horner’s suggestion on reading violence as an inauthentic hermeneutic of revelation (123). Consequently, she fails to define the hermeneutical perversion in response to the major world religious traditions but in response to the experience of revelation itself, echoing Marion and Lacoste instead. Here, Augustine speaks of two possible reactions to the truth: to love and to hate (125). Thus, violence can emerge if hatred for the revealed truth transforms into hatred for the otherness of the other in order to protect oneself from a truth that one may not wish to know. She concludes by warning that there is not only the danger of the horror religiosus, that is, provoking violence as a result of otherness in religious revelation. There is also the danger of inciting violence in secularism against the otherness of theism in general (127).

In the paper On Seizing the Source: Toward a Phenomenology of Religious Violence Michael Staudigl provides a compendious and insightful examination of the return of religion against the backdrop of religious violence. Because of the rationalised ghettoisation of religious violence by branding it as a form of senseless violence, Modernity structurally omits its own normatively embellished violence: “It is also high time to acknowledge various auto-idolatries of occidental reason that have rendered its assumedly liberating project inherently doubtful” (138) Staudigl’s concise yet comprehensive survey on contemporary debates illustrates the potential and the need to highlight the role of affective economies and cultural politics of emotions within the mechanisms of religious and non-religious violence (134-140). In response to this paramount challenge, Staudigl proposes fertilising as the so-called theological turn in French phenomenology and focuses example-wise on the concept of givenness in Jean-Luc Marion as well as on Paul Ricoeur who attributes an inherently hermeneutic character to a phenomenology of religion. Staudigl draws persuasively the conclusion that both approaches, however, do not embrace lived religion, but “attempt to rethink God in terms of superabundant ‘givenness’ or focus a textual hermeneutics that translates such givenness into the narrative semantics of the respective religious system of knowledge” (150). Starting from Ricoeur’s notion of mimetic rivalry and Jan Patočka’s waring of a return of orgiastic, Staudigl suggests reading religious violence as a product of monopolising appropriation of the originary source of givenness (153). A particularly interesting observation is that experiences of transcendence need to take flesh; in other words, they need to be translated into experiences of self-transcendence by a phenomenal or lived body which is both affectable and affecting (155). In resonance with Simone Weil’s linking of affectivity and thought in her notion of ‘I can, therefore, I am’, Staudigl foreshadows a re-embodying and materialising of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of religion: “The sovereignty of the ‘I’ qua embodied ‘I-can’ is also its vulnerability.” (156) This approach of lived body gives remarkable insights into a new advent of archaic, brutal, and cruel violence, as what we witness in current wars of religion. Staudigl closes his observations with an intriguing foresight on the importance of lived religion and lived body as the affective medium building the reflective pivot of ‘carnal hermeneutics’ of a phenomenology of religion – which in particular do not obfuscate religious violence as the most irrational, while eclipsing the own rationalised forms of violence (160-161).

Against the backdrop of contemporary American democracy, the paper From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity: Agono-Pluralistic Ethics in Connolly v. Levinas (and the Possibilities for Atheist-Theist Respect) by Sarah Pessin explores possibilities for mutual respect and generous comportment between atheists and theists. William E. Conelly’s optimistic call to laughter in common between atheists and theist provides a discursive canvas for Pessin’s reflections. Starting from a philosophy of laughter in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the author elaborates analogous to Henry Bergson’s sense of closed and open societies into  two discrete phenomenologies of laughter (187): The laughing atheist on the on hand adopts an open and laughing comportment. The trembling theist, on the other hand, transforms a closed and trembling attitude into open and trembling comportment. In this regard, Conolly’s call for laughing together generates two opposing comportments, causing more separation than union. The best option for Pessin is a new way to adopt comportment by opening and trembling, however open to both theists and atheists in a non-theistic way. For this purpose, she invokes Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of open direction of eros and enjoyment on the one hand, and a trembling direction which places man on the brink of tears and laughter to responsibility on the other hand (188-189). Of particular interest are Pessin’s preliminary reflections on the problem of laughing together: She reminds us of an impossibility of the all-pardon thesis in Ego and Totality, which states that in a real society no duality between two subjects exists, without causing unpardonable harm to the Other’s Other: “post-secular politics is always a politics of interrupted justice – a justice, in other words, that is always agonistic and never able to attain some sort of pure [post-agonistic] state of inner-human consensus, love, and/or harmony.” (177)

In order to estimate the extraordinary performance of this anthology, a look at the helpful and carefully selected index (201-206) at the end of the book is advisable. The vast diversity of personalities, philosophical terms and subjects stands in direct contradiction to the concise size of the volume of just two hundred pages. All the more, it is the accomplishment of this volume to navigate around the very complex topic about the return of religion which assembles an inspiring spectrum of different approaches without losing the common ground, or as Wittgenstein would put it, the ‘rough ground’ of the post-secular turn.