Jean-Luc Marion, Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer (Eds.): The Enigma of Divine Revelation

The Enigma of Divine Revelation: Between Phenomenology and Comparative Theology Book Cover The Enigma of Divine Revelation: Between Phenomenology and Comparative Theology
Contributions to Hermeneutics, Volume 7
Jean-Luc Marion, Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer (Eds.)
Hardback 88,39 €
IX, 301

Reviewed by: Matías Ignacio Pizzi (University of Buenos Aires)

Currently one of the most important problems from phenomenology of giveness consists of the question of Revelation. However, this concept is not something new in  Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology. One can find several formulations throughout his work. On the one hand, his first systematic step in Étant donné (1997). In this book, Marion shows that Revelation should be interpreted as the last expression of phenomenality. This can only happen if phenomenology dares to free itself from the predominance of the principle of sufficient reason, giving way to “excessive phenomena” that are linked to religious phenomena. In other words, religious phenomena can appear as a valid field of phenomenological analysis. On the other hand, the Gifford Lectures, whose results can be found in Giveness and Revelation (2016). In these conferences, Marion goes one step further, and this because he does not distinguish sharply between philosophy and theology when speaking of Revelation. Thus, phenomenology must be the source that allows us to clarify the concept of Revelation, both in philosophy and in theology.

This volume, co-edited by Jean-Luc Marion and Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer, aims to investigate and explore various phenomenological aspects of the concept of Revelation, in order to offer new contributions to the phenomenology of giveness. In this respect, this book tries to show, honoring Marion’s intuition, how the concept of Revelation permeates the most current debates in phenomenology and theology.

In Chapter 1, “Introduction: intersections of Revelation and Hermeneutics”, Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer introduces the problem of this volume: the interaction and mutual contribution between revelation and hermeneutics (3). Can hermeneutics say something about the possibility or impossibility for divine self-disclosure? In this case, Jacobs-Vandegeer reminds us of Marion´s conception of hermeneutics as a “delay of interpretation”. And this is so because Revelation as such is an essentially excessive phenomenon. As Jacobs-Vandegeer indicates with great acuity, a possible way of understanding this excess can be found in “the idea that the language of revelation does something more excessive and complex than simply impart information about God and the world” (5). In this case, hermeneutics must deal, though without giving up, with an original excess. However, a possible positive consequence of this is that hermeneutics can expand its own limits of interpretation.

In Chapter 2, “The Hermeneutics of Givenness”, Jean-Luc Marion deepens the relationship “hermeneutics” and his phenomenology of givenness. Various scholars have noted some kind of incompatibility between hermeneutics and saturated phenomenon. The question could be asked: how could an interpretation of an excessive phenomenon be “given”? Is that possible? In this text, Marion tries to offer a positive answer. For this, Marion takes up the problem of reduction. As Marion says, the radicalization of the reduction “makes evident, be it only by contraposition, the possibility, even the necessity, of an exception, of an irreducible” (17-18). Paradoxically, the possibility of a hermeneutics of the given lies in the fact that the given cannot be translated into any objectifiable phenomenon. And this is so because “givenness does not produce like an efficient cause, nor is it confined to sensible intuition, because it is not conflated even with intuition in general” (21). Through a critical reading of Husserl and Heidegger, Marion aims to show the radical nature of givenness against sensible intuition. In this sense, the givenness offers a self-referentiality based on its impossibility of being reduced to an object or entity. From this preliminary conclusion, Marion asks the following: “Could it not be that hermeneutics, far from disappearing with givenness (or making it disappear in order to begin speaking),  only in answering the word that fulfills it?” (24). Through a discussion with John Sellars about the famous “myth of the given”, Marion reaffirms that the given can only be thought in opposition to the paradigm of objectivity. As the object appears, the given disappears. Marion finds the origin of this myth in John Locke´s philosophy. Both Sellars and Locke present the same problem: the impossibility of thinking about what is given. And this for the simple reason that they claim that what is given immediately must be the product of an epistemological constitution. However, as Marion points out, the given cannot be thought of as something constituted because it is not an object. The “myth of the given” falls when we establish this distinction (28). In other words, the phenomenology of givenness could be presented as a remedy against this myth. Thus, the given cannot be manifested immediately. For this reason, Marion defines the givenness as an aenigma because the “indetermination of the given perhaps offers its only correct determination” (31).

In this phenomenological horizon, hermeneutics is defined as a discipline that does not operate on objects (33). Phenomenology of givenness and hermeneutics coincide in this rejection of objectivity. Thus, hermeneutics can interpret excessive phenomena because, strictly speaking, it has always done so. Hermeneutics in its original sense cannot start from an ego that interprets the world, because “the ego must remain passive in order to receive the sense that suits exactly that which requests interpretation” (33). Two final conclusions follow from this. First, hermeneutics depends on the phenomenological structure of “call and response” (36). Second, “hermeneutics manages the gap between what shows itself and what gives itself” (40). In other words, hermeneutics must manage the passage from objectivity to saturated phenomena and the reverse. Following this, we suggest that hermeneutics, as a passage from objectivity to saturation, can interpret the second degree of saturated phenomena: Christ as Revelation. How that can happen, stays as an open question or aenigma.

In Chapter 3, “Whose Word Is It Anyway? Interpreting Revelation”, Shane Mackinlay focuses on a series of criticisms concerning the concept of counter-experience in Marion’s phenomenology of givenness, as it appears in “The Possible and Revelation” (2008). In the same way as Marion, John focuses on a Christological paradox: how can Jesus reveals the Father’s will? This problem involves one of the most important consequences of Christianity: the divine and human nature of Christ. Revelation could be interpreted as the place where this paradox occurs. Following Kearney’s objection, Mackinley points out that the concept of counter-experience is not a sufficient criterion to distinguish between divine revelation against the possibilities of deceit and harm (57). In other words, the counter-experience of the icon in Marion’s phenomenology does not offer a clear difference between God’s voice and some kind of monstrosity. In the same way as Marion, Mackenly finds in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy a source for rethinking the scopes of hermeneutics in relation to the possibility or impossibility of interpreting revelation (60). From Gadamer’s proposal he extracts two ideas. On the one hand, the infinity of any interpretive process. This means that no interpretation of the revelation can exhaust it. On the other hand, if all interpretation is infinite, then the community must always be open to dialogue, since the interpretation of the phenomenon imposes itself as something always reviewable. Each judgement concerning revelation is provisional.

In Chapter 4, “Revelation as a Problem for Our Age”, Robin Horner offers some elements for thinking the language of revelation in the context of Western secularity. Expressed differently: Is it possible to find a language of revelation in a world where all language is merely a language of objects? This current impossibility of thinking the language of revelation has, according to Horner, multiple reasons. First, the problem of anachronism. The language of revelation becomes an irrelevant and even bizarre question. The modern secularisation offers the exaltation of individual autonomy, rationalist thinking. As Horney argues, this movement implies a detraditionalization of memory and any collective activity (75). In this process, religion and believing become something that has no place. Second, the reflections of various philosophical schools that, according to Horner, present disqualifying criticisms of religious belief. Consequently, “the philosopher, too, brings particular commitments to the search for wisdom, which might include a presumption of atheism” (77). Third, theology itself. And this because the theological language of revelation focuses too narrowly on the propositional, letting away the lived experience. Based on these objections, Horner indicates that the concept of experience must be reformulated so that religious belief is not set aside from contemporary problems. Horner uses the term experience “to refer to what happens at that point of opening in the world which is a given instance of life” (69). Given this, we ask ourselves, following Horner, whether the language of revelation may have any reference to the Husserlian Lebenswelt. Finally, Horner suggests, following Lacoste and Marion, that “that philosophy and theology are interested in common problems” (94). Lacoste’s “paradoxical phenomenon” tries to show the mutual cooperation between affection and intellect, theology and philosophy, faith and reason, when it comes to understanding revelation (96). Marion’s epistemological approach to revelation aims to point out that the logic of objects can be clarified out of faith and a radical commitment to an epistemology of revelation. In this sense, Horner concludes that Marion and Lacoste offer tools to find a language of revelation in the lived world of experience. In Horner’s words, “if it is the case that revelation no longer makes sense in contemporary life, perhaps it is because it has been locked for too long in the language of beliefs and made unavailable to experience” (100).

In Chapter 5, “Revelation and Kingdom”, Kevin Hart suggests that the language and experience of revelation depend on the possibility of a place for its manifestation. For this reason, he will concentrate his analysis on the concept of kingdom. Hart argues that “theological epistemology has become phenomenology” (107). Thus, the idea of kingdom must be elucidated from the phenomenological field. The kingdom can appear if we focus on Christ’s modes of phenomenality. Juan clearly states that Jesus “appears, if he does, only within a horizon” (113). Jesus’ parables offer a conversion of intentionality and give “eidetic insight into how to live in obedience to  God” (118). For this, Hart appeals to Marion’s concept of saturated phenomenon and the need to broaden the manifestation horizon of phenomena. In the same horizon as Marion, as well as in that of Christian philosophy in general, Christ plays a mediating role. Jesus can only appear in the horizon of the “Kingdom of God”. We think Hart’s proposal is interesting because, following Marion, he focuses on the place of manifestation of Christ as a saturated phenomenon. His question is spatial, and he finds a possible answer in the Christian concept of the kingdom.

In Chapter 6, “ʻA Whole Habit of Mindʼ: Revelation and Understanding in the Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria”, William Hackett focuses on the problem of the experiential and participatory dynamics concerning the speech about God. In a very suggestive way, Hackett finds in Cyril of Alexandria’s “sacrifice Christology” a testimony to the dynamic nature of the Verbum. Through a language of patristics, Hackett shows that kenosis and henosis could provide the dynamics of revelation and the centrality of Eucharistic truth of Incarnation. “Mystic communion” provides a model of community (Cyril’s refutation of Nestorius). As Hackett remember, Cyril shows the distance between “reason” and “image” (128). In other words, “reason may explicate the image, but it can never surpass its power to carry the mind to the truth of revelation” (126). Cyril’s distinction between abstract and concrete intellective visions offers a way of understanding the nature of revelation, always previous and source of all theoretical language. The power of images consists in directing our gaze towards that instance prior to reason. We suggest that Hackett’s contribution, clear and erudite, can have an interesting deepening if it is connected with Falque’s interpretation of Nicholas de Cusa’s De visione dei, as it appears in his paper “L´omnivoyant. Fraternité et vision de Dieu chez Nicolas de Cues” (2014). And this because, according to Falque, in the same way as Hackett´s lecture of Cyril´s theology, Nichola´s conception of visio dei offers a reformulation of vision and the possibility of a community vision and a common experience.

In Chapter 7, “Revelation and the Hermeneutics of Love”, Werner G. Jeanrond offers a critical analysis of the different theological hermeneutics of revelation. On the one hand, Yale and its “hermeneutics of revelation”. This school studies revelation “with regard to inner-Christian dynamics and inner-Christian pluralism” (143). On the other hand, Chicago and its “hermeneutics of signification”. This school formulates “an open-ended hermeneutics of signification capable of encouraging a public, global and critical discourse on God” (143). In this horizon, Jeanrod analyzes Paul Ricoeur’s conception of language and hermeneutics, since the French philosopher points out a polysemy originating from the concept of revelation. This, in turn, implies the impossibility of establishing a corpus of truths available to an institution (141). Ricoeur’s concept of revelation “provides a way out of the reduction of an uncritical Enlightenment belief in the final victory of reason over revelation” (141). In accordance with the proposal of the Chicago school and going one step further, Jeanrond argues for a hermeneutics of love. This implies a “praxis of love” that can embrace divine Otherness. Given this, we suggest that Jeanrond’s proposal presents an intimate connection with the concept of love in Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology, since “love” saves revelation from the predominance of objectivity, and therefore, opens a dimension of excess that cannot be monopolized by any theological school. Thus, and as Jeanrond sharply points out, love reveals the constitutive plurality of revelation, and in turn, the need for a hermeneutics of love.

In Chapter 8, “Embodied Transactions”, Mara Brecht provides an analysis of revelation in the framework of a feminist hermeneutics (Michelle Voss Roberts). In the horizon of comparative theology, Brecht suggests that hermeneutics must open the access to the embodiment and his relation with revelation. Body plays a fundamental role because “revelation is received not by disembodied minds, but by actual people—who are fully embodied, situated in time and place, and shaped by economic, social, and racialized identities” (152). In this sense, all hermeneutics must account for embodiment in various dimensions: economic, social, political, gender. This allows us to reflect upon a situated subjectivity, leaving aside any abstract and a-historical approach. The embodiment is, following a notion of Jean-Luc Marion and Claude Romano, an “event”, not an abstract concept. According to Brecht, Shannon Sullivan’s feminist-pragmatist framework could help comparative theologians to understand the transformations of subjective identity and his relation between the embodiment. This path makes visible the logic of power that acts in the configuration of subjectivity. Brecht argues that we must analyze how this logic of power acts in the embodied habits of Christians, thus configuring his interpretations of the notions of race and gender. This proposal implies breaking with the monological hermeneutics of the scriptures, always “focused on only one religion” (159). On the contrary, Brecht proposes, following feminist theologians as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Michelle Voss Roberts and Albertina Nugteren, “a dialogical hermeneutical space” to indicate a discipline focused on multiple religious traditions. In accordance with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Brecht claims that “that subjectivity needs to be constructed as a profoundly communal phenomenon” (162). For all this, Brecht concludes that religious identity must be understood “as a habit of bodying, and one which exists at the confluence of other habits of bodying, including race and gender” (165).

In Chapter 9, “Into the Blue: Swimming as a Metaphor for Revelation”, Michele Saracino offers an extremely interesting phenomenological reading of swimming. This interpretation is based on an “analogy between water/creator and swimmer/creature” (177). In connection with Mara Brecht, Saracino analyzes bodily habits in relation to the embodiment. However, Saracino assumes that swimming can be seen as a “metaphor for revelation” or as an experience of the divine that includes our relationship with other. In this sense, she claims that “like the swimmer who works on getting a feel for the water in order to swim more efficiently, the believer must learn how to get a feel for God in order to flourish” (179). Swimming can open us to different experiences analyzed in literature and theology: vulnerability (Vaniers), resignation (Hans-Urs von Balthasar). These emotions, far from being negative, open us to otherness and a receptive capacity, in the same way that when swimming we stay “in the middle of things”. This is, in Saracino’s opinion, due to the unique character of water as a means of transformation and rebirth, as we can see in the sacrament of baptism.

In Chapter 10, “Revelation as Sharing in God’s Self-Understanding as Absolute Love”, Frederick Lawrence aims to show the philosophical and theological tension between God’s self-disclosure and God’s unknowability. In this argumentative movement we can find the tension between affirmative and negative theology and the discussion concerning the mystical theology. In this context, Lawrence proposes to analyze the analogy of light to think about the relationship between “Love” and “Revelation” based on the figure of Christ. For this, Lawrence examines the different approaches on this subject in Vatican I´s Dei filius and Vatican II´s Dei verbum. While the first emphasizes the concept of “natural reason” (199), the second focuses on the problem of  “God’s revelation of himself as true love in the communication of the Crucified One as Risen’s saving truth and his call to discipleship and witness” (199). In this sense, Lawrence returns to St. Thomas’s concept of caritas and its corresponding “analogy of light”, recognizing his debt to the mystical theology of Dionysius Areopagite (201). Lawrence recalls – and here we can trace a certain relationship with the experience of swimming in Saracino – that for St. Thomas the intelligible lumen is not a thing, but a means that allows the realization of all judgment or knowledge (209). In a most interesting way, Lawrence points out that St. Thomas’s conception of light is heir to the proposal of St. Augustine and the theory of human being as imago Dei. Going fairly into the subject, Lawrence analyzes Lonergan’s conception of intentionality. And this because “Lonergan’s mature phenomenology of feelings as apprehending a hierarchy of values (…) transcended the three questions about what we are doing when we think we are knowing (cognitional theory), why doing that is knowing (epistemology), and what do we know when we do it (critically grounded metaphysics)” (218). According to Lawrence, this proposal opens the possibility of thinking the “gift of love” as the central element of all revelation. Before any cognitive and individual instance, Lawrence shows the primacy of the interpersonal reality of love in the dynamics of faith and belief. Following this question, Lawrence argues that phenomenology focuses on the  “pre-propositional, preverbal, pre-judgmental, pre-conceptual” (223). Love as faith must be defined in this pre-conceptual horizon. Given this, we believe that Lawrence’s proposal can find many points in common with Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenological conception of love, as it appears in Le phénomène érotique. In turn, Lawrence’s proposal may find an interesting confrontation with Jorge Roggero’s book Hermeneutics of Love (2019).

In Chapter 11 “Ta’wīl in the Qur’an and the Islamic Exegetical Tradition: the Past and the Future of the Qur’an”, Maria Massi Dakak analyzes the problem of revelation through a reading of the exegetical tradition of the Qurʼan, emphasizing the proposal of Ta’wīl. Against all authoritarian interpretation, Dakak examines “what the Qur’an itself has to say about its own interpretation” (241). The Qurʼan speaks according to its own metaphors and symbols. In this sense, Dakake proposes to think about the Qur’an from Ta’wīl, in order to highlight its multivalent character. Literal and historical meanings can reach a deeper relationship from the perspective proposed by Dakake. This hermeneutical proposal aims to delve into the meaning that emanates from the same Text. In this sense, Dakake offers a phenomenological approach, as “the search for meaning through ta’wil is, from a human perspective, indefinite, in that it does not have a terminal point that can be reached through human contemplative or intellectual effort” (252). However, according to Dakake the term Ta’wīl should not be read only from an esoteric or mystical perspective, but it should also see the possibility of a new and spiritually generative reading that contains the historical context and its excess, as well as an attentive reading of what the text is intended to express itself (259).

In Chapter 12 “The logic of Revelation”, Peter Ochs analyzes reception of Tanakh in the rabbinic Judaism, in order to offer a new logic of Scriptural reasoning. In this respect, Ochs introduces a “semiotic method (the “Logic of Revelation”, LR) for diagramming patterns of non-disjunctive reasoning in practices of tradition-based, scriptural theology” (261). The term “logic” refers to Charles Peirce’s lógica utens, namely “the not-immediately-evident patterns of reasoning that authorize and discipline any practice of inquiry (262). From this, Ochs distinguishes between two modes of revelation that correspond to a distinction made by Charles Peirce. On the one hand, “indexical revelation”. This means that God speaks independently of anything humans can elaborate or control through his reasoning. On the other hand, “iconic revelation”. This implies that the iconic can be formulated in terms of the logic structure “to make a likeness” (267). In relation to the latter, we find a very interesting similarity between this conception of Ochs and Marion’s interpretation of “praise” in Dionysius the Areopagite as en tant que, as it can be found in his work L’idole et la distance (1977). Continuing with this comparison, Ochs addresses a criticism of idolatry, in the same way that Marion formulates a series of invective to the idolatrous conception of the divine in the aforementioned work and in Dieu sans l´être (1982). Both authors caution against reducing the meaning of revelation and God to a humanly construction. In the case of Marion, the iconic conception of the divine offers a counter-intentionality, showing  that humans can only “receive” the “give” which preceeds them. As for Ochs, deepening the communal question of revelation, he indicates that for the “Rabbinic Logic of Revelation” (RLR) “the spoken-word is offered for and to the language community to whom God speaks” (268). If we accept that the predications of revelations are “offered to someone somewhere”, then revelation must appear in a community. Revelations appears as a relation between “God who speaks and the community that hears”. However, the predications of RLR are neither “subjectively” nor “objectively given”. Like Marion, Ochs would seem to conceive the given as a liberated instance of the paradigm of objectivity, adding to the need for a community for revelation. The “danger of idolatry” is overcome by a community committed to exegesis, debate, conservation and dialogue. In turn, this community discussion preserves the apophatic dimension of revelation. According to Ochs, one of the fundamental stimuli for discussion about revelation in Rabbinic Judaism must be found in the catastrophe of the “Burnt Temple” and Jerusalem razed and salted. Those dramatic moments stimulate the community discussion and the ability to meditate on revelation. Thus, the community receive “these spoken words then there is a narrative about how we may have seen God’s face even if the narrative is retained now as a memory” (281).

In Chapter 13, “Revelatory Hermeneutics: How to Read a Gospel, in Light of Mīmāṃsā, India’s Greatest Interpretive Tradition”, Francis Clooney offers a truly comparative theological approach through a study of ancient Indian hermeneutics known as “Mimamsa”. In Clooney´s words, “Mimamsa” appears as “a system one can imagine more refreshingly different, demanding but quite accessible to reason” and contribute to “not limit our understanding of hermeneutics and revelation to the hermeneutical traditions of the Christian West” (287). In this proposal, revelation is understood as something perceptible, heard and seen “in the text”. Vedic hermeneutics and Vedic revelation “does not require a special language that speaks of things beyond ordinary experience” (291). This conception leads Clooney to analyze Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Logical Investigations (as an aggregate, the recurrence to Wittgenstein’s philosophy also appears in Marion’s L’idole et la distance to think of Dionysius’s notion of praise as a non-predicative mode of language). Clooney rescues the practicality of Wittgenstein’s logic, as it can be seen in the notion of “language games”. Among Clooney’s most interesting conclusions, we can speak, on the one hand, that “revelation occurs in the interaction of reader and text” (297). Historical context is secondary because, on the other hand, “one does not need to give undue importance to authorial intentions” (297). Extra-textual realities are a derived instance. In other words, revelation occurs in the text. Revelation is “accesible only in submission to the grammar of the text before us” (300).

To conclude, we can ask the following question: what do phenomenology and theology gain by deepening the concept of Revelation? In this regard, Jean-Luc Marion’s proposal is very clear: the concept of Revelation cannot be reduced to a theological concept. The problem of revelation offers a common place to philosophy and theology that can be explored from phenomenological approach. Furthermore, as we have seen, revelation is a problem that concerns not only Christian theology, but also Muslim, Jewish theology as well as Eastern religions. Appealing to a concept of Alain de Libera, perhaps we should begin to think about the problem of revelation from a translatio studiorum.[1] It should be said that this volume offers not just contributions concerning the question of Revelation, but also a new way of understanding the relation between Phenomenology and Theology.

[1] De Libera, Alain. 2004. La philosophie médiévale. Paris: PUF, p. 57.

Brian Gregor: Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of Religion: Rebirth of the Capable Self, Lexington Books, 2018

Ricoeur's Hermeneutics of Religion: Rebirth of the Capable Self Book Cover Ricoeur's Hermeneutics of Religion: Rebirth of the Capable Self
Brian Gregor
Lexington Books
Hardback $95.00

Jason W. Alvis: The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, Indiana University Press, 2018

The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn Book Cover The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn
Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion
Jason W. Alvis
Indiana University Press
Hardback $65.00

Kevin Hart: Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry Book Cover Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry
Kevin Hart
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Jacob McGuinn (University of London)

Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

Psalm 119:18

Kevin Hart’s attention moves from what he calls his “native tongue,” (10) phenomenology, towards theology. His work is consistently concerned with attending to the theological in the phenomenological. This turning to theology has manifested through readings of modern philosophy, most particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, in reading Maurice Blanchot, whose concerns with the impossibilities of literature have lead Hart towards the parallel impossibilities of the sacred. In Poetry and Revelation, Hart resumes these themes: the religious constructions of philosophy, and poetry’s difficult role in shaping and articulating those constructions.

Poetry and Revelation is explicitly concerned with phenomenology, and with developing a phenomenology of reading poetry. Such a project is certainly aligned with contemporary trends in poetics, many of which are favourable to religious experience. Here, for Hart, the shape and structure of this phenomenology is itself afforded by the theological experience of reading. Reading is already theologically inflected, and so is any phenomenology. So while Hart is concerned with the experience of reading poetry, he is at the same time concerned with the ways such reading shapes our sense of phenomenology, and thereby with a theological inflection to phenomenology. Reading modern religious poetry – Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, first of all, and then other Australian and European voices – means responding to the range of Christian theology which frames that poetry, and in to the ways this reading frames a version of phenomenology. If there is a religious ‘experience’ of poetry, then it is attuned to the world under the revelation of faith. This is the world experienced as ‘created’, in which that creation is given. And if there is any phenomenological bracketing of the world, it is through a capacity to register shifts in representation framed by this religious experience. The book is therefore a meshing of specifically Christian experience of modern religious poetry with the phenomenological apprehension of that experience; and the two, for Hart, are mutually inflecting. Religious revelation can be subject to phenomenology, “a ‘religious’ experience” where “the speaker has been converted to see things from a new perspective” (54). And this ‘conversion’ of revelation, for Hart, mirrors the epochē of phenomenological bracketing. But it also exceeds phenomenal appearance – and here is Hart’s problem. If there is a religious, revelatory experience, it is of something that transcends the given, because “the phenomenon of divine revelation, centered in Incarnation, saturates our intentional horizon” (59). If we are to speak of a phenomenology of revelation, then, we must do so attentive to this “saturation,” whether disabling of the resources of phenomenology or not.

Poetry can offer new resources for such a phenomenology, and this is the connection Hart is concerned with excavating. Husserl’s injunction that we return our thinking to appearance is, for Hart, “as valuable to a philosopher as to a poet: one must learn how to attend to phenomena, and not merely inherit a sense of the ‘poetic’.” (151) From Husserl, then, Hart’s modernity inherits a double demand: both to think about appearance, and to write it. This twinning shapes his book. The question of ‘phenomena’ in poetry collides with the question of the ‘phenomenological’ reading of it. Both, Hart suggests, are modes of ‘revelation’, and both are therefore channelled through religious experience and writing. Religious poetry, attentive as it is, for Hart, to phenomenal appearance as ‘revelatory’ of religious truth, can span these two poles: its concern with its own poetic ‘phenomena’ models a ‘phenomenology’ of its appearance as poetry. Poetry, in this way, cooperates with phenomenology, defined by Hart as an “attentive response to what is given” (77) – poetry is both response to the world’s phenomena and doing its own phenomenological work. Hart’s Husserlian poet is already involved in a bracketing of experience, an epochē, because a poem’s strategies of manifestation in language already include not merely the questions ‘what’ or ‘why’, but also ‘how’ something appears (156). The artist is “someone wakeful” (157). But “Art is not attention; it is a change in the quality of attention so that we can see that we have already been in contact with what we see.” (157) If the poet is phenomenologist, that phenomenology is articulated in the vocabulary of poetry, and its consequences are registered in a poem.

We are in the orbit of a poetics of phenomenology, here, with, in Part I, Eliot distinguishing between a poetry written in the language of philosophy, and a philosophy articulated through the language of poetry. We favour the latter. Hart’s Eliot is “concerned with how one thinks in verse, not how one translates philosophy into poetry,” (45) and Hart traces his question through poetic encounters, letting these reading encounters shape his articulation of phenomenology. Part I develops a close reading of religious poetry as a phenomenological theology. Hart reads Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot as poets of religious revelation. In Part II, this attention shifts to the limits of religious poetry, described by Geoffrey Hill, and the limits of poetic revelation, rather than of the poetry of revelation. Parts III-V then retrace these two positions – revelation and its limits – through Australian, and then French, Italian, and American, poetries. This poetic scope is matched by a philosophical scope, asking after the limits of phenomenology from Husserl to Derrida, Heidegger, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion, but also with Levinas and Blanchot, in particular. And Hart brings each of these discourses into a further conversation with Christian theology, ranging from Patristic thinking forwards.

Hart’s methodology is, to use his own metaphor, ‘triangular’ (and no doubt Trinitarian), triangulating poetry with theology and phenomenology. The work of the book is in plotting this triangulation, and this plotting is subject to its own transcendental scrutiny: what kind of experience could account for the conflation, or at least the coincidence, of these distinct modes in the act of reading? In Part I, in close reading Hopkins’s poems (themselves acts of close reading the world), this act of getting reading right is itself theological, and this seems to be Hart’s central point: exegesis can be revealed as intum legere, reading from the inside, in which interpretation is not a determination of experience but its phenomenological revelation. There is certainly a phenomenological shaping of reading experience. The more obvious reference point is Jean-Luc Marion, and his sense of the limits of intuitive experience, but Hart poses the question directly to Husserl. The epochē is resituated as a theological bracketing (22-24). But this in turn resituates theological experience, more explicitly making its transcendent claims part of an experience of immanence. Revelation is the key to this conversation. Under revelation, the phenomenological sense of the world’s unfolding takes on theological dimensions – as one mode of creation, and of faith – as much as theological experience undergoes a phenomenological reading.

A revelatory experience of the world, immanent or not, requires an epochal shift in our sense of the world. Hart is attempting to uproot the theological assumptions in such a bracketing, and to imply that the representational shift of dimensions involved in it are coincident with a ‘revelatory’ Christian tradition. The triangulation of theology and phenomenology with religious poetry is therefore an attempt to demonstrate that shift. Reading such poetry compels us to recognise the revelatory as at once a phenomenological bracketing, and an epochal shift in representation of the world. So Christianity adds to phenomenology “another protocol that does not change it but clarifies its range” (23). Faith opens experience to new intentional horizons. Religious poetry emerges from a contemplation of the world through this faithful bracketing: a sensual imagination of the world as ‘instressed’, to use a word of Hopkins, by faith. For the poem, attuned to faith, the world appears as revelatory: through a phenomenologically guided shift in representation (28-34). “There is no special revelation, only a conversion of the gaze that intensifies the meaning of general, public revelation for the poet.” (34) Hopkins is here participating in a revealed world, not revealing it. Reading a poem, then, means assuming a phenomenological position towards the text: just as the poem is already bracketed from normative experience (here Hart follows Jean-Luc Marion closely, for whom certain experiences are ‘saturated’ with intuition which exceeds any concept invoked (15)), so too a reader of a religious poem is bracketed from expected objects of experience. The poem is ‘of’ revelation to the extent that it is ‘revealed’ (and “reveiled” (10)) through being read.

The question, then, is how much, or in what way, poetic revelation coincides with or collaborates with phenomenological reading. Hart seems to shift his emphasis with each momentary reading of a poem. In Part I, with Eliot, we are explicitly concerned with philosophy articulated in the language of poetry, and not with the poetic adornment of philosophical truths. As suggested, Hart’s Eliot is “concerned with how one thinks in verse, not how one translates philosophy into poetry.” (45) But as we proceed through the book – starting in part II with Hill – religion shifts from being a phenomenological mode of poetic writing to a mode of poetic reading. Hart reads the poems through religion, in a sense suggesting that exegesis is one of the poetic modes of articulation these religious poems inhabit. We shift, then, from the poetic experience of revelation to the revelation of poetic experience. This shift is important, because it opens up one of the ambiguities of this work. To what extent is the articulation of experience something poems do, and to what extent is articulation itself something by which poems are experienced? Do we ‘experience’ revelation in a poem, do we witness, as attuned readers, the revelatory experience poems themselves articulate, or is ‘revelation’ one of the experiences readers can bring to a poem? Is this poetry as revelation, or poetry for revelation? How are these two modes aligned in reading and writing about poetry?

In Part III, describing the saturated sensuality of A.D. Hope’s poem “The Double Looking Glass”, Hart remarks that, “What we see of Susannah in the poem has not all been seen before; it was never so visible.” (138) The poem, here, is exposing the reader to an experience of saturation, and is making visible phenomena which would not otherwise be so. In the poem, “the story [of Susannah] becomes a visionary narrative, a poem in which sensuality and transcendence cooperate rather than compete” (139). In this ‘visionary’ work of making visible, the poem combines the revelations of religious transcendence with the revelations of phenomenal sensuality. The revelatory ‘vision’ of the poem is in making this combination, and cooperation, visible. In part IV, Hart turns explicitly to the idea of poetry’s experience – poetry of, or as, experience – and the congruence of such experience with religious experience. Again, Hart marks poetry as, and not about, experience; but as such, structuring or making visible certain experience. “I am not thinking poetry as Erlebnis, lived experience, but as Erfahrung.” (194) The question raised here by religious poetry is of the experience of transcendence. Such ‘experience’, however, is complicated by the way that poetry draws upon an impossibility of experience. Hart’s point of contact here is the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. There is an inconceivability to this poetry, because of the inconceivable – unthinkable – range of possibilities both inscribed and erased from the poems. Such poetic experience is therefore both ‘impossible’ experience and an experience of ‘impossibility’. Here Hart draws upon Blanchot, and thinks of the ways poetry can configure ‘impossible’ experience itself through its presentation of language: “the poem brings into meaning something that refuses to settle into a definite meaning”. (196)

The ‘impossible’ also signifies the space left for poetry after the ‘departure’ of the Gods (here Hart is after Hölderlin): after a symbolically meaningful religious experience of the world, poetry presents the impossibility of such meaning so that, in such saturation, meaning might be preserved (205-6). Hart’s question, however, is not of a post-Christian experience, but rather, “In a reality held to be finite what sense, if any, can be made of transcendence?” (206). Hart’s thinking about the poetic image in Jaccottet and about poetry’s experience in Montale thus resolves into a question about poetry’s transcendence, or not, of possible experience. The terms of a Husserlian ‘bracketing’ of experience are thereby channelled through a poetic claim that “one cannot simply suspend reference to transcendence in the case of a text, literary or not. One can at best fold that reference.” (207) The ‘transcendence’ Hart has in mind is, of course, religious, and revelatory: an experience, such as Hopkins’s, of the transcendence of the world itself, rather than of any world beyond it. This question is “skewed in advance” by an insistence that modernity is “co-ordinate with the finite” (208). In such insistence, “we distance transcendence from experience at the cost of rendering transcendence unintelligible.” (209) Hart’s task, here, is a reintegration of religious transcendence to our sense of finitude through poetry’s Erfahrung.

Section V leads us to the work, implicitly assigned to poetry throughout, of imagination: that poetry’s invocation of images does not merely ‘present’ a world, but also ‘contemplates’ it, contemplation historically indexed by Catholic devotion to Mary. The picturing of the world in contemplation, as in poetry, reveals the world as not just materially inert, but immanent with poetry’s revelation of meaning. The question of such contemplation is phenomenological: how, we ask in contemplating Mary, does the incarnation happen? How does transcendence happen? In this way, contemplation of Mary and poetry parallel a (more overtly Protestant) Hegelian ‘concretion’: “the particular ways in which the dialectic gathers all that there is and makes it into an ever more concrete reality.” (229) The poetic contemplation of Mary, asking ‘How’ Mary becomes meaningful, thereby also makes the transcendent concrete (242); and in doing so, despite its transcendent object, invokes a phenomenology. Hart’s final question, then, comes into focus here: the question of revelation is the question of ‘how’ the world becomes meaningful, and in a religious sense ‘transcendent’; and as such, the question of poetic revelation exposes us to a phenomenology of the transcendent which other versions of phenomenology might conceal. Religious poetry invokes a bracketing of experience in order to present the transcendent as the ‘impossible’ – sacred or silent, but still one intentional horizon in which the world becomes meaningful. In reading poetry this way, for Hart, we employ a phenomenology. And in this employment, phenomenology is exposed to a religious intentionality it might otherwise conceal, or have concealed. This is not just a compatibility of religious experience with phenomenology, but their coordination.

This coordination amounts to an intervention in our conception of phenomenology – the intervention of theology which, as Hart has repeatedly suggested in his career, is not in an intervention so much as an anamnetic recovery of revelation. In the final chapter, Hart attempts to describe this intervention. Without mentioning recent work on Derrida’s theology, Hart plays deconstruction against this kinds of ‘negative theology’ he has been detailing. Deconstruction takes différance to be a quasi-transcendental condition for the play of meaning between text and context, whereas in negative theology the transcendent idea of God yields multiple meanings in experience of the world. In this situation, however, the two are “back to back,” and in fact, “deconstruction can only ever be the ghost of apophatic theology precisely because it answers to a structure of transcendence and not a divine transascendence” (259). Derrida’s exemplary readings yield a silence behind their texts. Hart asks whether ‘other’ silences might be read, too, and this is where theology becomes operative. Husserl’s presupposed exclusion of the transcendence of God from phenomenology would in such a reading be exposed to a different version of appearance. “In uncovering this presupposition we may ask ourselves what happens if we do not limit our phenomenality at all, restricting it neither to objects (Husserl) nor being (Heidegger), and instead granting everything the right and the power to manifest itself in whatever way is appropriate to it.” (259) For Hart this attitude is indexed through the theological tradition of engaging with the world in its revelation, and articulated by a religious poetry concerned with what the word might reveal (or not) in the world. Undertaking the phenomenology of reading such poetry would only be to rediscover a phenomenological attitude concealed in the Husserlian bracketing of the transcendent from the transcendental. Religious revelation, as religious poetry shows us, is the manifestation of its own transcendent mode of showing, and theology is its shaping construction. After all, “Every prayer is an epochē that can make the writing of theology possible, and theology only begins when we are led back from the world we master and that tries to master us to a created world” (260). And religious poetry is attuned to such creation, the “morning knowledge” of “the way of knowing granted when things are seen as created, invisibly tied to God” (260).

Kevin Hart: Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, Bloomsbury, 2017

Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry Book Cover Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry
Kevin Hart
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50